I’m several episodes into Ken Burns’ documentary on the American Civil War, and it inspired me to revisit The Red Badge of Courage, a book I hadn’t read in decades and barely remembered. It tells the story of Henry Fleming, a young man who leaves his small town to become a soldier in the Union army.
Though it depicts several battles in great detail, much of the book’s action is internal, as Henry struggles with his competing fears of death and cowardice. He spends much of the book’s first section obsessing over how he will fare in battle, by turns certain he will display valor and terrified that he will crumble under the pressure. Rattled by a Confederate charge, he flees, and the middle section finds him fighting on two fronts: a practical one, as he decides whether to desert entirely or slink back to his regiment, and a personal one, as he wallows in self-disgust at his cowardice and jealousy of the wounds of his comrades, which he sees as signs of bravery—or red badges of courage, as the title has it.
The prose is lyrical but dens,e filled with rich detail that can illuminate moments while leaving the broader action somewhat obscured. There is an opacity to the text that may be deliberate, a little like WIlliam Faulkner’s tendency to sidestep key moments and view them only on the periphery. This sensation is further enforced by Crane’s insistent use of descriptions rather than names to identify characters. Henry is referred to almost exclusively as “the youth” by the narrator, his name gleaned by the reader only through dialogue. Othe characters are referred to in the same way, so we get “the tattered soldier,” “the lieutenant,” and “the loud soldier.”
Overall, I enjoyed the book, though some of the passages feel sluggish and overburdened with description. I suspect this “slow motion” effect was deliberate, but even with a novel as short as this one, I couldn’t help but want the pace to pick up a bit at times.