Classics: The Red Badge of Courage

I went to a military college and participated in the military cadet program there. In my second year we went on a field training exercise. The National Guard loaned us their M-16s with blanks and muzzle caps for safety. We practiced patrolling and perimeter security. My squad was assigned to patrol an outpost and report back any suspicious activity. As we stepped off the bridge we were immediately decimated by a specialty unit that had set up to ambush us and had somehow procured an M60. That along with several other experiences led me to stick with civilian life while maintaining respect and love for my friends who did go on to serve in the military. Funny enough as I read this book it brought back a lot of those memories of my time in college along with the emotions of even simulated combat (which of course is much different than the real thing!).

This isn’t a review. This is just a classic I finally got around to reading. Now just because it is a classic doesn’t mean it is good. It does mean that it has stood the test of time and for some reason had an impact on the culture. It also means there is a good chance it was assigned in English class and you hated it. I’m not really here to say whether this is a good book or not. Rather I just wanted to share what I enjoyed about it because I DID like it!

At the heart of this novel is the struggle of a young man coming to grips with manhood. As the young soldier, Henry Fleming, engages in war he is confronted with the greatest test of his life: his courage. Will he be a coward? Will he be brave? As it turns out he is both and often confused to boot. He wrestles with his loyalty and frustration with the authorities above him. Crane is wonderful at filling scenes with colorful characters that cover the wide range of personalities one might find in the military. He also does a masterful job at describing the terror and confusion of combat. According to the editor’s introduction, he interviewed a lot of civil war veterans to be able to tell the story right.

Personal Reflections

Many of the questions Henry wrestles are the questions every young man wrestles with. Who will I be at the end of my testing? In time will I be regarded as courageous or a coward? Will I be seen as strong or weak? Will I be successful? And it is a profound truth how things are not nearly as simple as naive Henry believes them to be. And by the time he actually embraces his manhood, the questions he was asking at the beginning remain only partially answered. The key is that he is no longer interested in answering them. In a time when manhood is questioned, maligned and mysterious for many I really was stirred and moved by Crane’s writing.

Bottom line

I loved the progression and struggle of Henry as he wrestles with his understanding of manhood, his fear of what he ought to be and where he is, how he has to come to terms with his naive idealism regarding what a man truly is. Really enjoyed this one and highly recommend it.

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