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Louis Untermeyer


The Red Badge of Courage and Selected Stories

By Stephen Crane
Signet Classics, 222 pp, 1960

This is the first Iíve read The Red Badge of Courage. Believe it or not, it was never assigned in school, probably because I attended Christian schools until college. I do remember reading Craneís short story The Open Boat in high school, but thatís not very violent, or filled with death and destruction (although one man dies). But my conservative Lutheran schools tended to avoid violent subject matter.

But thatís another topic.

Stephen Craneís classic about the Civil War holds up quite well in these modern times. Crane had never seen a battle when he wrote it in 1895, but itís hard to tell. His descriptions are vivid and poetic. The man was an extremely gifted writer, and itís a shame that tuberculosis cut his life short at the ridiculously young age of 28. Iím 29, and still working on my first book. If he had lived, he may have eclipsed Twain as the greatest American writer. In my opinion, at least.

The book really isnít about war, in my opinion, but rather a coming-of-age story for Henry, the youth. In his first battle, he flees in terror at the first sign of trouble, then spends much of the rest of the book trying to justify his act. He handles himself well, though, in the next battle, and feels vindicated, although he is frustrated at what he considers the futility of the war.

Crane tells the whole story from Henryís point of view, which is effective but sometimes murky. For example, if Henry doesnít know what is happening, we donít either. At times, the technique creates confusion, since we donít know what is going on.

But thatís a very minor quibble. This is a great book, and Crane was a great writer.

Signet included four short stories in this volume: The Upturned Face, which is wonderfully creepy; The Open Boat, a gritty tale of survival; The Blue Hotel, a gripping drama; and the quirky The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky. All are enjoyable.

If youíre a high school student, and are forced to read this, take heart. You could do a lot worse.

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