The Critical Reception of The Red Badge of Courage
In 1895, Stephen Crane shocked the literary world with the publication of his revolutionary novel, The Red Badge of Courage, reverberations of which are still being felt today. This novel was so unlike its predecessors in both style and content that it literally baffled critics, and made finding a viable chain of influences a difficult task. Harold Frederick, an English critic, expressed this frustration in his 1896 essay: "If there were in existence any books of similar character, one could start confidently by saying that it was the best of its kind. But it has no fellows. It is a book outside all classification" (116).
For want of a better heritage, many critics halfheartedly mentioned Tolstoi's War and Peace and Zola's La Debacle as possible sources for inspiration, but most concurred that although they may each rival The Red Badge in individual battle scenes, they both lacked the same powerful conveyance of emotions of the book as a whole. Frederic had recognized this unique quality of the novel early, and foretold its literary eminence: "It seems almost certain that it will be kept alive, as one of the deathless books which must be read by everybody who desires to be, or to seem a connoisseur of modern fiction" (116).
Forty years later, the influence of The Red Badge on literature was extremely evident. Another English critic, Ford Madax Ford, explains in his 1936 essay, "it is as if you heard a number of echoes, so many have his imitators been. . . . That is simply because his methods have become the standard for dealing with war scenes" (135).
Ford goes on to detail the immediate impact of the novel: "One awakened one morning in the nineties in England and The Red Badge of Courage was not; by noon of the same day it filled the universe. There was nothing you could talk of but that book" (135). The immense popularity of The Red Badge in England and the...