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  • “Becoming Another Thing”: Traumatic and Technological Transformation in The Red Badge of Courage

This essay examines the traumatic transformation of Crane’s young protagonist in battle. It argues that this metamorphosis is brought on by the technologies on the battlefield and the youth’s outdated expectations about their speed. Further, it explores how Crane deploys tropes of mechanical and media technologies—especially the phonograph and the camera—to describe the protagonist’s psychically dissociated state and to account for the processing of traumatic memories. It closes by demonstrating that The Red Badge of Courage deploys metaphors of technology as a way to demonstrate the continuing relevance of the novel as genre in the face of rapidly evolving media ecologies.


For the last century, critics have argued about whether or not the protagonist of Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage is “transformed” at the conclusion of the novel. After two days of fighting the Confederate army in Virginia,1 Henry Fleming feels that he has overcome and been redeemed from his initial cowardice on the battlefield and can now emphatically announce that “He [is] a man” and that his “soul [has] changed” (Crane, 1895/2008, pp. 103–4). Such a change seems to justify the desire Fleming feels at the novel’s beginning to enlist in the army. In fact, one of the principal reasons Fleming wants to go to war is that repeatedly reading Homer and others has “taught [him] that a man became another thing in a battle” (p. 21). He hopes to experience this transformation himself, believing that after “mingl[ing] in one of those great affairs of the earth” he will have attained transfiguring glory, even if this glory is “not…distinctly Homeric” (pp. 4–5). Fleming’s assertion of newly attained manhood is undercut, however, by the narrator’s tendency to refer to him as “the youth” throughout the novel, including in the final chapter where Fleming declares his “soul changed.” While Fleming seems convinced that he has indeed “become another thing” following battle, [End Page 101] the text and its ironic narrative voice calls the reality of such a metamorphosis into question.

Leaving to others the question of Fleming’s maturity at the novel’s conclusion, this article will argue that the youth is correct in assuming that battle will cause him to become something other than he was. But I will show that Fleming’s metamorphosis into “another thing” does not follow battle but rather happens during it and is, more importantly, a traumatic transformation. Instead of causing him to become a warrior who nobly vanquishes his foes in the tradition of an Achilles or Odysseus, the shocking experience of battle causes Fleming to become unconscious or, in the language of the text, to “sleep” (p. 29). Naturally, Fleming does not actually fall asleep during combat. Instead, his consciousness is evacuated in response to the events that surround him, and the text, consequently, describes him as if he were asleep. With the skirmish over, Fleming “awaken[s] slowly” and returns “gradually back to a position from which he [can] regard himself” (p. 31). With this figure of sleep the text indicates that while the youth’s sense organs and body are present to the battle his consciousness is not. Nevertheless, the reader observes that memories of the battles through which Fleming sleeps return to him at later times. The pairing of a dissociated, or “sleeping,” self that appears during moments of stress and fright with the delayed return of events in the form of memories suggests that Fleming’s transformation from his normal, “waking” self to “an[-]other thing” might be understood as a trauma.2

When investigating the text’s description of Fleming’s traumatic transformation and psychic unconsciousness, however, one finds more than just references to sleeping.3 More crucial, I will argue, is how the youth’s metamorphosis within the text is most frequently represented and governed by tropes of technology. Fleming’s antiquated expectations concerning technologies of war, which are drawn from Homer and romances, do not prepare him for the modern battlefield. The excessive speed of the new technologies he encounters, including artillery and rifles, is responsible for the shock that initially converts Fleming into “an other thing” that falls “asleep” on the battlefield. Although caused by encounters with technology, [End Page 102] the youth’s trauma is not necessarily technological in and of itself. Nevertheless, the text invokes tropes of mechanization to describe the youth’s behavior as a transformed and unconscious “other thing.” Finally, the text accounts for the epistemological challenge presented by Fleming’s memory, which enigmatically remembers the battles his consciousness misses, by structuring the representation of his mind as a mechanical recording and storage device that resembles the newly invented technological media of Crane’s day: the phonograph and the camera.

What becomes apparent, then, is that at the same moment that Fleming’s consciousness is encroached upon and changed by the effects of technology, the text’s representational strategies also become interpenetrated with technology. As such, my essay concludes by arguing that the transformations within The Red Badge of Courage are not limited to Fleming but also involve the novel itself. The importance of technology to the telling of the narrative draws attention to how the novel is itself a particular media technology. In closing, I will suggest that although the dominance of this print-based narrative technology might appear to be challenged by the arrival of new technologies like the camera or phonograph, the text’s incorporation of these other media technologies within its representation of psychic transformation points to practices by which the novel itself resists “becoming just another thing” at the turn of the century.

Inadequate Narrative Expectations: Causing the Transformation

True to what he has been taught, the youth becomes “an other thing” in his very first battle. As we will see, the cause of this transformation is Fleming’s interactions with the new technologies of war that surround him and his fellow soldiers. Although destructive, the technologies themselves might not necessarily precipitate a traumatic reaction. Instead, the text suggests that what is so shocking to the youth is the speed at which these technologies function. The velocity of the attack is qualitatively different than what Fleming has come to expect through his reading of Homer and others, which are not only [End Page 103] “tales of great movements” but also, it becomes apparent, narratives of war technologies (Crane, 1895/2008, p. 5).

Leading up to the first skirmish, the reader is constantly apprised of the fear that Fleming and the other men in his regiment—all of them untried in combat—feel when faced with the prospect of war. He simultaneously denies and acknowledges this emotion as he engages in verbal bravado and feverishly constructs small piles of dirt to serve as personal fortifications at each place where he expects to fight. The nervousness that Fleming feels is related to the technology with which he is surrounded and which creates an environment very different from the rustic life he has previously known. For the first time, as he and the rest of his regiment form battle lines, he begins to be fired upon by the opposing army with shells that “scream[] like a storm banshee” until they explode, covering him in “redly flung…brown earth” (p. 24). The replies of the Union’s own batteries deafen him with their own “banshee shrieks” and “tumult.” “Walls of smoke” from artillery and rifles obstruct his vision, making it more difficult to see the movements of the Confederates whose incursions he has been commanded to repel. Peering through this fog of war, the youth watches “breathless with horror” as another unit retreats, running, from the engagement with “an appalling imprint upon [their] faces” (pp. 25–6). The fear that this sight inspires in Fleming betrays itself in his composure as he readies himself to face the Confederates’ charge: “Perspiration streamed down the youth’s face…He frequently, with a nervous movement, wiped his eyes with his coat sleeve. His mouth was a little ways open” (p. 27). The youth’s posture and his “nervous” hand motions indicate that intense psychological pressure filled the moments preceding the battle.

Despite the stress the youth has experienced to this point, he has not yet become “an other thing.” The traumatic transformation takes place at the moment the battle is joined, when “a brown swarm of running men” come charging “[a]cross the smoke-infested fields” towards his regiment:

He got the one glance at the foe-swarming field in front of him… Before he was ready to begin—before he [End Page 104] had announced to himself that he was about to fight—he threw the obedient, well-balanced rifle into position and fired a first wild shot. Directly he was working at his weapon like an automatic affair.

He suddenly lost concern for himself, and forgot to look at a menacing fate. He became not a man but a member. He felt that something of which he was a part—a regiment, an army, a cause, or a country—was in a crisis. He was welded into a common personality which was dominated by a single desire.

(p. 27)

When the battle begins, Fleming “suddenly…[becomes] not a man but a member” and “an automatic affair.” This composite self, which is “a part” of a larger whole, is a drastic change from what he was only moments before: an individual soldier filled with personal worries and fears. One of the key words in this passage is “became,” as it implies not only that a transformation has taken place but also reminds the reader how “The youth had been taught that a man became another thing in a battle” (p. 21, emphasis added). Since the agent of “becoming” is difficult to locate in the sentence, Fleming does not appear responsible for this change. Instead, the text suggests that this transformation happens to the youth, when the battle commences “before he is ready to begin.”

The tipping point for Fleming’s transformation into “an other thing” seems, therefore, to be the battle’s starting too soon. It is because Fleming is forced to act “[b]efore he was ready to begin—before he had announced to himself that he was about to fight” that he “suddenly” becomes “an automatic affair” (p. 27, emphasis added). One cannot say that the skirmish starts unequivocally too soon since its start was likely anticipated by some of the other soldiers. Instead, what the novel indicates is that the battle starts too soon for Fleming. The youth has been focusing so much on himself and his projected, future reactions to combat that he actually misses the moment when his long-sought-after battle begins. Paradoxically, then, the experience of combat results in his missing that same experience because it happens before he is ready. By representing the battle’s too-soon beginning as something that Fleming misses, [End Page 105] the text suggests that this is a moment of trauma.4 This trauma is responsible for Fleming’s transformation.

If the cause of the youth’s traumatic transformation is his perception that the battle commences too soon, it is because the attack comes at a speed greater than he has thought possible. The speed of battle that catches Fleming off guard is not merely a flight of fancy on the part of Crane, who was born six years after the end of the Civil War. Numerous veterans describe being surprised by the speed of their assailants. From the Battle of Chancellorsville, Benjamin A. Willis wrote on May 19, 1863 that his unit was caught unawares by “Stonewall Jackson’s brilliantly executed flank movement—which resulted in an impetuous assault upon our rear and right wing, taking us by surprise, and driving a portion of our troops in confusion” (in Post, 1865, p. 247). The “confusion” that Willis and his fellows felt at the “surprise” assault could have been the model for Crane’s depiction of Fleming. Another soldier, Robert Horan, writing just two days after Willis but from the Battle of Vicksburg, similarly discusses the shocking speed of war:

…we followed, after the order was given to the Seventeenth Army Corps to advance, to attack [the rebels] in their riflepits. But the attack was made about fifteen minutes sooner than ordered; and the Fourteenth also advanced on our right, but they were too fast. Then Col. Humphry ordered forward the Ninety-fifth, and we went with a will! But to our surprise the rebs were not where we expected, but some one hundred rods or more from us…

(in Post, 1865, p. 205)

Like Willis’s account, Horan’s letter emphasizes the speed of war. Attacks happen “sooner than ordered” and troops are “too fast.” But where Horan differs from his fellow Union soldier is that he writes from the perspective of an attacker. It is not just those who suddenly come under fire who are “surprised,” in other words. Both sides in combat find that things “were not where we expected.”

While being caught unawares by the speed of battle proved to be a common experience in the Civil War, Fleming’s surprise [End Page 106] is also a function of how his expectations about war are bound to specific technologies. As mentioned, he has spent years reading war narratives prior to finding himself on a Virginia battlefield. In these books, Fleming has repeatedly read of “heavy crowns and high castles,” “marches,” and “sieges,” and these details form the bulk of his knowledge and expectations about the conditions of war (Crane, 1895/2008, p. 5). Along with contributing to the idea of the glory that Fleming expects to find in battle, these particular images convey something about the technologies of war employed during the distant periods he reads about so voraciously. It is the sudden failure of these expectations about the speed of war’s technology that results in the youth’s shocked metamorphosis.

In The Information Bomb, Paul Virilio writes about the historical periodization of technologies within warfare and names the first epoch “mass war” (1998/2000, p. 140). In the moment of mass war, the time period where Fleming’s beloved medieval stories are set, victories were most frequently won by a fortress’s ability to repel invading forces simply through its defenses and motionless inertia, a value determined by its mass.5 Virilio writes that the objects that best represent mass war are the fortified cities (Fleming’s “high castles”) of the feudal period (“heavy crowns”) and the various strategies employed to assault them (such as “marches” or “sieges”). As time passed and technologies changed, the importance of mass in warfare was displaced, and thanks to the widespread use of gunpowder the velocity of attacks became powerful enough to overcome the inertia of the castle. Speed became the most significant factor in winning a battle, ushering in an era of “energy war,” as Virilio calls it (1998/2000, p. 140).

The youth’s and other soldiers’ expectations about the methods and technologies of war become apparent when they first arrive at a location where they believe they will have to fight the Confederates. Once there, they begin erecting “tiny hills in front of them” until there is “quite a barricade along the regimental fronts” (Crane, 1895/2008, p. 21). This building of fortifications by as yet-untried troops is a basic tactic taken from the narratives of mass war that each of them knows. They assume that fortifications will protect them and thereby produce [End Page 107] a victory. Although Fleming is not so callow as to expect to see a castle while campaigning in the mid-Atlantic states, the expectations the youth has about war and the behaviors he engages in at first depend upon narratives that invoke the particular technological possibilities of mass war.6

Despite these defensive preparations, the novel quickly makes it plain that the battleground on which Fleming finds himself is dominated by energy rather than mass. The locations of the opposing forces and of the battle itself shifts so rapidly through the Virginia valley that the men must abandon their fortifications as they are moved repeatedly: “When the regiment was aligned in another position each man’s regard for his safety caused another line of small intrenchments [sic]. They ate their noon meal behind a third one. They were moved from this one also. They were marched from place to place with apparent aimlessness” (p. 21). Faced with the unrelenting speed of the fighting and their perpetual motion relative to it, the men eventually cease building such lines of “tiny hills.” Their capitulation suggests that energy—both the motion of the battle and the rate of that motion’s change—is far more important than mass at this historical moment.7

The speed of modern warfare is further foregrounded as the captain of Fleming’s company shouts orders “in endless repetition” as the Rebel forces charge his men: “Reserve your fire, boys—don’t shoot till I tell you—save your fire—wait till they get close up—don’t be damned fools—” (p. 27). Temporal markers in these instructions such as “reserve,” “till,” and “wait” reveal the captain’s awareness of the speed of attack and its importance. Realizing that his men may become frightened by the Confederate troops moving toward them, the captain encourages his forces to wait to fire until their assailants are so close that it will be difficult to miss them. He has confidence in this tactic, labeling all those who refuse to follow it “damned fools,” because he knows that the energy produced by the company’s rifles will be sufficient to overcome the inertia of the charge.8 Furthermore, the captain knows his men can wait to fire because the energy with which—or the speed at which—their bullets will travel gives them an edge over the enemy, whose soldiers can only run at a top speed of, at best, twelve miles an hour. [End Page 108] The Union troops do not have to worry that the Confederates will get too close because the balls of their rifles will always be able to cross the gap before the humans can.9

The examples of the failed fortifications and the instructions from Fleming’s captain reveal that the Civil War is an instance of energy war and that this war’s technologies and tactics are not at all related to the youth’s narrative-based expectations of mass war, with its “heavy crowns and high castles[,]…marches, [and] sieges” (p. 5). Thus, because the reality of warfare is so radically different from his expectations, Fleming is taken by surprise at the beginning of the battle, and this transformative shock is signaled by his firing “a first wild shot” “[b]efore he was ready to begin” (p. 27). His surprise, at least in part, is caused by how woefully inadequate his Homeric texts are for helping him frame the experience of a modern, mechanized war. The moment in which the battle starts sooner than the youth is prepared for is when he should learn that energy war has completely supplanted mass war. Unfortunately, he misses this moment when it comes too soon for him to apprehend.

“Automatic” for the People: Describing the Transformation

By all indications, it is the shock of being confronted by the overwhelming speed of combat that leads to Fleming’s metamorphosis into “another thing.” While experiences and expectations of technology cause the youth’s actual transformation, the text also employs figures of technology to describe Fleming’s traumatized behavior. As mentioned, one result of the metamorphosis is Fleming’s “sleeping” on the battlefield. But prior to this figure of “sleep,” which communicates how the youth is bodily present to but mentally absent from the events that surround him, the text uses another figure that suggests how the information and experience of battle elude Fleming. This figure is that of the machine or, in the language of the text, the “automatic affair.”

When Fleming takes his “one glance at the foe-swarming field in front of him,” he gets the shock of his life: “Before he was ready to begin—before he had announced to himself that [End Page 109] he was about to fight—he threw the obedient, well-balanced rifle into position and fired a first wild shot. Directly he was working at his weapon like an automatic affair” (Crane, 1895/2008, p. 27). In the previous pages, I have demonstrated how the first of these two sentences directs our attention to technology’s speed and marks the traumatic transformation of the youth into “an other thing.” In its turn, the second sentence addresses the results of this transformation: the youth is changed into an “automatic affair.”10 While this phrase initially describes how Fleming fires his rifle, the text maps this mechanization onto the whole of the youth in the following paragraph, where he becomes “not a man but a member” and a small “part” of a larger “something” to which he is “welded” (p. 27). This description associates Fleming with the mechanical technologies of energy war, the interaction with which has effected his transformation. His being caught off guard by the beginning of the battle therefore results in his becoming more like these shocking technologies. In this change from man to machine, the text suggests that the “other thing” Fleming becomes is very much a thing.11

But as a close examination of the prose reveals, the youth is only compared to a machine: “Directly he was working at his weapon like an automatic affair” (emphasis added). The shift here from declarative prose to figurative language indicates the inability of the text to communicate completely something about the youth’s traumatic experience. When faced with such a linguistic gap caused by the rapid technologies of energy war, the result is that technology begins to intrude likewise onto the language of the narration. In other words, while Fleming’s metamorphosis is triggered by his interaction with technology, the metaphors that Crane uses to describe Fleming’s trauma also make use of technology. What the text describes with these mechanic metaphors is the result of the youth’s becoming, in today’s language, psychically dissociated from the events of the battlefield. What the comparison of Fleming to “an automatic affair” points to but cannot name, then, is the moment his consciousness goes missing, the instant in which the youth falls “asleep.” Standing in its place is figurative language that depends upon technology for its literary effect. [End Page 110]

The text continues to describe the separation of Fleming’s consciousness from his automated actions in language that evokes technology. A particularly telling passage relates how he fires his rifle:

He was at a task. He was like a carpenter who has made many boxes, making still another box, only there was furious haste in his movements. He, in his thought, was careering off in other places, even as the carpenter who as he works whistles and thinks of his friend or his enemy, his home or a saloon. And these jolted dreams were never perfect to him afterward, but remained a mass of blurred shapes.

(p. 28)

While comparing Fleming to a carpenter at work, the text uses decidedly mechanistic imagery to highlight how his thoughts “caree[r] off in other places” during the battle. If the carpenter were busy making a single box, it might reveal his craftsman-ship. Instead, he makes “many boxes,” producing them like power looms in the nineteenth century produced cloth. His assembly-line-like behavior is underscored further as he makes “still another box.” The words “still another” suggest the repetition of both manufacturing process and finished products. The carpenter’s thoughts drift from his work because his body knows its routine well enough that it can fulfill its duties like clockwork. His consciousness is separated from his mechanical actions as he daydreams of other things.12 In this description, then, we see that the carpenter behaves very much like “an automatic affair.” Given its automated actions and absent consciousness, this figure of the “mechanical carpenter” is an appropriate description of the transformed Fleming. In this figure, the text again uses the language of technology to describe a metamorphosis that has itself been effected in the presence of and by technology.

The separation of Fleming’s consciousness from his actions is among the strange circumstances that follow his becoming “an other thing” at the onset of battle. Described here in terms of a mechanized carpenter’s wandering thoughts, this dissociation is described a few paragraphs later as “battle sleep” (p. 29). That [End Page 111] the “careering off” of thought and “sleep” during combat are representations of the same psychic state is further suggested by the text’s referring to how Fleming, while firing his rifle like a mechanical carpenter, perceives the events around him as “dreams.” The moment of the “automatic affair” and the mechanical carpenter, then, is a moment in which Fleming is already “asleep”: transformed by trauma.

“Machines of Collection”: Structuring the Transformation

But something else is strange in the final sentence of the paragraph that describes how Fleming mechanically fires his rifle: “And these jolted dreams were never perfect to him afterward, but remained a mass of blurred shapes” (Crane, 1895/2008, p. 28). The word “afterward” signals the subtle slippage of the narrative voice into a new temporality. Although still written in the past tense, the text suddenly describes Fleming as he will be in a moment far removed from the scene of this battle, a moment that is never encountered within the forty-eight hours represented in The Red Badge of Courage.13 In this future, the “jolted dreams” through which he now lives will only ever be imperfect and “blurred” memories. The fallibility of Fleming’s future memory should catch the reader’s attention since it seems odd that an experience the youth had so long anticipated would only be remembered imperfectly as “jolted dreams.” What emerges as the more vexing problem, however, is the fact that Fleming has any dreams of this experience. After all, the youth is transformed and “asleep” during combat; his consciousness has been dissociated from his actions. Since he mentally misses the battle, then, what source provides the materials from which are drawn the “jolted dreams,” imperfect and “blurred” though they may be? By what means does he have any memories of these events? How can his mind be both present and absent to them?

This conundrum suggests that although Fleming is unconscious to the events happening around him, another part of his mind takes in and records the experiences he misses. As seen in Fleming’s reminiscences of home, memory within [End Page 112] the text generally depends upon the active functioning of consciousness. Yet in battle, memories are produced even though the conscious mind is passive or “asleep.” Paradoxically, Fleming’s being “asleep” in the present leads to dreams that will be dreamt only in the future, and these dreams will be the return of events that he never experienced consciously in the first place. During battle, then, the youth’s mind performs differently than it has previously, and this change is part of the traumatic transformation Fleming undergoes. Indeed, this deferral to the future of what goes missing in the present is the very structure of psychic trauma. Fleming’s metamorphosis therefore results in his memory-making process becoming, like his body, an “automatic affair” that runs while his consciousness “career[s] off in other places.”

The absence of consciousness during the process of memory transcription is not the only thing that distinguishes this new behavior of the youth’s mind. Another change is that the memories that are unconsciously recorded never become fully accessible to Fleming’s waking mind; they remain instead “a mass of blurred shapes,” “never perfect to him afterward.” This inability to remember completely suggests that the conscious mind, which misses the battle, will continue to miss the record of it that has been made by another part of the mind. This passage demonstrates, then, that Fleming’s trauma, which is caused by and described through technology, not only leads to his “sleeping” through the battle but also splits his mind into separable functions, neither of which is fully known to the other. In other words, these future, imperfect dreams foreground how the youth’s mind becomes “an other thing” to itself. This split between the consciousness and the memory-making functions of the mind suggests that the traumatic transformation caused by war is, in part, an alteration of the mind.

Once more, when Fleming is confronted with technology on the battlefield, the text itself defaults to the use of technological figures. Throughout the novel, the youth’s actions and his psychological state when “asleep” display striking similarities with two technological media that had only recently been invented when Crane was writing the novel at the close of the nineteenth century: the phonograph and the camera. As [End Page 113] Friedrich Kittler argued in both Discourse Networks 1800/1900 (1985/1990) and Gramophone, Film, Typewriter (1986/1999), these technologies are the first that make it possible to record and “play back” information without the use of language or the imposition of meaning. For example, the phonograph, unlike alphabetic writing, did not discriminate between data that was or was not “meaningful” but instead recorded and preserved indefinitely any and all sound waves that passed before it. Moreover, its analogic inscription process did not require the conversion of data through a symbolic system. What a phonograph records is pure sound, a record that is—as far as the inscription process is concerned—without “meaning.” Finally, the phonograph can make this recorded information available again without forcing it to pass through a filter of symbolic language. Given the indiscriminate recording abilities as well as the absence of symbolic registers to its processes, the phonograph makes unconscious and un-meaning recording possible. The camera, to which I will return below, operates similarly as it automatically records information without the imposition of meaning.14 (Naturally, photographs and sound recordings can be created with meaning and purpose. But throughout the nineteenth century, much more attention was paid to their automatic ability to capture details. For this reason it took until the twentieth century for photography to be considered an art form.) Although the phonograph and the camera as devices are not specifically referenced in the narrative, the language of the text represents Fleming’s transformed mind as structurally similar to the functions of these technological media.

During the youth’s first battle his mind both records ambient information and plays it back without the imposition of his consciousness. Following the figure of the mechanical carpenter, the text describes the sounds of the battlefield:

Many of the men were making low-toned noises with their mouths, and these subdued cheers, snarls, imprecations, prayers, made a wild, barbaric song that went as an undercurrent of sound, strange and chant-like with the resounding chords of the war march. The man at the youth’s elbow was babbling. In it there was something [End Page 114] soft and tender like the monologue of a babe. The tall soldier was swearing in a loud voice. From his lips came a black procession of curious oaths. Of a sudden another broke out in a querulous way like a man who has mislaid his hat. “Well, why don’t they support us? Why don’t they send supports? Do they think—”

The youth in his battle sleep heard this as one who dozes hears.

(Crane, 1895/2008, pp. 28–29)

There is a proliferation of sound in this passage, all of which Fleming “hears.” Yet he hears “this” as if he were “dozing” or, in other words, while he is dissociated. The absence of the youth’s consciousness means that he cannot contextualize or perceive meaning in what he hears. The terms used to portray the sounds reveal their status as such meaningless “noise” to Fleming; “cheers,” “snarls,” and “babbling” are all instances of language that carry no symbolic meaning, even though they are registered as sounds. Other sounds that might employ distinct, symbolic language—“imprecations,” “prayers,” the “wild, barbaric song” and the “black procession of curious oaths”—are denied this role as the text elides their specificities. The absence of what exactly was said again indicates that Fleming’s consciousness does not distinguish them as meaningful pieces of language. Instead, these “low-toned noises” are just that—noise—and become part of “an undercurrent of sound” that the young soldier can take in only unconsciously.

Although Fleming’s conscious mind misses the sounds of querulous imprecation, what shortly follows this passage reveals that part of his mind has indeed recorded these noises. Soon after the above paragraphs, the Rebels’ charge is broken. While some in the regiment celebrate, others stand silently, “Apparently…trying to contemplate themselves” (p. 30). Fleming is one of the latter and begins to “awake[n] slowly” from his battle sleep, “scrutinizing his person in a dazed way as if he had never before seen himself” (p. 31). The respite is brief, however, and the Confederate forces regroup and charge again. The youth can only stare at the opposing army, thinking that “Surely…this impossible thing was not about to happen” (p. 32). Other men, seeing the “forms begin to swell in masses [End Page 115] out of a distant wood,” similarly cannot believe the Rebels are attacking again so soon:

They fretted and complained each to each. “Oh, say, this is too much of a good thing! Why can’t somebody send us supports?”

“We ain’t never goin’ to stand this second banging. I didn’t come here to fight the hull damn’ rebel army.”

(p. 32)

As the Confederates press forward, Fleming finds himself expecting “the enemy to suddenly stop, apologize, and retire bowing.” Yet his expectations about warfare again betray him, and again the beginning of battle catches him by surprise. Thrust suddenly back into a situation very much like his first skirmish, which ended only minutes before, Fleming is attacked before he is ready and again experiences a physical metamorphosis: “the luster fade[s]” from his eyes, his neck “quiver[s] with nervous weakness,” and the rest of his body feels “large and awkward” with a “great uncertainty about his knee joints.” In the midst of this physical alteration, his mind automatically begins to replay sounds he has previously heard: “The words that comrades had uttered previous to the firing began to recur to him. ‘Oh, say, this is too much of a good thing! What do they take us for—why don’t they send supports?’” (p. 32). Fleming’s words, which “recur to him” without any conscious recall on his part, are an almost literal repetition of what his fellow soldiers have just been saying as the second charge begins. But they are also a repetition of the querulous soldier’s cry (“Well, why don’t they support us? Why don’t they send supports? Do they think—”), a cry the youth did not hear because he was unconscious and in his “battle sleep” at the time (p. 28). The return of the querulous soldier’s words shows that, like the phonograph, the youth’s transformed mind can recover information it recorded unconsciously during a moment of extreme stress and that “playing back” these sounds also happens when he experiences a similarly traumatic situation and is consequently unconscious.15

During Fleming’s first two battles, when the unconscious recordings are primarily aural, the structure of his traumatically [End Page 116] transformed mind resembles the phonograph. On the second day of fighting, the text continues to represent the youth’s altered psychic processes through both language and a structure that are explicitly connected to technology. This time, the text emphasizes visual details with the result that Fleming’s unconscious mental state resembles a camera. The second day narrated in The Red Badge of Courage looks very much like the first. The youth fights in two battles and again experiences a “shock” that causes his consciousness to miss them both (p. 74, see pp. 74–77).16 The youth is therefore already in an unconscious state of “battle sleep” when his regiment is commanded to charge an enemy position. As the men rush across a field, part of Fleming’s mind records all the stimuli it encounters—and does so in a markedly mechanical manner:

It seemed to the youth that he saw everything. Each blade of the green grass was bold and clear. He thought that he was aware of every change in the thin, transparent vapor that floated idly in sheets. The brown or gray trunks of the trees showed each roughness of their surfaces. And the men of the regiment, with their starting eyes and sweating faces, running madly, or falling, as if thrown headlong, to queer, heaped-up corpses—all were comprehended. His mind took a mechanical but firm impression, so that afterward everything was pictured and explained to him, save why he himself was there.

(p. 82)

At this moment, Fleming’s mind takes in “everything” of the landscape around him. His vision is not limited to a fleeting glimpse of what passes by him as he rushes “madly” on, but instead “comprehend[s]” “each” and “every” object in the environment. He is also able to see simultaneously the faces, expressions, and motion of “all” the “men of the regiment.” Everything within the field of his suddenly super-sensitive vision is both “pictured and explained” to Fleming. Everything, that is, except “why he himself [is] there.”

This important caveat confirms that a portion of Fleming’s mind is once again distant and unable to understand or attribute meaning to his actions. The youth is psychically dissociated, [End Page 117] and despite his ability to “comprehend” everything in the landscape, his own presence is incomprehensible. Fleming’s inability to know why “he himself [is] there” is brought on by his traumatic transformation; “he” is no longer there, having instead become “an other thing.” The text further emphasizes the absence of the youth’s consciousness by again suggesting that he becomes something “mechanical”: “His mind took a mechanical but firm impression, so that afterward everything was pictured and explained to him, save why he himself was there” (p. 82). Just as on the previous day of fighting, his memory here becomes an “automatic affair” that records despite the absence of conscious thought. Consequently, he can neither contextualize nor attribute meaning to the information he absorbs. Finally, the novel confirms the absence of Fleming’s self-comprehension in the following paragraph: “the youth wondered, afterward, what reasons he could have had for being there” (p. 82). The use of “afterward” in both this and the previous paragraph reveals that Fleming’s inability to fully comprehend his participation during the charge persists, like the “jolted dreams” of the mechanical carpenter, into a future that lies outside the boundaries of the novel.

In a passage dominated by optics, the unconscious recording of particulars through a “mechanical but firm impression” that afterward allows Fleming to “pictur[e]” everything looks suspiciously like a description of a camera taking either snapshots or footage. As with his phonographic memory which takes in all the “noises” of the battlefield, the photographic portion of the youth’s mind does not discriminate among what it records. Unlike human vision, which renders details radiating from the focal point as less distinct and can even eliminate aspects of what is being focused upon if the mind perceives them as visual noise, a camera captures equally every detail before its open lens. It can do this because it does not depend upon structures of meaning to bring particular objects to its attention, but rather takes in the waves of light that reflect off every object. Thus while Fleming’s fellow men and the Confederate soldiers are arguably the most important visual data at the moment (since their positions are most relevant to his survival and military goal), their movements are captured and [End Page 118] recorded with the same level of detail as the blades of grass and trunks of trees. Yet at the same time as the camera can see everything, it cannot tell us what these details mean; rather it can only tell us what was (Trachtenberg, 1989, p. 19).17 Thus, the ability of the youth’s mind to see “everything” simultaneously and capture its impression is only possible when his meaning-making apparatus, which would prioritize his attention, is put to “sleep” in his shocked transformation into “an other thing” and its place is taken by a mechanical process of recording.18

In the final chapter of the novel, where Fleming confidently asserts how battle has made him “a man,” the text continues to employ figures of technology to represent how the experience of battle has transformed the youth’s mind (Crane, 1895/2008, p. 103). As the second day’s fighting draws to a close and his regiment receives marching orders, Fleming begins to awaken from his “sleeping” state:

For a time the youth was obliged to reflect in a puzzled and uncertain way. His mind was undergoing a subtle change. It took moments for it to cast off its battleful ways and resume its accustomed course of thought. Gradually his brain emerged from the clogged clouds, and at last he was enabled to more closely comprehend himself and circumstance.

…Thus, fresh from scenes where many of his usual machines of reflection had been idle, from where he had proceeded sheeplike, he struggled to marshal all his acts.

(p. 102)

If there had been any doubt that Fleming’s experience of battle results in his transformation into “an other thing,” this passage eliminates it. It indicates that in the liminal space between “battle sleep” and full, waking consciousness, the youth’s mind must “change” from “its battleful ways” to an “accustomed course of thought.” His mind, which had “career[ed] off in other places” while he acted as a mechanical carpenter, returns from these places (the “clogged clouds” of consciousness), and he may begin to “comprehend himself” (pp. 28, 102). This self-comprehension stands in stark contrast to his earlier [End Page 119] inability, when charging across the battlefield, to fathom “why he himself was there” despite being able to “comprehen[d]” every other detail in the scene (p. 82). By “resum[ing]” his customary patterns of thinking, then, Fleming finally begins to use the conscious, meaning-making portions of his mind to understand his “circumstance” (p. 102). These “machines of reflection” have been conspicuously absent during his “sheep-like” procession in battle and were, as we have seen, replaced by machines of collection, whose primary function was to make “mechanical but firm impression[s]” of all that the youth misses after being shocked to “sleep” (pp. 82, 29). By using figures of technology that resemble the recently invented phonograph and camera, then, the text structures the behavior of Fleming’s transformed mind, accounting for his ability to remember later parts of what he missed and for his subsequent inability to make those events meaningful to himself.

Coda: The Novel Becomes Another Thing

Whether or not Henry Fleming has become “a man” by the conclusion of The Red Badge of Courage, the text is nevertheless a demonstration that he “[becomes] another thing in a battle” (Crane, 1895/2008, p. 21). This transformation, which relates almost entirely to how the youth does not experience the war, can be understood as a trauma and is linked to technology throughout the text. The change is caused in the presence of technology, by Fleming’s being taken by surprise by the technologies of war. The battle begins sooner than he expects, but his expectations are themselves built upon narratives of war that are intimately connected with technology. Within the text, the transformation is then described in terms of technology: the “automatic affair” and the mechanized carpenter who daydreams while the battle rages. Psychically detached from and “asleep” to the events going on around him, Fleming’s mind nevertheless takes in aural and visual details from the battlefield, details that return to him enigmatically throughout the novel and his future. In negotiating this epistemological challenge—a moment the mind misses and yet remembers—the text structures its [End Page 120] representation of Fleming’s unconscious recording and playing back of these details through language that emphasizes technology and evokes the functioning of newly invented technological media. The traumatic transformation that Fleming undergoes is thus brought on by technology (and narrative expectations concerning technology) and, within the text, is described by and structured according to technological figures.

This is not to say that Fleming’s transformation is technological. Rather, what this reading uncovers is how the novel resorts to figures of machines and technology at critical moments, moments in which Crane attempts to represent the psyche of a young man whose experiences in combat cause him to abandon his “accustomed course of thought” (p. 102). As I have shown, these tropes of technology allow the novel to represent the dissociated, traumatized state. But I would also like to suggest that the inclusion of such tropes, especially those of new media technologies, reveal how the late nineteenth-century novel itself was transforming or “becoming another thing” when confronted by the new media ecology instantiated by the phonograph and camera.

Throughout most of the nineteenth century, as well as the four previous centuries, the printed word was the only form of mass media. By the time of the Civil War, photography had been invented, and while it still depended on the cumbersome wet plate process, photographs of Civil War soldiers or the aftermath of battlefields were widely available. Following the Civil War, other forms of mass media began to appear alongside the photograph and the printed word. The phonograph was invented in 1877 and was “perfected,” according to Edison, by 1888 (see Edison, 1888). The first motion picture camera was invented in 1888 by Louis Le Prince, and the Lumière camera, which popularized the 35-millimeter film format, appeared in 1894, the same year that a shorter, serialized version of The Red Badge of Courage was printed in newspapers. By late 1895, when the complete novel was first published, the influence of cinema was increasing, pay-per-listen phonograph parlors were fixtures in major U.S. cities (see Morton, 2004, pp. 28–9), and photography had become indispensable for supplementing the stories and advertisements in newspapers. Against such a [End Page 121] backdrop, print and the novel might have appeared to “become just another thing,” merely one media technology among many. As other media began to store, process, and transmit information, many of the functions that the novel had performed must have appeared obsolete since these new media implicitly claimed to provide, to borrow Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin’s language, more “transparent immediacy” (1999, p. 21). Precisely because the “play back” of phonographs and cameras did not require conversion into or from a symbolic system, they tended to allow the listener or the viewer to forget he or she was engaged in a mediated experience. These devices seemed to act as a transparent “window” onto an experience to which the analog media device had been, by definition, necessarily present. On the other hand, the novel, as a symbolic technology, seemed incapable of providing a direct record as it lacked any physical “contact point between the medium and what it represents” (Bolter & Grusin, 1999, p. 30; see also Barthes, 1977).

But the interpenetration of the novel’s language by technology actually presents an argument for the continuing relevance of the novel as medium. By representing the processes of the youth’s mind with a structure akin to the phonograph and camera, the text engages in what Bolter and Grusin call “remediation”: “the representation of one medium in another” (1999, p. 45). In one sense, remediation is the practice whereby an older medium remains relevant in the media ecology by incorporating aspects of new media. Thus, by referencing phonography, photography, and cinematography, the novel suggests that its language has an analog “contact point” with the experiences it describes. As it deploys new media technologies as strategies of representation, the text acknowledges the transparency of these new technologies. But it also demonstrates that the novel is capable of incorporating their abilities into its own technology.

The remediation of these new media forms performed by the novel is made even more prominent when one realizes that its language (of) technology creates “contact points” where nineteenth-century technological media simply could not have functioned. Although Fleming’s mind is described along the lines of a phonograph on his first day of fighting, the actual device was not invented for another fifteen years.19 Fleming’s mind, through the language of the novel, therefore [End Page 122] becomes a proleptic phonograph to record the “noises” that would otherwise go missing from this war. Photography, on the other hand, was a well-established technology by the time the Southern states seceded and provided the public in both the Union and Confederacy with impressions of the war. As Alan Trachtenberg notes in Reading American Photographs, Crane himself made use of these photographs as he prepared to write The Red Badge of Courage, studying them “as the equivalent of firsthand accounts” and using them to make his descriptions of soldiers more accurate (1989, p. 78).20 Yet photographs of the Civil War were almost invariably of the preparation for or the aftermath of battle rather than actual combat because the technology was not yet advanced enough to capture the rapid, energetic movements of modern war (p. 72). Consequently, when the text describes Fleming’s transformed mind as making a “mechanical but firm impression” of what he sees on his second day of fighting, its language remediates the technology of the camera but does so in a situation where an actual camera would have been incapable of recording properly. Through its language, the novel becomes the “photographic” trace of what is “missing” in the actual albums of war photographs.

Through its remediation of new media, The Red Badge of Courage calls attention to the novel’s own status as a media technology as well as highlighting the efficacy of its representational technologies. These technologies, the text demonstrates, are especially suited for representing transformative psychological events that might escape other media. In the act of remediation, the novel acknowledges how it has become one of many media at the end of the nineteenth century. But remediation simultaneously shows that the novel has not “become just another thing” in the face of the proliferating media ecology. Instead, just as Fleming “becomes another thing” in the presence of technology, so too is the novel transformed in the presence of new media technologies: it becomes that which can supplement and contain all other media.

Brian Croxall

Brian Croxall is Digital Humanities Strategist and Lecturer of English at Emory University. Along with developing and managing digital scholarship projects in the Emory Center for Digital Scholarship (ECDS), he teaches courses on digital humanities, media studies, and American literature.

I am grateful to Rachel A. Bowser, Sarah Aloe Peterson, John Johnston, and Cathy Caruth for their helpful comments during the development of this essay, to Peter L. Rudnytsky and Louis Rose for their feedback, and to Amber Croxall for living with it for nine years.


1. Crane’s novel depicts two days in the middle of the Civil War, specifically the Battle of Chancellorsville, which took place in Spotsylvania County, Virginia from [End Page 123] May 1–7, 1863. According to Lee Clark Mitchell, “the battle fought by Henry Fleming’s New York regiment occurred on May 1 and 2, 1863” (1986, p. 16).

2. It is surprisingly difficult to locate other studies that examine the treatment of trauma within The Red Badge of Courage. Mark Seltzer’s essay “Wound Culture: Trauma in the Pathological Public Sphere” (1997) perhaps comes closest. In the context of a larger argument about how trauma makes indistinct the boundaries between the self and the social, Seltzer discusses how torn bodies display “the sociality of the wound” and uses Fleming’s red badge of courage as an example (p. 24). Marilyn Boyer’s essay “The Treatment of the Wound in Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage” (2003) also examines the wound the youth receives, but her concern is with physical, rather than psychic, wounds “from the perspectives of deconstruction and disability studies” (pp. 4–5). Eric T. Dean, Jr. in Shook Over Hell: Post-Traumatic Stress, Vietnam, and the Civil War (1997), acknowledges the trauma depicted in the novel—it “contains many striking descriptions of the experience and terror of the common soldier and his view of battle as violent and chaotic”—but dismisses it in light of the novel’s “overall structure,” which “seems to be that of a ‘coming of age’ tale, in which [the] protagonist ultimately experiences personal growth and acquires confidence and wisdom as a result of his experiences and trials” (p. 204). Dean’s reading depends too much upon Fleming’s overeager assessment of his performance in the novel and ignores the ironic tone of the narrative voice that continually undercuts Fleming’s accomplishments.

3. Figures of sleep are an exemplary way to understand how one can be both present and absent to events and have long been used to describe parts of the experience of trauma. For example, when discussing the psychic dissociation that results from trauma, Pierre Janet uses the terms “sleep” and “waking” to describe the subsequent hypnotic and non-hypnotic states, respectively (see Caruth, 1996, p. 141n8).

4. The connection between that which comes too soon and trauma can be traced to Freud. For example, in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud writes that “the chief weight in [the] causation” of trauma “seems to rest upon the factor of surprise, of fright” and defines “fright” as “the name we give to the state a person gets into when he has run into danger without being prepared for it; it emphasizes the fact of surprise” (1920, p. 12, emphasis added). More recently, Cathy Caruth (1996) has connected the theme of trauma’s “too-soonness” in Freud with Lacan’s analysis of the dream of the burning child in the latter’s seminar The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. For more popularized accounts of how the “too soon”—specifically that caused by technology—is linked to trauma, see Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock (1970), Mark Dery’s Escape Velocity (1996), or Stephen Bertman’s Hyperculture: The Human Cost of Speed (1998).

5. Virilio, who began his career as a theorist of urban spaces, first explains his concept of “mass war” (although he does not use this term) in Speed and Politics (1977/1986). See also John Armitage’s “Introduction” to his edited volume Virilio Live: Selected Interviews (2001).

6. Fleming’s erroneous expectations about the technologies of war may depend on more than just his preferred reading material. Although the details concerning Fleming’s life before enlisting are brief, his domestic environment is markedly free of modern technology. Even the travel from home to the battlefront is done without technology, as his regiment marches the whole way. This absence is more pronounced since railroads were frequently used during the Civil War to transport troops. The youth’s relative lack of experience with the various technologies of the day, then, is part of what catches him off guard on the battlefield.

7. This historical moment of energy war, when fortifications were easily outdone by speed, was relatively short-lived. By the First World War, trench warfare rendered what Ian Ousby calls “the war of movement” obsolete (2002, p. 37). The French and British generals, Ousby recounts, found the stalemate along the Western Front confounding: “All their training and experience made them favor a war [End Page 124] of movement. What else indeed was war, or worthy of the name, if it was not movement?” (p. 35). Yet, the slowing of war did not begin at Verdun. While the Battle of Chancellorsville, as Fleming’s experience shows, was still a moment of movement and energy, the Siege of Vicksburg (May 18 – July 4, 1863) saw trenches being dug by both Union and Confederate troops as they attempted to slowly wait one another out. Rather than the seven days that the Battle of Chancellorsville lasted, Vicksburg, which started less than two weeks after the former, took almost two months. The pace of battle had slowed even more by the beginning of the Siege of Petersburg, which lasted more than nine months, from June 9, 1864 until March 25, 1865.

8. One might question why I label a charge an element of mass warfare when it obviously involves the energy of moving men. But while these men do move, it is not their speed that makes them a threat so much as their number, the small speed multiplied by a very large mass. On the other hand, for the rifles, it is simultaneously the great speed of the ball and the speed at which the rifle can be reloaded that makes it a deadly weapon.

9. During “the Civil War, innovations in weapons (particularly the rifled musket and an array of anti-personnel artillery charges) had extended the range of deadly fire on the battlefield…; in spite of this, however, Civil War commanders still frequently attempted to storm enemy fortifications by means of frontal assaults” (Dean, 1997, p. 58). Those commanders who ordered their men to charge fortifications did not understand the shift in war technology that made their mass maneuvers obsolete in the face of energy technologies.

10. In Shocks to the System: Psychotherapy of Traumatic Disability Syndromes, Laurence Miller notes that organisms go “on automatic” when traumatized (1998, p. 11).

11. In his study of post-traumatic stress in the Civil War, Dean notes that “actually enter[ing] combat and begin[ning] to fire their weapons” caused many men to undergo a “radical transformation as fear and anxiety evaporated and gave way to rage, anger, and a sense of disembodiment” (1997, pp. 54–55, emphasis added). Fleming’s unconscious transformation into the “automatic affair” leaves him similarly disembodied, dissociated, and split off from himself.

12. Since the boxes made by the carpenter might in the context of the Civil War be easily understood as caskets, it is also a possibility that the carpenter works like a machine so as not to have to confront what he is producing and what these “boxes” portend.

13. Crane did write a short story that depicts Fleming as an “old man” recounting stories of war (1896, p. 186). “The Veteran” was published in McClure’s Magazine in June 1896 and appeared later that year in The Little Regiment and Other Episodes of the American Civil War. In it, Fleming is a successful farmer who has the admiration of his neighbors for his past military service and, especially, his willingness to admit that battle was something that terrified him at first. At the end of the story, Fleming dies while trying to save his livestock from a barn fire. Randal W. Allred argues persuasively that “The Veteran” should be read ironically, as a “fiction of the young Fleming’s imagination” in an effort to valorize himself in spite of his cowardice on the battlefield (1999, p. 100).

14. The meaninglessness of recordings made by technological media as opposed to written language was noted in the former’s development during the nineteenth century. For example, in his study of American photography Alan Trachtenberg quotes from Light and Dark of the Rebellion (1863) by C. Edwards Lester, an art critic and journalist, who writes, “[W]hat the lens records can only be ‘a lifeless and meaningless mass of material’” because it lacks the “‘magic touch of the pen’ to render it ‘instinct with life and radiant with significance’” (Trachtenberg, 1989, p. 77, emphasis added). It is a happy coincidence, perhaps, that Lester published those words the same year as the Battle of Chancellorsville.

15. As Bessel A. van der Kolk and Onno van der Hart discuss, neurologists have determined that a brain that has been traumatized will process subsequent traumas along the neural pathway of the first (1991/1995, pp. 173–74). This process of [End Page 125] encoding means that subsequent traumas bear a trace of the first, even if they are not in any way related.

16. I have shown that during the novel’s first day, Fleming is shocked by a combination of experiences, falls asleep during the fighting, and finally awakens from his slumber with an imperfect ability to recollect what has happened to him while he was unconscious. The text is so insistent on the reader’s not missing this progression in the youth’s mental state that it reproduces this pattern—shock, sleep, awakening, disrupted memory—on the second day of combat. The narrative itself thus begins to follow the pattern of Fleming’s transformed mind, repeating after a delay experiences whose significance might have initially been missed.

17. In the essay “The Photographic Message” from Image, Music, Text, Roland Barthes considers traumatic photographs, and his language seems suggestive of Fleming’s experiences: “[T]rauma is a suspension of language, a blocking of meaning. Certainly situations which are normally traumatic can be seized in a process of photographic signification but then precisely they are indicated via a rhetorical code which distances, sublimates and pacifies them…[T]he traumatic photograph…is the photograph about which there is nothing to say” (1977, pp. 30–31).

18. As Hilkka Huopainen notes (2002, p. 93), contemporary neurology and clinical psychology have confirmed the status of trauma as meaningless by tracing the brain’s reaction to traumatic stimuli. Moments of trauma lead to a block between the amygdala, which is responsible for sorting sensory input, and the hippocampus, which controls information processing. This block results in psychic dissociation, and this dissociation characterizes how the mind records the trauma. Importantly, because of the separation that happens between the sensory and information processing sections of the brain, there is no possibility for the event to enter into symbolic relations with other information in the brain. As E. Ann Kaplan cautions, however, dissociation is neither the only nor a necessary component of trauma (2005, pp. 34–38).

19. According to Kittler, the phonograph is a “by-produc[t] of the American Civil War. Edison, who was a young telegrapher during the war, developed his phonograph in an attempt to improve the processing speed of the Morse telegraph beyond human limitations” (1986/1999, p. 190).

20. Ernest Hemingway, in his “Introduction” to Men at War, likewise alludes to Crane’s using “Matthew [sic] Brady’s wonderful photographs” as primary material (1942, p. xvii).


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