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The Canadian Review of American Studies, Volume 12,No. 1,Spring 1981 The Red Badge and Social Violence: Crane'sMythof HisAmerica Robert Shulman The Red Badge of Courage is Crane's response to the underlying violence, turmoil and savagery of post-Civil War America. Crane, however, has still not received enough credit for conveying through the war world of his novel the inner meaning of the social, political, racial and economic realities he transformed into the myth of war in The Red Badge. By "the myth of war" I mean the timeless, larger-than-life, suggestive quality that emerges from Cranes dominant imagery of war and fog, from his disorienting irony and failure to provide clear connectives, from his sense of anarchic breakdown and uncertainty, and from the savage violence, shifting shapes, and diminished, groping protagonist that together give The Red Badge its distinguishing energy. This configuration constitutes a "myth" in the sense that it embodies a dominant imagery and set of emotionally charged attitudes that express the meaning of life not only for the author but also for a significant number of others in his culture. 1 Whereas Henry Adams and WE. B. Dubois wrote directly about chaos, brute power and the political, racial, economic and technological forces that were violently transforming post-Civil War America, Crane deals with these tendencies indirectly, by implication, in the language not of social and political analysis but of poetic metaphor or myth. At first Crane's novel seems an unlikely candidate for the approach I am suggesting. 2 The Civil 2 Robert Shulman War setting, for example, is an embarrassment. But unlike Tolstoy in War and Peace. Zola in The Debacle. or Stendhal in the battle scenes of The Charterhouse of Parma. Crane is not primarily interested in rendering with circumstantial realism a period thirty years in the past. His primary commitment is to render the psychology of battle. especially the inner rhythms of perception, fear and fantasy; to test inadequate views of heroism, identity and human nature: to probe the modern epistemological situation; and to establish for himself what willsuffice. Although he researched Chancellorsville , The Battles and Leade,:\· of the Ch-if Wa,; and looked at Brady's photographs, instead of a complex rendering of the Civil War in particular, Crane is mainly interested in the testing of a young American Everyman -in the timeless, universal drama of a young man confronting the existential facts of death and fear, and the perhaps more time-bound drama of perceptions often beautifully warped by emotion and self-interest in a fog-shrouded inner and outer world where knowledge is shifting and uncertain. One result of this emphasis on the inner drama, on the flow of perceptions and feelings, and the relative neglect of sustained, external social specification is a novel that moves through metaphors toward universals. We recall the boy,the battle, the forest, the fog, the fear, the attack and retreat, the waiting, the flag, the sun. They are all sufficiently particularized to be compelling but they nonetheless have much of the generalized quality of Bunyan or a Methodist tract, much more internal probing than in Bunyan or a Methodist tract to be sure, but nonetheless generalized and universal, not particularly America in 1863. Crane's book, then, is indebted to fictional conventions rooted in Pilgrim's journey through a troubled world and in the transformed imagery and techniques of his own Methodist tradition. 3 As a novel "about" the Civil War, The Red Badge thus leaves something to be desired, because Crane's main interests are elsewhere. 4 The general, universal, timeless quality he achieves and his moving psychological and epistemological drama nonetheless emerge from his imaginative transforma· tion of the world he knew, not only the inner world of the self but also in part the conflict-ridden America of his own lifetime, the world which strongly conditioned his view of the self and existence. The significant events of Crane's personal life-his father's death, for example, or his own complex reaction to and against his family's Methodism - took place in the larger context of post-Civil War America. Crane's response to his religious upbringing made...


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