Monday, December 12, 2011

The Red Badge of Courage (1895)

     I remember giving The Red Badge of Courage (1895) a try sometime in the fall of 1994.  This was a bad time in my life, but I thought I could make some kind of general progress if I could get to reading all of the books I had either sidestepped or outright neglected from junior high on.  I know I didn't make it past the second chapter before I put the book back on the shelf and decided that I didn't need to read it.  It didn't seem to be well written and the purposefully inarticulate dialogue grated on me.  Why would anyone think this was a worthwhile book?
     Now, much older and free of almost all of that egotistical arrogance, I found myself wanting to take up a short book between non-fiction titles (or, more correctly, as a break from the second non-fiction book I was reading).  I had purchased a Dover Thrift Editions copy of The Red Badge of Courage over a year prior, and thought I may as well just power through it.  The DTE copy has only 100 pages, so it practically invites anyone serious about reading to spend a day or two with it.  It also helped that I had long ago abandoned the idea that licensed genre fiction should be considered on par with literature.  That was a barrier that was too long to come down.
     One of the things I learned during my hated tenure as a wage slave was that there are far too many people who believe that the things we are to learn in school – including the books we should have read – are useless in a life that demands little more than remembering to smile, say thank you, and show up to work (though not necessarily on time, and with no subsequent demand to perform work while being paid).  There is a persistent belief that getting by is good enough and aspiring for me is foolish.  These are the people who could not name the capital of Missouri (they being located one state east) or convert easy fractions like 3/4 to decimals.  I detested these qualities in my co-workers, felt diminished in being associated with them in having the same basic job.  If I were to forever avoid the literature that is supposed to help inform my understanding of the human condition, I would be just like them.
     Where Stephen Crane's Henry Fleming must come to terms with what it means to be a man – what the true nature of courage is – I found myself struggling with what kind of person I wanted to be.  The are many glib answers to my question; I don't have the din of battle or the press of fellow soldiers to help me find the line.  I do know that on some level I want to feel as though I am educated, and that an education is not something that someone suffers through.  It is not something to be purchased as a means to the better career and looking like a worthwhile mate.  It is something that needs to be internalized and exercised as a person, as a citizen.
     Sure, Henry gets to discover what it means to be a man just past his youth.  Lots of people do that.  Crane presents the various men in the book who cannot come to terms with what value they have, but they are neither to be pitied or scorned.  They simply are.  That is not what any of us aspire to.  I know that I want more than to be (though let's not rule out how important existence is for everything else).  When I started my first self-imposed reading project in the August of 2010, I wanted to get in the habit of reading important books.  I think that I may have neglected the number of fun reads so far in year two (two licensed fiction novels and a handful of short stories seems light) that help balance out the more serious titles.  Unlike the battle scenes in The Red Badge of Courage, the serious and respected titles do not necessarily inspire a sense of urgency or vigor – school inspired/required reading always has an external structure to add importance to anything read.
     I think I would have been much more appreciative of Crane's novel had I read it when I was supposed to, which is to say at some point in high school.  It would have held a different personal meaning for me back then, sure, but it would have borne the benefits of a more in-depth exploration of the text.  Not that I ever enjoyed the ideal of manufacturing found symbolism in order to prove to our teachers that we really read and understood the assigned book.  There is something liberating in reading the classics that does not come with the genre fiction I once aspired to write.  Not that I have entirely given up on that dream; I have just slightly modified it to hope that I may one day write something that has a more human and truthful element.  That is where The Red Badge of Courage succeeds.

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