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Chapter 5: a bit of war photography

After the applause won by Mr. Stephen Crane's Red Badge of Courage, a little reaction is not strange; and this has already taken, in some quarters, a form quite unjust and unfair. Certainly any one who spent so much as a week or two in camp, thirty years ago, must be struck with the extraordinary freshness and vigor of the book. No one except Tolstoi, within my knowledge, has brought out the daily life of war so well; it may be said of these sentences, in Emerson's phrase, “Cut these and they bleed.” The breathlessness, the hurry, the confusion, the seeming aimlessness, as of a whole family of disturbed ants, running to and fro, yet somehow accomplishing something at last; all these aspects, which might seem the most elementary and the easiest to depict, are yet those surest to be omitted, not merely by the novelists, [42] but by the regimental histories themselves.

I know that when I first read Tolstoi's War and Peace, The Cossacks and Sevastopol, it seemed as if all other so-called military novels must become at once superannuated and go out of print. All others assumed, in comparison, that bandbox aspect which may be seen in most military or naval pictures; as in the well-known engraving of the death of Nelson, where the hero is sinking on the deck in perfect toilette, at the height of a bloody conflict, while every soldier or sailor is grouped around him, each in heroic attitude and spotless garments. It is this Tolstoi quality — the real tumult and tatters of the thing itself-which amazes the reader of Crane's novel. Moreover, Tolstoy had been through it all in person; whereas this author is a youth of twenty-four, it seems, born since the very last shot fired in the Civil War. How did he hit upon his point of view?

Yet this very point of view, strange to say, has been called a defect. Remember that he is telling the tale, not of a commanding general, but of a common soldier — a pawn in the game; a man who sees only what is going on immediately around him, and, for the most [43] part, has the key to nothing beyond. This he himself knows well at the time. Afterward, perhaps, when the affair is discussed at the camp-fire, and his view compared with what others say, it begins to take shape, often mixed with all sorts of errors; and when it has reached the Grand Army Post and been talked over afterward for thirty years, the narrator has not a doubt of it all. It has become a perfectly ordered affair, a neat and well-arranged game of chess, often with himself as a leading figure. Such is the result of too much perspective. The wonder is that this young writer, who had no way of getting at the facts except through the gossip-printed or written — of these very old soldiers, should be able to go behind them all, and give an account of their life, not only more vivid than they themselves have ever given, but more accurate. It really seems a touch of that marvellous intuitive quality which for want of a better name we call genius.

Now is it a correct criticism of the book to complain, as one writer has done, that it does not dwell studiously on the higher aspects of the war? Let the picture only be well drawn, and the moral will take care of itself; never fear. The book is not a patriotic tract, but a [44] delineation; a cross section of the daily existence of the raw enlisted-man. In other respects it is reticent because it is truthful. Does any one suppose that in the daily routine of the camp there was room for much fine talk about motives and results — that men were constantly appealing, like Carlyle's Frenchman, “to posterity and the immortal Gods?” Fortunately or unfortunately, the Anglo-Saxon is not built that way; he errs on the other side; habitually understates instead of overstating his emotions; and while he is making the most heroic sacrifices of his life, usually prefers to scold about rations or grumble at orders. He is to be judged by results; not by what he says, which is often ungracious and unornamental, but by what he does.

The very merit of this book is that in dealing with his men the author offers, within this general range, all the essential types of character — the man who boasts and the man who is humble — the man who thinks he may be frightened and is not, and the man who does not expect to be, but is. For his main character he selects a type to be found in every regiment — the young man who does not know himself, who first stumbles into cowardice, to his own amazement, and then is equally amazed [45] at stumbling into courage; who begins with skulking, and ends by taking a flag. In Doyle's Micah Clarke the old Roundhead soldier tells his grandchildren how he felt inclined to bob his head when he first heard bullets whistle, and adds, “If any soldier ever told you that he did not, the first time that he was under fire, then that soldier is not a man to trust.” This is putting it too strongly, for some men are born more stolid, others more nervous; but the nervous man is quite as likely to have the firmer grain, and to come out the more heroic in the end. In my own limited experience, the only young officer whom I ever saw thoroughly and confessedly frightened, when first under fire, was the only one of his regiment who afterwards chose the regular army for his profession, and fought Indians for the rest of his life.

As for The Red Badge of Courage, the test of the book is in the way it holds you. I only know that whenever I take it up I find myself reading it over and over, as I do Tolstoi's Cossacks, and find it as hard to put down. None of Doyle's or Weyman's books bear re-reading, in the same way; you must wait till you have forgotten their plots. Even the slipshod grammar seems a part of the breathless life and [46] action. How much promise it gives, it is hard to say. Goethe says that as soon as a man has done one good thing, the world conspires against him to keep him from doing another. Mr. Crane has done one good thing, not to say two; but the conspiracy of admiration may yet be too much for him.


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