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The Most ‘Realistic’ Civil War Novel Was Written Three Decades After It Ended

By an author who wasn’t even alive when it occurred

Portrait of a Civil War soldier group, circa 1861-65. (Library of Congress)
smithsonian.com

The Red Badge of Courage, an enduring novel about the Civil War, was published in book form on this day in 1895, and made its author Stephen Crane "an international celebrity," according to History.com. 

Why? The book wasn't really like any of the other fictionalized accounts of the Civil War, says the University of Virginia. "Crane's 'battle pictures' of the Civil War debunk the narrative strategies of popular fiction of his day–chivalric historical romances, popular war novels with domestic subplots, veterans' martial memoirs....Crane's vivid images of Henry's initiation into war question assumptions about the War's significance." It was bleak and visceral, not romantic. And readers, who latched on to the story, initially thought that Crane wrote from experience.

“The laconic realism of his prose, the fierce investigation of the soldier’s psyche and his impressionistic use of color and detail convinced many readers that Crane was a veteran turned novelist,”  writes Robert McCrum for The Guardian

But Stephen Crane hadn't fought in the war. He wasn't even alive while the war was going on. Instead, Crane, a journalist, relied on a number of interviews with Civil War veterans for his material. He also used  documentary sources like photographs–to give his Civil War realism.

This idea seems obvious today, but "the idea of a writer immersing himself in ... his subject to make a book for publication, so familiar today, was new in the 1890s," McCrum writes.

Oddly, Crane also credited sports for his war novel's realism. “I have never been in a battle, of course,” Crane said, according to Rick Burton in The New York Times. “I believe I got my sense of the rage of conflict on the football field."

Crane died of tuberculosis only a few years after Red Badge made him famous, leaving behind a famous novel and a short sequel, titled The Veteran. But his form of war story marked the beginning of a genre of war fiction that produced Catch-22, Slaughterhouse Five, A Farewell to Arms and many other classics of twentieth-century American literature.

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