First Crane Lecture

I started with why SC, born in 1871, chose to write about an 1863 Civil War battle. Like James, who uses "Europe" in his international tales as a symbolic setting to represent the more complex world of society, the past, &c, that he wants to initiate American readers into, SC uses battle of Chancellorsville to dramatize his vision of life. It's the vision he shares with Dreiser, also born in 1871. With these two writers we get to the next generation of Am lit since 1865, the generation labeled "American Literary Naturalists," & associated with the 1890s. I said I'd try to make sure a definition of the term "Naturalism" emerges as we discuss SC and Dreiser.

One place to start -- on board that little dinghy in that big ocean in "The Open Boat." You can think of Naturalism as Realism committed to a specific thesis: as Dreiser puts it in Sister Carrie, "amid the forces that sweep and play throughout the universe untutored man is but a wisp in the wind" -- or, more crudely, to the Naturalists an individual life was almost entirely, or maybe entirely, determined by larger circumstances. That's the paradigmatic idea embodied by those little men in that little boat among all those big waves. That's why Crane chose to write about a single private in the Grand Army of the Republic. In Red Badge what "the youth" does is never the result of his conscious will -- he "finds himself" (p. 789 etc.) doing things because of orders, or the forces of war, or because of inward compulsions -- i.e. he fights (p. 796-97) or flees (801) as reflex, involuntary reactions.

But his individual powerlessness & anonymity & insignificance amidst the huge & chaotic forces of battle is only half the story SC is telling. The other half: Henry's human inability to accept the reality of his condition, his need to create a story about the self that flatters his ego, his self love, his sense that he's not anonymous, etc., but rather the center around which the universe revolves. That's the persistent irony of SC's narrative, and the conflict he's most interesting in exploring: between the essential meaninglessness of Henry's life & his need to give it meaning. In a sense, he's always interpreting the text of his life -- & misreading it, projecting a bad reading onto it, out of his compulsion to create a story that stars himself (we looked, for example, at the various roles Henry projects himself into in Chapter XI, from "sublime" hero [816] to "villain" & "murderer" [818].

This led me to the point that SC is making about symbols, like "a red badge of courage." I compared his treatment of them to the Romantics. For Whitman, for example, "leaves of grass" are like the word made flesh, physical symbols that reveal larger truths. The best comparison for Red Badge is Hawthorne's "red badge," The Scarlet Letter. Like SC's, Hawthorne's symbol is man-made, & ambiguous, & open to different interpretations from different perspectives, but ultimately -- I said -- as symbol does embody eternal or divine truth, moral law, etc. In Red Badge, though, the symbol is wholly ironic. We looked at the scene in which Henry is wounded (p. 819), and how "courage" had nothing to do with it -- vs. his need to wear the "badge" as a symbol. So as a symbol the red badge both points to the void beyond it (the realm of eternal moral truth has been erased), and symbolizes most clearly the human need for symbols. Amidst the heaving, violent, chaotic meaninglessness of life, SC's men need something to cling to: we looked at how the "flag" (843) works the same way, as a symbol for Henry and as a symptom of the emptiness of the symbols people hang onto.

One of the big points I tried to make throughout the lecture: Realists saw themselves reacting against Romanticism, but Naturalism = a kind of development of Realism. Part of SC's project, for example, is to expose melodramatic romance categories like "hero" and "villain," debunk the idea of war as picturesque, etc. -- all Realist projects too. But to me, one way to distinguish a Realist from a Naturalist work: in Huck Finn, for example, Huck would clearly be better off if he could simply see reality in front of him, see Jim, say, and not the "nigger/slave" his culture has conditioned him to "see." The same is essentially true for Daisy or Edna -- their romantic illusions prove fatal, so they'd presumably be better off if more direct contact with reality. But in the world of Red Badge, reality is so violently destructive of all meanings that Henry needs illusions to cling to, must create fictions to make life livable.

One project I gave class for Friday: to look hard at the various endings Crane gave the novel (see Crane homepage), and try to decide for yourself how to add up the whole story SC writes about Henry. That's where we'll start Friday.

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