by Andrea Pawley

I was made to read “The Red Badge of Courage” as an eighth grader. Nothing about that book, not even an understanding of which war it relates to, stuck with me. Several years on, I developed an interest in the Civil War (which this book is about, it turns out) and decided to re-read Stephen Crane’s best known novel first published in 1895.

Forget the displays of cowardice and courage that fill the pages of Crane’s masterpiece or the wonderful turns of phrase depicting an unforgiving Nature. I struggled to read past the broken writing rules! The writing police will tell you that using adverbs in fiction is a lazy way of telling a story and that “said” is the only worded needed in dialogue attribution. In clear violation of modern writing sensibilities, Crane slathers dialogue attribution with adverbs and spurns use of the simple word “said.”

…”No, I ain’t,” exclaimed the loud soldier indignantly…

…”You’ve got to hold ’em back!” he shouted, savagely…

…”Where yeh hit, ol’ boy?” he asked in a brotherly tone…

…”Why–why–” stammered the youth struggling with his balking tongue…

Admittedly, that last quote does not contain an adverb, but it still hurt my head.

Despite the assault on my writing senses, I kept reading “The Red Badge of Courage” because of Crane’s gift for describing the dislocation that suffuses a battlefield. The author conveys the fog of war on several levels. First, little information is offered about what the main character, Henry, is supposed to be doing, what the course of the battle is and where he is supposed to be skirmishing. Second, Crane often does not detail Henry’s orientation or direction in the world. Crane generally avoids mentioning if his protagonist is on a road or walking in the woods. Is Henry headed north or south? Gunfire and cannon fire come from all sides throughout the story. Is Henry at the front of the battle, in the middle of the pack or at the back end of the troop movement? Third, neither Henry nor the reader understands who is really giving orders. Army leadership at all levels is disrespected and mocked throughout the story. To the modern reader, the chain of command is unclear. To those in Henry’s world, leadership does not matter.

Throughout the book, I waited for the author to tell me and Henry what fate held for us, but Crane does not do that. Instead, the author gives the reader who also writes a lesson on how the act of withholding information can help tell a story.