April 16, 2011

Guest post: Crane and his vicious satire

It is difficult to think of Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage as anything less than one of the great American works of the late 19th century. When it was published by D. Appleton and Co. in late 1895, it initially earned what H. G. Wells called "an orgy of praise." Reviewers commended Crane's unique story about a young private in the Union Army who battles shame and fear while yearning for military glory. Some even praised the novel's realism, although Crane was only 24 at the time of publication and had yet to witness battle. He later jokingly stated he had found inspiration from the "rage of conflict on the football field."

Not everyone found the novel to their liking, however. On April 16, 1896, The Dial published a passionate letter from its proprietor, General Alexander C. McClurg, a Civil War veteran as well as publisher and book collector. In his lengthy missive, McClurg attacked both The Red Badge of Courage and those who continued to sing its praises. Mistakenly believing that the novel was first published in England, only to be viciously let loose stateside, he wrote of it being "only too well known that English writers have had a very low opinion of American soldiers."

McClurg did not mince words. He deemed the book itself "a vicious satire upon American soldiers and American armies." The character of Henry Fleming was nothing more than "an ignorant and stupid country lad" without "a spark of patriotic feeling." Crane's writing was riddled with "absurd similes" and "bad grammar." Most damning of all was the fact that "nowhere are seen the quiet, manly, self-respecting, and patriotic men, influenced by the highest sense of duty, who in reality fought our battles." McClurg summed up by stating the book ought not have been published in the country at all, "out of respect" for the American public.

The letter unleashed a torrent of responses. While several agreed with his sentiments regarding the novel's literary merits (or lack thereof), most did not. Many thought McClurg's attacks against The Red Badge of Courage and its young author unfair. As British author and critic Sydney Brooks wrote, the General "came out on the warpath, arrested Mr. Crane as a literary spy, court-martialled him, and shot the poor fellow off-hand."

*Maria Atilano is a Sr. Library Services Associate at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville. She is a frequent contributor to Wikipedia, having written the articles for Crane, "The Open Boat," and The Red Badge of Courage, amongst others.


  1. And Maggie: A Girl of the Streets is a vicious satire ridiculing the lazy immigrants who abuse their capitalist betters.

  2. I wonder how many generals actually have any close contact with a common foot soldier.