What still fascinates is how, amid such conditions, Crane was able to informally pursue his aesthetic education and produce a novel that is one of the better summations of American sensibilities in the 1890s. His mind was, in effect, a sponge, capable of absorbing the principles of past and current literary traditions, the insights of the leading writers of the day, the beliefs held by competing philosophical schools, the dogmas held by diverse Christian sects, and the trends of political and economic thought. His artistic genius resided in his ability to knit many dissimilar and, at times, conflicting perspectives so thoroughly in a text that we pay more attention to their similarities than their differences. He paints a grim but objective portrait of war's horror in one passage in Red Badge, yet when we turn the page we find ourselves immersed in Fleming's subjective reflection about that event.
Many critics have debated over the years whether Crane was essentially a Realist, a Naturalist, or an Impressionist. I and many others contend that he was all those things and much more. For Crane, the scene or the moment dictates the artistic device the writer should employ. Novels such as Red Badge, then, become compendia of many aesthetic possibilities. In a Crane text, this oscillation among so many ways of looking at the world reflects what all humans must contend with in life. The religious, political, philosophical, or artistic belief that seems best to explain one moment may prove inadequate for the next. Crane's novel about the Civil War offers a chain of partially successful attempts by Henry Fleming to comprehend his environment and purpose. The Red Badge of Courage thus not only chronicles Crane's own restless mind; it also embodies the multifaceted dilemmas with which all intellects curious about man's relationship with the universe must cope.
The dominant literary figures in the United States after the Civil War were the Realists. By the 1890s, Realism's most accomplished practitioners included Mark Twain and Henry James, but William Dean Howells had become the artistic director of the school. Through his magazine columns (the most prominent was "The Editor's Study" in Harper's Monthly), through the example he set in his novels and short stories, and through the new writers whose work he promoted, Howells established a good number of artistic principles for the postbellum generation of American fictionalists. Above all other considerations, he stressed that writers ought to write about subjects, people, and environments with which they were wholly familiar. Realists should not impose their personal biases or philosophical, political, and ethical predispositions on the voice of a text's third-person narrator. The world should be described as if one were looking through a camera lens. The Realist should avoid presenting portraits of people who reside at the extreme ends of the human condition; those who occupy the center of American society are fitter subjects for literary art. Thus, the goal of the writer is to capture with fidelity that which typifies a society.
These and other like precepts pervaded the literary scene that Crane encountered in New York during the early 1890s. They became salient and valuable for him after he heard Hamlin Garland lecture about Howells's work and influence in Avon, New Jersey, in 1891. Crane published a newspaper piece about the talk, which attracted Garland's notice. At that time, Garland, ten years Crane's senior, was himself an emerging Realist of the local-color school. Many American local colorists, who had their aesthetic origins in Ivan Turgenev's seminal short-story collection Sportsman's Notebook, published realistic fiction based upon their regional experiences, chronicling the lives and manners of the people they grew up with or lived among for a long time. Adherents to this approach included Sarah Orne Jewett, Mary Wilkins Freeman, Rose Terry Cooke, Bret Harte, and George Washington Cable. During the summer of 1891, Garland himself contributed to this collective effort to portray America region by region through publishing Main-Travelled Roads, a story collection based on his family's farming experiences in the Midwest. (Donna Campbell provides an excellent discussion of Crane's tenuous relationship with the local-color movement in her Resisting Regionalism: Gender and Naturalism in American Fiction, 1885-1915; see "For Further Reading.")
When Crane began to gather materials for Red Badge in 1893, most of his immediate resources had realistic assumptions underlying their intentions. Matthew Brady's photographs of the Civil war had recorded with graphic accuracy the ghastliness of battle. Nonfictional reminiscences and novels such as Wilbur F. Hinman's Corporal Si Klegg and His 'Pard', Joseph Kirkland's The Captain of Company K, and the novel that some critics believe marks the incipient moment of American Realism, John William De Forest's Miss Ravenel's Conversion from Succession to Loyalty, all share the desire to acquaint a civilian reader with the actualities of war and of military life.
Crane's most immediate source, however, owed its realistic intentions to another sort of discourse-history. In 1893 he borrowed from the mother of a former childhood playmate the multivolume work Battles and Leaders of the Civil War (1887), a compilation of a mammoth series of articles that had first appeared in The Century magazine years earlier. Here Crane found a rich vein of primary material, including essays by participating Union and Confederate officers, such as Generals Darius N. Couch, Alfred Pleasonton, Oliver O. Howard, and R. E. Colston. With these accounts, Crane began to understand the facts, tactics, and strategies of the Battle of Chancellorsville that he would integrate into his story. Despite the occasional note of nostalgia or bravado, despite the defensive tone adopted by a general in explaining the misdeeds of his troops, these historical sources on the whole do comply with the empirical spirit pursued by a new generation of nineteenth-century historians. These writers presented firsthand testimony when available and assembled all known facts in their correct chronological sequence in order to illustrate an historical event as accurately as the evidence allows.
For all his research in these and other historical texts, however, Crane could not compensate for his one obvious deficiency, one that challenged any claim he might make to call himself a Realist. Realists were supposed to confine their efforts to subjects they knew well and had experienced intimately. Born six years after the Civil War ended, Crane had never even seen a battle before he finished the manuscript for Red Badge. His mentor Howells would later chide him about this predicament, telling him that Maggie was more artistically successful because he based it upon what he had lived and observed directly, unlike Red Badge, which was constructed from the observations of others and Crane's own guesses. How ironic it was, after the latter novel was published, that the reading public hailed Crane as the nascent star of American Realism.