The hectic career of Stephen Crane

140630_r25195_p233Caleb Crain at The New Yorker:

In “The Red Badge of Courage,” the novel that made Crane famous, at the age of twenty-three, the nonhero Henry Fleming desperately wants to be perceived as brave, even though he deserts in a moment of cowardice, and doesn’t really seem to believe in bravery except as a perception. When, after his flight from the front lines, he manages to return to his regiment unexposed, he adopts a virile attitude: “He had performed his mistakes in the dark, so he was still a man.” And that’s only the outermost shell of his hypocrisy. A friend has entrusted Fleming with letters to his family, to be delivered in case of the man’s death. Fleming, desperate to keep his lapse secret, sees that these personal letters make the man vulnerable. He decides to taunt his friend about them if he gets too curious about Fleming’s absence. As it happens, the friend doesn’t get curious. When he asks for the letters back, Fleming tries to come up with a cutting remark but can’t, and hands them over without comment. “And for this he took unto himself considerable credit,” Crane writes, as Fleming’s self-serving consciousness turns a final pirouette. “It was a generous thing.

Even when performing a small act of self-restraint, Fleming is, to the narrator’s eye, a cad. Crane writes of Fleming at one point that “his capacity for self-hate was multiplied,” and one senses that he saw himself in the character, and was correspondingly hard on him.

more here.