He was born in 1871 in New Jersey. He studied in the Universities of Lafayette and Siracuse. In 1890 he moved to NY to work as a reporter in the poorest suburbs, a work that together with his poverty would supply him with material for his first novel, Maggie, a girl from the street. He achieved a great success with his second novel, Red badge of courage, a psicologic study, realist and deep of a young soldier in the Civil War of the U.S.A.
Although he never lived military experiences, the descriptions of his book served him to be hired as a reporter in the wars of Turkey and Greece, and Spain and the U.S.A. In 1896, the ship Commodore, on which he travelled in an expedition from the U.S to Cuba shipwrecked, episode that he used to write the Open Boat and Other Tales. In 1897 he settled in England, where he was friend of Joseph Conrad and Henry James.
The main character of the Red badge of courage is a young man, Henry Fleming.
At the beginning of the novel, influenced by heroic stories he has read, hopes to have the occasion to become a hero, like Greek heroes. At this stage of the novel he is innocent and romantic, he hasn´t face real life, and specially war as they are. In order to get his dreams, he joins the army and leaves to fight in the civil war.
When he is sent to the front, comes the moment in which he has to face reality and war as they are. He discovers that he is not cut out to become a hero, he feels fear, and flees. He goes to the forest, where, by chance, he happens to get wounded on his head. Paradoxically, this wound becomes a badge of courage when he joins his company again, received as a hero.
It has been said that Crane is a naturalistic writer. I´d like to discuss what is true and what is false in this assertion. Naturalism supposes that the methods of experimental science can be applied to the analysis of society. Naturalism is the literary result of the application of Darwin´s theory of evolution to the novel. Every animal, and from a naturalistic point of view, man is no exception, has to adapt itself to the environment, and struggle with the other subjects to survive. Besides, naturalism adopts the deterministic view for which man has no free will, he is a mere puppet subjected to circumstances and the laws of causality. Free will is an illusion. We don´t go where we want to, but where the casuality, or, what is the same, causality leads us. Henry is first driven into the battle, then away from it and finally back again by forces he can´t control. He becomes a hero not when he wants to, , and, paradoxically, but when the circumstances his fear and desire to flee leads him to find his heroic moment.
This absence of choice, of election, of will, is represented in the novel by images that identify men with animals and things: Henry´s regiment is compared to a moving box, which contains him. The soldiers are compared to trees and animals, they fight as eagles, the regiment looks as a pack of mules. They are also compared to primitive warriors. This suggests that the important thing is that we belong to the class “man”, as an eagle belongs to the class “bird”, and not to the class XIXth century man. Men at war are animals struggling for survive, and in that all men are just the same. Alternatively, objects are ironically personified: guns speak, bullets sin.
Crane has also been called a realistic writter. This is not exactly. Although he has a realistic eye to describe actions, and make them vivid to the reader, he is not concerned with recording things in their selves, just because their sheer existence fascinates. While other writers, let´s say, for example, Defoe, record actions which don´t add any new meaning to the development of the narrative and characters just to reflect the real world, full with details which are fascinating in theirselves, Crane´s natural facts have reference beyond themselves. However, and opposite to allegoric or symbolic writters, this reference is always individually psychological, and never idealistically cosmological, as in Hawthorne, for example. He is more essentially, as his friend Joseph Conrad described him, impressionistic. He conveys the confusion, heat, sounds and emotions of the battle by means of an accumulation of strokes in a technique that has been called “literary pointillism”.
Apart from what has been said, The red badge of courage is a psychological portrait of fear, and a description of a travel through innocence to experience. During the farewell interview, Henry´s mother, tells him that he is a little fellow among a lot of others, that he has to keep quiet and do what they tell him. She ends with a significant “I know how you are, Henry”. Some critics believe that Henry will take a long time to know how he is. In the battle, he realices his insignificance, and after losing himself in this “lot of other men”, and losing his individuality and innocence, he goes through a spiritual regeneratin, gets experienced, and finds himself again, with a new, the real role in life, just a little soldier, a little man, playing his little part in the whole, enormous play of life.
Other critics think that Henry is silf-deluding, cowardly, or brave by turns, not because he understands or chooses, but because he is simply an animals responding to the urgencies of environment with the resources he casually has.