Stephen Cushman: Stephen Crane, Historical Researcher

cover for Belligerent Muse: Five Northern Writers and How They Shaped Our Understanding of the Civil WarToday we welcome a guest post by Stephen Cushman, author of Belligerent Muse: Five Northern Writers and How They Shaped Our Understanding of the Civil War. War destroys, but it also inspires, stimulates, and creates. It is, in this way, a muse, and a powerful one at that. The American Civil War was a particularly prolific muse–unleashing with its violent realities a torrent of language, from soldiers’ intimate letters and diaries to everyday newspaper accounts, great speeches, and enduring literary works. In Belligerent Muse, Stephen Cushman considers the Civil War writings of five of the most significant and best known narrators of the conflict: Abraham Lincoln, Walt Whitman, William Tecumseh Sherman, Ambrose Bierce, and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. Considering their writings both as literary expressions and as efforts to record the rigors of the war, Cushman analyzes their narratives and the aesthetics underlying them to offer a richer understanding of how Civil War writing chronicled the events of the conflict as they unfolded and then served to frame the memory of the war afterward.

In the following post Cushman explores the historical and aesthetic layers to Stephen Crane’s approach to writing The Red Badge of Courage.


Belligerent Muse: Five Northern Writers and How They Shaped Our Understanding of the Civil War tries to show “what can happen when discussions of historical detail, generally absent from treatments of Civil War writings as ‘literature,’ complement discussions of verbal artistry, generally absent from works of history and historiography” (6). Chapters on Abraham Lincoln, Walt Whitman, William Tecumseh Sherman, Ambrose Bierce, and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, each of whom was self-conscious about his powers as a writer, approach their historical writings from the assumption that we should not view those writings “simply as transparent windows on the past” but instead as stained-glass windows, “sometimes only faintly tinted, sometimes richly colored” (3). The goal of such discussions is to develop both a historically informed aesthetic sensibility and an aesthetically informed historical one. The reason that we in the twenty-first century need to develop these complementary sensibilities is that the Civil War erupted against a standard of literacy different from our own, one with increasingly unfamiliar conventions of reading and writing. Because most of us know what we know about the war primarily through the medium of writing, understanding the war we read about depends to a large extent on our understanding as many historical and aesthetic layers of its writings as possible.

Stephen Crane tests this last statement in instructive ways. Born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1871, he was closer to the war than we are, but like us he did not witness the war years first hand, as did the writers considered in Belligerent Muse. With publication of the newspaper version of The Red Badge of Courage: An Episode of the American Civil War in 1894, the year he turned twenty-three, and publication of the full book by D. Appleton and Company the following year, Crane was suddenly an established writer, one to whom John Phillips, of the Phillips-and-McClure Syndicate, pitched an idea for a series of sketches about famous Civil War battlefields late in 1895. Crane’s two letters responding to Phillips, the first written from Hartwood, New York, on December 30, 1895, and the second from the same place on January 9, 1896, have been published in Stephen Crane: Letters, edited by R. W. Stallman and Lillian Gilkes and published by New York University Press in 1960. The manuscripts of these two letters, housed in the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections of the University of Virginia, show a clear, legible hand; few corrections and crossings out; and, particularly in the second letter, a distinct leftward slant, perhaps because Crane was left-handed, perhaps because of psychological tendencies, such as emotional inwardness, which graphology, considered by some a pseudo-science, undertakes to study.

Crane’s response to Phillips provides a revealing glimpse into the young writer’s historical sensibility: “I dont know how you would advise going about it but one of the first things I would want to do, would be to visit the battle-field—which I was to describe—at the time of year when it was fought. The preliminary reading and the subsequent reading, the investigations of all kinds, would take much time” (letter of December 30, 1895; all spelling Crane’s). After a sentence in which he anticipated the criticism of generals who sputter, “‘This damn young fool was not there,’” criticism he “evaded . . . in the Red Badge because it was essential that I should make my battle a type and name no names,” he repeated his research method: “In the spring when a good deal of my work will be done and the anniversaries of the fights begin to occur, I think I would like to do the work and if you send me the name of the battle you first wish me to tackle I will try to do some reading on it.”

Crane had direct access to the oral testimony of Civil War veterans, as we do not. But beyond this difference, he “was not there” either, and his options were basically the same as ours: visit the battlefields and read, read, read. We do not have Phillips’s answer, but it appears from Crane’s second letter that he may have pressed the young man to get on with the project immediately, not to wait until the spring of 1896: “The only battle one could do well during this time of year is Fredericksburg. It was fought in December and no doubt the color of things there now would be the very same color of things of the days the battle was fought.”

The color of things. It is a telling phrase, one that recalls the inescapable stained-glass quality of historical writing. Crane may have meant nothing more than the hues of the winter landscape in northeastern Virginia, and no doubt he had them in mind. But we also use the word “color” to mean—and according to Noah Webster’s 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language, Crane would have known this meaning, too—“appearance to the mind” (Webster’s fourth definition). In other words, “the color of things” need not have been only a matter of the physical properties of light as they affect the human eye; it could include the larger effects of aesthetic perception as well. That the historical and the aesthetic were mixing in Crane’s mind becomes clear in the next paragraph: “Fredericksburg is to me the most dramatic battle of the war. The terrific assault of the Union army on the impregnable had something in it of the fury of despair. It had been goaded and hooted by the sit-stills until it was near insane and just as a maddened man may dash his fists against an iron wall, so did the Union army hurl itself against the hills back of Fredericksburg.”

To call a battle “dramatic,” and especially “most dramatic,” is to blend the historical and the aesthetic. The dramatic is a literary category after all, and “most dramatic” implies an aesthetic judgment. Crane did visit Fredericksburg later in January 1896 (among Crane scholars there is debate about whether this was his first visit to Virginia, some arguing that he had been there in 1893), but in the end he did not fulfill John Phillips’s request for a series of descriptive battlefield sketches. Instead, he wrote a group of stories collected under the title The Little Regiment, published later in 1896.

The closing paragraph of Stephen Crane’s second letter to Phillips includes a sentence that confirms the necessary cooperation of the historical and the aesthetic, both in writing and reading about the Civil War: “I want to understand Frederic[k]sburg completely as far as the books will teach it and then after that, the other things.” By “the books,” presumably Crane meant conventional historical narratives and memoirs that had appeared over the thirty years since the war ended. By “the other things,” he could have meant a great deal. He may have meant the hues of the landscape, the testimonies of veterans, or the things that close readers, no matter how far removed in time from the Civil War, can read between or within the lines of even the most apparently straightforward and colorless documents. It is in our recognition and appreciation of these other things that the past lives in us again.

Stephen Cushman is Robert C. Taylor Professor of English at the University of Virginia. Belligerent Muse: Five Northern Writers and How They Shaped Our Understanding of the Civil War is now available in paperback.