An updated take on the classics
Title color is not the only significant thing shared by Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage and Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, two wildly different American novels from different periods of the 19th century.
They also share a preoccupation with guilt in Red Badge Henry Fleming's guilt over not living up to his ideal of battlefield honor, and in Scarlet Letter Hester Prynne's guilt over her adultery, for which she is forced to wear the infamous scarlet "A." And, consequently, a preoccupation with judgment and condemnation: Henry judges and condemns himself; Hester is judged and condemned by others.
Another noteworthy feature these two novels share is that both are among the first titles issued by the Modern Library in a new series of paperback classics. Each month the Modern Library is bringing out six titles, each with a reading group guide and a new introduction by a prominent contemporary author.
The series includes some particularly interesting pairings of current authors and classic books. Journalist turned novelist Anna Quindlen has contributed an introduction for Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice; acclaimed novelist, conservationist, and nature writer Peter Matthiessen writes on Walden, Thoreau's classic examination of the rewards of living a simple life; and Diane Johnson, who has chronicled 20th century manners in her novels, will introduce two volumes by Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights.
For Red Badge, historian and novelist Shelby Foote provides a critical and literary-historical introduction that not only analyzes key parts of the novel but also fills us in on the salient facts of Crane's life. Novelist Kathryn Harrison (best known for The Kiss, her account of an incestuous affair with her father) contributes an introduction to Scarlet Letter that is purely critical, not biographical. Both introductions, however, are excellent.
There are further similarities, greater and lesser, between the two novels. Both are short, which makes them among the most teachable of novels. The allegorical nature of Scarlet Letter can be a trove for those few remaining high schoolers willing to put up with being told to dig for buried treasure in American lit. Red Badge, too, is extremely accessible; the crisis facing its protagonist Crane said later he intended to create a "a psychological portrayal of fear" is so painfully plain as to need no explanation for the modern reader.
Therein lies the chief difference, other than their core subjects, between these two classics. Though separated by only 45 years, their approach and style are as different as chalk and cheese.
Scarlet Letteris a dreamscape where "names are clues," as Harrison says in her introduction; for instance, Arthur Dimmesdale (dim) and Roger Chillingworth (chilling). In Red Badge, nearly all names have been eliminated from a battle that for all its realism seems like a bad dream from which Henry struggles to awaken.
Consider this: Though a war novel, the war is never identified, aside from the subtitle, "An Episode of the American Civil War," which Crane added later. He never identifies the site of the battle, though Foote tells us in the introduction that it is Chancellorsville. Only two place names, Washington and Richmond, are mentioned, and no historical figures. This stylistic reticence extends to characters. Throughout, Crane refers to the main character as "the youth." Others are called "the tall soldier" or "the loud one." We only learn their names when other characters speak to or about them.
Foote calls this reticence "a masking device that magnified even as it concealed." Frank Norris, a contemporary of Crane's, said simply that Crane "knew when to shut up." Crane's sensibility, 105 years later, still is modern to us.
Well, we could bounce down the stairs of similarities, differences, and coincidences till the cows come home. At bottom, what unites the two novels is art. We could define art till the cows come home, too, but till they do this remark from Harrison's introduction is remarkably appropriate to both books: "What we ask of art is that it show us our hopeless tasks, that it shatter the smooth face of convention and reveal the dark longings of the unconscious."
Roger K. Miller is a freelance writer in Wisconsin.