It’s been too long since I read The Red Badge of Courage—if I can say that I really read it the first time. (Literature gets wasted on the young.) I remember the irony of the novel’s premise, but I have no memory of Stephen Crane’s mastery of style, tone, and narrative flow.
This collection of his western writings, compiled in 1979 for the New American Library, awakened in me both an appreciation for him as a writer and a deep sorrow that his creative life was cut so short, by consumption, at the age of only 28.
The handful of stories (nine, depending on how you count them) are wonderfully told, bright with wry wit and a sensibility that finds dark humor in the lives of ordinary people wading without knowing it into big trouble.
Themes. “The Blue Hotel” is the finest example of that, as four men gather by a stove to play cards in the parlor of a hotel during a fierce Nebraska blizzard. One of them, a Swede, behaves strangely. New to what he believes is the Wild West, he fully expects to be killed by one of the card players.
Emboldened by his fear he accuses the hotel owner’s son of cheating. After beating the boy soundly in a wind and snow swept fistfight outdoors, the Swede leaves the hotel and finds death waiting for him instead at the hands of a gambler at a nearby saloon.