The Red Badge of Courage, a coming-of-age tale set in an unnamed battle of the Civil War (most likely the Battle of Chancellorsville), is Stephen Crane's most famous novel. Serialized in 1894 and published in 1895 when he was only 23, the novel is routinely named as one of the greatest war novels of all time although, interestingly enough, Crane had no personal military experience. It is a constant fixture on reading lists for high school students and is discussed at length in college English and history courses. Volumes of critical work have been done on the novel, and it has been subject to multiple film and television interpretations. It is part of the strain of realist or naturalist literature also taken up by Frank Norris, Theodore Dreiser, and Mark Twain in the late 19th century.
At the time of the book's publication Crane had already published Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893) at his own expense. He started writing The Red Badge in March or April of 1893 after reading eyewitness accounts of Civil War battles in Century Magazine's series "Battles and Leaders of the Civil War." He wrote while spending the summer at his brother's New Jersey house as well as New York City, which he moved back to in October. He did copious research on the Civil War for his text. There are many existing manuscript drafts that show Crane's writing process. For example, he initially named all of the soldiers more frequently but began crossing the names out and substituting more frequently titles like "the loud soldier" and "the tall soldier."
The Bachellor, Johnson, & Bachellor newspaper syndicate agreed to serialize the work in December 1894 and it soon appeared in the Philadelphia Press and other papers across the country. This version was often slightly different from paper to paper, and, interestingly enough, did not include the last three chapters and ended with Henry and Wilson hearing the praise for their daring feat of capturing the flag.
The story was successful and publication in book form was discussed with D. Appleton & Company in New York. Crane was still revising the manuscript and agreed to several cuts for the 1895 publication. Some of these pages still exist but many others have been lost. It is not known precisely why Crane agreed to the cuts, but some scholars speculate that the failure of Maggie led him to conclude that the challenging style and substance of his work was too much for readers. A restored version was published by Norton in 1982, but this stirred up debate and criticism. Since Crane had agreed on the cuts with his editor, a "true" version may not really exist, even if the manuscripts contain unpublished material that Crane initially preferred. Critics felt that the editor was now more important than the writer in this case.
Reviews were generally positive and a respectable amount of volumes were sold, but it did not become a bestseller until an edition was published in England. By 1896 the novel had gone through nine editions and Crane himself realized he was no longer "a black sheep but a star." A reviewer in the New York Press wrote "one should be forever slow in charging an author with genius, but it must be confessed that The Red Badge of Courage is open to the suspicion of having greater power and originality that can be girdled by the name of talent." Joseph Conrad, the famous author of Heart of Darkness (1899), wrote that Crane had written "a spontaneous piece of work which seems to spurt and flow like a tapped stream from the depths of the writer's being." Some critics, including the writer Ambrose Bierce, attacked the novel for, among other things, being too imaginative, depicting soldiers poorly, and lacking in a coherent plot and grammatical/syntactical purity.