The Red Badge of Experiential Courage

Ocracoke Post compares Vollmann and Stephen Crane, noting that their respective work falls into adventure journalism. J.M. Tyree offers some fascinating comparisons (both authors were attracted to prostitutes in their early fiction), pointing out that the books that critics have singled out “historical fiction” as their greatest accomplishments (Europe Central and The Red Badge of Courage).

I’d venture one further comparison. Both authors plunged themselves hard into exotic settings before writing about them. And yet with these two books, one might argue that they are the most imagined. Vollmann, of course, did not observe World War II, save through the copious books at his disposal. Crane never observed a single battle.

In fact, what makes EC such an interesting departure from previous Vollmann novels is the way that EC‘s “narrator as guide,” a stylistic device found to varying degrees in nearly all of Vollmann’s work, is even more imagined this time around. The “narrator” often serves as a proletariat who seems to know all the inside and intimate dirt about top Party officials and the like, often referring to the reader as “comrade.”

It would seem that the early real-world obsessions that both Vollmann and Crane essentially gave them license to invent the world of danger in their later ficiton.


  1. A difference is that, while I am really enjoying reading Europe Central now, I hated Red Badge of Courge in HS. Though I did love his poetry:

    In the desert I saw a creature, naked, bestial,

    who, squatting upon the ground,
    Held his heart in his hands,
    And ate of it.
    I said, “Is it good, friend?”
    “It is bitter — bitter,” he answered;
    “But I like it
    Because it is bitter,
    And because it is my heart.”

    So strange! It didn’t seem good to me at the time, but I liked it. Maybe I should try him again.

  2. i only noticed today, after many, many visits, that you have the vollmann club listed to the right and down. my god. i’ve been needing such a resource for months now. a group of people that will make me make it happen. force me to track down that insanely expensive volume that i keep shying away from and read it once and for all. it seems, ed, you were created by design for my specific needs. excellent.

    this post reminds me of the dfw mention about vollmann and his desire to “experience” his fiction before writing it…immersing himself in danger (or perhaps pseudo danger?) to get to the next level.

    and finally, thanks for posting a bit of my post. consider me humbled-smitten-humbled by DFW no longer…but by a certain blogger named ed.

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