Private Fleming at Chancellorsville: the Red Badge of Courage and the Civil War

By Perry Lentz '64

University of Missouri Press

The Red Badge of Courage has long been a staple of high school and college English courses, but what about the history behind it? Perry Lentz, the Charles P. McIlvaine Professor of English, looks at this question through the lens of thirty-five years of teaching the novel to Kenyon students, rereading it yearly, and considering student responses.

"The more extensive my research," Lentz writes, "in order to better explain the military realities in which the novel is set, the more the novel proved capable of sustaining even the most detailed historical scrutiny, the richer and more expansive became the experience of rereading it."

Private Fleming at Chancellorsville distills these riches in a blow-by-blow account of the Battle of Chancellorsville, the presumed setting for The Red Badge of Courage, as well as a deeply sensitive analysis of the novel itself--an analysis informed, and enhanced, by Lentz's expertise in American literature and breadth of literary knowledge. Lentz brings to his study an interest in the Civil War that is both scholarly and imaginative (he is himself the author of two excellent novels set in that period). In addition, through insightful allusions to authors ranging from Homer and Shakespeare to Melville and Hemingway, he reminds us that the larger concern of all great literature is the human condition.

Because the battle is never named in Red Badge, and because author Stephen Crane himself never fought in the American Civil War, many critics have glossed over the story's historical accuracy, praising instead its psychological authenticity, conveyed through Crane's impressionistic style. Lentz, armed with impressive knowledge about infantry tactics, artillery, and uniforms, effectively dismisses critical doubts about the extent of Crane's Civil War knowledge and at the same time draws the reader into the event that has been called General Robert E. Lee's "perfect battle."

He affirms the truth of some of Crane's most intimate details about the battle, such as the wounded Private Conklin's all-too-real fear of being run over by "them damned artillery wagons." He also notes some of the shortcomings of Crane's research, such as his reliance on Major General Darius Couch's inaccurate study of Chancellorsville in Battles and Leaders.

Considering Crane's style and narrative strategies, Lentz examines the novel's power to draw in the reader--he calls Red Badge "the narrative as mousetrap." He contrasts that power with the often sterile efforts of the Naturalist movement, in which authors frequently seem to present their hapless characters as specimens, and call for the reader's attention through a "constant tapping of the pointer on the pane of glass."

Crane's book, Lentz argues, is not a "study of 'the mind of a soldier in combat,' but, rather, a study of the human tendency toward solipsism, toward perceiving the world in some congenial because comprehensible fashion, toward myth-making."

--Traci Vogel

A Great Day in Coopers-town: the Improbable Birth of Baseball's Hall of Fame

By Jim Reisler '80
Carroll & Graf

Baseball is the sport for nostalgia buffs.

And the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown is the cynosure of the game's memories. Jim Reisler's lively book tells the story of June 12, 1939, the day the Hall of Fame opened.

Memorialized by one of baseball's iconic photos--the posed shot of all but one of the original living inductees (Ty Cobb [who else?] snubbed the others)--the day was perfect in every way. Under a smiling sun, the New York hamlet put on a classic small-town-America festival, national figures arrived to lend their dignity to the occasion, and the "immortals" themselves savored their opportunity to banter with old friends and rivals even as they lavished autographs on awe-struck kids and adoring adults alike.

But Reisler's story is more than the chronicle of a happy occasion. Interspersed with his narrative of the events of the day are flashbacks that allow the reader to see how the Cooperstown myth was propagated and how the Hall of Fame project was launched and guided to completion. He examines the role of sportswriting and sportscasting in this pre-World War II era. Most memorably, he includes evocative verbal portraits of the returning heroes--stiff-collared Connie Mack as "a church deacon," Honus Wagner as "your favorite eccentric uncle," Eddie Collins looking "positively dude-ish," and Babe Ruth trailing a kindle of kids as he made his way down Main Street.

Rich with anecdotes and explorations of the byways of baseball history, A Great Day in Cooperstown seems a sure bet to please any baseball fan who savors the history of the game. Giants truly walked the earth of Cooperstown that magical day in 1939.

--Reed S. Browning, Roy T. Wortman Distinguished Professor of History

Ecology of Being

By Peter White '66
All In All Books

One reader has compared Ecology of Being to Joseph Campbell's works, and it's easy to see why. This holistic study of how we as humans can "go beyond ourselves" delves into Buddhism, the ideas of psychoanalyst and concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl, and the author's own search for meaning.

"My joy in life is in helping people blossom," White once said in an interview with the Chronicle of Philanthropy. White was referring to his distinctive approach as an advisor/consultant to wealthy families. Rather than focus on money per se, White helped guide his clients to ponder greater human issues--commitment, beauty, relationships, meaning.

White's own career may be seen as a kind of blossoming. He started out as a hard-charging Washington lawyer, who attracted headlines for his work with the Congressional investigation into the Koreagate scandal. With time, however, he found himself drawn increasingly to the challenge of "finding meaning amid materialism," as the Chronicle story put it. White, who is now the vice chairman of U.S. Trust, one of the nation's leading wealth-management companies, finds meaning in part through service. For example, he currently serves on the board of trustees of the Kenyon Review.

Ecology of Being reflects the wisdom gleaned from this wide-ranging experience. Seeker, ponderer, observer of the self, White has written a penetrating book that describes a path toward truth, nonviolence, solitude, and service.


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