In his masterful novel The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane traced the effects of war on a single Union soldier, Henry Fleming, from his dreams of soldiering, to his actual enlistment, and through several battles of the all too uncivil War between the States. Unhappy with his dull, quiet, and boring life at home on the farm, Fleming yearns to somehow earn glory and renown for his heroic achievements in battle.
After he enlists however, he discovers that a soldier’s life consists of two parts futility, one part confusion, and one part terror. Set at the battle of Chancellorsville–though it actually remains unnamed in the story–the young idealistic soldier is forced by the dumb certainties of experience to become a hardened realistic veteran. And in the process, he comes to the difficult realization that boring is actually a virtue not a vice.
The reality is that boring is what most people are actually yearning for–they just don’t know it. Boring is having time for the things that matter the most; no tyranny of the urgent, no unbidden tasks, and no unexpected tasks to accomplish–it is the ideal adventure. People go halfway around the world to find a secluded beach or a remote cabin or a mountain chalet, just so they can do nothing but be with their family or read a book or create their art in peace. It is dull people who have to be stimulated constantly. For them, something has always got to be going on.
Most modern men and women are addicted to the razzle-dazzle. We want wow. And we want it now. Our whole culture, from popular entertainment to corporate management, is predicated on the idea that our lives ought to be defined by a frenetic go-go-go sense of busyness. There is no time to reflect. No time to think. No time to do anything at all except be busy. So, moms are harried taxi drivers. Dads work 60 hour weeks–and then bring more work home with them.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Somehow, Stephen Crane realized a little over century ago what we are still struggling to come to terms with. He realized it too late to wrench his life away from the precipitous decline of debauchery–though his novel remains a morality tale, a steadfast warning for us. He sold an abridged version of The Red Badge of Courage to the Bachellor-Johnson Syndicate for ninety-dollars on this day in 1894, and it first appeared in the Philadelphia Press about a month later.
Within five years of his greatest achievement, Crane was dead. Suffering from several tuberculosis attacks and a general physical collapse due to his heavy drinking and dissolute lifestyle, Crane was just twenty-eight years old. In his journal he had scratched out a few final words just a day before. Though it was destroyed along with all the rest of his effects, an orderly at the sanitarium reported his last desperate cry, “Oh, to find rest, sweet repose. Why must we grind out our lives in search of vain glories when all that is wanted is home?”