Explore literary impressionism in Stephen Crane’s classic
Need a new angle for teaching The Red Badge of Courage? This spring I taught the Civil War classic for the second time. And while I wanted to incorporate the changes I discussed in My first attempt at teaching The Red Badge of Courage, things were definitely different this year.
Like no kidding, right?!
Besides the obvious differences — COVID-19, remote learning, etcetera — my students in my novels class this year shared a totally different mindset. Last year, the majority of the students in my class were non-readers with a major case of senioritis. Their primary goal: just to pass the class, get the credit, and graduate.
However, this year, it was totally different. The majority of the students in the class were proficient readers and writers. Yes, they also suffered from senioritis, but they were intent on finishing strong in their final semester. So because I knew I could trust them to work hard and take the project seriously, I knew I wanted to try something new and creative.
It’s a good feeling when you know you’re working with students who are willing to experiment with a new approach to a novel. #creativeteacherTweet
And I did have a new approach that I wanted to experiment with using The Red Badge of Courage and here it is: I wanted to introduce my students to literary impressionism by helping them notice Crane’s use of color and by creating a collaborative visual representation of the novel.
And why would I want to do this, you ask? What would be the educational goal? There are several:
- To enable students to make cross-curricular connections among fine arts, history, and English Language Arts. We build relevance for the texts we read when we know their effects have impact and importance outside the English classroom.
- To avoid yet another traditional literary analysis essay. Students write at least one analysis essay (both high stakes and low-stakes) every two to four weeks in my classes, plus others throughout the year. That’s plenty.
- To help students notice the literary moves an author makes in order to convey meaning.
- To introduce seniors to something new. Students are more engaged when they encounter an idea they haven’t considered before. (Sounds a little obvious, right? But I really think many students have heard about things like tone, characterization, and plot so many times by their junior and senior years, that they largely just zone out and disengage. Literary impressionism should be a new topic.)
Creating a visual representation of the colors used in a novel sounds like an attainable goal, right? Well, let’s just say — like so many areas of the most unpredictable school year ever — I’m not totally happy with the results of the project. (For a quick reflection of what I would do differently next time, look for the bulleted list at the bottom of this post.)
I am happy to report, however, that the results of our colorful literary impressionism project did mirror the assessment made by a scholar on the subject, but more on that later.
Some background to start
Stephen Crane was a big fan of color, including how it could be used in a story for various effects. Even some popular Crane titles show his interest in transferring color onto the written page. Think of not only The Red Badge of Courage, but also The Blue Hotel and The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky. He was also influenced by certain techniques of painting. In fact, he adopted the methods of well-known French impressionists into his writings.
Without further ado, let’s start at the end. Here’s a look at the final product: the visual representation of The Red Badge of Courage.
The assignment in detail
After reading the book independently over the course of three weeks, answering some text-based questions, and discussing it briefly as a class, I first showed students an example composition I made at home in my kitchen. I figured before I assigned this project to students, I should try it myself.
Here’s a photo of my “trial run” with the sticky note that tallied the colors used in the chapters I chose. (I ended making another one at school alongside the students at school.)
I then asked students to choose two consecutive chapters and make a list of all the color words they encountered. They could do this on a sheet of paper or a sticky note (as I did in the photo above), just so they could keep track of the words.
The rest of the directions were given to students on a handout that I also uploaded as a Google Doc on Google Classroom. For a free PDF of this sheet, click below.
In brief, I asked each student to analyze two consecutive chapters of the novel to notice the colors used and then create a collage to reflect those colors. Then, using their lists, I asked students to create a collage, approximating the same proportion that they occurred within the two chapters of their text.
In other words, if they had six mentions of black, two of red, two of orange, three blues and one gray, obviously black would dominate. In fact, there would be three times the amount of black as there would be each of red and orange, twice as much black as blue, and six times as much black as gray.
It was a rather loosely prescribed process and I allowed students to use whatever they wanted for their materials. They could use markers, colored pencils, magazine cut-outs, or crayons. I had even purchased some acrylic paint available, but no one used it. Students also had free reign for how they wanted to arrange their compositions.
I supplied each student with a 11″ x 14″ canvas-covered board on which to work. I also had glue sticks and liquid glue for them to use.
This was key:
I told the students that since this was a first-time project and one that I had never known to be done before, I was totally open to their ideas and suggestions for how to proceed. I also told them were few rules other than those outlined on the sparse assignment.
When arranged on the bulletin board, each student’s collage was a loose representation of the colors in their two chapters. I also asked students to include brief passages of text to support the tone of each chapter. Their text passages did not have to include color words; I left the choosing of their text passage up to them.
And then I let them work. And work they did.
This collaborative collage project illustrates how Crane author utilized color in a very conscious way to add meaning to his novel. I think that’s a worthwhile concept to show to students and it did require some extra time to explore on my own before presenting the assignment to my class. (And obviously, I’m no expert on literary impressionism or Stephen Crane. I’m learning, too!)
How I prepared for this project
If you do a little reading up on Crane, you find out quite a bit about his purpose and approach to the novel using literary impressionism. This handout printed from A Handbook to Literature outlines some basics about literary impressionism. Download this sheet here.
There’s a bits-and-pieces feel to The Red Badge of Courage. Students feel it as they read vivid and brief accounts and descriptions of battles, fallen soldiers, and misunderstood orders. Those bits and pieces are part of Crane’s literary impressionism.
It can be said that Crane used color to demonstrate a detachment from Fleming’s civilian life, his family, and even his personal worth that the soldiers felt as he entered the new world of soldiering. One way these detachments can be seen is in the seeming indifference that the natural world holds for man. I feel that Crane revealed this indifference to heighten the fear and apprehension that permeates the story as Fleming continually doubts his capacity for courage.
Scholars have noted this separation between nature and man in the novel as well. “(Crane) uses devices of flatness of his own (literary devices)… to express the human subject has no more significance or import than the nonhuman subject,” writes Iris Ralph in “Stephen Crane and the Green Place of Paint.” It’s that kind of detachment that adds to the fear Fleming feels as he begins his journey as a soldier.
Note: Citations for articles appear at the end of this post.
This idea of flatness, of independent planes of color, is central to impressionistic painting; subsequently, it paved the way for Cubism. Below is an example by the neo-impressionist painter Georges Seurat that you may be familiar with. Seurat used “pointillism” (small dots) to show this concept. At left is the entire picture, “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte.” At right is a detail that shows the dots that together create the impression of the image.
One scholar sees a direct connection between pointillism and Crane. In a journal article “Stephen Crane and Impressionism,” Rodney O. Rogers writes:
To further prepare for this project, I located the following online articles to learn more about literary impressionism and Stephen Crane.
Another article below, “The Color of War: A Computer Analysis of Color in The Red Badge of Courage” by William E. Newmiller, builds on Wogan’s article. However, by using up-to-date software programs, Newmiller was able to assess in greater detail Crane’s use of color words throughout the novel. Where Wogan noted a mere eleven uses of the color white, for example, Newmiller was able to include additional words that conveyed whiteness, such as whiter, whitest, whitish. Being able to account for these variations of the word white allowed Newmiller to get a broader picture of Crane’s color use in The Red Badge of Courage.
In this article, Newmiller makes some interesting points about color symbolism that have the potential to get students thinking about the irony present in the story. For example, “The heavy use of red early in the book and culminating in chapter 13 — the “reddest” chapter in the book — sets off the central irony upon which the book hinges: that Henry’s red badge represents courage only to those who don’t know the true nature of the wound.” Some students detected this irony on their own and we briefly discussed it, but if my scheduling had been better, we would have been able to process it (and other color associations) more deeply. Unexpected uses of gray and yellow in the book also sparked some comments, as well as black, which exerts the strongest presence in chapters 15-16.
Besides articles, I also watched several videos and settled on this one as being one to use in class the day I passed out the directions sheet. This video was a good one to better familiarize my students with impressionism.
Was this project successful? Hmmm.
While it’s debatable whether we totally hit the mark on this project, overall I think my students’ work accurately reflects Crane’s use of color in the novel. For example, in his journal article, Newmiller writes, “The resulting color map shows a fairly even use of color words throughout the book, but slightly more color words appear in the second half than in the first half. Interestingly, the last tenth of the book contains 16.9 percent of the color words, suggesting that color grows in importance as the novel reaches its conclusion.” My students’ color compositions, when viewed as a whole on the bulletin board, sufficiently captured Newmiller’s observation. As one’s eye proceeds across and down the board, colors grow in vibrancy and darkness as Henry Fleming’s tour of duty reaches its climax.
I think this was a good first attempt at teaching color symbolism and literary impressionism. I’m not sure if I’ll have a whole class read of the novel again next year. I may offer a lit circle option instead.
Regardless, noticing and reflecting on color and literary impressionism provides a great way to provide reading purpose. When students read, consciously keeping an eye out for colors and how those colors influence or reflect the story, their reading is more intentional.
Close-up photos of some of the compositions follow below:
Things I’ll change for next time
Reflecting helps me to clarify my practice. Here’s what I plan to do differently the next time I approach this project.
- Utilize the William Newmiller article more. Perhaps have students reflect on Newmiller’s ideas as they pertain to their two chapters.
- Spend more time talking about color symbolism and how those expected symbols (red for courage, black for death) were either supported or refuted by Crane.
- Collaborate with the art teacher to make more cross-curricular connections. This project could coincide with an art unit on color or collage.
- Ask that text passages blend in with the composition and allow no more than two quotations, so they don’t overpower the color composition.
- Allow more reflection after the project with students. A written reflection could serve as a final assessment.
- Suggest that students not use recognizable objects as colors. For example, don’t cut out red lips from a magazine when you need the color red. Just find a solid red shape. The lips convey too much meaning and are distracting.
- This is definitely a project to do early in the semester when Christmas break or summer break isn’t right around the corner. Tackle this unit early in the semester.
Overall, I’m happy with how this project turned out. While I know I missed the mark in a few areas, I think students learned more about literary impressionism and how writers use color to convey meaning. I also think they gained a greater understanding of how visual art can influence other realms of knowledge.
In addition, I think this project could translate to other books. (Great Gatsby, anyone?!) After all, there are many ways you can approach and analyze any novel. Creating a visual representation like this one is just one of them.
Newmiller, William E. “The Color of War: A Computer Analysis of Color in The Red Badge of Courage.” “Stephen Crane in War and Peace,” a special issue of War, Literature, and the Arts: An International Journal of the Humanities (1999):141-46.
Ralph, Iris. “Stephen Crane and the Green Place of Paint.” Concentric: Literary and Cultural Studies, vol. 37, no. 1, March 2011, pp. 201-230.
Rogers, Rodney O. “Stephen Crane and Impressionism.” Nineteenth-Century Fiction, vol. 24, no. 3, 1969, pp. 292–304. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2932859. Accessed 12 July 2021.
Wogan, Claudia C. “Crane’s Use of Color in ‘THE RED BADGE OF COURAGE.’” Modern Fiction Studies, vol. 6, no. 2, 1960, pp. 168–172. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/26277201. Accessed 12 July 2021.
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I’ll be taking a break here and there from my weekly posting during the the month of July.
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Thanks for reading!
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