It takes a certain amount of intestinal fortitude to decide to write a sequel to arguably one of the most heralded novels in American literature. Especially when you’re not the original author.
Yet Montgomery County Community College English Senior Lecturer Donald Yost has risen to the challenge with his newly published novel, “Henry: A Sequel to Stephen Crane's ‘The Red Badge of Courage,’” which chronicles the life of the title character following the events of the 1894 classic war novel.
The 76-year-old said he had two reasons to take on the herculean effort.
“[Crane’s] book wasn’t finished,” he argued. “He didn’t finish his story. Secondly, his book is still unique. It’s about the Civil War. Many books about the Civil War are still talking about generals and battles, not about a coming of age. This is a coming of age book. My market is college students and Henry is 16 or 17 years old. I can’t find any other books about it than ‘The Red Badge of Courage.’”
In the last few paragraphs of Crane's novel, his protagonist, the young Henry Fleming, struggles with the aftermath of his experiences as a soldier in the Civil War. He is tormented by his guilt from having abandoned the tattered soldiers during the Battle of Chancellorsville and by the death of his best friend, Jim Conklin.
Scholars have questioned Crane's implications here. Has Henry truly become 'a man' because of the trauma he has experienced? Is war a coming-of-age? How has Henry been changed by his experiences? How was he able to adjust to civilian life? What was the impact on Henry's family? What did he learn from the experiences? Crane's novel, therefore, leaves many questions unanswered.
“Henry: A Sequel to 'The Red Badge of Courage” answers these questions. Moreover, it is the story of Henry Fleming's spiritual journey of personal growth from trauma, guilt, and alienation to redemption. The book is a deeply moving narrative that examines the strength and resilience of war veterans. It contains a comprehensive depiction of the psychological trauma caused by a life and death situation.
In Yost’s story, Henry is wounded in the Battle of Gettysburg. After the war, he inherits a winery and becomes mayor of Chatfield Corner in Upstate New York. He learns to live with his war injury as he overcomes his demons from the war.
Yost, who has taught at MCCC for 12 years, does not teach ‘The Red Badge of Courage’ in his courses and said he will not assign ‘Henry’ either. He feels it would be unprofessional for him to require his students to purchase his book. That said, he would appreciate if they read it anyway and thinks they might get something out of it.
“Its protagonist is approximately the same age as my students,” he said. “I would certainly like my students to read the book, because I think it offers lessons for their generation.”
In writing the book, Yost said he felt uniquely suited to attempt to describe what Crane’s protagonist’s life would be like following the war, as he lived a life that was very similar. Yost was a combat infantryman and war correspondent with the U.S. Army’s America l Division, 11th Infantry Brigade in the Vietnam War in the area around MyLai from 1968-1969. He is a Purple Heart and Combat Infantryman’s Badge recipient.
His previous memoir, “Blessings: Transforming My Vietnam Experience” deals with the PTSD he experienced long after the war ended and how he’s healed from that experience.
“If you give yourself respect,” he said, “you figure out what happened to you and realize everybody suffers through things like this. Because of my experience, I was able to go back and have Henry suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, alienation, rage, and guilt and turn it around to learn a lesson of empathy.”
When deciding to tackle a sequel to a novel he didn’t write originally, let alone a classic piece of American literature, and perennial favorite among lists of greatest war novels of all time, Yost knew he could draw upon his own experience as a soldier to answer many of Crane’s unanswered questions.
Further, he had a roadmap to help him take the character to where Crane wanted him to go. A year after publishing “The Red Badge of Courage,” Crane, then 25 years old, wrote a short sequel story to his masterpiece, titled “The Veteran,” which follows Henry Fleming in his twilight years.
“In ‘The Veteran’ old Henry sits in an old shop on a stool with children gathered at his feet as he tells the story of his life in the war,” said Yost. “His grandson is mortified to discover his grandfather, who was on a pedestal, ran away during battle. And the story ends as Henry goes into a barn fire and dies trying to save animals.”
The gap in time between the end of time between Henry leaving the war, and living as an old man is where Yost’s novel takes place. Readers won’t have to have read the original novel to understand what’s going on. Yost said he has a kinship with Crane and felt he could do his work justice.
“Crane died when he was 26 years old. He was a Jersey boy like me. I pick up to tell the rest of his story,” said Yost. “I don’t write in the same style. Mine’s more modern, more conversational. There’s more dialogue. I develop Henry’s mother. It’s definitely fiction but I did a lot of research on the facts of the war.”
Yost holds a bachelor’s degree in English Composition from Seton Hall University, and his master’s degree in English Literature and Publishing from Rosemont College. He is founding president of Chapter #349 of the Vietnam Veterans of America veteran’s organization, and has conducted support groups for Vietnam Veterans dealing with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
“Henry: A Sequel to Stephen Crane's “The Red Badge of Courage”” is available in bookstores everywhere, or online in the Apple iTunes store, Amazon or Barnes and Noble.