Thursday, March 05, 2009

Notes on Stephen Crane and Modernism

I read some of Stephen Crane's fiction recently (I won't deny that an impetus for this reading was Gabriel Josipovici's enthusiastic mention of Crane in last year's Ready Steady Book year-end symposium, though I'd been meaning to at least re-read "The Open Boat" for some time). Looking at the biographical sketch in the front of the book, I was struck by the fact that Crane was born November 1, 1871. That is, four months after Marcel Proust (born July 10, 1871).

Younger than Proust! In my mind, where Proust feels present, his concerns relevant, Crane has always seemed locked in the dusty past--not only were some of his writings required reading in grade school, but the subject of his most famous novel, The Red Badge of Courage, is the Civil War. His association with this war is so complete, I think, that it has only served to reinforce the sense I had of him belonging to a much earlier period than he does. In truth, of course, Crane's realism was innovative in its time, and I can see now that it stands as a precursor to the writing of some of the historical Modernists, Hemingway in particular. Actually, I'd always had Crane slotted in as an influence on Hemingway, who I've never been able to read. Neither of which did much to change my flawed view of Crane's own writing (yet I'd had fond memories of reading "The Open Boat"--it's a mystery). I knew that Crane had died very young, of tuberculosis, not yet 29. But whereas he wrote and published a lot in the 1890s--journalism, stories, novels--Proust struggled with his literary direction.

It occurs to me, now, thinking of Crane as an influence on Hemingway and perhaps other Modernists, to wonder if this might help us draw a distinction between conceptions of Modernism, a topic which has come up again here recently, and elsewhere. Crane's writing can be posited, from one point of view, as a set of advances for realism as a technique. I've already used the word "precursor" above, the kind of language I generally try to avoid in these matters: the notion of literary progress comes into play here, a notion I don't have much use for. The association of Modernism necessarily with a particular set of aesthetic advancements is of little interest to me. For me, the question is not about a particular aesthetic, but rather about whether the writer is attending to the problem at hand, solving the problems presented by writing--by writing in the particular instance, and by writing in general.


zunguzungu said...

Modernists were always so obsessed with differentiating themselves from their predecessors that it's sometimes hard not to take them at their word. But I think there's a naturalistic core at the heart of an awful lot of "modernism" (Ulysses, for example) and people like Crane (whose take on the civil war is as much a deconstruction of myth-making as it is a realistic portrayal of anything) are a central part of that lineage, I think. "Maggie of the Streets" and "An American Tragedy" might not have the formal innovations we've come to associate with high modernism, but an awful lot of stuff from the later period was not formally innovative anyway; Erskine Caldwell and Faulkner were contemporaries and had a great deal in common, and I think the thing that made Caldwell not a naturalist (if we want to make that distinction) was the kind of ironic distance from his subject he shared with someone like Crane, if not with humorless tragedians like Norris and Dreiser. But as you point out, using temporal markers to adjudicate the differences between those periods falls apart if you look at it too closely; formal characteristics simply overlap too much. That's why I have a lot of sympathy with the "long modernism" narratives of people like Marshall Berman that begin the period in the mid nineteenth century, or as early as Goethe.

dan visel said...

Richard, have you read by chance Edmund White's Hotel de Dream, from last year or the year before? He reimagines the end of Stephen Crane's life & makes Crane seem like a much more interesting writer than I remembered him as being. I heard him talk about his interest in Crane a couple of times & he made it sound like his appreciation of Crane had been much like yours until he started digging deeper - you might look around and see if there are recordings of him speaking about Crane in the past year? The novel's also worthwhile . . .

Richard said...

Thanks for the comments, gentlemen.

Aaron, I'm glad you mentioned Berman. I appreciated your comments at your blog about him and Modernism. As you do, I have some problems with some of his assumptions. A topic to return to.

In addition, I'd like mention again that I think the common association of Modernism with formal innovation above all else is an unhelpful distraction.

Dan, no, I have neither read nor heard of White's book. Thanks for the head's up. Probably not something I'll pursue, though recordings of him talking about Crane might be of interest.