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.