Introduction to Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1890) by Stephen Crane


 “A man is born into this world with his own pair of eyes, and he is not responsible for his vision- he is merely responsible for his quality of personal honesty. To keep close to honesty is my supreme ambition.”


Stephen Crane, like writers Frank Norris, Theodore Dreiser, Jack London, and Upton Sinclair, was an early proponent of Naturalism, a  literary movement of the 1890’s which depicted the masses of poor in our booming cities in a new way. Many of these writers had cut their teeth writing at the metropolitan desks of the big urban news dailies in New York or Chicago, churning out sensational copy about crime in the lower depths: stories of murder and depravity, heavy also on melodramatic tales of ‘roses of the gutter’, fragile young women cast overboard into the frenetic whirlpool of big city life. The urban jungle reflected the late 19th century’s fascination with a post-Darwinian vision of a universe shorn of any divine plan, not immoral but amoral. Their critique of liberalism and middle class values is typical of the Modernist revolt in art. The stories, sketches, and novels of the Naturalist writers were intended to stir the middle class reading public to agitate for reform, but they also exploited a growing interest in ‘pulp fiction’.

The literary movement of Naturalism had originated in Paris with the novels and social criticism of Emile Zola. In his influential novel Germinal (1885), about a coal mining strike in Northern France, Zola depicted urban dwellers living at terrible extremes of 'nerve and blood'. Zola’s work exemplified the philosophy of hard determinism which regards humans as mere cogs in a social mechanism that produces results with the certainty of a mathematical formula. There is no room for free will or personal responsibility in such a philosophy.

Liberal realists have a different understanding of the causes of poverty. Their judgment of the poor acknowledges the difficult challenges posed by the unhealthy environment of the urban slums but insists upon the individual’s freedom of choice. The poor are capable of exercising independent action and therefore are responsible for their behavior.   

Naturalists based their theories upon radical political ideologies of class, the pseudo-science of eugenics, and the psychology of the unconscious. They argued that the poor had been overwhelmed by the structural forces of capitalism. The 1890's was the hey-day of Social Darwinism, that bastard child of evolutionary theory which insisted that some races (rather than species) were marked for extinction in the battle for survival of the fittest. Naturalism’s theorists also took notice of Freudian psychology which argued that the trauma inflicted in early childhood can leave the poor subject damaged. Naturalists portrayed the city as an urban jungle where the poor waged a fierce struggle for survival in a contest determined by unchangeable facts of life.

Stephen Crane:

In 1890 Stephen Crane had just dropped out of college to pursue a literary career in New York City. When he wrote Maggie, he was working for an urban daily on the metropolitan beat. There he met other ambitious writers, painters, and sages who had been influenced by the newest, most radical ideas current in this early phase of Modernism. Crane was sent out on to the streets to sketch the gaudy cityscape in muckraking human-interest pieces. His stories sold well and earned him a name in the newspaper business. Crane was familiar with Jacob Riis’ expose of the lower depths and imitated Riis' supercharged photographic realism in his early sketches.


These exposes of the sordid life of the poor shocked and challenged middle class readers. Genteel fiction had refused to descend to the level of the poor and allow readers to empathize with their experience. Middle class readers used moral values not just to pass judgment on the poor but also to keep them at a distance from their comfortable lives. Crane’s fiction challenges this genteel middle class morality. For him, slum life revealed the flat indifference of the universe in stark, fierce forms.

Crane's Style 

Crane reveals Maggie’s world in striking, dynamic prose. His evocation of the riotous sensibility of the poor is pitched at an extreme psychological intensity. Self-esteem shredded, exhausted by the daily struggle for food and shelter, plagued by resentment, depression and anger, seeking release in alcohol, violence and sex, Crane’s characters shout, bellow, roar, wail, drink and brawl. Crane’s language is full of striking metaphors, screaming diction and hyper-active prose. Its grotesque, frequently hilarious exaggerations reveal the psychological reality of poverty. In the followiing passage a tenement building 'quivered and creaked from the weight of humanity stamping about in its bowels.'

Eventually they entered into a dark region where, from a careening building, a dozen gruesome doorways gave up loads of babies to the street and the gutter. A wind of early autumn raised yellow dust from cobbles and swirled it against an hundred windows. Long streamers of garments fluttered from fire-escapes. In all unhandy places there were buckets, brooms, rags and bottles. In the street infants played or fought with other infants or sat stupidly in the way of vehicles. Formidable women, with uncombed hair and disordered dress, gossiped while leaning on railings, or screamed in frantic quarrels. Withered persons, in curious postures of submission to something, sat smoking pipes in obscure corners. A thousand odors of cooking food came forth to the street. The building quivered and creaked from the weight of humanity stamping about in its bowels. (Maggie (1892)


And who are we to judge? How would we behave in the same situation? When the safety net is withdrawn and the most basic necessities of life go un-met, civility and propriety might quickly evaporate.


The plot of Maggie is the most hackneyed in sentimental melodrama. Melodrma were the most popular theatrical entertainments of the era. They are typically full of action,effects (trains, guns, ropes) and extravagant  histrionics. An innocent slum girl suffers betrayal at the hands of those she loves most and then descends quickly into alcoholism, prostitution, and worse. Maggie must overcome the momentum of the melodramatic action. 


Can Maggie overcome ignorance, self-delusion, and her own naïve innocence to achieve consciousness of the reality of her situation. Only then will she have a chance. Only then can we judge her fairly. Can Maggie grasp her situation? Where do her dreams come from? What other options exist for her? Perhaps it is Maggie's shame which blocks her path out of poverty. Should middle class judgements even apply her case? 

Crane said, “… the root of Bowery life is a sort of cowardice- Perhaps I mean a lack of ambition or the willingness to be knocked flat and accept the licking…” 

What do you think he meant?