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

Stephen Crane, along with writers like Frank Norris, Theodore Dreiser, and Jack London, were American proponents of Naturalism, a ground breaking literary movement of the 1890’s which sought to depict in a new way the masses of poor in our booming cities. Many of these writers had cut their teeth writing for the big urban news dailies, churning out sensational copy about the lurid crimes committed in the lower depths: stories of murder, depravity, and decadence, also heavy on melodramatic tales of ‘roses of the gutter’, fragile young women cast overboard and into the frenetic whirlpool of big city life. Through the lens of Naturalism, poor neighborhoods burst with violent, barbaric, and lustful behavior. The urban jungle reflected the late 19th century’s post-Darwinian vision of a universe shorn of any divine plan, not immoral but amoral. This intellectual response was part of the widespread reaction against liberalism and middle class values that typifies 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 (and they also sold like hotcakes!)

The literary movement of Naturalism had originated in Paris with the novels and social criticism of Emile Zola. In his influential novel Germinal (1885),  Zola depicted the poor as hapless victims deprived of free will and trapped in a permanent underclass by socio-economic and psychological forces beyond their understanding. Zola represented the lives of urban dwellers as lived at terrible extremes of 'nerve and blood'. Zola’s work exemplified the philosophy of hard determinism that 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 writers in this time period had 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 are therefore responsible for their behavior.

Naturalists based their theories upon radical politics 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 (which produce huge profits for the few and certain misery for losers in the market wars). In the 1890’s the poor were also believed to have been victimized by inferior hereditary traits. This was the hey-day of Social Darwinism, that bastard child of evolutionary theory that insisted that some races were marked for extinction in the battle for survival of the fittest. Naturalism’s theorists were also influenced by recent Freudian psychology which argued that the damage done in early childhood left the poor subject to uncontrollable instinctive compulsions. Naturalists portrayed the city as an urban jungle where the poor waged a fierce struggle for survival, a contest determined by amoral, unchangeable facts of life.

In 1890 Stephen Crane was a young writer who 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 many 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 How the Other Half Lives 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 realism had refused to descend to the level of the poor and allow readers to empathize with their experience. Middle class readers had 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 and ridicules this genteel middle class morality. For him, slum life revealed the flat indifference of the universe in stark, fierce forms. Still, in his fiction, Crane carefully maintains a tiny corner of free will in which his characters can act morally while struggling with their extreme predicaments. Perhaps simply for reasons of narrative suspense, Crane flirts with soft-determinism. He demands moral responsibility from his characters, and the dramatic action of his stories hinge on their choices. Will Maggie have the strength of will and the clarity of thought to see her situation in a new way?

Crane wrote, “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.”

For Maggie to survive the powerful social and psychological forces that condemn her to a fate of poverty and moral degradation, she must recognize who and where she is. The primary obstacle to her goal is shame. Maggie must shake off the demeaning, middle class judgments of her and other poor people like her. Not only is she victimized unfairly by these judgments, but she agrees with them. Her self-esteem, and the self-esteem of her neighbors, is measured in middle class terms.

The plot of Maggie is the most hackneyed in sentimental melodrama. In it the innocent slum girl suffers betrayal at the hands of those she loves most and then descends quickly into alcoholism, prostitution, and worse. The sequence of events in Maggie’s life is pre-determined by the very genre of melodrama. The action of the novel, though, focuses on whether she can 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.

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

Maggie may be responsible for her fate despite the pervasive, powerful social verdict that drags her down into shame and self-loathing. Crane insists that the most dangerous foe that she faces is not her monstrous mother, not her sneering brother, nor her preening, utterly self-absorbed boy friend. Maggie’s enemies are her own deluded, romantic notions of life that are so easily knocked aside. She looks at people through the blurred lens of middle class fantasy and the mist of genteel sentiment.

Unless she changes, Maggie will be deceived. She will be devastated by betrayal, her fragile self-esteem will evaporate, and she will slide towards oblivion. That’s the way such sentimental, commercial dreck is written! Maggie’s only hope is to escape the very conventions of the popular fiction in which she has been conceived. How is that possible? If only she could see the ridiculous disparity between her thoughts and the lurid reality of her life. If only she could see her life the way Crane’s narrator does, then maybe she could laugh, get angry, and find the will to change. Well, maybe she can’t accomplish this feat, but the reader can.

Crane reveals Maggie’s world in striking, dynamic prose. His vision of the city is hyper-real; it is pitched to an extreme. He sets scenes at the limits of psychological intensity; he is not merely indulging a love of language. Through this monstrous lens he seeks to capture the riotous sensibility of the poor. Self-esteem shredded, exhausted by the daily struggle for food and shelter, plagued by resentment, depression and anger, seeking release in drugs, 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, hilarious exaggerations reveal the psychological reality of poverty.

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