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
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
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.
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.