Maggie: A Girl of the Streets
Stephen Crane's Maggie: A Girl of the Streets was first published at his own expense in 1893. Literary critic William Dean Howells was so impressed with the novel that he helped get it published by D. Appleton and Company in 1896. Maggie came to be regarded as one of Crane's finest and most eloquent statements on environmental determinism.
The story centers on Maggie Johnson, a pretty young woman who struggles to survive the brutal environment of the Bowery, a New York City slum, at the end of the nineteenth century. Abused by an alcoholic mother and victimized by the over-whelming poverty of the slums, Maggie falls in love with a charming bartender, who, she tells herself, will help her escape her harsh life. Maggie's relationship with Pete compounds her suffering, however, when her family and her neighbors condemn her. Eventually abandoned by her lover, as well as her family, Maggie is forced to make a living on the cruel city streets. Crane's unblinking depiction of the devastating environmental forces that ultimately destroy this young, hopeful woman was celebrated as one of the most important documents of American Naturalism.
Stephen Crane was born on November 1, 1871, in Newark, New Jersey, the last of fourteen children to Jonathan and Mary. His father was a Methodist
minister and his mother was an active member of the church and reform work, including the temperance movement. Crane's upbringing in this religious household profoundly influenced his own worldview, which he eloquently expressed in his works. James B. Colvert, in his article for the Dictionary of Literary Biography, notes that Crane's poetry especially reflects "the anguish of a spiritual crisis in which he attempted to exorcise the Pecks' God of wrath and, beyond that, to test his faith in general against the moral realities" of the 1890s, which he recorded during his years as a reporter. His religious questioning was a primary subject in much of his fiction.
Crane began his career as a newspaper reporter after his father died and the family moved to As-bury Park, New Jersey, where his brother Townley ran a news agency for the New York Tribune. Townley and another brother, Will, encouraged Crane to rebel against his strict, religious upbringing and helped him develop a secular worldview, which was reinforced during his years at Lafayette College and Syracuse University. During his college years, Crane continued to write newspaper articles and began writing fiction.
After leaving college without obtaining a degree, Crane moved to New York City where he continued his work as a newspaper reporter. When he was twenty-two, he wrote under the pseudonym Johnston Smith and published at his own expense, his first novel, Maggie. He did not, however, gain fame until the publication of his second novel, Red Badge of Courage, which was heralded internationally as one of the finest war novels ever written.
During this time, Crane continued to work as a reporter in the west and in Mexico. In the late 1890s, he moved with Cora Taylor, a hotel/brothel proprietor, to England where he met Joseph Conrad, H. G. Wells, and Henry James. He continued writing fiction there and worked occasionally as a reporter, since his later novels were not well received. His travels, however, caused his health to deteriorate. Crane died of tuberculosis in 1900 when he was twenty-eight. In his short lifetime, he had produced a remarkable volume of work, including numerous newspaper articles, six novels, more than a hundred stories and sketches, and two books of poems.
The novel opens with young Jimmie in the midst of a street fight "for the honor of Rum Alley," a tenement street in New York City at the end of the nineteenth century. Jimmie is caught up in the "fury of battle" as he is continually assaulted by a gang of children from nearby Devil's Row. He alone defends his street after his compatriots have run off. Some workmen watch the bruised and bloody-faced boy with mild interest and no intervention until a sixteen-year-old boy named Pete approaches and, after recognizing Jimmie, pulls the assailants off of him. When Jimmie's friends return, the child upbraids them for leaving him to fend for himself until he gets into a fight with one of them. Jimmie's father soon arrives and breaks up the fight by kicking his son and his combatant. The battered boy then sullenly follows his father home. On the way, they meet his younger brother Tommie and his sister Maggie. When she complains that his fighting angers their mother, Jimmie slaps her.
At home, their drunken mother explodes in anger after seeing Jimmie's bruises and begins to inflict some of her own on the boy. When Mr. Johnson complains that she beats the children too often, she turns on him, and they engage in a fierce quarrel that ends with his departure to the local pub. During this brutal scene, the children cower in thePage 104 | Top of Article corner. Mrs. Johnson flies into a new rage after Maggie accidentally breaks a dish and Jimmie escapes to the hallway, where an elderly female resident joins him, listening to the shrieks emanating from the Johnson's apartment.
The old woman asks Jimmie to slip down to the pub and buy her some beer. After completing his mission, his father spots him and steals the beer from him, drinking in down in one gulp. When Jimmie returns to the apartment later that night, he discovers that his parents are engaged in a new fight, and so he waits in the hallway until the noise dies down. After returning home to find his parents passed out on the floor, Jimmie and Maggie sit in fear, watching their mother's prostrate body until dawn.
Some years later, Tommie has died and Jimmie has grown into a hardened young man who has "clad his soul in armor." He takes a job as a truck driver, which gives him a measure of pride, and gains a reputation as a troublemaker with the police. Jimmie easily lives up to that estimation, determining "never to move out of the way of anything, until formidable circumstances, or a much larger man than himself forced him to it." After his father dies, he becomes the head of the household.
Maggie "blossomed in a mud puddle" into a rare sight in the tenements—a pretty girl. She gains employment at a shop where she makes collars and cuffs along with several other young women of "various shades of yellow discontent." The "eternally swollen and disheveled" Mrs. Johnson has become famous in the neighborhood, especially at the police station and the courts, where she offers a continual stream of excuses and prayers for her troubles.
One day Jimmie brings Pete home, and Maggie is immediately impressed by his dress and his confident air, as he gestures like "a man of the world." She is an attentive audience for his tales of valor in his position as bartender, which involves dealing forcibly with anyone who disrupts his bar, and soon determines that he is "the ideal man." She admires his elegance and the way he defies the hardships of tenement life. Pete also takes notice of Maggie, declaring eventually to her, "I'm stuck on yer shape." The two begin to go out on dates.
On their first evening out, Maggie is embarrassed by her mother's drunken state and the disheveled apartment that her mother has wrecked in one of her tirades that afternoon. Maggie has only a shabby black dress to wear and is "afraid she might appear small and mouse-colored" in contrast to Pete and his crowd, which she is certain will be quite elegant.
Pete takes Maggie to a vaudeville show, where he displays a confident indifference to all. His attitude impresses Maggie and reinforces her vision of his superiority. Pete showers attention on her, which she revels in, along with the performances on stage. After the show, Pete asks for a kiss, but Maggie declines, insisting "dat wasn't in it." On the walk home, Pete wonders if he has "been played fer a duffer," expecting Maggie to offer some more tangible form of gratitude.
As Maggie and Pete continue to date, she becomes more critical of her clothes, her home, and her job, and Pete becomes more like "a golden sun" to her. The two attend plays and museums, which excite Maggie but bore Pete.
One evening, Jimmie finds his mother stag-gering home from a bar from which she has just been ejected, jeered on by the local children and her tenement neighbors. An embarrassed Jimmie yells at her to shut up and get into the apartment. Inside, the two begin a fierce battle that ends with broken furniture and Mrs. Johnson in her usual position in a heap on the floor. When Pete arrives, he shrugs and tells Maggie they will have a good time that night. Mrs. Johnson curses her daughter, insisting that she is a disgrace to the family and tells her not to return, which causes Maggie to tremble. Pete insists that her mother will change her mind in the morning and the two depart.
Jimmie is decidedly upset that Pete has "ruined" his sister. The old neighbor tells him that she saw Maggie return home one evening, crying toPage 105 | Top of Article Pete, asking him if he loved her. Jimmie determines to kill him while Mrs. Johnson curses her. Soon all of the neighbors are discussing Maggie and her ruin, insisting that they knew that there was always something wrong with her.
One evening, Jimmie and a friend enter Pete's bar and begin to harass him. Pete tries to calm him down but Jimmie and his friend back him into a corner and a fight breaks out. Soon all of the bar's patrons join in, smashing the mirrored walls, bottles, and glassware. When the police appear, Jimmie dashes out just in time.
On a subsequent evening, Pete and Maggie attend a show. She has changed markedly, her sense of self now lost in her complete dependence on Pete, whose confidence has grown as Maggie's has diminished. Pete is proud of the effect he has on Maggie, who fears any sign of anger or displeasure from him. Others at the show treat her with the same lack of respect as her neighbors have.
When Jimmie returns home several days after the fight, he discovers that Maggie has not been home either. He and his mother are shamed by her behavior, but Mrs. Johnson uses her tale of woe as an effective method to gain leniency when she is arrested for drunkenness.
Three weeks after she leaves her home, Maggie accompanies Pete to another show where he runs into an old friend, who pays no attention to Maggie. As Pete shows his obvious pleasure in the other woman's company, Maggie can think of nothing to say. When the woman asks Pete to leave with her, he initially refuses to abandon Maggie, hinting that she is pregnant. However, when he goes outside to discuss his situation, he never comes back for Maggie, stranding her at the show. An astounded Maggie waits for quite a while until she accepts the fact that Pete is gone and then leaves.
The narrative jumps here to a time in the future when an unidentified "forlorn woman" wanders the streets in search of someone. As Jimmie walks up the street and the woman greets him, the reader learns that the woman is Hattie, apparently someone who is in a similar situation to that of Maggie. Jimmie turns his back on her, just as Pete has done with Maggie, departing with an admonition to "go t'hell." When he arrives home, he finds Maggie suffering her mother's wrath and ridicule. Neighbors join in the torment until Maggie turns to Jimmie for support and is rebuffed.
The narrator now focuses on Pete, who has not given a second thought to Maggie's fate. He determines that he has never really cared much for her and was in no way responsible for her. The evening after he leaves her at the show, Maggie walks by his bar, and he feels a temporary twinge of guilt. When he speaks with her, though, he shows no mercy, telling her to leave before she gets him in trouble. She asks him where she should go, and he answers, as Jimmie had done to his similar "problem," "oh, go t'hell."
Afterwards, Maggie wanders the streets, looking for some support but finds none. Several months later, she is still walking the streets, willing to offer herself to anyone in order to survive. Initially, she frequents the more well-respected areas of town, but the men there soon realize her lack of refinement and so reject her advances. Even when she walks on to the poorer sections of the city, she has no luck. She moves onto the worst sections near the river where she encounters "ragged" men "with shifting, blood-shot eyes and grimy hands." The narrator suggests at this point that Maggie is drawn to the river, where the "sounds of life… came faintly and died away to a silence" and jumps in.
Pete and several women, including the woman who lured him away from Maggie, participate in a drunken revelry in a local saloon. They all seem to be thoroughly enjoying themselves. Pete gets too drunk, however, which eventually disgusts the women who leave him in a heap on the floor. The woman whom he has admired so much concludes on her way out of the bar, "what a damn fool."
The novel closes with Mrs. Johnson's tearful response to Jimmie's report that Maggie has died. At last, Mrs. Johnson expresses tender feelings toward her daughter and swears she will forgive her.
Jimmie, Maggie's brother, appears at the opening of the novel. At a young age, he has become as savage as the little "true assassins" he battles in the streets. His survival on these mean streets depends on his ability to dodge fists and stones as well as to develop an exalted sense of himself, which he displays in the opening fight when he tellsPage 106 | Top of Article all comers that he can lick them "wid one han'" The world hardens him at an early age, and he gives it no respect "because he had begun with no idols that it had smashed."
As he grows older, he becomes a bully, menacing "mankind at the intersections of streets," afraid of nothing. His sneering attitude toward everything and everyone deepens in his "down-trodden position which had a private but distinct element of grandeur in its isolation." He has a few friends but is not loyal to them, as he illustrates after the bar fight with Pete. As he escapes, he thinks of returning to rescue his friend, but he immediately dismisses the idea with, "ah, what d'hell?" His lack of character also emerges in his behavior toward his sister. Initially he appears to be concerned about Maggie's welfare when he determines to punish Pete for his treatment of her, but he proves to be driven more by a sense of shame than of responsibility. He turns his back on Maggie as cruelly as does his mother. When she dies, he reports the news dispassionately.
The central character in the novel, Maggie Johnson has retained her innocence and virtue within her brutal environment and has "blossomed in a mud puddle." She longs to escape her abusive family and dreary job at the collar and cuff factory but does not have the confidence or the opportunity to succeed on her own. She has an active imagination that she uses to escape the crushing despair of her world. When Pete appears, she becomes filled with hope that she will succeed. "Under the trees of her dream-gardens there had always walked a lover"; Pete becomes that "ideal man."
Her imaginative and illusory vision of Pete, however, causes her to feel pale by comparison. As he displays his confident assurance of his superiority to all who come into contact with him, Maggie begins to feel insecure in her relationship with him. She often finds herself at a loss for words, intimidated by the glamorous world in which, she believes, he operates. Her naiveté and clouded vision of reality causes her to be too dependent on Pete, which eventually leads to her destruction.
Maggie's sullen father has been beaten down by society and by his wife. He often retreats to the local saloon to drink away his troubles, or he takes out his resentment on his children. Evidence of both behaviors emerges in the opening pages when he kicks Jimmie for fighting and flees the apartment after a row with Jimmie's mother. His lack of concern for anyone other than himself is further illustrated when he steals the neighbor woman's beer from Jimmie, who has just paid for it. His weak character perhaps precipitates an early death.
Maggie's mother is a monstrous woman who harbors a vindictive hatred for anyone who gets in her way. She walks with a "chieftain-like stride" as she beats her family and curses them, continually insisting they should all "go t'hell." Sometimes when drunk, she falls into "a muddled mist of sentiment" but the shallowness of this emotion is revealed when during one episode, she reverts immediately into a murderous rage when Maggie breaks a plate. Her utter lack of love or concern for her children emerges in her treatment of Maggie when the neighbors begin to regard the young woman's behavior as immoral. Mrs. Johnson responds not by defending her daughter, but by kicking her out on the streets. As a result, when Pete also abandons her, Maggie is forced to prostitute herself in order to survive.
Nellie appears as a female version of Jimmie and Pete—someone who has developed an attitude of confident superiority as a means of survival. When she comes across Pete and Maggie at the club, her "brilliance and audacity" dazzle the couple. Her own shallowness emerges when she convinces Pete to abandon Maggie. Later she abandons Pete in much the same way when she grows tired of his drunkenness.
The youngest Johnson, Tommie becomes more of a plot device than a fleshed out character. He first appears on the street as Maggie drags him home, adding to her already overwhelming burdens. She tries to look out for him, but a vulnerability to their harsh environment leads to his death. Maggie seems to be the only one who is affected by his death when she places a flower inside his "insignificant" coffin.
Pete is as immoral as Jimmie, but he has hidden it more effectively under a respectable appearance. Like Jimmie, he has developed a superior persona in order to survive the inhumanity of tenement life. As he struts in front of Maggie at her apartment when they first meet, the room seems "toPage 107 | Top of Article grow even smaller and unfit to hold his dignity, the attribute of a supreme warrior." At first he behaves like a gentleman as he becomes attentive to Maggie's desires on their first date, but his true intentions emerge when she refuses to kiss him goodnight, and he thinks he has "been played for a duffer." Pete quickly rejects Maggie as unsuitable when a more interesting and confident companion arrives. He heartlessly turns his back on her when her presence and most likely her pregnancy have become tiring.
The impetus for the misery the characters endure in the novel is the abject state of poverty in which they live. Their tenement is inhabited by "true assassins" who prey on anyone in their path. Nearby "a worm of yellow convicts… [crawl] slowly along the river's bank." The Johnsons' building "quivered and creaked from the weight of humanity stamping about in its bowels." In this atmosphere, children like Maggie's younger brother Tommie die. Family life is destroyed as Mr. And Mrs. Johnson drink themselves into oblivion to escape the reality of their lives and then take their drunken wrath out on their children. The streets become schoolyards where Jimmie and his friends learn how to foster within themselves the brutality they must endure. Maggie's dreams of escaping her impoverished existence lead her to the mind-numbing work at the collar and cuff factory and eventually to Pete. When Pete and her family reject her, she is forced to prostitute herself in order to survive.
The atmosphere of the novel breeds a moral hypocrisy as the characters struggle to justify their own immoral actions. Mr. Johnson yells at his wife to stop always "poundin' a kid" after he has just savagely kicked Jimmie in an attempt to break up the street fight. Mrs. Johnson, who is more brutal to her children than her husband, declares Maggie to be a disgrace to the family and questions "who would t'ink such a bad girl could grow up in our fambly." Jimmie, who has abandoned many young women in the same manner as Pete has done with Maggie, declares that he will kill Pete for his treatment of her. Yet, he wonders only "vaguely" whether "some of the women of his acquaintance had brothers. Nevertheless, his mind did not for an instant confuse himself with those brothers nor his sister with theirs."
A subtle social hypocrisy is revealed in Maggie's relationship with Pete. Survival for men in this atmosphere depends on them gaining an exaggerated sense of their own superiority coupled with an attitude of complete independence. That avenue is not open for women like Maggie, whose only escape is through utter dependence on a man. Ironically, when she adopts the illusory vision that Pete promotes, she loses her own sense of herself and as a result reduces her standing in Pete's eyes. When her family turns her out because of the neighborhood's condemnation of her relationship with Pete, she is forced to become what they insist she already is and always has been. Her inability to endure this life prompts her to commit suicide.
Colvert writes that in the novel, Crane "eschewed the conventional plot, shifting the focus from the drama of external event or situation to the drama of thought and feeling in the mental life of his subjects." There are important events in the story, usually marked by their violence, but they serve mainly as a catalyst for the characters' internal responses, which adroitly focus the narrative on the effect the environment has on them. For example, few details are given of Jimmie's fight with the neighboring gang, while more time is spent detailing the animalistic rage he feels coupled with a sense of heroism. A few sentences provide a description of what Maggie sees on stage, but her response to it mingled with her feelings toward Pete, reveal Crane's ironic depiction of the tension between illusion and reality.
Crane's use of imagery reinforces the novel's themes. His focus on the illusory and fragile world his characters inhabit is symbolized in Pete's saloon by "a shining bar of counterfeit massiveness" and the mirrored walls that multiply the "pyramids of shimmering glasses" lined up on the shelves. During Jimmie and Pete's fight in the saloon, the mirrors "splintered to nothing" along with Maggie's dreams of escape. The tenement becomes filled with images that reflect its danger and brutality. "A dozen gruesome doorways gave up loads of babies to the street and gutter" while "withered persons… sat smoking pipes in obscure corners." Colvert notes that these images prompted Frank Norris in his review of the novel to write that the picture Crane makes is not "a single carefully composed painting, serious, finished, scrupulously studied, but rather scores and scores of tiny flashlight photographs, instantaneous, caught, as it were, on the run."
Naturalism is the name of a literary movement that emerged in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in France, England, and the United States. Writers included in this group, like Stephen Crane, Emile Zola, and Theodore Dreiser, described in their works a biological and/or environmental determinism that prevented their characters from exercising their free will and thus controlling their fates. Crane often focused on the social and economic factors that overpowered his characters. Zola's and Dreiser's works include this type of environmental determinism coupled with an exploration of the influences of heredity in their portraits of the animalistic nature of men and women engaged in the endless and brutal struggle for survival.
Thousands of Irish men and women immigrated to the United States during the nineteenth century to escape the hardships of their native land. America became a dream for these people who fled poverty and disease as well as English oppression as they packed themselves tightly into ships, referred to as coffin ships due to the harsh living conditions on board, heading for their new home. Being in the United States, however, would hardly live up to their vision of the good life. Most settled in their arrival ports and were soon herded into the city's tenement sections, where they had little chance of escape. Each major city, including New York, had its Irish section or shantytown where, due to the prejudice against them, immigrants were confined to cellars and shacks. Ridiculed for their dress and their accents and blamed for increases in the crime rate, they were often greeted with "No Irish Need Apply" signs when they looked for employment.
A Woman's Place
At the close of the nineteenth century, feminist thinkers began to engage in a rigorous investigation of female identity as it related to all aspects of a woman's life. Any woman who questioned traditional female roles was tagged a "New Woman," a term attributed to novelist Sarah Grand, whose 1894 article in the North American Review identified an emergent group of women, influenced by J. S. Mill and other champions of individualism, who supported and campaigned for women's rights.
Many women insisted that marriage and motherhood should not be the only choices available to women. The more conservative feminists of this age considered marriage and motherhood acceptable roles only if guidelines were set in order to prevent a woman from assuming an inferior position to her husband in any area of their life together. This group felt that a woman granted equality in marriage would serve as an exemplary role model for her children by encouraging the development of an independent spirit. Women, however,Page 109 | Top of Article especially in lower socio-economic classes, found it almost impossible to break away from traditional female roles until the second wave feminist movement in the 1970s.
After completing Maggie when he was twenty-two, Crane had the novel published privately under the pseudonym Johnston Smith in 1893. This version caught the eye of literary critics Hamlin Garland and William Dean Howells, who championed it and eventually, after its rejection by The Century Magazine, convinced D. Appleton and Company to publish the novel in 1896. Maggie did not gain much success with the reading public, however, until Crane toned down the more violent scenes in the revised 1896 version.
Theodore Dreiser, in a letter to Max J. Herzberg, printed in the Michigan Daily Sunday Magazine, declared Maggie to "bear all the marks of a keen and unblessed sympathy with life, as well as a high level of literary perception." He concluded that Crane was "one of the few writers who stood forward intellectually and artistically at a time when this nation was as thoroughly submerged in romance and sentimentality and business as it is today." In a 1922 piece on Crane printed in Friday Nights: Literary Criticism and Appreciation, Edward Garnett described the novel as a "little masterpiece" in its "remorseless study of New York slum and Bowery morals." Garnett insisted Maggie is not "a story about people; it is primitive human nature itself set down with perfect spontaneity and grace of handling." He found the "aesthetic beauty" of the work unsurpassed.
The support of Dreiser and Garnett, along with that of Amy Lowell and Willa Cather, helped
rediscover Crane and Maggie in the 1920s. In the early 2000s, the novel is regarded as one of the finest examples of American literary naturalism.
Perkins is a professor of English at Prince George's Community College in Maryland and has published articles on several twentieth-century authors. In this essay, Perkins examines Crane's exploration of the naturalistic themes in Maggie.
[The wind-tower] was a giant, standing with its back to the plight of the ants. It represented in a degree… the serenity of nature amid the struggles of the individual—nature in the wind, and nature in the vision of men. She did not seem cruel to him then, not beneficent, not treacherous, not wise. But she was indifferent, flatly indifferent."
This famous passage from Stephen Crane's short story "The Open Boat," which focuses on four men in a small dinghy struggling against the current to make it to shore, is often quoted as an apt expression of the tenets of naturalism, a literary movement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in France, the United States, and England. Naturalist writers like Crane, Emile Zola, and Theodore Dreiser argued in their works that human destiny is controlled by biological and/or environmental factors. Their characters enjoy no free will as they struggle to survive their often brutal lives. As in "The Open Boat," in his first novel, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, Crane examines naturalistic tendencies in the harsh lives of the novel's main characters. Their fate, however, is not determined by natural forces. Through his story of a young Bowery woman's experiences within a destructive and indifferent social environment, Crane raises important questions about endurance and survival.
Crane wrote on early copies of the novel that the story "tries to show that environment is a tremendous thing in the world and frequently shapes lives regardless." He succeeds admirably. Crane's depiction of Maggie's tragedy reveals an ironclad biological as well as environmental determinism, as is noted by Edward Garnett, in an essay on Crane. Garnet writes that the characters' "human nature responds inexorably to their brutal environment" and concludes "the curious habits and code of the most primitive savage tribes could not be presented with a more impartial exactness, or with more sympathetic understanding."
The biological forces that shape the characters' destinies emerge in their adaptive response to their harsh environment. The novel opens with an apt illustration of this cause and effect relationship in the description of Maggie's brother Jimmie, who is engaged in a fight with the neighborhood boys. Street fighting was commonplace in the Bowery at the end of the nineteenth century, as one gang of boys would battle another for a dominant position in the neighborhood. Boys like Jimmie joined gangs for a sense of belonging and protection. Ironically, though, in the opening scene, Jimmie's friends have abandoned him, and as a result, he is being brutally beaten by a rival gang. His instincts for survival take over as he does anything he can to defend himself. The "fury of the battle" turns him into "a tiny, insane demon" as he uses every method available to fend off his attackers.
Jimmie's fists, however, are not the only tools he employs to survive his savage environment. In order to endure the beatings doled out by his parents as well as the neighborhood children and the devastating, abject poverty of the tenements, Jimmie along with his sister Maggie must invent comforting illusions. Jimmie survives because he creates a vision of himself as a god within the neighborhood, vastly superior to all the other inhabitants. This vision begins to take shape from an early age, when Jimmie has dreams of becoming "some vague soldier, or a man of blood with a sort of sublime license." His false sense of the heroic is reflected in the opening scene when Jimmie stands "upon a heap of gravel for the honor of Rum Alley."
Later, when he gains employment in the city as a truck driver, he determines that only he has "the unalienable right to stand in the proper path of the sun chariot." As he drives through the streets, he wonders at the inhabitants' "insane disregard for their legs and his convenience." His sense of superiority causes him to encase his soul in armor as he sneers at the world and becomes "so sharp that he believed in nothing."
Jimmie's friend Pete has adopted a similar sense of grandeur, which has not only helped him survive the mean streets of the Bowery; it also has earned him a respectable position as a bartender. Pete's "mannerisms stamped him as a man who had a correct sense of his personal superiority." JamesB. Colvert, in his article on Crane for the Dictionary of Literary Biography, writes that "the swag-gering Pete and Jimmie apprehend a world of menace which challenges their assumptions about their special virtues and their dreams of heroic destinies." As a result they must cover themselves in an armor of scorn, as is indicated by Pete's assumption that "he had certainly seen everything and with each curl of his lip, he declared that it amounted to nothing."
Pete's superior sense of himself and his nonchalant disregard of his surroundings causes Maggie to deem him "the ideal man." Unfortunately for her, however, Pete does not live up to these expectations. In her relationship with Pete, Maggie adopts a similar defense mechanism, as does Pete and her brother—the creation of comforting illusions. Her fantasies, however, do not involve an exaggerated sense of self; they revolve around her distorted vision of Pete, who proves himself to be as morally bankrupt as others in Maggie's world. Ironically, while Pete's illusory vision of himself enables him to survive his harsh world, Maggie's embracement of that same vision eventually destroys her.
Maggie's desperate need to escape the brutality of her family life and the monotony of her position at the collar and cuff factory becomes apparent at the theater, which she frequents with Pete. There, she is transported by "plays in which the dazzling heroine was rescued from the palatial home of her treacherous guardian by the hero with the beautiful sentiments." These melodramas, with their "pale-green snow-storms," "nickel-plated revolvers," and daring rescues, are "transcendental realism," removing her from the sordid reality of her own life. Pete gains so much power over Maggie because he becomes her method of transport to this charming and safe world, where "the poor and virtuous eventually overcame the wealthy and wicked."
After her mother throws her out in response to Maggie's relationship with Pete, Maggie becomes completely dependent on him, a situation reinforced by her illusory vision of him as "a golden sun." In his rarefied presence, she feels "small and mouse-colored" as she "beseeches tenderness of him." Soon, her "air of spaniel-like dependence" becomes magnified and shows its "direct effect in the peculiar off-handedness and ease of Pete's ways toward her." Pete inevitably is drawn to Nellie, a woman of "brilliance and audacity," more fitting, he assumes, to a man of his stature. When Nellie joins Pete and Maggie at the club, Pete's "eyes sparkle" and Maggie is ignored by all.
Pete's ultimate rejection of Maggie results in her ruination. Her vision of her necessary escape from her brutal life has been dependent on a rescue by this "ideal man," and when that vision is shattered, "her soul could never smile again." Her devotion to Pete, which prompted her to disregard her reputation, has stripped her of her physical as well as emotional shelter when her mother refuses to allow her back into her home.
Crane's focus on the tension between illusion and reality in Maggie provides an adeptly ironic vision of the naturalistic world of the Bowery. Colvert quotes Crane's declaration in 1896, "I do not think much can be done with the Bowery as long as the people there are in their present state of conceit." Colvert concludes that Crane's "stinging verbal irony constantly chastises" the novel's characters "for their moral blindness, which clearly is caused by their absurd and self-indulgent illusions about their world and themselves." Crane's artistry also inspires our sympathy for Maggie, whose innocence is destroyed by the disease of poverty and the moral vacuity that surrounds her.
Source: Wendy Perkins, Critical Essay on Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, in Novels for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.
Petruso has a bachelor's degree in history and a master's degree in screenwriting. In this essay, Petruso compares and contrasts the characters of Maggie, the purported heroine of Crane's novel, and Jimmie, Maggie's brother who also plays a large role in the novel. Both are creatures of the street for different reasons, and their differing sexes and lives result in very different life paths.
In Crane's novel Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, he writes of circumstances both very familiar to contemporary audiences, but also very specific to his late nineteenth-century readers. Set in a slum in an urban area, the naturalistic novel describes in detail the effect of living there—with alcoholic parents, no real direction in life, and many other issues—on Maggie, Jimmie, and other young characters. Siblings Maggie and Jimmie seem to be about the same age, and both face many of the same issues. They include how Maggie and Jimmie deal with family life, relationships, sex, employment, and violence. While both face many obstacles inPage 113 | Top of Article their lives, Jimmie survives and is relatively upright while Maggie's life is more compromised and ends early. The reasons for the difference are complex and often gender specific, but are also revealing and give Crane's story depth.
One of the biggest differences between Jimmie and Maggie is that from the beginning of the novel, when the reader meets Jimmie as a "very little boy," he lives out a masculine role by standing up for himself, often with his fists. In contrast, Maggie is given the female role of caretaker who should be protected by her family, primarily her father and brother but also her mother, but is not. Throughout Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, Maggie cares for others, but no one, save Pete, ever shows interest in her until she is forced to live on the streets. Pete, her brother's friend and the man with whom she becomes involved, uses her for a sexual relationship and some standing among other men because of Maggie's comely appearance. But even Pete leaves Maggie when Nell, a somewhat classy prostitute, questions his choice to be with Maggie and convinces him to leave with her (Nell). Maggie, as always, loses, which leads to her ultimate demise.
Jimmie and Maggie have a very difficult home life. Both of their parents are alcoholics who beat them and ignore them, focusing more often on drink than being a parent. Crane draws their mother, named Mary, worse than their father. He holds a job (probably at a factory), while the mother does not really care much for the children. She cooks for the family, at least in the early chapters, but also breaks objects in the kitchen and living area, including cookware, plates, and tables, when drunk. Crane depicts no real concern with their children's welfare, unless it has to do with sexuality and reputation where Maggie is concerned.
After Jimmie and Maggie's father dies, Jimmie soon steps into his role as primary provider and head of the small family. He finds work as a truck driver where he can continue to act as an angry young man. Like his father before him, Jimmie does not protect Maggie. When Pete shows interest, then begins to see his sister, Jimmie becomes upset that the older man has taken advantage of their friendship. Crane writes at the beginning of chapter ten, "Jimmie had an idea it wasn't common courtesy for a friend to come to one's home and ruin one's sister. But he was not sure how much Pete knew about the rules of politeness." After Maggie leaves the family and lives with Pete, Jimmie follows his mother's lead and condemns her. While Jimmie thinks about killing Pete or bringing harm to him, he does not try to find his sister or convince her to come home. Though Jimmie considers rescuing Maggie in chapter 13, his mother says she will not let her daughter come home. Still, he is conflicted between how it looks to have a sister who has a compromised reputation, and his feeling that his mother might be wrong and he should protect her. In the end, he lives up to the example set by his parents and does nothing for Maggie.
In contrast to her brother, Maggie stays out of the way at home. There is no mention of education for her or her brother, yet she did not play in the streets as her brother did as a child. Maggie tries to help her family, both as a child and as an adult. In chapter two, for example, she performs a simple household task of moving dishes, but when she breaks one, her mother beats her. She often makes an effort to avoid her mother's wrath, as well as her father's anger and, later, her brother's anger, after he takes over as head of the family, but fails on all counts. Maggie is obedient to Jimmie. When her brother takes over as the head of the family, he tells Maggie to take a job. She finds work at a small sweatshop factory making collars and cuffs for clothing. Until she meets Pete, Maggie is most certainly not a girl of the streets.
Despite this kind of family life, Maggie possesses something that Jimmie does not. She is physically attractive. At the beginning of chapter five, Crane describes the young woman: "The girl, Maggie, blossomed in a mud puddle. She grew to be a most rare and wonderful production of a tenement district, a pretty girl." Pete notices how Maggie looks, which leads to their relationship. He shows an interest in Maggie when no one else has. Because of his interest, Maggie comes to realize that there is more to life than what happens in the family's tenement apartment. Pete takes her to places where she is entertained and amused. Pete is also different than her father and brother in where he works and his outward appearance. Instead of driving a truck, Pete works as a bartender in aPage 114 | Top of Article local saloon. It is cleaner than any job the men in her family hold, though Pete has to keep order and break up fights.
As soon as Pete enters Maggie's life and Maggie decides that she is attracted to him, her mother belittles her daughter and immediately assumes the worst. In chapter six, before Maggie has even gone out with Pete, her drunk mother accuses her of not coming home from work right away. The mother yells at Maggie, "Why deh hell don' yeh come home earlier? Been loafin" round deh streets. Yer getting' teh be a reg'lar devil." When she leaves with Pete the first time, Crane writes that Maggie's mother "blasphemed and gave her daughter a bad name." Yet Maggie would not even kiss Pete after the first time he took her out.
The turning point in Maggie's family life comes in chapter nine. After her mother comes home drunk and gets into a scuffle with Jimmie, Pete picks up Maggie to take her out. Her mother curses her and tells her to get out and do the things that her mother assumes her daughter will do. Her mother repeats ideas like this over and over again: "Mag Johnson, yehs knows yehs have gone teh deh devil. Yer a disgrace teh yer people, damn yeh." After Maggie has left with Pete, her mother believes she is blameless. She says "When a girl is bringed up deh way I bringed up Maggie, how kin she go teh deh devil?" Her mother believes that Maggie has always been bad, and her brother, perhaps not wanting to argue, agrees at first. He comes to buy into his mother's condemnations himself. Maggie is attacked for bringing shame on the family for her sexual relationship with Pete, though she never speaks one word against her mother or brother at any point in the story.
Thus, there are different standards for sexual relationships for Jimmie and Maggie. Before Maggie even met Pete, the adult Jimmie stayed away from home for days at a time with no real denunciation from his mother. On two occasions in Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, Jimmie reflects on some of the women he has had sexual relationships with. At least two women have accused him of fathering their children. No one questions what Jimmie does with these women, except himself, and these relationships do not affect his social status in his family or at work. As the situation with Maggie and Pete evolves, Jimmie wonders if the women he has been with have brothers or fathers, and why they have not gone after him for his actions. Crane writes in chapter ten, "He was trying to formulate a theory that he had always unconsciously held, that all sisters, excepting his own, could advisedly be ruined." After Maggie leaves home with Pete, Jimmie does get into a fight with Pete at his bar, though Maggie's name is not mentioned. After the fight with Pete, he does not return home for many days. When he does, his mother is still angry that Maggie has not come home; Jimmie's absence hardly mattered.
Maggie idealizes Pete and believes he can take her away from her empty life. She does not come home after she leaves with him at the end of chapter nine. It is implied that they have a sexual relationship, and Maggie becomes very dependent on him. After a few weeks, when Nell challenges Pete in a public place and he chooses her, Maggie tries to go back home. In chapter 15, Maggie's return to the tenement is unsuccessful. Her mother calls her names, cursing her to hell and condemning her for bringing shame on the family. Jimmie agrees with his mother's statements. The neighbors offer only backhanded support. A lady who lives there offers Maggie a place to stay for the moment. She tells Maggie, "So 'ere yehs are back again, are yehs? An' dey've kicked yehs out? Well, come in an' stay wid me tehnight. I ain' got no moral standin'." Maggie tries to go back to Pete in chapter 16, but he throws her out of his saloon.
Because of the family's and society's condemnations, Maggie finally turns to an unrespectable life on the street, while her brother continues to live his somewhat respectable one with a job and a little responsibility. She takes up a new kind of employment. Maggie becomes a somewhat successful prostitute for several months, and while her clothing is nicer, she ends up serving a customer whom Crane describes in negative terms. This encounter leads directly or indirectly—Crane is obtuse—to Maggie's death. After Maggie has passed away, the other ladies in the tenement convince her mother to forgive her. Jimmie reluctantly claims her body.
Crane depicts the world that Jimmie and Maggie live in as a chaotic disorderly mess, where violence is accepted as a part of every day life. Both Jimmie and his mother have police records, and Jimmie learned from a young age to appreciate the power of violence. Yet, it is the most nonviolent person—rivaled only by Jimmie and Maggie's little brother Tommie who dies as a toddler—who suffers the most. The streets that Jimmie embraced from an early age end up taking the life of his sister, after she spent much of her life avoiding them. Maggie and Jimmie never rise above thePage 115 | Top of Article circumstances they were born into and the mistakes both made along the way. Crane uses Maggie: A Girl of the Streets to show how easily both sexes' lives can be wasted in such an environment.
Source: Annette Petruso, Critical Essay on Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, in Novels for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.
In the following essay, Golemba examines how Crane and other realist writers "developed a language of food in order to give an impression of being 'inside' the social topic, of seeing deeper than the surface," and the problems associated with that approach.
Pete's first words to Maggie are: "Say, Mag, I'm stuck on your shape. It's outa sight." Maggie's response: "She wondered what Pete dined on." These two quotations encode an enormous problem for Stephen Crane's Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, and it reflects a crucial anxiety for American writers in the last decades of the nineteenth century who were attempting to transform new social phenomena into literary, journalistic, and photographic constructions. Pete's words reflect the realist's worry that aesthetic aims become "stuck on shape." Realism's attempt to achieve an objective point of view risks turning its subjects into objects, transforming groups of people into statistics, changing individuals into things. More drastically, realism's technique turns reality into "tecnic," and ontology becomes nothing beyond surface. The realist's motivation, welcomed by many American writers as excitingly new, once again truly "novel," was soon perceived as extremely limiting. A style that was hoped to be transcendentally "outa sight" became merely shapes and shadows, and what you saw was what you got.
On July 3, 1896, Crane inscribed a copy of Maggie: "It is indeed a brave new binding and I wish the inside were braver." While realists triumphed at giving their works a sense of "photographic realism," their text's "inside" remained problematic, The closer artists came to achieving their technical goal of surface representation, the more their works bordered on voyeurism. This essay examines how Crane, as well as other literary and reform writers, both developed a language of food in order to give an impression of being "in-side" the social topic, of seeing deeper than the surface, and how a language of food created problems even as it answered the problem of voyeurism. In so doing, I invite a slightly different reading of Crane's now famous letter to John Northern Hilliard, celebrated for its romantic heroism (as in "personal honesty is my supreme ambition [even though] "A man is sure to fail at it"). I explore instead how closely we should attend to Crane's admission in that same letter that "Personally I am aware that my work does not amount to a string of dried beans" and further inquire what relationship this sentence has to his goal of seeing life with only his "own pair of eyes."
Frank Norris, using his review of Maggie to vent his frustration at realism generally, complained that it seemed "written from the outside" (Wertheim 54–62; McElrath 87–90). Critics since Norris have considered this quality a virtue, whether as an early example of reification, or tragedy in a Realist mode, a representation of subjectivity within economic matrixes, or an achievement of objective vision. But Norris more faithfully reflects the anxiety of realists, torn between their ambition and achievement, and their frustration and fear. A later theorist like Raymond Williams would articulate the need for realistic art to include "the essential forces and movements underlying" objects and surfaces, not the "mere surface" or "appearances only."
Though one of the writers who had once waved realism's banner most proudly, Norris, anticipating Williams, had come to condemn realism for "entertaining with its meticulous presentation of teacups, rag carpets, wall-paper and haircloth sofas, stopping with these, going no deeper than it sees." Realism, he observes, "notes only the surface of things. For it, Beauty is not even skindeep, but only a geometrical plane, without dimensions and depth, a mere outside. Realism is very excellent so far as it goes, but it goes no further than thePage 116 | Top of Article Realist himself can actually see." More specifically, Norris's anxiety centers on a lack; as a realist, he longs for "an instrument, keen, finely tempered, flawless—an instrument with which we may go straight through the clothes and tissues and wrappings of flesh down deep into the red, living heart of things" ("A plea for romantic fiction, 1901; quoted in Pizer 75–78).
Writers like Kate Chopin in The Awakening (1899) had managed to pierce through surfaces and probe the "red, living heart" by having their characters transforms themselves into that emblem of pulsing subjectivity which Chopin represented as the "throbbings of desire" (32). Her Edna
… stretched her strong limbs that ached a little. She ran her fingers through her loosened hair for a while. She looked at her round arms as she held them straight up and rubbed them one after the other, observing closely, as if it were something she saw for the first time, the fine, firm quality and texture of her flesh. (39)
Edna's auto-communion as both host and celebrant creates a new hunger for life. She had had no appetite when dining with her husband and had felt no satisfaction in writing a weekly menu (39), but after her new vision she drains her glass of wine and devours her food. In her auto-communion she rips into "a crusty brown loaf, tearing it with her strong white teeth" and avows, when told that her dinner of broiled fowl has dried out, that "If it turned to stone, still will I eat it" (40–41). Her appetite becomes gargantuan, much like the triumph that Bakhtin envies in Rabelais: "This victory over the world in the act of eating was concrete, tangible, bodily…. In this image there was no trace of mysticism, no abstract-idealistic sublimation. This image materializes truth and does not permit it to be torn from the earth" (285).
Though Edna is ensconced in circumstances that Chopin frequently calls "luxurious," a setting that did not suit self-conscious realist writers attempting to address the vast social phenomena of the hungry, the homeless, the poor "huddled masses" as Emma Lazarus labeled them for the world, realists did, like Chopin, choose food as a way to delve below surfaces. Realistic writing is stocked with a language of food, from Norris's "Epic of the Wheat," where individuals drown in grain aimed at relieving world famine, to William Dean Howell's dinner parties as tests of social standing and Theodore Dreiser's postponement of Hurstwood's suicide in Sister Carrie because he happens to be given enough money to eat; from Charles Waddell Chesnutt's delicious grapes that speculators will convert to wine in The Conjure Woman (1899) to Jack London's equation of mass behavior with fermenting yeast and of morality with a full stomach in The Sea-Wolf (1904). Paul Laurence Dunbar's The Sport of the Gods (1902) uses food to represent everything from racist theories about theft to "The Universe" setting "Berry" up "to taste all the bitterness" (587). Indeed, the entire careers of non fiction reform writers can be summarized by their book titles—as with Thomas DeWitt Talmage's Around the Tea Table (1888), The Battle for Bread (1889), and Crumbs Swept Up (1897); Jewish life in New York tenements is captured in well-known late realist works like Anzia Yezierka's The Bread-Givers (1925) and Samuel Ornitz's Haunch, Paunch and Jowl (1923); and even later realists dream of Old World wheat fields as in Henry Roth's Call It Sleep (1934) and hope for New World success as in Rose Pesotta's Bread Upon the Waters (1944). Indeed, food is so integral to realistic fiction that Chester Wolford, in response to Eric Solomon, argues that Maggie's structure is an inverted vegetation myth with Mary as a twisted Proserpine who lays waste to the land because of Dis, personified by Pete (78–87). In this sense, Crane's comparison of his works to "a string of dried beans" seems more than a fortuitous cliche.
Of course, one reason realistic depictions of slum life are filled with a language of food is the sheer, raw reality of starvation. Reform writings catalogue starving children, diets of moldy bread, offal in the streets, goat carcasses that decompose over the course of weeks, and the bad food of "two-cent restaurants" (Jacob Riis, How the Other Half Lives, 56–58). One Victor Hugoesque Riis chapter titled "The Man with the Knife" describes how a father is driven to madness and murder by the sight of rich people feasting as he pictures "those little ones crying for bread around the cold and cheerless hearth" (263–64).
Moreover, many of the reform writers of the 1890s were reverends or related to ministers and thus already had a long tradition of mingling religion, food, and reform. Crane's parents are an obvious example of the blending of religion with reform, a characteristic of the reform movement that Ann Douglas and other biographers have noted. As William James observed, food had been a natural language in both reform and religious discourse in America ever since the earliest Puritans wrote of the Old and New Testaments as the twin breasts from which we suck nourishment. In addition, as Steven Mailloux has argued, the relationship between food and language changed inPage 117 | Top of Article children's literature and conduct books from a figurative to a literal level by the late nineteenth century. In popular literary genres, food shifted from being a metaphor for words to an equation with language. Mailloux impressively demonstrates that by the 1890s it had become commonplace for authors to advise their readers, as Annie H. Ryder did in Go Right on Girls! (1891), "to digest your books, turn them into nourishment, make them a part of your life that lives always" (13357).
Crane was writing within an established tradition, then, when he used food to create an impression of depth—what he called a "braver inside"—contrasted with realism's surfaces and "outside look." When Maggie wonders how Pete dined, her imagination points upward, signalling transcendence of home, the slum, individual powerlessness, and a dog-eat-dog universe. Maggie, the novel itself, points downward, feeding readers' interests in how the poor literally starved and figuratively hungered for the refined and safer existence which Maggie envisions and the average reader already enjoys. Whether one adopts the vantage point of reformer or novelist, photographer or reader, the point of view is privileged; reality is observed from on high. How then does a reader avoid replicating the hypocrisy and self-deception which are blatantly attacked in the novel? As an example of 1890s social realism, Crane's challenge in Maggie was to make readers consume a text, not merely gaze at or patronize social issues raised by the text. The aesthetic challenge was to cause readers to make a text part of their selves as though they had eaten it, not to allow readers to dine elegantly on literary fare. However, the solution was not without problems, and Crane soon leapt from the frying pan into the fire. In breaking the planes of realism by imagining his words as food, Crane created new difficulties in the way his texts were consumed. As will be shown, problems with voyeurism yielded to problems about consumption.
Chapter XV graphically demonstrates how the text Maggie might be read voyeuristically, that is, read much the way Mary in this chapter turns her daughter into spectacle. "Lookut her! Lookut her!" Mary shouts nine times in succession. Expounding "like a glib showman at a [sideshow] museum," she draws a "doorful of eyes" that gaze upon Maggie, their gaze objectifying her, proving her powerlessness. Even a "baby, overcome with curiosity concerning this object," crawls near to gaze, personifying Crane's fear that his novel may be read in an infantile way, or that the text might remain nothing but spectacle. Rather than empathizing with and absorbing the vision, a reader might remain mere spectator, mere voyeur, like Pete stuck merely on shapes, attracted only to form and surface. It is no surprise that the text avenges itself upon Pete by reversing the motif; surface yields to savagery as Pete's supposed friends pick him apart cannibalistically in a kind of devourment that is as far removed from voyeurism as can be. The depth of the anxiety represented in these scenes could be missed by modern readers less steeped in humanistic background and reform impulse than were the realists. But the major source of the anxiety under study here is how realists, seeking a cure for realism's weaknesses, find that the cure is intricately connected with the problem; devourment is intimate with voyeurism. Dunbar certainly constructs that problem in The Sport of the Gods when Skaggsy and The Universe set Berry up, as Dunbar says, to "taste all the bitterness." As a realist, Dunbar replicates the crushing racist powers of life; it is no wonder that his preacherly voice so often intrudes to wish that life and the text could be other than realistic. When the choreographer, an arranger of music and dance if not words on a page, is shown to dislike the taste of his own words, one wonders how much Dunbar intends him self-reflexively to be an emblem of the realist author (547).
My contention is that, for Crane, the problem was more about ontology and aesthetics than humanism, closer to photography and the problem of the Other. Why is the first reform book to include documentary photographs titled How the Other Half Lives? What is the connection between the ability of photographic realism to bring the Other right before readers' eyes and the insistence of this technique on the Other remaining alien? In 1904, for example, Henry James, no friend of the poor by any stretch, watched in repugnance as "the inconceivable alien" was admitted to his native country. "It is a drama that goes on, without a pause, day by day and year by year, this visible act of ingurgitation on the part of our body politic and social, and constituting really an appeal to amazement beyond that of any sword-swallowing or fire-swallowing in the circus." What precisely is the difference between James's contemptuous "inconceivable alien" and Jacob Riis's "Other Half"? Dunbar's Sport, if one recalls, muddies this matter by alleging that reformers, at least in the variety of yellow journalism, feed upon the poor and keep them on the lowest rungs of society as effectively as do the rich, the powerful, and the power-hungry.
Recent research on representations of the homeless further blurs the distinction between sympathyPage 118 | Top of Article and disdain. Even the most humane motives cannot avoid realism's alienation of the Other as its technique asks people to "Lookut her, Lookut her." The most empathetic gaze still alienates the Other, confirms the distance separating seer from the seen, and flattens the foregrounded with its scene. Voyeurism is always ideological. Documentary photographs insist upon the difference between those who look and those looked at; they privilege positions of who can show and who cannot speak for themselves, thus through technique reinforcing the charity model—"the imbalance of power and the division between self and other," as Allen Carey-Webb puts it (701). One recalls the sermon in Maggie where the minister distances the hungry in sermons full of "yous" to which, in one draft, Crane had added: "Once a philosopher asked this man why he did not say 'we' instead of 'you.' The man replied, what?" The question is also the answer, just as Maggie becomes a "what" when she is objectified by the text and passes "before open doors framing more eyes strangely microscopic" and just as the text, through its technic of microscopic inspection, becomes an instrument of alienation. In modern times, reformers sometimes deconstruct their own speeches, as when Jim Hubbard's motivation in his documentary American Refugees to "urge you to see the similarities between you and the people shown here" is called into question by the text's use of "you" and "me" separated from "they" or "these people" (xiii). To say "They are like you and me" contradicts the sentiment as soon as it is uttered.
One event early into The Other Half illustrates the point clearly. Riis wanted to photograph "a particularly ragged and disreputable tramp" smoking a two-cent clay pipe. The man agreed to pose for a dime but cunningly put away his pipe, the one item that Riis thought looked particularly picturesque in an urban slum sort of way. The man had sized Riis up nicely and insisted that his pipe made his picture worth a quarter. Though incensed, Riis says, "I had to give in. The man scarce ten seconds employed at honest labor, even at sitting down, at which he was an undoubted expert, had gone on strike. He knew his rights and the value of 'work,' and was not to be cheated out of either" (78). Though phrased in praise this is a complaint; the newly-hired working man was treating Riis as any businessman or shopkeeper might, negotiating the value of commodities. What is more, the working man was abridging the unilateral power relationships; he was metaphorically stepping out of the photograph, refusing to be framed, at least not at the framer's price.
This revelation of a "tramp's" remarkable intelligence, understanding of market realities, and insight into the psychology of the Other slips out of Riis's picture and into the text where we can read the meaning between the lines in spite of Riis's interventions and rhetorical directions, but the photograph tames and domesticates the incident. Its caption tells us what we see, a "tramp, who sat smoking his pipe on the rung of a ladder with such evident philosophic contentment in the busy labor of a score of rag-pickers all about him" (79). From the photograph and its caption one would never know that there was a fascinating "brave inside" to this posed manikin. In 1891, the year after The Other Half was published and while Maggie was still in early drafts, Crane discussed photography in a New York Tribune article: "The photograph is false in perspective, in light and shade, in focus. When a photograph can depict atmosphere and sound, the comparison [of literary communication with photography] will have some meaning, and then it will not be used as a reproach." Pamela Yates and Peter Kinoy would agree, for their film Takeover, a documentary of the homeless occupying vacant homes repossessed by HUD on 1 May 1990, shows active, vigorous subjects who are far from exhibiting "philosophic contentment on the bottom rung" of society. Far from being objectified, they work together, develop strategies, act collectively, and insist upon their own voice. As Carey-Webb says, "They threaten to tear down the fence that separates them from the podium, and voices shout, 'We can speak for ourselves! The homeless can speak for themselves!'" (707).
In 1891, Crane's images of absorption made his brand of literary realism seem more like the subjective presentation claimed by Yates and Kinoy and Carey-Webb than the objectification and alienation of Riis's photographs. Like most of the re-form writers of the 1890s, Crane used metaphors of food and eating to smudge the lines that separated viewer from object, reader from text, the self from the Other. The various functions of food in Maggie begin with Jimmie's mouth filled with curses and smashed by stones and conclude with a twin communion: Pete's cannibalistic anti-communion and Mary's mock communion. Along the way the author "forgets" that food is a metaphor and begins to think that his words literally are an equation, that literacy is a form of eating. But to analyze that transformation one should survey the discourse of reform on this score to understand that Crane's "confusion" was actually an aesthetic ideal among reformers and self-conscious realists.
Marcus Cunliffe, Eric Solomon, Thomas Gullason, David Halliburton and other scholars have persuasively argued that Maggie is one strand of a vast literary fin-de-siecle web spun by urban novelists like Hall Caine, Brander Matthews, Edward Townsend, and Edgar Fawcett as well as re-form writers like Jacob Riis, Charles Loring Brace, Reverend Thomas De Witt Talmage, and Crane's own parents. The bulk of scholarship concentrates on similarities of scene, imagery, name, theme, and event. However there also exists the curious and all but inevitable combination of poverty, literacy, and food, of reading and diet, with the urban setting and social problems in a way that transcends any sheer transaction of realistic phenomena. Food imagery may begin as stereotype and convention, but it soon becomes more interesting and complex.
With Riis, for example, one finds literary quotation (Thomas Hood's "The Song of the Shirt"), Biblical allusion (Chapter XIX: "The Harvest of Tares" from Matthew 13:25), and Reform Movement slogans and songs ("Bread so dear, And flesh and blood so cheap!") used as stock literary techniques, but Riis's writing often goes beyond this treatment to link poverty, crime, and literacy. In his discussion of "The gang [as] the ripe fruit of tenement-house growth" (82), Riis prefers the gang member over the meek pauper because the gang member's appetites are "those of the wolf rather than the tiger," giving him the energy to become something better "with different training." Riis not only presumes that gangsters are avid readers, but he also insists that their reading not only "affects" but causes their behavior. (Riis would probably be attracted more to the Swede than to the others in Crane's "The Blue Hotel," not only because he has more vitality but because we know that he reads, and because we knew that he reads exciting, sensationalist fiction.)
For a reformer like Charles Loring Brace, "the literature she reads" is only one of several factors that "degrade and defile" a prostitute, but to Riis a city tough's "inordinate vanity" is a direct "result of his swallowing all the flash literature and pennydreadfuls he can beg, borrow, or steal (220). Reading is not mearly an influence upon his character; it is as integral to his biological system as breast-feeding or medicine: readers are "nursed by such a diet into rank and morbid growth" (83).
Reverend Talmage's The Night Sides of City Life also clearly blends food with reading and the city. Whenever Night Sides addresses political or social approaches to urban problems, the imagery tends to medicine, cleanliness, clothes, and engineering; but, when Talmage begins to talk about his readers' feelings or personal attitudes toward the poor, his associations shift to eating and reading. Thus when he comes to praise those who recognize poverty as owing as much to circumstances as to abulia, his discussion immediately widens to include spiritual truth and the reception of The Word. And so, he sides with the poor and hungry but good woman who tells the preacher that "The great want of our city is the Gospel and something to eat!… you have to go forth in this work with the bread of eternal life in your right hand and the bread of this life in your left hand…" (173).
What Talmage calls "the bread of this life" includes not only actual food but literacy; the secular word is as significant as the holy word. Authors and publishers possess a power marvelous in its capacity to nourish but dangerous in its potential to corrupt:
Every time the cylinders of Harper or Appleton [Maggie's 1896 publisher] or Ticknor or Peterson or Lippincott turn, they make the earth quake. From them goes forth a thought like an angel of light to feed and bless the world, or like an angel of darkness to smite it with corruption and sin and shame and death.
Indeed, Talmage, as a preacher and reform writer, openly envies the power of the novelist and the journalist. When he sees that "Almost every man you meet has a book in his hand or a newspaper in his pocket," he worries that they are more welcome to readers than the word of God. "This hungry, all-devouring American mind must have something to read" (73), and he realizes that the more novels like Maggie are lashed for their brutality and lurid melodrama the more readers will be eager to taste them.
Crane hoped his works would be read, but a greater worry was that his first novel might fail to fulfill the kind of profound literacy depicted in Riis, Brace, and Talmage. His focus was the communicative problem of how to make literacy as profound an activity as eating and nourishment. How was an author to make readers feel that they were doing something beyond merely gazing upon a fictional representation of reality, that they were engaged in a fundamental literary process, that they were feeding upon words and not just looking at them? The problem was not so much how to get readers "inside" the story, but how to get the text inside them—or, at least, to create that illusion, at least to encode textual signs to signal that this was the anxiety troubling the author enough to create fiction.
The two most obvious signals in Maggie are the stove and the saloon. The stove's first and literal function, of course, is for feeding the family as well as for warmth. Symbolically it functions as the urban surrogate for the domestic hearth, the psychological site where the family is supposed to center, as it does for the "hurrying men" in Chapter XV who do not notice the "forlorn woman" because they have "their thoughts fixed on distant dinners." But for the Johnsons, that basic function fails; the stove is treated disgracefully, as when the supposed head of the family plops "his great muddled boots on the back part." Although massive, or at least the heaviest object in the home, it takes a beating, sometimes bounced around as though it were made of cardboard instead of iron. It is also the site of the characters' only effort at art when Maggie, attempting to give her family class and to attract Pete's courtship (and thus start another family centered at its own stove), makes "with infinite care" a lambrequin of alternate wheat and roses for the shelf above the stove. Her choice of pattern indicates her humble desire to combine simple food with plain beauty, and her future efforts to restore the lambrequin to its place create sympathy. Her longing for art is also lonely in this harsh environments. Pete does not notice the lambrequin, and the mother of the family destroys it in one of her drunken rampages.
Most of all, the stove stands no more chance against the saloon than the past has against the future. As in George's Mother where the saloon's fraternity attempts to be a surrogate mother, the barroom offers a substitute family in the midst of an urban chaos that is as fragmented as the collars and cuffs in Maggie's workplace. As Riis wrote, "in many a tenement-house block the saloon is the one bright and cheery and humanly decent spot to be found" (79). In Maggie's Chapter XI, alienation is commented on in a fittingly oblique way with a stranger whose presence seems as irrelevant to the text as it is in the tavern. The first time he is mentioned, Pete is "bending expectantly toward" him, but each of the next six times the stranger appears he is farther from the center of the bar. Finally, he is "sprawled very pyrotechnically out on the sidewalk," and the usual crowd of spectators is there to gawk.
If the crowd were a community as represented by the chorus in Greek tragedy (or by the women "like a choir at a funeral" on the last page), their remarks would be apt commentary on the action, but here in the chaotic city there is no empathy; they come merely to feast greedily on spectacle. "The crowd bended and surged in absorbing anxiety to see," and they read everything wrong. Instead of seeing a fight between Jimmie and Pete (allies in the first chapter's fight), and instead of noticing that Jimmie now abandons his new-found ally, they jump to the conclusion that "Dey've t'rowed a bloke inteh deh street." The atmosphere of alienation is thickened also by the fact that aliases are wise in the saloon's supposed fraternity, where Billie (if that is indeed his name) pretends that Jimmie's name is Mike (just as in Nellie's bar Freddie uses a false name to protect himself from the friends he is trying to make). Even Maggie's first publication was under the false name Johnston Smith. The problem extends beyond false names, however; the saloon's very appearance is deceptive and false.
At first, Crane's introduction of the saloon sounds as if he will merely echo the reform writers' stereotyped depictions or Zola's L'Assommoir with its dram-shop entrance framed by lush but poisonous oleander plants. (In Maggie, "The open mouth called seductively to passengers to enter and annihilate sorrow or create rage.") But Crane goes further: the saloon's insides are false as well. Its walls are papered and its leather imitation, and even the massiveness of its shining bar somehow seems "counterfeit." Mirrors are everywhere, multiplying and misleading, feeding vanity with less than skindeep images. Unnatural, it is geometrically manipulative and deceptive. Liquor bottles stand at "regular intervals" and the cash register (the chief icon of this altar) sits in "the exact center of the general effect. The elementary senses of it all seemed to be opulence and geometrical accuracy."
Most telling of all, the saloon subdues and subjugates food to an auxiliary role. Even exotic lemons and oranges are deprived of nutritive value and reduced to decoration, "arranged with mathematical precision" along with the paper napkins. Across from the bar, the food counter is much smaller and much less attended, full of vitality but without any control through diet or etiquette. Upon it "swarmed frayed fragments of crackers, slices of boiled ham, dishevelled bits of cheese, and pickles swimming in vinegar. An odor of grasping, begrimed hands and munching mouths pervaded." Although frantic, this food scene has vitality, unlike the situation at home where "The fire in the stove had gone out. The displaced lids and open doors showed heaps of sullen grey ashes. The remnants of a meal, ghastly, like dead flesh, lay in a corner." A page earlier, Maggie, realizing the inability of the home to nourish growth and coming toPage 121 | Top of Article understand how a life of toil in the factory will soon begin to devour her and drain her vitality, hears the ticking of the clock more clearly than ever before. With time running out, she creates a fiction: "She wondered what Pete dined on."
Maggie hopes for a life that is nourishing, not merely one in which one feeds with grasping hands and munching mouths as in the saloon, but one that shows a more positive relationship between individuals and their environment wherein individuals desire a harmonious and balanced, a controlled yet energetic interaction, with the world as symbolized by eating and dining, the most basic connection one has to life. Thus, it is fortunate that when Pete realizes Jimmie wants to fight and growls "what's eatin' yehs?" Jimmie merely replies, "Gin," because there are so many other powerful forces threatening to devour Rum Alley residents that they would be overwhelmed with rage or depression if they realized it.
That is, liquor is but one of their problems, or is simply symptomatic of other diseases. In fact, even if there were no alcohol at all in the saloon, one could tell just by glancing at the vandalized food table that there was an intense and distorted hunger, a hunger that causes the saloon's inhabitants to put unhealthful things in the mouth—liquor, pipes, cigars, curses—not only to cope, but also because it seems a fitting representation of how poorly life is feeding them. Jimmie vaguely suspects that edenic happiness and secular well-being are at "a hopeless altitude where grew fruit." He might as well, like his companion, ask for "a million dollars and a bottle of beer." Nellie might think Maggie is a "pale little thing with no spirit" expressive of "pumpkin pie and virtue," but pumpkin pie is as hard to come by as virtue in this text, and the last "meal" offered Maggie is a glass of beer and a charlotte-russe, fancier but less nourishing. Filled with toxic chemicals and poisonous relationships, the saloon-goers naturally spew maledictions in return: as the "breaths of fighters came wheezingly from their lips," they gave "vent to low, labored hisses, that sounded like a desire to kill."
These "hisses" of destructive violence are not confined to the saloon; they are heard as readily in the home, where Mary brandishes "a frying-pan full of potatoes that hissed." For this non-communion, the father is absent, the mother drunk. The baby "gorged his small stomach. Jimmie forced, with feverish rapidity, the grease-enveloped pieces between his wounded lips. Maggie, with side glances of fear of interruption, ate like a small pursued tigress." As the mother consumes potatoes and liquor, she reciprocates by "deliver[ing] reproaches" in return for what she puts into her body.
This kind of scene caused The Nation in 1896 to complain of Maggie's animalism and the New York Tribune to say that it was like having "one's face slapped twice a minute for half an hour." Donald Pizer said of this scene that it "combines both the warfare and cave images into one central metaphor of primitive competition for food," exposing "an instinctive amorality, a need to feed and to protect themselves." This observation is certainly true enough, and I like Pizer's suggestion that the scene both draws and repels by making the characters seem so vulnerable yet alien. But another way to look at the scene is as a cluster of metafictional signals to readers wherein what Crane says as the author behind the text is something like the following: in this scene I am trying to give you the impression that we are really delving into the essentials of reality. This scene is not meant to be received as an "Experiment" in misery, but rather as an expose of awful ordinariness among the poor. As my characters eat, you should feel that unguarded moments at home like this dinner scene seem more real than most representations that call themselves Realism. That is, I hope this kind of eating scene makes readers sense that they are engaged in a deeper literary experience than simply gazing at artifacts; that they are actually absorbing the linguistic reality of words in these moments when characters are taking in reality in the form of food. Readers should feel that they are internalizing these literary experiences even as "The shutters of the tall buildings [close] like grim lips" against them (53).
What Crane explicitly says is much more and less direct. When he mentions the father's pipe for the second time and calls it "the apple-wood emblem of serenity between his teeth," the repetition and observation disrupts the narrative flow, thereby drawing attention to a major distinction. The phrase tells us that this is a piece of realistic writing that differs dramatically from sociology, sermons, re-form writing, journalism. A pipe is more than a pipe. In Maggie's realism, aurorae of meaning are meant to emanate from and surround key objects in the reality being transcribed from life. Moreover, these symbolic values may be distorted, skewed, or ironic. The pipe-smoker, for example, is not serene; his mouth is also full of threats.
Another turn of the screw makes us consider that the presence of this one sign stating that aPage 122 | Top of Article symbol exists makes as wonder about the other ingredients in the text. Without being attached to directional signs, when are they to be taken as standing flatly for their referent and when are they to be read for symbolic import? Tommie chewing on a "bit of orange peeling" seems to be a fairly literal re-presentation of a bit of folklore: babies pacified with orange rinds. But how much should we link it with other food imagery where fruit stands for Jimmie's dream of happiness at an "impossible altitude"? To what degree are we being invited to tie the pipe that is not just a pipe but is made of "apple-wood" into the web of meaning we have created around the stove? The argument would then run: just as the stove has supplanted the family hearth, an apple tree instead of being valued for its healthful fruit has been cut down and reshaped so that Mr. Johnson can put something unhealthful into his mouth. How much do any of these interpretations relate to the later apple reference which emphasizes how Pete turns everything into spectacle when he sees Maggie as "the apple of his eye?" Readers are instructed that there is much in this text beyond the literal, that there is meaning deeper than the surface. Maggie's ontology includes both the sensible and the symbolic. Readers are assured that they have the author's blessing, that his motivations are the opposite of the curses of Maggie's mother. "May Gawd curse her forever," Mary shrieked. "May she eat nothin' but stones and deh dirt in deh street."
Crane had hoped to achieve a fiction which would not only be read and looked at but consumed. He had hoped to strike an equation between words and food, but that equation kept returning to metaphor. "Is" kept becoming "like." Reading tended to remain, after all, a spectator sport. As the novel progresses, the abstractness intensifies. Crane increasingly uses words like "apparently" to increase the distance between the reader and the event (Halliburton 45). By the last chapter, Crane takes the strongest emotions and turns them into simile and simulation. Crane first describes the keening of the women at the wake in realistic transcription but then intrudes and turns their keening into simile; instead of crying at a funeral, they are crying "like a choir at a funeral." An "expose" of the "bare facts" of the "naked truth" stays sensationalistic—a peep at urban instead of Polynesian life. Maggie undercuts the humanistic aspiration it articulates about the nature of literary communication. Reading is, after all, different from eating. This humanistic aspiration, however, is very noticeable. In Children of the Poor in 1892, Riis had hoped readers could identify with the poor even if the police called them criminals and the pietistic said they were sinners. He hoped that the power of his words would make readers realize that "After all, [the poorman] is not so very different from the rest of us. Perhaps that, with a remorseful review of the chances he has had, may help to make a fellow-feeling for him in us" (Alland 86). However, it would appear that familiarity bred contempt in Riis. His desire for "fellow-feeling" does not stand much chance against his language that calls the poor "scum," labels workhouse inmates "human wrecks," complains that beggars "prey upon our charities," and wars against "a standing army of ten thousand tramps." In his autobiography, The Making of an American, Riis explained that he left the city to seek refuge in the country, putting "the backbone of Long Island between New York and us. The very lights of the city were shut out. So was the slum, and I could sleep" (Alland 212).
Almost eighty years later, Joseph Katz echoed the same sentiments when he compared Maggie's lot with Mary Magdalene. The problem in Maggie is greater, Katz claimed, because "there is no one save the reader to forgive the transgressor" (196). Even today, misreadings are normal in that readers have so taken up Maggie's story that they believe that Maggie is the well-dressed prostitute who drowns herself in Chapter XVII, even though there is no evidence that it is so. It could be Hattie (with whom Maggie had already been confused in XV) or any "girl of the streets." Halliburton suspects it might simply be a literary echo of Edgar Fawcett's The Evil that Men Do (1889), where a fat man murders a well-dressed prostitute (68). At any rate, Crane's aesthetic has hit another wall. His novel can build reader sympathy for one character (the first part of the title) but not more broadly for a class problem like prostitution or poverty (suggested in the second part of the title).
Or so Crane fears, if the characters he has invented stand for reading relationships. He has created Pete who is stuck on shapes and surfaces when he reads his environment, Mary who will not or cannot read just as she refuses to take Maggie in and who becomes like the city itself which has shut its lips against its victims. Jimmie is the only reader in the text who comes anywhere close to fulfilling Crane's rhetorical ideal. While Riis refers to "fellow-feeling" and Katz calls it love or forgiveness, Jimmie labels the reading situation "confusion": "Again he wondered vaguely if some of the women of his acquaintance had brothers. Nevertheless, his mind did not for an instant confuse himself withPage 123 | Top of Article those brothers." Jimmie alone comes close to seeing others as being like him, but he quickly rejects the thought, just as he alone wishes to take Maggie in but quickly concedes to objections. Such softness would lessen his chances for survival in this harsh, naturalistic environment of eat or be eaten.
Hence, no one but the reader exists to take Maggie in, to have communion with her or at least to confuse our identities with her and with the helpless and the homeless whom Crane used her to represent. However, when Maggie is indeed taken in, the prospect is repulsive. When a passer-by in the text ceases to shun her, or ceases to treat her as mere spectacle (as does the music box lady), Maggie seems doomed. That is, when Crane's communication model is to be fulfilled, he loads the text with the most sensationalistic material of his entire tale. I refer of course to the only major exclusion of any substantial length in the 1896 edition, and I am not so sure that it was deleted only because of Appleton's censorship. It is the paragraph in Chapter XVIII when Maggie (presumably) is approached by the last of a series of Johns, a "great figure" of a "huge fat man" with "great rolls of red fat" and "brown, disordered teeth gleaming under a grey, grizzled moustache from which beedrops dripped. His whole body gently quivered and shook like that of a dead jelly fish." Certainly leaving this paragraph in made the "inside" a much "braver" book, as Crane had expressed in his note to a friend. The "great figure" is not only a disgusting John, but he is also, technically, a fulfillment of the equation between literacy and eating. He is a gross Whitmanian, waiting to take Maggie in, to absorb her, to swallow her up, but his actions are worlds away from the rhetorical ideal and communication model which Crane and other reform and realistic writers of his generation articulated. This "great figure" represents Crane's contrary worry that Maggie might not draw crowds to look at her; it also represents Crane's dread at being devoured by his readers, of his text playing Jonah to our whale.
The anxiety that one's greatest authorial ideal might also be connected with great dread, that the "great figure" of a reader might also be the fat, devouring sea creature of one's nightmares, begins the first of three bizarre communions. The last chapter features Mary's false communion where she's "at a table eating like a fat monk in a picture." She continues to eat while others try to tell her of Maggie's death; her forgiveness is patently insincere, her mouth filled with a vocabulary "derived from mission churches," a vocabulary also similar to and as superficial and trite as the words of reform writers. There is something wrong about a fat monk for Crane, just as there is something wrong about having his communion between reader and text take place. There has been no progress since we first heard someone "shrieking like a monk in an earthquake," nor has there been movement toward spiritual acceptance or humanistic fellow-feeling since Jimmie heard the sermon in the soup-kitchen and "confused the speaker with Christ." The only moment that promises to escape this era's materialistic definitions of the self and deterministic explanations of social realities comes in the previous chapter when Pete's friends are metaphorically cannibalizing him. Striving to prove "the purity of his motives" and the "fervor of his friendship," Pete tries to force money on a waiter Who "kept his hands on his tray. 'I don' want yer money,' he said." But this moment is no sharing of food and spirituality in common communion. Its transcendence, instead, is born of disgust. Crane had hoped that fiction might enable readers to consume a text and feel that they were nibbling "the sacred cheese" of life itself, as expressed in "The Open Boat," the equation to achieve the same absorptive feelings of camaraderie, fellowship, and correspondence between individuals. However, his initial aesthetic goals predicated on an equation of eating and literacy resulted in disgust, devourment, or metaphor and spectacle.
Source: Henry Golemba, "Distant Dinners in Crane's Maggie," in Essays in Literature, Vol. 21, No. 2, Fall 1994, pp. 235–50.
Colvert, James B., "Stephen Crane," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 12, American Realists and Naturalists, Gale Research, 1982, pp. 100–24.
Dreiser, Theodore, Letter to Max J. Herzberg on November 2, 1921, in the Michigan Daily Sunday Magazine, Vol. XXXII, No. 54, November 27, 1921, p. 1.
Garnett, Edward, "Stephen Crane and His Work," in Friday Nights: Literary Criticism and Appreciations, Knopf, 1922, pp. 201–17.
Howard, Jane, Form and History in American Literary Naturalism, University of North Carolina Press, 1985.
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Howard discusses Maggie and other naturalist works in context.
Nagel, James, Stephen Crane and Literary Impressionism, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1980.
Nagel examines aspects of this literary school in Crane's work alongside the traditional focus on naturalistic elements.
Solomon, Eric, Stephen Crane: From Parody to Realism, Harvard University Press, 1966.
Solomon suggests that Crane parodied conventional literature of the nineteenth century as a means of developing his own fiction.
Stallman, R. W., Stephen Crane: A Biography, Brazillier, 1968.
Stallman presents a comprehensive look at Crane's life and work.
Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3421300016