Maggie, A Girl of the Streets (Webster's Thesaurus Edition)

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PENGUIN CLASSICS

MAGGIE: A GIRL OF THE STREETS
AND OTHER TALES OF NEW YORK

Stephen Crane (1871–1900) was born in Newark, New Jersey, the youngest in a family of fourteen children. His father was a prominent Methodist minister and his mother, niece of a Methodist bishop, was a leading churchwoman. After brief attendances at Lafayette College and then Syracuse University Crane joined his brother’s news agency in New Jersey and, while continuing to pursue freelance journalism, drifted into the bohemia of lower Manhattan. His first novel, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893) failed to find a reading public but was enthusiastically received by Hamlin Garland and William Dean Howells, who encouraged his literary career. With his next novel, The Red Badge of Courage (1895), he became an instant, international celebrity. As a journalist Crane reported from the American West, Mexico, Greece, and Cuba, as well as New York, and also converted a number of his experiences into fiction. The stories and sketches he wrote following the composition of The Red Badge of Courage are among the finest short works in all of American literature. In 1899 Crane and his wife, Cora, settled in England where his tubercular condition was aggravated by the relentless work schedule he undertook in order to meet his debts. He died in a sanitarium in Germany in June 1900.

Larzer Ziff is the author of a number of books on American literary culture, among them The American 1890s, winner of the Christian Gauss Award. A member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, he is Research Professor of English at The Johns Hopkins University.

MAGGIE: A GIRL
OF THE STREETS

AND OTHER
TALES OF NEW YORK

STEPHEN CRANE

EDITED WITH AN INTRODUCTION BY LARZER ZIFF
WITH THE ASSISTANCE OF THEO DAVIS

Maggie: A Girl of the Streets
(A Story of New York) (1893)

INTRODUCTION:
STEPHEN CRANE’S NEW YORK

Stephen Crane’s characteristic literary form was the brief, vivid, self-contained unit. Even his novels, short as they are, are made up of a series of sharply realized episodes, each of which is almost a complete story in itself. Unlike his contemporary Frank Norris, he did not seek to spread his characters and actions across a broad panorama in pursuit of the effects of epic, nor, like another contemporary, Theodore Dreiser, did he seek to build his fictive worlds through the inexorable massing of the sticks and stones of life. We find Norris’s California or Dreiser’s Chicago in their large novels, but Stephen Crane’s New York comes to us in two short novels, Maggie and George’s Mother, and in a wealth of short pieces—stories, sketches, reports—that he wrote before he and that city came to an unamiable parting of the ways in 1896.

This edition offers Crane’s New York through a reprinting of the two so-called Bowery novels and a selection from the range of brilliant, sharply incised sketches and stories he wrote for newspapers and magazines in 1892–94, the artistically fertile years of his hectic residence in a hectic city. It concludes with his 1896 newspaper report of the conflict that led to his departure from the city in that year.

As if in anticipation of the early death that claimed him in 1900 before his twenty-ninth birthday, Stephen Crane was always in a hurry. Yet his sense of urgency rarely led to careless writing. Rather it propelled a style in which selected images and swiftly drawn episodes are made to yield effects that had more conventionally been elicited through extended plotting. Before Crane, novels set in New York presented that city as quantitatively different from the villages, towns, and other cities of nineteenth-century America. More people lived there than anywhere else, but those people were portrayed as maintaining pretty much the same patterns of behavior that informed American life prior to the rise of large cities.

Crane’s New York pieces, however, are like the colored fragments of a kaleidoscope that when placed in juxtaposition reveal a completely new picture. Quantitative difference has resulted in qualitative difference. To live in New York, acutely alone yet always a member of a crowd, is to develop a sense of self and acquire a standard of conduct distinctly different from any previous models. Collectively, Crane’s New York works usher into the national literature the twentieth-century American metropolis as a unique environment that shapes a new kind of person.

*   *   *

Nineteen-year-old Stephen Crane entered Lafayette College in September 1890 and within three months accumulated a sufficient number of “academic deficiencies” to necessitate his withdrawal. Shortly thereafter, however, he managed to gain entrance to Syracuse University as a special student—perhaps because his mother’s uncle, Bishop Jesse Truesdell Peck, had been one of its founders—but his stay there was also short-lived. Crane expended a good deal of energy playing for the university’s baseball team (as catcher and shortstop) and received an A in English literature. But he failed all other subjects and when the summer recess arrived he departed for Asbury Park, New Jersey, where his widowed mother lived, never to return.

While at Syracuse, Crane had written stories and sketches and served as a stringer for the New York Tribune. He continued to experiment with stories and sketches when in Asbury Park in the summer of 1891 he began a full-time career as a freelance writer, supplying reports about summer-season activities on the Jersey Shore to the Tribune and other newspapers. Among these summer projects was further work on Maggie, a version of which had been begun at Syracuse in the spring. College friends later recalled that while there Crane had frequented the night police courts, talked with street people, and spent social hours in music halls where, in their words, “daringly clad girls” danced and sang. It is clear that before he had ever visited the streets of New York he had already envisaged Maggie and begun accumulating material for it, a procedure that would be characteristic of his later literary practice as well. Typically, he made his forays into life—conducted his research, as it were—in order to find details that would support what he already had envisioned rather than to gather experiences upon which he could then exercise his imagination. His great Civil War novel, for example, which rendered with precision what it was like to be under fire, was written before he had ever witnessed a military engagement; it was the novel itself that led him to seek out a war he could observe. Crane’s imagination was always in advance of his experience, and in the sometimes exaggerated luridness of its details Maggie bears this mark of being a fiction projected upon the screen of life by an incandescent imagination rather than a narrative of experienced life passed through its lens.

In 1892 Crane began making visits to New York’s Bowery from his residence in New Jersey, and then in October of that year he moved to New York, worked on a revision of his novel, and began life in the series of apartments and studios in lower Manhattan that he shared with fellow bohemians from 1892 to 1894. Early in 1893, Maggie was published at Crane’s own expense by a small print shop on New York’s Sixth Avenue. Below the title on the book’s mustard-yellow cover were two subtitles, “A Girl of the Streets,” and “(A Story of New York).” The cover also proclaimed that the price was fifty cents and the author was Johnston Smith. “Commonest name I could think of,” Crane told a friend. “I had an editor named Johnson and put in the ‘t,’ and no one could find me in the mob of Smiths.”

Apparently almost no one found the small book either. Of the 1,100 copies printed Crane kept one for himself and gave away about 100 others. The rest served for kindling in whatever New York apartment or studio he was at the moment sharing with fellow artists in the impecunious days following the book’s publication. Today a surviving copy of Maggie is among the rarest and costliest of first editions of modern American literature.

It has been conjectured that Crane used a pseudonym—sought to get lost among the Smiths—because as a young author who was yet to find a public he was cautious about immediately identifying himself with a work that he himself regarded as shocking in its implication that its heroine was driven to prostitution by her circumstances rather than drawn to it because of an inherently sinful nature. In the closing decades of the nineteenth century New York’s wealthier citizens, taking alarm at the size and condition of the city’s “other half,” as reformer Jacob Riis labeled the distressed classes, had launched a number of moral reform agencies, the most prominent of which adhered to the belief that poverty was caused by laziness and a life of prostitution was willingly chosen by depraved women too shiftless to seek more honest means of earning money. A strong distinction was drawn between the deserving poor and those who were inherently degraded, and assistance was firmly withheld from all whom the reformers in their wisdom chose to assign to the latter category. In Maggie Crane scorned the distinction, not by polemically attacking it but by ignoring it, representing a reality that bore no relation whatsoever to the platitudes advanced by the legions of moral righteousness.

Another significant branch of reform, however, centered on the need to improve the social conditions that led to degradation rather than to punish the victims of poverty and vice. In 1886, running for the office of mayor of New York, the reformer Henry George had asked in a campaign speech what it was that “forces girls upon the streets and our boys into grog shops and penitentiaries.” Maggie is very much about what it is that forces girls upon the streets, and Crane’s later work, George’s Mother, is concerned with what it is that forces boys into the grog shop.

In outline, Maggie’s story is one that was told often by concerned observers. A month before the publication of Maggie, an article in the Arena, a magazine to which Crane later contributed pieces such as “An Ominous Baby,” ran an article entitled “The Woes of the New York Working Girl” that spoke of young women “dragging themselves from dirty, vermin-thronged beds at five in the morning, being blackguarded and beaten by drunken parents, being tempted by rakes whose very lust seems a haven of refuge to them.” And of course the seduction and abandonment that terminate in the death of the heroine is a novelistic theme almost as old as the novel itself.

The manner in which Crane tells the familiar tale, however, is entirely original and so electrically revivifies the well-known structure of oppressive circumstances, seductive charms, heartless abandonment, prostitution, and death that it becomes a story never told before. Although the plot of Maggie advances chronologically from chapter to chapter, it unfolds in distinct scenes, none of which necessarily follows from the preceding. Each unit stands by itself, its integrity further emphasized by Crane’s at times beginning a chapter away from his central characters before bringing them into focus—as if, at the outset, we might be dealing with another cast of characters than those whom we already know.

Consider the following sets of consecutive sentences. “Maggie’s red mother, stretched on the floor, blasphemed and gave her daughter a bad name. An orchestra of yellow silk women and bald-headed men on an elevated stage near the centre of a great green-hued hall, played a popular waltz.” And: “She wondered if the culture and refinement she had seen imitated, perhaps grotesquely, by the heroine on the stage, could be acquired by a girl who lived in a tenement house and worked in a shirt factory. A group of urchins were intent upon the side door of a saloon.” The first set ends Chapter VI and begins VII; the second ends Chapter VIII and begins IX.

The consecutive sentences of each set contrast sharply in that the location of the action is abruptly changed but also because in the change of scene we lose sight of the characters we have thus far been following and must wait to relocate them in the new setting. So, for example, the scene in the entertainment saloon is set before Maggie and Pete are placed in it rather than after we follow them into it. In cinematic terms, Crane pans the hall before focusing on his actors, and this opening contrasts in focus as well as content with the sharply realized figure of the “red mother” stretched on the floor with which the previous scene closed. In the second set, the first sentence is concerned with interiority, with the wistful movement of Maggie’s thought, while the second sentence is decidedly exterior, a street scene outside a door. Objectivity contrasts with subjectivity, and as the new scene unfolds we must again wait a moment before an unnamed character emerges from the saloon. We must hesitate yet a second or two more before we recognize her as Maggie’s mother.

Such interrupted continuities evoke a world that is larger than and overshadows the lives of the characters. They are, to be sure, at the center of our attention, but their brief appearances occur between briefer disappearances. They are constantly framed by shifting scenery that leads us time and again to reapproach them after temporarily losing sight of them in the city. Although Maggie is certainly the heroine of this little drama, she does not take the stage more frequently than the others, which further contributes to the sense that this is indeed, as the subtitle insists, a story of New York.

But, after observing the apparent contrasts within the sets of sentences, we note also underlying coherence. In the first set of sentences, most obviously it is the color register of red, yellow, and green that binds the scenes together. The red of Maggie’s mother is the emblem of her violently destructive dissolution. The yellow silk of the women in the orchestra is less menacing, even perhaps wanly cheerful, and yet in conjunction with the bald-headed men the yellow also suggests that the waltz in the green-hued hall is but a temporary stay against inevitable decay. And although Maggie’s shy wondering as to whether a girl in her circumstances could ever attain the culture and refinement she saw grotesquely imitated in the melodrama she attended contrasts strongly with the urchins outside the door, the two are continuous as well. The urchins also have gathered to attend a drama, one of real life that answers the question Maggie has just asked herself with a decisive negative.

Throughout Maggie, Crane works against the conventions of realism—the representation of precisely realized details that accumulate into a persuasive model of the actual world—even while in good part abiding by them. His gift was for incisive brevity rather than for the irresistible solidity of detail that constitutes the represented world of an author such as Dreiser. In consequence he had to achieve his effects swiftly, by taking even common details and pushing them ...

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