Maggie: A Girl of the Streets was among the early American novels to break from British literary antecedents and move toward the kind of naturalism that Émile Zola was then writing in France. Maggie’s plot is thought to have been suggested by Zola’s novel about alcoholism, L’Assommoir (1877). In 1893, when Crane paid $869 to have eleven hundred copies of Maggie privately printed, most American readers of novels were innocent of many aspects of the real world. The moral priggishness and hypocrisy that pervade Crane’s novel afflicted not only the common, slum-dwelling people about whom he wrote, but characterized East Coast society generally.
Despite the power of Crane’s writing, Maggie shocked the small audience it reached partly because of Maggie Johnson’s fall into prostitution and partly because of the level of language that Crane employed to depict his characters convincingly. Hamlin Garland praised the book, as did William Dean Howells, who compared Crane to Leo Tolstoy. Reviewers recognized Maggie as a powerful book; however, as E. J. Edwards wrote in the Press, the novel was notable for its “cold, awful, brutal realism.” Edwards urged Crane to tell his story in a less shocking manner.
A warehouse fire destroyed most of the 1893 edition of Maggie. Had Crane not gained the recognition that The Red Badge of Courage (1895) brought him, it is doubtful he would have ever published a revised edition of Maggie. His 1896 edition of the book contains less profanity than the original and was toned down to meet some of the earlier objections to the book.