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.
Maggie: A Girl of the Streets presents more difficulties to modern readers than other major work by Crane. The heavy dialect and outmoded slang can be distracting, but a more central problem lies in the characterization, or lack of it, of the protagonist. The harrowing pictures of life in a New York slum, however, still ring true.
The fundamental law of life in the Bowery is revealed in the opening scene and depicted as absolute throughout the story. Maggie’s brother Jimmie Johnson appears as a small boy fighting a group of boys from Devil’s Row “for the honor of Rum Alley.” As he is about to be overwhelmed, an older boy, Pete, happens along and pitches in on his side. With the enemy routed, Jimmie goes home to a family also at war; here the mother is victorious, the father driven out to drown his sorrows in a neighboring saloon. So it goes throughout: The powerful prey on the powerless and are preyed upon themselves in turn. Power may stem from physical prowess, from socioeconomic position, or from sexual desirability. Whatever its source, however, power is universally exploited for pleasure or vindication.
Because the characters lack any vestige of self-knowledge or empathy, inevitably their behavior is revealed as at best futile, at worst destructive. Jimmie fights for the “honor” of Rum Alley, but Rum Alley has no honor. The mother ultimately banishes Maggie in the name of conventional respectability, but she herself is a ranting and raving alcoholic. The streets and tenements that make up the urban jungle are strewn with victims. Maggie, from the first scene in which she appears, is only one of many.
Maggie: A Girl of the Streets consists of nineteen brief sections; in the first four, Maggie and Jimmie are children. In these sections, Crane is highly successful in evoking the milieu. It is in the fifth—with Maggie grown and engaged in near-slave labor as a seamstress—that he begins to run into trouble. She has become “a most rare and wonderful production of a tenement district, a pretty girl.” As additional characterization, Crane reveals that “when a child, playing and fighting with gamins in the street, dirt disgusted her.” That statement essentially marks the limit of his conception of Maggie. For the story to rise above pathos, its heroine would have to reveal some divine spark, or, in practical terms, considerable spunk in her attempts to make a new life for...
(The entire section is 3,385 words.)