Monday, October 10, 2016

Maggie: A Girl of the Streets by Stephen Crane

American literary naturalism starts here
Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, originally published in 1893, is the first novel by author Stephen Crane. It is also widely considered the first example of naturalism in American fiction, and it is by any measure a groundbreaking work in the history of American literature. Naturalism, the literary movement pioneered by French author Emile Zola, made a marked departure from the romantic tradition by calling for the depiction of the world with a brutal realism, scientific detachment, and meticulous attention to detail. Characters are not seen as individualistic heroes, but rather as organisms defined by their environment and the society in which they live.

Crane’s novel is an exemplar of this new, audacious literary approach. Maggie and her family eke out a sordid existence in the Bowery neighbor of New York City. At first she is a supporting character, waiting in the wings, as her brother Jimmie takes center stage. When the book opens, we find him engaged in a deadly street fight with a rival gang. The reader then follows him to his squalid home, where we meet his drunken parents. We thus experience first-hand the environment in which young Maggie is (or isn’t) raised and nurtured. One day Jimmie brings home a friend named Pete, who takes a liking to Maggie. With this first love, Maggie grows from a girl to a woman, and must contend with the challenge of sexuality vs. respectability faced by women in this harsh milieu.

Crane paints a vividly gritty portrait of life in the slums, and transcribes the dialogue of the denizens of Rum Alley in all its idiosyncratic accents. Nevertheless, he clearly pens his narrative in the literary voice of an academically trained writer. The closest stylistic approximation to Crane’s writing would be the impressionist paintings of the American Ashcan School, painters like John Sloan and George Bellows, who rendered scenes of working class life with lush brush strokes and an expert sense of color.

What’s missing from much of Crane’s narrative is sympathy. His descriptions of squalor appear devoid of any social consciousness, as if to empathize with the characters would be too sentimental. When he describes the drunken, uncouth behavior of Maggie’s parents and brother, there’s a ring of, “Look at these poor people. How they carry on!” Compare this to Zola’s much more sympathetic depiction of alcoholism in L’Assomoir. If Zola is guilty of turning the working class into heroes and martyrs, Crane could be guilty of turning them into buffoons. Maggie is the one character that escapes from this tone of condescension, and when she becomes the story’s main focus in the second half the book vastly improves. There’s almost a hint of proto-feminism in the way Crane points out the absurdity of the double standard that punishes women for being sexually active while their male counterparts are free to philander as they please.

Crane is best known for The Red Badge of Courage, his novel of the Civil War. I’ll confess I wasn’t overly impressed with that work, and my dissatisfaction with it temporarily steered me away from Crane. Maggie, on the other hand, I found a very compelling and affecting work, and I’m glad I gave Crane a second chance. I am now looking forward to digging deeper into his body of work.
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