Stephen Crane Essay, Research Paper
Today in modern America, it has become almost impossible to avoid the tales of horror that surround us almost anywhere we go. Scandals, murders, theft, corruption, extortion, abuse, prostitution, all common occurrences in this day in age. A hundred years ago however, people did not see the world in quite such an open manner despite the fact that in many ways, similarities were abundant. People’s lives were, in their views, free of all evil and pollution. They assumed they lived peaceful lives and those around them lived the same flawless lives untouched by corruption as well. Many were too blind to see beyond their own homes and into the lives of others who dealt with a more unfortunate fate. Those being the ones who lived in poverty, abuse, and other harsh conditions which were finally exposed to America in 1893 by a 22-year old college free lance writer who simply wished to show things as they appeared to him: bitterly real. Stephen Crane was America’s first realistic writer who exposed the realities of the slums, tenement living and other unfavorable conditions to a very na?ve American audience. Through hard work and his great devotion to the examination of the darker side of life Crane finally was able to publish his novel in which explored his experiences of the New York slums. Through his great use of dialect, irony and realism in his novel Maggie: A Girl of the Streets Stephen Crane is able to accomplish his goal of creating a
vivid picture in his reader’s mind, portraying the harsh, abusive conditions of the many lives condemned to this fortune.
Stephen Crane began his quest for the truth in the summer of 1889 while visiting his brother who lived in New Jersey (Peden, 104). While living with his brother Crane was drawn to the idea of realistic writing. He would travel to New York on almost a daily basis to witness and experience the poverty and abusive conditions of the slums (Colvert, 104). During his visits to New York Crane was able to establish an understanding and develop a feeling for what life was like in the slums. He soon acquired a craving for individuality and a yearning to express his experiences. He began his mission by placing upon himself the desire to become his own individual, separating himself from other writers of the era by using his unique style of realistic writing as well as dialect (Cantwell, 141).
According to Hamlin Garland a well-known critic as well as a writer during this time, Crane, “…gives the dialect of the slums as I never before seen it written—crisp, direct, terse” (121). His use of dialect throughout the novel is virtually impossible to ignore. The choppy uneducated lines and dialogue shows the obvious knowledge of the way the poor lived and the purpose behind the writing. Crane was able to develop his own dialect which was reflected in his writings. His dialogue is perhaps the best aspect of his writing gained through his experience. Crane used dialect as the basis of his writings (Karlen, 5843). All other techniques fell into place and based themselves around this aspect (Karlen, 5843). Crane’s unique way of expressing the events that are taking place is perhaps one of the most admirable qualities of his writings. “The girl,
Maggie, blossomed in a mud puddle. She grew up to be a most rare and wonderful production of a tenement district, a pretty girl”(Crane, 16). Crane’s choice of wording in this description of a grown Maggie is one of the many examples of Crane’s unique choice of wording in contrasting Maggie, a beautiful girl, to a mud puddle, the tenements, which she’d grown up around. Amo Karlen describes this kind of writing as being one of Crane’s, “…little masterpieces of the most subtle and difficult prose effects—rhythm, assonance, alliteration—and full of premeditated irony or menacing beauty…”(5844). Aside from his contrasting views, the dialogue among Crane’s character’s is unavoidable and at times somewhat difficult to follow. “The conversation has the exactitude of the dull repetitious speech of half-drunken boasters, and Crane is responsible for the fictional theory that such repetition is realistic art”(Quinn, 534). Perhaps the best example of the uneducated dialogue between the characters is most evident at the beginning of the novel when Maggie and her bother Jimmy are just children. They have both just come home only to be greeted with the loud crying of a baby’s voice:
Ah, what deh hell!, cried Jimmie. Shut up er I’ll smack yer mout’. See?….The father heard and turned about. Stop that Jim, d’yeh hear? Leave yer sister alone on the street. It’s like I can never beat any sense into yer dammed wooden head (Crane, 7).
Scenes like these are typical in the opening chapters of the novel. His uncensored dialect help in the creation of Crane’s, “…modern slum-world, ferocious and sorid…”(Berryman58-59). It continues in this manner until Maggie and Jimmie are
introduced as young adults. The tone as well as the dialect of the book becomes much lighter and the tension between the characters lessens.
The main focus of the remaining chapters is the change of Maggie. After being introduced to Peter, one of Jimmie’s friends, Maggie undergoes a drastic change. She becomes aware of her surroundings and begins to take note of the world around her. Perhaps the greatest irony of the novel lies in this change that occurs to Maggie. When first introduced to Maggie, we are given a picture of complete and utter innocence. She is presented to us as a strong, defiant child battling to overcome life’s hardships. She is unaware of life beyond her way of living and is much too na?ve to realize how poorly she lives. All this changes when she meets Peter. She becomes more self conscious, taking notice of things around her that she has never before taken note of and never in her life had any significance to her:
Turning, Maggie contemplated the dark, dust-stained walls and the scant and crude furniture of her home. A clock, in a splintered and battered oblong box of varnished wood, she suddenly regarded as an abomination. She noted that it ticked raspingly. The almost vanished flowers in the carpet-pattern, she conceived to the newly hideous. Some faint attempts she had made with blue ribbon, to freshen the appearance of a dingy curtain, she now saw to be piteous. She wondered what Pete dined on (Crane, 20).
This shows Maggie’s first signs of awareness as well as her big reality check. Crane purpose behind is all, simply to be real. John Berryman once found a quote of Crane’s
which stated, “I believe in Irony”(55). His belief in this is created his inspiration for the basis of Maggie’s theme. In the novel Crane uses irony as weapon against both Maggie and her family member who only see life as their surroundings and are incapable of seeing things beyond that point (Colvert, 105). He presents it to his audience in this manner because he knows it’s unavoidable. It becomes almost impossible for his audience to ignore the truth and the harsh reality of this young girl’s life. James Colvert quotes, “…Maggie’s irony marks the contrast between reality and fantasy which is the basis of the novel’s structure”(105).
Although the whole theme of the novel lies in its irony, it does not only exist there. Perhaps the first bit of irony lies in the opening chapter of the novel as Jimmie stands to fight for the honor of Run Alley, which is simply a heap of gravel which he prides himself in (Pizer 5850). His defiance to defend something so insignificant is not only ironic, but humorous as well. He is almost beaten to death, but none the less remains defiant in his honor of defending Rum Alley. Chester Walford notes of Crane’s technique, “…it’s greatness lies in the irony of this harsh environment, no one’s quest is fulfilled, and no one learns anything: the novel swings from chaos on the one side to complete illusion on the other.”
The end of the novel brings along with it, the end of Maggie herself. In the final chapter Maggie meets her ultimate fate. Edwin Moses says of Maggie’s conclusion, “It is one of the most harrowingly ironic endings in all of fiction…”(433). After being disowned by her mother for leaving her home to live with Peter, Maggie is disowned by Peter as well. In the end she is left for a more beautiful woman with more beautiful
clothing and more money. When Maggie tries to return home to her mother, she is cast away and turns to prostitution as a way of life. She eventually dies alone and abandoned on the streets of New York. After hearing news of her daughter’s death, Maggie’s uncaring, uncompassionate, heartless, drunkard mother cries out in agony, “Oh, yes, I’ll fergive her! I’ll fergive her!”(Crane, 61). With this, the novel is ended and one is left with a unsatisfying feeling of overwhelming sadness. Pizer states that Crane’s purpose behind it all, “…was not to show the effects of environment but to distinguish between moral appearance and reality, to attack the sanctimonious self-deception and sentimental emotional gratification of moral poses”(5850).
Crane could have most probably used any technique to reveal the truths and realities to his audience. His use of dialect and irony are only a few, but perhaps his most effective as well as his most powerful technique lies in his use of realism. Robert Cantwell claims, “Crane wanted to picture the truth unsparingly, as he saw it, in terms as violent as the life was violent, not for the purpose of starting a crusade, but because he believed that an art which glossed over or ignored so much of the American scene was narrow at best. ‘We are most successful in art when we approach nearest to nature and truth, ‘ he said”(141-142). Crane’s brutal descriptions of life and harsh portrayals of the slums are what give his work a unique twist in comparison to other American literary works of the time:
The curtain at the window had been pulled by a heavy hand and hung by one tack, dangling to and fro in the draft through the cracks at the sash. The knots of blue ribbon appeared like violated flowers. 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. Maggie’s red mother, stretched on the floor, blasphemed and gave her daughter a bad name (Crane, 21-22).
In this scene Crane paints his depressing, gloomy yet utterly real setting and is able to convey his thoughts and views of his experiences. This technique is often repeated and occurs often in his writings. Crane is credited and recognized for having the ability to do this so well. “Both realism and symbolism, the two major directions of modern fiction, have their beginnings in Crane’s work”(Peden, 150). The caliber of Maggie’s reality was too graphic for many people of the time to handle and was therefore looked down upon by many.
Upon first being published Maggie was not released due to its graphic nature. Crane later made some minor adjustments and sent it back to the publisher for publication. He was once again denied due to its contents. So rather than having to adjust it once again, Crane borrowed money from his brother and had it privately published at his own expense under the pseudonym Jonhston Smith. Maggie was highly criticized and quite unpopular. It was not until after the publication of his masterpiece The Red Badge of Courage, that Crane became well known. Maggie, although not the most well known piece of writing done by Crane, was perhaps his best realistic writing. Many criticized his style of writing but it eventually gained support as well as popularity. Credit is given to Crane’s, “uncompromising realism” which lead to many others, such as Frank Norris and Theodore Dreiser, to follow in his footsteps
(Peden, 150). Martin Seymour-Smith points out, “Regardless of whether naturalism is a ‘true’ philosophy or not, Crane gave an unforgettable account of one poor creature whose life was quickly snuffed out by her environment”(38). In Maggie, the only way out of the harsh realities was her illusions and fantasies, much like it is today in many people’s lives. They feel trapped in a world in which it is difficult to move forward and almost equally as hard to move on.
In many ways it is in this manner and thought of mind that Stephen Crane created Maggie with his unique use of dialect, irony and perhaps most of all realism. Crane’s use of them created Maggie and in Maggie lies his little masterpiece. Perhaps not his most well-known or popular piece, but undoubtedly a piece of writing whose impact has not gone unnoticed. It can be credited to the success and evolution of a whole new style of writing that began a new chapter of American literature. Not only is Maggie the tragic story of the destruction of a young girl’s life, but rather a story of truth. A truth that lies in the lives of many, but remains unnoticed and unheard by those whose lives remain clean and untouched from its corruption.
Berryman, John. Stephen Crane: A Critical Biography. New York: McGraw-Hill,
Cantwell, Robert. “Stephen Crane.” Famous American Men of Letters. New
York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1956. 135-145.
Colvert, James B. “Stephen Crane.” American Realists and Naturalists. Ed.
Donald Pizer. Detroit: Gale, 1982. 100-24. Vol. 12 of Dictionary of Literary Biography.
Crane, Stephen. Maggie: A Girl of the Streets and Other Short Fiction. New
York: Bantam Books, 1986.
Garland, Hamlin. “Maggie: A Girl of the Streets.” The Arena June 1893. Rpt. in
Twentieth Century Literary Critcism. Ed. Dennis Poupard. Vol. 11. Detroit: Gale, 1983. 121.
Karlen, Amo. “The Craft of Stephen Crane.” Georgia Review Fall 1974: pp 470-
84. Rpt. in The Chelsea House Library of Literary Criticism.
Moses, Edwin. “Stephen Crane.” Magill’s Survey of American Literature. Ed.
Frank N. Magill. Vol. 2. New York: Marshall Cavendish Corp., 1991. 427-41.
Peden, William. “Stephen Crane.” Encyclopedia Americana. 1998 ed.
Pizer, Donald. “Stephen Crane’s Maggie and American Naturalism.” Criticism
Spring 1965: 168-75. Rpt. in The Chelsea House Library of Literary
Criticism. Ed. Harold Bloom. Vol. 10 New York: Chelsea House
Publishers, 1989. 5858-53.
Quinn, Arthur Hobson. “The Journalists.” American Fiction: An Historical and
Critical Survey. New York: Appleton Century-Crofts, Inc., 1936. 521-49.
Seymour-Smith, Martin. “Stephen Crane.” Funk and Wagnalls Guide to Modern
Literature. New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1973. 37-40.
Walford, Chester L. “Stephen Crane.” Critical Survey of Long Fiction. Ed. Frank
N. Magill. Vol. 2. New Jersey: Salem Press, 1983. 638-47.