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Maggie: A Girl of the Streets | Study Guide

Stephen Crane

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Maggie: A Girl of the Streets | Context


Realism, Naturalism, and Determinism

Realism emerged as a literary style in the second part of the 19th century. Authors attempted to recreate scenes, action, and people as realistically as possible, including the speech and psychology of characters. Influenced by journalism, Realist fiction presents events with true-to-life detail without judgment and tends to focus on the poor or working classes. This genre was developed in part as a reaction to Romanticism, which emphasizes emotion, imagination, spontaneity, and self-expression over reason.

Although Romanticism had been very popular since the late 18th century, by the middle of the 19th century, many European authors came to view it as artificial. Stephen Crane, with his journalism background and interest in the poor, uses a Realist narrative style in many of his works, including Maggie: A Girl of the Streets. Crane carefully researched life in the poverty-stricken Bowery neighborhood of New York City during the late 1890s. He even spent time living there to gain the detailed, firsthand knowledge needed to accurately portray the brutality of poverty.

The realism with which Crane portrays the unrelenting debauchery of the Bowery is so gritty that American publishers saw it as too daring and would not publish the novella. However, Crane was determined to expose the reality of poverty's disturbing inhumaneness, and he paid to publish Maggie: A Girl of the Streets himself. While Realism had been trendy in Europe since the 1860s, it was still new to American readers in the 1890s. Crane used Maggie: A Girl of the Streets to focus on social injustice. It was only after the success of The Red Badge of Courage that Crane found a publisher who would distribute Maggie: A Girl of the Streets to a wider audience.

Crane's fiction influenced later authors, especially in the vein of social realism. This influence led to an offshoot of Realist fiction: Naturalism. In Naturalist literature, the environment plays a vital role, often becoming a character in its own right. Naturalism explores how a social environment—such as the state of poverty—affects characters. Naturalism differs from Realism in its belief that people's environment—rather than free will—determines their lives. In this way Crane's Maggie: A Girl of the Streets is also an early example of determinism: the idea that all events are determined by preexisting causes. Crane himself wrote that Maggie: A Girl of the Streets "tries to show that environment is a tremendous thing in the world and frequently shapes lives."

The Bowery in the Late 19th Century

The Bowery refers both to a street and a neighborhood in Lower Manhattan. Begun as a dirt road used by Native Americans, the street is the oldest one in New York City. The name is a derivative of the Old Dutch word bouwerie, a lane that led to the farm of Dutch colonial governor Peter Stuyvesant in the late 17th century. By the early 19th century, the Bowery had emerged as a signature mile-long city street populated by banks, stylish stores, theaters, and mansions.

However, by the late 19th century, the Bowery was in decline. Wealthy residents moved farther north in Manhattan, and street gangs and brothels moved into the Lower East Side, turning the Bowery into a slum. The influx of new immigrants fleeing famine or revolution in the late 19th century found the only shelter they could afford in the Bowery: cheap, cramped, poorly lit tenements on a squalid and overcrowded urban street. Crane personally witnessed the misery of the Bowery's environment when he immersed himself in its street life to research newspaper articles he wrote about urban poverty.

In Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, Crane used his firsthand knowledge to portray the Bowery accurately with all of its drunkenness, corruption, and desperation. The novella embodies the Realism genre with its graphic documentation of life in a slum. With Maggie and members of her family overwhelmed by circumstances beyond their control, Maggie also suggests the Naturalist view: their failure appears inevitable as their harsh environment determines their fate.

Irish Immigration in the 19th Century

Ireland's Great Potato Famine (1845–49) was caused by a viral fungus that destroyed the edible part of potato plants. Potatoes were the main source of food for the poor, so with potato crops repeatedly wiped out, many people did not survive. The famine resulted in the deaths of approximately one million people. It also resulted in the mass emigration of approximately two million people. Even before the potato blight, most of the Irish in the countryside already lived in poverty, working as peasants on land owned by wealthy British families. With no resources to wait out the famine, millions of men, women, and children fled to North America in search of livelihood. Irish men and women took low-paying jobs, ranging from maids to factory and mill workers and construction laborers, and in the American countryside, farm or ranch hands.

Irish immigrants escaping poverty and hunger arrived in America penniless, unskilled, and undereducated. Many people in America stereotyped Irish immigrants as dim-witted, lazy, immoral, and—especially the men—violent drunks. The Irish were not often considered to be "white." References to "the Irish race" were common in the 19th century, as was the assumption that the "Anglo-Saxon race" was superior. Some maintained that the Irish were closer to Africans than to whites, and laws allowed businesses to refuse to hire people from either group. Thus, Irish immigrants were confronted by hostility as they struggled to survive in unsanitary slums.

An Irish character portrayed as immoral, or routinely drunk, acquires a different significance given racist stereotypes in the 19th century. Crane authentically depicts the squalor he witnessed in the Bowery, but his choice to describe Maggie's family and friends as Irish immigrants who are immoral (Pete and Nellie), violent (Blue Billie and Jimmie), and drunk (both of Maggie's parents) is typical of the prejudices of his times. With Maggie: A Girl of the Streets Crane opened his readers' eyes to the degradation of the slums, but he also perpetuated the stereotypes prevalent at the time. Those who believed negative stereotypes may have read Maggie: A Girl of the Streets as illuminating the innate immorality, violence, and drunkenness of the "Irish race." Consequently, Crane's message that an environment of deprivation can dictate a life of ruin may have been lost on some of his readers.

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