Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Review: Maggie: A Girl of the Streets and Other Tales of New York

Maggie: A Girl of the Streets and Other Tales of New York by Stephen Crane. Edited with an introduction by Larzer Ziff with the assistance of Theo Davis. Recommended.

If Edith Wharton captures the snobbery, superficiality, hypocrisy, materialism, and coldness of New York City's turn-of-the-century elite, Stephen Crane reveals the toughness, callousness, brutality, and violence of New York's working class. Ironically, Wharton's Lily Bart and Crane's Maggie Johnson, both romantics moving in anti-romantic spheres, share a similar fate—abandoned by their respective societies.

Unlike Wharton, Crane wrote from a primarily journalistic, dispassionate point of view. The settings, the situations, the speech, and the similes reveal the underbelly of life among the working poor. Maggie opens with "a very little boy," her brother Jim, serving as "champion" of Rum Alley, an aptly named area where life is centered on working, drinking, and fighting.

Maggie and Jim's father can't keep him from fighting because that's all the boy knows, and the torn clothes that his drunken mother bemoans cannot compare to the furniture and crockery damage that occur during their violent marital spats. The father, a drunken brute like his wife, does not understand the irony of his demand when he says, ". . . Yer allus pounding 'im . . . I can't get no rest 'cause yer allus poundin' a kid. Let up, d'yeh hear? Don't be allus poundin' a kid." The infuriated mother responds with increased savagery. "At last she tossed him to a corner where he limply lay cursing and weeping." Jim, Maggie, and even the baby Tommie seem to be as disposable as the rest of the household goods.

Life in the city is lived outwardly, and the strong do not question themselves. While "Jimmie had an idea it wasn't common courtesy for a friend to come to one's home and ruin one's sister," his contemplations of his own actions toward women are cut off by self-absolution before such introspection can lead to self-incrimination. Later, Pete will share this attitude when Maggie attempts, in his mind, "to give him some responsibility in a matter that did not concern him."

Maggie and Jimmie's parents represent an extreme. Everyone knows their family's business, from the residents who share their tenement with its "gruesome doorway" to the group of urchins who waylay the mother as she is ejected from a saloon for "disturbance." The Johnsons' troubles delight the neighbors; the old woman downstairs tells Jim that "deh funnies' t'ing I ever saw" was Maggie "a-cryin' as if her heart would break, she was. It was deh funnies' t'ing I ever saw."

In the midst of this squalor, Maggie does have an inner life. Combined with her romanticism and naïveté, it convinces her that Pete is the height of urbane sophistication as he bullies waiters, telling them to "git off deh eart'." Interestingly, as she toils over "eternal collars and cuffs," Maggie has a daydream that foreshadows Pete's final chapter in the novel; she imagines him with a half dozen women "and thought he must lean dangerously toward an indefinite one, whom she pictured with great charms of person, but with an altogether contemptible disposition."

In Maggie's final appearance, Crane does not use her name, which perhaps answers her question from the preceding chapter: "Who?" She begins her anonymous journey near a theater district, where the affluent emerge from "a place of forgetfulness." Her wanderings on this one night reflect her life over the previous several months, as she leaves behind the bright light and glamor on a trail of rejection that leads ever downward, until she meets a wreck of a human, who follows "the girl of the crimson legions." No longer Maggie, she represents those whose naïveté, hopes, and foolish romantic dreams are crushed by the code of toughness that Jimmie fights for at the beginning and the hypocrisy that her lamenting mother exhibits at her fall.

These stories can be hard to read, partly because most of the relationships seem detached or distant at best and bitterly heartless at worst. Maggie's father talks about pounding "a kid" as though they are not his own and have nothing to do with him. Pete is "stuck" on Maggie's shape only until she gets in the way of greater desires. George of George's Mother is happiest when he has made his old mother miserable. At the same time his "friends," whose habits and exhortations have led to his downfall, abandon him, just as he turned on his mother.

Love is a rare visitor to Crane's pages, apparent mostly in the maternal indulgences of George's Mother and the rediscovered affection of Mr. and Mrs. Binks in "Mr. Binks' Day Off." It is only in the countryside of New Jersey that the battling Binkses find a moment in which to express genuine affection: "Mrs. Binks had stolen forth her arm and linked it with his. Her head leaned softly against his shoulder."

Notably, the other loving relationship, between a child and "A Dark-Brown Dog," is marked by the brutality of the one and the submissiveness of the other. Their friendship begins when "the child lifted his hand and struck the dog a blow upon the head"; the dog "sank down in despair at the child's feet." In the world both know, the more powerful must domineer, and the weaker must submit. Living by this simple rule, however, does not guarantee survival.

Crane self-published Maggie, and it is sometimes clear that his work could have benefited from an editor's counsel. For example, similes such as, "The little boy ran to the halls, shrieking like a monk in an earthquake," are ineffective and draw too much attention to themselves. Yet these stories are an amazing accomplishment of observation and writing that make Crane's premature death at age 28 even more tragic.

Tuesday, 30 January 2007.
© 2007 by Diane L. Schirf.

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