Today is the birthday of Stephen Crane (1871-1900). Most of us are assigned Crane’s best known novel The Red Badge of Courage in school to read. Today, I’d like to plug (as essential reading, really for New York history buffs), Crane’s first novel (novella really), Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893). Maggie is considered the first work of American naturalism. You can find echoes of it in the writing of Theodore Dreiser, Frank Norris and Upton Sinclair.
In the early 1890s, Crane spent a lot of time in the bar-rooms and tenements of New York’s Bowery, absorbing the atmosphere and the character and rubbing elbows with its denizens, often the kinds of people who were looked down upon by respectable Victorian society. All of this goes into Maggie, making it a valuable record of that time and place: how people talked, what they wore, what the Bowery itself was like in the gaslight days.
Like all naturalism, it’s unrelentingly, irredeemably bleak. Maggie is not a bad girl, but everyone treats her like one, and thus she becomes one, is forced to become one, really, as no one will help her. Not only is everyone around her judgmental in the worst way, but they are hypocritical in the extreme, especially her brother Pete, a pricelessly written Bowery Bhoy who specializes in ruining young women, and has nothing but scorn for his sister once that happens to her. It’s the kind of book that gets your dander up, and it’s meant to.
Crane, like all naturalists, prided himself on recording dialects. Whenever I need to write a certain type of low life street character from back in the day, I try to conjure the character of Pete, the voice is so distinctive. Here’s a snatch:
Pete took note of Maggie.
“Say, Mag, I’m stuck on yer shape. It’s outa sight,” he said, parenthetically, with an affable grin.
As he became aware that she was listening closely, he grew still more eloquent in his descriptions of various happenings in his career. It
appeared that he was invincible in fights.
“Why,” he said, referring to a man with whom he had had a misunderstanding, “dat mug scrapped like a damn dago. Dat’s right. He
was dead easy. See? He tau’t he was a scrapper. But he foun’ out diff’ent! Hully gee.”
He walked to and fro in the small room, which seemed then to grow even smaller and unfit to hold his dignity, the attribute of a supreme
warrior. That swing of the shoulders that had frozen the timid when he was but a lad had increased with his growth and education at the ratioof ten to one. It, combined with the sneer upon his mouth, told mankind that there was nothing in space which could appall him. Maggie marvelled at him and surrounded him with greatness. She vaguely tried to calculate the altitude of the pinnacle from which he must have looked down upon her.
“I met a chump deh odder day way up in deh city,” he said. “I was goin’ teh see a frien’ of mine. When I was a-crossin’ deh street deh
chump runned plump inteh me, an’ den he turns aroun’ an’ says, ‘Yer insolen’ ruffin,’ he says, like dat. ‘Oh, gee,’ I says, ‘oh, gee, go
teh hell and git off deh eart’,’ I says, like dat. See? ‘Go teh hell an’ git off deh eart’,’ like dat. Den deh blokie he got wild. He says
I was a contempt’ble scoun’el, er somet’ing like dat, an’ he says I was doom’ teh everlastin’ pe’dition an’ all like dat. ‘Gee,’ I says, ‘gee!
Deh hell I am,’ I says. ‘Deh hell I am,’ like dat. An’ den I slugged ‘im. See?”