Do you love the high life? Of course you do—everyone thinks fancy clothes, delicious meals, and time spent gallivanting about the globe are awesome. Duh. Well, you can go ahead and forget all that fun stuff now, because we have something totally different for you today, thanks to Stephen Crane's 1893 novella, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets.
This story looks into the dark underworld of poverty, examining how it grinds human beings under its cruel heel. Think: drunkards, fistfights, prostitutes, and death. It's like the original reality television—minus all the scripts and private jets—as we watch our main girl Maggie's life go from rotten to wretched to, well, non-existent. She's doomed from the beginning, thanks to the poverty she's been born into. Ugh.
Don't come to this book thinking you're going to identify with any of the characters. In fact, Crane frankly doesn't care if you even like his characters—he just wants you to get a brutally clear picture of the people who came to America believing they would achieve the American Dream, only to find themselves in the gutter throwing punches to protect their meager territory and save their own necks.
Readers in Crane's era were not prepared for this stuff at all—it's a far cry from the Romanticism everyone was so used to when this book came out. Unsurprisingly, then, publishers wanted nothing to do with it. But Crane was determined to get the message out there, to expose the fiction of upward mobility and the whole pull yourself up by your bootstraps tale. And so, undeterred, he published it himself.
With its tough-love approach, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets offers a crash course in American Naturalism, Realism, and Impressionism. So bring your own Kleenex, read at your own risk, and above all, don't try this at home.
Guess what? Being poor stinks. Like, big time. When you're poor, so many things are uncertain—where you'll sleep, where you'll get your next meal, where you'll do your homework… to name just a few. And the extra terrible truth is that a lot of people experience life this way. In fact, according to the 2013 U.S. census, over forty-five million Americans are living at or below the poverty line. Just think on that for a second.
Now think on this: Maggie isn't a fun read in the traditional sense—it's a real downer—but it also offers an unvarnished image of American poverty at the turn of the 20th century. Sure, that was well over one hundred years ago, but in many ways, a lot of the struggles remain the same. These are folks right out of Jacob Riis's photographs of the tenements of New York. Click here, here, here, and here to see what we're talking about. It's a grim reality.
And this is why you should read Maggie. Sure, styles have changes and tenements aren't how we roll anymore, but so long as there are masses of people struggling just to make it through the day, the sad reality is that this book will remain relevant.
The Poetry Foundation's Stephen Crane Page
Crane was a poet, too, and his work is worth checking out. It shows his more, well, lyrical side.
Crane's New York Times Obituary from June 6, 1900
Maggie may be confined to the Bowery setting, but Crane himself was quite the world traveler. Well, until he died, that is.
The Stephen Crane Society
A fantastic source of Craniana—links, quotes, and calls for papers. You can even become a member, if you're so inclined.
Another Stephen Crane Society
This site has links to all sorts of articles and sites on Crane—a good resource.
Naturalism and Stephen Crane
Do you have nine minutes? Do you want to learn more about Naturalism? This is the link for you.
Maggie Gets the Homework Treatment
Check out this trailer for the book that someone made for their school. It's a little corny, but it has heart—just like Maggie.
All Crane, All the Time
Take your pick of Crane's works, then sit back and rest your eyes while someone else reads it to you. Ah… the good life, indeed.
The Mean Streets
Check out Jacob Riis's images of the Bowery. It will give you an accurate image of the world in Maggie.
Hey there, Mr. Crane. Nice to see you.