Maggie, A Girl of the Streets

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Stephen Crane's Maggie, A Girl of the Streets (A Story of New York) (1893, revised 1896) has long been considered a groundbreaking novel of American literary naturalism. Its depiction of a hostile, amoral universe, indifferent to the plight of its inhabitants, foreshadows the direction of much literary writing in America in the twentieth century. It is unclear, however, what influenced Stephen Crane (1871–1900) to write a brutal account of an urban slum. Before 1893 his literary output had consisted of ephemeral journalistic pieces and an assortment of satires and burlesques written in what he later called his "clever, Rudyard Kipling style" (Wertheim and Sorrentino, The Correspondence of Stephen Crane, p. 63). Crane could have been influenced by the fictional and nonfictional treatments of tenement life in the late nineteenth century. Émile Zola had earlier depicted a naturalistic universe in Parisian life in L'Assommoir and Nana, and Americans were developing a growing fascination with, and fear of, slum life in urban tenements, as reflected in such sociological studies as the Reverend Thomas DeWitt Talmage's The Night Sides of City Life (1878) and Jacob Riis's How the Other Half Lives (1890) and in the popularity of sentimental, melodramatic fiction like The Detective's Ward; or, The Fortunes of a Bowery Girl (1871) and Orphan Nell, the Orange Girl; or, The Lost Heiress (1880). A dominant theme in the fiction, however, was rags to riches. In Edward W. Townsend's A Daughter of the Tenements (1895), for example, the heroine, despite the foils of a villain and her impoverished life selling fruit on the streets, becomes a successful ballerina, inherits a fortune, and lives happily ever after with her husband. When a slum novel lacked a happy ending—as with the seduction, betrayal, and death of the heroine in Edgar Fawcett's The Evil That Men Do (1889)—the ethical consequences of improper behavior were obvious.

Not only is there uncertainty concerning the influences on Maggie, but its dates of composition are also unclear. Whereas several college friends at Syracuse University recalled seeing a draft of Maggie in spring 1891, other friends thought that Crane began writing it in 1892. Given his fascination with the seamy side of urban life and his frequent trips to the Syracuse police courts to interview prostitutes, most likely he began a version of the novel while in Syracuse. The eventual subtitle of the novel reveals, though, that he ultimately thought of it as A Story of New York.

Crane may have first imagined the novel as a short sketch, "Where 'De Gang' Hears the Band Play," which was published in the New York Herald on 5 July 1891. Though the sketch was unsigned (newspapers at the time typically excluded the byline of unknown staff reporters), certain of its characteristics—the Bowery and Tompkins Square settings, the use of dialect and ethnic stereotypes, and the appearance of Jimmy (spelled "Jimmie" in Maggie) and his sister, Maggie, who works in a factory—strongly suggest that Crane wrote it. By the time Crane moved to New York City, in fall 1892, he had either expanded the sketch into a longer manuscript or was soon to do so. At this point he may have incorporated into the story additional geographical details that emphasize the New York setting—for example, references to the Brooklyn suburb of Williamsburg, the Central Park Menagerie, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Blackwell's Island, which he would have seen from his apartment overlooking the East River.


Because Crane could not interest a publisher in his novel, he used his own money and possibly a loan from his brother William to print the book privately in New York sometime in late February or early March 1893 under the pseudonym "Johnston Smith." According to one of his friends, the pseudonym was meant as a joke; another thought Crane looked in the phone book for the two most common names and inserted a "t" into the first; a third thought the name "Johnson" was based on Crane's newspaper friend Willis Fletcher Johnson. The printer also chose to remain anonymous by excluding its name from the title page.

Given the subject matter, it is not surprising that Crane had trouble finding a publisher. Clearly missing from Maggie, A Girl of the Streets is the sentimentalizing or moralizing prevalent in other fictional treatments of tenement life in America in the late nineteenth century. Crane was not interested in analyzing the causes of, and offering solutions for, urban poverty. Although he may have been influenced by sociological tracts, sentimental fiction, or French naturalism, his Maggie is the first significant example of literary determinism in American literature. Crane's inscription in several copies of the novel read, in part: "It tries to show that environment is a tremendous thing in the world and frequently shapes lives regardless. If one proves that theory, one makes room in Heaven for all sorts of souls, notably an occasional street girl, who are not confidently expected to be there by many excellent people" (Wertheim and Sorrentino, The Correspondence of Stephen Crane, p. 52).

In Maggie's environment, there is no escape from violence. As a child, Maggie's brother Jimmie, "a tiny, insane demon," defends "the honor of Rum Alley" against "howling urchins from Devil's Row" (p. 7); later, in his fight against Maggie's boyfriend Pete in a saloon, he is one of "three frothing creatures on the floor [who] buried themselves in a frenzy for blood" (p. 50). Domestic life proves to be just as violent and chaotic. When Jimmie returns home after battling the "howling urchins," his mother "tossed him to a corner where he limply lay cursing and weeping" (p. 13). Ongoing skirmishes between the parents, "as if a battle were raging," are accompanied by "the crash of splintering furniture" (p. 18). It is no wonder, then, that Maggie eats "like a small pursued tigress" (p. 14) and Jimmie comes home "with the caution of an invader of a panther den" (p. 18). Unlike sentimental fiction, Christianity, in Maggie, offers no haven from this war-torn jungle. At its best, it is ineffectual; at its worst, hypocritical. The poor woman who begs for money from the wealthy inhabitants of Fifth Avenue discovers that the "small sum in pennies" she receives "was contributed, for the most part, by persons who did not make their homes in that vicinity" (p. 16). When Jimmie visits a "mission church" (p. 20) in order to get a free bowl of soup, he is forced to listen to a preacher who condemns his listeners as sinners. It is ironic, then, that Maggie "blossomed in [this] mud puddle," grew up to be "a pretty girl," and seemed to "have [n]one of the dirt of Rum Alley . . . in her veins" (p. 24). As she watches heroes rescue entrapped heroines in melodramas, she dreams of Pete as the "knight" (p. 28) and "beau ideal of a man" (p. 26) who will take her away from her bleak existence. Her mother, however, is jealous of Maggie's newfound happiness with Pete, and when Maggie tries to impress him by decorating the family apartment, her mother wrecks it in a drunken fury.

After Mary Johnson throws her daughter out of the house because she was "gettin' teh be a reg'lar devil" (p. 29), Maggie turns to Pete for protection, but his interest in her quickly declines, as illustrated by the three music halls he takes her to in chapters 7, 12, and 14. The first one is a respectable place where families listen to an orchestra play "a popular waltz" (p. 30). In the second one, however, a singer "in a dress of flaming scarlet" (p. 52) performs a striptease as men pound tables with their beer glasses. In the last one, with its "twenty-eight tables and twenty-eight women and a crowd of men" (p. 52), Pete deserts Maggie for another woman. Distressed, Maggie visits Pete at the saloon where he works, in chapter 16, but her presence threatens his "respectability" (pp. 67, 68, 69). When she approaches a minister whose "eyes shone good-will," "he gave a convulsive movement and saved his respectability by a vigorous sidestep. He did not risk it to save a soul. For how was he to know that there was a soul before him that needed saving?" (p. 69). In a chapter in which the word "respectability" is used half a dozen times, Crane reiterates the importance appearance plays in the lives of his characters. When Jimmie hits Maggie in public, their father berates him to "leave yer sister alone on the street" (p. 12), implying that it is allowable to hit her at home where no one can see them; and when Maggie "goes teh deh bad, like a duck teh water," Mary Johnson laments, "Ah, who would t'ink such a bad girl could grow up in our fambly" (p. 43). As with Pete, the minister, and the father, the mother's concern with appearance and respectability is steeped in hypocrisy.

Rejected by her family, Pete, and the church's representative, Maggie turns to prostitution for survival. In the famous chapter 17, Crane compresses several months of her life as a prostitute into a single evening. As she walks from the theater district to the river, the imagery and the descriptions of her ten potential clients rehearse her deterioration and eventual death. The "blurred radiance" of the "electric lights" and the "roar of conversation" of theatergoers are replaced, by the end of the chapter, with "a deathly black hue" of the river and a final "silence," as her clients descend in respectability from the "tall young man" in "evening dress" to the "huge fat man in torn and greasy garments" (pp. 70, 71, 72).

Among the more than three hundred variants between the 1893 and 1896 versions of Maggie, the most significant revisions made by Crane occur in the ending of chapter 17. He revised wording and deleted the paragraph describing the "huge fat man in torn and greasy garments."

Ending of Chapter 17, 1893 Edition

She went into the blackness of the final block. The shutters of the tall buildings were closed like grim lips. The structures seemed to have eyes that looked over her, beyond her, at other things. Afar off the lights of the avenues glittered as if from an impossible distance. Street car bells jingled with a sound of merriment.

When almost to the river the girl saw a great figure. On going forward she perceived it to be a huge fat man in torn and greasy garments. His grey hair straggled down over his forehead. His small, bleared eyes, sparkling from amidst great rolls of red fat, swept eagerly over the girl's upturned face. He laughed, his brown, disordered teeth gleaming under a grey, grizzled moustache from which beer-drops dripped. His whole body gently quivered and shook like that of a dead jelly fish. Chuckling and leering, he followed the girl of the crimson legions.

At their feet the river appeared a deathly black hue. Some hidden factory sent up a yellow glare, that lit for a moment the waters lapping oilily against timbers. The varied sounds of life, made joyous by distance and seeming unapproachableness, came faintly and died away to a silence.

Ending of Chapter 17, 1896 Edition

She went into the blackness of the final block. The shutters of the tall buildings were closed like grim lips. The structures seemed to have eyes that looked over them, beyond them, at other things. Afar off the lights of the avenues glittered as if from an impossible distance. Street-car bells jingled with a sound of merriment.

At the feet of the tall buildings appeared the deathly black hue of the river. Some hidden factory sent up a yellow glare, that lit for a moment the waters lapping oilily against timbers. The varied sounds of life, made joyous by distance and seeming unapproachableness, came faintly and died away to a silence.

Though Crane is not explicit about whether the fat man kills Maggie or she commits suicide, that she dies is clear. In the next chapter, Pete, the "aristocratic person" (p. 26) who had "loomed like a golden sun to Maggie" (p. 35), is reduced to a "damn fool" (p. 76); and in a bitterly ironic conclusion to the story, Maggie's mother, upon learning of the death of her daughter, screams out, "Oh, yes, I'll fergive her! I'll fergive her!" (p. 78). Although the novel emphasizes a Darwinian struggle for the survival of the fittest in a society in which family and church are meaningless institutions, Crane's use of irony throughout keeps the story from devolving into the pure naturalism of Zola or the cheap melodrama of countless stories of innocent girls seduced and ruined by villains. Repeatedly, characters shield themselves from reality by creating hypocritical moral codes that supposedly pass as middle-class values.

Given Crane's unrelenting depiction of a brutal world, it is not surprising that the book went practically unnoticed. Crane later recalled that its lack of recognition was his "first great disappointment": "I remember how I looked forward to its publication, and pictured the sensation I thought it would make. It fell flat. Nobody seemed to notice it or care for it" (Wertheim and Sorrentino, The Correspondence of Stephen Crane, p. 232). Although Crane sent out copies for review and inscribed others to prominent people, only two reviews are known to have been printed in 1893, one in Crane's hometown newspaper the Port Jervis Union and one by his mentor Hamlin Garland in the crusading reform magazine the Arena. Though Garland praised Maggie because "it voices the blind rebellion of Rum Alley and Devil's Row . . . [and] creates the atmosphere of the jungles," he criticized its lack of "rounded completeness. It is only a fragment. It is typical only of the worst elements of the alley. The author should delineate the families living on the next street, who live lives of heroic purity and hopeless hardship" (Weatherford, p. 38). Similarly, John D. Barry, editor of Forum magazine, privately told Crane that though he did "really believe that the lesson of your story is good . . . you have driven that lesson too hard. There must be moderation even in well-doing; excess of enthusiasm in reform is apt to be dangerous" (Wertheim and Sorrentino, The Correspondence of Stephen Crane, p. 50). Compounding the problem with the sale of the book would have been its high fifty-cent price at a time when cheaply produced books by unknown authors were selling on newsstands for as little as a dime. The only known copies sold were bought by a few of Crane's close friends at a party.


Three years later the fate of Maggie was to change dramatically. Following the 1895 publication of his Civil War novel, The Red Badge of Courage, Crane became an international celebrity. Capitalizing on Crane's fame, Ripley Hitchcock, literary adviser to his publisher, D. Appleton and Company, wanted to republish Maggie and convinced Crane to revise it to eliminate objectionable passages. For several weeks in early 1896, as he wrote Hitchcock, Crane "dispensed with a goodly number of damns" and "the words which hurt" until "the book [wore] quite a new aspect from very slight omissions" (Wertheim and Sorrentino, The Correspondence of Stephen Crane, pp. 197, 200). A collation of the 1893 and 1896 texts, however, reveals that the "very slight omissions" were actually more than three hundred variants between the two versions. For example, the cursing and blasphemy in the 1893 version are deleted or replaced with such wording as "h—l," "d—n," and "gee." In another case, Jimmie is encouraged to flee from battle with the "howling urchins from Devil's Row," and he roars back "dese micks can't make me run"; in the revised text Crane replaced "micks," the derogatory term for Irish immigrants, with "mugs" (Crane, p. 7). The numerous changes softened the language and made it less offensive. By far, however, the major revisions occur in chapter 17—the most important being the deletion of the penultimate paragraph, in which Maggie is followed by the fat, greasy man whose body "shook like that of a dead jelly fish" (p. 72).

Crane found the revision process so exhausting that he wrote to Hitchcock: "The proofs make me ill. Let somebody go over them—if you think best—and watch for bad grammatical form & bad spelling. I am too jaded with Maggie to be able to see it" (Wertheim and Sorrentino, The Correspondence of Stephen Crane, p. 224). The application of the Appleton house style, however, did more than just correct typographical errors and follow British orthography; in some cases it diluted meaning and tone.

Crane was eager to make Maggie more marketable in order to profit from the success of The Red Badge of Courage because he feared that whatever he subsequently wrote would constantly be compared to "the damned 'Red Badge'" (p. 127). "People may just as well discover now," he resigned himself to say, "that the high dramatic key of The Red Badge cannot be sustained" (p. 191). Ironically, some critics disagreed with Crane's prediction. For William Dean Howells, whereas The Red Badge was confusing and repetitious, Maggie contained "that quality of fatal necessity which dominates Greek tragedy" (Weatherford, p. 47). Similarly, a reviewer in the Boston Beacon praised Crane as "the first of American novelists to go into the slums of a great city with the intent of telling the truth and the whole truth, instead of seeking for humorous or romantic 'material'" (Wertheim and Sorrentino, The Crane Log, p. 188). Other reviewers, however, found it "an immature effort" (Weatherford, p. 45) and "not true to life" (Wertheim and Sorrentino, The Crane Log, p. 216). At first, the book sold because of the popularity of Crane's war novel. In August 1896 the Bookman listed Maggie as fifth in book sales in the East and fourth in uptown New York, but the sales were short-lived. No other later book of Crane's would make a best-seller list, and he would die in the shadow of "the accursed 'Red Badge'" (Wertheim and Sorrentino, The Correspondence of Stephen Crane, p. 161).


Much of the criticism of the novel focuses on the establishment of the text, its sources, its structure and imagery, and its relationship to naturalism. The textual history of the two versions of Maggie remained unknown until the 1950s, when R. W. Stallman discovered that the 1893 and 1896 edition differed significantly. A decade later, while editing the Virginia edition of Maggie, Fredson Bowers made the controversial decision to conflate the two versions into what he called an "ideal" text (in terms of textual editing, what the critic W. W. Greg had earlier called an "eclectic" text). Choosing the 1893 Maggie as his copy-text, Bowers attempted to separate in the 1896 version Hitchcock's editorial changes from Crane's revisions and to include only the latter in the ideal text in order to represent Crane's final authorial intentions. Though scholars have discounted this version—as do Hershel Parker and Brian Higgins in their textual analysis of Maggie's "last night" in chapter 17—Bowers's comments on the chapter, though at times forced, are still worth considering.

Marcus Cunliffe published a groundbreaking examination of possible European and American sources for the novel, paying special attention to the sermons of the well-known, controversial American preacher, the Reverend Thomas DeWitt Talmage, whose newspaper articles and extensive lecture tours promulgated the temperance movement throughout the country. Joseph X. Brennan has demonstrated how the ironic and symbolic structure of the novel reveals the self-righteousness of characters and their indifference to human suffering. Donald Pizer has argued that Crane "was less concerned with dramatizing a deterministic philosophy than in assailing those who apply a middle class morality to victims of amoral, uncontrollable forces in man and society" (p. 174). Possibly the best general examination is James B. Colvert's introduction to the Virginia edition of Maggie, a novel that in his opinion "initiated modern American writing."

A major problem in the critical discussions of Maggie—indeed, one with much of Crane scholarship and criticism in the twentieth century—is that a number of the "facts" and legends about the novel have as their only source Thomas Beer's enormously influential, but apocryphal, biography Stephen Crane: A Study in American Letters (1923). The following assertions, for example, have no basis in fact: that Crane wrote the novel in two days before Christmas 1891; that his brother William gave the book its title and lent Crane $1,000 to print it; that Richard Watson Gilder, editor of Century Monthly magazine, refused to publish it because it was "too honest"; that the printer was a publisher of medical and religious books and required Crane to sign a statement that he was twenty-one; that the New York bookstore Brentano's sold only two copies and returned ten to Crane; that a maid named Jennie Creegan used copies to start a fire; that a Catholic dignitary found it "an insult to the Irish"; and that Crane called the novel "a mud-puddle" in which he "tried to make plain that the root of Bowery life is a sort of cowardice." Unfortunately, these assertions have been cited repeatedly in the criticism on Maggie.

see alsoNaturalism; New York; Poverty; Temperance


Primary Works

Crane, Stephen. Prose and Poetry. Edited by J. C. Levenson. New York: Library of America, 1984.

Wertheim, Stanley, and Paul Sorrentino, eds. The Correspondence of Stephen Crane. 2 vols. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988.

Wertheim, Stanley, and Paul Sorrentino, eds. The Crane Log: A Documentary Life of Stephen Crane 1871–1900. New York: G. K. Hall, 1994.

Secondary Works

Bowers, Fredson, ed. Bowery Tales: "Maggie" and "George's Mother." Vol. 1 of The University of Virginia Edition of the Works of Stephen Crane. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1969.

Brennan, Joseph X. "Ironic and Symbolic Structure in Crane's Maggie." Nineteenth-Century Fiction 16 (1962): 303–315.

Colvert, James B. "Introduction to Maggie: A Girl of the Streets." In Bowery Tales, edited by Fredson Bowers, pp. xxxiii–lii. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1969.

Cunliffe, Marcus. "Stephen Crane and the American Background of Maggie." American Quarterly 7 (1955): 31–44.

Katz, Joseph. "The Maggie Nobody Knows." Modern Fiction Studies 12 (1966): 200–212.

Parker, Hershel, and Brian Higgins. "Maggie's 'Last Night': Authorial Design and Editorial Patching." Studies in the Novel 10 (1978): 64–75.

Pizer, Donald. "Stephen Crane's Maggie and American Naturalism." Criticism 7 (1965): 168–175.

Stallman, Robert Wooster. "Stephen Crane's Revision of Maggie: A Girl of the Streets." American Literature 26 (1955): 528–536.

Weatherford, Richard M. Stephen Crane: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973.

Paul Sorrentino