My rating: 4 of 5 stars
A man said to the universe:
“Sir, I exist!”
“However,” replied the universe,
“The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation.”
The short-lived and hard-living American writer Stephen Crane exemplifies the aesthetic ambiguity of the 1890s. On both sides of the Atlantic and even both sides of the English Channel, it is an in-between period, fecund with avant-garde literary schools and movements (naturalism, impressionism, Symbolism, Decadence, Aestheticism, regionalism) and incubating the popular genres in their modern forms (science fiction, detective and mystery fiction, horror fiction). It is a literary epoch harder to define than the seemingly more settled moments of high realism and high modernism that precede and succeed it, and its own experimental variations on realism and modernism are intriguingly “low,” in the dual senses of provisional rather than monumental and de-idealizing rather than championing the human spirit.
Before dying at 28 of tuberculosis, Crane wrote fiction considered the earliest examples of naturalism in America and poetry that looked forward to Imagism and other modernist de-clutterings of the lyric. Joseph Katz, in the introduction to The Portable Stephen Crane, writes, “In his own time, he was called either an impressionist or a decadent; but as later criticism sought a perspective of the literary nineties he was variously considered a realist, a naturalist, a symbolist, a parodist, and even a romantic.”
Crane’s first novel, really a novella, written when he was 22, is 1893’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets. Maggie ran afoul of too many of its time’s moral and commercial assumptions, so Crane was obliged to publish the book himself. It first appeared under a pseudonym in an error-ridden edition that nevertheless came to the attention of distinguished critics like William Dean Howells. Maggie was later republished respectably by a major firm, despite its almost vicious anti-sentimentality and profane-for-the-time dialogue, after the 1895 success of Crane’s great Civil War novel, The Red Badge of Courage.
But Maggie is more interesting for how it challenges the literary presumptions of our time than for how its characters’ frequent verbal recourse to “damn” and “hell” shocked the prudish literati of the 1890s. C. S. Lewis, in a passage quoted five years ago by Alan Jacobs, gives the following justification for reading old, even seemingly outdated, books:
Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook — even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it. Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united — united with each other and against earlier and later ages — by a great mass of common assumptions. […] The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes.
I think the most commonly-shared assumption among readers, writers, and critics of our time is that fiction exists primarily to provoke emotion through empathy. Whether this takes the form of popular YA fiction’s open sentimentality or the theoretical manifestoes in favor of affectively authentic autofiction or autocriticism in writers like David Shields, Karl Ove Knausgaard, or Maggie Nelson, we are all apparently looking for strong feeling in our fictions, feeling that has the power to bridge the social chasms that exist between classes, races, and genders or just the ontological chasm that exists between any two distinct selves.
In this emotionalism, we are akin to the Victorian realists and sentimentalists at whom writers like Crane took aim, whether they deployed aestheticism (with its Platonist underpinning, its quest for the metaphysical beauty within and behind all mere phenomena) or naturalism (with its ruthless Darwinian materialism scorning the metaphysical). For these reasons, we might use Maggie as a corrective, not despite but because it offends our own sensibilities.
The Newark-born Crane was heir to America’s traditional social and spiritual elite (his bloodline went back to the Massachusetts Bay Company, and his father was a Methodist minister), but he rejected his pious upbringing, abandoned traditional paths to success, and liked to live in an atmosphere of poverty and danger. Like those later laureates of Newark, Amiri Baraka and Philip Roth, Crane was an incorrigible literary (and extra-literary) rebel. Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, with its pitiless canvas of New York’s impoverished and immigrant-populated Bowery district, is the result of this literary insurgency.
A contemporary writer of privileged background treating the lives of the underprivileged would almost certainly use a variety of literary techniques to close the gap between the educated author and audience, on the one hand, and the culturally and economically deprived characters, on the other.
Free indirect discourse, where the objective narrator’s language merges almost-but-not-quite totally with the language and sensibility of the characters, is the key device for this transgression of boundaries between self and other: it exists to fuse author, character, and audience, while preserving a minimal space of narrative objectivity to allow for the savor of irony. The writer has access to the characters’ thoughts, but as long as the narrator can say he, she, or they of the characters, the writer also implies superior because distanced knowledge. This irony, which exists in the slight gap between the third-person narrator and the first-person consciousness of the character, causes free indirect discourse to feel sometimes like the literary corollary of the patronizing attitude of the guilty middle-class liberal toward the poor. It is a way of saying, as Bill Clinton once notoriously said, “I feel your pain.”
Crane’s refusal of free indirect discourse in Maggie—which he might very well have used, since it goes back at least to Austen and Flaubert—is therefore bracing and intriguing to encounter in the present. In its place, Crane seeks his effects in the contrast between the narrator’s elevated verbal register and the sadly circumscribed lives of the characters. In the first chapter, he narrates a fight between rival boy gangs:
Some Rum Alley children now came forward. The party stood for a moment exchanging vainglorious remarks with Devil’s Row. A few stones were thrown at long distances, and words of challenge passed between small warriors. Then the Rum Alley contingent turned slowly in the direction of their home street. They began to give, each to each, distorted versions of the fight. Causes of retreat in particular cases were magnified. Blows dealt in the fight were enlarged to catapultian power, and stones thrown were alleged to have hurtled with infinite accuracy. Valor grew strong again, and the little boys began to swear with great spirit.
The irony here is not the bittersweet one of free indirect discourse, which says, “Poor dears, how much they have to learn.” It is, rather, a cruel irony, an almost mocking display of the disparity between the narrator’s epic means of narration and the paltriness of the acton narrated. Yet the irony is as cruel as the setting, and in that way pays tribute to the integrity of the situation described. These children don’t want Stephen Crane’s pity, and might like to think of themselves as Homeric warriors.
We are not far, here, from Joyce or Faulkner, lavishing epic and tragic language on their lower-class characters with more earnestness than irony, as if there were no real reason Bloom could not be equal to Odysseus or Darl Bundren to Hamlet. This objectification and aestheticization at once of social life, providing the reader with both knowledge and pleasure sans moral judgment, is why there is no contradiction in seeing Crane as both a naturalist and a decadent. (The element of decadent aestheticism will soon drop out of American naturalism, which is why later and more didactic naturalist novelists like Theodore Dreiser, John Steinbeck, and Richard Wright will find themselves charged with sentimentalism and demagogy.)
Crane’s brevity is another aspect of his technique. Given the same story, Charles Dickens would have filled three volumes. By contrast, Crane compresses the life of Maggie Johnson and her brother Jimmie into fewer than 100 pages. The novel is episodic, made up of brief and discrete dramatic scenes, mostly dialogues punctuated by “hard, gemlike” descriptions evoking atmosphere.
Crane’s handling of dialogue also emphasizes the distance between character and author; with bracing remorselessness, Crane heightens the contrast between his representation of uneducated speech and the erudite dialogue tags:
On the street Jimmie met a friend. “What deh hell?” asked the latter.
Jimmie explained. “An’ I’ll t’ump ‘im till he can’t stand.”
“Oh, what deh hell,” said the friend. “What’s deh use! Yeh’ll git pulled in! Everybody ‘ill be onto it! An’ ten plunks! Gee!”
Jimmie was determined. “He t’inks he kin scrap, but he’ll fin’ out diff’ent.”
“Gee,” remonstrated the friend. “What deh hell?”
As for the story, it is simple, if narrated in fragments. Maggie is the oldest daughter of the Johnson family, and despite their poverty, she is beautiful and also idealistic, if in a more inchoate way than her predecessor, Emma Bovary:
The girl, Maggie, blossomed in a mud puddle. She grew to be a most rare and wonderful production of a tenement district, a pretty girl.
Her idealism leads her to fall in love with her brother’s friend, a bartender named Pete. The narrative, for me, reaches its height of grim tragicomedy when Maggie waits for Pete to take her on their first date:
When Pete arrived Maggie, in a worn black dress, was waiting for him in the midst of a floor strewn with wreckage. The curtain at the window had been pulled by a heavy hand and hung by one tack, dangling to and fro in the draft through the cracks at the sash. The knots of blue ribbons appeared like violated flowers. The fire in the stove had gone out. The displaced lids and open doors showed heaps of sullen grey ashes. The remnants of a meal, ghastly, like dead flesh, lay in a corner. Maggie’s red mother, stretched on the floor, blasphemed and gave her daughter a bad name.
The little details are so well-chosen and poetically phrased that it makes me think we should all restrict ourselves to novellas for the sake of our prose: “violated flowers,” “dead flesh,” “red mother.”
Unfortunately, the world of the Bowery is a strict big-fish-eats-the-little-fish hierarchy, and Pete is prevailed upon by a stronger and smarter woman to abandon Maggie, though she has already run away from the Johnson home, itself presided over by an abusive alcoholic mother. Maggie’s decline, first into forced prostitution and then into death, quickly follows. The narrative is most eloquent in describing the loveless night city she wanders after her fall:
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.
There is Crane’s irony again: the gap between Maggie’s horrific experience and the distant joy of the more fortunate. Her fall is not a Victorian warning to girls to keep on the correct path, nor is it a socialist polemic for the alleviation of the misery of the poor. However, if Crane eschews sentimentality, his irony nevertheless testifies to human hope. Without condescending to his characters, he shows readers the gap between their wishes and their existences so clearly that we cannot help but feel for them, all the more because the narrator does not. His refusal to judge allows us to think and feel for ourselves; his compassion is absent, but its shape is detectable in the jagged edges of his broken narrative. Far from exhibiting arrogance because it refuses overt pity, it takes remarkable restraint, even selflessness, to write this way.
If Lewis is right that old books help us correct our own invisible and pervasive mistakes, then we might find in Crane’s old book a caution against our present pious romance with our own emotions.