Stephen Crane's novella, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, was written during America's "Gilded Age" which was the era from the end of the Civil War to the turn of the Century. The name was given to the period by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner, who poked fun at the period for its rampant corruption. During this essential time of American development, New Yorker's were categorized into two different social classes similar to the division of social structure that was taking place in England. As Homberger writes, "the tone of social life in New York [City] was shaped by a distinctive passion for aristocracy"(p. 6) which was all well for the people of the upper side of New York City, but the poverty-stricken people of the lower East side were generally only concerned with focusing on surviving another day.
Crane felt the need to expose this topic of poverty and life in the tenements that was very familiar to both the upper and lower sides of the city, but yet were seldom discussed or written about. It is immediately clear to the reader that Crane stresses this key point: the importance of sitting higher than someone else in terms of social class and appearance often tampers with the delicate scales of morality and immortality when they are called upon to help make various life choices.
Differences between social classes have been a topic of scrutiny for thousands of years and a focal point in Maggie. Crane unwaveringly focuses on the determinism of social and economic forces on the lives of individuals. As a literary naturalist, Crane was interested in depicting the social ills of his time, showing that despite an individual's best efforts, the forces of the society will overcome her and determine her fate. Because important changes were occurring in the U.S. And Europe, momentous social conflicts arose involving race, class, and gender, transforming both cultural and literary landscapes. Writers living in 19th century New York City were privy to the tumultuous conditions that the lower class had to succumb. According to E.R.L. Gould, poverty and displacement of the lower classes of New York City during the late nineteenth century was prevalent:
Reformers in New York saw in tenement housing the chief source of urban social evils-- ill health, immorality, and poverty. Owing to overcrowding, inadequate provision for clean air and water, and lack of public sanitation, dwellers in tenement blocks on the Lower East Side were ridden by tuberculosis, diphtheria, typhoid, and scarlet fever; rates of infant mortality there were among the highest in the western world. In such environment, criminals and paupers multiplied while immigrant families found it impossible to maintain healthy home atmosphere." (pg. 378-393)
Crane took full advantage of this first- hand knowledge through a literary approach in the opening paragraph of chapter two. He begins describing the tenement Bowery, a slum area of New York City where Maggie and her family live:
Eventually they entered into a dark region where, from a careening building, a dozen gruesome doorways gave up loads of babies to the street and the gutter. A wind of early autumn raised yellow dust from cobbles and swirled it against an hundred windows.
Long streamers of garments fluttered from fire-escapes. In all unhandy places there were buckets, brooms, rags and bottles. In the street infants played or fought with other infants or sat stupidly in the way of vehicles. Formidable women, with uncombed hair and disordered dress, gossiped while leaning on railings, or screamed in frantic quarrels. Withered persons, in curious postures of submission to something, sat smoking pipes in obscure corners. A thousand odors of cooking food came forth to the street. The building quivered and creaked from the weight of humanity stamping about in its bowels." (6; Chapter 2)
Readers notice immediately that the Bowery gets a far fuller description than any human character in this novel. Through observant attention to details, Crane used this novella to raise America's consciousness of the desolate conditions present in urbanized cities and especially New York City.
Crane was also showing the neglect and child abuse the Johnson children were experiencing. For example, Maggie's Mother (Mary) beats the children at will and does not come to terms with her abuse neither does Crane give her reason to redeem herself. She is a product of the times - a villain to the children. Mary's villainy is not without justification or explanation. There is no questioning that Mary incarnates villainy in this novel. But that can only be because villainy exists to be personified, as a set of forces larger and more powerful than any one person. As much as Jimmie and Maggie are products of Mary, Mary herself is the product of the Bowery, a breeding ground for violence and savagery. Indeed, the novel implies that Mary herself may well have started out as innocent and naive as Maggie before an inevitable corruption of the time.
During this important historical time in America, The Industrial Revolution had made production more bearable, but was making life increasingly unlivable for those in certain low socioeconomic situations. The Industrial Revolution brought change and growth to areas such as New York City but mechanization in the work place led to harsher working conditions. Open factories gave way to cramped and unsafe institutions. Many of the new machines were crude versions of what we are aquatinted with today. These machines were often improperly developed and dangerous to use if the operator was not well trained. This resulted in many deaths and disfigurements of those on the clock. Also, this sudden availability of production created greed in the minds of the entrepreneurs. This fervor for creations led to longer and more difficult hours for those employed.
The buildings were also poorly ventilated and many workers became ill from inhalation of the charcoal fumes. These close quarters also caused horrible accidents, such as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911 (Houle, pg. 1-10). One of the most notorious of these institutions was the sweatshop, given this name for their close and "sweaty" quarters. This labor-intensive strategy could be employed only with a large number of workers. Many persons in these sweatshops were lower-class women with few, if any, other options. They were forced to accept these torturous jobs out of desperation and the proprietors took full advantage of this weakness. They were able to raise hours and lower wages.
Sweatshop conditions were detestable. Men operated in small basement rooms, poorly lighted and ventilated. The room may or may not have had a floor, and many were forced to work on bare earth. In another room about twelve by fifteen feet in dimension resides the ladies work area. The rooms were filled to overflowing with sewing machines and pressers, making to near impossible to move around. This area was adjacent to tenement bedrooms, separated by a frail partition. In some situations these shops were equipped with a heating and cooling system, lighted with electric lights. Others were not so lucky and worked in uncomfortable rooms aided only with the light of a poor gasoline lamp. The organizers of these factories also did all they could to avoid rent and made sure that the shop was only "strong enough to sustain the jar of the machines." (Annals of America 1884-1894, 379.) It is extremely understandable why Maggie "never achieved popularity among general readers" (Otfinos, p.126) because it treats poverty in all its viciousness without providing any kind of moral relief for the reader.
Maggie was like many of these unlucky women, forced to work at a collar and cuff manufactory in order to maintain her parents' alcohol addiction and to help keep food on the table.
We know from history that these child labor laws were in place but not obligatory when Crane wrote Maggie. According to journalist Mary Van Kleeck's article written in the1908 Charities and the Commons, we know the child labor law was not enforced:
In the most thickly populated districts of New York City, especially south of Fourteenth street, little children are often seen on the streets carrying large bundles of unfinished garments, or boxes containing materials for making artificial flowers. This work is given out by manufacturers or contractors to be finished in tenement homes, where the labor of children of any age may be utilized."
These facts were consistent with to the Romantic poet, William Blake that "the world exists in two fashions, innocence and experience." In Blake's universe the unavoidable episode in which experience result is always traumatizing to the individual.
Maggie's life is a prime example of innocence lost which characterize Blake's idea. After her little brother's death near the beginning of the story, Maggie exists as the sole example of innocence in the Bowery. Her parent's drunken rages and constant fighting are tragic representations of the horrors of experience. Her brother Jimmie is the epitome of experience, driving his horses through the city and trampling any innocence upon which they come. He cannot…