Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Stephen Crane's Maggie - similes in the Bowery - and then I slugged him

I started my little bit of American reading early, before Christmas, which means for a while I will make remarks about books I read weeks ago and barely remember.

Let’s start with Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893), Stephen Crane’s first book, a novella about poverty in the Bowery when it was full of immigrant tenements.  Now it has a Whole Foods and a branch of Momofuku and I couldn’t afford to live there.  Crane was a young reporter slumming in Bowery bars for research purposes only.  That research was poured in to Maggie.

Maggie is pretty and innocent, a bad combination.  Her parents are violent alcoholics, her brother Jimmie merely violent.  “He menaced mankind at the intersections of streets” (Ch. 4).  He gets a job as a truck driver, though, and turns out all right.  His truck is pulled by horses.  The sociological detail of Maggie is often a lot of fun, and this little chapter about the life of a wagon driver in high-traffic Manhattan is full of good examples – Jimmie’s fear of fire engines and contempt for pedestrians and street cars.

At first his tongue strove with these beings, but he eventually was superior.  He became immured like an African cow.  In him grew a majestic contempt for those strings of street cars that followed him like intent bugs.  (Ch. 4)

Those similes, oh yeah.

In a room a woman sat at a table eating like a fat monk in a picture.  (Ch. 19)

The little boy ran to the halls, shrieking like a monk in an earthquake.  (Ch. 2)

He waved his hands like a man of the world, who dismisses religion and philosophy, and says “Fudge.”  (Ch. 5)

The authentic Bowery dialogue was a problem for me:

“‘Gee,’ I says, ‘gee!  Deh hell I am,’ I says.  ‘Deh hell I am,’ like dat.  An’ den I slugged ‘im.  See?”  (Ch. 6)

The problem was that I found it so funny, because of its association with Jimmy Cagney and Edward G. Robinson – no, because of parodies of Cagney and Robinson in cartoons.  All of the men in Maggie talk like cartoon gangsters.  Perhaps younger readers will not have been corrupted by Bugs Bunny and can more soberly appreciate the dialogue.

Pete took note of Maggie.

“Say, Mag, I’m stuck on yer shape.  It’s outa sight,” he said, parenthetically, with an affable grin.  (Ch. 6)

Or maybe not.  “Parenthetically.”

Crane writes like he has a case of the jitters.  In a couple of years, in The Red Badge of Courage (1895), he will have calmed down some.  I call that an improvement, but whatever the oddities of Maggie, it pops and fizzes.


  1. Only twenty-one when he wrote Maggie , so the jitters are forgivable. When did Crane know he had TB? He's another man who seems to have been driven into obsessive work by it and didn't give a damn about his health.
    He had a sort of obsession with the Bowery. According to Ford Madox Ford he teased Henry James by putting on a strong Bowery accent and pretending to come from a slum, rather than being the son of a respectable clergyman who usually used a perfectly respectable accent.

  2. Oh yes, a young man's book, almost a punk gesture in some ways. Completely forgivable.

    I don't understand his productivity at all. I barely understand his mobility - what a traveler.

    That story about Crane and James is outstanding.