Background to Maggie: A Girl of the Streets

Date: 1893
Author: Stephen Crane
From: Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, Bloom's Guides.

The story behind the origins of Stephen Crane's Maggie: A Girl of the Streets is as turbulent and precarious as its portrayal of the destructive nature of urban life in the 1890s Bowery. While working as a reporter during the summer of 1892 on the Asbury Park beat, Stephen Crane met a young and beautiful married woman, a few years older than he, named Lily Brandon Monroe. Her husband, Hersey Munroe, was a successful and prosperous geologist. At the time she met Stephen Crane, Lily was staying at the Lake Avenue Hotel while her husband was away on a Geological Survey trip. Though the frail, melancholic and oddly prudish Crane would appear to be an unlikely suitor, Lily loved him for his brilliance and idealism. For his part, Crane was enchanted with Lily and relished the gossiping old ladies at the hotel who were shocked at the scandalous nature of their relationship. When Crane tried to impress Lily's father by speaking in French, Mr. Munroe quickly put a stop to the affectation, stating that his daughter did not speak French. Crane went so far as to propose marriage, but she ultimately declined. He had also given Lily a manuscript of his street-girl novel and when Lily's husband found out about the affair, he destroyed the manuscript.

In the fall of 1892, without any job prospects, Stephen Crane moved into a cheap apartment in New York City with a group of medical students. Located at 1064 Avenue A, between the Bowery and the East River, it was the world of the marginalized and dispossessed. And its forms of entertainment and distraction were equally as tawdry, consisting of saloons, dance halls, brothels and flophouses. However, his roommates were young and optimistic, and romanticized their surroundings by referring to the apartment as the Pendennis Club (in all probability a reference to Thackeray's novel of a spoiled young snob who wrote novels). It was here that Crane continued to work on Maggie, a story of the seduction and abandonment of an impoverished Irish girl, set in the fictional world of Rum Alley. Anxious to see Maggie in print, Crane was advised that the profanity and vulgarity of speech in his novel would make it difficult for him to find a publisher.

During this time, Crane was also forced to contend with the very real hardships of his own impoverished life. "While Maggie's fate lay undecided, winter arrived with a vengeance. One night Crane and Phil May, a British artist and illustrator, borrowed a tiger skin belonging to illustrator William Francis 'Frank' Ver Beck. A policeman found them under the skin, walking up and down Broadway at 3:30 a.m., and brought them into the Tenderloin station. He released the young men but kept the skin." (Davis, 56–57) By January 1893, Crane had still not found a publisher, although the rejections were accompanied by praise for his work. Accordingly, upon the advice of Willis Fletcher Johnson, Crane resolved to publish Maggie anonymously, under the pseudonym Johnston Smith, at his own expense. Crane then sent copies to social reformers and editors, and Hamlin Garland, a writer and literary scholar, as well as a personal friend of his. Crane's friends also devised their own schemes for getting his name into the public domain. His "friends tried to help sales by conspicuously reading copies in the elevated train 'so that passengers would think the metropolis was Maggie-mad.'..." (Davis, 59) In fact, in their enthusiasm to help the young novelist, his roommates threw a party designed to promote his book. "On the night of the party, in late February or early March, Maggies lined the wall, held up the wassail punch bowl, filled in the empty spaces where furniture should have been." (Davis, 59) The party eventually became rowdy, causing the landlady to complain. But, despite all the fanfare and his friends' best efforts, Crane was left discouraged about the lack of interest in his book.

By the time Stephen Crane arrived in New York City, the Bowery had become a notorious hangout for New York's gangsters in the 1890s, often referred to as a den of vice and dissipation. In his description of the cheap flop houses which proliferated in the seventies and eighties, Harlow states that the newly-arrived and unsuspecting boarders, along with the downtrodden regulars, were easy prey for the Bowery crooks. "Here the crook or the fence, looking for allies, found them more readily than did the missionary, and the lodging houses became nurseries of crime. It was calculated in 1890 that nine thousand homeless young men lodged nightly along Park Row and the Bowery...." (Harlow, 407) In its more prosperous days, the Bowery had been one of New York's most elegant streets at the end of the 18th century. After a fire in 1835 destroyed most of the old Dutch townhouses, the Bowery lost much of its elegant charm. By the Civil War, beer gardens and the like had replaced the mansions and shops in the neighborhood. At the middle of the century, after the Astor Place Riot of 1849, many of the more exclusive enterprises moved uptown, leaving the Bowery to become known for cheap trade and entertainment.

The Entertainments of "Rum Alley"

For their first date, Pete takes Maggie to a beer-garden, "a great green-hued hall," where the clientele is comprised of factory workers and manual laborers, "people who showed that all day they strove with their hands." In his edition of Maggie, Thomas Gullason suggests that the specific locale is the most famous beer hall in New York, the Atlantic Garden, located at 50–54, the Bowery. Occupied on the site of an old factory and coal yard, the Atlantic Garden, established in 1858, was owned by the sons of William Kramer. It was a respectable establishment, bedecked with plants and flowers, and served up to four thousand customers an evening. Brooks McNamara describes the Atlantic Garden as a venue dedicated to family entertainment and allowing for no improprieties. As a testament to its propriety, the entertainment was likewise unobjectionable, and the women singers were well-trained and suitably dressed. "As a matter of fact, the Atlantic Garden seems to have specialized in rigidly proper female entertainers." (McNamara, 102) Citing James D. McCabe, Jr.'s Lights and Shadows of New York Life, or, Sights and Sensations of the Great City, McNamara includes the following description of the Atlantic Garden. "On an instant the orchestra breaks forth in some wonderful German melody, or some deep voiced, strong lunged singer sends his notes rolling through the hall. The auditors have suddenly lost their merriment, and are now listening pensively to the music, which is good." (McNamara, 102) The various forms of entertainment offered by the German beer garden also included dancing, comedy, opera singers as well as popular singers and mechanical music. As a social phenomenon, the patrons of the 1890's beer halls reflected the ever-changing immigrant population. In the 1890s, German immigrants were the predominant group, with a population of 370,000 in New York City by 1880, and would remain so until 1900. The Bowery and the Lower East Side were referred to as "Kleindeutschland," where the rents were low and where there already existed a group of German-speaking inhabitants. Crane is careful to include this demographic detail in his description of the beer hall that Maggie and Pete attend. "Quiet Germans, with maybe their wives and two or three children, sat listening to the music, with the expressions of happy cows.... [while only] an occasional party of sailors from a war-ship, their faces pictures of sturdy health, spent the earlier hours of the evening at the small round tables." Nevertheless, the concert saloons that Pete takes Maggie to are devoid of the aforementioned respectability.

The other entertainments described in Maggie are likewise steeped in baseness and corruption. Crane makes numerous references to the many grotesque aspects of life in the Bowery, and the distractions offered to its unfortunate inhabitants consistently and emphatically underscore the inhumanity of the urban slum.

Although Crane does not specifically name them, between 1880 and 1900 dime museums were a flourishing business in the Bowery. The typical late nineteenth century New York City dime museum, with its ten cent admission fee, catered to a working-class and lower-middle-class clientele. Recalling the "cabinets of curiosities" that had been popular among the wealthy and learned elite in Europe during the Renaissance, dime museums capitalized on human and animal anomalies, the freak shows whose antecedents in America were the circus and P.T. Barnum's American Museum (1851), which, under the guise of entertainment and education, became the foremost venues of spectacle and popular culture. Dime museums also displayed everything from historical relics and wax figures to clever automatons. One feature that separated the dime museum from such genuine institutions as the Metropolitan Museum of Art was the dime museum's emphasis on live performance. The various freaks and working acts of the dime museum were guaranteed fifteen to twenty hours of work a week, and were often able to live a comfortable life in retirement. While their frequent exploitation cannot be overlooked, many freaks used personal exhibition as a means to financial security, education and meaningful self-expression. Far more than just a "freakery" or a circus, the dime museum of the late nineteenth century was an assortment of artifacts and curiosities from travel to exotic lands, dioramas, panoramas, stuffed animals and mechanical contraptions, a combination of popular entertainments and quasi-educational exhibits, all with a fair share of hoaxes as well. Worth and Huber's Palace Museum claimed to offer wholesome entertainment suitable for children and ladies with such bizarre attractions such "Jo-Jo, the Dog-Faced Boy," "Baby Bunting, the Smallest Living Horse," and Ajeeb, a mechanical chess player. (Dennett, 58) Though they would eventually vanish from the urban landscape, the exhibits and performances which took place at American dime museums continued to influence stage entertainment and traveling shows for years.

Typically housed in a two or three story structure, customers would buy a ticket and proceed to the top floor to view the permanent collection of artifacts. From there they would proceed to the second floor curio hall where freaks and circus acts were performed and, finally, to the ground floor which contained a theater offering a variety show. Other attractions were also available. "In many of the so-called medicine or anatomical museums on the Bowery, gullible patrons were lured into the office of the 'doctor' or 'professor' for blood pressure or lung tests, a phrenological examination, or a palm reading." (Dennet, 61) The agenda was to frighten the patron into requesting a cure, for which the patient would have to pay a considerable sum. To add to the scam, this hidden fee was never mentioned until the patron was already into the procedure he so desperately believed he now needed. A number of these "professors" were often disbarred physicians or untrained confidence men. (Dennet, 63) Dime museums were a class of cheap entertainment establishments against which 1890's tourists were warned categorically by the guide books. Indeed, Crane's disparaging comparison of Jimmie as a "glib showman at a museum" is a clear reference to the unsavory characters who owned or supervised these establishments. Devoid of human compassion, these entrepreneurs capitalized on other people's misfortune.

Essentially bars that presented low-cost shows to attract customers, concert saloons are another important cultural phenomenon of late 19th Century Bowery life and are important venues throughout Maggie. Chapters 10 and 14 present particularly frightening glimpses of the inherent danger and degradation of the Bowery concert saloon, evoking images of corruption and ultimate despair as they beckon seductively to passersby. A common feature of many of these establishments was the female waitress, mostly a part-time prostitute, who served drinks to male customers. Concert saloons featured variant forms of variety theatre, including an early form of burlesque, and performers from other types of establishments such as the dime museums, minstrel shows and circuses, became part of the saloon circuit. "Entertainers sang, danced, and played musical instruments, and often presented non-musical material—usually simply rhymes or couplets—as part of their acts." (McNamara, 51) In addition to these acts, a number of entertainers from the minstrel theatres introduced blackface songs and sketches, performing on banjos, bones, guitars and violin cellos. Although illegal, gymnastic acts also began to appear, as well as exhibition boxing matches. As the demographics of the Lower East Side changed during the last two decades of the nineteenth century, a new focus emerged regarding the objects of satire—specifically the Irish and Germans—the new immigrants of New York City. Nevertheless, while the variety of live performances increased with the passage of time, the proprietors of these establishments were primarily interested in turning a profit rather than becoming a platform for creativity in the theatrical arts.

Added to this lack of interest in artistic performance, concert saloons were notoriously involved in illegal activities. Accordingly, the physical structures which housed the concert saloon were generally shabby, with the owners and managers preferring cheap and unobtrusive quarters that kept their establishment in the shadows. "In the final analysis, the spaces in many concert saloons were probably fairly crude and badly adapted to performance—they were often an afterthought designed to turn an ordinary saloon into a theatre of a sort. But drinking remained the chief business of the concert saloon. Shows—like waiter girls—were a novelty designed to bring in customers." (McNamara, 76)

When Maggie and Pete are together on weekday evenings, they attend the conventional melodramatic plays so popular in the 1890's Bowery. Stephen Crane had a low opinion of these melodramas with their elaborate crises and overblown emotional displays in which a "brain-clutching heroine [is] rescued from the palatial home of her guardian." Maggie, on the other hand, is completely given over to sympathy for these exaggerated characters and plots. Tragically, she is laboring under the blind-sighted belief that she will be able to escape her poverty. "She rejoiced at the way in which the poor and virtuous eventually surmounted the wealthy and wicked."

The defining elements of melodrama, a genre that arose in the late 18th century, are an elaborate plot with many twists and turns selected for maximum stage spectacle, a clearly defined hero, and villainous characters. Melodramas packed theatres throughout the nineteenth century during a time when cities were growing rapidly and theatres were the most popular entertainment for the growing middle and working classes. The melodramas of the 19th Century mark the peak of popularity of live theatre, with more people attending the theatre than at any other time in western history. One of the largest theatres in New York, The Bowery, became known as "The Slaughterhouse" because of the gory spectacle that it frequently produced. Other enormously popular topics of melodrama were frontier stories, rags to riches stories, and stories about race relations.

Central Park

The Central Park Menagerie, which Pete and Maggie visit one Sunday, had an interesting history by the time Crane wrote Maggie. When the Park began to receive animals as gifts in the 1860s, some of the animals were tethered to poles outside the Arsenal. For a brief period, live animals were even kept in the basement. During this time, the British sculptor and educator, Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, had planned to construct a Paleozoic Museum featuring sculptured dinosaurs as a distinct institution within Central Park. After 1827, Hawkins devoted himself to the study of natural history, and in 1852 included the subject of geology. Mr. Hawkins was assistant superintendent of the World's fair in London in 1851 and, in 1852, was appointed by the Crystal Palace Company to restore the external forms of the extinct animals to their natural gigantic size. He devoted three and a half years to the construction of thirty-three life-size dinosaur models which were placed in the Crystal Palace Park. Following this, Hawkins came to New York in 1868, lectured on popular science in the hall of the Cooper Union and began to assemble a new menagerie of sculptured dinosaurs. At that time, Central Park was being landscaped under the direction of Frederick Law Olmstead. Unfortunately, in 1871, before either the park or the dinosaurs were finished, New York City politics intervened. The corrupt Tammany Hall-Boss Tweed machine took control of city politics, and Hawkins's dinosaurs were destroyed. Sadly, those dinosaur models were broken up and buried in the south end of the park, never to be found. Hawkins left New York an embittered man. That same year, the Tweed administration asked Jacob Wrey Mould to design temporary structures for the Menagerie on the Arsenal grounds. By November 1871, a deer house had already been completed, but Olmsted and Vaux ordered it to be demolished.

Another important cultural phenomenon associated with the Central Park Menagerie is the influence of Charles Darwin's theories of human evolution. Late nineteenth century visitors were both drawn to and repulsed by monkeys. Pete, on the other hand, would not be aware of Darwin and his response to the monkey is one of great admiration, based on his observation of the monkey's hostility. "Once at the Menagerie he went into a trance of admiration before the spectacle of a very small monkey threatening to trash a cageful because one of them had pulled his tail."

Incorporated in the year of Crane's birth, the Metropolitan Museum of Art is another venue which Pete and Maggie visit. "Dese little jugs" about which Pete explodes were part of the Cesnola Collection of Cypriote Antiquities, at that time the largest and most famous collection of its kind in the world. The exhibit included sculptures, bronzes, vases, terracottas, gems, glass, and jewelry from Cyprus dating from ca. 2500 b.c. to ca. a.d. 300. Acquired by Luigi Palma di Cesnola (1832–1904), a Civil War veteran and American diplomat in Cyprus, the collection was purchased by the newly formed Metropolitan Museum between 1874 and 1876. The reference probably would have been understood by a contemporary reader of the novel. And, since admission to both the Zoo and the Museum was free on Sundays, the contemporary reader would also have recognized that Pete was not being extravagant in taking Maggie to this popular uptown museum.

Further Information

Works Cited

Davis, Linda H. Badge of Courage: The Life of Stephen Crane. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company (1998): 56–57.

Harlow, Alvin F. Old Bowery Days: The Chronicles of a Famous Street. New York and London: D. Appleton & Company (1931): 407.

McNamara, Brooks. The New York Concert Saloon: "The Devil's Own Nights." Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2002): 102.

Dennett, Andrea Stulman. Weird and Wonderful: The Dime Museum in America. New York and London: New York University Press (1997): 58.

Citation Information

Text Citation (Chicago Manual of Style format): Bloom, Harold, ed. "Background to Maggie: A Girl of the Streets." Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, Bloom's Guides. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishing, 2004. Bloom's Literary Reference Online. Facts On File, Inc. BGMAGOTS03&SingleRecord=True (accessed February 22, 2013).

Record URL: BGMAGOTS03&SingleRecord=True.