Stephen Crane, like Mozart, was destined to spend only a short time on this
earth, and made the most of it in accelerated creativity, beginning as a very young child prodigy. Born in Newark, New Jersey in 1871, he started writing at
age four. By age sixteen, he had published his first articles, and soon after began working as a journalist. His first important work, a novelette, was
published in 1893, bringing him critical acclaim. Maggie: A Girl of the Streets appears in this collection of four stories and takes up half the
book. The other three stories are much shorter.
I am not a big fan of literary realism. According to Wikipedia, that movement may be defined as thus:
Realist authors chose to depict everyday and banal activities and experiences, instead of using a romanticized or similarly stylized presentation.
I often find realistic writing to be unendurably harsh and brutal, and Maggie was certainly a struggle for me to read. In addition to realism, this story, according to the critics, (and Wikipedia), this story is "regarded as the first work of unalloyed naturalism in American fiction." Wikipedia continues:
According to the naturalistic principles, a character is set into a world where there is no escape from one's biological heredity. Additionally, the circumstances in which a person finds oneself will dominate one's behavior, depriving the individual of responsibility.
The story takes place in the slums of New York, teeming with drunks and gangs
and violence. We meet Jimmie as a young boy involved in street fighting and beating up, and getting beat up to a pulp. Pete comes along and rescues him.
Then his father comes along. They go home to their drunken and violent mother, there with sweet Maggie and the baby, Tommie. The mother, Mary, beats up her
husband and beats the kids.
Eventually the father and baby both die, leaving Jimmie as the head of the household. He gets a job as a teamster and Maggie gets a job in a shirt factory. She tries to rise above her situation, even attempting to make pretty things for their rooms, but Mary gets drunk and in a rage, and trashes the house and breaks furniture and everything else.
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.
None of the dirt of Rum Alley seemed to be in her veins. The philosophers up-stairs, down-stairs and on the same floor, puzzled over it.
One day, Jimmie's friend Pete, the one who rescued him as a kid during a fight, comes to visit. Maggie thinks he is the most awesome example of a perfect man as she listens to him and her brother. But, of course, she doesn't know any better because she has nothing better with which to compare him. Pete is a bartender and apparently makes some money. He is telling Jimmie about something that happened in the bar:
"Dere was a mug come in deh place deh odder day wid an idear he was goin' teh own deh place! Hully gee, he was goin' the own deh place! I see he had a still on an' I didn' wanna giv 'im no stuff, so I says: 'Git deh hell outa here an' don' make no trouble,' I says like dat! See? 'Git deh hell outa here an' don' make no trouble;' like dat. 'Git deh hell outa here,' I says. See?"
Jimmie nodded understandingly. Over his features played an eager desire to state the amount of his valor in a similar crisis, but the narrator proceeded.
"Well, deh blokie he says: 'T' hell wid it! I ain' lookin' for no scrap,' he says (See?) 'but' he says, 'I'm spectable cit'zen an' I wanna drink an' purtydamnsoon, too.' See? 'Deh hell,' I says. Like dat! 'Deh hell,' I says. See? 'Don' make no trouble,' I says. Like dat. Don' make no trouble.' See? Den deh mug he squared off an' said he was fine as silk wid his dukes (See?) an' he wanned a drink damnquick. Dat's what he said. See?"
Incidentally, the language throughout the whole story is in slang, and believe
me, it is tough to read 57 pages of dialogue in that style.
But—back to the story. Pete notices Maggie, and notices that she has noticed him, and asks her on a date. They begin seeing each other regularly, and she worships him. One day, when her mother is particularly drunk, she and Jimmie get in a fit of violence, breaking the usual furniture and dishes. Then Pete arrives, and wants to take Maggie out, but suddenly her mother accuses her of being a slut and turns her out.
"The hell wid him and you," she said, glowering at her daughter in the gloom. Her eyes seemed to burn balefully. "Yeh gone the deh devil, Mag Johnson, yeh knows yehs have gone to the deh devil. Yer a disgrace teh yer people, damn yeh. An' now, git out an' go ahn wid dat doe-faced jude of yours. Go teh hell wid him, damn yeh, an' a good riddance. Go the hell an' see how yeh likes it."
Then Jimmie and his mother gang up on Maggie, and go on and on about, how could
she turn out like this with all her good upbringing. It is quite sickening, really. So she stays with Pete, then he an Jimmie get into a fight.
But eventually an old girlfriend of Pete returns and he dumps Maggie. This story, is very well written and from a literary point of view, quite a masterpiece,
but to read it is just plain grueling. Needless to say, the story does not have a happy ending.
The Open Boat, though somewhat tragic, is nothing like the above. It is told by an anonymous correspondent, who is Crane himself, shipwrecked off the Florida coast when returning as a correspondent from Cuba and the SS Commodore sank. He and three others: the captain, the cook and the oiler are in a tiny boat for thirty hours. Eventually they make it to shore, having to swim when the boat overturns and they realize no one is coming to rescue them. The oiler drowns in the accident.
Compared to the above two, the next one, The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky is almost humorous. It is about a sheriff returning to Yellow Sky, Texas with his bride, having told no one he was getting married. The local antagonist and drunk, Scratchy Wilson, has a feud going with the sheriff and has come to shoot him, but when he sees the sheriff in unarmed, and has just gotten married, he calls it quits.
The last story, The Blue Hotel, also takes place out west. The Palace Hotel is located in the little town Fort Romper, Nebraska. It is painted "a light blue, a shade that is on the legs of a kind of heron." Scully, the Irish owner, meets travelers at the train station, enticing them to the hospitality of his hotel. This particular morning the snow is blowing down, and Scully escorts three men to his establishment, a Swede, a man from the east, and a cowboy. When they arrive back at the hotel, Scully's son, Johnnie, is playing cards with an old farmer. It is at dinner that the Swede begins to behave strangely, mentioning that these Western communities are dangerous. The others look at him in silence.
Later on, the three agree to play cards with Johnnie. The Cowboy partners with Johnnie and the Easterner with the Swede in a game of High-Five. It is then that the Swede becomes offensive and a bit scary.
Finally during a lull caused by a new deal, the Swede suddenly addressed Johnnie: "I suppose there have been a good many men killed in this room." The jaws of the others dropped and they looked at him.
"What in hell are you talking about?" said Johnnie.
The Swede laughed again his blatant laugh, full of a kind of false courage and defiance. "Oh, you know what I mean all right," he answered.
"I'm a liar if I do!" Johnnie protested.
From there things go downhill, and the Swede becomes manic, insisting that
someone is going to kill him. Scully comes in and yells at Johnnie, thinking that it was something he said or did. But no one knows what the Swede's problem
is or what set him off, other than he seems to be a bit crazy. Scully calms him down, but the peace only lasts a short while.
This is a very bizarre tale, with almost a surreal quality to it. But it is also about stereotypes and judging people, and not everyone turns out to be innocent.
So, there you have it, four well-known stories by this young American writer. If you have the stomach for it, definitely read his works. Crane died in Germany at age 28, of tuberculosis.
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