Friday, January 25, 2013

Maggie: A Girl of the Streets

The Bowery as it looked in 1896, three years after the publication of Maggie.
Image courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-56731)
This year marks the 120th anniversary of the publication of Stephen Crane's first novel, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, a boldly realistic look at the life of young girl from the Bowery who is ultimately forced into a life of prostitution.

Crane was born in 1871 in Newark, NJ, the youngest of fourteen children. His father, a Methodist Episcopal minister, died when he was just eight years old. Young Stephen bounced between the homes of various relatives before ending up with his brother Townley in Asbury Park. (That house still stands and is open for various literary events.)

After two semesters at two different colleges, Crane dropped out to try his luck as a writer. He continued to live in New Jersey, but spent much of his time on the Bowery, gathering material for freelance articles while also writing about Asbury Park for the New York Tribune. In 1892, Crane relocated to Manhattan and finished work on Maggie. He attempted to sell the work to the Century Magazine for serialization, but they rejected it as "too cruel."

On January 16, 1893, Crane submitted a copyright application for the work--at this point simply called A Girl of the Streets--and sometime in late February he had 1,100 copies privately printed under the pseudonym Johnston Smith. According to Richard Weatherford's Stephen Crane: The Critical Heritage, Crane paid 79 cents a copy for the books but attached a cover price of only 50 cents. Crane had little luck getting New York bookstores to carry the title; only twenty-three original copies remain, probably all sent to friends and relatives. What happened to the rest is unknown, but there's a chance Crane burned them to stay warm. After Red Badge of Courage made Crane a literary star two years later, he had only one copy of Maggie left from which to work on revisions for republication.

Though Red Badge of Courage made Crane famous, it didn't make him rich, and he struggled financially the rest of his life. He left New York after an incident where he testified on behalf of a prostitute named Dora Clark in her criminal and civil trials. Clark was exonerated, but it ruined Crane's reputation. He worked as a correspondent during the Spanish-American War and eventually settled in England. In his late twenties, he contracted tuberculosis and he died at a health spa in Germany at age 29.

Crane made significant changes between his 1893 private printing and the edition published in 1896 after the success of Red Badge of Courage. The most significant change was making the end of the novel--and thus Maggie's fate--more ambiguous. Though the 1893 edition can be found in various facsimile editions, if you're a real Stephen Crane fan and want to own a piece of literary history, there's an original on the market right now for $8500.


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