Monthly Archives: September 2022

The underbelly of industrialism

Maggie: A Girl of the Streets by Stephen Crane

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I picked up Maggie: A Girl of the Streets largely because of Paul Auster, who was doing the rounds singing the virtues of Stephen Crane when Burning Boy: The Life and Work of Stephen Crane was published. I’d read The Red Badge of Courage many years ago and enjoyed it. Maggie: A Girl of the Streets was Crane’s first novel (or novella), published in 1893. It’s about the poor working class in the Bowery in New York City.

You know that Maggie has little chance from the start. If that’s not clear from the title, it is from Crane’s sardonic tone about the hopeless situation Maggie has been born into, in an impoverished neighborhood with violent parents who have serious alcohol problems. No one seems to care for Maggie or help her in any way as her hopes for a better life fall apart.

At the time it was published, this book’s focus on the underbelly of industrialism must have been shocking. However, reading it from a modern perspective, what stands out as a narrative is what’s missing: Maggie. The title character amounts to little more than a receptacle for the cruelty and negligence of others. Much of the drama in her life isn’t depicted in any detail or even at all, only spoken about, including what ultimately happens to Maggie. This could be partly because of the times; publishing a book that depicted Maggie’s sordid slide from her perspective would have been very difficult, if not impossible. The resulting narrative style is innovative, circling around Maggie and her misfortunes to focus your attention on the callousness of all those who judge Maggie but repeatedly fail to help her. Their attitude reflects the general approach of a society high on progress, unconcerned with the suffering of those who were being harmed by the massive social upheavals going on.

That said, it’s not a particularly rewarding book to read from a modern perspective. It’s hard to feel much for Maggie, since you don’t really know and understand her, as Crane keeps mostly out of her thoughts beyond those meant to make you pity her. The following century of American literature brought plenty of biting social realism that surpasses this book in both insight and emotion. But someone had to do it first, and you can certainly admire Crane’s courage in centering a story around such a character when most of society at the time just wanted to forget about people like Maggie.

The dead and the living

The Dead and the Living by Sharon Olds

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sharon Olds‘s The Dead and the Living is an excellent collection of poems. After a brief section called “Public,” which deals with outside events, its focus turns to the personal, from traumas inflicted during upbringing to often unsettling musings about her children. Olds’s style is direct and accessible, but these free verse poems are thoughtful and beautifully crafted, dealing with the complicated emotions that can arise from abuse, neglect, and just plain living. The consistency in quality is remarkable. Standouts for me included “My Father Snoring,” which manages to be both threatening and empathetic, the wistful “35/10” about youth and aging, and the wonderful homage “The Elder Sister,” which opens:

When I look at my elder sister now
I think how she had to go first, down through the
birth canal, to force her way
head-first through the tiny channel,
the pressure of Mother’s muscles on her brain,
the tight walls scraping her skin.
Her face is still narrow from it…