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Stephen Crane (1871-1900)

Today’s lecture in Writing New York takes us from Jamesian realism to naturalism, via Jacob Riis and Stephen Crane’s Maggie. We’re using the Bedford cultural edition of Crane’s novel, which allows us to set the novel into both its literary historical and its cultural contexts. It also offers the students a model that they can use for their final projects: one of the options is to create a mini cultural edition for one of the texts in the class.

We begin with Ric Burns’s vivid account of Riis from New York: A Documentary Film, but this year I’ve decided to postpone a discussion of the formal Riis photography until next week, when our subject for both lectures is Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. Today, I’ll be doing a little more with Courbet to get across the meaning of naturalism.

Part of what I like to think about with Wharton is the ways in which her novel responds to challenges not only from modernism but also from visual culture. So it’ll be an opportunity to think about the realism and naturalism of painting (via Bouguereau and Courbet), photography (via Riis), and film (via accounts of early film and comparisons of the novel’s techniques to those of  Martin Scorsese’s film adaptation).

With Crane today, I’m going to try to get across the ways in which Crane’s philosophical determinism is tempered by ironic formal techniques that offer the hope that literary fiction might serve as an agent of social change, over against the kind of popular culture that creates false hopes for people like Maggie. My favorite of Crane’s techniques is synesthesia, in which one form of sensory experience is depicted through the invocation of another. Here are the first two paragraphs of the novel:

A very little boy stood upon a heap of gravel for the honor of Rum Alley. He was throwing stones at howling urchins from Devil’s Row who were circling madly about the heap and pelting at him.

His infantile countenance was livid with fury. His small body was writhing in the delivery of great, crimson oaths. [Emphasis added.]

Crane goes on to use color imagery to heighten his melodramatic effects so that the novel almost feels like a work of expressionism.

I remember that the first time we taught Writing New York, we used a paperback of edition of Maggie that used the later version of the text — from which many sexually suggestive phrases and passages and almost all of the melodramatic color imagery had been expurgated. I, however, had based my lecture on the first edition. So when I began talking about the color imagery, the students looked at me as if I were going off the deep end. Nothing worse than having to say to 120 students, “Well, if you had read the original edition, you would have found that …”