"Distant Dinners" in Crane's 'Maggie': Representing "The Other Half."

Article excerpt

Pete's first words to Maggie are: "Say, Mag, I'm stuck on your shape. It's outa sight" (19). Maggie's response: "She wondered what Pete dined on" (20).(1) These two quotations encode an enormous problem for Stephen Crane's. Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, and it reflects a crucial anxiety for American writers in the last decades of the nineteenth century who were attempting to transform new social phenomena into literary, journalistic, and photographic constructions. Pete's words reflect the realist's worry that aesthetic aims become "stuck on shape." Realism's attempt to achieve an objective point of view risks turning its subjects into objects, transforming groups of people into statistics, changing individuals into things. More drastically, realism's technique turns reality into "tecnic," and ontology becomes nothing beyond surface. The realist's motivation, welcomed by many American writers as excitingly new, once again truly "novel," was soon perceived as extremely limiting. A style that was hoped to be transcendentally "outa sight" became merely shapes and shadows, and what you saw was what you got.

On July 3, 1896, Crane inscribed a copy of Maggie: "It is indeed a brave new binding and I wish the inside were braver." While realists triumphed at giving their works a sense of "photographic realism," their text's "inside" remained problematic, The closer artists came to achieving their technical goal of surface representation, the more their works bordered on voyeurism. This essay examines how Crane, as well as other literary and reform writers, both developed a language of food in order to give an impression of being "inside" the social topic, of seeing deeper than the surface, and how a language of food created problems even as it answered the problem of voyeurism. In so doing, I invite a slightly different reading of Crane's now famous letter to John Northern Hilliard, celebrated for its romantic heroism (as in "personal honesty is my supreme ambition [even though] "A man is sure to fail at it"). I explore instead how closely we should attend to Crane's admission in that same letter that "Personally I am aware that my work does not amount to a string of dried beans" and further inquire what relationship this sentence has to his goal of seeing life with only his "own pair of eyes."(2)

Frank Norris, using his review of Maggie to vent his frustration at realism generally, complained that it seemed "written from the outside" (Wertheim 54-62; McElrath 87-90). Critics since Norris have considered this quality a virtue, whether as an early example of reification, or tragedy in a Realist mode, a representation of subjectivity within economic matrixes, or an achievement of objective vision. But Norris more faithfully reflects the anxiety of realists, torn between their ambition and achievement, and their frustration and fear. A later theorist like Raymond Williams would articulate the need for realistic art to include "the essential forces and movements underlying" objects and surfaces, not the "mere surface" or "appearances only" (96, 101).(3) Though one of the writers who had once waved realism's banner most proudly, Norris, anticipating Williams, had come to condemn realism for "entertaining with its meticulous presentation of teacups, rag carpets, wall-paper and haircloth sofas, stopping with these, going no deeper than it sees." Realism, he observes, "notes only the surface of things. For it, Beauty is not even skin deep, but only a geometrical plane, without dimensions and depth, a mere outside. Realism is very excellent so far as it goes, but it goes no further than the Realist himself can actually see." More specifically, Norris's anxiety centers on a lack; as a realist, he longs for "an instrument, keen, finely tempered, flawless - an instrument with which we may go straight through the clothes and tissues and wrappings of flesh down deep into the red, living heart of things" ("A plea for romantic fiction, 1901; quoted in Pizer 75-78). …


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