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  • Crane’s City:An Ecocritical Reading of Maggie
  • Robert M. Myers

In 1890 Eugene Schieffelin, the chairman of the American Acclimatization Society, released sixty European Starlings into Central Park in an effort to populate America with all of the birds mentioned in Shakespeare. By 1900 Schieffelin’s starlings had spread beyond New York, and by the twenty-first century their population had grown to an estimated two hundred million. However, the success of the starlings has resulted in problems. Large flocks congregate in cities and produce tremendous amounts of feces, which pose health risks for humans. Furthermore, starlings are exceptionally aggressive birds, taking over the nests of native species such as woodpeckers and bluebirds. Perhaps Schieffelin should have considered Shakespeare’s context: in Henry IV, Part I Hotspur considers using the call of the starling to drive the king mad.1

This intersection of the urban, the literary, and the environmental suggests a potentially fertile site for ecocriticism. Since the 1980s environmental historians have focused on the interface between the natural and the human in urban environments. Martin Melosi defines urban environmental history as the story of how “the physical features and resources of urban sites (and regions) influence and are shaped by natural forces, growth, spatial change and development, and human action.”2 This interplay of the natural and the human is particularly evident in such issues as sanitation, pest control, pollution, and the segregation of space in cities. More recently, literary ecocritics have also begun to engage with the city. The essays in Michael Bennett and David Teague’s groundbreaking anthology, The Nature of Cities (1999), focus on “the process by which cultural production is implicated in human adaptation to urban habitats.”3 In this essay, I [End Page 189] situate Stephen Crane’s novel Maggie (1893) in the contexts of progressive urban reform and the newly-developed science of ecology. My ecocritical reading emphasizes the significance of material conditions in the production of psychological attitudes.

Between 1890 and 1900 the population of New York City increased 126.8 percent, largely due to immigration.4 The poor were crowded into tenements in lower Manhattan that lacked adequate sunlight and air; accordingly, diseases such as cholera and tuberculosis were rampant. The streets were unpaved and sewage disposal was inefficient. In 1892 reformer Jacob Riis described the characteristics of the tenement environment as “Dirt, Discomfort, and Disease.”5 Many of the tenements served as sweatshops, and unregulated industries such as tanneries, slaughterhouses, and varnish factories were located in poor neighborhoods. Furthermore, in contrast to the wealthier sections of New York, lower Manhattan had few public parks or playgrounds.6

The rapid growth of the slums coupled with class tensions caused by a series of economic depressions in the 1890s produced anxiety among the native-born middle class, who began to view the city as a threat to the American ideal of a homogenous society. In 1903 Kate Holladay Claghorn attributed the degeneration of people in the slums to Darwinian natural selection: “A sort of selective process, always going on, forces out or kills off those of the immigrant population who are not satisfied with or not able to endure tenement conditions, leaving behind a peculiar ‘type,’ that is the despair of those who are working for social betterment today.”7 In the face of such perceived difference, some Americans turned to nativism and sought a ban on further immigration.8 Others, however, retained confidence in the assimilative power of American culture.

As they searched for strategies of social control that would Americanize the immigrants, middle-class urban reformers began by quantifying and mapping the problem. In the 1870s, the Charity Organization Society compiled centralized records of those seeking relief, and in early 1900 the Society organized a Tenement Exhibition that presented the problems of the slums through detailed disease and poverty maps. George Kneeland’s Commercial Prostitution in New York City (1913) includes 134 pages of statistical tables and graphs that analyze the demographics of prostitution. Meanwhile, journalists and novelists provided more intimate views of the life of the poor through an outpouring of nonfictional and fictional representations of slum life.9 A primary concern was mapping the shifting ethnic...


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pp. 189-202
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