Individual and Crowd in Stephen Crane’s New York
In the archetypal American success story, social mobility often depends on physical mobility. But such narratives of individual progress became harder to sustain amid the congestion and economic division of the 19th-century city. Industrialization and poverty brought physical immobility and constraint, elements at odds with temporal narrative itself. Both these changes in city life and the textual crisis they engendered are reflected in the work of Stephen Crane. His New York fiction, built on linear narrative and authorial detachment, tracks individual economic failure in a city divided by class privilege and exploitation. His newspaper sketches, rather, are constructed in spatial rather than temporal terms, with a focus on crowds rather than individuals. Impromptu groupings gather and then disperse, occupying space rather than moving through it. Potential conflict is diffused, the latent energy of the crowd turned into a momentary community that reappropriates and reshapes both city and text.
In the archetypal american success story, social mobility often depends on physical mobility. From Benjamin Franklin through Horatio Alger and beyond, young men rise in the world as they move through city space. Franklin builds his public identity with a display of industry on the streets of Philadelphia, and Alger’s Ragged Dick gathers customers and patrons by navigating Manhattan’s sidewalks. But the careers of both printer and bootblack are grounded in a particular physical and economic setting—the commercial, largely pre-industrial walking city—one already anachronistic by the 1860s, when Alger’s career began.
Texts like Franklin’s Autobiography and Alger’s novels attempted to at once reflect and control the shape of urban life. But such linear narratives of individual progress became much harder to sustain amid the congestion and economic division of the nineteenth-century city. Increasing industrialization and poverty brought physical immobility and constraint, elements at odds with the forward movement of temporal narrative: characters unable to move through physical space could not move upward in the social order, either. As the city grew toward modernity, urban experience called forth different modes of representation—synchronic, collective, spatially defined—forms beginning to emerge in the newspaper sketch and other forms of immersive journalism. Both these changes in city life and the textual crisis they engendered are reflected in the work of Stephen Crane, whose New York fictions and sketches offer two very different versions of urban experience.
In Postmetropolis, Edward Soja describes urban capitalism in terms of fifty-year “long cycles” of development, punctuated by crises and restructurings. He sees the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century [End Page 75] as the era of the “Mercantile City,” which was displaced by the emerging industrial city of the mid-1800s, and then by the early twentieth-century’s corporate monopoly city (112, 114). Historian David Gordon offers a more specific contrast between an American urban model based on commercial accumulation and, beginning in the 1850s, a city structure based on industrial accumulation (34, 37). By the end of the century, he argues, the concentration and isolation of factories and working-class residential districts had begun to reveal the internal frictions and contradictions of the process (44–45).
New York was no longer “a place of encounters” between classes but “a fragmented terrain held down and together under all manner of forces of class, racial, and sexual domination” (Harvey 14). The city’s population grew by 25% during the 1880s, to over 1.5 million, more than 40% of them foreign born (Leviatin 17). Improvements in public transportation also led to increasing residential segregation, with factories and working-class housing concentrated in a dense and immiserated urban core. With the intrusion of sweatshops and saloons into residential buildings, work, living, and recreational spaces were harshly compressed—into what Henri Lefebvre calls a “dominated” space, one whose inhabitants experienced it only passively as limitation or constraint (Production 39).
Individual agency was being swallowed up by mass society, and individual movement absorbed into the ever-shifting dynamic of the urban crowd (Kasson 82). This tension appears as early as the 1840s—in the contrast, for example, between the detached observation of Baudelaire’s flâneur and the compulsive absorption of Poe’s “Man of the Crowd.” And it is highlighted fifty years later in the split between Crane’s fiction and journalism.
Crane’s novels and fictional tales, built on linear narrative and authorial detachment, track individual economic failure in a city increasingly divided by class privilege and exploitation. In Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893) and George’s Mother (1896), Manhattan is a place of overcrowding, enclosure, and violence. Traffic is at a standstill, and space is brutally contested. For individuals, such physical blockage limits both individual agency and narrative possibility—moving forward in time can only mean a fall downward in class. New York remains “an impenetrable mystery” to them; however much they long to “comprehend it,” they will only be “buried” under its “complexities.”1 [End Page 76]
If Crane’s fiction offers a naturalist critique of capitalist tales of individual success, his newspaper sketches of 1892–94 suggest a different vision: here too the city often grinds to a halt, but this New York comes alive when things stop moving. The sketches are not built around individuals or temporal progression, but instead constructed in spatial terms: they focus on crowds, which gather and then disperse, occupying space rather than moving through it. Such impromptu groupings seem to coalesce and disappear alongside or beyond the divisions of the economic order. Potential conflict is diffused, the latent energy of the crowd reshaped into a kind of community. For a moment at least, their collective force reappropriates and reshapes both city and text, yielding what Lefebvre terms a “representational space,” a “lived” space that may generate a new kind of mass culture (Production 39).
Space and environment do not completely determine the lives of Crane’s characters.2 Even in his famous comment to Hamlin Garland—“environment is a tremendous thing in the world and frequently shapes lives regardless”—Crane offers only a qualified claim (“a tremendous thing,” “frequently”), and never distinguishes between his characters’ physical and moral or cultural environment.3 But changes in the nineteenth-century urban landscape did establish a crucial framework for both individual and collective experience; just as city dwellers struggled to define themselves as socio-economic agents, they were also constrained and shaped by the spaces they sought to master or escape.4
For Crane, these changes in city life exposed the limits of conventional representation: traditional linear narratives built around single protagonists were no longer adequate to the complexity of urban experience. The contrast between his fiction and journalism highlights both the shifts in Crane’s view of New York City and the changes in form that follow from them—as he moves from detached and ironic narration, to self-conscious experiment, and then to a nearly anonymous immersion in the urban mass.
In Maggie, conflict is a “condition,” as David Halliburton puts it (38), and it is a condition in many ways endemic to the physical environment. Crane depicts the Rum Alley tenements as a static and fragmented tableau, “a dark region” where [End Page 77]
a dozen gruesome doorways gave up loads of babies to the street and the gutter. A wind of early autumn raised yellow dust from cobbles and swirled it against an hundred windows. Long streamers of garments fluttered from fire-escapes. In all unhandy places there were buckets, brooms, rags and bottles. In the street infants played or fought with other infants or sat stupidly in the way of vehicles. . . . A thousand odors of cooking food came forth to the street. The building quivered and creaked from the weight of humanity stamping about in its bowels(I: 11).
Crane’s short, disconnected sentences might well be described as impressionistic, but they do not cohere or coalesce to produce either a single impression or set of impressions. Their visual focus drifts, moving upward from the street with the wind, only to be deflected downward again toward a series of disordered items. The apartment building itself “careens” outward, but people and objects remain in “unhandy,” haphazard positions, obstructing rather than enabling movement. Things appear displaced and individuals either stagnant or directionless—characters do not move through space so much as they are swallowed up in it, the way men are “engulfed” by the “smiling lips” of a saloon in George’s Mother (I: 116). Inanimate objects (doorways, garments, odors, the building) seem to have as much life as the people.
As Stanley Wertheim has noted, “there is no single urban milieu for Maggie or George’s Mother,” but Crane’s references to Blackwell’s Island and to the Peter Doelger Brewery (E. 55th Street) place Rum Alley near E. 57th Street (407–33), where Crane was living in 1892 (11, 3, 4). Unlike the older neighborhoods of the Lower East side, this area was not fully developed until after the Civil War; it was shaped by the terms of the 1811 Commissioners’ planning grid, whose aim had been to create uniform spaces for land development and speculation. A 1900 map shows solid blocks of four- to five-story buildings, eight to ten per block, with alleys behind them (Pincus). On the large-scale level of the map, this is abstract and commodified space, divided and redivided to produce the fragmented and disordered scene that Crane describes.5
Whether located in midtown or near the Bowery, Rum Alley is anonymous rental housing, whose occupants have little sense of actively [End Page 78] experienced “place” or vicarious ownership.6 Tenement interiors are only compressed versions of the disorder outside. In George’s Mother, for instance, Kelcey’s friend Bleecker lives in “an old three-storied house on a side-street”:
A Jewish tailor lived and worked in the front parlor, and old Bleecker lived in the back parlor. A German, whose family took care of the house, occupied the basement. Another German, with a wife and eight children, rented the dining-room. The two upper floors were inhabited by tailors, dressmakers, a pedler, and mysterious people who were seldom seen. The door of the little hall-bedroom, at the foot of the second flight, was always open, and in there could be seen two bended men who worked at mending opera-glasses. The German woman in the dining-room was not friends with the little dressmaker in the rear room of the third floor, and frequently they yelled the vilest names up and down between the balusters. Each part of the woodwork was scratched and rubbed by the contact of innumerable persons. In one wall there was a long slot with chipped edges, celebrating the time when a man had thrown a hatchet at his wife.(I: 141–42)
Labor, domesticity, and recreation are all confined within a single chaotic and overcrowded structure. The only interaction between residents comes in verbal abuse or violent conflicts that scar the building itself. Bleecker’s “blow-out” generates a brief sociality among his friends, but it too disintegrates into the inertia of an alcoholic haze (I: 141).
Paradoxically, the Alley’s sense of stasis and dispossession makes struggles for territory all the more intense; the only version of communal identity is negative and violent—ethnic hostility like that between the Alley’s American children and the “micks” of Devil’s Row (I: 7). The novel opens in a swirl of combat, as “a very little boy,” Jimmie Johnson, seizes the high ground of “a heap of gravel” against a “whirling mob” of “barbaric” “assassins” (I: 8, 7). The fighters circle, weaving to and fro, but never moving from the empty lot or gaining territory. Their destructive energy is displaced by the arrival of adults, but not dissipated; it feeds on itself, no longer tied to an individual agent or target: Jimmie turns on a friend and then his sister, before his mother [End Page 79] gives him a washing that amounts to another “poundin” and leaves him screaming in pain (I: 12).7
Familial disorder spills out onto the streets, and external violence flows back into the home with equal force. Inside the Johnson household, Maggie’s parents struggle for control over the space of their apartment; it is a “lurid altercation” (I: 13), the mother’s victory marked when “the man seized his hat and rushed from the room,” headed downstairs to embark “upon a vengeful drunk” (I: 14). Years later, when the adult Maggie tries to beautify the room by hanging a lambrequin from the mantel, her mother reasserts her dominance by destroying furniture, utensils, and the lambrequin in particular (I: 28–29). Eventually, she will expel her daughter from the apartment entirely (I: 64).
In George’s Mother, Mrs. Kelcey is Mrs. Johnson’s opposite in almost every respect, but her obsessive cleanliness and order seem just as violent: she may be “A Woman Without Weapons,” as in Crane’s original title for the novel, but she “wielded” her broom and dust-pan “like weapons,” and her cleaning has “the flurry of a battle. . . . There came clashings and clangings as she strove with her tireless foes.”8 Her struggle, like Maggie’s, is to maintain the apartment as a private space distinct from the disorder of the street and tenement hallway. But here too, she and her son wage a struggle for dominance in the household, one that also often ends with his flight to the saloon or to Bleecker’s “club.”
As reformers often noted, barrooms were all too accessible in tenement neighborhoods. Indeed, practically the only “commerce” in Rum Alley runs along this route, and even this flow can be interrupted: when an old woman sends Jimmie to bring her some beer, the pail is wrenched away from him by his father (I: 16–17). According to Benedict Giamo, a saloon-keeper could serve as “a social force in the community, an agent who made the subculture cohere” (22), and for Kelcey the saloon encapsulates city life, reflecting the mystery of the street (I: 159). But Crane’s saloons offer only the illusion of escape; they often become the site of further conflict or devolve into a site of economic and sexual predation. Bartender Pete’s stories do not involve serving customers, but intimidating them and controlling the space of the saloon: “‘Dere was a mug come in d’ place d’ odder day wid an idear he wus goin’ t’ own d’ place! . . . so I says: “Git d’ hell outa here an’ don’ make no trouble”’” (I: 25). His clientele sees the bar in the same terms: George Kelcey’s friend Jones declares that their “‘gang’” of drinkers “‘own th’ place when [End Page 80] we get started’” (I: 117). Pete’s business is to expel such challenges, regardless of the property damage involved. On several occasions, fights empty the bar and bring “business” to a halt, with both Pete and the offending customer hauled off to the police station.
All spaces in the slums—private or public, commercial or domestic—are thus characterized by disorder, overcrowding, and conflict. The physical and psychological pressure of overcrowding means that there can be no shared or communally held space, and no social force sufficient to bind the residents together. The tenements cannot be apprehended as an integrated or continuous whole, but only as a series of discontinuous and conflicting fragments, obstacles the inhabitants cannot avoid or overcome. This is, to use Lefebvre’s term, thoroughly alienated, “dominated” space.
Congestion and blockage extend beyond residential areas to the commercial and industrial space of lower Manhattan as well. With production and distribution intensely concentrated into a limited territory, the streets are densely packed. The large-scale economy may prioritize the unimpeded flow of goods and capital, but within the city, commercial traffic is more often stalled than moving, and the street becomes the site of continual conflict between drivers, pedestrians, and police. As an adult, Jimmie Johnson becomes a truck driver, which means that “he daily involve[s] himself in hideous tangles” that are sometimes prolonged and violent (I: 21). He may find himself waiting at the end of a line of traffic or, in the front, “enter[ing] terrifically into the quarrel that was raging among the drivers,” often getting himself arrested (I: 21). “He resolve[s] never to move out of the way of anything,” except for larger and faster moving vehicles like fire engines, which he avoids by driving his team onto a sidewalk when necessary (I: 22, 23).
Maggie’s work in a sweatshop also brings physical stasis rather than upward mobility: “she perched on [a] stool and treadled at her machine all day, turning out collars” (I: 24). The treadles offer only a parody of motion, not an economic escape; she and the other women are “mere mechanical contrivances sewing seams and grinding out, with heads bended over their work, tales of imagined or real girl-hood happiness, or of past drunks” (I: 34). As the elevated trains rattle the shop’s “begrimed windows,” she has a mounting sense of entrapment and enclosure rather than empowerment; she begins to think of herself as a commodity, and her youth as “something of value” (I: 34). [End Page 81]
This lack of movement reflects the impossibility of individual exchanges across class lines, much less changes in class position. The New York of Maggie and George’s Mother is a violently segmented city, its once “mixed neighborhoods [replaced by] enclaves segregated by class and ethnicity” (Kasson 72). Pete describes running into a “chump” when crossing the street, who calls him an “insolen’ ruffin” and tells him he is “doom’ t’ everlastin’ pe’dition, er somethin’ like dat” (I: 27). Pete’s response is simply to tell him to “Go teh hell an’ git off deh eart,” before “slugg[ing]” him (I: 27). Late in the novel, Maggie comes upon “a stout gentleman in a silk hat and a chaste black coat. . . . His beaming, chubby face was a picture of benevolence. . . . But as the girl timidly accosted him, he made a convulsive moment and saved his respectability by a vigorous side-step” (I: 67). Rather than routes out of the tenements, the streets are points of confrontation or evasion; class difference is expressed and managed through physical distance and division.
Even when characters do venture out of the slums, they carry their sense of oppression and conflict with them. Pete takes Maggie to Central Park, but this is not the natural, open space envisioned by Olmsted and Vaux, where different classes were to mingle in a realm beyond the urban. Pete brings his confrontational bartender’s attitude with him, engaging in stare downs with the museum guards and trying to induce the caged monkeys to fight (I: 35–36). He and Maggie are both more at ease among the raucous working-class audiences at Bowery melodramas, but the play Crane describes only confirms their sense of class antagonism and exclusion.9 It leaves Maggie feeling even more of an outsider, even farther from “the culture and refinement she had seen imitated, perhaps grotesquely, by the heroine on the stage” (I: 37).
The lines of economic, social, and cultural stratification are thus clearly drawn across Crane’s fictionalized New York. Possibilities for physical movement and economic or intellectual advancement are both foreclosed, and with them the characters’ narrative options. Maggie’s fantasy of escape cannot be projected onto the city around her, but only onto an imagined landscape based on misremembered Scripture: “far away lands, where, as God says, the little hills sing together in the morning” (I: 26). As her relationship with Pete deteriorates, Crane describes the process in spatial terms as much as temporal ones: they move through different beer halls and saloons, their narrative “progress” registered as spatial decline. The couple first visits “a great green-hued [End Page 82] hall,” crowded with workingmen and families and offering a variety of food, drink, and musical performers—probably the Atlantic Garden in the Bowery.10 Later, Pete takes Maggie to “a hall of irregular shape,” a “concert saloon” in the Tenderloin, which serves only alcohol to a group of drunken men and prostitutes.11 And he finally leaves her in “a hilarious hall [with] twenty-eight tables and twenty-eight women and a crowd of smoking men” (I: 57). Spaces of communal recreation give way to sites of sexual commerce and alcoholic dissolution, a pattern that will repeat at the novel’s end: for these characters, the only way out is down.
As Maggie comes to a close, one figure does move freely through the streets, from richer neighborhoods to poor ones, from crowded midtown squares to dark and empty alleys near the river. A “girl of the painted cohorts” makes her way along rainy streets, offering glances and “smiling invitations” to an array of men, from dandies to businessmen, office workers to laborers (I: 68). The figure may be Maggie—she is never named—but it may also be Hattie, the woman abandoned by Jimmie, whose case Crane presents as a parallel one (I: 62–63). The prostitute has, of course, been reduced to an anonymous sexual commodity, her movement a sign not of freedom, but of social and economic placelessness (Kasson 113). It is only in this form that she can travel, like the collars and cuffs she once made, across the barriers of space and class. And her movement is from the glittering avenues of the theater district, to the saloons and concert halls of the Bowery or Tenderloin, to gloomy factory blocks, and finally to the darkness of the river.
By the end of George’s Mother, Kelcey is also drifting and placeless. Once he had “longed to comprehend” the city, to “walk understandingly in its greatest marvels, its mightiest march of life, its sin” (I: 135–36). But now, unemployed and without the money to enter a saloon, he loiters with others on the margins of activity: “in the cinders between a brick wall and the pavement,” or in a nearby vacant lot, the gang he joins “longed dimly for a time when they could run through decorous streets” as “an army of revenge” (I: 162, 163). This may well be the spot where Maggie began, and George, like young Jimmie Johnson, is on the verge of a fight with “Blue Billie” (I: 9, 174).
In both novels, the characters’ physical and social conditions are highlighted by Crane’s authorial detachment and by his foregrounding [End Page 83] of the fictional forms in which he works. Critics have noted Crane’s critique of the melodramatic conventions he himself relies on, but that critique actually extends further, to the limits of linear narrative itself.
Crane’s narrator keeps a firm spectatorial distance throughout, pulling up and away from Maggie’s opening scene, for example, to adopt a series of different viewpoints—from the window of an apartment house, a dock, a tugboat—before looking away to note a line of convicts “crawl[ing]” across Blackwell’s Island (I: 7). Donald Pizer sees this progression, from indifference to crime and imprisonment, as an encapsulation of Crane’s naturalism, and other critics have emphasized elements of discipline and surveillance in the naturalistic perspective.12 But what these shifts assume, above all, is physical and visual mobility: in the tableaux of both Maggie and George’s Mother, the characters usually remain fixed; it is the narrative eye that moves down the streets and across the empty lots between them. In Chapter II of George’s Mother, for instance, the narrative travels back and forth across the yard behind the Kelceys’ tenement house, following curses and a bottle as they echo and break against the walls, but the characters themselves remain isolated, trapped within their separate spaces (I: 119).
Maggie’s plot also leaps forward in time, with gestures that emphasize the narrative intervention involved and the breaks with fictional convention that result. Chapter IV, for example, opens with a piece of brutal compression: “The babe, Tommie, died. . . . She and Jimmie lived” (I: 20). So too, in Chapter XVII, does the narrator foreground textuality itself, placing the scene “several months after the last chapter” (I: 68). That section ended with a moment of non-recognition, as Maggie’s unspoken appeal is “side-stepp[ed]” by the “stout gentleman in a silk hat” (I: 67), and Crane’s narrator leaves “the girl” unnamed throughout the following section.
Along with such visual and temporal detachment goes Crane’s cultural or intellectual distance from his characters: his narrator watches Maggie, for example, as she watches the melodramas before her. “To Maggie and the rest of the audience,” he comments, “this was transcendental realism. . . . [T]hey hugged themselves in ecstatic pity of their imagined or real condition” (I: 36). The narrator places himself between readers and characters, both imaginatively and, finally, physically: in the original version of Chapter XVII, the narrator ceases to follow the girl, allowing the grotesque figure of the “huge fat man” to [End Page 84] come between them, blocking the reader’s visual access to the scene (Hayes 89). In both novels, Crane moves freely between panoramic and street level perspectives, operating above and outside the ethnic and geographical divisions of the slums, clearly set apart from the characters trapped within them.
Maggie’s and Kelcey’s physical and intellectual entrapment is finally reflected in a kind of textual impasse, in which the narrative seems to defy or evade meaningful closure. As the central characters succumb to passivity and a drift toward death, the forward momentum of Crane’s plots dissipates—into conclusions in which nothing is concluded. Neither Maggie nor George’s Mother can be shaped as the arc of a single life; the complexity and force of urban reality overwhelm the notion of individual agency. Maggie’s death is anonymous and undescribed, and the moment of Mrs. Kelcey’s death goes unnoticed amidst the background noises of the tenements (I: 178).
Urban congestion and conflict leave Crane’s fictional protagonists as isolated figures, immobilized and pitted against each other, never grounded in a viable working-class community. His newspaper sketches, on the other hand, focus on crowds instead of individuals; even as they bring forward motion to a halt, these groups reclaim and redefine the spaces they occupy, offering a fleeting sense of community, of a possible energy and identity outside the dominant order.
In these pieces, Crane consciously departs from the urban sketch tradition, in which an observer moves through the city with touristic detachment. As John Fagg notes, Crane’s New York pieces are organized less around “incident[s]” than according to a “spatial logic” based on specific locales—Coney Island, a Park Row restaurant, etc. (On the Cusp 75). The sketches that do include narrative elements—Crane’s “experiments” in misery and luxury, for instance—use the form to frame particular spaces—flophouse, saloon, mansion—that are coded in specific class terms.
The earliest of the newspaper pieces is “The Broken–Down Van,” published without attribution in the New York Tribune on July 10 1892. Its heading, “Travels in New York,” suggests a reporter’s movement through the city, but Crane’s narrator relinquishes that power, adopting a relatively static position as the action moves around him. [End Page 85]
Here a lower Manhattan street near the garment district “tremble[s]” beneath the “roaring” of the Second Avenue Elevated (VII: 277, 275), and a line of street cars backs up behind two furniture vans moving slowly uptown. The Elevated had been in operation since the 1870s, and had brought greater freedom of movement within the city, but it had also led to increased residential segregation and a new visual gulf between rich and poor.13 Passengers were able to look down on the streets below or into rooms in buildings along the tracks—a visual superiority that William Dean Howells’ Basil March describes as “better than the theater” (66). By including the El in his description but keeping his own perspective at street level, Crane aligns his sketch with its working class subjects; he looks upward at both the Elevated and the “cliff dwellers” perched on “shel[ves]” at the front of each van (VII:276). This working-class position is also accorded more visual freedom than in Maggie—enclosed in her sweatshop, Maggie can only hear the windows rattle as the El goes by (I: 34).
The slowdown in traffic results in an impatient torrent of whistles, gongs, and pounding from the street car drivers and conductors (VIII: 277, 275). The noise and violence soon spiral out of control, into a long sixteen-line sentence in which one driver “ring[s] his bell like a demon,” another “lose[s] the last vestige of control,” and a third begins to “whoop” like a “devil”—all building until the second van’s wheel falls off and both the vehicles and the sentence itself come to a sudden stop (VIII: 275–76). This would seem to be Jimmie Johnson’s world of traffic jams and fights, but Crane turns the scene into something else entirely. When forward motion is stopped, it does not flare into violence; the traffic’s momentum is instead dispersed, as the street car horses “turn out” to the side to avoid colliding with the vehicles in front of them. So, too, the drivers’ rage is diffused, their uncontained shouting modulating into an almost formulaic description and lament, repeated more than half a dozen times: “The nut is off” (VIII: 276–77).
The sketch changes focus in the same way, diverted into movement across and between the vehicles: “a girl, six years old, with a pail of beer crossed under the red car horses’ necks”; another, “without any hat and with a roll of half-finished vests under her arm crossed the front platform of the green car. As she stepped up on to the sidewalk a barber from a ten-cent shop said ‘Ah! there!’ and she answered ‘smarty!’ with [End Page 86] withering scorn and went down a side street” (VIII: 276). This is a space that the elevated passes “over” and uptown traffic passes “through,” but as the men labor to fix the wheel, Crane’s narration turns to survey the ongoing life of the neighborhood: “A hundred people stopped on either sidewalk; ten percent of them whistled ‘Boom-de-ay.’ . . . Pullers-in for three clothing stores were alert. . . . The ever-forward flowing tide of the growlers flowed on” (VIII: 278). The “growlers” and “liquor stores” are there, but, unlike in Maggie’s Rum Alley, they are only part of a broader, richer economic and social space, with restaurants, barber shops, clothing stores, and more.
Before long, pedestrians begin to interact with the streetcar passengers, and the distinction between their uptown movement and the east-west pattern of the neighborhood breaks down: “A dozen newsboys arrived with evening paper extras about the Presidential nomination. The passengers bought the extras and found that they contained nothing new. A man with a stock of suspenders on his arm began to look into the trade situation” (VIII: 278). In a sense, these are “digressions” from the sketch’s central event, but they convey the observer’s absorption into the scene around him (Fagg, On the Cusp 75, 82).
The sketch does not track individuals more than briefly, although it returns to several more than once. Rather, it recasts the street as a single visual space. Crane initially links the different elements of the scene together in another long sentence, with all the items connected by semicolons, as if they can be comprehended in a single continuous movement of the eye (VIII: 276). (The sentence’s nineteen lines look even longer, of course, in the original newspaper column format.) The sketch offers a set of distinct but simultaneous events, with individuals moving in a variety of directions—purposefully and without conflict.
Traffic eventually begins to move, but, for a time, the stoppage seems to reveal, or even generate, a kind of community around it. These are not individuals striving to move up or down in the world by entering the flow of traffic; this is a working class community left on the margins of the city’s economy. And in some ways, it functions as a critique of that economic order, like the “unclassified boy” who uses grease from a wheel to “print his name on the [impossible] red landscape” on the side of one of the vans (VIII: 276). For a moment, the marginal or hidden becomes central—the communal life of the [End Page 87] sidewalk recaptures the space of the street as a vibrant and independent “social space,” characterized by “encounter, assembly, simultaneity” (Lefebvre, Production 101).
In “The Fire,” published two years later in the New York Press, a crowd does more than take possession of existing space; it almost seems to bring that space into being. As the piece’s original headline—“When Everyone Is Panic-Stricken” (VIII: 868)—suggests, Crane is less interested in the fire as an event than in the crowd’s response to it.14 “The Fire” is set on “one of the shadowy side streets, west of Sixth avenue. [In the] midnight silence and darkness,” it remains a blank or undifferentiated space compared to the “eternal movement and life” of the avenue, with the yellow lights of its saloons and the “jingle of streetcar bells” (VIII: 338–39). Here, as in “The Men in the Storm,” Crane contrasts the light and motion of the uptown avenue with the quiet and darkness of the east-west side street. Lefebvre would describe the former as a “cut” that divides different sections of the city, and the latter as a “suture” binding neighborhoods together (Urban 129). The space generated by such a suture is, in this case, what Lefebvre calls “hetero-topic,” a realm within the city yet excluded from it, the kind of space “where groups take control . . . for expressive actions and constructions, which are soon destroyed.”15 Even more than in “The Broken-Down Van,” that is what happens here.
With the outbreak of fire, one building in particular comes into focus: “an old four story structure, with a long sign of a bakery over the basement windows, and the region about the quaint front door plastered with other signs. . . . [It was] one of those ancient dwellings which the churning process of the city had changed into a hive of little industries” (VIII: 339). And within moments, the fire brings the street itself to life: “It was extraordinary how the street awakened. It seemed but an instant before the pavements were studded with people. They swarmed from all directions, and from the dark mass arose countless exclamations, eager and swift” (VIII: 339). The “crowd [,which,] it seemed, had sprung from the cobbles, born at the sound of the wheels rushing through the night, thronged the walks” (VIII: 344). Crane and his companion are placed within the scene, but they are marginal witnesses to its dominant forces, “the crowd” and “the spectacle” of the fire itself:16 “The flames grew as if [End Page 88] fanned by tempests, a sweeping, inexorable appetite of a thing, shining . . . in the eyes of the crowd that were upturned to it in an ecstasy of awe, fear, and, too, half barbaric admiration” (VIII: 340, 341).
Individuals appear only to dissolve back into the crowd. There are occasional shouts and brief exchanges among onlookers, but unidentified voices are swallowed up into the collective response. A mother shrieks, and in reply, “A long groaning sigh came from the crowd in the street, and from all the thronged windows. It was full of distress and pity, and a sort of cynical scorn for their impotency” (VIII: 340). The voice of the crowd is again answered by that of the fire itself: “There became audible a humming noise, the buzzing of curious machinery. It was the voices of the demons of the flame” (VIII: 340, 341). Then there is a clangor of noise and light, as a number of fire trucks reach the scene, a different set of machinery to oppose that of the fire. A “delirium of excitement, of arduous affection,” flows over the “New York crowd, usually so stoical,” as they “crushed back upon the pavements, leaving the street almost clear” (VIII: 342).
The once dark and empty space of the street had been filled by the spontaneous emergence of the crowd, the neighborhood coalescing in the act of spectatorship. But when firemen go to work and the group begins to dissipate, Crane and his companion turn away. As Michael Robertson points out, the sketch is conspicuously lacking in “human-interest” detail concerning the fate of either individuals or the property involved (88). It is never clear, for instance, whether there is a baby in the burning building, or if a policeman reemerges after searching for it. Crane closes the piece by noting the “blasé air” of a fireman: “It was only the populace with their new nerves, it seemed, who could feel the thrill and dash of these attacks, these furious charges made in the dead of night, at high noon, at any time, upon the common enemy, the loosened flame” (VIII: 344). It is the crowd, emerging from the street itself and grounded in the lived space of the neighborhood, that gives the event its shape and meaning as spectacle.17
A better-known sketch, “The Men in the Storm,” published in the Arena, draws on Crane’s own experience of a snowstorm in the Bowery in February 1894 (Wertheim and Sorrentino 113). It describes an even more marginalized group, homeless men assembling on a side street in [End Page 89] front of a west-side shelter. The opening paragraphs once again follow the flow of traffic uptown, their focus shifting upward from pedestrians on sidewalks, to horse-drawn vehicles, streetcars, and then to the trains overhead. But then Crane turns aside, as before, and his vision moves downward (as in Chapter II of Maggie), drifting with the snow onto the side street and the men within it. The snow is the active force here: “blowing in twisting clouds, [it] sought out the men in their meagre hiding-places and skillfully beat in among them, drenching their persons with showers of fine, stinging flakes.” The men only “crowded together, muttering” (VIII: 317).
The cessation of movement is not liberating, as in “The Broken-Down Van,” but it does generate a kind of cohesion among the group. By half-past three in the afternoon, the sidewalk is “covered with wanderers,” with other men lurking in corners, beneath the El, and behind parked vehicles to stay out of the wind (VIII: 316). At first, these individuals and small groups conform to the brick and metal contours of the street, but by the time darkness comes, they have coalesced into a single irregular mass that leaves the walk “completely blocked” (VIII: 318). The street remains open, but the group of men now dominates and redefines its space: for Giamo, they present an instance of organic “communitas” or “anti-structure,” opposed to the dominant order (110–11).
Crane examines the faces of the men, estimating their backgrounds and characters—but only as types, not as individuals. “They were all mixed in one mass so thoroughly,” he says, “that one could not have discerned the different elements but for the fact that the laboring men, for the most part, remained silent and impassive in the blizzard” (VIII: 317–18). “This compressed group . . . might have appeared like a heap of snow-covered merchandise, if it were not for the fact that the crowd swayed gently with a unanimous, rhythmical motion” (VIII: 318). It is a collective, more than an individual, life that Crane sees here. Snatches of speech are again quoted, but they are never linked to individuals; they remain voices out of the crowd itself, elements of a “continuous murmuring discussion” (VIII: 318).
As the group grows, it forms a single “mass” that surges forward, the heads of the men “tossing” (VIII: 317, 321). The men press together for warmth, occasionally yelling at each other: [End Page 90]
Some of the gusts of snow that came down on the close collection of heads cut like knives and needles, and the men huddled, and swore, not like dark assassins, but in a sort of an American fashion, grimly and desperately, it is true, but yet with a wondrous under-effect, indefinable and mystic, as if there was some kind of humor in this catastrophe, in this situation in a night of snow-laden winds.(VIII: 319)
The weather is violent, but the men are not; they are not “assassins” like the urchins of Rum Alley or George Kelcey’s imagined “army of revenge.” Theirs is a “battle for shelter,” and the “thick stream” of men entering the mission grows “turbulent” at times, but it does not lead to physical violence; all the men eventually do pass in, through a single doorway, “out of the storm” (VIII: 320–22). The “event” described here is an accumulation of mass and latent power, then its diffusion and release.
Alan Trachtenberg sees Crane’s “objectivity” as photographic in its precision (194); perhaps even more important is his choice of visual perspective. As in “The Broken-Down Van,” Crane looks up from the crowd, not down at them, granting the men what Trachtenberg terms a “collective subjectivity.”18 His observer stands and waits with them, watching as a well-dressed man appears in a lighted store window across the street; the men call out to him, “from familiar and cordial greetings to carefully worded advice concerning changes in his personal appearance. The man [, however,] presently fled” (VIII: 320). As in Maggie, an observer is himself observed, but Crane’s narrator does not distance or detach himself from the men on the street—it is their ironic detachment, not his, that shapes the scene.
In yet another piece from 1894, “Heard on the Street/Election Night,” Crane moves still farther from the narrative conventions of his fiction. Here election night, November 6, is described entirely through snatches of overheard conversation and song—there is no narrative framework or observing presence whatsoever. The outcome, a series of Republican victories and Tammany defeats, is conveyed only through the speakers’ varying responses, which seem to have been recorded over the course of several hours or more. [End Page 91]
The sketch in fact contains or alludes to a range of discursive forms beyond its own newspaper format. It is set on the sidewalk in front of the Park Row office of the New York Press, where election results are displayed in a series of “magic lantern” slides interspersed with advertisements.19 The viewers’ comments range from cheers (“‘Goff! Goff! John-W-Goff!’” [VIII: 334]) to snatches of parodic song:
“Ta-ra-ra-ra-boom-de-aye, “Hughie Grant has had his day, “Safely now at home he’ll stay, “Ta-ra-ra boom-de-aye.”(VIII: 335)
And their prose extends from high-minded reform rhetoric (““‘Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” That’s what it is. The people lost their liberty because they went to sleep’” [VIII: 335]) to slang (‘“Well, they monkeyed with the band wagon and they got slumped.’” [VIII: 336], sometimes heavily accented (“‘By colly, I bed you Morton is elected by a hundert thousand votes’” [VIII: 336]).
The result is eclectic and egalitarian in both form and content. Maggie presents the mix of cultural forms in Bowery music halls and theaters as discordant and false, but no such judgments appear here. And if the tableaux of Crane’s novels give more life to objects than to persons, “Heard on the Street” does the reverse, presenting dis-embodied voices (and different media) with only a gesture toward their physical setting. In “The Broken-Down Van,” Crane described “A hundred people stopp[ing] on either sidewalk; ten percent of them whistled ‘Boom-de-ay’”; here a Republican parody of the song simply appears, a snatch of language with no defined source (VIII: 278, 335). Crane offers a cross-section of classes, ethnicities, and political identifications—Republicans and Tammany men, upstanding citizens and drunks—and his own political sympathies are impossible to discern.
The piece might be said to be impressionistic, but in a very different way from Crane’s later “London Impressions” (1897): the latter is radically subjective, while the former is stripped of subjectivity altogether. “Heard on the Street” is structured by location rather than temporal succession, but that location is itself left undescribed. It is, in one sense, emptied out, only to be filled with the activity of [End Page 92] representation itself, both aesthetic and political; as social space, it “is alive: it speaks” (Lefebvre, Production 42).
“Heard on the Street” was written just as Crane was finishing George’s Mother (I: 102). The difference between them is obviously not a matter of date or location; rather, each genre seems to allow Crane a different kind of authorial engagement. In his fictional pieces, Crane preserves an ironic detachment from the destructive forces of the city. His perspective has precisely the mobility and freedom that his characters lack; and this is the lack that destroys them. The sketches, on the other hand, surrender such distance for a kind of immersion in the scenes depicted, a degree of continuity between the narrative consciousness and the groups it describes. Crane seems fascinated by the energy of the street, and the sketches define themselves from within the crowd, giving voice to a collective rather than individual consciousness.
It is not simply that one of these perspectives displaces or triumphs over the other. In his discussion of “When Man Falls, a Crowd Gathers,” Michael Fried sees Crane as alternating between them in a single sketch: Crane employs an “elevated” viewpoint above the scene and a close-up one within it; the former represents an aesthetic or journalistic detachment, according to Fried, the latter his identification with the irrationality of the crowd (107–8).
Crane sees the individual as helpless against the larger forces of the city and, perhaps, those of modernity itself. In The Red Badge of Courage, also completed in the fall of 1894, he describes the immense, collective, almost formless power of the army and the bewildering, simultaneous events of battle. As Amy Kaplan points out, both the “social landscape” of the war and Crane’s metaphors for it are “reminiscent of the modern cityscape” (78): troops appear as “masses” of “unnumbered thousands,” moving like “waves” or “mobs” (II: 38, 122, 69, 110). Henry Fleming identifies with his regiment, but it remains an abstraction, a “moving box” that “enclose[s] him” and “weld[s its members] into a common personality” (II: 23, 34). And the war itself is “an immense and terrible machine to . . . produce corpses” (II: 50).
In the confusion of battle, Henry can manage no more than “unsatisfactory views” of a smoky, “pestering blur,” in which only “parts” of the conflict are visible at any given moment (II: 114, 122). For Cindy [End Page 93] Weinstein, the novel “demonstrates the impossibility of . . . isolation and framing . . . episodes, things, time, people, and attributes are seen not as separate forms but rather as forms that continually blur into another” (62). Nevertheless, Henry persists in trying to turn his experience into narrative—at first heroic, later cowardly, and then finally weary and knowing (II: 5, 67, 135). For Crane, however, such individual narratives remain grossly incommensurate to the mass character of either combat or slum life.
In Crane’s city sketches, however, the formless swirl of the crowd suggests a different kind of energy, a possible form of resistance to the pressure of industrial capitalism.20 In an unpublished piece from 1895, “The Mexican Lower Classes,” Crane compares Mexican responses to poverty with Americans’:
The people of the slums of our own cities fill a man with awe. That vast army with its countless faces immovably cynical, that vast army that silently confronts eternal defeat, it makes one afraid. . . . [O]ne fears this class, their numbers, their wickedness, their might—even their laughter. . . . They are becoming more and more capable of defining their condition.(VIII: 436)
Crane seems far more ambivalent about the men and women of this crowd than in his earlier sketches. But he does see a collective identity being forged, in contrast to the Mexican peasant, who remains a “meek and submissive” individual: “He is born, he works, he worships, he dies, all on less money than would buy a thoroughbred Newfoundland dog” (VIII: 437).21 If city space is to be reclaimed by its inhabitants, it will not be through the reassertion of individual agency, but through its dispersion, and then recovery, in a modern mass culture that Crane can identify with, but not yet fully discern or represent.
peter j. Bellis is Professor of English at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. He is the author of two books: No Mysteries Out of Ourselves: Identity and Textual Form in the Novels of Herman Melville and Writing Revolution: Aesthetics and Politics in Hawthorne, Whitman, and Thoreau. His current project focuses on representations of 18th- and 19th-century urban America.
1. Crane, Works, I: 135. All further references to Crane’s work will be to this edition unless otherwise noted and will be given parenthetically by volume and page number.
2. Donald Pizer notes a number of the physical details I focus on below, but he argues that they are secondary to Crane’s cultural critique; he sees Maggie as [End Page 94] “not so much about the slums as a physical reality as about what people believe in the slums” (“Stephen Crane’s Maggie and American Naturalism” 188). For Robert Myers’ response, see “Crane’s City.”
4. “From the point of view of [individual] subjects, the behaviour of [social] space is at once vital and mortal: within it they develop, give expression to themselves, and encounter prohibitions; then they perish, and that same space contains their graves” (Lefebvre, Production, 33–34).
6. Lefebvre makes a useful distinction between abstract and quantifiable “housing” and a more private or personal “residence” (314, 316). In his “ecocritical” reading of the novel, Myers notes the lack of privacy in the tenements (193). Many elements of this street scene (infants, clothing, food) are those of private, interior spaces, not public ones, but such bourgeois distinctions are denied to the inhabitants of the Alley.
7. Christopher Benfey comments that the streets might have been safer than slum tenements for children (65), but in Rum Alley their “play” only blends back into the adult world around them. In George’s Mother, set in the same building as Maggie, an angry, red-faced man punctuates a tirade by “[flinging] a bottle high across two backyards at a window of the opposite tenement. It broke against the bricks of the house and the fragments fell crackling upon the stones below”; soon two children “picked up the bits of broken glass and began to fondle them as new toys” (I: 119).
8. Halliburton 71; I: 105, 119–20. Lefebvre distinguishes between “dominated” space—usually exterior and public areas—and interior spaces like apartments, which may be “appropriated” by their inhabitants, as Mrs. Kelcey seeks to do here.
9. David Hunstperger argues that such melodramas express working-class political engagement and solidarity, rather than just naïve escapism, but the audience’s sense of community seems to exist only in relation to the events on stage; it does not extend to the individuals actually in the gallery. Huntsperger is arguing against a number of critics who see Crane as sharply critical of both the melodrama’s lack of realism and Maggie’s failure to perceive this (303–09).
11. I: 51–52. Wertheim suggests that the second, third, and fourth of the establishments Crane describes are probably in this neighborhood (6).
12. Pizer, “‘Maggie’ and the Naturalistic Aesthetic of Length,” 63. For a survey of the critical debate over authorial surveillance, see Gandal, 17–22. [End Page 95]
13. In “An Experiment in Misery,” Crane describes the El in more negative terms, as a “monstrous kind of crab squatting over the street” (VIII: 284). A more complex depiction can be found in John Sloan’s 1912 painting “Six O’ Clock Winter,” which looks up at the El from street level, but makes the train, along with the lighted shop windows beyond it, the primary focus of the scene.
14. As Fredson Bowers notes in the Virginia edition, the sketch is “an imaginative composite” rather than the report of an actual event (VIII: 868).
15. Urban Revolution, 128, 130–31. Lefebvre’s use of “heterotopic” is a good deal more positive and fluid than Michel Foucault’s “heterotopias” in “Of Other Spaces.” For Lefebvre, the heterotopic is based on class or economic function, while Foucault’s term describes a comparatively fixed and structural alterity that reflects and inverts an entire culture.
16. John Fagg notes the distinction between the narrator and his companion in relation to the literary sketch tradition in “Stephen Crane and the Literary Sketch Tradition,” 10, 14.
17. Gandal sees a preoccupation with spectacle in both Crane’s fictions and sketches; he argues that this is true for both slum dwellers and the middle class, and relates it to the emergence of twentieth-century mass culture (82–86).
18. Michael Robertson’s reading of this piece is considerably bleaker than mine; for him, Crane “rejects [any] stable narrative position” and presents the men as given only a “provisional” humanity (93, 94).
20. Mary Esteve describes such resistance in darker terms, as a kind of “anaesthetic” reduction of consciousness that makes the working class crowd unintelligible to the discourse of Progressive reform.
21. Robertson notes Crane’s reliance on the first person in this piece, and his emphasis on the limits of his perspective as an outsider (123–24). Once again, the individual viewpoint appears incommensurate to a collective experience.