Experimenting with Poverty & Performing Benevolence: Morality and Social Reform in Stephen Crane’s New York City Sketches and Maggie, A Girl of the Streets

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Debbie Lelekis

Abstract

This article analyzes the belief system of the Bowery people in Stephen Crane’s city sketches and Maggie, A Girl of the Streets and considers how the values imposed on them by the performance of morality in both the theatre and the mission church clash with their lived experiences and actively shape their lives. Through scenes which present a performance of grief and a spectacle of insincere emotions, Crane effectively criticizes the false morality of certain characters, like Maggie's mother Mary Johnson, while at the same time causing his readers to contemplate the plight of the poor. Mary seems to be mimicking the rhetoric and the ideology of benevolence of many female moral reformers. Middle-class morality significantly influences the values of these characters and seeps into Bowery culture through the religion of the mission church and through the entertainments found in the theatres and music halls that the characters visit. Middle-class culture sought to counter the disorder and crowd behavior of the lower class and the reform movement specifically targeted urban areas, subscribing to the belief that private virtue led to public virtue. Crane is critical of how both the mission church and the theatre promote moral poses without really seeking to do anything to help people. I argue that Crane emphasizes the effects of the performance of morality over the harsh physical environment as a determining force in the lives of the poor in America’s emerging cities during the nineteenth century.

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How to Cite
Lelekis, D. (2020). Experimenting with Poverty & Performing Benevolence: Morality and Social Reform in Stephen Crane’s New York City Sketches and Maggie, A Girl of the Streets. Humanities Bulletin, 3(2), 157–172. Retrieved from http://www.journals.lapub.co.uk/index.php/HB/article/view/1676
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