Social Issues in Cahan's Yekl and Crane's Maggie a Girl of the Streets Essay

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Yekl and Maggie, a Girl of the Streets

Industrialization coupled with a massive influx of immigrants from Eastern and Western Europe transformed American cities at the end of the nineteenth century, and no city exemplifies this phenomenon better that New York. As it was one of the dominant industrial centers following the Civil War, and located next to Ellis Island, of the central points of entry for new immigrants, New York at the end of the nineteenth century was changing city where new and old worlds collided, with women and immigrants alike seeking to make a better life for themselves, all the while struggling against rampant poverty. Abraham Cahan's Yekl and Stephen Crane's Maggie, A Girl of the Streets are both attempts to capture the experience of New York at the end of the nineteenth century from the perspective of these struggling classes, and examining these works in conjunction, and in particular, examining the difficulties faced by those looking to move beyond low paying jobs in factories, will allow one to appreciate some of the difficulties faced during this time period, as well as the way in which popular literature can serve to uncover and relate important social issues to a much wider audience.Get full Download Microsoft Word File access
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Before discussing Yekl and Maggie, A Girl of the Streets in detail, it will be useful to first discuss some of the major problems faced by immigrants, women, and in fact anyone not lucky enough to be rich in New York at the end of the nineteenth century. In the 1890s, poverty in big cities represented the underside of the explosive growth and technological development of the Industrial Revolution. New machines and industries which served to transition the production of everyday goods from the artisan's workshop to the assembly line meant that there were factories opening up with plenty of jobs of unskilled workers, but the allure of this new-found opportunity also meant that there were more workers than positions. This meant factory owners could pay low wages without the fear of reprisal, because there would always be someone else to fill the spot, so the gap between the rick owners and poor workers was dramatic.

This gap was perhaps nowhere more evident than in New York City, where "the extremes of wealth and want were disturbingly conspicuous," because its status "as the home of robber barons, urban bosses, labor leaders, and social reformers, [meant that] Gotham was simultaneously the symbol of excess and exploitation, reassessment and promise" (Reitano 79 & 89 in Huntsperger 313). The tension caused by this obvious gap between rich and poor is one of the main motivators for both Jake and Maggie, the protagonists of Yekl and Maggie, A Girl of the Streets respectively, because they both see the trappings of an idealized life around them, but this life remains tantalizingly out of reach.

For Maggie, this better life is epitomized by Pete, her brother's friend and love interest, and examining the way Maggie perceives Pete's clothing and behavior, as well as the difficulties Maggie faces in trying to impress him, will help to demonstrate how the book uses Maggie's search for a more exciting, rich life as a way of revealing the social problems inherent in the inequality of 1890s New York. At first, Maggie has very little experience outside of her home and the shirt factory where she works, because as a young woman, she is held to a different standard of behavior than men, even though she is old enough to work and think for herself, and this lack of experience is represented in the way she regards Pete. For example, "as she had seen him twice and he wore a different suit each time, Maggie had a dim impression that his wardrobe was prodigious," and she imagines that "Pete's elegant occupation [as a bartender] brought him, no doubt, into contact with people who had money and manners" (Crane 48, 49). In reality, Pete is generally no more or less course than the other characters from Maggie's neighborhood, but his attitude does differ, and this attitude represents the true object of Maggie's attraction, as well as the reason she is regarded with hostility by her brother, mother, and eventually the rest of the tenement. To understand this attitude, and the reason why it causes such disruption, one must first examine the ways in which Maggie attempts to impress Pete and the difficulties imposed upon her by her mother and her class.

Maggie spends "some of her week's pay in the purchase of flowered cretonne for a lambrequin," in the hope that it will "look well on Sunday night when, perhaps, Jimmie's friend" Pete usually came by (Crane 49). Although he does not appear on Sunday, Pete does show up a few days later, but only spends "a few moments in flourishing his clothes, and then vanished without having glanced at the lambrequin" (Crane 49). While Maggie's thought that an ornamental mantel covering might impress her brother's friend appears somewhat naive, it nonetheless represents Maggie's attempt to imbue her life with some of the glamor that she imagines Pete is used to, living "in a blare of pleasure" (Crane 50). This effort is obviously complicated by her poverty, but it is especially difficult due to the fact that she is a woman living in a time where independence and aspiration were sometimes regarded as evidence of malfeasance and even depravity.

Because Maggie is a woman, she is held to a standard of behavior that seemingly registers any attempt to rise above her station as a kind of immorality. On the day that Maggie is supposed to go out with Pete for one of the first times, her mother gets incredibly drunk and vents "some phase of drunken fury upon the lambrequin," which "lay in a bedraggled heap in the corner" (Crane 51). Her mother does not greet her, but rather asks "where yeh been? Why don' yeh come home earlier? Been loafin' 'round d' streets. Yer getting' t' be a reg'lar devil" (Crane 51). This is well before Maggie's mother and brother turn the whole tenement against her, and it serves to show how even before she has engaged in any behavior one might regard as immoral, Maggie is held to a standard of behavior that seemingly marks the desire to escape the drudgery and poverty of life working in a sweatshop and living in a tenement as a kind of moral failing. "Maggie works at a job that is exploitative and unfulfilling," but her mother regards her daughter's attempts to find fulfillment as a sign of degradation and sin, as if social status is an inherent quality and any attempt to change that status is a sign of perversion and the abandonment of principle (Huntsperger 294).

This is likely because Maggie's attraction to Pete and the more glamorous life he represents is under-girded by a rejection of preexisting morality. To Maggie, "the earth was composed of hardship and insults, " and "she felt instant admiration for a man who openly defied it. She though that if the grim angel of death should clutch his heart, Pete would shrug his shoulders and say, "Oh, ev'ryt'ing goes" (Crane 48). For Maggie, Pete's attitude represents a denial of old-fashioned morality and the hope for a better life, and for this she is ultimately punished, both the her tenement and the story itself. Maggie's gradual descent over the course of novella serves to demonstrate how outdated norms regarding what ate and are not proper behaviors and aspirations for women actually serve to keep women entrapped in poverty and a social structure that reduces them to nothing more than their value as sexual objects. Maggie just wants to experience some of the rich life seen in New York of the 1890s, but she is ultimately kept from doing so by the restrictive social norms of the time. Noting that Maggie is ultimately unable to escape her poverty due to her status as a woman will actually help one to understand the difficulties faced by Jake in Yekl, because although Jake is less concerned with escaping poverty, his problems nonetheless stem directly from it.

Whereas Maggie is ultimately kept from escaping her life of poverty as a result of being a woman in a context inherently opposed to female ascendancy, Jake, the main character of Yekl, struggles with his dual identity as an immigrant and an American. The title of the book reveals as much; Yekl is actually his Yiddish name, but he adopts the name Jake upon coming to America. This conflict is further evidenced in his particular use of language, in that he frequently intersperses his Yiddish with slightly mispronounced or accented English words and phrases, like "preticly" and "you can betch you' bootsh!" (Cahan 3 & 4). However, just as Maggie attempts to leave behind her life in the tenement by going with Pete, Jake attempts to integrate himself into his new-found home by seeking the attentions of other women besides… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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Social Issues in Cahan's Yekl and Crane's Maggie a Girl of the Streets.  (2011, December 1).  Retrieved October 24, 2020, from

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"Social Issues in Cahan's Yekl and Crane's Maggie a Girl of the Streets."  December 1, 2011.  Accessed October 24, 2020.