Stephen Crane's first novel addressed an unpopular subject; with its unflinchingly honest, brutally realistic portrayal of the seamier side of urban New York, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets was initially rejected by editors who considered the subject matter inappropriate for publication. The twenty-one-year-old Crane was forced to publish the novel at his own expense in 1893; even then, he thought it advisable to use a pseudonym, Johnston Smith. It was only in 1896, with the success of Crane's masterpiece, The Red Badge of Courage that Crane's publisher agreed to publish a revised version of Maggie. But if Maggie was unappreciated at the time of its publication--and even virtually unnoticed, with the exception of a few favorable reviews by a few influential critics, among them William Dean Howells--it has since become recognized as a powerful social novel and a profoundly important contribution to American literature.
In 1871, when Stephen Crane was born, the generation of writers who composed America's first great novels--a generation that included Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville--had died or passed its peak. Crane grew to maturity in what has become known as the Gilded Age (at least in the Northeast United States, where Crane's highly religious parents made their home in New Jersey). It was a time of unprecedented prosperity in the industrial Northeast, and popular novels of the time depicted the city of New York spinning dizzily in its increasing wealth and importance. To the skeptical young Crane, the novels that appealed to the public seemed largely sentimental and romantic. Popular novels overlooked the grim poverty that scarred the underbelly of industrial New York in places like the squalid tenements of the Lower East Side, where Crane got his artistic education. And the popular novels' moral landscapes were painted in black and white, peopled with prim and proper heroes and heroines motivated by only the purest of morals, villains with no redeeming features whatsoever.
With Maggie, Crane reacted to this romanticized and homogenized perspective on American life by showing the New York that he had seen himself. It was a New York inhabited by the poor, the drunken, and the desperate, people blinded by hypocrisy or driven by need, profane and corrupted. Crane considered this portrait of New York to be necessary honesty; most of his contemporaries considered it improper, even scandalous. But Crane, warmed by the positive response he got from Howells, was undaunted, and his great novel, The Red Badge of Courage, was an even more forceful rejection of sentimentalism. Rather than romanticizing the Civil War, Crane painted an Impressionist picture of fear, dramatizing the unheroic aspects of a brutal war.
By the time of Crane's untimely death in 1900, realism, the movement that he helped import to America, was growing in influence and adherents. Influenced by Crane's willingness to explore the grit and grime of both the human psyche and American society, novelists were realizing that their proper subject matter included whatever they saw in America, not merely what purveyed images of the genteel and the proper. Realism--or, as it is known in a slightly different incarnation, naturalism--spawned the greatest turn-of-the-century American novelists, including Frank Norris, Theodore Dreiser, and Upton Sinclair. And Crane's expansion of both the scope and depth of the subject matter considered appropriate to the novelist is a legacy that has benefited every American novelist since.