This is a take-home test for AML 3124 from the fall of 1995. I might have not exactly addressed the questions as they were presented, but if I had wanted to be a journalist or a writer-for-hire, I never would have majored in English…read away…lemme know what ya think, too…
“What hand or eye framed that dark-ed symmetry?” William Blake, “The Tyger”
William Blake, the Romantic poet, believed that the world exists in two fashions, innocence and experience. Neither can exist without its opposite. Innocence is where humans begin, and they must pass through experience on their way to Beulah, a sort of heaven. In Blake’s universe the unavoidable episode in which experience results is always traumatizing to the individual. Two figures from turn-of-the-century literature are prime examples of innocence lost which characterize this idea. Maggie, author Stephen Crane’s main character in Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, and author Abraham Cahan’s Yekl are two souls whose stories show the trauma of the loss of innocence through experience. Even assuming Cahan and Crane knew nothing of Blake’s ideologies, their stories can be used to develop the polarity of innocence and experience.
Cahan’s handling of Yekl’s episode of experience belies the author’s belief that the loss of innocence can be cathartic because of, and not in spite of, its associated trauma. Abraham Cahan’s Yekl was an immigrant from Povodye, Russia, who came to America believing in the promise of a better life for himself and his family. Like many immigrants of his time, Yekl came to America alone and tried to earn enough money to bring his family after him. During the three years he spent working in America he became, in his eyes, a Yankee. His practiced assimilation into American culture was the first part of his ‘experience’.
After years away from his homeland he began to grow accustomed to the American way of life. Blasphemous to his learned religion and contrary to his homeland’s customs, Yekl, who is known as Jake in America, grew to hold contempt for that which was not uniquely American, namely his far-away wife and son. The traumatic part of his ‘experience’ came when, after the death of his father, he finally borrowed the money for passage of his wife and young son across the Atlantic. Gitl and Joey have no place in Jake’s America. He considers them “greenhorns” and is ashamed of their innocence. His constant remarks about their rustic appearance and failure to adopt the English language are both clues to how American-ized, and experienced, he has become.
This tension cannot endure for long and eventually Jake decides he is not able to live with his innocent family. He gravitates towards Mamie who is a symbol of New World experience. She speaks English well and dresses like an American. The trauma of reunion with Gitl and Joey leads Jake literally into Mamie’s arms where he can shed the last of his own innocence and truly become an American. He must divorce Gitl first, though, which serves as a symbol of his complete conversion to experience. This trauma is cathartic, however, because Jake and Mamie are able to begin a new life together. Opening a dance hall and “making it” in the New World will be their entrance into Blake’s ideal of Beulah.
Stephen Crane’s Maggie, on the other hand, is allowed no such Beulah. Her traumatic experience ends in her death without redemption. Crane allows for the dual existence of innocence and experience but without the catharsis enjoyed by Jake and Mamie. By portraying his characters as trapped by experience and its associated foulness, Crane shows his disbelief in Blake’s theory of eventual tranquillity. Innocence surrounded by experience, but unable to survive there, is the dominant theme of Maggie: A Girl of the Streets. There is no Beulah in the Bowery.
After her little brother’s death near the beginning of the story, Maggie exists as the sole example of innocence in the Bowery. Her parents drunken rages and constant fighting are tragic representations of the horrors of experience. Her brother Jimmie is the epitome of experience, driving his horses through the city and trampling any innocence upon which they come. He cannot understand how Maggie could possibly remain innocent surrounded by the filth of his world. Maggie seeks only escape from the Bowery but doesn’t wish to become as her family. She latches onto Pete as a symbol of maturity and success who can both appreciate her innocence and incorporate her into his experience. Pete is at first attracted by her purity but eventually abandons her for Nell, a figure who, like Mamie, speaks fluently and dresses accordingly. Without Pete to lead her out of Bowery life Maggie is lost and, ironically, becomes alienated even by her own family because of her imagined experiences. Maggie actually becomes experienced but not in the sense her family thinks. The trauma which is her experience is when she is tossed aside by Pete and her family and forced to wander the streets; she finally loses her innocence.
Crane’s story ends with Maggie’s death and her family’s reaction to it. They do not admit that she was forced into experience by them, but rather wonder how she could have lost the innocence they imagined they taught her. She is not allowed the catharsis that Jake undergoes and instead her death occurs outside the narrative. Crane’s readers cannot sense any redemption for Maggie. When her death is revealed, it is understood that she was not allowed any future as Jake and Mamie were granted. Crane doesn’t accept Blake’s salvation through experience and so Maggie is not allowed to enter a state of Beulah.
Maggie and Jake both show the trauma of the transition between innocence and experience. They also show that Cahan and Crane held differing beliefs concerning the possibility of liberation from experience after innocence is lost. Both would have agreed with Blake that innocence and experience are in constant battle, but it is easy to see that the author’s would not agree on the battle’s possible outcomes. Blake’s model of a traumatic passage through experience from innocence, as a necessary part of life, can be seen in the way Crane and Cahan developed these stories of turn-of-the-century America.