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Thoreau and Crane Comparison Essay

Ben Miller
CAP Honors English 9
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Ben Miller
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The nineteenth century brought a period of unprecedented growth to the United States.
From a small, burgeoning republic at the dawn of the period, the U.S. rose to become a dominant
political and economic force on the worlds stage and a nation of staggering size, wealth, and
diversity. As the American way of life changed, so did the literature that arose from it. The
imaginative, figurative writing of the Romantic period during the middle of the era gave way to
the austere and impersonal prose of Naturalism, as many Americans transitioned from agrarian to
urban life. Few authors better exemplify this evolution than Stephen Crane and Henry David
Thoreau. Within Walden and Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, Henry David Thoreau and Stephen
Crane express similar, yet contrasting views on the timeless issues of poverty, philanthropy, and
Both Thoreau and Crane explore the issue of poverty with varying degrees of sympathy
within their respective texts. As America grew, thousands of Americans migrated from their rural
homes to cities, joining the multitude of immigrants flocking to the nations urban centers.
Thoreau and Cranes attitude toward poverty reflects the stage of this migration during which
they wrote. Although writing extensively on his eras social and societal quandaries, Thoreau
expends few words in discussing poverty in Walden, merely acknowledging in an assessment of
the merits of wealth, that, some of his readers as we all know, find it hard to live , are
sometimes, as it were, gasping for breath (10). This casual dismissal of the issue mirrors
Thoreaus own limited experience with true poverty. Even when he acknowledges that most
men live lives of quiet desperation (11), Thoreau doesnt connect this affliction to a lack of
monetary resources, instead diagnosing its origins in overwork. Thoreaus nonchalance

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pertaining to poverty within his greater message on modern morals and ethics emulates his eras
unfamiliarity with the crowded, monotonous poverty that defined the period of Cranes Maggie.
In Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, poverty is the central and all-encompassing theme and
the primary force driving the plot. Unlike the glowing generalizations in Walden, Crane describes
the poverty so prominent in his period in grisly detail, echoing the greater prevalence of such
conditions in his time rather than Thoreaus. In relating the images of his tenement setting, Crane
describes the withered persons in curious postures of submission (39) that line its halls, each
person attempting to survive within hopeless squalor. In addition, Crane illustrates to his reader
the need for escape that drives those stuck in the morass of tenement life, recounting a scene of
Maggie in a theater, where in the heros erratic march from poverty in the first act to wealth and
triumph in the final one, in which he forgives all the enemies he has left, he was assisted by the
gallery (62). In such an age of impoverished masses, Cranes naturalistic tendencies drive him
to capture the horrific aspects of such poverty, rather than glossing over it as does Thoreau.
As an important subject in a time of such wealth disparity, philanthropy and
philanthropists feature prominently in both Crane and Thoreaus texts. In Walden, Thoreau
lambasts both philanthropy and those who practice it, writing that he had never heard of a
philanthropic meeting in which it was sincerely proposed to do any good to me, or the like of
me (62), a cynical viewpoint reflecting Thoreaus self-reliant values and generally
condescending view of others. Rather than truly help others, he believes that the goodness of
philanthropists is a partial and transitory act (63), one serving more to cure a rich mans
dyspepsia (64) and provide him satisfaction than to truly aid others.

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Crane shares a similar interpretation of philanthropists, albeit with a distinctly different
viewpoint on the value of philanthropy. In Maggie, the character of the old woman, a gnarled
and leathery personage who could don, at will, an expression of great virtue (43) features
prominently. A professional beggar, the old woman practices her trade in a wealthy quarter of the
city; however, Crane notes that the small sum in pennies she received daily was contributed,
for the most part, by persons who didnt make their homes in that vicinity (43). By recognizing
that most of the womans earnings come from those in a position similar to her own, he indirectly
criticizes those wealthier persons, from whose ranks traditional philanthropists arise, who walk
by her and pay her no notice. While decrying philanthropists in a manner similar to Thoreau,
Crane disagrees with the Thoreaus negative views on philanthropy itself. Crane instead judges
philanthropy as a means of assisting those whom fate has left to languish, an act motivated not
out of a need for self-worth or aggrandizement but of a willingness to aid fellow man in need, as
the old woman does in opening her home to Maggie and her brother Jimmy when they seek to
escape the screams of the child and the roars of his mother present in their home (43). Cranes
more practical take on philanthropy reflects the greater visibility and prevalence of causes
requiring philanthropy in his time than in Thoreaus.
In an age of industrialization, one in which the value of a human became quantified and
maximized as never before, the complex subject of individuality fittingly appears in both Walden
and Maggie. Within his text, Henry David Thoreau equates much of his self-reliant message with
the need to be ones own person, disparaging persons who live based on the advice or instruction
of others. Thoreau notes that the head monkey in Paris puts on a travelers cap, and all the
monkeys in America do the same (24), mocking those who dress or live their lives solely as

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prescribed to them by others. Further, he declares that the old have no very important advice to
give the young (11), given that their life experiences have differed so greatly with those of the
next generation. Thoreaus views on individuality are based on the premise that the unique
qualities of one life can hardly be compared with those of another.
While acknowledging the significance of exceptionality, Stephen Crane asserts that such
individuality can be challenging to maintain within severe circumstances. Crane mentions the
inimitable nature of his main characters within the opening chapters of his novel, describing the
protagonist as having blossomed in a mud puddle (49). But as cruel fate struck Maggie, he
further describes her as being attired in tatters, she went unseen (49), and later when she went
along the street (87), no longer even possessing any designation beyond a girl of the painted
cohorts. This transformation occurs as a destitute Maggie is left without means to express her
unique character, left with suicide as her only way to achieve dissimilarity. Just as the style of the
two texts reflects a change from agrarian to urban, so too does the nature of individuality change
from a glowing ideal of an open countryside to an unreachable luxury in crowded tenement life.
In Walden and Maggie, Thoreau and Crane express the generally similar and specifically
differing beliefs that made them sterling examples of their periods zeitgeist. Both authors
mention poverty in their works, with Thoreau insouciantly mentioning the issue and Crane
centering his novel on it, mirroring the prevalence and visibility of the issue in their times. Crane
and Thoreau each rebuke the often self-serving philanthropists of the day; however, Thoreau
dismisses them and their cause entirely while Crane merely rebukes their limited commitment to
aiding those in need. In conclusion, while Thoreau and Crane each emphasize the value of

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individuality, Cranes diminished focus on the issue reflects its diminished availability in an
increasingly uniform world. The views expressed by Thoreau and Crane in Walden and Maggie
share similarities and differences in both their authors beliefs and the time from which such
views came into being.

Works Cited
Crane, Stephen. Maggie: A Girl of the Streets. 1893. New York: Bedford/St. Martin's, 1999.

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Thoreau, Henry David. "Economy." Walden. 1854. New York: Barnes and Noble Classics, 2003.
7-65. Print.