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Thoreau vs Crane Essay

Sarah Schiffgens
CAP Honors English 9
Green Group

Henry David Thoreau, in Walden, and Stephen Crane, in Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, have
similar views on philanthropists and luxury goods, but disagree on the issues of self-reliance.
Thoreau was a transcendentalist and philosopher who wrote Walden upon living in isolation at

Walden Pond for two years. Stephen Crane was a realist and his novel Maggie: A Girl of the
Streets was written about an impoverished girl living in the slums. Even though these writers are
from drastically different literary eras, they are able to discuss the similar topics of philanthropy,
material acquisition, and self-reliance.
Thoreau and Crane would agree on their views of philanthropy. They both believe that
philanthropy is a just and beneficial practice but would say that philanthropists only perform good
deeds for some form of self-benefit. Thoreau calls philanthropy a charity that holds a multitude of
sins (63) and refers to the selfish reasoning behind many philanthropical actions. He makes the
point that philanthropists rarely sacrifice any of their own comforts for the benefit of those in need
and instead perform kind and generous deeds for positive attention. In many cases, philanthropy
does not necessarily benefit those for whom it is intended due to the lack of actual sacrifice toward
the cause. He concludes that philanthropy is greatly overrated; and it is our selfishness that
overrates it (56).
Crane too believes that philanthropy itself is a wonderful practice but that philanthropists
partake in it for selfish reasons. Toward the end of Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, Maggie is on the
streets and struggling to survive. When in need of support, she turns to Pete whom she still
believes is her lover. Upon confronting Pete for help, she is pushed away from him as he tells her
to leave, saying Yehll git me in the trouble wid deh ol man an deyll be hell to pay!(86). Pete
has taken advantage of Maggie and has only treated her with love for sexual benefit. Once Pete has
replaced Maggie with Nellie, he no longer has a desire to help Maggie for he would gain nothing
from it. Maggie is no longer welcome in her home or Rum Alley and Pete refuses to help her, so
she turns to prostitution. While roaming the streets, Maggie comes across a benevolent looking
man and approaches him hoping he will be willing to help her. However, as she nears him he

[gives] a convulsive movement and [saves] his respectability by a vigorous side step (87). The
man thinks she is a prostitute and is unwilling to risk his honorable reputation by assisting Maggie.
He refuses to help Maggie because he fears losing his respectability. Both authors show that
philanthropy is only appealing if one can benefit themselves through partaking in it.
Thoreau and Crane would also agree on the attainment of luxury items. Thoreau believes
there is too much focus on acquiring large numbers of items that will serve little purpose. He even
believes that such materials will only be detrimental to their owner. Thoreau writes, but lo! Men
have become the tools of their tools, (33). Many luxury items serve little purpose but require
constant maintenance, one example Thoreau uses being limestone. It requires dusting every day
and he prefers to just sit on the open ground. He thinks there is an obsession with material
acquisition and that most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only
not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind (16). Thoreau argues that
one must simplify, simplify (17) and insists that for one to live a fulfilling life, one would only
need to live off the necessities. People have become too dependent on luxury goods since items
become symbols of wealth and status. Thoreau thinks such items are trivial and there should be
more focus on achieving a higher understanding of the world through connecting with nature.
In Cranes novel, Maggie begins to care more about what she wears and how she appears.
The luxury items one possesses and the trendiness of these items often determine ones social
class. Maggie wishes to live a wealthier lifestyle and after meeting Pete, her desire to acquire more
materials increases. She began to have an intense dislike for all her dresses (61) and wishes for
more flattering and fashionable dresses. The attainment of such luxury items becomes her primary
goal. She leaves her family and tenement in pursuit of a slightly more comfortable and enjoyable
life with Pete. Maggie takes notice of other women and their clothes. She thinks Nellies black

dress fit[s] her to perfection. Her linen collar and cuffs [are] spotless...A hat of a prevailing fashion
perche[s] jauntily upon her dark hair, and wishes to be in her place (78). Maggie is so focused on
luxury items and experiences that she disregards her family. She believes material acquisitions can
make her happy and will make her more worthy of Petes affection. Sadly, her goal is unattainable
and results only in disappointment. This further supports Thoreaus point that seeking luxury
goods is trivial and leads one away from finding true happiness.
Thoreau and Crane would agree on philanthropists and luxury goods, they would contrast
on their views of self-reliance. Thoreau believes that self-reliance is extremely important and that
one should be independent. He argues that all that man obtains by his own exertionshas become
so important to human life that few, if any, whether from savageness, or poverty, or philosophy,
ever attempt to do without it, they would live poorly (14). Thoreau decides to live completely
independently at Walden Pond for two years to experience and enjoy life the way he wants. He
encourage others to live on their own and says, with consummate skill he has set his trap with a
hair springe to catch comfort and independence, and then, as he turned away, got his own leg into
it, to emphasize the importance his self-reliant lifestyle and the devotion needed to pursue it (30).
Crane would disagree with Thoreau and say that it is important and even necessary to rely
on other people for assistance. Maggie has relied solely on Pete and when she has lost him, she is
left in a desperate situation. She needs a place to stay and while the majority of residents in Rum
Rally reject Maggie, her old neighbor says, Well, come in an stay wid me the-night. I ain got no
moral standin, and helps out Maggie (84). If the old woman had not let Maggie stay the night, she
would be forced onto the streets so it is critical that she relies on the old woman. Once she leaves
the womans house, she has nowhere to go, but gains hope when she sees a well off and kind
looking man. She approaches the man but he steps around her for he did not risk it to save a soul.

For how was he to know that there was a soul before him that needed saving? Maggie is forced
into a life of prostitution (87). The man has the capacity to help Maggie, but she has been forced to
be self-reliant. Maggie eventually loses her will to live and kills herself due to her hopeless reality.
Crane argues that it is important for people to be dependent upon others and seek help when
needed. He would disagree with Thoreau on the importance of independence.
Thoreau and Crane would concur in their belief that philanthropists are selfish and that
luxury items are unnecessary. They believe philanthropy is well intended, but that philanthropists
are hypocritical. They also believe that luxury goods are insignificant and can be detrimental to
ones mindset and sense of personal worth. They would disagree on the importance of selfreliance. Thoreau argues that it is easy to be independent and that it is the best way to live ones
life to its fullest potential, but Crane believes that its more important to depend on others.

Works Cited
Crane, Stephen. Maggie: A Girl of the Streets. Ed. Kevin J. Hayes. EmilyBerleth, 1999. Print.
Thoreau, Henry David.Walden. New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 1854. Print.