The story opens in late nineteenth century New York City's Bowery district where a small boy from Rum Alley stands atop a pile of gravel. He and his friends are under attack by a rival gang of street urchins from Devil's Row and the little boy has chosen to make a stand. He throws rocks and hurls insults at his attackers. One of his retreating friends calls out: "Run, Jimmie, run! Dey'll get yehs," but Jimmie retorts that "dese micks" can't make him run. This causes The Devil's Row gang to pelt Jimmie with rocks. Jimmie stumbles down, his clothes in tatters and his head bleeding from a savage cut. While the boys curse and fight a woman looks on from her squalid apartment, some men unloading a boat on the river pause to watch and on the Island a line of yellow convicts trail along the river's edge. Jimmie receives a cut to his face and his legs begin to buckle. At this moment an older boy of about sixteen years comes swaggering down the street. His hat tipped at an angle, the older boy holds a cigar stump clenched between his teeth, his expression is locked into a permanent sneer. He observes the smaller boys fighting and arrogantly grabs one of the Devil's Row gang and with an exclamation of "Ah, what deh hell," he boxes the child to the ground. The older boy, whose name is Pete, turns to Jimmie and exclaims "What deh hell, Jimmie?" and Jimmie responds to his friend: "I was goin' teh lick dat Riley kid and dey all pitched in on me." The rival gangs quit the field of battle with many curses and begin to brag about their abilities amongst themselves. Jimmie gets into a brief scuffle with one of his gang mates but their fight is interrupted when Jimmie's Father, dinner pail in hand and smoking an apple-wood pipe, arrives on his way home from work. He sees that his son is fighting and he begins to yell and kick the boys. Jimmie curses his father and receives another kick for his trouble. Much chagrined Jimmie follows his father home.
Analysis of Chapter 1
From the first sentence of this novel "A very little boy stood upon a heap of gravel fighting for the honor of Rum Alley" emerge two prevalent themes - destruction by violence and destruction by morality. Violence is central to the first half of the work. Slaps, strikes, pummels and fisticuffs pervade the story. We first meet Jimmie Johnson in the middle of a savage and desperate fight with children from a rival gang; but when that action dissipates he picks a fight with one of his own gang which in turn only ends when Jimmie's father begins kicking the enmeshed boys. Apart from the outright violence, however, Maggie is also a novel about the destructive power of morality misapplied. The novel exposes the cruelty engendered by hypocritical assumptions of virtue in a morally bankrupt world. Rather than risk moral censure and loss of status through their association with Maggie, her mother, Jimmie and Pete choose to shelter in society's codes though their actions throughout the story have plainly flown in the face of those same codes.
The opening chapter also demonstrates two rhetorical devices that Crane will employ throughout the work. First, Crane's descriptions of the routine activities of the men and women who notice the gang fight as they go about their afternoon activities is typical his impressionistic prose style which places the immediate action of the story in the context of a greater human drama. Second, Crane employs the vernacular language of the Bowery to good effect. For instance, the catch phrase "Ah, what deh hell" first appears in this chapter and will be employed throughout the story with a variety of meanings depending on the context and the speaker. When the book was republished in 1896, three years after Crane first published it himself, he was asked to remove a great deal of the street language for fear that the uncouth language would offend refined readers. Most editions of the work now use the original 1893 text.