Reading prostitution in American fiction, 1893-1917

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Strecker, Geralyn
White, Patricia S.
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Thesis (Ph. D.)
Department of English
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Many American novels of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries discuss prostitution. Some works like Reginald Wright Kauffman's The House of Bondage, (1910) exaggerate the threat of "white slavery," but others like David Graham Phillips's Susan Lenox: Her Fall and Rise (1917) more honestly depict the harsh conditions which caused many women to prostitute themselves for survival. Contemporary critical interpretations of novels addressed in this dissertation began before major shifts in women's roles in the workplace, before trends towards family planning, before women could respectably live on their own, and especially before women won the right to vote. Yet, a century of progress later, this vestigal criticism still influences our study of these texts.Relying on primary source materials such as prostitute autobiographies and vice commission reports, I compare fictional representations of prostitution to historical data, focusing on the prostitute's voice and her position in society. I examine actual prostitutes' life stories to dispel the misconception that prostitution was always a lower-class business. My chapters are ordered in regards to the prominence of the prostitute characters' voices: in Stephen Crane's Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893) the heroine seldom speaks for herself; in two Socialist novels--Upton Sinclair's The Jungle (1906) and Estelle Baker's The Rose Door (1911)--prostitutes debate low wages, political corruption, and organized vice; and in Phillips's Susan Lenox, the title character is almost always allowed to speak for herself, and readers can see what she is thinking as well as doing. As my chapters progress, I demonstrate how the fictions become more like the prostitutes' own autobiographies, with self-reliant women telling their stories without shame or remorse. My conclusion, "Revamping `Fallen Women' Pedagogy for Teaching American Literature," suggests how social history and textual scholarship of specific "fallen women" novels should affect our teaching of these texts.