Perhaps the profession that most determines its workers’ identities is prostitution. People who exchange the use of their bodies for money are viewed according to their society’s opinion of prostitution. In ancient Greece and Rome, courtesans were socially accepted; however, respect fell away from prostitution with the rise of Christianity. In modern times, prostitution became associated with urban filth, poverty, and disease.
The first American literature to mention prostitution was written by a Spanish nun working in Mexico during the seventeenth century. In her poetry, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz placed the moral blame for prostitution not on native women but on the European men who demanded their services. Although brothels were established in Boston as early as 1650, little reference is made to prostitution in British American literature until after the American Revolution. Eliza Wharton, the heroine of Hannah Webster Foster’s The Coquette (1797), turns to prostitution after being seduced and abandoned; she dies alone during childbirth in a room at a tavern. This and similar novels written for a primarily young female audience in the early 1800’s used the conventional image of the fallen woman to warn girls away from premarital sex. Many conservative religious leaders, however, worried that such novels made girls curious about sex.
In the nineteenth century, America went through a great industrial expansion, large numbers of immigrants arrived, and thousands of people moved from rural farms to large cities in search of employment. Finding a shortage of jobs and very low wages, many urban women turned to prostitution for survival. The demand for their services was great, since new industries also attracted waves of single young male workers. Areas such as the notorious Five Points District in New York were the setting for much sensational fiction during the 1800’s. A good example is George Lippard’s The Monks of Monk Hall (1844; retitled 1845 as The Quaker City), which exposes prostitution and other underworld vices of Philadelphia. Prostitution flourished in smaller towns as well. In The Silent Partner (1871), Elizabeth Stuart Phelps Ward depicts a deaf, blind, and crippled young woman who, unable to work in New England textile mills, trades sex for food and alcohol.
The great Chicago fire and subsequent collapse of the stock market in 1873 sent thousands more women into prostitution, either full time or as they needed extra money for food, rent, or medicine. During the period from 1873 to 1918, prostitution had its heyday in the United States. Redlight districts sprang up in places such as New Orleans’ Storyville and San Francisco’s Tenderloin. Popular magazines and newspapers such as Police Gazette exposed underworld vices to eager readers. Despite the efforts of Anthony Comstock’s Society for the Suppression of Vice and other censorship groups, prostitution became a major issue in American literature.
With the publication of Joaquin Miller’s The Destruction of Gotham (1886) and Edgar Fawcett’s The Evil That Men Do (1889), a new type of heroine found her way into American fiction—the urban prostitute. Miller’s Dottie Lane and Fawcett’s Cora Strang struggle to make an honest living in New York City but discover that they cannot survive without selling their bodies. In Harold Frederic’s The Lawton Girl (1890), when Jessica Lawton returns to her small hometown in upstate New York after being a prostitute in New York City for five years, people immediately recognize what she has been. Jessica struggles to revise her identity by helping factory girls and becoming a benevolent employer of women in a clean, safe workroom.
Fiction writers at the beginning of the twentieth century describe prostitution in terms of various themes, developing greater variety than that of the fallen woman theme. Purity reformers used white slavery fiction to expose readers to what they believed were the horrors of prostitution. The most widely read example of such novels is Reginald Wright Kauffman’s The House of Bondage (1910), in which women are kidnapped and forced to work in brothels. Naturalist novelists Stephen Crane, Frank Norris, and Theodore Dreiser showed prostitution not so much as a dangerous lure to vulnerable young women but rather an unavoidable fact of life for girls in poor communities. This realistic portrayal of prostitution created scandal among many readers and critics. The poor Irish title character of Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893) is led astray by a rakish bartender in the Bowery of New York City. In Norris’ The Octopus (1901), Minna Hooven turns to prostitution in California after her father’s business fails; and in Vandover and the Brute (1914), the son of a well-to-do family excessively indulges in the vices of alcohol, gambling, and prostitution. The title character of Dreiser’s Sister Carrie (1900) is paid for sex by a philandering salesman whom she meets on the train to Chicago, and in Jennie Gerhardt (1911), a young woman begins having sex with a Columbus, Ohio, politician when her family’s finances become desperate. Dreiser’s male characters employ prostitutes without any sense of guilt or shame: Frank Cowperwood repeatedly seeks gratification with prostitutes in The Financier (1912), The Titan (1914), and The Stoic (1947). In An American Tragedy (1925), Clyde Griffiths patronizes a brothel in Kansas City and later keeps a poor factory girl as a mistress in upstate New York.
Crane, Norris, and Dreiser do not imply that these women should be condemned for their actions, rather that their situations are merely the result of harsh, uncaring environments. David Graham Phillips takes his representation of prostitution a step further in Susan Lenox: Her Fall and Rise (1917) by portraying his heroine’s step into prostitution as a deliberate means for improving her life. The orphan of an unwed mother, she can never lead a proper, comfortable life in her southern Indiana hometown; however, as a successful courtesan in New York City, she associates with the elite of Park Avenue and travels in the highest social circles in Europe. Upton Sinclair, a supporter of many reform efforts, suggests in The Jungle (1906) that women who work long, hard hours in filthy, dangerous factories for poor wages are wasting their lives and would be better off as prostitutes in respectable brothels, although ideally, he would have liked to see women earning a living wage in factories.
Several early twentieth century women authors deal with prostitution as...
Gilfoyle, Timothy J. City of Eros: New York City, Prostitution, and the Commercialization of Sex, 1790-1920. New York: W. W. Norton, 1992. Provides in-depth discussion of prostitution in New York, the setting of many early literary works dealing with prostitution. Offers some commentary on literature of the time, and his charts, maps, and illustrations are valuable.
Hapke, Laura. Girls Who Went Wrong: Prostitutes in American Fiction, 1885-1917. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1989. Offers a historically informed analysis of works by Miller, Fawcett, Crane,...