(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Originally published in two volumes, Susan Lenox: Her Fall and Rise is the story of a young woman who struggles against hypocritical double standards, lapses into prostitution, and eventually finds her way back into respectable society. The story begins in Sutherland, a fictitious southeastern Indiana town along the Ohio River modeled after Phillips’s hometown, Madison, Indiana. Susan Lenox’s unmarried mother dies during childbirth without divulging her lover’s identity. The lifeless baby does not respond to conventional methods of resuscitation, so the doctor holds her ankles and swings her around, forcing life into her tiny body. The infant’s scream is the first of many times when Susan will boldly declare her existence.

Susan’s aunt and uncle rear her alongside their own daughter, Ruth, two years older than Susan. Although Susan receives every advantage—clothes, education, refined upbringing—neither her adoptive family nor the townspeople forget her origins. No family wants their son to marry or even associate with Susan. Sam Wright shows interest in her when she is seventeen and even professes his love in order to gain her favor and steal a kiss. Naïve, Susan believes they will be married. The Warhams forbid the relationship because they want the young man for Ruth. One day Sam leads Susan into a cemetery, embraces her, and kisses her passionately. Someone sees them, and rumors spread until everyone believes that Susan has “fallen” like her mother. Not understanding the mechanics of sex, Susan acts guilty, assuming the kiss was the great sin about which the villagers are whispering.

To prevent Susan’s reputation from contaminating their own daughter, the Warhams plan to send Susan away. Not wanting to leave Sam, Susan runs away to Cincinnati, hoping he will follow. Susan reaches the city safely, but the Warhams coerce Sam to reveal her whereabouts. Within a day, George Warham and Sam’s father bring Susan back to Indiana, but not to stay in Sutherland. Believing his family too good for the girl, Mr. Wright refuses Warham’s request that Sam marry Susan. Fearing his ward’s indiscretion will result in an unwanted pregnancy, Warham makes hasty arrangements to wed Susan to a brutish young sharecropper, Jeb Ferguson. Trapped without means of support, she cannot object. On their wedding night, Ferguson forcibly takes Susan’s virginity, horrifically exposing her to the realities of sex. When her husband falls asleep, the young bride flees.

Escaping towards the Ohio River, Susan meets Roderick Spenser, the son of an affluent northern Kentucky family. After loaning her enough money to get to Cincinnati, where he works as a newspaper reporter, Spenser promises to help Susan find work, but he sends her on ahead to avoid any impropriety. Realizing his family would disown him if they discovered his association with Susan, Spenser does not look for her when he returns to Cincinnati.

Susan reaches the river without incident and waits at an inn for a...

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(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Filler, Louis. Voice of the Democracy: A Critical Biography of David Graham Phillips, Journalist, Novelist, Progressive. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1978. Urges readers to consider Susan Lenox s merits as well as its flaws and excesses.

Marcosson, Isaac F. David Graham Phillips and His Times. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1932. Discusses how Phillips’s experiences in Indiana and Ohio influenced Susan Lenox.

Ravitz, Abe C. David Graham Phillips. New York: Twayne, 1966. Biography and criticism. Discussion of Susan Lenox addresses important themes but oversimplifies the work in terms of other “fallen woman” novels.

Wilson, Christopher P. The Labor of Words: Literary Professionalism in the Progressive Era. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985. Discusses relationships between journalism, naturalistic fiction, and political muckraking, with a chapter on Phillips.