Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Susan Lenox deserves reading mainly for its unique vision of prostitution through a female character’s perspective. With its descriptions of Cincinnati sweatshops and vermin-infested tenements, the first half of the novel resembles the naturalistic fiction of Dreiser and Norris. However, in the second volume, plot is overshadowed by repeated attacks on double standards, poor housing, worker exploitation, and corrupt government. Like Upton Sinclair, Phillips used his fiction to expose injustice and was consequently labeled a “muckraker.”

Exaggerated fiction of the time such as Reginald Wright Kauffman’s The House of Bondage (1910) espoused the “white slave” myth, the idea that innocent young girls were trapped into prostitution and held against their will by evil pimps and madams. Phillips shows an entirely different view: Susan takes her first downward step because her family and neighbors expect it of her. Later instances of her prostitution are triggered by corrupt employers, poverty, and hunger, and even by altruism when she prostitutes herself to provide for sick friends. For Susan, prostitution is a last resort, into which society periodically forces her. While most “fallen woman” literature shows the heroine falling deeper and deeper into vice and degradation, Susan Lenox sells herself when necessary but rises, takes control of her life, and even prospers enough to live among New York’s elite.

During his lifetime, Phillips was more widely read and respected than Theodore Dreiser, yet today his works are all but ignored. Of his more than twenty novels, only Susan Lenox receives much attention. After seven years of writing and revising what he considered his masterpiece, Phillips was ready to publish it when he met an untimely death, assassinated by a crazed reader that believed Phillips had slandered his sister in an earlier novel. Since Susan Lenox was published posthumously, Phillips did not have editorial control over the final work, and many revisions softened its content. Still, the work addresses difficult issues.