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Hooker Booker redux

Posted by Joshua Glenn  April 9, 2008 12:57 PM

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This is the second installment in a series of posts on literary novels concerned with prostitution -- or other examples of the nexus of sex, power, and money.

1. Sister Carrie and the Emperor's Club | 2. Hooker Booker redux | 3. More literary streetwalkers!

My thanks to those who've directed my attention to more great works of fiction.

Rob T writes:

Crime and Punishment's Sonya [Dostoevsky's The Brother's Karamazov is on The Guardian's list of The 100 Greatest Novels of All Time]. And anything Henry Miller: Tropic of Cancer [no. 50 on the Modern Library's list of 100 Best Novels; it's also on Time Magazine's list of All-Time 100 Novels, from 1923 to the present], Sexus, Plexus, Nexus with Mara/Mona. Aldonza in Don Quixote [Miguel De Cervantes' Quixote is on the Guardian's list].

Kim C. writes:

Non-fiction, but wonderful stuff on street trade in Boswell's London diary.

Lynn P. writes:

I went running to my copy of "Show Me the Good Parts: The Reader's Guide to Sex In Literature," but alas, I think it's a little dated for your purposes. However, it mentions Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel, and Emile Zola's Nana. Also something called "Hot Money Girl" by Arlo Wayne, but that probably doesn't qualify as a great work of fiction -- at least by most colleges.

[more after jump]

Matthew B. writes:

Wife of Bath's Tale; Plato's Symposium; Ovid's Ars Amatoria; pretty much any page of Gargantua and Pantgruel; Gawain and the Green Knight; Moll Flanders [Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe is on the Guardian's list].

Shelley J. writes:

Aristophanes, Catullus, Apuleius... Sade, Genet, Bataille, Burroughs [Naked Lunch is on Time Magazine's list]...

Luc S. writes:

Maupassant -- many stories, especially "Mme. Tellier's Establishment." Balzac: A Harlot High and Low [Balzac's The Black Sheep is on the Guardian's list]. Michael Ondaatje's Coming Through Slaughter is a bit more recent, but showcases Storyville. Colette, passim.

Mark K. writes:

Non-fiction, though it's been revealed as partly fictional -- John Glassco's "Memoir of Montparnasse." Great stuff about how to run a brothel so that patrons have a good time. Glassco claims he also worked as a prostitute (for women) and his observations about the difference between visiting and being visited are illuminating -- if fanciful. Bonus: Hemingway makes several appearances, all to his disadvantage.

Jason G. writes:

Flaubert's Travels in Egypt is about as raunchy as it gets.

Sarah W. writes:

Shouldn't John O'Hara's BUTTERFIELD 8 be on the list? [O'Hara's Appointment in Samarra is no. 22 on the ML list; it's also on Time Magazine's list.] Starr Faithful is more doomed than Ashley Dupre, but certainly power and corruption figure into her sad tale.

Daniel P. writes:

Durrell! Alexandria [no. 70 on the ML list] is rife with dancers, prostitutes, pederasts, and other men and women of easy virtue.

Please keep the suggestions coming. Meanwhile, here are several more examples of prostitution in great works of literature that I've tracked down.

* THE EPIC OF GILGAMESH (written between 2700 BC and around 600 BC). In the first tablet, a hunter is freaked out by the appearance of Enkidu, a hairy Sasquatch-like figure, in the wilderness. His father tells him to go to the magnificent city of Uruk, and ask the god-king Gilgamesh to lend him a temple prostitute. The hunter does, and brings the prostitute to the watering hole where he encountered big, hairy Enkidu. When Enkidu appears, the prostitute offers herself to him, and they copulate for a week straight. Afterwards, Enkidu is rejected by the animals of the wilderness, who no longer regard him as one of their own; troubled, Enkidu returns to the prostitute, who suggests that he travel to Uruk and befriend Gilgamesh, who may be lonely because he doesn't know anyone as large and powerful as himself. This turns out to be good advice. NB: In the Mesopotamian worldview, the act of sex mystically and physically connects people to the life force, the goddess. Sacred prostitutes, in other words, were avatars and conduits of divinity. SPOILER: Enkidu's death makes Gilgamesh so terrified of dying that he becomes paralyzed.

* NOTES FROM UNDERGROUND (1864), by Fyodor Dostoevsky. The Underground Man, a low-ranking civil servant in 1860s St. Petersburg, is " sick man... a wicked man... an unattractive man" whose self-loathing and habit of second-guessing his every thought and action has rendered him nearly inert. At one point, the Underground Man spends the night at a brothel with an attractive young prostitute named Liza; the next morning, he delivers impassioned, sentimental speeches about the terrible fate that awaits her if she continues to sell her body. This makes him feel good about himself. However, when Liza comes to visit him a few days later, he's ashamed of his shoddy apartment and informs her that he was never interested in anything but manipulating her and exerting power over her. SPOILER: Liza flees into the snow, casting away the money that the UM has given her.


* THE JUNGLE (1906), by Upton Sinclair. When the protagonist, Jurgis Rudkus, a Lithuanian immigrant in Chicago, goes to visit his wife's cousin Marija Berczynskas, a fellow immigrant and a large, strong woman whose struggle against the corrupt bosses represented a spirit of defiance among the immigrants, he discovers that she's become a prostitute. When the two of them are arrested and taken to a police station, she tells him that she chose this line of work in order to keep their family from starvation. Marija's fate symbolizes the accusation that Sinclair levels against capitalism: It treats every kind of worker as a means to an end, uses him/her up, and throws him/her away. SPOILER: Jurgis attempts to rescue Marija, but she tells him that she's addicted to morphine and will never quit selling her body.

* A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE (1947), by Tennessee Williams. One of the ways that Williams dramatizes the contest between fantasy (Blanche DuBois) and reality (Stanley Kowalski), is via a flexible set that permits the Kowalski apartment's interior to be seen at the same time as the street outside. The most notable instance of this effect occurs moments before Stanley rapes Blanche: The back wall of the apartment becomes transparent, and Blanche sees a prostitute in the street being pursued by a male drunkard. The prostitute's situation evokes Blanche's own predicament. Williams is criticizing a society in which women see male companions as their only means to achieve happiness and self-sufficiency. SPOILER: Fantasy fails to triumph over reality, except in a perverse way when Blanche goes insane.

* MAGGIE: A GIRL OF THE STREETS (1893), by Stephen Crane. Like the preceding four titles, "Maggie" is a classic work of gritty urban realism. Popular American novels of the Gilded Age ignored the squalid slums of cities like New York; Crane's short and didactic novel portrays a Lower East Side inhabited by the needy, the hopeless, and the corrupted. Maggie Johnson is a beautiful young women whose romantic outlook survives the abusive and impoverished circumstances of her upbringing. Seduced and abandoned by Pete, a bartender with bourgeois pretensions, whose show of bravado and worldliness seems to promise wealth and culture, Maggie turns to prostitution. Near the end of the novel, "a girl of the painted cohorts of the city" -- a prostitute, and possibly Maggie -- passes scorned, unnoticed, or leered at, through the busy streets of New York, and eventually finds herself near the river, trailed by a sinister figure. SPOILER: We later hear she's dead.

NB: Social realists don't believe that a person can overcome his or her environment; Maggie's decline is inevitable, which makes the novel less compelling, for some readers. A telling contrast is Dickens's character Nancy, the prostitute in "Oliver Twist" (Oliver finds her "remarkably free and agreeable") who rails against Sikes and Fagin for seizing and mistreating Oliver. Unlike the high-minded "good" characters in the novel who have no firsthand experience with vice and degradation, Nancy is a good person despite her experience as a prostitute.


* EAST OF EDEN (1952), by John Steinbeck. Steinbeck considered this his greatest and most important novel, for here he wrestled with the greatest question: Can individuals overcome evil by free choice? Cathy Ames, who believes there is only evil in the world, murders her parents by arson and then commences a life of prostitution. She later marries and then shoots Adam Trask, abandoning her newborn twin sons in order to return to prostitution. She then murders the brothel owner, becomes the brothel's new madam, and uses drugs to control and manipulate her whores. Oh yeah, and she photographs powerful men involved in sadomasochistic sex acts in order to blackmail them. Her son Cal, who sniffs her out, decides that evil can be overcome and that morality is a free choice, regardless of the fact that all humans are imperfect. SPOILER: When Cathy's son Aron, who is only able to face the good in the world, discovers who and what his mother is, he's shattered.


* THE CATCHER IN THE RYE (1951), by J.D. Salinger. Who doesn't want to see Holden Caulfield get punched in the stomach? When a hotel elevator operator offers to send Caulfield a prostitute for five dollars, the depressed and flustered virgin accepts. He broods in his room about the apparent fact that women don't want a shy, inarticulate man like him; they want a tough guy. Sunny, the cynical young prostitute, arrives and removes her dress. Caulfield gets anxious, and tells her that he is unable to perform because he is recovering from a "clavichord" operation. SPOILER: Sunny and the elevator operator return to shake Caulfield down for an additional five dollars; the elevator operator punches Caulfield in the stomach.

* JOHNNY GOT HIS GUN (1939), by Dalton Trumbo. At one point in the interior monologue narrative, Joe Bonham, an American soldier who's lost his limbs and face and cannot see, hear, speak, or communicate, thinks of all the prostitutes he's known. There's Laurette, whom he met as a high-school student; he thought she loved him, but was crushed to discover that she was just being nice. Then there was Bonnie, a former high-school classmate; Joe ran into her in Los Angeles, later, and he could tell "what she was" now, because she seemed to know every sailor in town. Finally, there's Lucky, an American prostitute whom Joe met overseas. He used to visit her in her room, where she'd crochet doilies in the nude. She was sending her money home to her 6-year-old son. SPOILER: A nurse masturbates what's left of poor Joe.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

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Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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