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Sister Carrie and the Emperor's Club

Posted by Joshua Glenn  April 8, 2008 06:35 PM

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Like my fellow former liberal arts majors across the country, I've been following news reports about Temeka Rachelle Lewis, one of the two dispatchers at the Emperor's Club V.I.P., the escort service/prostitution ring which was busted by the feds who were trying to bust Eliot Spitzer.

It seems that the Brooklyn-based Lewis, whom the New York Daily News has dubbed the "hooker booker," graduated from the University of Virginia in 1997 with a bachelor's degree in English language and literature. Journalists covering the story apparently find it shocking that it was Lewis -- whom the New York Times described yesterday as "a reserved and bookish graduate of the University of Virginia" -- who haggled over payments with Client 9, and who set up the Washington, D.C., tryst between him and 22-year--old call girl/aspiring R&B singer Ashley Alexandra Dupré (aka Kristen).

The bookish hooker booker, in a 1997 UVA yearbook photo

It's silly, of course, to assume that someone who majored in literature will go on to lead a sheltered and morally perfect life. But a tossed-off quip about Lewis in a New York Times story about "The Diverse Crew of 4 Who Ran the Escort Service That Undid Spitzer" didn't make me laugh. It annoyed me. Regarding Lewis, the Times story said

It seems unlikely that anything in the great works of fiction she studied in college would have prepared her for the gritty realities of playing air traffic controller to high-flying young women meeting men in hotels.

Really? Great works of fiction don't feature protagonists and other characters who pay or get paid for sex, take mistresses and lovers, or cheat on their spouses? In great works of fiction, middle-aged political, business, and religious leaders don't turn into hypocrites, scoundrels, and fools when they encounter an attractive young woman? Nor does a reader of great works of fiction ever encounter a young female character who enters into romantic liaisons with unattractive or unpleasant men for personal gain? Stuff and nonsense!

In fact, a quick glance at the first 15 titles on the Modern Library's list of 100 Best [Modern] Novels confirms that Tameka Lewis might well have learned how to handle the Eliot Spitzers and Kristens of the world without ever leaving the library. Eleven of them are chock full of the "gritty realities" of which literature majors are supposedly ignorant.


This is the first 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!


1. ULYSSES (1922) by James Joyce. Early in the novel, Leopold Bloom, an advertising canvasser, picks up a steamy love letter from the post office; he has been corresponding with Martha Clifford, a semi-literate woman, under a pseudonym. (Bloom's wife and co-protagonist, Molly, a beautiful and flirtatious professional singer, is cheating on Bloom with her concert tour manager, Blazes Boylan.) Later, a young woman, Gerty MacDowell, notices Bloom watching her from across the beach; she reveals more and more of her legs while Bloom masturbates. That night, Bloom locates the novel's third protagonist, Stephen Dedalus, at Bella Cohen's brothel. NB: Like Heidi Fleiss and Sidney Biddle Barrows, Cohen is concerned about her social status; in fact, she has a son at Oxford, whose tuition is paid by one of her customers. Later, Bloom lectures Stephen about disease-ridden prostitutes, but Stephen shifts the conversation from traffic in sex to traffic in souls.

2. THE GREAT GATSBY (1925) by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Daisy Buchanan is a sexy young debutante who has an affair with Jay Gatsby, a military officer who falsely claims to be from a wealthy family. Although she promises to wait for Gatsby to return from the war, she instead marries the wealthy Tom Buchanan. Gatsby turns to a life of crime in order to become wealthy enough to win her back. As for Buchanan, though he has no qualms about his own extramarital affair with Myrtle Wilson, whose listless husband owns a run-down garage, when he suspects Daisy and Gatsby of having an affair, he becomes morally outraged and forces a confrontation.

3. A PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN (1916) by James Joyce. Stephen Dedalus's first sexual experience, with a young Dublin prostitute, leaves him feeling guilty. Solution? He rejects his Catholic upbringing and devotes himself to whoring. However, Dedalus's fervent devotion to the Virgin Mary becomes confused with his obsession with prostitutes... and religious hijinks ensue. Semi-autobiographical.


4. LOLITA (1955) by Vladimir Nabokov. At one point in the novel, Humbert Humbert describes his affair with the young prostitute Monique, which ends when Monique matures out of her "nymphet" phase. He also recounts his encounter with an aging procuress who provides him with another prostitute who, although young, isn't what Humbert considers a nymphet. When Humbert tries to leave, the girl becomes angry; he takes her upstairs and pays her, but doesn't sleep with her.


5. BRAVE NEW WORLD (1932) by Aldous Huxley. In Huxley's utopian future society, the whole question of extramarital sex has been turned on its head. In the future, sex has become guilt-free; only exclusive relationships are frowned upon. Nevertheless, Bernard Marx, a maladjusted Alpha who holds unorthodox beliefs about sexual relationships, grows jealous if anyone else has sex with Lenina Crowne, a beautiful and "pneumatic" vaccination worker. Lenina, meanwhile, becomes obsessed with John, a romantic and old-fashioned man who has grown up outside of the World State. John won't succumb to his own lustful urges... until the novel's end.

6. THE SOUND AND THE FURY (1929) by William Faulkner. Southern belle Candace "Caddy" Compson's promiscuity torments her brother Quentin, who is obsessed both with his sister and the family’s honor. When Caddy becomes pregnant, Quentin falsely claims responsibility; later, he drowns himself in the Charles River during his first year at Harvard. Caddy, meanwhile, attempts to cover up her indiscretion by marrying Herbert Head, a banker. But he discovers that she's pregnant with another man's child, and divorces her. Later, Caddy's daughter, Miss Quentin, also grows up to be a promiscuous teen; she steals several thousand dollars from her guardian and runs away with a man from a traveling show.


7. CATCH-22 (1961) by Joseph Heller. Yossarian, the protagonist, is a captain in the Air Force, stationed in Europe during World War II. His friend Nately, a young man from a wealthy home, falls in love with a prostitute from Rome and woos her constantly, despite her continued indifference. Nately fantasizes about moving his whore and her sister back to America and bringing the sister up like his own child, but when Nately's whore (as she's known) hears that he no longer wants her to earn a living with her body, she becomes furious. However, because Yossarian punched him in the face shortly before Nately dies during a bombing run, Nately's whore spends the rest of the novel attempting to stab Yossarian to death.

11. UNDER THE VOLCANO (1947) by Malcolm Lowry. "The bunkers, loaded at Miki -- a black coaling port calculated to fulfill any landsman's conceptions of a sailor's dreams, since every house in it was a brothel, every woman a prostitute, including even an old hag who did tattoos -- were soon full." Geoffrey Firmin, the British consul to Mexico, accuses his wife of adultery; later, he courts infection by visiting a prostitute. Semi-autobiographical.

12. THE WAY OF ALL FLESH (1903) by Samuel Butler. In this semi-autobiographical novel, which attacks Victorian-era hypocrisy, Ernest Pontifex, an Evangelical curate, decides to live among London's poor and downtrodden. Upon learning that one of his fellow tenants in Mrs. Jupp's rooming house is a prostitute, he confronts Miss Maitlin, whom he assumes is the fallen woman. Turns out he's got the wrong girl; to make matters worse, Ernest is overcome by lust and assaults her. When Ernest is sent to prison, the sentencing magistrate chastises him, noting "that you have not even the common sense to be able to distinguish between a respectable girl and a prostitute."


13. 1984 (1949) by George Orwell. Winston Smith, a frail intellectual who works in the Ministry of Truth, feels frustrated by the oppression and rigid control of Oceania's ruling Party, which prohibits free thought, not to mention casual sex. Smith's repressed sexuality is one of the main reasons he wants to rebel. At one point, he tells his diary that his last sexual encounter was with an old, ugly prostitute; he speculates that the Party wants to remove all pleasure from the sexual act, transforming it into a duty, in order to strike another psychological blow against individualism. One day, Winston receives a note from Julia, a beautiful dark-haired girl working in the Fiction Department. It seems that Julia has had affairs with many Party members. (Her rebellion against the Party isn't ideological, though; she just enjoys sex.) The two begin a covert affair, until Winston is captured and tortured by O'Brien, a powerful member of the Inner Party who -- it turns out -- wants him to give up Julia.

14. I, CLAUDIUS (1934) by Robert Graves. Claudius' regular prostitute, Calpurnia, is one of the most intelligent characters in the book. "Our relationship was a purely business one," Claudius says of Calpurnia's predecessor. "She had deliberately chosen prostitution as her profession; I paid her well; there was no nonsense about her." When Claudius loses his fortune, Calpurnia comes to live with him. Hooray! She's socked away all the money that Claudius has ever given her, and now she gives it back. Eliot Spitzer, eat your heart out.


NOTE: Although Paul Morel sleeps with a married woman, and breaks off with his longtime girlfriend, he's not a cad. And no money exchanges hands. Besides, the female characters aren't ambitious social climbers. So I skipped D.H. Lawrence's semi-autobiographical "Sons and Lovers," number 9 on the Modern Library's list. However, please allow me to use this near-thing as an excuse to mention...

33. SISTER CARRIE by Theodore Dreiser. Caroline (Carrie) Meeber is a small-town girl enthralled by the cosmopolitan consumer world of Chicago. She becomes the mistress of a charming, flashy salesman; but then she ditches him for George Hurstwood, the wealthy, influential, and married manager of a Chicago saloon. After his wife files for divorce, Hurstwood steals ten thousand dollars from the saloon and flees with Carrie to Montreal. Carrie abandons Hurstwood because he fails to provide her with the lavish life she wants; she becomes a famous, high-paid actress in New York. One hopes that "Kristen," whose songs "What We Want" and "Move Ya Body" have been listened to online over 300,000 times.


PS: I asked Mikita Brottman, a professor of literature, film, intellectual history, and critical theory at Baltimore's Maryland Institute College of Art, a devoted scholar of American pop and trash culture, and the author of "The Solitary Vice: Against Reading," published this spring by Soft Skull/Counterpoint, for a few more examples of prostitutes in great literature. She very helpfully sent me the following email:

The classics are full of prostitutes, many of them self-serving and perfectly pleased with their profession. Many are highly conscious of their class status. There's Zola's Nana and Dumas's La Dame Aux Camelias. There's Sadie Thompson in Somerset Maugham's Rain, and in Proust's "In Search of Lost Time," Rachel is a former prostitute, and Odette has a questionable past.
Here are a few more. Interesting that most are British or French. Maybe the Europeans are less hypocritical about prostitution than the Americans.
Nancy, in "Oliver Twist," is a 16-year old prostitute who was originally corrupted by Fagin and become a pickpocket at age 6.
Defoe describes Moll Flanders as "Twelve Year a Whore, five times a Wife (whereof once to her own brother), Twelve Year a Thief, Eight Year a Transported Felon in Virginia, at last grew Rich, liv'd Honest and died a Penitent." In another Defoe novel, "Roxana: The fortunate Mistress," Roxana is much happier as a prostitute than with her "fool" of a husband.
Fanny Hill's work as a "woman of pleasure" shows her that all wealthy, upstanding, respectable men are crude beasts in the bedroom.
"Kristen": Only the latest in a grand tradition of bad girls


Readers, I invite you to leave more examples of this sort of thing in the comments! But click here first, because I've already posted lots more examples.

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3 comments so far...
  1. It seems unlikely that anything in the great works of fiction she studied in college would have prepared her for the gritty realities of playing air traffic controller to high-flying young women meeting men in hotels.

    This must be why no one reads the classics anymore - as you've pointed out, many of them are impossibly filthy, not just Masoch (which for all its fame is barely titillating) and Sade, but Boccaccio and Chaucer are probably filthier than anything I can recall. How they're making a movie out of the Decameron that isn't rated X is beyond me.

    Posted by Tom April 9, 08 11:35 AM
  1. Also, though Chaucer is considerably less dirty than his source Boccaccio, there is still plenty to pin your puritan ears back - especially in The Wife of Bath's Tale. More recently I was forced to read Rechy's City of Night and Vollman's Butterfly Stories (one of a let's call it a trilogy of prostitution books) in grad school once upon a time.

    Someone mentioned Fanny Hill, but there's also Cleland's Memoirs of a Coxcomb. The Tale of Genji (maybe the world's first novel) makes up in quantity of sex what it may lack in quality of lasciviousness, plus there's constant mention of his black, rotten teeth - now that's kinky.

    Posted by Tom April 9, 08 04:45 PM
  1. Presumably the brothels of Shakespeare's Pericles and the homosexual adultery at the heart of Marlowe's Edward II may have prepared many an English major for the gritty realities of live outside of academia...but then, who ever wants to read a book about boring people who have no flaws and do no wrong?

    Posted by D. Edward Farrar April 14, 08 08:44 AM
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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