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  • Dangerous Liaisons: Prostitution, Disease, and Race in Frank Norris’s Fiction

Prostitution is pregnant with disease, a disease infecting not only the guilty but contaminating the innocent wife and child in the home with sickening certainty almost inconceivable; a disease to be feared as a leprous plague; a disease scattering misery broadcast, and leaving in its wake sterility, insanity, paralysis, and the blinded eyes of little babes, the twisted limbs of deformed children, degradation, physical rot and mental decay.

—Vice Comission of Chicago, 1911

By 1911, scientific advances in the understanding of venereal diseases had significantly altered public perception of their seriousness. No longer considered just punishment of the guilty, these diseases were blamed for transmitting the wages of sin from errant husband to virtuous wife and child, the newly discovered venerealinsotium—infections of the innocent—deemed an insidious threat to the beleaguered [End Page 31] middle-class family. 1 But as this quote from the Vice Commission makes clear, these philandering husbands manage to evade the full impact of such condemnation, their guilt eclipsed by the prostitute who, in the iconography of syphilis, gets cast as the center and source of such infection. 2 According to the imagery of this quote, prostitution breeds not healthy children but gruesome deformities, a horrific picture that implicitly associates venereal disease—the “family poison” that renders women barren, or even worse, turns normal fetuses into subhuman monstrosities—with “race suicide,” that widely-circulated term used to describe the declining birth rates among middle- and upper-class white Americans.

The causal connection between syphilis and race suicide made by some venerologists represents only one aspect of a subtle yet persistent tendency to identify disease with racial “others”: namely, blacks, Asians, and the “new immigrants” who flocked to American shores in ever-increasing numbers. 3 Indeed, the undercurrent of disease that informs virtually all discussions of prostitution reveals a pervasive anxiety about the influence such others might exert on a narrowly-defined “American” identity, the apprehension shared by many native-born Americans that this influx of immigrants might weaken or even contaminate cherished American ideals. Generations after European “others” spread diseases that would decimate “natives” in the New World, their descendents constructed a trope of disease that reversed the flow of contagion, imagining themselves as the “natives” imperiled by hordes of diseased “others.” Indeed, these latter-day “natives”/nativists inherited a racist ideology first articulated in the beginning of the nineteenth century, when American politicians, scientists, and cultural critics justified brutal policies toward American Indians, African Americans, and Mexicans by describing these groups as inherently inferior, obviously incapable of self-government or even assimilation (Horsman). Turn-of-the-century nativists fiddled with racial categories to apply this language to a new generation of immigrants, classifying these racial others as “degenerates” and worrying that an infusion of “inferior” races would fatally corrupt the purity of Anglo-Saxon stock; the language of disease literalizes these fears by constructing a rhetoric of contagion based upon the biological model of germ theory, imaging race as a deadly virus capable of passing from one host to another, infecting a previously “healthy” organism. [End Page 32]

Since prostitution was identified in the public imagination with immigrants—those foreign pimps and prostitutes who imported an old trade to a new country—and with venereal disease, it becomes a crucial target of nativist attacks. In this essay, I explore the complicated nexus of prostitution, immigration, and disease in Frank Norris’s studies of degeneration, for his version of literary naturalism is at once dependent upon sexual liaisons and endangered by them. In Norris’s representations, the prostitute mediates the novelist’s engagement with the lower class by introducing him to the brothels and tenements he claims as the proper province of art. Rubbing elbows with these unwashed masses furnishes the novelist with the inspiration of his calling and the material for his art, but it also exposes him to the contagious diseases associated with the lower class, particularly the racial others whose difference foils all attempts to assimilate them into a comfortably American identity. And the prostitute who facilitates his entrance into this alien world proves a congenial host...

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