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In literary studies, the relationship between journalism and fiction has long been established. Realism, for example, owes a considerable debt to changes in journalistic practices in the late nineteenth century—primarily, a shift toward more objective reporting methods. Unfortunately, however, for more than a century, the narrative of this relationship has centered largely upon masculinity and writers such as Stephen Crane and Ernest Hemingway. Little, if any, mention has been made of the numerous women writers with journalism backgrounds. In Front-Page Girls, Jean Marie Lutes addresses this significant oversight with her exploration of the "girl reporter" from 1880 to 1930. To our benefit, Lutes focuses on women journalists themselves and their portrayal in fiction and popular culture.
In her opening chapters, Lutes's examination of women journalists is strengthened by compelling and instructive contrasts. In chapter one, "Into the Madhouse with Girl Stunt Reporters," for example, Lutes explores late nineteenth century ideas about gender, race, and social class that helped to propel the sensational careers of Nellie Bly and the "stunt girls," who were described by Ishbel Ross in Ladies of the Press (New York: Arno, 1974) as "a wild out-cropping of girls who freely risked their lives and reputations in order to crash the papers. . . . They posed with equal nonchalance as beggars, balloonists, streetwomen, servants, steel workers, lunatics, shop girls and Salvation Army lassies. They bothered the preachers and stampeded the town" (17). Yet, as Lutes explains in the second chapter, "The African American Newswoman as National Icon," these ideas shaped the career of Ida B. Wells and her sister African American journalists in markedly different ways. In each of these discussions, Lutes focuses on how the female body was interpreted, using newspaper illustrations from the period to underscore her points.
In the third chapter, "The Original Sob Sisters: Writers on Trial," Lutes uses the highly sensational 1907 murder trial of Harry Kendall Thaw to show the striking contrasts between the portrayal of the "sob sisters," as the handful of women journalists covering the trial came to be known, and the much larger contingent of male reporters. She also describes the differences between the women journalists and the defendant's wife, Evelyn, who had been the teenage mistress of the murder victim, architect Stanford White. As in the first two chapters, Lutes convincingly shows how the emphasis on the female body skewed not only impressions of the trial coverage at the time but also the historical [End Page 347] record of that coverage. As she explains, despite little difference in the ways male and female reporters covered the trial, "[t]he 'sob sister' label illustrates how easily misogynist stereotypes could be marshaled to restrict women's professional progress; the snappy phrase slipped newswomen into a well-articulated and easily dismissed category" (70).
In the final two chapters of her study, Lutes shifts her explorations of the "girl reporter" from journalism to literature. Chapter four, "A Reporter Heroine's Evolution," is particularly illuminating. Here Lutes examines Henry James's characterization of reporter Henrietta Stackpole in the original 1881 edition of The Portrait of a Lady and in the revised New York edition of 1908. This comparison is particularly apt, as the dates of these two editions coincide with the rise of Nellie Bly and the "stunt girls" in the early 1880s and with the "sob sisters" of the Thaw trial two decades later. In the 1881 edition, Henrietta is an eminently likeable example of the adventurous young American woman. By 1908, however, she has been transformed into an unattractive and aggressive career woman. This change in Stackpole's characterization, Lutes argues, mirrors changes in public attitudes toward women journalists. In her final chapter, "From News to Novels," Lutes explores the careers of three women writers: Edna Ferber, Willa Cather, and Djuna Barnes. As Lutes explains, Ferber embraced her journalism roots, while Cather rarely acknowledged hers. In a nod to Bly-era women journalists, Barnes added a modernist twist to sensational reportage focused on the...