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  • Prostitution, Primitivism, PerformativityThe Bare Life in Stephen Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets and Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle
  • Jordan L. Von Cannon (bio)

When the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago opened its “Woman’s Building” in 1893, two sixty-foot long murals entitled Primitive Woman and Modern Woman flanked its main hall. These murals, considered two of the most significant public commissions for the time, traced woman’s advancement from her savage beginnings to her modern state.1 Bertha Palmer, famous wife of Chicago’s real-estate mogul Potter Palmer, commissioned the artwork, giving artists Mary MacMonnies and Mary Cassatt specific instructions for the murals’ content: “one panel should ‘show woman in her primitive condition as a bearer of burdens and doing drudgery [sic] either an Indian scene or a classic one.’ The other mural should serve ‘as a contrast [showing] woman in the position she occupies today’” (qtd. in Carr and Webster 53). In response, MacMonnies’s idealized portrait of the primitive woman showed her as a mother in the wilderness awaiting her male hunter’s return, while Cassatt’s work presented the modern woman tending to her intellectual needs by gathering fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. Although the murals’ stylistic differences reflect “the contrariness of their assigned subjects, and helped to underscore the ostensible distance between Modern Woman and her ‘primitive’ sister” (Sund 462), in the 1890s the perceived distance seemed far less pronounced.

Prior to the late nineteenth century, discussions about the primitive revolved around romantic ideas about older, pre-industrial ways of life as antidotes to the problems of civilization. In Imagining the Primitive in Naturalist and Modernist Literature, Gina Rossetti claims, “While the primitive was conceived as a positive alternative to civilization it took on new resonance that signaled its marginalization” (4) in naturalist writings, such as Jack London’s The Call of the Wild and Theodore Dreiser’s The Hand of the Potter as well as sociological studies of the time by Franklin Giddings and [End Page 41] Edward Ross. For Rossetti, conflicting characterization of the primitive actually defined the naturalist period: “Naturalism is not simply pessimistic determinism or a failed realist aesthetic. On the contrary, naturalism produces contradictory images about the primitive and the devolution of this particular character and all those who encounter him or her” (5). Rossetti’s argument echoes Marianna Torgovnick’s point that “primitive always implied ‘original,’ ‘pure,’ ‘simple’” in ways that encouraged either “commendation or the reverse” (19). Although not necessarily the focus of Rossetti or Torgovnick’s analysis, representations of the primitive frequently made reference to women, particularly the female body. By the late nineteenth century, certain naturalist texts exemplified this intersection of primitivism and female representation. As Jennifer L. Fleissner shows, primitivism resides “at the core of civilization’s most apparently exquisite achievement, domestic femininity—a connection made possible by the compulsion of excess in the self-creation of both” (86). Citing Frank Norris’s novel Vandover and the Brute and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Fleissner contrasts a “male primitivism”—where men could escape the trappings of civilization and domestic life by going into nature—to a female, or feminized, primitivism that conflates savagery and domesticity (84). Published just one year after the World’s Columbian Exposition, Otis Mason’s Woman’s Share in Primitive Culture includes a similar observation: “The savage woman is really the ancestress and prototype of the modern housewife” (qtd. in Trump 216).

Yet the opposite of the housewife also resembles the primitive. In his treatise Sex and Character Otto Weininger groups women “into one of two general types, the prostitute and the mother,” based on his “belie[f] that women were controlled by their sexual nature” (Pizer 123). In discussions of gender and the primitive, scholars have rarely provided sustained explorations of the character of the prostitute. In Stephen Crane’s Maggie (1893) and Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906)—published the same year as the Exposition and Weininger’s treatise, respectively—the protagonists Maggie, Marija, and Ona attempt to transcend their “primitive” states by imitating middle-class identity2 but instead spiral down to a more primitive state—prostitution. Rather...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1944-6519
Print ISSN
1931-2555
Pages
pp. 41-59
Launched on MUSE
2016-01-31
Open Access
No
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