- Susan Lenox:Reading and Rising
“And the reading she had done—the novels, the memoirs, the books of travel, the fashion and home magazines—had made deep and distinct impressions upon her, had prepared her—as they have prepared thousands of Americans in secluded towns and rural regions where luxury and comfort were very crude indeed—for the possible rise of fortune that is the universal American dream and hope.”—David Graham Phillips, Susan Lenox1
Throughout Susan Lenox (1917), David Graham Phillips’ eponymous central character strives to be highly and diversely literate as she overcomes the limits of her gendered existence.2 Even while working as a prostitute, milliner, or factory worker with little recreation time or disposable income, Susan endeavors to master a wide variety of reading material, including the popular romance, the highly literary novel, and the daily newspaper. Her reading breaks gender and class barriers of her era and the sum total of it uniquely prepares her for her eventual rise as the literal and cultural literacy she gains enables her to connect with diverse types of people and open doors to new worlds. Through this plot, Phillips both challenges and confirms contemporary conceptions of the hierarchies and gender coding of different kinds of reading.
Throughout the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, various cultural authorities worked to define the proper role of reading, particularly for young women. With a focus on crafting plans of reading meant to be “useful,” reading manuals by experts like Yale President Noah Porter proliferated. Porter’s Books and Reading: What Books Shall I Read and How Shall I Read Them? (1870) advances an argument about the immense power of books to shape identity, contending that books have a “power to determine the character and destiny of single individuals [that] might startle and surprise.”3 For young women, less formally educated than their male counterparts, unguided reading was a particular danger, as they, “for the want of such direction,” could “read themselves down into an utter waste and frivolity of thought, feeling, and purpose.”4 These cultural fears manifested themselves not only in advice literature, but also in the work of fiction [End Page 114] writers. Barbara Hochman argues that authors of this era “believed that a significant change had taken place in the character, tastes, and expectations of novel readers,” and that change became “explicitly thematized in fiction that represents mindless, pretentious, or otherwise obtuse readers, appropriating books for all the ‘wrong’ reasons.”5 In Susan Lenox, reading is thematized as a marker of class that is fundamental to one’s understanding of the world and ability to connect with others.
In contrast, for many women reading was conceived of as an act that allowed them to imagine the possibility of leaving behind the gendered roles of the late-nineteenth century. Barbara Sicherman examines the “connections between specific reading practices and the long-range meaning of reading in a life [. . .], an approach that highlights reading’s creative possibilities and its capacity to affect behavior.”6 The potential life-changing power of books troubled many cultural authorities who, as Joan Shelley Rubin argues, “exhibited a strong animus against readers who gain too much empowerment from books.”7 Throughout the novel, Susan’s memories and understanding of her reading are often the only power and possessions that she holds, as she has little motivation to keep her moving forward as she discovers her illegitimate birth, runs away, is forced into marrying, runs away again, and strives to establish a life for herself, first in Cincinnati, then in New York, working in various low-paying jobs, at times living on the street and moving from seedy to seedier tenement. Her reading became a particularly important possession for her, because, as Sicherman notes, “one might lose one’s money, but one’s culture, presumably, was a lifelong possession.”8 Often serving as her only connection back to her youth “as a lady,” Susan clings to, utilizes, and augments her cultural knowledge over the course of the novel by reading widely, investing in her education rather than in money, which is easily lost and nearly impossible for her to gain.