Front-Page Girls: Women Journalists in American Culture and Fiction, 1880-1930

Article excerpt

Lutes, Jean Marie. Front-Page Girls: Women Journalists in American Culture and Fiction, 1880-1930. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2006. 199 pp. $45.

This well researched account of the role of newspaperwomen in U.S. literary culture at the turn into the twentieth century charts a fresh and intriguing path. While scholars have commonly assumed, as did William Dean Howells in the 1890s, that the newsroom was a gritty, masculine preserve that served as an alternative to the perceived overfeminization of the genre of fiction, Jean Marie Lutes demonstrates something quite different. She revises this standard view of newspaperwomen to show that, in reality, they "forged a vibrant tradition of sensation journalism that reverberated from grubby city newsrooms to exclusive literary circles."

Lutes, an assistant professor of English at Villanova University who worked as a reporter before attending graduate school, researched newspaper articles by women reporters such as Nellie Bly, fictional portrayals of the image of women journalists, and the writing of women journalists such as Willa Cather and Djuna Barnes, who went on to create literary fiction. She notes that participatory journalism, in which women stunt-girl reporters gained entry to prisons, asylums, hospitals, and even brothels, offered a way to "break out of the women's pages." Such reporting was quite physical and corporeal because the women projected their own bodies into their stories. They became the stories they covered, and readers were transfixed by these white, middle-class women's accounts of their struggles to maintain dieir sexual purity, for instance, in the rough-and-tumble worlds into which they had insinuated themselves.

Bly feigned insanity so that she could experience and write her "Ten Days in a Madhouse" series, which, so characteristically of this genre, Lutes says, reflects prevailing anxieties about sex, class, and race. On the one hand, she concludes, stunt-girl and "sob sister" stories were "old-fashioned" in their sentimentality, especially about women's roles and mores; on the other hand, these narratives also can be interpreted as "modern" examples of mass-market publicity.

Meanwhile, African American women not only avoided the stunt-girl reporting genre but actually "wrote against its central premise," Lutes observes. "The drama of endangered whiteness that served as a critical subtext for white newswomen's 'stunts' also fueled narratives that justified the lynchings of black men. …