2016 Theses Doctoral
Wayward Reading: Women's Crime and Incarceration in the United States, 1890-1935
This dissertation, “Wayward Reading: Women’s Crime and Incarceration in the United States, 1890-1935” illuminates the literary stakes of a crucial, yet overlooked, moment in the history of American incarceration: the development of the women’s prison and the unique body of literature that materialized alongside that development.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, the women’s prison became a testing ground for the study of women’s sexuality: social scientists sought to assimilate their “patients” into gendered and racialized citizenship by observing the minutiae of women’s everyday lives and policing their sexual and social associations. Ultimately, this experimental study of women’s sexuality served to reinforce racial stratification: sociologists figured white women’s waywardness as necessitating rescue and rehabilitation into domesticity, and depicted black women’s waywardness as confirming their essential criminality, justifying their harsher punishment and consignment to contingent labor. I argue that women’s imprisonment also sparked another kind of experimentation, however, one based in literary form. A wide range of writers produced a body of literature that also focused on the “wayward girl’s” life trajectory. I contend that these authors drew on social science’s classificatory system and cultural authority to offer alternate scales of value and to bring into focus new forms of relationship that had the potential to unsettle the color line. In Jennie Gerhardt, for instance, Theodore Dreiser invokes legitimate kinship outside the racialized boundaries of marriage, while women incarcerated in the New York State Reformatory for Women exchanged love poetry and epistles that imagine forms of romance exceeding the racial and sexual divides that the prison sought to enforce. Wayward Reading thus draws together an unexpected array of sociological, legal and literary texts that theorize women’s crime and punishment to imagine alternate directions that modern social experience might take: popular periodicals such as the Delineator magazine, criminological studies by Frances Kellor and Katharine Bement Davis, the poetry and letters of women incarcerated at the New York State Reformatory for Women, and novels by W.E.B Du Bois and Theodore Dreiser.
To understand how both social difference and social intimacy were reimagined through the space of the women’s prison, I model what I call “wayward” reading, tracing the interchange between social scientific and literary discourses. I draw attention to archives and texts that are frequently sidelined as either purely historical repositories (such as institutional case files from the New York State Reformatory) or as didactic and one-dimensional (such as Frances Kellor’s sociological exploration of women’s crime), as well as to literary texts not traditionally associated with women’s imprisonment (such as W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Quest of the Silver Fleece). Reading “waywardly” thus allows me to recover a diverse set of aesthetic experiments that developed alongside women’s imprisonment, and also to reconsider critical assumptions about the status of “prison writing” in literary studies. A number of critics have outlined the prison as a space of totalizing dehumanization that in turn reflects a broader logic of racialized domination structuring American culture. As such, scholars have read literary texts that describe incarceration as either enforcing or critiquing carceral violence. However, by turning our attention to the less-explored formation of the women’s prison, I argue that authors mobilized social science not only to critique the prison’s violence and expose how it produced social difference, but also to re-envision the relationships that comprised modern social life altogether.
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More About This Work
- Academic Units
- English and Comparative Literature
- Thesis Advisors
- Hartman, Saidiya V.
- Ph.D., Columbia University
- Published Here
- November 16, 2016