Dream or Reality?
Edmund White, American writer whose subject is often the sexual mores of society – as a gay man born in 1940 he has lived through, and charted, many changes in attitudes towards same-sex relationships – here writes a rather brilliant book about the dying days of nineteenth century realist writer and journalist, Stephen Crane.
Hotel de Dream mixes known facts of Crane’s life and known at-the-time assessment of his character, with plausible `what-if’ invention. Large sections of the book contain the dictated work of a last novel, The Painted Boy, which Crane, painfully dying from tuberculosis, coughs up his life’s blood to finish, dictating it to his `wife’ Cora Taylor, in wrenched out, feverish whispers
Crane, who did die from a final pulmonary haemorrhage, from TB, in a health spa in Germany, at the ridiculously young age of 28, was a writer in the naturalist, realist tradition. He had a passionate social conscience, and empathised with the disadvantaged and powerless in society – particularly those outside respectability. He had been involved in a law case, protecting a prostitute against an unlawful charge against her. The case was lost, and Crane himself censured by sections of society which had lauded him for his literary gifts. He had met Cora, who also became a journalist, and was separated from her second husband, though not divorced, and ran a bordello Hotel de Dreme, in Florida. Settling in England for a while, Crane become the friend of Joseph Conrad, Henry James, H.G. Wells, and Ford Madox Ford. In England, Crane and Taylor lived as, and were believed to be, husband and wife.
However, White’s book is not purely a biography, or even a straight biography written as fiction. Although Crane had dictated his final work, as he was feverishly dying, to Cora, that work was The O’ Ruddy, not The Painted Boy
The Painted Boy, the novel within the novel, is White’s imaginative invention, and within it, Crane inserts himself as an observing character, so there are various mirrors, illusions, inventions, but delivered with realistic imagination, using known facts, as well as `what if…….’
White’s central idea for The Painted Boy, was to say `what if’ this writer who was known to have understanding and acceptance for those who were outside conventional morality, who was humane and empathetic, had encountered those who at the time were absolutely seen as deviant and abhorrent – the gay community – and, particularly, poor young boys who turned to prostitution as a means of making a living.
He charts a love story between Theodore Koch, an upright, conventional, married banker, who falls headlong in love with an abused street boy, Elliott. Crane is also a character within the book, who meets the boy (who is dying of syphilis, as Crane himself is dying with his own disease) and, despite an initial abhorrence, is moved to an act of kindness towards the starving boy, gains his trust, and hears his story, with which, as writer and journalist, he wants to honour the dispossessed, and also castigate society with.
The more Elliott talked the sadder I felt. His voice, which had at first been either embarrassed or hushed or suddenly strident with a whore’s hard shriek, now had wandered back into something as flat as a farmer’s fields. He was eager to tell me everything, and that I was taking notes, far from making him self-conscious, pleased him. He counted for something and his story as well.
I found this an absorbing and tenderly written book, and was further intrigued by White’s afterword, where he not only reveals `what’s true and what ain’t’, but also, explores the fact that Crane’s earliest biographers (who had known him) were also fabulists. One of them, the critic James Gibbons Huneker, who also features in the `real’ sections of White’s book, did recount the meeting and conversations between Crane and a young male prostitute, and recorded that Crane began to write a book about his story, perhaps to be a companion piece to an earlier story of a female prostitute `Maggie, A Girl of The Streets’ Although this in part clearly acted as a springboard for White’s Hotel de Dream, recent researches have revealed that Huneker, and the other early biographer did not always possess pens which flowed with the light of truth
The subtitle of this book of White’s is ‘A New York Novel’ as it is the tail end of the nineteenth century and the gulf between the world of sophisticated, moneyed sensibility and the impoverished, desperate life of the streets in New York, which is the subject matter of White’s novella within a novel.