Edmund White (2008) Hotel de Dream, A New York Novel Harper Perennial, New York; 228 pp.; ISBN 978-0-06-085226-9
The American novelist and journalist, StephenCrane, died of tuberculosis in 1900, aged only twenty-eight. His most famous novel was The Red Badge of Courage, published in 1895. It’s a gripping account of a man’s experiences during the American Civil War and was a staple on school reading lists for much of the twentieth century. Ironically, Crane had no experience of war before writing the novel, but its publication led to work as a war correspondent in several countries in the ensuing years. His partner, Cora Stewart, owned a bordello in Jacksonville, Florida, called the Hotel de Dream and she was an adventurous woman for her time. In 1897, Crane and Stewart moved to England, where they mingled with other expatriate authors such as Joseph Conrad and Henry James, as well as English literary figures including H.G. Wells and Arnold Bennett.
Crane published numerous short stories and some books of poetry, but did not complete another novel before his death. He was greatly admired, especially for his literary style and his gift for depicting scenes of action and disaster, and people’s reactions to moments of crisis. Though popular and well published, Crane was still young and not wealthy as a result of his writing. He was steadily succumbing to tuberculosis, so Cora Stewart borrowed money to take him to a clinic in the south of Germany, despite there being no effective cure for the disease at that time. Crane died shortly after his arrival.
In his early years as a journalist, Crane had taken an interest in the dispossessed and marginal inhabitants of New York. In 1893, his novel Maggie: A Girl of the Streets was an attempt to convey the grim existence of a young woman living in poverty, but this was the time of growing optimism in America’s future and the ‘special destiny’ of the United States. No one was interested in peering at the underbelly.
These are the historical threads that Edmund White has used to weave a novel about Crane’s final months. We see the tail end of his life in the literary circles of south-east England, and then his slow and painful journey to the dream of a cure on the continent. During this time, Crane begins dictating a story to Cora called The Painted Boy. Crane says it is based on a newspaper boy and male prostitute named Elliott whom he encountered in his time as a journalist. White has done a lot of research on old street slang and the topography of late nineteenth century New York, and the city in all its richness and raw poverty is palpable in this book.
The Painted Boy tells how a respectable and somewhat dull banker, Theodore Koch, falls in love with Elliott and progressively becomes more obsessed with him, to the detriment of his home life with his wife and two children. Theodore is jealous of any perceived suitors for Elliott, and commissions a marble statue of the naked boy as a way of rendering Elliott impervious to the depredations of age. Eventually, an Italian criminal blackmails Theodore, and Elliott’s home is burnt down, leaving Elliott horribly disfigured.
The story of Elliott and Theodore is told in episodes by the dying Crane, with Cora taking down passages and making notes to follow up. Crane dies before finishing the story, but leaves instructions for Cora to send the manuscript to Henry James to finalise. Crane expects sympathy from the mutedly gay James, but James’s ending of the story shows that he cannot bear the truth of his own nature.
Dreams are everywhere in this book. All novels in a sense are the dreams of authors, confections spun from the bits and pieces of the reality they experience and mixed in the recesses of their minds. Hotel de Dream is White’s fantasy about Crane and how he might have spoken about one of the marginal New Yorkers that so interested him. Crane’s dictation of The Painted Boy is also a dream, a riff on his experiences on the streets of New York. Sometimes Crane drifts off to sleep while composing the words and is not sure if he has said all he remembers or has just dreamt it. Cora’s final, desperate attempt to find a cure for her partner is a futile dream, one that comes crashing down when the doctor in Germany takes one look at Crane and says ‘he will be dead in a few hours’.
Theodore’s pursuit of Elliott is a delusion trying to capture something missing from his own life, and Elliott himself lives in a floating, largely invisible world of cross-dressers, punks and sordid businessmen that contrasts with the increasing respectability and solidity of New York’s wealthy high-rises. The marble statue of a thin and vulnerable Elliott is a reminder of how powerful our fantasies can be and how pathetic they can appear in the unflinching light of day. In both New York and in Europe, the black threats of tuberculosis and syphilis haunt people, making their lives feel at times ephemeral and semi-real.
Edmund White is a prolific author, and despite a long residence in France his great preoccupation is America. His works provide a critique of American society from a gay perspective that can be sharp and incisive, but always remains sympathetic. I sometimes find his prose a little precious, but there are outstanding novels among his works and he is very skilled at conveying atmosphere and the complexities of our emotions. Hotel de Dream takes you into a world of late nineteenth-century New York that feels both real and complete. The sadness and shallow stupidity of the final pages is perhaps a wake-up call to end our dreams: don’t rely on how we imagine things might be, but face reality and live it to the full while we still have the strength to do so.