Sunday, January 27, 2008

Edmund White's fevered "Dream"

"I cannot help vanishing, disappearing and dissolving. It is my foremost trait."
Stephen Crane, 1896

More than one hundred years since his death at 28 from tuberculosis, Stephen Crane himself has nearly vanished from American literature. Although he merits two volumes from the Library of America (the first, containing "The Red Badge of Courage" and other stories, was issued in 1990; a second volume containing his singular poetry came out in 1997), his brief life and career mark him as a writer of unfulfilled promise and ultimately a curiosity in American letters. Yet during his short life he enjoyed a reputation in Europe that included friendships with Henry James and Joseph Conrad, and was celebrated there as a premier American stylist of a new, bolder and unvarnished prose far removed from European forms.

Edmund White's new novel, Hotel de Dream: A New York Novel (2007) is written in a style that Crane would admire. Its quick-paced 220 pages are an historical fiction wrapped around the final months of Crane's life as he and Cora Taylor (whom he never married, although she called herself Mrs. Stephen Crane after his death) travel from England to Germany in hopes of a cure for Crane's deteriorating health. White's "what if" scenario -- a last, lost manuscript, tantalizingly incomplete, of a New York banker and his young male lover -- is a fantasia prompted by a real-life encounter between Crane and a "painted boy" in lower Manhattan.

Whether or not the reader accepts this hot-house premise (White supports it with some suspect papers he calls "uncertain" and "challenging material for a novelist"), it allows White free rein to imagine the story as Crane dictates it to his devoted Cora. Realizing this fabrication could collapse at any time, White tells the story quickly. He never lingers on the improbabilities of explicitly homosexual descriptions from the dying writer to Cora, or that the story of "the painted boy" itself becomes an un-Crane-like fantasy at the end. White does supply a neat twist which would explain the mystery of the "lost" manuscript, and his research into the gay culture of 1890s New York is extensive in detail. He obviously views the gay culture of Hotel de Dream as another historical aspect to his own autobiographical work.

A woman believed to be Cora Taylor with Stephen Crane, 1899

The little we know of Crane's original intentions is from the letter of a friend. In 1894 he and Crane met a boy, heavily made-up, soliciting in the street. They bought the boy a meal and after Crane overcame his initial shock at the boy's story, he was inspired to write at least part of a novel, calling it Flowers of Asphalt. Crane eventually destroyed this manuscript (at the request of his horrified audience of one, the writer Hamlin Garland).

The poet John Berryman, in his biography Stephen Crane, supplies few more details about the book being written in May, 1895, from the same letter by James Huneker:

His book started in a railway station, with a country boy running off to New York -- a scene that in Huneker's view Crane never surpassed. It was going to be called Flowers of Asphalt and "longer than anything he had done." But Hamlin Garland, when Crane read him some of it, was horrified and begged him to stop. Whether he ever finished it Huneker didn't know. The manuscript has not been traced.

Berryman writes that "this is not the best attested account in the world," yet it fits with Crane's passion for helping outcasts and for rescuing "fallen" persons. Themes of innocence lost he had addressed before in Maggie: A Girl of the Streets and George's Mother. Berryman refers to this idea, rescuing the fallen, as one of the dominant passions of Crane's life.

On this sketchy information, White spins out the story of Crane's final days in the spring of 1900 based on documented history. Crane had met Cora Taylor a few years earlier in Jacksonville, Florida running a brothel called the Hotel de Dream. To escape Cora's shady past (and dubious present) the Cranes move to England, where they become friends with a whole neighborhood of writers -- James, Conrad, H.G. Wells, Ford Madox Ford -- who view him as the quintessential American, full of dash and vigor. Eventually they watch him waste away, while he dictates his remembered story -- "The Painted Boy" -- and Cora chides him: "This really isn't in your vein." Knowing it can never be published, Crane continues to dictate the story "for one man only, and that man is myself."

Because he was a journalist and war correspondent, Crane's writing has a graphic clarity that must have appealed to White. His reputed encounter with the painted boy triggered White's curiosity about homosexual life in the 1890s, including its colorful, coded language. Crane's death from tuberculosis may have reminded White of friends and lovers dying of AIDS. The connection between the dashing American writer and the author of A Boy's Own Story (1982) was made when White discovered the tale of the missing manuscript.

Enlisting an artist like Crane to tell this story, White can show how hints from chance encounters are translated into fiction and how a heterosexual writer might view a gay subculture (or at least one man's infatuation). He turns Crane into a kindred spirit, entertaining with style, hobnobbing with other famous writers, yet still curious about humble--and disguised--lives, and not in the least judgmental. In deftly telling the twin stories of the Hotel de Dream White pulls off a neat vanishing trick of his own, assuming the character of one of America's least understood writers and "unearthing" one final, unconventional, and spectacular tale.

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