Henry James disliked historical fiction and tried to say why. "The historical novel is, for me, condemned," he wrote in 1901. "You may multiply the little facts that can be got from pictures and documents, relics and prints, as much as you like—the real thing is almost impossible to do, and in its essence the whole effect is as nought: I mean the invention, the representation of the old consciousness, the soul, the sense, the horizon, the vision of individuals in whose minds half the things that make ours, that make the modern world, were nonexistent."
What worried James was not our ability to recover the bric-a-brac of the past—the horse-drawn carriages, the corsets, and the gaslights. Much harder to imagine is what was missing from the past, especially from the inner lives of those who lived in earlier times: the medical and scientific assumptions we take for granted or our post-Freudian explanations for human behavior and misbehavior.
And yet, James may have missed the main purpose and pleasure of historical fiction, at least as it is commonly practiced today. We don't really care how others lived and felt in the past; for that, we have history. What we really want to know is what it would be like for us to live back then. Projecting ourselves into the past isn't a peril of the enterprise of historical fiction, as James thought; it is the enterprise. We seem particularly curious about what sex was like, a topic on which our ancestors, especially our 19th-century ones, were notoriously close-mouthed. We carry twin baggage into this badly lit territory: the hope that our own sexual frankness has set us free; and the fear that the sexual behavior of the past was more intense and various than our own.
Colm Tóibín's The Master (2004) subjected Henry James to precisely the historical treatment he abhorred. As though in deference to James' own reticence, however, Tóibín preserved a tactful ambiguity regarding James' sexual preferences. The result is the kind of historical novel that even the master might have approved. Instead of outing James as a repressed gay writer, Tóibín opted for James' own tension between the claims of art and those of life.
Puffed as being "in the tradition of … The Master," Edmund White's new novel, Hotel de Dream, is more like a refutation of it. White pursues his sexual agenda aggressively and manages, along the way, to skewer Henry James as the master of repression. At first, Hotel de Dream looks like a straightforward attempt to imagine the final days of James' friend and neighbor Stephen Crane, author of The Red Badge of Courage (1895) and "The Blue Hotel" (1899), whose meteoric life ended at age 28 in a sanatorium in the Black Forest. But White, who has written books about his own coming-of-age as a gay man, including A Boy's Own Story and My Lives, has other things in mind besides re-creating Crane's 1890s milieu. For White, the "real thing" is sex, and Crane is his vehicle for taking us there.
In some ways Crane is a poor choice for the job of sexual tour guide. He was among the most strenuously heterosexual of writers, a man strongly drawn to prostitutes. His first novel, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893), was a precocious attempt to imagine a naive girl's fall at the hands of cads and sadists. Later, Crane lived with a real whorehouse madam, the amazing Cora Taylor (who later went by Cora Crane), proprietress of the Hotel de Dream in Jacksonville, Fla., and, in Crane's company, the first female war reporter. During his final years, Crane set up housekeeping with Cora in a decayed manor house in the south of England. Crane's neighbors in Sussex, including Henry James and Joseph Conrad, admired Crane's genius and accepted his alliance with a woman he was not married to.
Crane's first biographer, Thomas Beer, reported that Crane's interest in prostitution extended beyond fallen women. Beer asserted, on New York critic James Huneker's authority, that Crane had once been solicited by a "painted boy" on lower Broadway. Crane supposedly "pumped a mass of details out of the boy … and began a novel about a boy prostitute." The novel was called Flowers of Asphalt. Unfortunately, it turns out that Beer was something of a historical novelist himself. He forged documents, including letters purported to be by Crane. Nor were Beer's informants reliable. "Crane had the odd fate," as White notes in an afterword, "of having two of the first people who wrote about him, Huneker and his first biographer, Thomas Beer, turn out to be fabulists of an exaggerated sort."
None of this has deterred White from building his own novel around the almost certainly fictional Flowers of Asphalt, which he renames The Painted Boy. His premise is that Crane, after abandoning his "boy-whore book," resumed writing the novel on his deathbed, dictating the sentences to Cora. In his afterword, White is forthright about the attractions of the project: "How would a heterosexual man who had wide human sympathies, an affection for prostitutes, a keen, compassionate curiosity about the poor and downtrodden, a terminal disease—how would such a man have responded to male homosexuality if he was confronted with it?" So, White constructs a narrative of three interlocking strands: the frame story (Crane and Cora crossing the English Channel, bound for the Black Forest); Crane's memories of encountering a boy prostitute in New York several years earlier; and the pages of The Painted Boy, a gloomy and unfinished tale of a respectable New York banker who falls in love with the boy prostitute Elliott, as invented by White.
But White has a built-in impediment with The Painted Boy. When Crane wrote about heterosexual sex, he was evasive to the point of obscurity. Maggie's "ruin" happens far offstage; her sexual allure is conveyed indirectly: "The shutters of the tall buildings were closed like grim lips. The structures seemed to have eyes that looked over her, beyond her, at other things." White wants us to believe that given half a chance, Crane, who was so reticent about men and women, would have unleashed sentences like this when writing about gay men: "That evening Elliott modeled the underwear for Theodore, who loved the way the elasticized band crimped his thimble-thick waist, and his big hooded penis came poking out through the pearl-buttoned flies like a hand puppet surging up through the drawn curtains." Perhaps anticipating our disbelief, White has Cora speculate that The Painted Boy is Crane's "adult, dying self revisiting the vital kid he'd once been." In other words, Crane writes more vividly (and pornographically) about Elliott than about Maggie because Crane himself was a young man on the make in New York. This isn't very persuasive, even for Cora.
The problem runs deeper than this. No single passage from White's The Painted Boy, which takes up roughly half of Hotel de Dream, could plausibly be mistaken for Crane. The writing is too slack, too conventional, too 21st century. White falls into the trap Henry James identified, attributing to Crane the therapeutic language of a post-Freudian age: "Elliott had been afraid of his father—but what he longed for was a younger, handsome, sweet-smelling father-friend who'd take care of him and educate him."
The best pages in Hotel de Dream are, in fact, those devoted to Crane's life with Cora. There's a vivid recreation of their first night together in the Hotel de Dream: "Tree frogs peeped outside and a sultry wind, rich with the smells of night and the earth and stalled water, slid surreptitiously through the slatted windows. On the crisp whiteness of her pillowcase Cora reposed her head. …" White's Cora is worldly, funny, and devoted to Crane. She's unimpressed when Henry James, early on in the book, visits the Cranes on his bicycle. "She could tell by the way that James lit up around her husband that he was queer as a football bat." We're invited to share Cora's view that James' repressed and "prissy" sexuality is the reason that he "couldn't write good clear prose like Stevie."
So why, after Crane's death, does Cora confide the unfinished manuscript of The Painted Boy to, of all people, Henry James, that "poor bugger with his long, unreadable but distinguished books"? White is a little vague on Cora's motives. "She imagined he would be moved by what were literally Stephen's dying words. Hadn't Mr. James been just the least bit sweet on Stevie?" I think the real reason is that White relishes getting in one last dig at James, the great god of reticence concerning sexuality, and especially gay sexuality. He wants to shock James with those surging hand puppets and pearl-buttoned flies. We are meant to regard it as a failing on James' part that he refused to finish the novel and "committed this embarrassment to the fireplace" instead. But the reader, after slogging through 100 pages of The Painted Boy, may suspect that James did the right thing.