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."