Stephen Crane (1871-1900) was undoubtedly one of the great American novelists. His most famous novel, The Red Badge of Courage, depicted the American Civil War from the point of view of an ordinary soldier. Crane was noted for his early employment of naturalism, a literary style in which characters were realistically portrayed and often faced bleak circumstances.
However, it is Crane's unconventionality and his sympathy for the downtrodden that forms the core of Hotel de Dream. Edmund White's intelligently written and beautifully crafted novel focuses on Crane's preoccupation with the oppressed, but it also asks the question of how such a man
would have responded to male homosexuality in an era in which gays themselves were considered perverts and deviants.
The book begins as the chronically ill Crane and his mistress, Cora Taylor, a former brothel-house proprietor, are living in the 14th-century manor house of Brede Place in Sussex. It is the cusp of a new century and Crane, sick with tuberculosis, is planning a trip to a clinic in Badenweiler, Germany in order to get out of damp old England with its cold rains and harsh winds.
Lately, life in Brede Place has had its ups and downs. While Cora has certainly been loyal and loving to Stephen, her flighty social and literary pretensions – and her reputation in America - have perhaps contributed to Crane's financial ruin. There's also been far too much entertaining, especially in the form of parties catering to hordes of spongers as well as many of their close literary friends, including Joseph Conrad, Ford Madox Ford, H.G. Wells, and the great Henry James.
Cora is anxious for Stephen to make some money by finishing The O'Ruddy so they can pay off some of their most urgent debts and take the trip to Germany. But it is the urge to write his final story about a young boy prostitute called Elliott
whom he met while living in Manhattan that most preoccupies Stephen. Feverish with excitement, Stephen demands that Cora become the filter for the pages that Stephen will now grind out.
Called The Painted Boy, Stephen once wrote forty pages of his "boy-whore" book but was advised that if he didn't tear them up, every last word, he'll never have a career. Now, however, he's at the end of his life and has nothing to fear; for sure, the story will prove to be a most poignant account because it's not just about another boy, "but somehow a
'she-male,' a member of the third sex."
So begins Crane's subversive tale of Elliott, this "painted boy," as he recounts his final trip with Cora from Brede Place to Dover, then onto Badenweiler, while also dictating to Cora the fictional story of Elliott's affair with Theodore Koch, a middle-aged, married New York banker. It is through writing about Elliott and Theodore's tempestuous affair that Stephen recollects his own friendship with Elliott, the syphilitic, kohl-eyed and heavily made-up sixteen-year-old boy who calls himself a "flame fairy."
Here are Stephen and Elliott, both ill and wounded, both looking like sick waifs with Stephen's own hacking cough and this "boy whore" who wears boys clothes and girls' makeup as they traverse the streets of Manhattan, Elliott determined to teach Stephen how to decipher the city around him. It is here that
the young muse drags Stephen to fairy saloons and bordellos, and also to visit an androgyne by the name of Jennie Jones who fascinates Crane with his "big breasts and wide hips."
The fictional story of The Painted Boy plays out as Stephen fanatically dictates to Cora Elliott's love affair with Theodore.
It is the older man's ardent obsession with Elliott that ultimately spins the boy's world out of control. Consumed by jealousy and passion, Theodore urges to know more and more about this funhouse world of Elliott, with his life gradually obscured by the "magic-lantern pictures" in his mind of his lover and his muse.
Vibrant, flamboyant and teeming with a lyrical beauty, White writes with a passionate commitment to Stephen Crane's life. The author also presents a vivid account of a gay world at the turn of the nineteenth century in a Manhattan that was full of vice and virtue, of glamour and lowlife, an "intersexual world of such fantastic dimensions."
Meticulously researched and seamlessly infusing fact with fiction, Hotel de Dream is a grand tribute to Crane's creative spirit as these colorful characters, both real and fictional, play out against a nineteenth-century sense of propriety and the little-known Victorian world of men who love men.