Edmund White, the Painted Boy
Edmund White’s story “The Painted Boy” is extracted from his recent novel, Hotel de Dream. In this novel, White writes from the point of view of Stephen Crane, the American fiction writer and poet from the end of the 19th century. You are probably familiar with The Red Badge of Courage (1895) and perhaps Maggie, A Girl of the Streets (1893); the narrator mentions this novel on page 321. White’s book from which our story is drawn gives a fictionalized account of Crane’s inner struggles as an artist.
Commonly considered Stephen Crane’s greatest accomplishment, The Red Badge of Courage, published in 1895 when Crane was still largely unknown, ranks among the foremost literary achievements of the modern era. The gritty social realism of his first novel, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets had earned praise from literati such as Hamlin Garland and William Dean Howells, but Crane probably gave away more copies than were actually sold. The Red Badge went through two editions before the end of the year in which it was published; by March of the following year the novel was in eighth place on the international booksellers’ list and had gone through fourteen printings. Unfortunately, unremunerated contracts with publishers and a general lack of good business sense kept Crane insolvent for much of his life. But with the publication of Red Badge, Crane achieved almost overnight celebrity. It was made into a film in 1951, director John Huston.
The Red Badge of Courage follows the protagonist, young Henry Fleming, through his experience as a Union Army private during the American Civil War. The book concerns Henry’s state of mind before his first battle, and his initial war experiences, when he flees from battle; it then explores Henry’s experiences away from his regiment; finally it focuses on Henry recovering his courage and returning to his regiment, his subsequent heroism, and his final sense of achieving manhood. These themes, which you’ll probably remember from having read the novel in middle school, are meant to be in your mind as you read Edmund White’s story. We’ll return later to the interpretations that come from possible comparisons.
-5626101460500In the beginning of “The Painted Boy,” the narrator establishes the character as someone affected by the kind of anxieties we have come to associate with a writer or an artist who’s had some success: can I still turn out something good? Will readers like it? Will the critics like it? Will my artist friends respect it? Will they be jealous of me for it? An additional attempt to display Crane’s anxiety comes with the number of contemporary writers the narrator puts into the story. Such a list of important artists, all producing their art at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, suggests no small amount of anxiety – commonly referred to as the anxiety of influence. Here are the names he drops: Oscar Wilde, James Huneker [music writer and critic], Hamlin Garland [novelist, short story writer: Boy Life in the Prairie, 1899], William Dean Howells [American novelist and critic], and Walt Whitman. There is a little bit of name dropping and a little bit of jealousy and a great deal of anxiety that surfaces in these pages.
In addition to writers, the narrator also points to famous musicians: Vladimir de Pachmann (or “Chopineze” as Huneker called him), Camille Saint-Saëns and Tchaikovsky. Later there is a mention of Huysmans [French novelist] and Wagner [German composer]. The references to musicians continue the theme of anxiety, but they add another dimension, which has to do with a possible overlap between literature and music. On the first page of the story, Crane boasts that he’s the “only one of [his] generation to add a beat here and steal a note there. Rubato, it’s called in music” (319). The technique of rubato allows for liberties to be taken in tempo and is used to express emotion. This gives a clear clue as to how to read the story.
As you continue reading, you discover that the anxiety is not restricted to the fears of an artist who’s apprehensive about his next publication; what’s worrying Crane is his unexplained need to establish some sort of relationship with the “painted boy” and what others might think of it should they find out.-6108701841500 We see that Crane wonders about Hamlin’s advice that he burn the text he’s recently written and that he shares with Hamlin. Is he jealous, Crane wonders, which is possibly just another way of expressing his own jealousy and/or insecurity. This section plays around with the introduction of the title character, Elliott, without really introducing him. We are led to believe that this is the protagonist of the story Crane is writing and that Hamlin has just suggested he toss onto the fire; only later in the story will we discover the coincidence of the two Elliotts. So we have to ask: does Crane suspect that Hamlin rejects this writing because it is so very good? Because it borders on the vulgar? Or both? This is when he brings up Wilde, so we know we’ve passed into a homosexual context here. the overlap of the story Crane tells and the story he talks about having written cause a certain confusion because of the duplication. One of the aspects of art that has been discussed, debated, argued, and manipulated since Antiquity is hoe and to what degree art should imitate nature. This is one of the tactics White is using in “The Painted Boy.”
At this point, we are asked to think about the mise-en-abyme structure. “Mise-en-abyme” is a French expression that refers to multiple repetitions of an image one within the other – think about the 360° mirror used in the TV show “What Not to Wear.” The mise-en-abyme structure as used in literature establishes a reduplication of images or concepts referring to the text as a whole. Mise-en-abyme is a play of signifiers within a text, a duplication of sub-texts mirroring each other. This mirroring can get to the point where meaning can be rendered unstable and in this respect can be seen as part of the process of deconstruction. The film-within-a-film is a classic example of mise-en-abyme. However, Crane’s just burnt 40 pages, and we can tell that the story we’re reading is only 12 pages long. So the next thought would be to wonder whether the story we are reading is a eulogy for the one he has burnt.
-6108707620000What you’re looking at is a classic example in painting of mise-en-abyme. This painting of the Infanta of Spain, the daughter of the King, known as “Las Meninas,” was painted in 1656 by Velazquea. It depicts the scene in the painter’s studio during the painting session – thus a mise-en-abyme. Upon closer examination, however, we see a mirror hanging in the back of the studio the image of King Philip IV and his wife Queen Mariana as they look on during the painting session. This detail places emphasis on the of the on-looker, which normally would be you and me as museum goers, looking at the painting as it hangs in a museum. We further notice the detail with which Velazquez has painted himself, making this painting at least partially a self-portrait, focusing on himself almost as much as on the Infanta, and certainl with more significance than on the royal couple given the comparative degree of detail and precision of painting. These considerations provide a variety of thought processes you will need to consider about Edmund White’s role, writing a short story about a write who writes a story about a story he’s writing at the same time he tells the story of meeting the boy about whom the story – well, the stories are written.
Of all the people Crane assumes might have something to say about “his” Elliott – and again, at this point in the story we assume this refers to his written story, but we’ll soon find out it also means, or perhaps instead, the young man he’s about to tell us about – so after all the condemnations he assumes he’ll get, he then talks about Huneker’s possible acceptance. He gives details about Huneker’s life that show him to be more tolerant and more experimental than the others; one more detail puts us back on the homosexual path: Crane states that “Huneker also has a quasiscientific interest in inversion” (322). “Inversion” was a term used in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to indicate homosexuality, because it was seen as a tendency that inverted the “normal” practice of sexuality. Then Crane brings up Whitman and Pachmann and Tchaikovsky, all of whom were known to be gay. Similar terms used later in the story are: “onanism “ which is another 19th-century term that comes from Onan, son of Judah (Gen. xxxviii.9), who spilled his seed on the ground rather than impregnate his dead brother’s wife; this is a reference to the Biblical instruction for a brother to mate with his deceased brother’s widow in order to produce a (male) child from the same gene pool. From this reference, the term came to mean masturbation, and from that gay sex – in other words, any method for a man to ejaculate other than the hypothetically principal reason, which would be to impregnate a woman. The term “inversion” is used again on page 322, and on page 327 the expression “like that” – to be like that was a euphemism that was commonly used through the first half of the 20th to avoid saying homosexual, either out of caution or disgust. Huneker’s attitudes toward homosexuality are conflicted, just enough to make him the only person that Crane could expect to at pay some small amount of tolerant attention to his story.
-639445-224790000So now we know that we’re in a world of gay people, a possibly gay relationship, and a potentially salacious text. But before moving on with the plot, let’s look at some of the other clues White gives us. He pits “veritism” and “impressionism” and “realism” against each other (321), letting us know that he’s going to into the realm of illusion that’s based on a certain type of realism, a sense of reality that is seen through maybe cloudy or tinted glasses, so that we see something that looks like reality but with a particular slant to it. This is related to what I said earlier about art being more or less an imitation of nature, of reality. On the same page, the narrator toys with the term “truth” and “gritty truth,” suggesting again that the story is going to present a certain type of reality that may be more than some people can handle. In literary criticism we refer to such texts as “naturalist” and the era in which Crane lived was the period when naturalism became popular in literature and art. Some of the sordid or rough references that come up later in the story are the urge to vomit, consumption and phthism – both 19th-century terms for tuberculosis; he also uses “lunger” (326) to mean tuberculin, which is of course a disease that affects the lungs.
This is a poster from the early 20th century warning the public about TB. Notice the stylized cross, implying the moral implications commonly associated with the disease. Such moral judgments are typically attached to unexplained diseases, imputing the fault to the victim because of his or her immoral behavior. Cancer was for a long time treated the same way, as is HIV/AIDS today by some. The description of Elliott, this time the actual boy Crane meets, evokes quite a squalid, unclean image. Clearly the notion of homosexuality, or better the possibility of an attraction to a homosexual encounter, is of interest to Crane precisely because of its foul and nasty connotations – or possibilities.
-69659537655500-696595-117348000Let’s return to the “real” story about meeting Elliott (starting at bottom of page 322). Huneker and Crane came upon the “painted boy” in downtown Manhattan. I particularly want to look at the passage on page 327 where the term “like that” is first used. [read passage]
Here we find the use of the feminine pronoun used for a gay man, which again was commonly used into the second half of the 20th century and can still be heard today among some gay men. [It is commonly used among drag queens, that that is an entirely different experience.] Similarly, “Nancy” and “Mary” were common appellations until only a couple decades ago. I don’t think I need to explain the other terms in the paragraph.
What we learn from this passage is, not surprisingly, the importance of discourse and terminology – not only because this is a piece of literature where the importance of language is a given, but because the use of codes and encoded discourse was a matter of security and safety for the gay community until fairly recently. Given that in many sectors of society homosexuality was immoral, illegal, and disgusting, one couldn’t be too careful about the language one used; when in public, one had to encode all exchanges, and when trying to determine whether someone was gay or gay-friendly or not, one had to proceed with caution. And as this discourse became part of people’s daily lives, it was also incorporated in the exchanges they shared with their close friends. Feminine pronouns, for example, were not necessarily an indication of effeminacy, rather the code one used when speaking of a couple, where conventional society understood male and female. And after being referred to as the female for the purposes of safe conversation, the slippage – a linguistic term that means a word’s usage slipping into a adjacent reference – became natural, thus using “she” and “her” became common even when safety was not an issue.
Elliott is clearly prostituting himself. His face is “painted” (lipstick and mascara) and he’s wearing a girl’s silk shirt with ruffles. He faints and Crane carries him into the hotel lobby, but he’s embarrassed to be seen doing so and ashamed at feeling embarrassed. These details about Crane’s emotional response are the key to interpreting his engagement in this seemingly odd relationship. Note the importance of the sentence that ends the paragraph on top of page 325: “Maybe that is why I was so sympathetic to Elliott […] I’d had to carry him through a sea of disapproval.” He does feel revulsion (“I feared I might vomit”), and he noticed Huneker’s amusement at observing his discomfort, thus exhibiting another level of observation and emotion. He is the outside observer, with the reader being at yet another level of observation, thus continuing the mise-en-abyme structure. The nature of the relationship takes on linguistic dimensions when Crane asks Elliott not to call him sir but to use his name, Stevie. He protects Elliott from Huneker’s dismissive comments about his lifestyle. The conversation proceeds, establishing a warm relationship, where Crane looks after Elliott and calls in a doctor. When he sees that the boy risks dying by the time he’s 30, he remembers that himself, he’d expected to be dead by 30, and that maybe that was why he was so fearless in battle; this is a clear reference to the subject of The Red Badge of Courage. But it’s also a clear indication of Elliott’s being a reflection of himself – and again we’re in the mise-en-abyme structure. Crane confides in Elliott that he’d been sexually abused by his father and brothers; this revelation causes a shift in the relationship, as Elliott asks him to continue to give details about his father’s tendency to anger. Then Elliott tells him stories, as Crane takes notes – indicating again that he was planning for the story he’d later write. Crane is keen for Elliott to appreciate him as a friend, as his biographer of sorts, but not “as his man” (330).
-6203954191000The story ends with Crane feeling sorry that Elliott would never appreciate “the whole sweet insouciance of a natural boy’s mindless summer.” We need to contemplate whether this is insensitive condescension or a realization that for the first time he realizes there were other ways to experience childhood. The fact that he then, presumably, goes on the write this story, at least to begin it, and then to read it to Huneker, who was there when he first met Elliott, and then to burn it opens up the question as to what the experience may have meant for Crane. What is very important at this point of our interpretation is to remember that, while White’s story is based on historical figures, it is still very much a piece of fiction: we can no more psychoanalyze these fictional characters than we can cure Elliott of TB. What we can and must do, though, is contemplate the way White turns the narrative, especially clear at the end when the beginnings of some quite new thoughts for Crane start to brew, presumably giving rise to some beautifully sensitive prose. Huneker says (319) that this is the best thing Crane has ever written. We must remember that what we have is not the beautiful story that Huneker read; we are not privy to that. We have only the preamble, what leads up to the writing. We’re given hints about what insights Crane will bring to the story, but we never have the pleasure of reading it. Thus the story, the one Crane burns, is of less significance than the process of formulating experience into thoughts, emotions, and personal conclusions about oneself.
-620395-192659000-6203952159000 [Two quick comments here: the reference to Ganymede (325) is an allusion to the mythological character who was abducted by Zeus in the form of an eagle to serve as cupbearer to the gods and as Zeus’s beloved. It is a common symbol for a young homosexual, usually in the company of an older man. Second, the mention in the hotel restaurant of “a joint” refers to a cut of lamb – not what you’re thinking it is.]
So, your Writing Assignment essay will be to answer one of the following questions:
How do the many levels of storytelling that we see in “The Painted Boy” affect the way in which we understand the story? What tactic(s) does White take to relay the significance of Crane’s, and thus his own, relationship to Elliott – where Elliott symbolizes…. What does Elliott symbolize?
Despite the title of the story, “The Painted Boy” is clearly about Crane’s experience. What are the indicators of this aspect of the tale and how do they work together to make an intriguing double tale?
What elements of Sedgwick and/or Butler do you find in Edmund White’s story?