I’m blogging this morning from the jury selection room at a courthouse down at Thomas and West Broadway. Not sure how long I’ll be sitting here — I was under the impression that the trial to which I’ve been assigned as an alternate juror was supposed to start an hour ago. In the meantime, though, I’ll offer a very quick post by way of introduction to this week’s reading on our Virtual Writing New York course. (You’re participating in it just by reading this; feel free to comment as well.)
We don’t teach Theodore Winthrop’s Cecil Dreeme in our regular Writing New York course, though we’ve always wanted to. It’s not in print, but you’ll find it in full on Google Books. It’s a quirky urban Gothic novel set in a thinly veiled version of NYU’s old University Building — pictured above — which occupied the east side of Washington Square before the current Silver Building went up in the 1890s. The dilapidated building was rumored to be filled with hidden passageways, mysteries, and secret histories. The novel plays up such legends in its own twists and turns of plot and character.
NYU’s Bobst Library has a nice page devoted to the novel and to its author, a former post-graduate resident of the old NYU building who died during the Civil War. (He also was a descendant of the Puritan leader Jon Winthrop.) His novels, poems, and travel writing were published posthumously, but Winthrop seemed to have a taste for popular genres. Another novel, John Brent, picks up on the mid-century craze for anti-Mormon, anti-polygamy fiction. Here’s how the Fales pages describes Cecil Dreeme:
Cecil Dreeme (Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1862) is one of the queerest American novels of the 19th century. Basically a gothic tale in the style of The Castle of Otranto, which is cited in the text, the partially autobiographical story is a combination of plots take from Shakespeare and Gautier’s Mademoiselle de Maupin, and Winthrop’s experiences living on Washington Square. In the story Robert Byng, a former New Yorker who has just returned from ten years abroad, takes up lodgings in “Chrysalis College” (NYU) on “Ailanthus Square” (Washington Square) in rooms unused by the fledgling school. Caught up in the strange world of artists, “bohemians,” and dandies on the one hand and the stolid, respectable society of Knickerbocker New York on the other, Robert befriends a young man who has locked himself away from the world, painting by day and moving about the City at night. Their friendship deepens into love as Robert describes them as “Damon and Pythias,” the famous Greek lovers. The disappearance, and presumed suicide, of a young woman Robert knew when he was a child haunts Churm, one of his other friends, who is convinced that the evil dandy, Densdeth, was in someway responsible for the girl’s disappearance Densdeth was engaged to marry the girl by her father’s arrangement but against her will. Densdeth, whose influence is considerable, has ruined many young men and his next conquest is to be Robert himself. Robert’s attentions to Cecil, however, keep him from falling totally under Densdeth’s power. As the plot unravels, scenes of life in Chrysalis College, the Square, and the Village during the period provide a backdrop for a complicated philosophical discussion about the nature of male/female, manly/unmanly, womanly/unwomanly, and effeminate and langourous behavior. Cecil Dreeme, the young artist of Robert’s affection, turns out to be Clara Denman, the young woman, thought dead, who has been hiding in Chrysalis College dressed as a man. This revelation is startling to Robert who now has an explanation for his sexual attraction to the young man, but now has to confront the gender differences society places on their relations.
What’s not to like here? We’ve included the novel on our vWNY list as a first step toward eventually finding a publisher who’ll let us reissue it. I hope, by Wednesday, to offer a few more questions and observations to help locate Cecil in the trajectories we’ve been tracing in the course so far.