It’s a sensational story complete with blackmail, mistaken identity, all kinds of yearning, and a gender-bending twist.
“‘It’s not old enough to be romantic. But then it does not smell of new paint, as the rest of America does.’ We turned up the echoing corridor toward the north window. We passed a side staircase and a heavily padlocked door on the right. On the left was a class-room. The door was open. We could see a swarm of collegians buzzing for such drops of honey of learning as they could get from a lank plant of a professor.”
The year is 1861 (or so). The place? New York University, or a thinly veiled fictional version of it, as described in Theodore Winthrop’s peculiar (and all-but-forgotten) 19th-century novel Cecil Dreeme—which is being reissued this spring by NYU Press as part of its 100th anniversary celebration.
A semi-autobiographical story inspired by the author’s own experiences living as a bachelor in the bohemian Greenwich Village, the plot follows the urban adventures of Robert Byng, who, unemployed and unattached after travels abroad, takes up residence at “Chrysalis College”—“an ineffectual high-low school” that “stands big, battlemented, buttressed, marble, with windows like crenelles” on the northeast corner of “Ailanthus” (really Washington) Square.
Though Winthrop’s withering analysis of our esteemed institution’s academic standing (not to mention architecture) might make us cringe, it is true that NYU once had a big marble building—decked out with turrets and towers in the Gothic Revival style—on Washington Square East. The first structure designed specifically for the university (and inspired by medieval English collegiate buildings), the old University Building stood between Waverly and Washington Place from 1837 to 1894, and rented space to neighborhood residents who converted unused rooms to art studios, offices, and—yes—bachelor apartments.
(Real-life Robert Byngs included inventor Samuel Colt, artist Winslow Homer, and New York World editor-in-chief William Henry Hurlbert.) Winthrop’s character Mr. Locksley, the janitor who oversees tenants’ comings and goings in Cecil Dreeme, seems to be modeled after real-life NYU janitors J. R. Halliday and Henry Mathews, who essentially served as 19th-century operations managers and building superintendents.
Like the real-life University Building, which tenants complained was cold and drafty, with a leaky roof, Winthrop’s “singularly ill-conceived” Chrysalis College is a dim, damp place, filled with shadowy corners perfect for mysterious—and often erotically charged—encounters. In the novel, Robert Byng finds himself enamored of Cecil Dreeme, a frail but gorgeous artist who’s shut himself up in his room to paint all day. Struck by “the singular, refined beauty of the youth” and “his personal magnetism,” Byng is simultaneously drawn to his new acquaintance and haunted by the presumed suicide of a girl he knew as a child—a story related to him by Churm, another close male friend. The two suspect the evil dandy Densdeth, who was engaged to marry the girl, of playing a role in her disappearance. Densdeth is also said to have ruined the lives of many a young man, and Robert fears he’ll be next. At times he seems caught between Dreeme’s apparent purity and Densdeth’s sinister pull, wondering why the latter has kept “touching the raw spots and the rotten spots in his nature.” A glass of wine with Densdeth becomes “an unwholesome test of self-control,” like the legend of “Eve and the apple,” whereas an encounter with Cecil is like a “mighty medicine for soul and body”—or are both actually “poisons”?
It’s a sensational story complete with blackmail, mistaken identity, all kinds of yearning, and a gender-bending twist (no spoilers here, though you might be able to guess) that seems to foreshadow some of our current discussions about pronouns and what it means to depart from a strict gender binary. In other words, Cecil Dreeme is a queer (maybe even proto-trans) novel all about bohemian life around Washington Square. How could NYU Press not publish it?
The idea started with Marvin Taylor, director of Fales Library, whom NYU Press editors approached about finding a work that would connect to the University’s history. Fales owns a first edition of the book, and NYU Press assistant editor Alicia Nadkarni, who studied queer 19th-century literature in graduate school, was captivated by the Cecil Dreeme story from the start. “These are all the things I love,” she recalls, and the themes of the novel seemed in keeping with the Press’s Sexual Culture series, which examines sexuality and gender with a critical lens. “It was like the stars aligned.” Nadkarni and her colleagues at the Press decided to publish the book as the first in a new Washington Mews Press imprint “that celebrates everything New York City has to offer, from the literary to the profane, the forgotten to the renowned, the global to local” through works of rediscovered fiction and popular culture.
Though Cecil Dreeme may not be a familiar title on 19th-century literature syllabuses today, it was tremendously popular in its time. First published by Ticknor and Fields in 1861 following Winthrop’s death fighting with the Union’s Seventh Regiment at Big Bethel, the first land battle of the Civil War, it quickly went through several subsequent editions. Winthrop, 32 when he died, had studied law and traveled widely through Europe and the Americas and just published his first pieces—war dispatches he sent to the Atlantic Monthly. Winthrop’s close friend George William Curtis—a pal from the Village—wrote a loving biographical sketch to preface the first edition of Cecil Dreeme, which was found among manuscripts of Winthrop’s other unpublished novels and travel books.
Reading the book today can be bewildering at first, because, as University of Illinois professor Peter Coviello notes in an introduction to the new NYU Press edition, Winthrop writes about what we instantly identify as same-sex desire—there seems to be temptation on every page—without labeling it in terms we recognize. “Cecil Dreeme speaks to us from a moment well before the solidification of taxonomic identity categories like ‘the homosexual’—‘homosexuality’ in its specific modern senses did not, properly speaking, exist in 1861—but in which the elements of those modern conceptual vocabularies for sex were beginning, in their halting and diffuse way, to coalesce,” Coviello writes. (It came decades before Oscar Wilde went on trial for “indecency” in 1895, for example.) In the book, “Byng’s longing to be possessed soul and body is the portrait of a desire that is perverse, errant, surely endangering, and very possibly ruinous, but is also not quite, not yet, legible as simply ‘gay.’”
That’s not to say that Robert Byng (or, by extension Theodore Winthrop) comes across as closeted. “Even though I’ve studied a lot of these queer 19th-century novels, I’ve never seen it quite so overt as it is in this book,” Nadkarni observes. “It almost feels as though you’re reading [Winthrop’s] diary—he’s kind of giving his thoughts about every passing fancy he had.” It could be that at the time that Winthrop was writing, when the “gay” identity hadn’t been completely formalized—or stigmatized—he might not have had reason to disguise his feelings. “It almost was not frowned upon, in a way, for people to have these kind of romantic crushes on their same-sex friends,” Nadkarni says.
Especially for those of us affiliated with NYU, reading Cecil Dreeme also comes with ample opportunities to compare the everyday details of a collegiate existence in two very different eras. “What was the student dining club like?” Nadkarni wonders. “It’s just kind of interesting to step into someone’s shoes from that time period.” Her favorite part of the novel is the highly melodramatic scene when Robert Byng and Mr. Locksley, worried because they haven’t seen Cecil Dreeme in a while, go to his room to check on him. “There’s this whole hysteria and panic—he might be fainting!—and then they break down the door and feed him oysters to resuscitate him,” Nadkarni says. “It’s kind of hilarious—that’s a very decadent way to resuscitate someone.”
The story, for all its improbable turns, does end rather tidily: All that thwarted attraction is somehow transmuted into a conventional heterosexual coupling. But this conclusion seems tacked on, Nadkarni quips, as though to keep readers who’d expect nothing less to keep from “rioting.” Indeed, far more memorable than what actually happens in the book are scenes toying with what doesn’t, quite—and it’s fascinating to see a vast array of amorous possibilities acknowledged at a time we often imagine (perhaps incorrectly) to be much less sexually fluid than our own. As Coviello writes, “The gothic mode provides a formal means to give full voice to the suspicion that a life outside the confinements of matrimony, reasonable affection, and civilized reproductivity might have a gorgeousness, a sensual vitality and unrivaled intensity, that it would be a tremendous grief to foreswear.”
In some ways, isn’t that what the Village has always been about? The possibilities afforded by an unconventional life?