Edmund White was born
on January 13, 1940, in Cincinnati, Ohio. His father was,
according to White, "a small entrepreneur who made
a lot of money and then lost most of it during the time
when small businessmen were being superceded by big corporations."
When White was seven his parents divorced, and he went
with his mother and sister to live on the outskirts of
Chicago. Summers were spent with his father in Cincinnati.
In his 1991 essay titled
"Out of the Closet, Onto the Bookshelf," White
has written, "As a young teenager I looked desperately
for things to read that might excuse me or assure me I
wasn't the only one, that might confirm an identity I
was unhappily piecing together. In the early 1950s, the
only books I could find in the Evanston, Illinois, Public
Library were Thomas Mann's Death
in Venice (which suggested that homosexuality was
fetid, platonic and death-dealing) and the biography of
Nijinsky by his wife (in which she obliquely deplored
the demonic influence of the impresario Diaghilev on her
saintly husband, the great danceran influence that
in this instance had produced not death but madness)."
White attended the exclusive
Cranbrook Academy, and later majored in Chinese at the
University of Michigan. Moving to New York City ("in
pursuit of someone I later captured and lived with for
five years"), he worked for Time-Life Books from
1962 until 1970. He writes, "I never considered myself
a company man. I rushed home from work to my apartment
on MacDougal Street, ate something and promptly went to
bed. At eleven I would rise, dress as a hippie, and head
out for the bars." After a year's sojourn in Rome,
White returned to the U.S., where he served as an editor
at The Saturday Review and Horizon.
Beginning in the mid-1970s,
he and six other gay New York writersAndrew Holleran,
Robert Ferro, Felice Picano, George Whitmore, Christopher
Cox, and Michael Grumleyformed a casual club known
as the Violet Quill. Meeting in one another's apartments,
they would read and critique one another's work, then
move on to high tea. Together they represented a flowering
of the kind of gay writing Edmund White as a teenager
in Illinois had longed to discover. White's novels include
his allegorical fantasia on Fire Island life, Forgetting
Elena (1973), Nocturnes
for the King of Naples (1978), and the first two volumes
of a projected autobiographical tetralogy, A
Boy's Own Story (1982) and The
Beautiful Room Is Empty (1988). White completed the
tetraology with The Farewell
Symphony (1997) and The
Married Man (2000).
In 1983 he moved to France;
when he returned in 1990 it was to a literary landscape
devastated by AIDS. Four members of the Violet QuillFerro,
Grumley, Cox and Whitmorehad died, as well as numerous
other promising young writers such as Tim Dlugos and John
Fox. White's two closest friends, the critic David Kalstone
and his editor Bill Whitehead, were also dead from the
disease. He has written, "For me, these losses were
definitive. The witnesses to my life, the people who had
shared the same references and sense of humor, were gone.
The loss of all the books they might have written remains
Although White is known
as a novelist whose work has been widely praised by such
writers as Vladimir Nabokov and Susan Sontag, it is as
a cultural critic that White has perhaps had his greatest
influence. Urbane, knowing, sophisticated, he has chronicled
gay life in the seventies through the nineties with wit
and insight. He has become a grand arbiter of taste, though
he has been criticized for the narrowness of that tasteespecially
after his 1992 anthology Gay
Short Fiction contained no writing by men of color.
Nevertheless, his 1980 travelogue States
of Desire: Travels in Gay America remains a classic
if insouciant (and now poignant) look at gay life at a
particular cultural moment just before the onslaught of
AIDS. His pioneering 1977 The
Joy of Gay Sex: An Intimate Guide for Gay Men to the Pleasures
of a Gay Life, written with
Dr. Charles Silverstein, introduced millions, gay and
straight and curious alike, to a brave new world of sexual
practices and lifestyle.
The cumulative effect
of White's presence simultaneously within so many different
genres was to begin to define, in the late 1970s and early
1980s, the parameters of "gay culture," whatever
that evolving entity might be. AIDS, of course, has darkened
all that, and White has written of the dilemma facing
gay writers today: "Some . . . think that it's unconscionable
to deal with anything [other than AIDS]; others believe
that since gay culture is in imminent danger of being
reduced to a single issue, one that once again equates
homosexuality with a dire medical condition, the true
duty of gay writers is to remind readers of the wealth
of gay accomplishments. Only in that way, they argue,
will a gay heritage be passed down to a post-plague generation."
White's own choice has been clear: his most recent work
is a monumental biography of the French novelist and playwright
Jean Genet that celebrates this treasure of our gay heritage,
and argues for the centrality of Genet's homosexuality
to any consideration of his oeuvre. As for Edmund White,
he and his workprivileged, literate, sophisticated,
hedonisticremain central to any consideration of
gay male upper-middle-class life in late 20th-century
saw the novelist and historian Marina Warner,
whom he had first met when he had invited
her to speak at the New York Institute for
the Humanities. She, together with all of
White's friends, located the essential core
of his character as a genius for friendship:
an absolute openness towards absorbing the
idiosyncrasies, aberrations and ecstasies
of other people, and returning them fully
from the resources of his own identity.
The amplitude and diversity of White's friendships
demonstrated the sheer vastness of the engagement
with the ideal of friendship: as a human
relationship to be executed with a total
lack of duplicity, with an enduring empathy
and solicitude, and a perpetual, candidly
curious eye on what that friendship could
transmit in tactile experience or in knowledge
of sex. White's friends saw his character
shot luxuriantly through with mischief and
desire, oscillating between discipline and
anarchism, and always receptively ready
for the ludicrous and the hilarious aspects
of a life spent existing primarily in the
colliding worlds of sex and art.
look forward to a future of culture as one
unlimited by either the rigidity of political
correctness, or by the persecution of individuals
for their race or sexuality (for White,
the power structures behind those two forms
of repression have a resemblance). In large
part, his experiences as an outsider in
Parisand his contacts with other expatriate
writers and artists theregave to White
his view of the future of culture as hybrid
and proliferating, impossible to pin down
to a national or political or social formula,
and finally, joyfully elusive.
White's work explores
what it is to experience life fully. His
work has dealt with everything from the
minutely nuanced moods of gay childhood
to the sudden desolation resulting from
AIDS. His compelling fascination is for
the beauty of the male human body, for sex
and for death, and for the impulses behind
creativity. In White's world, these preoccupations
and values move irrepressibly and provocatively
between one another. He has said: "I do
think that sex is something worth dying
for. I believe what art is primarily about
is beauty, and what beauty is about is death."
So White's world burns.
from Stephen Barber's Edmund
White: The Burning World.
(New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999. pp.
And I am reading Edmund White's Hotel de Dream—what White calls "a New York novel." It's also historical: about Stephen Crane, who is dying, dictating a novel to his wife—about a boy prostitute in New York in the 1890s. It's a novel-within-a-novel, and it's flawless. I love Edmund White. Every time I read a new book of his, I am reminded of a previous book of his, which I then reread. I've interrupted Hotel de Dream to reread White's novel A Boy's Own Story, which I love, and White's autobiography My Lives. He's a wonderful writer. We're the same age, and I remember when I first read A Boy's Own Story—in the early 1980s—and I thought that the novel spoke much more to me about a boy coming of age (even though it's about a gay boy coming of age, and I'm not gay) than The Catcher in the Rye ever did. I reread The Catcher in the Rye recently, and it doesn't hold up at all; it's just not very well, or very consistently, written. But A Boy's Own Story is beautifully wrought, and fiercely defiant; I could reread that novel every year and find something terrific I had missed in a previous reading.
I believe Edmund White is one of the best writers of my generation; he's certainly the contemporary American writer I reread more than any other, and the one whose next book I look forward to reading most.
by John Irving
It looks as if a new Hate Crimes Bill, which George W. Bush threatened to veto, may be signed into law very soon by President Obama. The bill, which would make it a crime to assault someone because of his or her sexual orientation, has been named after Matthew Shepard, a gay teenager who was beaten to death in October 1998, and James Byrd Jr., and African American dragged behind a vehicle and killed the same year.
The bill, which was added to a $680 billion defense authorization bill, passed by large majorities in the House and the Senate, despite allegations by conservative Christians who claimed the new law would be used to persecute people who protest against homosexuality or abortion. These conservatives have been assured that the law will protect LGBT citizens against violence but will not infringe on anyone’s freedom of speech.
The passage of this law will give the federal government the tools it needs to deter and prosecute anti-gay violence. Its passage will be a testament to the thousands of lesbians and gays who have fought for it over the years—and to the heterosexuals (including Matthew Shepard’s mother) who have supported the measure as a necessary extension of fundamental civil rights.