Edmund White

 

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small entrepreneur who made a lot of money and then lost most of it during the time when small businessmen were being superceded by big corporations."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 dancer—an 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 writers—Andrew Holleran, Robert Ferro, Felice Picano, George Whitmore, Christopher Cox, and Michael Grumley—formed 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 Quill—Ferro, Grumley, Cox and Whitmore—had 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 incalculable."

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 taste—especially 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 work—privileged, literate, sophisticated, hedonistic—remain central to any consideration of gay male upper-middle-class life in late 20th-century America.

White frequently 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.

White's writings 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 Paris—and his contacts with other expatriate writers and artists there—gave 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.

Quoted from Stephen Barber's Edmund White: The Burning World.
(New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999. pp. 132-133, 300.)


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.

Quote 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.

Edmund White
2009-10-23

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Date Created: Saturday, 13-Jan-2001, 12:01 AM
Date Modified: Friday, 23-Oct-2009 4:25 AM

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