Study Guide

Edmund White

Edmund White Essay - Critical Essays

White, Edmund

Introduction

Edmund White 1940–

American novelist, dramatist, short story writer, essayist, and nonfiction writer.

The following entry presents an overview of White's career. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 27.

With his first novel, Forgetting Elena (1973), Edmund White established a reputation as a new novelist of great promise. His elegant, self-conscious prose has been compared with that of Marcel Proust and Oscar Wilde, as have his decidedly homosexual viewpoint and sensibility. Like the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald, White's fiction frequently focuses on what he sees as the sad and shallow lives of the idle rich.

Biographical Information

White was born in Cincinnati, Ohio. His parents divorced when he was seven years old. His father remained in Cincinnati, and his mother began moving from city to city. White's mother was left in virtual poverty while his father remained relatively affluent. White had difficulty living between the two worlds of his parents, never really feeling a part of either of them. White attended Cranbrook, a boarding school outside of Detroit, Michigan, and then studied Chinese at the University of Michigan. Upon graduation, White moved to New York and worked for Time-Life books from 1962 through 1970. After leaving Time-Life he moved to Rome for a year, and in 1971 returned to New York and began working as a freelance writer and editor. He briefly worked for the Saturday Review and Horizon before he obtained a job teaching at Yale University. He later taught at Johns Hopkins and then Columbia University. In 1981 he became the executive director of the New York Institute for the Humanities. In 1983, White moved to Paris, using his Guggenheim Fellowship for support. He was a freelance writer for Vogue and other Condé-Nast publications while remaining in Paris. White returned to America and became a professor of English at Brown University in 1990. He returned to Paris in 1991, however, when his partner became sick with AIDS. His partner died of the disease in 1994. White himself is HIV positive and very conscious of his own mortality. He continues to live and work in Paris.

Major Works

White's first two novels, Forgetting Elena and Nocturnes for the King of Naples (1978) are entrenched in fantasy and poetic in tone. Forgetting Elena draws the picture of life on Fire Island, but it includes a fantastical prince and court. White's Nocturnes for the King of Naples lacks a conventional plot and character development. The novel contains several autobiographical elements, but many details of the protagonist's life differ from White's own, including having a rich playboy father. White's next novel, A Boy's Own Story (1982) is much more autobiographical than Nocturnes for the King of Naples and has a traditional form. The novel traces a young man's discovery of and acceptance of his homosexuality. With Caracole (1985) White returns to a more fantastic style as he portrays life in a high-powered city where greed and vanity rule. The story follows Gabriel as he is imprisoned by his father and then rescued by his uncle, Mateo. Mateo is a narcissist, but devotes himself to Gabriel's rehabilitation. The novel analyzes the relationship between sex and power, and focuses on heterosexual relationships. White tackles the same topic of sex and power in his The Beautiful Room is Empty (1988) but again turns to a more autobiographical style and centers on homosexual relationships. White's collection of short stories, Skinned Alive (1995) takes on a darker theme than his earlier work. The stories center on living with and dying from AIDS. In addition to his fiction, White has written several nonfiction works, including The Joy of Gay Sex (1977), and his journalistic States of Desire (1980), a reportorial account of his journey across the United States in which he spoke to gay men openly and plainly about their experiences in American society. White's The Burning Library (1994) contains a collection of his essays on political and literary topics spanning 25 years.

Critical Reception

Many reviewers have commented on White's vacillation between realism and artifice. Phyllis Rose stated, "All literature looks in two directions, toward the world and back toward itself. It portrays the world (or gives the illusion of doing so) and creates a world of its own. More than most American writers, White is divided between these two impulses, old-fashioned realism and modernist artifice." Many critics complained that White's language is too stylized, especially in Caracole. Adam Mars-Jones said of White's style in Caracole that, "At his feeblest, White goes in for elegant variation saying 'adipose cummerbund' for spare tyre or having a character eat raven instead of crow. The sheer density of invention attests a bottomless terror of saying the obvious." Many reviewers lauded White for appealing to a universal audience, and for emphasizing the similarities that exist between gay and straight men. Clark Blaise asserted that "Mr. White's success lies in establishing two contradictory truths: gay men are very much like straight men; and gay men and straight men are fundamentally different. He does so by the meticulous reconstruction of the very texture of his sexuality…." Critics have also praised White for his honest portrayal of desire and sexual relationships. Carter Wilson asserted, "Edmund White is to be envied not only for his productivity … but because he is a gifted writer who has staked himself a distinguished claim in the rocky territory called desire."

Principal Works

Blue Boy in Black (play) 1963
When Zeppelins Flew [with Peter Wood] (nonfiction) 1969
The First Men [Dale Browne] (nonfiction) 1973
Forgetting Elena (novel) 1973
The Joy of Gay Sex: An Intimate Guide for Gay Men to the Pleasures of Gay Lifestyle [with Charles Silverstein] (nonfiction) 1977
Nocturnes for the King of Naples (novel) 1978
States of Desire: Travels in Gay America (nonfiction) 1980
A Boy's Own Story (novel) 1982
Caracole (novel) 1985
The Darker Proof: Stories from a Crisis [with Adam Mars-Jones] (short stories) 1987
The Beautiful Room is Empty (novel) 1988
Genet: A...

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Criticism

Paul Bailey (review date 5 September 1980)

SOURCE: "Gay, Straight and Grim," in Times Literary Supplement, September 5, 1980, p. 964.

[In the following review, Bailey discusses White's States of Desire, and how the book deals with the issue of bigotry against homosexuals.]

I was living in America when Anita Bryant, a mediocre warbler of what are known in the music business as "inspirational" songs, began her campaign against male homosexuals in Dade County, Florida. In the spring of 1977, Bryant and her followers, united under the banner "Save Our Children", convinced the citizens of that clean, well-lighted place that they had several devils in their midst—in their schools, to be precise. As a result...

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Carter Wilson (review date 13 November 1982)

SOURCE: "Remembering Desire," in The Nation, Vol. 235, No. 16, November 13, 1982, p. 503-5.

[In the following review, Wilson asserts that "In White's growing-up novel, [A Boy's Own Story,] the tale of the child's peregrinations in the treacherous land of desire is, finally, secondary to the 'story' of the adult's struggle to bring all to mind, to integrate his various selves by coming to love them."]

Edmund White is to be envied not only for his productivity (A Boy's Own Story is his fifth book in nine years) but because he is a gifted writer who has staked himself a distinguished claim in the rocky territory called desire.

The nameless...

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Phyllis Rose (review date 16 November 1985)

SOURCE: "Moralists and Esthetes," in The Nation, Vol. 241, No. 16, November 16, 1985, pp. 526-28.

[In the following review, Rose discusses the verbal stylization and psychological realism of White's Caracole.]

Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier has been called the finest French novel written in English, but Caracole would be my nomination. Its epigraph from The Charterhouse of Parma suggests its literary ancestry. Like Fabrice del Dongo of Charterhouse, like Julien Sorel of The Red and the Black, Gabriel of Caracole is an innocent young man from the provinces who makes the move to the city that so fascinated nineteenth-century...

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Adam Mars-Jones (review date 14 March 1986)

SOURCE: "Passion, purity, innocence and (European) experience," in Times Literary Supplement, March 14, 1986, pp. 265-66.

[In the following review, Mars-Jones lauds White's Caracole and says, "This suavely alien world can give intense and almost continuous pleasure."]

Caracole is less a novel by the author of A Boy's Own Story, as the cover announces in justified eagerness to close a sale, than a novel by the author of Forgetting Elena. In that book, Edmund White described the experiences of a man who comes to consciousness in a sophisticated society, its physical details (shared houses, beaches, tea dances) suggesting an American resort,...

(The entire section is 2850 words.)

Clark Blaise (review date 20 March 1988)

SOURCE: "Don't Give In to the Baggy Grown-Ups," in The New York Times Book Review, March 20, 1988, p. 7.

[In the following review, Blaise asserts that White's The Beautiful Room is Empty "is packaged as an autobiographical novel, yet as a novel its flaws reduce its value and interest considerably."]

The title of Edmund White's new novel, The Beautiful Room is Empty, derives from one of Kafka's nightmarish images of perfect symmetry. It seems to me part of a grand design, framed by an urgent and tragic necessity. Grand design because this book had its "prequel" in 1982 in A Boy's Own Story (set during the narrator's Midwestern childhood and...

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Brendan Lemon (review date 9 April 1988)

SOURCE: "An American Scrapbook," in The Nation, Vol. 246, No. 14, April 9, 1988, pp. 503-4.

[In the following review, Lemon praises White's The Beautiful Room is Empty, but complains that "the ending's exhilarations [are] a diminishment of the power and beauty of what had gone before."]

It was inevitable that the 1960s revival would produce a retrospective novel about gay life in New York City. Less fated, and more welcome, is that the task was assumed by an artist as gifted as Edmund White. The Beautiful Room Is Empty (the title comes from one of Franz Kafka's letters to Milena Jesenská) interweaves public and private events, and even more than its...

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Edmund White with Kay Bonetti (interview date 1990)

SOURCE: "An Interview with Edmund White," in The Missouri Review, 1990, pp. 89-110.

[In the following interview, White discusses the autobiographical nature of his work and what he thinks about literature.]

[Bonetti:] Mr. White, can you fill us in on some background about yourself? Do A Boy's Own Story and The Beautiful Room Is Empty follow your own chronology?

[White:] The books fairly reflect where I was and what I was doing. I was born in Cincinnati, Ohio. My parents got divorced when I was seven and my mother began to move from city to city while my father remained in Cincinnati. I was sent to a boarding school in Michigan,...

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Jonathan Dyson (review date 30 July 1993)

SOURCE: "Three times three," in Times Literary Supplement, July 30, 1993, p. 19.

[In the following review, Dyson complains that, "The problem with Trios is that it plays as if real dramatic skill in writing and direction has not been applied."]

Fresh from a biography of Jean Genet, Edmund White has presided over this revival of his 1990 three-hander, directed (as was that production) by Simon Usher and starring two of the original cast, Kelly Hunter and Robert Langdon Lloyd. But in fact the tone of this love triangle replayed in three different eras has much in common with the kind of sociological probing found in his life of the great provocateur....

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Neil Powell (review date 1 July 1994)

SOURCE: "From celebration to elegy," in Times Literary Supplement, July 1, 1994, p. 13.

[In the following review, Powell complains that, "As so often in the book, [The Burning Library] White's admirable capacity for sympathetic understanding not only inhibits his critical judgment but actually weakens the case being argued."]

"Like any agile debater," confesses the student narrator of Edmund White's second autobiographical novel, The Beautiful Room Is Empty, "I could defend either side of the question, but I was too immoral to wonder which side was right." Within limits it's an entertaining and an engaging quality which for White becomes the literary...

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Edmund White with Ryan Prout (interview date Fall 1994)

SOURCE: "From the Stonewall to The Burning Library," in The Harvard Gay and Lesbian Review, Vol. I, No. 4, Fall, 1994, pp. 5-8.

[In the following interview, White discusses his career and his life as a gay writer.]

Cambridge University scholar Ryan Prout interviewed the renowned author while Edmund White was in England last May. White's The Burning Library, a collection of his major essays over a 25-year period, has just been published by Knopf. This even offered an occasion for Mr. White, who lives in Paris, to reflect on his work to date as well as his life as a gay writer and expatriate.

[Prout:] The most recent Cambridge...

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Morris Dickstein (review date 23 July 1995)

SOURCE: "Intimations of Mortality," in The New York Times Book Review, July 23, 1995, p. 6.

[In the following review, Dickstein discusses White's Skinned Alive and asserts that, "In writing about AIDS yet keeping it at bay, he has turned a mortal threat into a surprising source of literary strength."]

Among gay writers of his generation. Edmund White has emerged as the most versatile man of letters. A cosmopolitan writer with a deep sense of tradition, he has bridged the gap between gay subcultures and a broader literary audience. Besides five elegant novels, he has written a sex manual, a travel book about gay America, an award-winning biography of Jean Genet,...

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James Wood (review date 24 August 1995)

SOURCE: "Apologising," in London Review of Books, August 24, 1995, pp. 12-13.

[In the following review, Wood discusses White's The Burning Library and Skinned Alive.]

Edmund White has always struggled between appeasing the gods of his art and paying off the princelings of politics. Endearingly, and sometimes infuriatingly, he insists on doing both, and the result often leaves his pockets rather empty. Thus in his book of selected journalism, The Burning Library, he can move from a sublime celebration of Nabokov's 'greatness' to a demand that 'even the hierarchy inherent in the concept of a canon must be jettisoned.' It is how he is able, in a piece about...

(The entire section is 3544 words.)