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.
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.
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.
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."
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 Biography (nonfiction) 1993
The Burning Library: Writings on Art, Politics, Sexuality (essays) 1994
Skinned Alive (novel) 1995
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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 of Bryant's efforts, an ordinance which granted homosexual men and women certain basic freedoms was chucked out in the polling booths by an overwhelming majority. Later that year, similar ordinances were abrogated in Eugene, Oregon, Wichita, Kansas, and St Paul, Minnesota.
No less a person than the Almighty, it was revealed (on television, on radio, and in innumerable magazines and newspapers), had called upon this chanteuse of the chapel circuit to rescue the youth of America from the evil attentions of those hordes of limp-wristed pedagogues. God had spoken it seemed, and she was but obeying His instructions. I wondered at the time, and am wondering still, at the amazing limitations of the Holy Father's omniscience as...
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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 hero of A Boy's Own Story grows up in the prosperous American 1950s with every advantage save one. Only son of a Texas millionaire, The Boy is coddled by black nannies, trained at the best private schools, whisked away each June to the toniest summer camps. "All of our daddy's dollars," he says, "were casters on which the furniture of our lives glided noiselessly."
What's wrong is something money can't do much to fix. It emerges as an intuition well before The Boy reaches the age of 7. In the midst of being beaten by his father with a belt, he recognizes in the man another child, no older than himself, but different, "less appeasable—a heartless boy." Soon the child understands more: that his father doesn't love...
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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 French novelists. No wonder. This narrative structure allows the author—along with his hero—to discover piece by relished piece the complexities and sophistications of a world by no means innocent. It worked for Stendhal and for Balzac, and it works for Edmund White. His hero learns about power and love and the ways in which they're connected. So do we. If you want to know about the dynamics of a small, closed social system and if Stendhal's Parma seems too remote, try White's portrait of an imaginary city, part Venice under the Austrians, part Paris and part New York of the intellectual coteries.
All literature looks in two directions, toward the world and back toward itself. It portrays the world (or gives the...
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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, but its culture having a rigorous obliquity reminiscent of Imperial Japan's; each gesture in the world of that book had a prescribed meaning which the hero had to work out for himself, without ever admitting to being in the dark. It was the richest and most mysterious example of the amnesia novel, a sub-genre which includes Martin Amis's Other People and Eva Figes's Nelly's Version.
In Caracole the society is again a collage, but this time the sources are European. Venice and Paris are the most obvious models for the city in which most of the action takes place. A European setting, however gorgeously transformed by fantasy, is appropriate to the development of White's thinking: he sees experience as by...
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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 adolescence), and this current volume breaks off in 1969, with the same narrator shouting "Gay Is Good!" on Christopher Street outside the just-raided Stonewall Inn. By the end of the first book, he had entered the gay life; by the end of the second, he has glimpsed the origins of gay politics and experienced the birth of a gay community. The specter of AIDS, much in the mind of anyone who reads these two books, had not yet surfaced. Neither had the sexual frenzy of the bathhouse 70's. (This book, in fact, opens on a note as innocent and reassuring as "Goodbye, Columbus": "I met Maria during my next-to-last year in prep school.")
As readers it is pleasant for us to think we might be at the inception of a planned series of...
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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 predecessor, A Boy's Own Story, encourages speculation that the author is offering us not just an autobiographical novel but a memoir tout court.
The unnamed narrator lifts facts from White's own dossier: year of birth (1940), Midwestern childhood, University of Michigan education, literary métier, current Parisian domicile and, of course, an appearance at the Stonewall riot, a badge as obligatory for an activist—and as often fudged—as attendance at Woodstock. More telling than this mere matching of facts is the author's fidelity to his master, Vladimir Nabokov, whose uncharacteristic "blurbissimo" advanced White's first novel, the icily brilliant Forgetting Elena, and who, in Speak, Memory,...
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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, near Detroit, a school called Cranbrook, which appears as Eton in my books.
And you went to the University of Michigan?
I studied Chinese there, and when I graduated I moved to New York and worked for Time-Life Books from 1962 to 1970. Then I moved to Rome for a year, and when I came back, I became a freelance writer and editor, then worked briefly for Saturday Review and Horizon. I started teaching in the mid-seventies, first at Yale, then at Johns Hopkins, finally at Columbia and New York University. In 1981 I was the executive director of The New York Institute for the Humanities, which is an organization of smart people attached to New York University. Then in 1983, I moved to...
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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. Visitors to this aircraft hangar of a theatre will see little of the humour and deftness of language which made such successes of White's autobiographical A Boy's Own Story and The Beautiful Room Is Empty. Trios is stuck firmly in the behavioural laboratory.
The starting point for each triangle is the same: a young woman (Hunter) is drawn from her marriage to an older husband (Langdon Lloyd) to have an affair with a younger man (played this time by newcomer Charles Edwards). In the first incarnation, the nineteenth-century society hostess rejects her suffocating marriage and elopes to the provinces with a dashing, penniless charmer. We then switch to an English country house in the 1920s where a deaf cook is...
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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 dandy's irrepressible urge to try on new clothes, but it makes for some maddening contradictions and for the odd queasy moment when, beneath the loudest suit, there seems to be nothing but a tailor's dummy. In fact, this new collection of his essays spanning twenty-five years would have been a complicated, fragmented sort of book in any case, partly because its chronological range straddles the emergence of the AIDS crisis, and partly because of its symbiotic relationship with White's other writing—in particular with States of Desire, from which several chunks resurface verbatim in their original journalistic contexts.
States of Desire, jauntily subtitled Travels in Gay America, is a marvellous, often...
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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 University LesBiGay Newsletter describes you as a "queer hero" and suggests that you might be "A much better model for Cambridge grads than anything the present Cabinet has to offer." How do you feel about being read as a hero and about being a gay role model?
[White:] I'm 54 years old now, and the rate at which time flies by can seem quite amazing, particularly if you don't have children and so you don't have this constant reminder that you're aging. Although it's now twenty-five years ago, it seems like only yesterday that the Stonewall uprising took place in 1969. Just by accident I was in that uprising and almost immediately after it took place I wrote a letter to Anne and Alfred Corn who were friends of mine...
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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, a fine collection of literary essays and now a volume of mostly autobiographical stories that contains some of his best work.
Born in 1940, raised in the Midwest by parents originally form Texas, Mr. White spent two decades in New York before decamping to Paris in the early 1980's and his stories deal vividly with all three worlds—a young man growing up in Middle America, making his way uncertainly as an artist and homosexual in New York, and struggling with the depredations of aging and the AIDS virus as an expatriate in Europe. Yet over the years his style, his very conception of fiction, has changed even more strikingly than the settings he writes about.
Before the 1970's, when direct professions of...
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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 Robert Mapplethorpe, to argue that 'passion, like art, is always irresponsible, useless, an end in itself, regulated by its own impulses and nothing else' and to propose in another that the best gay writing should be a combination of confession, reportage and witness.
His deepest aesthetic impulse, one suspects, is for a priestly withdrawal, surpliced in the vestments of concealment; but his heart, his politics and his obvious humanity keep him very much a senator of the loud city-state that is gay aesthetics and politics.
White's journalism is often strange because it appears to borrow crazy opinions without wanting to own them. Its pulse rate is slow. It is always humane, intelligent, but without...
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Gerra, Michael. Review of Our Paris: Sketches From Memory. The New York Times Book Review (3 December 1995): 7, 49-50.
States that "Our Paris isn't really a travel book—it's a valentine to a city most of us can only visit."
Gluck, Robert. "A Boy's Own Story." Review of Contemporary Fiction 16, No. 3 (Fall 1996): 56-60.
Discusses White's A Boy's Own Story and how it was different than anything that had been published previously.
Johnson, Diane. "The Midwesterner as Artist." Review of Contemporary Literature 16, No. 3 (Fall 1996): 69-72.
Discusses how being a homosexual and a Midwesterner contributed to White's main topic of otherness.
Judt, Tony. Review of The Selected Writings of Jean Genet, by Edmund White. The New York Review of Books 40, No. 17 (21 October 1993): 8.
Reviews White's Genet: A Biography and his The Selected Writings of Jean Genet and asserts that "Edmund White deserves unstinting praise for his painstaking efforts to unravel the threads that Genet so assiduously knotted and crossed in his various writings and interviews."
McCann, Richard. "Years Later,...
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