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."