Edmund White White, Edmund, III - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Edmund White III 1940–

American novelist, dramatist, and nonfiction writer.

With his first novel, Forgetting Elena (1973), 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. Nocturnes for the King of Naples (1978), White's second novel, is comprised of a series of brooding monologues by a young man who has lost his lover. Critics point out that in spite of its close focus on homosexuality, this work has a wide appeal. Such critics feel that the novel's stylistic virtues and ambitious intellectual aims make it interesting to a diverse group of readers. A Boy's Own Story (1982), White's recent novel, has received generally positive reviews. It is a bildungsroman told through the point of view of an alienated and precocious narrator similar to J. D. Salinger's Holden Caulfield.

White's nonfictional work includes States of Desire (1980), a sociological study of gay communities and gay lifestyles in the United States. Most critics praise this book as one of the few accurate and intelligent studies on the subject. Some point out, however, that because White focuses, as he does in his fiction, on upper-middle class members of the gay community, his study is not conclusive.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 45-48.)

William R. Evans

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Holden Caulfield was right, America is full of phonies. More of them infest the literary jungle than any other part of our society. When a writer wants to tell a trivial story he has to do it in style. Sometimes his style is original. More often it is copied from a fashionable giant, say Joyce or Kafka. Rafts and rafts of phony novels by unknown writers come floating down the literary waters. (p. 96)

Edmund White's "Forgetting Elena" is a typical pastiche. Interesting at first, it dawdles off into gibberish and pseudo-sophistication. Before it ends, however, there is a blaze of stylish glory. Undoubtedly the best writing is in the last chapter. Read the beginning and the end of "Forgetting Elena" and you will have sampled the best it has to offer. Concerned with pretentious conversation, it tries to make Fire Island seem like a fascinating place. Replete with sex, it pulls out all the in stops of today's writing. Tomorrow it will be forgotten, piled on a heap of discarded novels…. This is a simple novel told in a complex way. If you like solving cross word puzzles you might enjoy White's book. If you are looking for something worthwhile to read, skip it. (pp. 96, 99)

William R. Evans, in a review of "Forgetting Elena," in Best Sellers (copyright 1973, by the University of Scranton), Vol. 33, No. 4, May 15, 1973, pp. 96, 99.

Simon Karlinsky

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Forgetting Elena] utilizes a marvelously fresh and inventive narrative device right from the very beginning: an amnesiac young man gradually realizes that he is caught in a cross fire of several contending coteries who battle for dominance in a closely knit little social group on a summer resort island. The narrator-hero is eager to please his hosts and to do the socially accepted thing, but he has no idea of his own status within the group and he has forgotten the code for distinguishing the desirable from the reprehensible in that particular milieu.

The somewhat fantastic island on which the action is set is easily identifiable as New York's own Fire Island, with its highly stylized rites, charades and inbred snobberies…. But what might at first seem to be merely a witty parody of a particular subculture's foibles and vagaries actually turns out to be something far more serious and profound. In a sequence of three stunning chapters (Chapters II-IV) the hero is made to tote loads of pine needles in a wheelbarrow, not knowing whether this is a rare honor or a humiliating punishment; he joins what he thinks are two fellow outcasts for a stroll on the beach, only to realize that this has made him a member of the most fashionable and sought-after in group on the island; and a mysterious woman explains to him the mechanisms for achieving social ascendancy. These chapters present us with nothing less than a semiology of snobbery,...

(The entire section is 474 words.)


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In [Nocturnes for the King of Naples], White resumes his exploration of the textuality of experience, but moves from ritual to romance.

As its pretext, the novel evokes and is addressed to a lost, and therefore ideal, lover—presumably an older man who rescued the narrator, was later betrayed by him and died. In one sense, then, it is the Psyche's reminiscence of Eros, and its chapters are the narrator's meditations on the echoes of an original erotic transcendence in his subsequent affairs and ménages, which comprise the world of experience fallen from a mysterious grace. As a narrative ploy, White's sensuous scholium has the emotional power and melo-dramatic advantages of Proust's brooding over the captive and vanished Albertine. But White's quest is at once as intimate as and more extensive than Proust's, since his conjured and elusive god—the fallible god that love's religion creates—is only invoked as you…. (p. 97)

"You," the second person, the Other within us and abroad. Episodes of the novel's "amorous history" are purposely juxtaposed with literally homesick, fantastic memories of the narrator's parents, a romantic suicide and a sexual pasha. As the perspective shifts from that of love's victim to that of love's child, one realizes the scope of White's quest and its repertory of images. Insofar as this child is father of the narrator, the novel's eerie nostalgia identifies the lost...

(The entire section is 572 words.)

John Yohalem

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The impressionistic novel is getting a new lease on life from Edmund White, whose dreamy "Forgetting Elena" had a success of esteem some years back, and who in his second novel has abandoned such concessions to the reader as linear storytelling.

"Nocturnes" is a series of apostrophes to a nameless, evidently famous dead lover, a man who awakened the much younger, also nameless narrator not to sexuality … but to the possibilities of sexual friendship. Though he well remembers why he found it stifling and why he fled, it was an experience that the narrator feels he did not justly appreciate and that he has long and passionately—and fruitlessly—sought to replace on his own terms.

The matter is not quite a catalogue … but a series of self-consciously artful vignettes from a life passed between Bohemian and cafe societies, in Italy and Spain, on a decaying American estate, on the New York piers. Hapless and abominable Dad and hysterical Mom lurk in the background, but up front and center are rich and amorous young women, poor and callow but beautiful young men, a couple of dogs who get the best press and—in the full splendor of the spotlight—the narrator: a boy and his prose.

It is exquisite prose, gooey and fantastic as Italian pastry, mounds of it, piled on prodigally. Elegant plays on words abound and must be sifted out. Mr. White can't seem to help himself—everything inspires him to metaphor: "Jagged traces of temples emerging out of the ground in the way wisdom teeth erupt through the gums"; "He paces around me with the tact and forbearance of a god who knows that by answering a mortal's prayer and appearing before him, the gift may blind the devotee or strike him dumb and will certainly unsuit him to the rest of his...

(The entire section is 736 words.)

Richard Goldstein

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

White is the co-author of The Joy of Gay Sex, perhaps the drolest example of that most persistent genre, the how-to-feel-good-about-being-dirty Baedeker, and States of Desire is a kind of Joy of Gay Society—middle-class society, to be precise. In its demure way, this is as didactic a treatise on homosexual experience as has ever been written. You will not read about rejection in this book—certainly not rejection by the author, who reserves contempt … for those souls who have allowed religion or personal trauma to interfere with sexual expressiveness.

There is only one state of desire in this book: hospitality. Everyone gets laid and the worst disaster is shallowness; no one...

(The entire section is 621 words.)

Paul Cowan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

If there were a truth-in-packaging law for books, Edmund White's "States of Desire" would violate it. For he subtitles his book "Travels in Gay America" but rarely mentions lesbians, or settled homosexual couples, or homosexuals who are as interested in their work as in sex, or those who help one another kick drugs and booze rather than abuse them. Instead, he devotes most of his 336 pages to a journey through promiscuous, all-male America—a desolate place to live.

Using a conventional picaresque structure, Mr. White wanders from city to city, but he does not display the kind of literary gifts that would allow him to create a memorable account of the voyage. Travel writers have a special job: to...

(The entire section is 644 words.)

Publishers Weekly

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

White's shimmering style in this memoir of a homosexual childhood makes every sentence a pleasure to read, and then once that initial savoring is past, we can linger with his on-target observations and candid retrospection. "A Boy's Own Story" is by no means limited to a homosexual audience—it touches universal bases with smashing success. The narrator recalls his days as a precocious, intellectual boy, the only son in a broken home…. Enchanted by books, dreaming of entering elegant worlds where he'll be appreciated, the boy is drawn to exotic characters … while dying to be accepted by his own peer group. White's revelation of the boy's self-conscious, devious efforts at being liked is wonderfully etched with a...

(The entire section is 162 words.)

J[Amie] B[Aylis]

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Edmund White's four previous books split neatly into two general categories—novels highly acclaimed for their polished prose … and nonfiction books on gay society…. A Boy's Own Story is a poignant combination of the two genres, a first-person novel … about a boy growing up homosexual in the 1950s, and written with the flourish of a master stylist. (pp. 75-6)

The story winds fluently through events of the narrator's youth. The boy is cursed with a maddening family…. The boy contends with a succession of friends, fantasies, bohemians, camp counselors, and schoolmasters, and a self-absorbed psychoanalyst.

This is a sympathetic evocation of a youth's faltering...

(The entire section is 218 words.)

Catherine R. Stimpson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Edmund White has crossed "The Catcher in the Rye" with "De Profundis," J. D. Salinger with Oscar Wilde, to create an extraordinary novel. It is a clear and sinister pool in which goldfish and piranhas both swim.

In "A Boy's Own Story," a nameless narrator looks back at his youth with irony, affection and sorrow. What he sees is a child as alienated, self-conscious and perceptive as any protagonist in the whole catalogue of 20th-century Bildungsromane. His parents are divorced. His older sister torments him. Because his eccentric father is rich, the boy has material comforts. Because his mother is flighty, his access to both parents is erratic….

This partially deprived child...

(The entire section is 545 words.)

Alan Hollinghurst

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

A Boy's Own Story is on the face of it a book about growing up; behind its title lies the salubrious little-manly world of the Boy's Own Paper, with its emphasis on adventure, instruction and initiative; further off stand Mark Twain, Richard Jefferies, H. O. Sturgis, even Forrest Reid. Edmund White's primary irony is to make his the story of a homosexual boy; the time-scheme is jigged around so that there is some brisk buggery in the first chapter, and the sexual latencies of the Edwardian literature of boyhood are rendered emphatically overt. This is, in fact, a mere showing of the hand: there is next to no sexual description in the rest of the book, for its real subject is not sex but sensibility. The...

(The entire section is 646 words.)