Edmund Valentine White III Biography
Nationality: American. Born: Cincinnati, Ohio, 1940. Education: The University of Michigan, Ann Arbor (Hopwood award, 1961, 1962), B.A. 1962. Career: Staff writer, Time, 1962-79, and editor, Saturday Review, 1972-73, both New York; assistant professor, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, 1977-79; adjunct professor, Columbia University, New York, 1981-83, and instructor in creative writing, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut. Executive director, Institute for the Humanities, New York 1981-82. Awards: Ingram Merrill grant, 1973, 1978; Guggenheim fellowship, 1983; American Academy award, 1983; recipient Chevalier de l'ordre des Arts et Lettres, 1993; National Book Critics Circle award, 1994. Agent: Maxine Groffsky, 2 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York 10011, U.S.A.
Forgetting Elena. New York, Random House, 1973.
Nocturnes for the King of Naples. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1978; London, Deutsch, 1980.
A Boy's Own Story. New York, Dutton, 1982; London, Picador, 1983.
Caracole. New York, Dutton, 1985; London, Pan, 1986.
The Beautiful Room Is Empty. New York, Knopf, and London, Picador, 1988.
The Farewell Symphony. New York, Knopf, 1997.
The Married Man: A Love Story. New York, Knopf, 2000.
The Darker Proof: Stories from a Crisis, with Adam Mars-Jones. London, Faber, 1987.
Skinned Alive. London, Chatto and Windus, 1995; New York, Knopf, 1995.
When Zeppelins Flew, with Peter Wood. New York, Time/Life, 1969.
The First Man, with Dale Browne. New York, Time/Life, 1973.
States of Desire: Travels in Gay America. New York, Dutton, andLondon, Deutsch, 1980.
Genet: A Biography. New York, Knopf, and London, Chatto andWindus, 1993.
The Burning Library, edited by David Bergman. New York, Knopf, 1994.
Sketches from Memory: People and Places in the Heart of Our Paris, illustrated by Hubert Sorin. London, Chatto and Windus, 1994; published as Our Paris: Sketches from Memory, New York, Knopf, 1995.
Altars (text), photographs by Mapplethorpe. New York, RandomHouse, 1995.
Marcel Proust. New York, Viking, 1999.
Editor, with Charles Silverstein, The Joy of Gay Sex: An Intimate
Guide for Gay Men to the Pleasures of a Gay Lifestyle. New York, Crown, 1977.
Editor, The Faber Book of Gay Short Fiction. London, Faber, 1991;Boston, Faber, 1992.
Editor, The Selected Writings of Jean Genet. Hopewell, New Jersey, Ecco, 1993.
Edmund White: The Burning World by Stephen Barber, New York, St. Martin's Press, 1999.
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Elegant and explicit writing, gay characters, economic elitism, AIDS. Edmund White's large appeal may be due to the wild and wide convergence of these many issues over his thirty-year writing career. His voice eloquently articulates the gay community's trajectory from oppression and indecisiveness through self-definition and, finally, toward liberation. His poetry, nonfiction, and fiction has garnered a cultivating and curious audience who see White as a witness to gay culture during rocky decades when AIDS, homosexual stereotypes, and protests for gay rights seemed to balloon in mainstream American consciousness.
White is a prolific writer. His numerous nonfictional works include States of Desire: Travels in Gay America and The Joy of Gay Sex (co-authored with Dr. Charles Silverstein). Several essays (in particular, "The Artist and AIDS") and magazine pieces have established his reputation as that of an urbane and insightful commentator on contemporary social and political issues.
His books, including Forgetting Elana, Nocturnes for the King of Naples, A Boy's Own Story, The Beautiful Room Is Empty, and The Married Man, as well as a co-written collection of short stories about AIDS, reveal a love of poetic language. His writing has an erotic, sensuous quality and his images, like his phrases, are extravagant and memorable. An ethos of homoeroticism permeates almost every aspect of his fictional art; it informs his diction and gives shape to his plots. In the opening paragraphs of Nocturnes for the King of Naples, for example, images of water and darkness swirl rapturously around images of violence and unrequited love:
A young man leans with one shoulder against the wall, and his slender body remains motionless against the huge open slab of night sky and night water behind him … On the other side of the water, lights trace senseless paths up across hills, lash-marks left by an amateur whip. He turns toward me a look of hope tempered by discretion … I have failed to interest him. He turns back to his river as though it were the masterpiece and I the retreating guard.
A central theme in White's work is that of sexual maturation and of breaking away. Part of this maturation is individual, as in the case of his male protagonists who must break away from the repressive confines of their bourgeois families in order to express their own sexuality. But there is also the case of the American gay community, which had to break away from various regimes of oppression in order to find a geographical and linguistic terrain in which to explore its desires. This concern with personal and communal histories informs his two most successful novels to date: A Boy's Own Story and its sequel The Beautiful Room Is Empty. Together these novels, as a sort of homosexual Bildungsroman, describe the progression of a young unnamed male narrator from a state of confusion and immaturity to an acceptance of his homosexual identity on the very night that the Stonewall riots rocked the heterosexual establishment in New York City in 1969, thus ushering in the contemporary gay liberation movement. On the night of the riots, White's narrator, finds himself proudly anticipating the day "gays might someday constitute a community rather than a diagnosis."
Because of White's personal concern with the social and political dynamics of the gay community, his novels frequently have an autobiographical element to them. They are usually written in the first-person and parallel personal events in his own life, such as fraught relationships with fathers and male lovers, a desire to have a literary career, and a sardonic outlook on the foibles of middle-class America. His narrators frequently find solace from their own self-internalized condemnation of homosexuality in their writing, as, for example, does the unnamed narrator in The Beautiful Room Is Empty: "there was another reason to write: to redeem the sin of my life by turning it into the virtue of art." Many of White's novels are artistic parables and they describe an individual's exploration of his literary and sexual identities.
In White's fiction, art and reality are frequently inseparable. His novels celebrate the polymorphous potentiality of contemporary gay relationships and lifestyles with their capacity to move between friendships and love relationships; and they explore the creative energy found in a minority group's ability to invent its own personal and erotic language and identity amidst overwhelming social and literary oppression.
Because nearly every story in White's collection Skinned Alive addresses the topic of AIDS, there is a new tenderness in the relationships, a closeness between the couples involved, and a quiet acceptance of life, threatened as it may be. The raunchy details of sex, which was a constant and vital factor in White's writing, is still present, but muted, and the celebration he writes of most often is the joy of being alive.
His latest book, The Married Man turns its attention once again to AIDS. When Austin, in his fifties, meets the young and married Julien in Paris, the twosome entangle themselves in French culture and lovemaking. Austin is HIV positive, and when Julien contracts AIDS, the two travel through Nice, Venice, Rome, and carry with them the biological reality of death and its profound sorrow. The book has been recognized for its immense detail and mature perspective towards love.
revisions by Geoffrey Elborn
and Maureen Aitken
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