White's albums

Rejecting Freudian analysis and embracing his true identity, Edmund White penned two landmarks of gay literature and redefined the autobiographical novel.

By Allen Barra
April 26, 2006 3:00PM (UTC)
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Edmund White's remarkable career, unique in American letters, has had more facets than the Hope Diamond. It began with a rough diamond of a short novel, "Forgetting Elena" (1973), was shaped by the more polished "Nocturnes for the King of Naples" (1978), and finally set by his jewel, "A Boy's Own Story" (1982). While establishing his reputation as a fiction writer, he wrote two books that became landmarks in gay literature. I have not read "The Joy of Gay Sex" (1977, with Charles Silverstein) and "States of Desire: Travels in Gay America" (1980), but I am told their good humor and frankness raised the bar and widened the horizons of gay nonfiction. Along the way, White also established himself as the definitive biographer of Jean Genet and as one of our most personal and best literary and cultural critics.

Straight novelists in America must, I'm convinced, secretly envy their gay counterparts. Gayness, in the hands of the right sensibility, provides a ready-made perspective from which to cast a wry eye at the world. Or as David Berkman phrases it in his introduction to White's collected essays, "The Burning Library," "The value of homosexuality is that it has the potential to assist the gay man not by stripping the trappings of life away, but by revealing the trappings in all their decorativeness. The homosexual knows the illusion of naturalness firsthand, because he learns at any early age how to ape what other people believe is 'natural' and hears from all sides that what has come to him 'naturally' is 'unnatural.'" In White's case, a life that would sound unexciting related by nearly anyone else has been crafted into a handful of wonderful novels and, now, a delightful autobiography, "My Lives."


At first glance, it appears as if White's novels fit into two distinct categories. "Forgetting Elena," a Kafkaesque evocation of life on Fire Island, and "The King of Naples," an elegiac gay love story in which chapters are arranged accordingly to theme and tone, as in a long poem, rather than chronologically, are fabulous, dreamlike creations with self-consciously baroque imagery, unlike anything written by other American gay writers -- he seemed to be uninfluenced by Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, William Burroughs or almost anyone else except perhaps poets such as James Merrill. "Forgetting Elena" was praised by Vladimir Nabokov, who evinced no particular interest for homosexual themes but who homed right in on a charming and original poetic voice. (Nabokov died before "The King of Naples" was published.) White survived the kind of praise that might have ruined a lesser writer and went on to redefine the autobiographical novel, a genre that Nabokov, who thought autobiographical details "should be awarded sparingly, like medals," would not have approved of, unless perhaps it was written by Edmund White.

One of the unusual things about "A Boy's Own Story" -- unusual, that is, in the general scheme of American fiction -- is that White didn't begin his career by mining the material of his own early life but waited 10 years after his literary debut. Why exactly? Presumably so he could distance himself emotionally from his own past. In an oft-quoted line from "Forgetting Elena," a character says, "We all know that human emotions are banal," a remark that in some writers would seem to advocate a sterile aestheticism but that in White merely indicated the more complex level on which he wanted to experiment with autobiography.

"Originality in writing," he said in a 1988 Paris Review interview, "isn't a presentation of those emotions or even in their occlusion -- the way in which feelings are stopped or diverted or disguised." Writing, he told his interviewer, should be a way of "making the banal strange."


In one form or another, then, autobiography is the gemlike flame that has run through all of White's work, and his oeuvre is a testament to the power of imagination and intellectual curiosity to weave poetry from the prosaic. "My Lives" is subtitled "An Autobiography," but while it honors the conventional form, it's much more ambitious than that. Chapters are titled "My Shrinks," "My Friends," "My Father," "My Hustlers," "My Women," "My Europe" and even "My Genet" -- they are essentially critical essays on people, places and times that have affected the author and therefore his fiction, and they slide effortlessly back and forth in time. (Like Jean-Luc Godard, White likes a beginning, middle and end, though not necessarily in that order.) As in his novels, the chapters in "My Lives" are at once playful and serious.

White was born in Cincinnati and raised in Evanston, Ill., "a city I liked with its big Congregational and Episcopal churches no one seemed to take too seriously, since their religion was a pleasant social habit, not an occasion for red-faced fervor." Unlike so many portraits of the artist as a gay young man, the writer's hometown is recalled pleasantly: "There were hundred-year old elms shading wood houses behind their underclipped hedges. Plain girls straddled cellos at home and practiced for hours. Boys wrestled with one another after school in piles of autumn leaves. Everything smelled of quietly smoldering leaves."

His mother, brought up in the Baptist Church in Texas and, like her inspiration, Mary Baker Eddy, a convert to Christian Science, denied the existence of evil "except as it was embodied in my father's mistress and believed in thinking mightily positive thoughts ... When my mother was distraught, which occurred on a daily basis, she found consolation in bourbon, and Eddy's 'Science and Health' and 'Key to the Scriptures.'" She also detected in her son signs "of a great soul and highly advanced spirituality."


Aware as a boy that he wanted to be a writer, young Edmund feared that he "could never be a great artist if I remained ignorant of the classical verities of marriage and child-rearing, adultery and divorce." He sought help in psychiatry but worried that if psychoanalysis "could convert me into a heterosexual, might it not at the same time ablate the very neurosis that made me want to write? Should I tamper with my neurosis?" God, no. As the writer grew older, he found "Freudian psychology went up in flames and became no more powerful or present than the smell of ashes in a cold fireplace the morning after. Most of the problems Freudians had addressed were no longer experienced as an individual need to adapt to conventions, but as conventions that needed to adapt to individuals ... In the 1950s people had been ashamed to admit they were inadequate. In the 1960s they became proud to announce they were victims."

Psychoanalysis did leave him with a few beliefs, notably "the conviction that everyone is worthy of years and years of intense scrutiny -- not a bad credo for a novelist." Before long, the cult of the novelist replaced that of the analyst: "A novelist can work with Nabokov's insight because it respects the details, the sinuous surface, of experience, but not with Freud's theory, which is arid and reductive." White seems to have no deep-seated hostility toward his father, "a conservative Republican who worried about the growing national debt and was opposed to the racial integration of the armed forces and graduated income tax." Homosexuals, of course, "were beyond the pale, unmentionable perverts." Only belatedly did he realize that "my father had been one of the most boring men ever to draw breath." It was his mother and her own "mightily positive" way who encouraged his imagination. "'With a gifted child,' she would say, opening her hands palms up as if to display self-evident principles, 'you must let him set the pace, you must follow his lead.'" When she finally accepted him as a gay writer of some renown, she'd say, "'You've truly become a spokesman for your people.'"


In high school he and his friends were "public-library intellectuals, magpies of all knowledge, but like most autodidacts, we were incapable of evaluating our sources: we usually read the wrong book." At college in Ann Arbor, Mich., White found himself one of the "arty types ... We were neither scrubbed and perky, like the Greeks, nor alienated and uncombed, like the Beats. We drank but didn't smoke pot, we had nothing resembling a credo beyond a faith in the permanent avant-garde. We revered Brecht, not Marx; Mayakovski, not Lenin ... both Ingmar and Ingrid Bergman." Later, after experiencing Village life and beginning to establish his own reputation, he would come to envy the relative status of important European writers compared with those in America. "Both [Roland] Barthes and [Michel] Foucault had announced the death of the writer, but their very efforts desacralized the office, realized just how sacred it was in France; in America, no one would have bothered."

In late middle age, after returning to the States and teaching at Princeton, White would discover he had "a small but faithful readership." "Perhaps, I was the last writer to care about posterity; believing that there would be readers in the future had become an act of blind faith." After an interview with a trendy unnamed English critic who doubted even the continued survival of Shakespeare, he became, for a brief period, depressed: "We still hailed writers for being as original and profound and lasting as Hemingway or Flaubert, but maybe it was an empty rhetorical gesture. Maybe even libraries had a short shelf life."

Now, at 65, he hopes "the solitary twenty-year old in Kansas might be able to hear my voice, scratchy and bleeding as it may be, as we can still hear Caruso's. Like Walt Whitman. I want to excite at least one young man not yet born; the kid in Singapore or Salt Lake City." I can't speak for the unborn kid in Singapore or Salt Lake, but at least one straight middle-aged reader in South Orange, N.J., numbers himself among the small but faithful readership.

Allen Barra

Allen Barra is the author of "Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends."

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