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Edmund White in Real Life and Fiction
"It's what I am," Jack said, "and what you aspire to be."
Edmund White, born in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1940. When he was 7, his parents divorced and he (with his mother and sister) went to live in Evanston (on the outskirts of Chicago), while spending summers with his father in Cincinnati.
Edmund attended The Cranbrook Academy, and later the University of Michigan, where he studied Chinese. In 1962 he moved to New York, pursuing Stan, a boy he was in love with (with whom he lived for 5 years). As he "wasn't really suited for any kind of work except journalism," Edmund landed a job in publishing (Time-Life Books, then The Saturday Review and Horizon).
White has spent quite a large amount of time living overseas: Rome (1970-1971) and France (1983-1990).
Starting in the mid 1970s, the Violet Quill, a group of 7 gay New York writers was formed, with White as part of it. The group met at the members' apartments, reading and critiquing one another's work. Together, these writers and their work represented the kind of gay writing that hadn't existed before: openly and admittedly gay, with all the pleasures and consequences. The kind of writing, where characters are struggling with or enjoying being gay, whom readers can relate to and know they are not alone, that there are others like them, who went through similar feelings of realizing and knowing they are different, thus normalizing the experience.
Not all of Edmund's work is gay-themed, Caracole (1985) centers on heterosexual characters, relationships and desires, while Forgetting Elena (1973) can be read, in a coded and indirect manner, as a commentary on gay culture. White's biographies of Genet, Proust and Rimbaud are a result of his obsession with these great and controversial personas, their lives and art. Arts and Letters (2004) tells stories of his encounters with some of the most provocative writers, artists and personalities of our time. Fanny: A Fiction (2003) is a historical novel about Frances Trollope and Frances Wright. Hotel de Dream: A New York Novel (2007), a "fantasia on real themes provided by history" unlike White's other works, takes place in the 19th century (Read the NYT review). White is also the man behind The Joy of Gay Sex (with Charles Silverstein) published in 1977, and re-released in 2003 with Felice Picano (a DIY manual). Edmund White has also written plays, some of which were actually staged.
White is a recipient of multiple awards and distinctions, including making a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1997) and American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1999), as well as Chevalier (Officer) de L'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Government (1993).
There are many parallels and similarities between White and his characters. He uses his own experiences as inspirations and basis for characters and their lives. Midwesterners moving to New York City; gay and promiscuous; gay and hoping to become straight, marry and have kids some day; therapy/seeing shrinks; aspiring or established writers and/or in the publishing world; literary, educated and hedonistic; travel; use of alcohol and drugs; characters named Jack... Maybe too many of the ideas and personal traits and experiences are his own, but he has lived an interesting life, so why not?
White has been influential not only as a literary and cultural critic (particularly on gay issues), but also as an activist helping found the Gay Men's Health Crisis in New York City in 1982, and was closely involved in the foundation of the French HIV/AIDS NGO AIDES in Paris in 1984.
Currently, White is a member of the faculty of Princeton University's Creative Writing Program.
Jack Holmes and His Friend, the latest novel by Edmund White (released earlier this year) is a story about a friendship between two men: one straight, one gay. Seems like the oldest story in the world: Boy meets Boy, Boy falls in love with Boy, Boy 2 is straight and does not feel the same about Boy 1... But Jack Holmes and His Friend is different. There is a marriage, children, an extramarital affair (or two), a case of the clap and a case of the crabs, and even an orgy over a period of a few decades. The two main characters "take turns" narrating, so we see the happenings from their appropriate perspectives. Youth, New York City, aspirations and lack thereof, responsibilities, commitment, love. Friendship. Being libertines...
City Boy: My Life in New York During the 1960s and '70s is an autobiography. Frank, direct and unapologetic, without holding much back, it paints a picture of life in New York City, as well as the lives of gay men at the time. An eye-witness of the Stonewall riots, White gives an account of the actual events and those leading up to the riots, and changes following them. Edmund discusses fashions, relationships, literature and writing (including accounts of his own), arts and culture, drugs, sex, emerging artists and everything in between. If you enjoy memoirs, White's other non-fictitious My Lives (2005) and Our Paris: Sketches from Memory (1995) will satisfy your love for sticking your nose into other people's business.
Chaos, a novella about a respected writer, who still operates on the values of the liberated 1970s pursuing sex. White explores the ideas of aging, romance and sex, as part of life in the 21st century. It is compelling, but somewhat chaotic (which obviously works very well for a book with such a title). Jack, the main character, his writing career, love and sex life (with quite a few discomforting details) and the randomness of these things (just like life itself) are all pieces that are interwoven into a wild, maybe a bit bleak, pattern. Also, in Chaos are a few short stories, involving gay men all dealing with/confronting aging in their own ways.
These are few of the published books by Edmund White, this prolific author has written many more. For more information, a complete bibliography and all things Edmund White, please visit his official website.
To me, Edmund White was a wonderful discovery. His characters are realistic: none of them are perfect; they have their good and bad moments. His writing style is simple and easy to read, however that does not go for his characters. His power of observation and way with words draws them in a very honest and vulnerable light. With his memoirs and biographies, he satisfies those who enjoy reading about time periods/people's lives in those periods. For me, it was New York, the historical accounts of this ever-changing city and the lives of its people, gay or straight. This is one author whose books I will be coming back to for sure.