Edmund White

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Edmund White

Edmund White (born January 13, 1940) is an American novelist, memoirist, and an essayist on literary and social topics. Much of his writing is on the theme of same-sex love. Probably his best-known books are The Joy of Gay Sex (1977) (written with Charles Silverstein) and his trio of autobiographic novels, A Boy's Own Story (1982), The Beautiful Room Is Empty (1988) and The Farewell Symphony (1997).



States of Desire: Travels in Gay America (1980)

[Dutton, ISBN 0-525-48223-7]
  • I am, I must confess, suspicious of those who denounce others for having "too much" sex. At what point does a "healthy" amount become "too much"? There are, of course, those who suffer because their desire for sex has become compulsive; in their cases the drive (loneliness, guilt) is at fault, not the activity as such.
    • San Francisco (p. 37).
  • He's scattered, his sentences trail off, he sighs frequently, as though he's so intelligent he's always frustrated by the formulaic nature of speech (each sentence a ride you can't get off once the attendant buckles you into the car).
    • Portland and Seattle (p. 80).
  • Perhaps we'd understood each other too well to be attracted to one another. There were no occlusions in communication, those breaks in understanding that awaken desire.
    • Texas (p. 128).
  • In return for the costliness and inconvenience, the squalor and discomfort of our lives, we get to participate in whatever is the latest. We are never left out of anything: we know what's happening, especially since so many of us practice what Paul Valéry called the "delirious professions." As Valéry wrote, "This is the name I give to all those trades whose main tool is one's opinion of oneself, and whose raw material is the opinion others have of you." Although Valéry was writing eighty years ago of Paris, he anticipated the excruciating position of those gay (and straight) New York "creative people" who must be perpetually original in a "population of uniques." The cruel contradiction of such a position is that the creative "live for nothing but to have, and make durable, the illusion of being the only one — for superiority is only a solitude situated at the present limits of a species." The exigencies of the drive to originality can, as Valéry understood, promote a deep uncertainty about one's personal value. If one is a product, is it new enough? Perfect? One of a kind?
    • New York City (p. 259).
  • Being up on something is a way of dismissing it. To espouse any point of view is a danger — it might leave us stuck with last year's cause. Prized for their novelty alone, ideas, gimmicks, trends become equivalent, interchangeable.
    • New York City (p. 260).
  • Sometimes I look at the battered exteriors of apartment buildings in New York and think how these sorry shells have housed such a long procession of styles. The money! The effort! One tenant mirrors everything, the next panels the walls, the third lines them with mylar, the fourth turns to toile de Jouy, the fifth to pegboard or handblocked rice paper. The expensive if often shoddy interiors installed only to be dismantled, the exterior left untouched as it turns yet another shade sootier — this transience seems a fitting emblem for the way we stay up-to-date without ever changing.
    • New York City (p. 260).
  • Yes, sex may be at least in part inflected by politics, our fantasies may be at least in part a compendium of cultural myths, but the ways in which sex and fantasy ripen within the individual seem to me to vary so greatly that summaries become useless, even dangerous.

    But if I were to venture my own generalizations, I would say that with the collapse of other social values (those of religion, patriotism, the family and so on), sex has been forced to take up the slack, to become our sole mode of transcendence and our only touchstone of authenticity. The cry for scorching, multiple orgasms, the drive toward impeccable and virtuoso performance, the belief that only in complete sexual compatibility lies true intimacy, the insistence that sex is the only mode for experiencing thrills, for achieving love, for assessing and demonstrating personal worth — all these projects are absurd.

    • New York City (p. 282).
  • Do we regard language as more public, more ceremonial, than thought? Just as family men condemn the profanity on the stage that they use constantly in conversation, in the same way we may look to written language as an idealization rather than a reflection of ourselves.
    • New York City (p. 284).

A Boy's Own Story (1982)

[Dutton, ISBN 0-525-24128-0]
  • All his leisure clothes were absurd — jokes, really — as though leisure itself had to be ridiculed.
    • Chapter One (p. 3).
  • Characters — conventional women with minor eccentricities — flourished in our world, as Mrs. Cork had no doubt observed. But she'd failed to notice that the characters were all old, rich and pedigreed. Newcomers, especially those of moderate means, were expected to form an attractive but featureless chorus behind our few madcap divas.
    • Chapter One (p. 14).
  • We lived one year in a suburb so new it was still being built in fields of red clay: a neat grid of streets named after songbirds was being dropped like a lattice of dough over a pie. Up and down Robin and Tanager and Bluebird I raced my bike; in a storm I pedaled so fast I hoped to catch up with the wind-driven rain. As I sped into the riddling wet warmth I shook my right hand according to a magical formula of my own. The universe, signaled by its master, groaned, revolved, released a flash of lightning. At last the imagination, like a mold on an orange, was covering the globe of my mind.
    • Chapter Three (p. 81).
  • In our imaginations the adults of our childhood remain extreme, essential — we might say radical since they are the roots that fed luxuriant later systems. Those first bohemians, for instance, stay operatic in memory even though were we to meet them today — well, what would we think, we who've elaborated our eccentricities with a patience, a professionalism they never knew?
    • Chapter Four (p. 92).
  • The notion that I might have been able to court friends, win attention, conjure it, would have spoiled it for me. Unbidden love was what I wanted.
    • Chapter Five (p. 110).
  • Perhaps I became so vague, so exhilarated with vagueness, precisely in order to forestall a recognition of the final term of the syllogism that begins: If one man loves another he is a homosexual; I love a man...
    • Chapter Five (p. 118).
  • Tommy started to play the guitar and sing. He and I had trekked more than once downtown to the Folk Center to hear a barefoot hillbilly woman in a long, faded skirt intone Elizabethan songs and pluck at a dulcimer or to listen, frightened and transported, to a big black Lesbian with a crew cut moan her way through the blues. The People — those brawny, smiling farmers, those plump, wholesome teens bursting out of bib overalls, those toothless ex-cons, those white-eyed dust bowel victims — the People, half-glimpsed in old photos, films and WPA murals, were about to reemerge, we trusted, into history and our lives.
    • Chapter Five (p. 120).
  • The school was nothing but reminiscence — of an Italian hill town, a French abbey, an English academy, the different sources improbably but convincingly melded into a fantasy about the classic sites of Europe as imagined by exiles from cold peripheral lands, nostalgia about somebody else's past.
    • Chapter Six (p. 145).
  • Imprisoned under all our layers of long underwear, thick socks, shirts, vests, jackets, coats and hoods were these tropical bodies; the steam and hot water brought color back into the pallor, found the nacreous hollow in a hip, detected the subtly raised triceps, rinsed a sharp clavicle in a softening flood, swirled dull brown hair into a smooth black cap and pulled evening gloves of light over raw hands and skinny, blue-veined forearms.

    Just as each shell held to the ears roars with a different ocean timbre, each of these bodies spoke to me with a different music, though all sounded to me unlike my own and only with the greatest effort could I remember I was longing after my own sex. Indeed, each of these beings seemed to possess his very own sex.

    • Chapter Six (p. 153).
  • Recognizing that the world is governed by a minority, the sexually active, and that they hold sway of a huge majority of the nonsexual, those people too young or too old or too poor or too homely or sick or crazy or powerless to be able to afford sexual partners (or the luxury of systematic, sustained and shared introspection, so sexual in its own way). All advertisements and films and songs are addressed to sexuals, to their rash whims and finicky tastes.
    • Chapter Six (p. 167).
  • How thrilling to discover one had depths, how consoling to find them less polluted than the shallows, how encouraging to identify the enemy not as a fissure in the will but as a dead fetus in the specimen jar of the unconscious. My attention was being paternally led away from the excruciating present to the happy, healthy future that would be enabled by an analysis of the sick past, as though the priest had nothing to do but study old books and make bright forecasts, the present not worthy of notice.
    • Chapter Six (p. 170).
  • I appreciated the sense of drama he wanted to inject into my existence and I was flattered that he thought I, or at least some essential if somewhat abstract principle within me, was worth saving.

    I also felt surging within me a fierce need to be independent. Of course I responded to the appeal of divine hydraulics, this system of souls damned or crowned or destroyed or held in suspense, these pulleys and platforms sinking and lifting on the great stage, and I recognized that my view of things seemed by contrast impoverished, lacking in degree and incident. But the charming intricacy of a myth is not sufficient to compel belief. I found no good reason to assume that the ultimate nature of reality happened to resemble the backstage of an opera house.

    • Chapter Six (p. 203).

Articles and Interviews

  • There is an enormous pressure placed on gay novelists because they are the only spokespeople. The novelist's first obligation is to be true to his own vision, not to be some sort of common denominator or public relations man to all gay people.
    • Quoted by William Goldstein, "Edmund White," Publishers Weekly, (24 September 1982)
  • For gay men this force of history has been made to come clean; it’s been stripped of its natural look. The very rapidity of change has laid bare the clanking machinery of history. To have been oppressed in the 1950s, freed in the 1960s, exalted in the 1970s and wiped out in the 1980s is a quick itinerary for a whole culture to follow. For we are witnessing not just the death of individuals but a menace to an entire culture. All the more reason to bear witness to the cultural moment.
    • Esthetics and Loss, Artforum (1987), printed in in The Burning Library: Writings on Art, Literature and Sexuality 1969-1993, (Picador, London, 1995)
  • I still feel that sincerity and realism are avant-garde, or can be, just as I did when I started out.
    • Self-interview, Dalkey Archive Press [1] (1994)
  • Biography can be the most middle-class of all forms, the judgment of little people avenging themselves on the great. One English critic took me to task for not saying that Genet was "afraid of intimacy" all his life because he'd been abandoned by his mother at the age of seven months. All the evidence needed to make such an interpretation is in my book, but I don't myself draw the vulgar conclusion. Since most literary biographies ignore the work except for potted plot summaries, they strip the biographee of everything redeeming and leave his or her subject to this spiteful revenge, this half-baked Freudian-Christian-bourgeois moralizing.
    • Self-interview, Dalkey Archive Press (1994).
  • It seemed strange to me that someone who painted big, scary abstractions should have been so commonsensical in her literary tastes, though later I would discover that twelve-tone composers read Keats just as experimental poets listened to Glenn Miller — few people are avant-garde outside their own domain.

    I suppose that as Midwesterners, the children of chemical engineers and homemakers, we experienced the arts as so foreign, even so preposterously unreasonable, that once we’d decided to embrace them we did so with lots of conviction and little discrimination. Surely it was no accident that T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, the two great poetic synthesists of our day, the very men who had ransacked all of world culture and could refer in the same poem to the Buddha and to Sophocles or to Confucius and to Jefferson — it was no accident that they were both from the heartland. Public-library intellectuals, magpies of knowledge, like most autodidacts we were incapable of evaluating our sources. As a teen-ager, I tried to write verse like Milton’s; later, I wanted to write novels like Nabokov’s. In a novel I wrote in college, I imitated Evelyn Waugh. If someone had said to me, "But do you, the graceless son of a Cincinnati broker of chemical equipment, do you seriously imagine that you can just write a Renaissance Christian epic or something in the style of a Cambridge-educated Russian aristocrat or of the spokesman of the Bright Young Things of London circa 1925?" — if someone had spoken like this to me, I wouldn’t even have understood his point.

    • My Women.The New Yorker [2] 6 June 2005
  • He and Marilyn were lovers, but this was never said in so many words. Explicitness about one’s romantic arrangements had apparently been deemed gauche. In my middle-class teen-age world, the whole apparatus of going steady, exchanging ID bracelets, smooching at dances, fighting, breaking up, submitting to the arbitration of friends — that was the point, the public drama.
    • My Women, The New Yorker, 6 June 2005

Quotes about Edmund White

  • I got a lot of encouragement there from John Barth...and Edmund White, whom I adored—a man of tender intelligence, and a daring writer.
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