Edmund White is America’s preeminent gay writer. In biography, social history, travel writing, journalism, the short story, and the novel, this prolific and versatile author has chronicled the gay experience in the United States from the closeted 1950s through the AIDS crisis and beyond. But as William Goldstein wrote in Publishers Weekly, “To call Edmund White merely a gay writer is to oversimplify his work and his intentions.” The acuity, insight, and compassion with which White explores the human condition transcends labels.
Edmund White’s first novel, Forgetting Elena, published in 1973, is the story of an amnesia victim, set at a stylish resort reminiscent of Fire Island.
“[Forgetting Elena] is a semiology of snobbery, its complete sign system. 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…He has produced a parable about the nature of social interaction that transcends any given period and applies to the human predicament at large.”
With the classic coming-of-age tale A Boy’s Own Story, White cemented a place for himself—and for gay fiction—in the cultural consciousness. Comparing White to James Baldwin, Herman Wouk, and Mary McCarthy, Thomas M. Disch wrote in The Washington Post Book World that the novel “represents the strongest bid to date by a gay writer to do for his minority experience what the writers above did for theirs—offer it as a representative, all-American instance.”
White’s celebrated fiction also includes Nocturnes for the King of Naples, Caracole, The Beautiful Room is Empty, The Farewell Symphony, The Married Man, Fanny: A Fiction, and Hotel de Dream, which fills in a critical blank in the life of Stephen Crane, author of The Red Badge of Courage. White’s latest novel, Jack Holmes and His Friend, is about a gay man, a straight man, and their friendship in New York from the 1960s through the 1990s.
White has been involved in the gay rights movement since the Stonewall riot in New York City in 1969 and has acted as one of its canniest observers. His pioneering The Joy of Gay Sex: An Intimate Guide for Gay Men to the Pleasures of a Gay Lifestyle was published in 1977 and served as a national coming-out announcement for the entire gay community. White’s travel memoir, States of Desire: Travels in Gay America, published in 1980, explored homosexual life in fifteen major American cities just before the advent of AIDS. City Boy: My Life in New York During the 1960s and 70s, an account of White’s time spent in Manhattan during a time of revolution in the gay subculture, was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award.
White’s work as a cultural critic and his analysis of the impact of AIDS on the gay community and on American society is perhaps his most valuable contribution to letters. In fiction such as The Darker Proof: Stories from a Crisis and Skinned Alive: Stories, The Los Angeles Times Book Review observed that White “conjures….a serious, sustained look at how AIDS measures and shapes the meaning of our existence.”
In addition to his social commentary, White has also made his mark as a highly accomplished biographer. Genet: A Biography is recognized as a definitive work on writer and playwright Jean Genet. The New York Times Book Review contributor Margo Jefferson said that White “presents the life meticulously, reads Genet’s work intelligently and writes beautifully.” Genet won the National Book Critics Circle Award for biography in 1994. More recently, White also authored the well-received Marcel Proust (for the Penguin Lives series) and Rimbaud: The Double Life of a Rebel. His memoir Inside a Pearl: My Years in Paris recounts the 15 years he spent living in Paris—one of the most productive and creative phases in his career.
White’s 2016 novel Our Young Man follows a seemingly ageless model through the full spectrum of gay amorous life, from the disco era into the age of AIDS. His newest book is The Unpunished Vice: A Life of Reading, out in June 2018. Part essay, part memoir, The Unpunished Vice remembers White’s life through the words, stories, and poems that have shaped it, laying bare a singular life. A new novel, A Saint in Texas, about twin sisters growing up in the Lone Star State during the 1950s, is slated for release in 2020.
Edmund White received his BA from the University of Michigan. He has taught at Johns Hopkins, Columbia, Brown, Yale, and Princeton, where he was a professor of creative writing until his retirement in 2017. White received the 2018 PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Career Achievement in American Fiction, previously awarded to Phillip Roth, Don DeLillo, Cormac McCarthy, and Toni Morrison.