March 10, 2004: Features

Edmund White

Edmund White’s own story
New book is departure for Princeton professor

By Merrell Noden ’78


It’s hard to imagine what it would take to shock Edmund White. In 30 years of chronicling gay life in America, from the first giddy years of post-Stonewall emancipation in the early 1970s through the horrifying on-slaught of AIDS a decade later, he has written honestly, lyrically, and often graphically about all aspects of gay culture, from the photography by his controversial friend Robert Mapplethorpe to sex acts of every stripe.

Yet even White seemed to be caught off guard by the news he received in mid-December. “I’ve been exchanging furious e-mails with my cousin in Alabama about Cousin Strom,” he says. And no wonder, since “Cousin Strom” is none other than Strom Thurmond, the late U.S. senator from South Carolina and a man who could not be farther from White on the cultural spectrum. Thurmond was a first cousin of White’s grandfather, though he and White never met. “If you’re talking about the hypocrisy of race,” White says, “here’s one of the most famous racists in America, who had a black daughter whom he supported. . . . This is typical of this kind of American hypocrisy.”

The hypocrisy of American racism is one of the themes of his witty new novel, Fanny: A Fiction, which White presents as the final manuscript of Mrs. Trollope, the real-life 19th-century English writer. In it, she recounts the life of her friend, the radical utopian reformer Fanny Wright. Published during a hectic fall in which he also took over as chairman of the University’s creative writing department, Fanny is a departure for White in every way. Not only has he always written about overtly gay themes in the past, he never had written a historical novel nor one that required research beyond plumbing his own memory.

White discusses the book in a courtly voice that sounds vaguely southern, though he was born in Cincinnati, raised in Evanston, Ill., and schooled at the University of Michigan. Much of the past 20 years he lived in Europe, mostly in Paris. Since 1995 he has lived with his partner Michael Carroll, a writer; despite this relationship White has strongly mixed feelings on the subject of gay marriage. In part, he agrees with those who dismiss it as buying into “straight” culture, but the old Stonewall rebel in him relishes a fight.

“I’m for it because it seems to me it’s aroused so much resistance that it’s a battle worth fighting,” says White, who now lives in Manhattan. “Domestic partnership or civil union has passed in every country in the European Union, and in Japan and Canada. Why not in America? Because we are the only one that’s really Christian. It seems to me that the single biggest enemy to homosexuality is Christianity. I’ve just reviewed a brilliant book called Homosexuality and Civilization . . . which shows that in classical times homosexuality and heterosexuality were absolutely coequal. Then, starting with Emperor Constantine’s conversion, these ghastly laws come in that require that people who are caught at sodomy should have their testicles cut off. I hate it when gays try to accommodate Christianity and create their own gay group within the Catholic church or the Mormon church. Any self-respecting gay should be an atheist. And so I think it’s a battle worth fighting, not because I want to live behind a white picket fence and be faithful to a lover and both wear wedding rings – I think that’s stupid. I don’t like that for myself, but I think it’s a battle worth fighting.”

For White, 64, as for many gay men of his generation, the battleground was once internal. He wrote his first novel at 15, back in the days when he was still struggling to come to terms with his sexuality. The Tower Window explored his conflicted feelings following a rare heterosexual date; neither it nor its four successors was published.

It was only when White began to filter his own experiences into novels he calls “autofiction” that his writing took off. One of them, A Boy’s Own Story (1982), is commonly regarded as a classic of not just gay literature, but all modern literature, and has just been republished in a Modern Library edition. In all, White has published 19 books, including Genet: A Biography (1993), his landmark biography of the gay French criminal and writer Jean Genet, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award.

“The autobiographical novels, although no one ever believed it, really were as much fiction as autobiography,” he says. “The boy in the stories is much more timid [than I was] because I thought people would identify with that more. That was more representative of what gay life was really like. I was a total weirdo because I was very precocious sexually and I was the aggressor before I was 16.” His biographer, Stephen Barber, has described White as “a writer about sex,” which, though somewhat true, is a gross oversimplification.

Arriving in New York in the summer of 1962, White was well positioned to chronicle the sad trajectory of gay liberation. He was at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village on June 27, 1969, when the New York police rousted a group of gay revelers and the revelers fought back, marking the start of the gay-rights movement. He was the first president of Gay Men’s Health Crisis, an organization devoted to AIDS education, and also scored a long succession of literary firsts: The Joy of Gay Sex (1977), the first men’s guide to the gay lifestyle; the first gay travel book, States of Desire (1980); and the first gay coming-out novel, A Boy’s Own Story. In the estimation of David Rosen, founder and editor-in-chief of InsightOut Books, a gay book club with more than 40,000 members, “White’s rich and varied body of writings is simply unmatched in the history of gay letters. His books are core and must-have bestsellers.”

White does not utter the usual pieties about wanting to write for a general audience, though Fanny surely will broaden his readership: “I would be untrue to my real feelings if I were to say, ‘Oh, I’m a writer for everyone and not a gay writer.’ Truth is, I really take seriously my minority status. That was especially true during the AIDS crisis. It felt to me that the thing about AIDS was that it isolated people who had it or whose brothers or lovers had it. You felt extremely alone with this problem, especially during the mid- to late-’80s. There was no hope for a cure, everybody was dying, and there wasn’t a really good discourse going on. So as a writer I found that for my own mental health I wanted to write to other gay people.”

White himself was diagnosed as HIV-positive in 1985. But after the initial panic, he discovered that he is one of the lucky 5 percent of the infected population classed as “nonprogressors,” which, he explains, “means somebody who doesn’t get worse but stays the same. I’ve never taken any medication. I have a test every three months, just to see where the T-cells are. They waver. Every now and then they dip down into the danger zone, but then they come back up.” One theory is that HIV does kill immune cells in nonprogressors, but so slowly that their bodies make new immune cells fast enough that the immune system does not become compromised. “Who knows,” White says. “It may be that after 20 years of it, I’ll die. I never think about it.” Of course, many of his friends and lovers were in the other 95 percent and – in the days before combination therapy, in which three antiviral drugs are used in combination – doomed. White has compared himself to a solitary musician “still squeaking away on my violin” after everyone else has vanished from the stage; his 1997 book, The Farewell Symphony, about a gay man who has outlived his friends, is named after a work by Haydn, in which the instrumentalists leave the stage, one by one, until only a single violinist remains.

He became interested in Frances Wright of Fanny in the ’60s, while working at his first job, as a staff writer at Time-Life Books. “We never had enough work,” says White, “and to kill time I would sit around and read the Dictionary of American Biography. There were three or four pages on Fanny Wright, and I thought she sounded fascinating: She was an abolitionist and what today we would call a radical feminist. She was opposed to marriage and wanted to dissolve all marriages when people arrived at Nashoba [the utopian community she founded in Tennessee]. For years, I thought I wanted to write about her but I didn’t want to write about her in her own voice because she’s such a ghastly writer, not at all idiomatic, and rather pompous and humorless. That’s where Mrs. Trollope came in.”

White’s most wondrous achievement in Fanny may be Mrs. Trollope’s voice, which is by turns gossipy, exasperated, weary and ultimately, as she recounts her hidden love for the former slave Jupiter Higgins, profoundly sad. White had no idea that this theme would find its reflection in Cousin Strom’s love life. Apart from the delicious fun he has with these two fascinating women — and the amazing gallery of people they met, including Thomas Jefferson, General Lafayette, and Robert Browning — he raises questions about racism, American idealism, and the hunger for art.

White’s next book, due out this summer, is a collection of essays called Arts and Letters, and he is currently working on an autobiography, though not of the sort his friend the poet James Merrill called “me-moirs.” “It’s not me-me-me so much,” White says. “It’s organized by topics, so there’ll be a chapter on my shrinks, on my jobs, on my mother, on my efforts to go straight, and so on. But the characters are different and more in focus [than in the autofiction].”

nother ongoing task is figuring out how to improve one of the strongest undergraduate writing programs in the country, including, as it does, Nobelist Toni Morrison; Yusef Komunyakaa, Paul Muldoon, C. K. Williams, and John McPhee ’53, all of whom have won Pulitzer Prizes; and protean author Joyce Carol Oates, to whom he has dedicated Fanny. “The other day [the novelist] David Leavitt said to me that if we were to start a graduate writing program, we would instantly be the best in the country,” says White. “Not that we have any plans to do so.”

“Our biggest single problem,” he continues, “is that we are all getting a bit older. We need to recruit young faculty members and also to expand the department. We have about 240 students who apply each semester and we can only accept about half of them. If we are lucky, we have gotten the stronger students, but it’s unfair to someone who’s never taken a creative writing course because that’s why they want to take beginning fiction.”

The department’s youth quotient was boosted by the recent hiring of the 38-year-old Korean-American novelist Chang-rae Lee, whose first book, Native Speaker (1995) won the PEN/Hemingway Award and the American Book Award, and was read as a kind of group reading project in towns around the country, including Princeton. “The students love Chang-rae Lee. The fact that he looks so boyish – he looks like he’s 20 – intrigues [the students] and probably reassures them in some ways, makes them feel they’re dealing with a contemporary,” says White, noting that Lee was instrumental in persuading his friend, the Chinese-English novelist Peter Ho Davies, to read on campus in February. Another new face in the department is Glyn Maxwell, who is considered in many circles to be the best young English poet.

Finding new faculty becomes more urgent next spring, when both Oates and Muldoon are scheduled to take leaves of absence. White spent the fall trying to entice his old friend John Edgar Wideman, who is currently at the University of Massachusetts—Amherst and being courted by it and by Brown University, to join Princeton’s program. “Unfortunately,” says White, “Brown is equally strenuous in its courtship.”

Another long-term goal is to add screenwriting to the list of writing courses offered. “We need to do that,” White says emphatically. “Maybe the thing to do is to get adjuncts who are famous and bring them up for a semester or two. If you got a permanent screenwriting person, he might not be in constant contact with the industry. In a way, [screenwriting] is a more industry-related course than other things at 185 Nassau.”

He anticipates some resistance from faculty members who don’t deem screenwriting a serious form. White may have a struggle on his hands, but that is nothing new. He’s been battling all his life. By now, he’s pretty good at it.

Merrell Noden ’78 is a freelance writer in Princeton.



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