Happy Birthday Edmund White!

Posted on January 13, 2010
Filed Under Happy Birthday! | 381 Comments

Edmund WhiteToday is the birthday of Edmund White.  It’s a good time to reflect on the courage of one of America’s great writers.  Courage is not a word often used when describing today’s American writers, but Mr. White is different.  We learned from his recently published memoir, that the sixties were a time of tremendous struggle for him.  In this day of yuppie writers, it’s almost impossible to imagine a writer struggling so long to be published.

Edmund White’s great breakthrough was, of course, A Boy’s Own Story. It took courage to write A Boy’s Own Story. It was one of the first literary novels to present a gay boy as anything other than sick.  It is a sweet irony that this courageous tome went on to become the first gay-themed New York Times Bestseller.  Many believe A Boy’s Own Story is the Great American Queer Novel.  For me, A Boy’s Own Story —alonedoesn’t quite rise to this level.  But when taken together with its two sequels–Beautiful Room is Empty and Farewell Symphony–this trilogy perfectly represents The Great American Queer Novel–epic in sweep, historical and deeply personal.

If Edmund White had written only these three novels, he would be one of America’s great writers–gay or straight.  But Mr. White didn’t stop here.  He has written several more novels–including some historical fiction.  He has written an award-winning biography of Proust and a highly entertaining biography of Rimbaud.

One of my favorite Edmund White books is his memoir, My Lives. Rather than presenting a chronological history of his life, Mr. White made the interesting decision to divide the book into different “Lives.”   The two chapters that deal the most frankly with sexuality are:  “My Hustlers” and “My Master.”  Mr. White appears to have no interest in justifying his behavior.  He is neither an apologist nor a propagandist.  The writing is matter of fact, fascinating–occasionally humorous.  Mr. White could have easily omitted these chapters from the book.  After all, how many Princeton professors write about this sort of thing?  But Mr. White once again made the courageous choice.

While we’re on the subject of courage, I should mention Mr. White’s recent play, Terre Haute. There are a lot of reasons great American novelists rarely try their hand at playwriting.  For one thing, their record as a whole hasn’t been too good.  Henry James’s one and only play was a notorious flop.  Hemingway’s one and only play never got off the ground.  And F. Scott Fitzgerald’s one and only play bombed in a “Broadway Bound” Atlantic City try-out.  Plus, it can be painful.  It’s tough submiting your writing to a producer and a director, actors and finally an audience who may or may not get it.

I didn’t get a chance to see Mr. White’s play when it was produced in New York, but I did recently read it.  And I was struck by two things.  First, the quality of the dialogue.  And second, the humor.  As you probably know, the play is a series of conversations between a man who seems a lot like Timothy McVeigh and a writer who seems a lot like Gore Vidal.  Mr. White gives the Gore Vidal stand-in a Yale education and he even has him quoting Norman Mailer(!) but the similarities with Gore Vidal are obvious.  This character also gets all the good lines.  Like his response when asked if he slept well:  “I always sleep well.  I leave nothing to chance.  I’ve taken a ten-milligram valium every night of my life.”

It’s nice to see one of America’s great writers taking a stab at playwriting.  And succeeding.  I hope he will continue to write plays.  I understand he is working on a sequel to City Boy.  Will he also be writing some more fiction?  Or perhaps another quality biography?  Whatever his next project, I’m sure it will be courageous.

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