The National Book Foundation, presenter of the National Book Awards, announced that it will award Edmund White with the 2019 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters (DCAL). Best known for his portrayals of gay American life in both fiction and nonfiction, White’s body of work spans subject and genre, including a biography of French writer Jean Genet, for which he won the National Book Critics Circle Award; a trilogy of autobiographical novels, A Boy’s Own Story, The Beautiful Room Is Empty, and The Farewell Symphony; pioneering works of nonfiction like The Joy of Gay Sex, the travel memoir States of Desire, and the National Book Critics Circle Award–nominated City Boy; and many other titles. White’s work also includes crucial cultural criticism and activism, particularly around the American AIDS crisis. In 1982, White co-founded (along with Nathan Fain, Larry Kramer, Larry Mass, Paul Popham, and Paul Rapoport) the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, the world’s first provider of HIV/AIDS care and advocacy. The DCAL will be presented to White by the prominent writer and filmmaker John Waters.
“A master of narrative and craft across fiction, journalism, memoir, and more, White has built a career defined by its indelible impact on many literary forms,” said David Steinberger, Chairman of the Board of Directors of the National Book Foundation. “Whether it’s evocative depiction of gay life during the tumultuous 1980s, painstakingly researched biography, or elegant memoir, White’s work stands out across decades as singular in its resonance and significance for a multitude of devoted readers.”
Born in Cincinnati in 1940, White has penned nearly thirty books, beginning with the 1973 novel Forgetting Elena and continuing with the publication of the 2018 memoir The Unpunished Vice and the forthcoming 2020 novel, A Saint From Texas. In addition to his published books, White’s journalism, cultural criticism, and political activism have made him a widely acclaimed chronicler of gay American life and culture through the ages, earning him various awards and accolades, including the 2018 PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Career Achievement in American Fiction, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the Award for Literature from the National Academy of Arts and Letters.
“Most writers don’t set out to break barriers or trailblaze, but rather to share their unique perspectives and stories on the page,” said Lisa Lucas, Executive Director of the National Book Foundation. “It’s only when you’re able to look back at a body of work that one is able to see a career like Edmund White’s for what it is: revolutionary and vital, making legible for scores of readers the people, moments, and history that would come to define not only queer lives, but also the broader trajectory of American culture.”
In addition to more than a dozen works of fiction, White is the author of fifteen other titles, including works of nonfiction and memoir that laid the groundwork for generations of LGBTQ artists and writers. White’s candid approach to writing about the lives of gay men—including his own experiences—today serve as valuable and moving documentation of the joy, devastation, and victories that defined queer life through the decades. Beyond his remarkable body of written work, White has worked as a staff writer at Time-Life Books, senior editor of The Saturday Review, and associate editor of Horizon.
White is the thirty-second recipient of the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, which was created in 1988 to recognize a lifetime of literary achievement. Previous recipients include Isabel Allende, Annie Proulx, Robert A. Caro, John Ashbery, Judy Blume, Don DeLillo, Joan Didion, E.L. Doctorow, Maxine Hong Kingston, Stephen King, Ursula K. Le Guin, Elmore Leonard, Norman Mailer, Toni Morrison, and Adrienne Rich. Nominations for the DCAL medal are made by former National Book Award Winners, Finalists, judges, and other writers and literary professionals from around the country. The final selection is made by the National Book Foundation’s Board of Directors. Recipients of the Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters receive $10,000 and a solid brass medal.
You can find the full Associated Press announcement here.
Edmund White was born on January 13, 1940, in Cincinnati, Ohio. When White was seven his parents divorced, and he went with his mother and sister to live on the outskirts of Chicago. Summers were spent with his father in Cincinnati or Michigan. Both his parents and all his relatives were Texans, and as a child he often visited Texas aunts, cousins, and grandparents and lived one year in Dallas.
White attended Cranbrook Academy, majored in Chinese at the University of Michigan, and then moved to New York City where he worked for Time-Life Books from 1962 until 1970. After a year’s sojourn in Rome, White returned to the US, where he served as an editor at The Saturday Review and Horizon. Beginning in the late 1970s, he and six other gay New York writers—Christopher Cox, Robert Ferro, Michael Grumley, Andrew Holleran, Felice Picano, and George Whitmore—formed a casual club known as the Violet Quill. Meeting in one another’s apartments, they would read and critique one another’s work, then move on to high tea. Together they represented a flowering of the kind of gay writing White as a teenager in the Midwest had longed to discover.
In 1982, White co-founded (along with Nathan Fain, Larry Kramer, Larry Mass, Paul Popham, and Paul Rapoport), the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, the world’s first provider of HIV/AIDS care and advocacy. White was the first president. In 1983, White moved to France; when he returned to teach at Princeton in 1998 it was to a literary landscape devastated by AIDS. Four members of the Violet Quill—Cox, Ferro, Grumley, and Whitmore—had died, as well as numerous other promising young writers such as Tim Dlugos and John Fox, White’s student. White’s two closest friends, the critic David Kalstone and his editor Bill Whitehead, were also dead from the disease. White wrote, “For me, these losses were definitive. The witnesses to my life, the people who had shared the same references and sense of humor, were gone. The loss of all the books they might have written remains incalculable.”
White has written thirteen works of fiction, including his amalgamation of Heian Japan in The Tale of Genji and contemporary life on Fire Island, Forgetting Elena (1973), Nocturnes for the King of Naples (1978), and an autobiographical trilogy, A Boy’s Own Story (1982), The Beautiful Room Is Empty (1988), and The Farewell Symphony (1997). In 2000, he published The Married Man, about life in France and the US with a lover dying of AIDS. In Jack Holmes and his Friend (2012), he took up the subject of a lifelong friendship between a straight man and a gay man. In Hotel de Dream (2007), which White considers his best book, he looks at gay life in New York in the late 19th century.
White is not only known as a novelist whose work has been widely praised by such writers as Vladimir Nabokov and Susan Sontag, he is also an influential cultural critic. Urbane, knowing, and sophisticated, he has chronicled gay life in the seventies through the nineties with wit, insight, and compassion. His travelogue States of Desire: Travels in Gay America (1980) remains a classic if insouciant (and now poignant) look at gay life at a particular cultural moment just before the onslaught of AIDS (it was recently re-issued with a new forward and postface). His pioneering book, The Joy of Gay Sex: An Intimate Guide for Gay Men to the Pleasures of a Gay Life (1977), written with Dr. Charles Silverstein, introduced millions, gay and straight and curious alike, to a brave new world of sexual practices and lifestyle.
As a biographer, Edmund White has written a monumental biography of the French novelist and playwright Jean Genet (Genet, 1993) and short biographies of Marcel Proust (Marcel Proust: A Life, 1998) and the poet Arthur Rimbaud (Rimbaud: The Double Life of a Rebel, 2008). White’s other nonfiction includes City Boy (2009); The Flâneur (2000); Inside a Pearl (2014), about his years in Paris; and The Unpunished Vice (2018), about his life as a reader; among other memoirs. He is also a playwright. His first play, The Blue Boy in Black, was staged in 1963 and starred Cicely Tyson. His most recent play, Terre Haute (2006), was about Timothy McVeigh and Gore Vidal, and was presented at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, in Ireland, and in the UK and US. He is currently writing a new play, Both Ways. Cumulatively, White’s simultaneous presence within so many different genres began to define—in the late 1970s and early 1980s—the parameters of “gay culture.”
Edmund White and his work remain central to any consideration of gay male life in late 20th-century America. He was named the 2018 winner of the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction, and his forthcoming novel, A Saint From Texas, will be published in August 2020. White lives in New York with his husband, the writer Michael Carroll.
John Waters is the author of nine books, including Shock Value; Crackpot; Pink Flamingos and Other Trash; Hairspray, Female Trouble and Multiple Maniacs; Art: A Sex Book (co-written with Bruce Hainley); Role Models; and Carsick. The gift book, Make Trouble, published by Algonquin Books in 2017, features the text, with illustrations, of Waters’ commencement speech delivered at the 2015 Rhode Island School of Design graduation ceremony and was subsequently released as an audio album in 7” single format by Third Man Records. Mr. Know-It-All: The Tarnished Wisdom of a Filth Elder, was published in May 2019.
Waters is a photographer whose work has been shown in galleries all over the world and the director of sixteen movies, including Pink Flamingos, Polyester, Hairspray, Cry Baby, Serial Mom, and A Dirty Shame. John Waters is a member of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. Additionally, he is a past member of the boards of The Andy Warhol Foundation and Printed Matter, a former member of the Wexner Center International Arts Advisory Council, and was selected as a juror for the 2011 Venice Biennale. In 2017, Waters was honored when his “Study Art” series was selected to be featured at the Biennale in Venice. Mr. Waters also serves on the Board of Directors for the Maryland Film Festival and has been a key participant in the Provincetown International Film Festival since it began in 1999, the same year Waters was honored as the first recipient of PIFF’s “Filmmaker on the Edge” award. In September 2014, Film Society of Lincoln Center honored John Waters’ fifty years in filmmaking with a 10-day celebration entitled “Fifty Years of John Waters: How Much Can You Take?” featuring a complete retrospective of his film work.
In the fall of 2015, the British Film Institute honored Waters’ fifty-year contribution to cinema with their own program called “The Complete Films of John Waters… Every Goddam One of Them.” The French Minister of Culture bestowed the rank of Officer in the Order of Arts and Letters to Mr. Waters in 2015. In May 2016, Waters was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts from the Maryland Institute College of Arts. In February 2017, John Waters was honored with the Writers Guild of America, East’s Ian McLellan Hunter Award honoring his body of work as a writer in motion pictures. “Indecent Exposure”, a retrospective of Waters’ art was exhibited at the Baltimore Museum of Art from October 2018, to January 2019, and on view at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, OH from February 2 to April 28, 2019.
Edmund White, photo credit: Andrew Fladeboe