Awarded by the National Book Foundation with the 2019 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters
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.