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White, Edmund (b. 1940)  
 
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One of the most prominent and highly acclaimed figures of contemporary gay literature, Edmund White works in many distinct categories of fiction and nonfiction.

First gaining critical attention for his experimental fiction from such critics as Vladimir Nabokov, White has continued to explore the intersections of art and life. That the lives he treats are often those of gay men is not incidental to his work, yet he is not easily comprehended within the stereotypical bounds of "gay literature."

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His first novel, Forgetting Elena (1973), offers an amnesiac's view of a mysterious place much like Fire Island, with, as Simon Karlinsky observed, "its highly stylized rites, charades, and inbred snobberies."

White cast his next novel, Nocturnes for the King of Naples (1978), in the form of a lament of a young man for his older lover, mixing mythic allusion and baroque description; a tour de force, this novel achieves the "impossible" goal of sustained second-person narrative.

Caracole (1985), though with a stronger narrative thread, occupies a similar fantastical kingdom of desire as two lovers, male and female, find themselves and each other in the social networks of a large city. The novel's nineteenth-century setting fits its elaborate plotting: the rich sensuality of a costume drama becomes the occasion for a morality play.

White also excels as reporter and social critic. Coauthor of the groundbreaking volume The Joy of Gay Sex (1977), White contributed to the sumptuous how-to manual a sense of the social and cultural dimensions of gay male sexuality.

Broadening his focus with States of Desire: Travels in Gay America (1980), White wrote about gay Americans in fifteen major cities, producing a mosaic of gay life in the late 1970s.

These two books made White a de facto gay spokesperson, a role that he has neither refused nor totally accepted. The dilemma of the gay writer, White told William Goldstein in 1982, is that "the novelist's first obligation is to be true to his own vision, not to be some sort of common denominator or public relations man to all gay people."

His 1993 biography of Jean Genet, together with an edition of Genet's work, provides an in-depth look at one particular gay life, one whose experiments in narrative form and literary treatments of gay life influenced White's own work.

Bridging his fantastic imaginative creations and his cannily realistic social observations, White's series of semiautobiographical novels (A Boy's Own Story [1982] and The Beautiful Room Is Empty [1988]) attempts, as White said in a Paris Review interview "to show one gay life in particular depth."

Tracing the quest for self-identity against the expectations of family and friends in A Boy's Own Story, White remarkably mixes the cosmic and the commonplace, as when the unnamed narrator and his friend Kevin explore the outer boundaries of their common masculinity:

When he turned his face my way it was dark, indistinguishable; his back and shoulders were carving up strips of light, carving them this way and that as he twisted and bobbed. The water was dark, opaque, but it caught the sun's gold light, the wavy dragon scales writhing under a sainted knight's halo. At last Kevin swam up beside me; his submerged body looked small, boneless. He said we should go down to the store and buy some Vaseline.

Such grappling with male bodies, both physical and mental, propels A Boy's Own Story onward against the backdrop of Midwestern family life.

The Beautiful Room Is Empty traces the narrator's experiments with desire and romance as he moves through an exclusive prep school, sessions with a psychotherapist, and the Stonewall riots. The narrator's swings between joyful acceptance and critical self-loathing reflect the emerging national gay consciousness.

The events of these novels mirror the shape of White's own early life: growing up in Cincinnati, dealing with a demanding father, attending the exclusive Cranbrook Academy. As an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, White twice won the prestigious Hopwood award, the first of numerous awards for his writing.

He worked for a while at Time-Life Books until his writing brought him teaching jobs at Yale, Columbia, and Johns Hopkins. Since 1983, he has lived in both New York and Paris.

His two autobiographical novels, conceived as part of a tetralogy, are generally acknowledged as White's most successful work. His nonfiction has often been read through a moralistic or sociological lens. States of Desire, for example, was broadly criticized for the promiscuity of its subjects.

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A portrait of Edmund White by Stathis Orphanos.
  
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