When Edmund White writes about the work of a contemporary author, he often finds a way to include an anecdote that shows that he has some personal connection, some social or even sexual history, with the writer in question. “I first met Chatwin in 1978 in New York,” he writes, not untypically, at the beginning of a 1997 essay about Bruce Chatwin for the Times Literary Supplement. “Maybe it was the excitement of druggy, sexy New York before AIDS or of the Mapplethorpe connection, but we were still standing seconds after he’d come into my apartment when we started fooling around with each other.”
Not all of White’s encounters with literary eminences were as steamy as that one—although his latest autobiography, City Boy, rattles off a Don Giovanni–esque list that includes John Ashbery, Robert Wilson, and the playwright Mart Crowley. But the precise nature of the relationship in question isn’t really the point. The point, which is made again and again in Arts and Letters, the 2004 volume in which the Chatwin essay was collected along with nearly forty other articles, lectures, and occasional pieces, is simply that White was there—was part of the scene to which these eminences belonged. What’s most pressingly at stake for him, in writing ostensibly about arts and letters, is the artists and the lettrés, the social and personal aspect of literary production.
White was born in 1940 in Ohio and his family moved to Evanston, Illinois in 1947. Growing up gay in the 1950s furnished him with the material for the most affecting and effective of his several autobiographical novels, A Boy’s Own Story (1982)—and it occurs to you, at first, that a lingering consciousness of having been a wide-eyed Midwestern immigrant to New York City persists in the way that he repeatedly spotlights the moment when he first made contact with this or that famous writer or musician or artist (even after he himself had become an éminence, as the increasingly impressive settings of these encounters suggest). “When I met Rorem in the 1970s I had been awed in advance by his legend,” he recalls in Arts and Letters; “I first met [Foucault] in 1980 in New York when I was a fellow of the New York Institute for the Humanities”; “I first met Grace Paley in Paris, where I was living for many years and where she’d come to a giant feminist powwow.”
To his credit, White—whose penchant for drawing his readers’ attention to the self-deprecating or even embarrassing autobiographical detail has something almost aggressive about it—is willing to admit that he wasn’t necessarily as memorable to his subjects as they so clearly were to him. “I was introduced to him at least ten times,” he writes at the beginning of an appreciation of Edwin Denby, “though he never remembered…
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