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 me from one time to another.”
But of all the key people White met and of all the significant moments at which he managed to be present (not least, the Stonewall Riots in June 1969, the event that marked the beginning of the contemporary gay movement), none was as important for his life and work as an encounter he had in his early thirties with the scholar and Raritan editor Richard Poirier. In City Boy, White recalls a heated exchange that took place not long after Stonewall between himself and Poirier, one of the quietly gay older literary figures of the time in whose reticence about his sexuality White, half a generation younger, saw a kind of hypocrisy. Like so many ambitious young writers newly arrived in New York, he was desperately trying to acquire some literary recognition; unlike many of those writers, he was unabashedly living an openly gay life in the city, and had begun to wonder why the life he was leading couldn’t be the subject of his writing.
Or indeed, the basis of a whole new kind of writing. During his visit with Poirier, White recalls, the older man was “furious” because White insisted that there was “such a thing as gay fiction, even gay poetry—worse, a gay sensibility!—and that at the very least works by gay people could be read in a special light, to illuminate them.” Poirier recoiled from this idea, arguing that White’s vision would mean isolating gay writers from the mainstream of a larger literature:
“But things do change,” I said confusedly. “There are always new movements in fiction, aren’t there? …Why not have a gay school of fiction? Is there any harm in that? At least it’s exciting and new.”
“Exciting! But it’s a betrayal of every humane idea of literature. Have you never heard of universalism?”
For Poirier and like-minded critics, the “harm” lay in the possibility that, while profoundly gay-themed books such as James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room could, through their artistic merits, attain transcendent, “universal” appeal for all readers, a literature by and for gay people would be diminishing for the writers and, too, for the readers.
But for the young White, the niche represented both an ideological battleground and a career opportunity. The exchange with Poirier is undoubtedly the most important of the many scenes of self-positioning you keep coming across in his work: a scene that places him at the moment when gay lit—the niche genre of which he himself would become the acknowledged leader—was created.
You could say that the author’s career has traced a journey toward this niche. His first couple of novels—Forgetting Elena (1975), a witty experiment with a wildly unreliable narrator, and the plotless but oddly mesmerizing reverie on lost love that is Nocturnes for the King of Naples (1978; it might remind you of Marguerite Yourcenar’s Alexis)—were idiosyncratic and coolly stylish, with a pungent whiff of chloroform that suggests the influence of White’s idol, Nabokov. Forgetting Elena fuses an arch haiku sensibility to a plot involving amnesia, set in a Fire Island–esque colony of excruciatingly status-conscious gay men. It’s interesting to speculate how the young White, who was capable of an impressive elegance and was clearly preoccupied, as well, with interesting formal questions, would have evolved as a novelist.
But with A Boy’s Own Story, although an evocative prettiness remains (“just as each shell held to the ears roars with a different ocean timbre, each of these bodies spoke to me with a different music”) the contours of White’s incipient project came into focus. Which is to say that “life” overtook “art” as his primary concern. With A Boy’s Own Story White began to devote himself to a sometimes almost dogged recording of the quality, nature, and substance of gay life and experience that has been at the center of most of his output ever since, in fiction and essay, in biography and memoir. You feel it in the several thinly disguised autobiographical novels (The Married Man, for instance, with its minute recreation of an illness and death from AIDS) as well as à clef portrayals—not always flattering—of famous friends such as Susan Sontag (Caracole). But it is perhaps most obvious in this author’s penchant for writing biographies only of other gay writers (Proust, Rimbaud, Genet) as well as, of course, for documenting his own life: My Lives (2005), with its detailed descriptions of S&M episodes and unapologetic recollections of rent-boys and, now, City Boy.
The virtues and more numerous flaws of the latest of White’s autobiographies reflect those of its author. There is the talented gossip’s eye for the good story, dragged down by a tendency to dish out payback; a passionate chauvinism on behalf of gay writers and their writing, hobbled by unsound and approximate judgments about a larger literary world; and a carelessness about the privacy of other people for the sake of a good anecdote. These also reflect the strengths and limitations of the relentlessly personal perspective that White advocates.
City Boy is interesting not least because it is a reminiscence about the period when the gay way of life that White sees as so distinctive from straight life had its brief, dazzling apogee: the heady, hedonistic stretch of time between the Stonewall riots, in 1969 (the event that marked the beginning of contemporary gay movement), and the advent, not even fifteen years later, of AIDS, which would cast a dark shadow on the culture of unrestrained sexual play. That this short period coincided with White’s literary advent—the tentative and often unsuccessful beginnings of which he narrates with an amusing lack of vanity—only overdetermines the connection he likes to make between life and art. His literary rise precisely followed the rise of modern gay publishing.
There’s a point in City Boy when White (who teaches at Princeton) offers some professorial thoughts about the qualities of good fiction, which, he says, “depends on telling details and an exact and lifelike sequencing of emotions, and on representative if not slavishly mimetic dialogue, and on convincing actions….” The best passages in the new memoir (whose arc reminds you at times of Lost Illusions, a novel that White mentions) have those qualities. Predictably, he is at his best when reminiscing about the gay sexual culture of the Sixties and Seventies in New York City, with its elaborate codes of conduct and erotic ceremonials as rigid as the Japanese court protocols that first fascinated him years ago. Here he is on the preparations for a typical night out during his Greenwich Village days:
I’d clean my apartment carefully, change the sheets and towels, put a hand towel under the pillow (the “trick towel” for mopping up the come) along with the tube of lubricant (usually water-soluble K-Y). You might even “douche out”—sometimes, if you were a real “senior girl,” with a stainless-steel insertable nozzle attached to the shower. You’d buy eggs and bacon and jam and bread for toast, if you wanted to prove the next morning that you were “marriage material.” You’d place an ashtray, cigarettes, and a lighter on the bedside table. You’d lower the lights and stack the record player with suitable mood music (Peggy Lee, not the Stones) before you headed out on the prowl. All this to prove you were “civilized,” not just one more voracious two-bit whore. Once you’d landed a man, there was no way to know what he liked to do in bed.
What makes the passage work so well is the deliberately sharp and unexpected contrast, which snaps into place with the last sentence, between the meticulous, even obsessive preparations, which attempt to anticipate every contingency from raw sex to an affectionate sleepover to “marriage,” and the elusive unknowability of the trick himself.
White can be as shrewdly observant of others as he is of his younger self. Many readers of City Boy are likely to savor the miniatures he paints of the famous writer friends whom White acquired (and not infrequently lost) on his way up the literary ladder—Sontag, of course, but also Ashbery (“a hapless, amusing presence”), James Merrill (about whose work habits White relates an amusing anecdote), and his early mentor Richard Howard, one of the many more established figures to whom he attached himself and who tried to give him advice and help.1 White prefers to dilate on the quirky detail, the mannerism of speech or gesture or appearance (he goes on about Howard’s shiny bald pate, a fashion not nearly as common in the 1960s as now). The occasional detours into discussions of these writers’ work, as opposed to their private lives, feel obligatory and, it must be said, none too profound. (“A long, sustained look at the self, at what it might and might not be in these godless days”: so White on Ashbery’s Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.)
Significantly, White gossips best about those he knows—or who matter to him—least. One of the most entertaining stretches of City Boy occurs during a reminiscence of a trip to Italy, in which the author reincarnates his wide-eyed younger self during a visit to the Hotel Cipriani pool in Venice, ogling the decadent, unhappy, much-married jetsetters—a bit of dishing that sparkles with fun precisely because it has the lightness of touch, the clarity, and the disinvoltura that characterize a really good gossip. No one knows this better than White himself, who clearly sees himself as something of a connoisseur of gossip. In The Married Man, the White character, a gay American expat long resident in Paris, returns home and sniffs at the locals’ inability to gossip with any savoir faire. “They didn’t know how to serve it up. They got bogged down in detail, they introduced too many names, and they never told the end.”
And yet White himself commits these very errors when he’s overly invested in the people he’s gossiping about. When he writes about other writers who were more acclaimed or recognized than he was in those days, and about people who either didn’t understand his work, like Mart Crowley (The Boys in the Band), or who, like the editor Robert Gottlieb, rejected it, the anecdotes feel gratuitous, and the retributive barbs can seem petty. He finds time for pointless chitchat about Gottlieb’s wife, the actress Maria Tucci; he includes unflattering stories not only about Susan Sontag herself (with whom White had a violent break after Caracole came out in 1985) but also about someone close to her.
You’d be tempted to ascribe the gratuitous digs to malice, were it not for the fact that they’re in keeping with the scattershot approach to writing that has characterized the author’s style for some time now. (The prose is often grossly haphazard, too: “Yale and Harvard had been a bit sniffy about anything so louche in which mere writers without degrees were allowed to shape young minds.”) Too often, White seems to throw down pretty much anything that comes into his head, from the careless offhand chatter to observations upon which a more committed memoirist would have reflected. When, contemplating his failed friendship with Sontag, he blithely notes that he “never got to the bottom of my impulse toward treachery, especially toward people who’d helped me and befriended me,” you’re shocked not so much by the admission, amply borne out in these pages, as by the fact that the author seems content simply to lob this aperçu onto the page without bothering to delve into it.
These personal impulses, and other personal preoccupations, often get in the way of the specificity and attention to detail that White himself advocates as crucial ingredients of good writing. When he describes Greenwich Village streets in the 1970s as being “crowded with kids with long hair and burgundy velvet jeans and mirrored vests and filmy shirts with puffy pirates sleeves,” or when he recalls, of a brief stint on the West Coast, that “it seemed to us as if everyone in San Francisco were doing yoga and reading Krishnamurti,” you don’t doubt that it’s true, but there’s something suspiciously generic about these characterizations—they don’t have the complex textures of real experience.
This slackness informs White’s larger social or political assessments. Do we really need to be told that during the mid-century suburban Americans were “sealed off in their offices or cars or houses, no one saw anyone outside his or her circle or had any contact with strangers. Suburbia, television, and the automobile had isolated everyone…”? Good memoirs should penetrate beyond such clichés instead of repackaging them. The book itself is carelessly written, and even more carelessly edited: some characters are introduced twice, and a number of descriptions (of New York City, of his own books, of the Times, against which he seems to have a particular animus) are repeated, sometimes verbatim.
I suspect that White, whose early style was so precise, has become this careless because he is, as it were, preaching to the choir—he’s a gay writer writing for a sympathetic, if not wholly gay, audience, and after all “we all know what it was like.” The kind of cozy parochialisms to which this kind of assumption leads make for some embarrassing moments in City Boy—and, worse, suggest the intellectual and aesthetic limitations imposed by the gay-niche writing (and thinking) that White has championed. He doesn’t like E.M. Forster because of his “closetedness”; while reading The Divine Comedy with his great friend David Kalstone, he found nothing “humane or feeling” in Dante (“terribly underwritten…nothing vulnerable or hesitant”) because the poet has, as we know, placed his homosexual master, Ser Brunetto, in Hell.
In this case, however, White’s rose-colored glasses did not so much color his vision as blind him: to dismiss the Inferno, as he does, as “an unimaginative application of the rules to desires” because it isn’t somehow gay-friendly is intellectually grotesque—and, in any case, an incorrect reading of the text. It would be hard to find a more poignant passage than the one in which the poet meets his doomed, beloved teacher in Hell.
This reflexive tendency to reduce everything to the dimensions of his erotic interests and predilections can become wearying in City Boy—indeed, was already wearying to some of White’s friends in the years to which this book is devoted. He reports that, after telling Richard Howard that he’d spent much of his first trip to Rome visiting gyms and cruising spots, Howard exclaimed in dismay: “Here you are in the central city of Western culture and you’ve managed to turn it into some sort of kicky version of Scranton.” His honesty in relating the episode is to his credit; the episode is not. In the best memoirs, a single, minutely recorded life can lead to large insight about the world; City Boy, by contrast, makes the world feel small.
White has chafed at characterizations of his work as narrow or small, a criticism that he sees as coded distaste for homosexual writing itself. In “Writing Gay” he recalls how irritated he was by dismissive reviews of his slender 2008 biography of Proust for the Penguin Brief Lives series. “When I wrote my Penguin life of Proust,” he recalls in “Writing Gay,” “I decided to discuss his homosexuality….but I was attacked for this approach in the New York Times Book Review and in the New York Review.” (“How else could I make my book different from the hundreds that had preceded it?” he adds, an aside that, it must be said, makes you wonder what other biographies he had consulted.) Although he doesn’t go into the specifics of the criticisms in question, his paraphrases make clear the lineaments of what is, essentially, a political argument. The Times critic “took me to task for reducing Proust to his sexuality”; the late Roger Shattuck, in these pages, “struck a blow for Proust’s universality against my supposedly narrowing view.” For him, focusing as he so relentlessly does on private lives, particularly on sexuality and the details of people’s sex lives, is merely a way of correcting the balance.
White and his admirers might, indeed, argue that the gossip is part of a larger aim, and reflects the conviction that the personal is the political. The encounters with writers and artists in City Boy certainly make it clear that every author is also just a man or a woman, every eminence just a person—and that everything is, therefore, specific and “personal.” In the new memoir the author reflects on this sometimes disorienting tension between public personae and private selves:
I suppose it’s always strange to know in the flesh someone who is destined to be “immortal,” or at least studied and analyzed long after his death…. They were once young, uncertain, had a roll of fat about the waistband, one nostril bigger than the other, a shifty look that gave way to a wise stare….They were breathing, digesting animals as vulnerable to injury as the next creature….
This interest in the concrete and often unattractive details of lived lives is, in this view, not so much a matter of prurience (or, when the unappealing details are about himself, exhibitionism), but part of a literary and indeed even political project that has special resonance if your subject happens to be gay people and their lives. “I’d say that gay lives are not like straight lives,” he writes at the beginning of “Writing Gay,” the manifesto with which Arts and Letters begins—a discussion of gay biographies and biographers that serves as a kind of apologia pro opere suo. (White is probably most celebrated, outside the gay literary scene and its readership, for a prize-winning biography of Jean Genet.) “One must know them intimately from the inside in order to place the right emphasis on the facts.”
Why would it be more important to know a gay artist’s life (by which he seems to mean, emotional and sex life) more intimately than a straight artist’s life, in writing about that life? Why—as he suggests in this essay, and as his own autobiographies, filled as they are with the minutest details of his sexual and sentimental history, make clear—are sexuality and the details of a writer’s sex life as important to emphasize as is, say, an evaluation of the writer’s work? In some cases, White observes here, it’s simply that straight squeamishness about gay sex can result in bald factual errors. He cites as an example the way in which some journalists lambasted the late Michel Foucault for having “knowingly” infected his partners with the HIV virus: but Foucault, White says, was an “S&M bottom” (i.e., he enjoyed being the passive partner in rough anal sex), and passive-to-active infection was thought to be very rare if not impossible. And anyway, “since he was a friend of mine I can attest that he guessed at his diagnosis only five months before his death.”
For White, though, there is a far larger issue at stake here. For him, the entire fabric of gay men’s lives, socially as well as sexually, is radically different from that of straight people. Whereas the contours of a straight life, according to him, are predictable, and have created predictable narrative conventions (“a straight writer,” he rather astonishingly asserts at the end of City Boy, is “condemned to show nothing but marriage, divorce, and childbirth”), many gay men’s lives—with the possibility of unrestricted sexual play, the tendency to serial rather than monogamous erotic involvements, and a corresponding valuation of friends over erotic partners—don’t follow a straightforward (or at least conventionally mainstream) narrative; and therefore merit a different kind of narrative altogether—the “gay lit” that White helped create.
This is the point of his defense, in “Writing Gay,” of City Poet, Brad Gooch’s 1993 biography of Frank O’Hara—a book, White writes, that was attacked by critics who complained about Gooch’s emphasis on the poet’s sex life, at the expense of a corresponding emphasis on his work. “But in fact,” White argues,
O’Hara, the founder of “Personalism,” wrote poems to his tricks and had such an active sex life, one might be tempted to say, in order to generate his poems, which are often dedicated to real tricks (who were all also his friends) or imaginary crushes. When Joan Accocela [sic] in the New Yorker complained that City Poet was too “gossipy,” she missed the point. O’Hara’s grinding social schedule and hundreds of sexual encounters offend people who want his life to be like a straight man’s of the same period. If O’Hara had one or two gay marriages and had made his domestic life more important than his friendships, then he would have seemed like a reassuring translation of straight experience into gay terms. But O’Hara’s real life was messy and episodic in the retelling, even picaresque…not what we expect in the usual literary biography.
And yet despite its rhetorical allure, there is something sentimental and unrigorous about this argument, built as it is on unexamined assumptions and sketchy logic. The reductive characterization of “straight experience,” for one thing, is as unhelpful as the characterization of “gay experience” about which he complains here. So too his characterization of the genre he’s talking about: it isn’t entirely clear what “the usual literary biography” is, or why White thinks such works can’t handle messy or episodic or picaresque lives. (Richard Ellman’s biography of Oscar Wilde seems to have no problem doing just that.) Perhaps because he’s focused so narrowly on gay experience over the past years, it doesn’t seem to have occurred to White that straight men can have hundreds of sexual experiences, too (to say nothing of a “grinding social schedule”); you wonder whether White thinks that straight poets (or whoever) who had messy and irregular lives filled with sexual adventures deserve “gossipy” biographies, too.
But then, the word “gossipy” does not, in fact, occur in Joan Acocella’s long and thoughtful essay on O’Hara. Although White wants to cast her as a prig, the fact is that she’s not shocked at all: if you read her piece you can see that she makes the very sensible argument that, given the well-known sexual and romantic excesses of downtown bohemians, both gay and straight, in the 1950s and 1960s, O’Hara’s habits were simply not worth noting in the excessive detail in which Gooch’s book indulges, at the expense of a full consideration of the poet’s work—the thing that makes his life worth writing about in the first place.
The encounter between White and Acocella raises the fraught question of just what “worth writing about” means in the literature of the niche—a question that returns us to Poirier’s worries, those many years ago, about the reductive implications of a literature by and for gay people. On the one hand, no one would want a biography of a gay (or Jewish, or black) writer that elided his sexuality (or religion, or race); such a work would and should be dismissed as insufficient. On the other hand, a biography (or, for that matter, a novel or a literary essay) that lost sight of the fact that sex and sexuality (or religion, or race) are, finally, a part but not the whole of our lives—there are other influences, other forces at work that help shape the creative mind, indeed any mind—risks devolving into a pat chauvinism, a kind of cultural boosterism. At the beginning of his Proust biography, White catalogs writers who have been affected by À la recherche in one way or another; after briefly listing Joyce, Beckett, Woolf, Faulkner, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Genet, and Thomas Mann, he dilates upon Proust’s effect on Andrew Holleran, the author of a 1978 novel about gay alienation—a juxtaposition that, while meant to elevate Holleran’s standing, does him no favors.
White’s bad habits—the lopsided parochialism, the cattiness, the knowing winks that substitute for knowledge—are the defects into which parochialism can lead us. Whatever its authentic achievements (those early novels, a number of penetrating meditations on the impact of AIDS on the gay creative community), too much of White’s work feels personal in the wrong way. In City Boy most recently, but also in the crudely à clef novels and, beyond that, in the literary essays, where the insights into the subject in question are rarely as sharply flavored as the personal chitchat, there’s an evident taste for dishing dirt, for using publication to settle personal scores, that give the lie to any attempts to justify gossip on lofty artistic or ideological grounds.
But then, White himself admits in City Boy that ideology was never really the driving force behind his career—one that, you could say, represents both the possibilities and the limitations of a niche genre like “gay lit.” Again and again in City Boy he recalls his youthful yearning to be “famous among the top echelons of the cultural elite,” to have a “lasting reputation” and “literary celebrity”—a yearning so great that for him,
writing was essential to survival. Again, not because I had such beautiful or intense sentiments or because my ideas were so pressing and elevated (I didn’t even have many ideas except during the five minutes every day when I took a shower), but because it was the label, writer, that mattered to me most in some primitive, essential way.
This confession becomes the more arresting when, in a startling moment of genuine and unusually acute self-reflection (as opposed to self- exposure), White worries that the movement that served as the vehicle for the renown he achieved may have been wrongheaded after all. “I sometimes regret the invention of the category ‘gay,’” he startlingly tosses off at the end of City Boy, as he looks back at the history of gay-niche publishing:
Now all these years later, when “gay literature” has come and gone as a commercial fad and a serious movement, I can see his [Poirier’s] point. It’s true that as a movement it did isolate us—to our advantage initially, though ultimately to our disadvantage. At first it drew the attention of critics and editors to our writing, but in the end (after our books didn’t sell) it served to quarantine us into a small, confined space. Before the category of “gay writing” was invented, books with gay content (Vidal’s City and the Pillar, Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, Isherwood’s A Single Man) were widely reviewed and often became bestsellers. After a label was applied to them they were dismissed as being of special interest only to gay people. They could only preach to the converted.
This is a far cry from the attitude of the young White who had once resentfully criticized Poirier and other gay writers he knew when he was starting out—even the ones who were unabashedly out of the closet, like Merrill and Ashbery—for wanting to assimilate aesthetically, as he saw it: to write for the larger world instead of—well, preaching to the converted, to that small “community [that] we want[ed] to celebrate in novels that would create our identity while also exploring it.” Hence although City Boy, like many a bildungsroman, ostensibly culminates in a happy attainment of maturity—the young man’s successful quest to be a published gay writer—there is another, deeper education that plays out in these pages: the one that leads, however disjointedly, to an apparent acknowledgment that real literature is neither a form of social therapy nor a vehicle for political advertising, but is, in fact, “universal,” and seeks to dissolve rather than create intellectual and artistic ghettos.
Still, you suspect that White, unabashedly a product of the era he recalls in City Boy, takes pride in the fact that what he has been writing all these years—the earnest if increasingly artless transcription of gay life and gay lives, of which City Boy is the latest installment—has aimed to fill a niche instead of a universe. What he wanted, after all, was to become part of a scene, to have a reputation, to be known as a writer, whatever the sentiments and ideas he wrote about. The niche he helped create allowed him to achieve all this; and who would begrudge him the satisfaction that he got exactly what he wanted?
Of the people about whom White writes and who are mentioned in this review, I know Richard Howard, Robert Gottlieb, and Maria Tucci.↩
‘City Boy’ February 10, 2011
Of the people about whom White writes and who are mentioned in this review, I know Richard Howard, Robert Gottlieb, and Maria Tucci.↩