A Man’s Own Story
by Charles Kaiser and Greg Varner
SETUP: Stephen Barber conducted five years of research and interviews to write Edmund White: The Burning World, the first biography of the iconic gay writer, with the cooperation of White himself. In the early 1980s, White helped open the publishing world to books with gay content; he has since achieved mainstream success and recognition. White is perhaps most famous for a trilogy of novels A Boy’s Own Story (1983), The Beautiful Room Is Empty (1988) and The Farewell Symphony (1998) that tell of a gay man coming of age in the Midwest, discovering sexual liberation in New York in the ’70s and outliving many of his friends during the AIDS-ravaged ’80s. His fiction is widely regarded as thinly veiled autobiography, and he has drawn attention (and criticism) for the sexual forthrightness of his writing. The gay activist Larry Kramer claimed that White debased himself by emphasizing his characters’ (and by implication his own) sexual promiscuity. Yet at the same time Vladimir Nabokov described White’s Forgetting Elena as his favorite American novel. After living in Paris since 1983, White returned to the U.S. in 1998 to teach writing and literature at Princeton University. Among his other books are Nocturnes for the King of Naples, States of Desire: Travels in Gay America and Genet: A Biography, which won the 1994 National Book Critics Circle Award.
Barber is never very critical, but since I’m a fan of his subject, that doesn’t bother me a bit. And most of his historical observations are accurate, except for a couple of howlers, like the idea that there was no gay American fiction to speak of before 1960 (Donald Webster Cory listed more than thirty-five gay American novels that had already been published when he wrote The Homosexual in America in 1951). Residents of the upscale Ansonia on Manhattan’s Upper West Side will also be surprised to learn here that their building has been converted into a welfare hotel. But these are small caveats; generally, Barber is erudite and literate, and his prose flows nicely throughout.
The main problem with profiling writers tends to be the fact that their work is usually more interesting than their life. But that’s not the case at all with White, whose life has taken him all over the world and brought him into contact with people as varied as Truman Capote, Susan Sontag and Michel Foucault. Barber does a good job of connecting White’s life with his work, and fans of the White oeuvre will learn a lot here about its origins. For almost anyone interested in gay life, relying on this volume alone, you’d get a pretty good idea of where we’ve been and where we’re going.
You’re right, Barber is never very critical. I thought he should have been even though, like you, I’m a fan of White’s. First, Barber could have talked more about some of the problems raised by White’s life (how does he retain his cutting edge after being embraced by the establishment?) and work (the moral ambiguities surrounding sexuality in his stories); second and I’m surprised you didn’t mention this, knowing how much you appreciate good dish there wasn’t enough gossip. This is all the more frustrating since Barber lets members of White’s circle Jane Giles, for instance describe him as a naughty uncle without actually giving us enough of the naughtiness.
Instead, Barber talks about his life and work together I especially appreciate learning more about the background for my favorite of White’s works, “Cinnamon Skin.” Do you know this story? It’s a horrifying and funny tale about a teenager’s trip to Mexico in the 1950s with his “ugly American” parents. Once across the border, he seduces a musician some twenty years his senior; the older guy fucks him, and the kid remembers this sordid episode years later. I’m just perverse enough, I guess, to love this story precisely because it’s anti-romantic on the subject of romance. There’s a nice irony in the title, too “Cinnamon Skin” was a popular Latin song (“Piel Canela”); its lyrics were, “You are the only one for me, with your beautiful cinnamon skin.” White’s story turns this upside-down his narrator values the older man hardly at all, or only as long as he’s sexually useful. This story still gives me goosebumps, and I learn in Barber’s pages that this is pretty much the way it happened in White’s life.
I’m surprised and disappointed by the absence of activist Larry Kramer from this book perhaps this reflects White’s infamous feud with Kramer, but some information seems appropriate in White’s biography. And since Andrew Holleran is the peer closest to him in literary stature, I felt pained by his invisibility here.
Unlike you, I am almost never disappointed by the absence of Larry Kramer. I know, I know, he did many important things for the movement, and I’ve tried to acknowledge that in my own writing, but is there really anything left to say about him which hasn’t been said already by Larry himself and so many others?
One of the things I liked best about this book was the sense of continuity it provides about the gay community how Christopher Isherwood, among others, served as a friend and role model for White. I also loved the idea of White going off with Robert Mapplethorpe for After Dark to capture Capote and Truman being too out of it to even notice the photographer’s beauty. The recounting of all the other things White did including writing textbooks for Time-Life is a useful reminder that serious writers without trust funds will do almost anything to make a living.
As gay writers, White and I share a desire to remind people that during the last 20 years, there has been much more to gay life than AIDS. So I agree entirely with White’s rejection of Kramer’s criticism that he should have been writing about the plague instead of writing his biography of Genet. I also like Barber’s observation that White has tried to place AIDS “within the history of gay culture: not as something which had overridden that culture, but as something which has interrupted that culture and had to be dealt with on that basis.”
Much of Barber’s analysis of White’s work seems valuable, and you’re absolutely right in appreciating the way Barber locates White in history. I liked hearing Marina Warner speculate as to the reasons White writes so well about sex (because he’s had so much of it, she says). And I loved learning that White thought his Ohio boyhood was an ironic advantage, since the vacuum gives smart young gay boys like himself an incentive to read a lot and write themselves. But I don’t think readers will come away from The Burning World with a clear sense of White as a person.
Some may feel White has already told his own story, since his work is highly autobiographical, but they’re cheating themselves. It’s always a mistake to conflate a writer’s work with his life, and Barber’s book does sometimes clarify the actual events that inspired White’s fiction. Curiously, Barber largely skirts around White’s literary sex scenes White himself, I think, might find this a problem. Barber’s a bit too much the literary grad student for a larger-than-life personality like White.
If Barber sometimes fails to delve into certain subjects as deeply as you would like him to, he also resists the temptation to burden us with unnecessary information; his writing is pleasingly economical. “There was no sex without drugs, whose open availability lent an atmosphere of hallucinatory and neural excess to the moment.” That’s an exceptionally accurate, single-sentence description of what gay life in New York City felt like in the 1970s and I admire any writer who can evoke an era with that kind of simplicity.
Barber is equally perceptive about White’s characters, who have “a unique culture . . . a culture of desire, memory and resistance and that culture is what proves most ferocious in reaction to the forces which attempt to snuff it out . . . Their identities ignite in their sensations.”
This book isn’t nearly as important as something like The Other Side of Silence, John Loughery’s brilliant explication of gay culture in America since the 1920s. But it is a worthy addition to the canon of gay literature, and I’m grateful to Barber for writing it.