Edmund White: City Boy
White’s motivation certainly isn’t therapeutic – he’s had enough of that. The impulse behind City Boy seems primal, fundamental to writing: telling a good story, with wit, verve, and passion. And he has succeeded.
Respected novelist, biographer and cultural critic – author of twenty three books to date – Edmund White recently published a second volume of memoirs, City Boy: My Life in New York during the 1960s and ‘70s. White has told some of this story before, particularly in his novel Farewell Symphony, but the veils of fiction have been discarded and the result is a vivid narrative of two decades of cultural ferment and outlandish behavior told with authority and unstinting honesty. City Boy complements standard history adding detail, nuance, and shading from someone who was there.
After completing an undergraduate degree in Chinese at Michigan (1962), White decided to pursue a lover to New York City rather than a Ph.D. at Harvard. He arrived in the New York City of the Lindsay-Beame era – the city was a mess – dangerous, bankrupt, with city services suspended (garbage and trash piled on pavements), looting, and power blackouts. So much for the romance of the city as mecca for a boy from Ohio; but for White there was romance, well, sex at least and plenty of it – in leather bars, on the docks, nearly everywhere and anywhere, or so it seems. The Stonewall riots with gays resisting police coercion and arrest broke barriers and boundaries (White was there); and liberation ensued. It was a tremendously exciting time for gay men like White – who had already come out (he says that he had had sex with a couple of hundred people before he was 16) – and for those still in the closet. White relates Susan Sontag’s incisive insight that in all human history, there was only one brief period, that between 1960 with the introduction of the birth control pill, and 1981, with the advent of a disease not yet named AIDS, when people were completely free to have sex where and with whom they chose. To judge from City Boy, White took advantage of the situation. And so, of course, this memoir details a sexual odyssey of sorts. It’s racy, nostalgic, bittersweet, and intermittently (and inevitably) painful – as would be expected.
But this is but one thread to the elaborate tapestry of the narrative that is City Boy, and it would be both inaccurate and unfair to limit White’s book to the category of soft porn ramble.
City Boy is much more. It is, to pun on the title of White’s autobiographical novel, A Boy’s Own Story, his own story not of coming out, but of coming in to his own as a writer. The path to his present pre-eminence was long and strewn with obstacles. He took a number of jobs – writing books for a Time-Life series, preparing copy for a chemical company, editing the Saturday Review and Horizon, both of which went out of business. His first novel, Forgetting Elena, was rejected by nearly two dozen publishers before its appearance in 1973. And the generally favorable critical attention it received did little to ease the way for subsequent books. It would be nine years before A Boy’s Own Story (1982) would be published and White would find himself on surer footing with more novels and award-winning biographies (Genet 1993; Proust 1999; and Rimbaud 2009) to following.
Inextricably linked to White’s finding himself as a writer was his coming to accept himself as a gay man. At one point, he notes, “In the late sixties I was a living contradiction. I was still a self-hating gay man going to a straight psychotherapist with the intention of being cured and getting married.” Resolving those issues – by changing therapists – unlocked greater creativity for White.
Edmund White excels at representing the social and cultural milieu of New York City during the late 1960s and 1970s. Accounts of sojourns to Venice and Rome add cosmopolitan dash to the story. For him, all cities are essentially people. The parade of writers, artists, and personalities who march, meander and dance through City Boy is as rich and varied as carnival in Venice. White has an extraordinary gift for capturing character and personality in a trenchant phrase or telling detail – Richard Howard, who “generated a kind of constant brio”; Howard Moss (“it was always evening in Howard’s mind”); Vladimir Nabokov (“a great hater and a rather meager lover”); George Balanchine (“our resident genius at the peak of his powers”); Lillian Hellman (“an appalling person”); William Burroughs (“someone already dead, too cold and totemic to be alive”); Robert Mapplethorpe (“Mapplethorpe, like the good Catholic boy he was, believed in the devil. When he would have sex, he would whisper in his lover’s ear, ‘Do it for Satan!’”). It’s a world of poets and performers, flashing in and out of a Fellini world. The dramatis personae is extensive, including the likes of Peggy Guggenheim, Virgil Thomson, James Merrill, and Susan Sontag.
White’s “relationship” with Sontag is particularly curious. He’d longed to meet her, and did, though he is not exactly sure of when and where. Their meeting seemed to presage great things and indeed she became his patron for a while, successfully advancing his candidacy for an American Academy of Arts and Letters prize and for a Guggenheim Fellowship. But the ground of their relationship shifted – was it because she was “a terrible snob”? or because “she had terrible manners”? or because “she picked her teeth after dinner”? No, it was because “an indiscreet mutual friend” drew White’s unflattering representation of her in his novel Caracole (1985) to her attention. In an act of extraordinary pettiness, Sontag had her blurb removed from the next edition and all foreign editions of A Boy’s Own Story. Sixteen years of cold silence ensued until a chance encounter in a Manhattan restaurant effected a reconciliation of sorts between the two.
The vivid depiction of this panorama of personalities, carefully articulated within the larger intellectual, artistic, and cultural context, makes City Boy a rich source document for cultural historians. White’s virtuoso narrative brings to life so many now gone; of the noteworthy figures here, only Ashbery, Howard, and White himself are still alive, if I am not mistaken. City Boy is, of course, the story of one American man’s coming into the fullness of his identity as a gay man and as a writer. As such, it is also the chronicle of relationships – with careful, nuanced, and experienced distinctions made among the varieties of human intercourse – love, lust, and friendship.
City Boy is certainly distinguished by White’s now much-praised style: rich, fluent, graceful, witty, poised for praise, insight, or mockery. Yet it is perhaps even more distinguished by White’s honesty about others (of Sontag he notes, “her genius was in saying the obvious in a strong and dramatic manner”) and above all about himself, nowhere more ruthlessly than when he tells us, “In all my years of therapy I never got to the bottom of my impulse toward treachery, especially toward people who’d helped me or befriended me.”
In a recent essay-review published in The New Yorker (25 January 2010), Daniel Mendelsohn described the memoir as “the black sheep of the literary family,” noting that “like a drunken guest at a wedding, it is constantly mortifying its soberer relatives (philosophy, history, literary fiction) –spilling family secrets, embarrassing old friends – motivated, it would seem, by an overpowering need to be the center of attention.” Edmund White’s City Boy can be charged with none of that, it is notably free from the narcissism, indiscretion, and mendacity often vital to the enterprise; further, it stands apart from both the Augustinian tradition of bearing witness to inward spiritual transformation and the post-Reformation tradition Mendelsohn characterizes as “negative examination of the self,” which culminated in the “memoir of abjection” so prolific today. White’s motivation certainly isn’t therapeutic – he’s had enough of that. The impulse behind City Boy seems primal, fundamental to writing: telling a good story, with wit, verve, and passion. And he has succeeded. Now that I think of it, White’s City Boy may be more in the tradition of Cellini’s autobiography, that marvelously vivid, anecdotal narrative – bawdy, zestful, entertaining with no pretence to profundity or mystery; and like that 16th century goldsmith, this 21st century wordsmith goes on his way, rejoicing.