The University Record, April 22, 2002

Writer indulges in literary avant-garde

By Martin May

“I had a burning need to explore my gay identity in fiction,” said author Edmund White at the 2002 Avery Hopwood Awards Ceremony April 16. White was the keynote speaker at the ceremony, in which awards are bestowed to undergraduate and graduate students for excellence in creative writing. Arthur Miller, Frank O’Hara and Lawrence Kasdan are some of the previous Hopwood award recipients.

“It’s rare to find a writer to whom so many owe so much, whose name has been synonymous with liberation, who has given voice to voicelessness and brought what was hidden to light,” said Nicholas Delbanco, The Robert Frost Collegiate Professor of English, as he introduced White.

White discussed how he struggled with his identity in his early years. He took to writing to “drain off my daily dose of anger, remorse and hostility,” he said. His writing career took off when he won a Hopwood award while an undergraduate at U-M in 1962 for his play, “The Blue Boy in Black,” which was later produced off-Broadway.

White began his career as a playwright and was a contributing editor for the periodicals Horizon and Saturday Review. In 1973 White moved into novel writing with “Forgetting Elena” and “Nocturnes foe the King of Naples” five years later.

“No matter what I wrote, even at the very beginning, it was bound to have homosexual subject matter,” White said. Proud and self-respecting gay texts are what White said he wanted to produce as he began his career. “Before gay liberation, no gay man, no matter how clever, had found a way to like himself.”

In 1982, White completed “A Boy’s Own Story,” which many consider ground breaking in the genre, followed by the “Beautiful Room is Empty” and “The Farewell Symphony.” In 1983 White moved to Paris where he lived for the next 16 years. Upon return to the United States, he said he noticed changes in the culture, including a “Stalinist brand” of political correctness, identity politics and a pervading “Oprah-style” in the nascent memoir industry. These three elements, White argued, helped to foster a “culture of complaint.”

Edmund White graduated from U-M with a degree in Chinese. He taught literature and creative writing at Yale, Columbia, New York University and Brown University. He served as executive director of the New York Institute for the Humanities. White has won many awards including the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award for fiction in 1983. France named him a “Chevalier de l’ordre des arts et letters” in 1993. He currently teaches at Princeton University.