Edmund White: February 2008

Red Badges
Amid a Community Fragmented by AIDS, Edmund White Tells His Own Truths About Gay Men, AIDS & Culture
by Lester Strong

Photos by Joe Oppedisano

Novelist Edmund White has been described by various critics as “America’s Proust,” “one of our most interesting, serious, and mischievous writers” who possesses an “extravagantly romantic sense of human hungers.”

Like Proust, White is gay and has mined his own experience extensively for his writing. Unlike Proust, however, he has lived now for over a quarter of a century through a time of plague that has struck at the heart of gay male sexuality, and his experience with AIDS weaves in and out of much of his writing in ways large and small. His most recent novel, Hotel de Dream, published last fall, may seem an exception to this, set as it is in 1900 and centering on the death of Stephen Crane, author of the well-known novel about the American Civil War The Red Badge of Courage. But even here, as a recent interview with White about the book made clear, AIDS was related to his handling of the story. The interview also revealed a person whose life has been profoundly impacted by the disease.

Hotel de Dream takes place in England and Germany, as Crane lies dying from tuberculosis. Attended by his faithful companion and common-law wife Cora, Crane decides to take up again and try to complete a novel he had started but burned before finishing years earlier when warned by writer friend Hamlin Garland that it would destroy his literary reputation. The title Crane gives the story: The Painted Boy. Its subject matter: the love affair between a young male prostitute named Elliot in turn-of-the-century New York and a banker named Theodore Koch, who sacrifices his job, position in society, marriage, and family for this young man. A “cataclysmic passion,” in White’s words, with a cataclysmic outcome—and certainly explosive literary material for the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had Crane actually published it.

What drew Edmund White to this story? Said White: “I was intrigued by an anecdote I came across in the John Berryman biography of Stephen Crane that he might have written this novel about a gay male prostitute. Berryman presented the anecdote as unquestionable fact, although it was originally told by a dubious source to Crane’s first biographer Thomas Beer, whose truthfulness was even more dubious in that he was known to have made up documents relating to Crane wholesale that he used as material in his biography. Anyway, what interested me was the idea of a straight writer, who wrote this famous war novel The Red Badge of Courage and was a proto-Ernest Hemingway, but who might have written a gay novel.”

Although White didn’t say so outright during the interview, what also might have attracted him to the story was Crane’s tuberculosis. Like AIDS in the 1980s, TB at the start of the twentieth century was seen as a scourge. While its bacterial nature and means of transmission were understood, it was highly contagious, and effective antibiotics for a sure cure wouldn’t be discovered for another half-century. It was deeply frightening to both the medical community and the public at large, and those who had it were often treated as pariahs.

Hotel de Dream is not an AIDS novel, but White’s experience with AIDS is woven into its fabric. “AIDS was always on my mind while I was writing it,” he said during the interview. “I lost my French lover Hubert Sorin in 1994 to AIDS, and several parts of the novel go right to my own experience of his illness—for example, where Cora has to hold Stephen Crane up in the shower to bathe him because he’s so weak, or the surprise she feels in the end that he actually dies. I mean AIDS before the introduction of the antiretrovirals and medical cocktails was like TB in that it was a disease of comebacks. Time after time the sick person seems to recover. Caregivers invest so much of themselves in keeping the other person alive, it’s easy to fool yourself into believing the patient will never die. You’re shocked by the actual fact of death. I felt that way when Hubert died, and Cora does too when Crane dies.”

White described Cora as his “favorite character” in Hotel de Dream, and his portrait of the care she provides Stephen Crane in his final days is a marvel of loving concern in the face of desperate circumstances. The novel is titled after the bordello Cora once ran—in real life as well as in the novel—in Jacksonville, Florida. But if Cora and Crane inhabit a dream of sorts, it’s more a nightmare than any pleasant frolic through sleepy time in a bed. Crane’s illness sees to that.

White’s own life in terms of AIDS has also had its nightmarish times. During the interview, he noted that parts of his novel The Married Man (2000), “especially the end,” were closely based on his experience with Hubert Sorin, and, indeed, the last chapters of the book are as harrowing a read as anything you’re likely to encounter in AIDS literature of someone caring for a person in the final weeks and days before he dies of the disease.

However, White’s experience with AIDS, let alone the nightmares it inflicted on him, didn’t start with Sorin. “In 1981, I was dragooned into becoming one of the founding members of Gay Men’s Health Crisis by Larry Kramer, who was a friend,” he said in the interview. “I wasn’t very happy about that. In the early days of the crisis, I had very mixed feelings about it all. I kept hoping it would be a minor thing and only affect a hundred people or so. Besides, with the advent of AIDS, American puritanical trends perked up quite a bit, and since I’m a sex addict I wasn’t very happy about the idea of closing down the baths or backrooms or cutting down on the amount of sex I had. It took me a long time to realize the full scope of the problem.”

It couldn’t have taken all that long, though. White served for a short period as GMHC’s first president, and after moving to Paris in 1983 he tried to apply some of the lessons he learned there to an AIDS group he hooked up with in France, named AIDES. “But to no avail,” he said. “The French had their own way of doing things, and weren’t too interested in ours.” By that time, he had seen many friends into the grave because of AIDS, and had been diagnosed HIV-positive himself. This was a decade before the antiretroviral cocktails were introduced, when AIDS was still considered a sure death sentence. “It turned out I’m what you might call a ‘slow progressor,’” he said during the interview, “but I didn’t know that at the time. I only had to go on medicine in the last couple of years.” The result: He may not have had any symptoms of AIDS, but he lived for many years with the panic of someone who expects to take sick and die at any time.

By the mid-1980s White was also writing about AIDS. Three of his short stories on the subject—“Palace Days,” “An Oracle,” and “Running on Empty”—were collected together with several stories by Adam Mars-Jones in the collection The Darker Proof: Stories from a Crisis, published in 1988 (the stories also appear in Skinned Alive, a 1995 collection of White’s short stories). In addition, several of his essays collected in The Burning Library: Writings on Art, Politics and Sexuality 1983–1993, published in 1994, deal with AIDS, as do his novels The Farewell Symphony (1997) and The Married Man. He edited the 2001 Loss Within Loss: Artists in the Age of AIDS, a volume of essays by twenty-two contributors commemorating the lives of artists lost to the disease, and AIDS haunts his and Hubert Sorin’s 1994 memoir Our Paris: Sketches from Memory. Even his Genet: A Biography, published in 1993 but preceded by seven years of research and writing, was in a sense a comment on the AIDS crisis as it affected gay people. According to White: “With AIDS it seemed to me the gay population was in danger of being remedicalized, as we’d been for so long when homosexuality was defined as psychologically abnormal. So it seemed to me very important to write a long, monumental biography of one of the most important gay creative spirits of the twentieth century who had nothing to do with the disease. I saw the book as part of my AIDS work in this very indirect way, a sort of reaffirming of gay culture.”

So, after a quarter-century of seeing friends and lovers die, writing about AIDS, and living with HIV infection himself, what is White’s take on the overall effects of the crisis today? Some of his answers were pretty blunt:

“I think there’s been a terrible dumbing down of America in general in the last twenty years, and I suspect the death of so many brilliant gay people has been a contributing factor: photographers, designers, artists, writers, thinkers.

“Then there’s gay culture itself, which is much more fragile than any ethnic culture, where people are raised by parents who transmit that culture to their children. Gay people learn gay culture as adults from older gay people. If we complain about young gay men being muscle-building idiots now, it means that with a whole generation wiped out because of AIDS there are fewer of us to transmit a love of opera and culture in general to younger gays.

“I also think much of gay literature today embodies a terribly somber, if lyrical, view of the world. Even the humor is pretty dark. I think AIDS has intensified this almost Buddhist view of how transient everything is.”

There’s a passage near the end of Hotel de Dream where Cora praises The Painted Boy as “very real and touching.” Crane thinks to himself: “She wasn’t lying just to cheer him up…she was being honest. You could always count on Cora to tell the truth.”

Agree with Edmund White’s opinions or not, you can always count on him to tell the truth as he sees it. He’s witnessed the AIDS pandemic from its start. And the testimony of his writing and his thoughts are valuable commentary shedding light on where we’ve been with the disease, where we are with it now, and where we may be headed.

Lester Strong is Special Projects Editor of A&U.