A concise analysis of the major works by an accomplished gay novelist, memoirist, and essayist
Nicholas F. Radel's Understanding Edmund White, the first book-length critical study of White's work, examines America's best-known gay novelist within the changing social contexts of the past half-century, when gay and lesbian people moved from being seen as psychologically deviant to being increasingly accepted as productive members of society. Radel explores the ways White documents this cultural transition, in both his fiction and his nonfiction, and contributes to it by making gay writing a source for new knowledge of sexuality.
Taking into account recent scholarship on White, Radel provides insightful analysis of the author's autobiographical novels and short stories, from A Boy's Own Story through The Married Man and Chaos. Understanding Edmund White makes White's early experimental novels, Forgetting Elena, Nocturnes for the King of Naples, and Caracole, as well as his later historical fiction, Fanny and Hotel de Dream, accessible by showing how their emphasis on sexuality and social change connects them to the autobiographical fictions. Radel also shows how White's most recent novel, Jack Holmes and His Friend, deftly combines historical and autobiographical narratives to become one of the author's most nuanced explorations of American sexuality. Understanding Edmund White additionally contains a new, previously unpublished interview with White that provides revealing information about the impact his work as a biographer has had on his later fiction.
Grounded in ongoing critical debates in social and literary theory central to understanding contemporary gay literature, Radel's introduction to White's complex literary vision portrays the writer's evolving perceptions of the issues confronting his gay characters and narrators, boys and men who struggle in the early autobiographical novels to achieve a sense of self-worth but assume in the later novels and nonfiction confident voices that speak for and about American culture and sexualities of all types.
Nicholas F. Radel is a professor of English at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina, and coeditor of The Puritan Origins of American Sex: Religion, Sexuality, and National Identity in American Literature. Radel's articles on Edmund White have appeared in edited collections, literary encyclopedias, and journals including Modern Fiction Studies. His essays on American film and drama have appeared in Essays in Theatre, Cinema Journal, and elsewhere.
"This meticulously researched, lucidly argued, and sharply written book ushers Edmund White onto the national literary pantheon, where he not only rightfully belongs, but where he also confirms the prominent place that works by, about, and for white gay men have begun to occupy in American letters. Indeed, White's diverse texts simultaneously register and bring about "a profound transformation," one that has to do, Radel shows us, as much with new sexual, cultural, and social codes of conduct that have flourished clandestinely before and more openly since Stonewall, as with innovative engagements across the genres of experimental novel, autobiography, biography, history, and essay that propel White's prolific and singular output. Interweaving facts from the writer's rich international life, oeuvre, and their, at times controversial, critical and popular reception with compelling close readings of all his major works, unpublished manuscripts, as well as a personal interview with the author, Radel creates a nuanced portrait that will attract both students looking for a comprehensive introduction and scholars and non-academics seeking sophisticated readings of White's books. All these readers will realize, too, the importance of Radel's own remarkable contribution to making accessible and ordinary what has been considered inaccessible and extraordinary, or what he spells out in his concluding affirmation of White's life-long literary project as simultaneously representing and transcending the formerly unspeakable "desire to be homosexual with all the difference that makes and yet still be considered normal."—Magdalena J. Zaborowska, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor