- Published on Monday, 20 February 2012
- Written by Peter Burnett
‘In the 1970s in New York everyone slept till noon’ With this incantatory first sentence, Edmund White begins City Boy, the memoir of his time as a gay man in New York in the sixties and seventies. It is a sentence that has so many levels of meaning, but one of these meanings evokes L P Hartley’s famous first sentence in his novel , ‘The Go-Between:’ ‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.’ The New York Edmund White describes is not the sleek, financial behemoth of today, but a dark, dangerous, chaotic place, full of uncollected rubbish and muggers.
But it was also a vibrant place where people could live cheaply and where artistic and intellectual endeavour was what counted. It became a honeypot to the young, struggling writers, actors, painters who came from all over the US to live downtown in varying states of squalor. In this memoir, White describes his progression from a self-hating gay man in the mid sixties and struggling writer to out and proud published author in the early eighties and is particular good on the pivotal role of the Stonewall riots of June 1969.
City Boy is full of joyful descriptions of a New York that has gone for ever: ‘Everyone smoked all the time and when you French-kissed someone, it was like rubbing one ashtray against another.’ City Boy is full of these wonderful sentences which evoke a life so different from today’s.
White is fascinating on the beginning of a gay culture after the Stonewall riots. ‘Visible gays were becoming more and more numerous, we were finally reaching a critical mass.’
He talks about gay liberation as ‘gay self-acceptance’. Beforehand even in the sixties, he says ‘it was rare to find a gay couple who lived together openly as lovers….who had a sense that they constituted a real romantic pair’. In another wonderful sentence, he says: ‘There was no gay pride back then, there was only gay fear and gay isolation and gay distrust and gay self-hatred…..The most fundamental thing about me - my desire to sleep with other males – was loathsome to society…as much as paedophilia would be today…If I could have stopped my “acting out”….I would have.’
In the sixties he describes himself as a ‘living contradiction. I was still a self-hating gay man going to a psychotherapist with the intention of being cured and getting married.’ The idea of a gay society was laughable back then. White was apolitical, unaligned. It was the Stonewall riots of 28th June 1969 that changed all that.
‘ Up until that moment we had all thought that homosexuality was a medical term. Suddenly we saw that we could be a minority group – with rights, a culture, an agenda. Before the Stonewall uprising there hadn’t really been much of gay community, just guys cruising. But when the police raided Stonewall and gay men feared their bars were going to be closed once again, all hell broke loose….. Up until that moment we had all thought that homosexuality was a medical term. Suddenly we saw that we could be a minority group – with rights, a culture, an agenda.’
City Boy is also fascinating about White’s progress as a writer. Hearing someone talk on the phone in the Gotham Book Mart in the sixties, he realised that the person on the other end of the phone was Jack Kerouac. ‘What was most exciting was the idea that literature was still alive ..going on all around me.’ But this idea made literature all the more distant. He felt professionally and artistically isolated.’ Where to find all these writers and intellectuals in New York which appeared to be teeming with them, tantalisingly just out of reach? City Boy charts his struggle to get published and the fashion of the avant garde and experimentalism in the New York of that time. He finally returned to realism with his breakthrough novel of 1981 ‘Boys Own Story’, his wonderful semi-autobiographical novel about growing up gay in 1950s America. His reasoning is interesting: he says that a gay writer ‘free to record for the first time so many vivid ad previously unchartered experiences needed no tricks’.
He has fascinating and nuanced things to say about the emergence of gay literature as a genre in the seventies after Stonewall. At that time, he approved of the idea. But in retrospect he thinks that it isolated gay writers to initial advantage but ultimately disadvantage. ‘Before the category of “gay writing” was invented, books with a gay content (…Isherwood’s A Single Man) were widely reviewed and often became bestsellers. After a label was applied to them they were dismissed as being of special interest only to gay people.’ Susan Sontag asked White how he could bear to be considered a gay writer. She saw it as a ‘narrowing’ label. Later Edmund White considered that Susan Sontag maintained her world wide stature because she stayed in the closet.
This double-edged sword of liberation had consequences for gay people in general. ‘Something similar happened to gay people themselves. Before they were “liberated” and given an “identity”, they were everywhere and nowhere…The past saw many more casual experiments in same-sex love than later, when the category was finally clearly labelled and surrounded with the barbed wire of notoriety. It became easier in certain milieus to come out, but at the same time the stakes were higher (especially after the advent of AIDS)….Only the highly motivated made it across that barbed wire fence.’ He finishes by saying ‘I sometimes regret the invention of the category “gay”.’
Yet, he says, he is at the same time grateful to gay liberation. ‘The depression and guilt that beset me in my teens and twenties subsided after Stonewall… I’d always wanted to write about being gay… I felt that the new visibility of gays gave me a chance to be seen, or rather heard.’ He says ‘… but it did seem to me that undeniable that “coming out” was still a liberating moment’. He concludes: ‘Yes it might be wrong to consider one’s sexuality as the key to one’s identity… Nevertheless, what we desire is crucial to who we are.’
This being a memoir about being a gay man in New York, he also talks a lot about sex. As he says: ‘Much of my spare time was devoted to sex – finding it and then doing it.’ He goes off to Rome for a sojourn of a few months and when he comes back New York gay life had been unleashed with tons more visible gay men on the street and loads more bars. He was struck by ‘the sexual abundance and opportunity’.’
He was asked to co-author The Joy of Gay Sex. His shrink, Charles Silverstein suggested his name (only in New York) and would be co-authoring it. So he had to change analyst. He worked so hard on it for a few months that he didn’t have time to have any sex.
‘ I was still cynical and cold from having endured my early years of gay life before the era of self-acceptance. If it had been up to me, the book would have been called ‘The Bleakness of Gay Sex’. ’ Silverstein brought more of physical closeness, warmth and emotional intimacy.
In an interesting footnote, he says when AIDS appeared in 1981, they were accused by the gay community of being ‘unalarmed by promiscuity’. White says the publisher should have updated it with an AIDS-conscious edition sooner than it did a few years later.
But in spite of all the complexities, this book is a paean to gay liberation. ‘For the longest time I thought being gay was a sort of scandal. It seemed deeply unnatural.’
‘I felt that… no one before 1969 had been able to think of homosexuals as… a minority group.’ After the liberation that followed Stonewall, ‘no one friendly to homosexuality feels he or she must explain it any more than a thinker or writer is forced to explain heterosexuality.’
White is particularly interesting on the coming of the AIDS crisis and gay men’s first stumbling efforts to address it. ‘Nothing like this had ever happened ….before’
‘Gays of my generation were especially unprepared to accept the new reality since for us….gay liberation meant sexual liberation and gay culture meant sexual access and abundance.’
‘New York didn’t change right away, but a feeling of dread was now in every embrace’. In 1983 White moved to Paris. ‘I wanted to go on having industrial quantities of sex – and I thought I could go on in Paris. New York was turning into a morgue.’ Though many of his French friends died of AIDS and his Paris life became as sombre as his New York life. Being HIV positive himself, he spent the eighties expecting to die within a few months.
Looking back on the seventies he saw it as professional struggle. After the publication of Boys Own Story things were never so bad. What made it bearable was that in the 1970s among artists and intellectuals there was a tradition of honourable poverty and you could still live in Manhattan cheaply if you didn’t mind a bit of squalor. Writers then didn’t talk about movie deals. New York had not become sleek and expensive.
This memoir is as much to do about 1970s’ New York as it is about Edmund White. It is a love letter to a lost city, a lost lifestyle, a lost civilisation. His final words are :
‘Nothing lasts in New York. The life that is lived there, however, is as intense as it gets.’
(Photo of Edmund White by David Shankbone)