For author Edmund White, ’58, Cranbrook served as a refuge where his relationship with the written word would develop and thrive. Even as a young man, he possessed a deep love of words and literature.
He arrived at Cranbrook in the middle of his sophomore year, after spending most of his childhood in Chicago.
“I fell in love with Cranbrook, the physical beauty of it,” White says. “It is one of the most beautiful places in America.”
Earlier this year, White won the 2018 PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Career Achievement in American Fiction. In a statement that captured the soul of his work, the panel of judges cited White’s “unsentimental tenderness, sharply observant wit, and an unsparing examination of the self,” adding, “to the age of AIDS, the age of loss, the struggle against evangelical Christian hatred, the explosion of gender identities, Edmund White employs a deceptively light touch. “
White’s writing career began to take shape during his years at Cranbrook, where good grades earned him the freedom to walk the grounds, read and explore the boundaries of campus. “Since I was always on the honor roll, I didn’t have to go to study hall, and I had from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. to myself every day,” he says. “I would stroll the grounds by the Greek Theatre and by the daffodils when they were out in the spring.” He also made friends with both students and instructors at the Academy of Art, who helped open his eyes to new books and artists.
As a student, White was always reading and writing. He crafted two novels while at school, working on them after completing his homework each night. “The first was a gay novel, which for 1958 was unusual,” he says. “I’d never read a gay novel so I just invented as I wrote it.” His second novel centered on a divorced woman and sprang from an extended piece he wrote for English teacher Carl Wonnberger’s creative writing class.
After graduation, White attended the University of Michigan where he earned a degree in Chinese, a pursuit suggested to him by a Cranbrook dorm master who felt all writers needed a back-up plan.
After moving to New York, White worked for seven years at Time-Life Books, where he contributed to book series and wrote reviews for Time Magazine. “It was a very easy job and I never had anything to do because it was so overstaffed,” White says. The lax schedule gave him the time he needed to continue working on his own writing.
Eventual moves to Rome, San Francisco and then back to New York throughout the 1970s and 1980s saw White working as an editor for the Saturday Review and a freelance writer and editor for publications such as The New Republic.
“I was always writing for the next installment of my income,” White says. “I like the craft of it and being sort of a virtuoso, writing biographies, novels, avant-garde and realistic plays, and poetry. I like to dip my hand into all these pools.”
At the age of 32, he found success with the publication of his first novel, Forgetting Elena, which author Vladimir Nabokov later called “a marvelous book.” Says White of Nabokov’s compliment, “By that point, my book had been out for two or three years and had come and gone, but for me personally, it gave me the feeling that maybe I was a good writer.”
That assessment was never in question as he continued to produce novels that earned critical praise and helped break new ground in works that focused on same-sex relationships. In 1982, he published one of his best-known works, A Boy’s Own Story, which became the first book in a trilogy that included The Beautiful Room Is Empty in 1988 and The Farewell Symphony in 1997.
White’s works coincided with and examined some of the most important, groundbreaking and heartbreaking moments in the gay rights movement, moving from Stonewall through the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. As a novelist, essayist, biographer and journalist, his became one of the strongest and most recognizable voices of the modern era.
Today, White continues to add to a body of work that includes acclaimed biographies of authors such as Jean Genet and Marcel Proust. His most recent work, The Unpunished Vice: A Life of Reading, looks at the role that books play in our lives and the unfettered joy a great piece of literature can provide. “Most things that bring you pleasure like gluttony get you punished,” he says. “Reading doesn’t.”
It is a pursuit that he recommends to young people who wish to write. “Read a lot,” he says. It certainly worked for a young sophomore who came to Cranbrook with a love of words that has yet to fade.