Edmund White Delivers Kessler Lecture

On Friday, November 12, 1993, Edmund White –whose most recent book, Genet: A Life, has received critical acclaim — delivered the second annual David R. Kessler Lecture in Lesbian and Gay Studies to a full house at the CUNY Graduate School. White’s witty and erudite talk, “The Personal is Political: Queer Fiction and Criticism,” recalled the diverse, groundbreaking strategies he used writing his five novels and three works of nonfiction — writing initially, for example, “as if the utopia already existed.” “It was” he said wryly, “pure fiction.” An excerpt from the speech was subsequently published on The New York Times Op Ed page. In creating his early novels, Nocturnes for the King of Naples and Forgetting Elena White imagined a heterosexual European audience. States of Desire, in contrast, was written with a gay male audience in mind. It was the currency of the idea that ”the personal is political” which enabled him to write A Boy’s Own Story. While the strategy behind The Beautiful Room is Empty was to represent a young man “so tormented” that the reader “would welcome with relief the Stonewall uprising.” White placed the processes of writing both fiction and criticism in a political context, observing that his novels have been generated by tensions in his own mind between opposing ideas. Turning to the debate about the canon, he remarked that the whole idea of the “canon” is ‘1or people who don’t like to read.” Real readers, he continued, seek ”to have more and more books, not fewer and fewer.” What we must do, he said,_ is accept ”the full implications of pluralism” and teach “how to read, not what to read.” Three commentators introduced White. Felice Picano recalled White’s history with The Violet Quill, the legendary support group of seven gay writers. Picano observed that the group met fewer than a dozen times to talk about the problems of writing gay fiction and hardly thought that they were making history at the time. Critic David Bergman, Professor of English at Towson State University, discussed White’s social criticism, and J.D. McClatchy, editor of The Yale Review, considered White as a literary figure. The evening was introduced by Martin Duberman, who spoke about the career and contributions of David R. Kessler, who endowed the evening’s lecture and was present in the audience. Manhattan Borough President Ruth Messenger closed the evening with a short, moving talk in support of the work of CLAGS. The David R. Kessler Lecture in Lesbian and Gay Studies is an annual event established by Kessler, a San Francisco-based psychiatrist and activist, to honor individuals who have, in Kessler’s words, made “substantial contributions to the expression or understanding of gay and lesbian life.” Invited lecturers are chosen by a special committee drawn from the CLAGS board of directors. The first Kessler lecture, “I Lift My Face to the Hill: The Life of Mabel Hampton as Told to a White Woman,” was delivered by Joan Nestle, co-founder of the Lesbian Herstory Archives.