Children satisfy many different needs when they read. They have no obligation to be noble, nor to embody the virtues that adults would like to project upon them. Some children who read are positively alarming. More power to them. They might grow up to be great writers, or they might never grow up at all. This excerpt is from Chapter 8 of Edmund White’s memoir, The Unpunished Vice (2018), which is available in most formats from Bloomsbury Publishing. [All excisions from the original published chapter are marked with a triple asterisk (* * *).]
I’ve always associated reading and writing with sex. When I was in eighth grade, fourteen years old, I would sit every afternoon for an hour in the school library across from a friend—tall, lean, freckled—who had the bruised-leaf smell of a redhead, though his hair was auburn and lushly curly. He had that scrubbed, pale, almost blue-lipped look of some boys who seem in need of rouge and lipstick, who look like actors who’ve just cold-creamed away their mouths and eyebrows—as in need of colour as waking monkeys are in need of coffee.
It helped that he’d just had an hour of football and hadn’t taken a shower. Every day he came at two o’clock direct from the playing field to the library, smelling almost rank with sweat and hormones, almost like one of those bitter herbs it’s become fashionable to mix in with greens that otherwise would be too bland.
He reeked unapologetically. He always sat directly across from me at one end of the long library table. We would each pretend to read, but soon we’d clamped our fourteen-year-old legs around each other—his left leg my right leg, his right leg my left leg. He seemed like a normal, popular, athletic guy, who was also good in math and wanted to be a chemical engineer like his dad. He was going steady with a pretty blonde a foot shorter, and they would cling to each other at sock hops like drowning swimmers. Luckily most of the doo-wop songs of the period were slow, and they could grind into each other for hours. When he went to get her another cup of punch, I always looked at his crotch to see if I could detect the outlines of a wet erection. I usually could.
When we sat “reading” in the library, our legs clamped each other in a pulsing rhythm, tightening and relaxing, tightening and relaxing. I could feel the muscles in his legs, the bulging quadriceps crowning his thighs but so bulky they were spilling over to the sides. The intense herbal smell seemed to grow stronger the more eager we became.
I would scoot down in my chair and press my knee into his crotch, but he would draw back fractionally. Maybe he was afraid one of the other kids would see us, or he had his limits, as the girls back then would allow touching above the waist but not below. They might as well have worn traffic signals, green to go, amber to slow down, red to stop. Danny was mostly green or amber, and he wasted no time to get us into a crural crunch. I don’t think he wanted it to go anywhere; he liked the pressure and pleasure but knew it was forbidden. When we were twelve, us guys had wrestled for hours on the lawn playing Squirrel (“Grab the nuts and run”)—painful as it might have been, it was irresistible. By now we’d outgrown that, but this under-the-table thrill, just because it was unprecedented and still unidentified, was tacitly alluring.
To this day the smell of a sweating redhead male makes me think of bunched, moist underpants, the strong, pulsing vise of clamped legs, long afternoon rays of sunlight coming through half-rolled-up yellow window shades, and, across the wood table with its bordered central pad of dark leather, Danny’s pale, drained face over a book, his face exhausted from sports but still game for alternating leg-squeezing. The aggressive smell of a redhead man, of weeds stewing in a hot, sunlit puddle, still intoxicates me. Like so many strong odours, it’s wildly attractive, just short of being repulsive (the sadist with the stinky cigar). And part of the whole mise-en-scène is the books. Danny’s eyes kept scanning in the customary direction at an unrelenting rhythm, as if he were reading. Once or twice he’d reach down to rearrange his crotch, and his bloodless lips would twitch in an acknowledging smile, but he’d never look at me. We were both playing at reading.
The difference was that I wouldn’t have minded studying with him in private behind locked doors. But he’d already gone as far as—or farther than—he dared. When the sun was going down and it was getting colder and our mothers were becoming worried, I was always the one who wanted to go on playing Squirrel another half hour.
What was it like to read without reading? To see the words rushing past without registering them, a whole paragraph blurring by like an express subway hurtling so fast you can’t tell whether it’s the A or the C, your own hot fixation on Danny like a red letter superimposed over the pale blue illegible script of the book floating past—until you reached the end of a paragraph and couldn’t honestly say anything about it except the C for “Cock” or the A for “Ass.”
The mind would return to the top of the page and engage for an instant, deciphering the printed words and following the meaning, like a tug pulling a battleship—until Danny would squeeze your legs with extra force and the huge boat would pull free, drift and sink. Start all over again, discreetly underscoring the words with your fingertip and silently pronouncing the syllables, but Danny would slide an inch forward and clamp harder as if in a game—and the ship would capsize again. You were reading a dull U.S. history textbook, and you mindlessly highlighted the fugitive paragraph about the Dred Scott decision in bright yellow with its chemical smell, and superimposed on the yellow names of the Supreme Court justices. The far more urgent question: Should you follow Danny into the john, or would that spook him and spoil everything?
Books were my constant companions during those horny teenage years. I was a bookworm boring through whole stacks of public libraries. I would take a book to the lavatory and read in my closed cubicle, roosting for hours, peeking out through the doorjamb at each newcomer (rushing by too quickly to be identified) and psychoanalyzing each pair of shoes in the adjoining stall to determine if I could detect any flirtatious tapping or stance-widening worthy of a senator. The smells of bleach and urinal pads and shit were the melancholy accompaniment to my “cruising” (I didn’t even know the word, since I’d not met any avowed gays yet with their coded vocabulary).
Perhaps my reading I thought of as compensating for all the hours wasted on public toilets. Maybe that’s why my reading took such a serious turn toward history, linguistics, philosophy—nothing was too daunting for this serious midwestern public-library intellectual. If I ran into French dialogue among the aristocrats in an old translation of War and Peace, I would mutter indignantly, “For pete’s sake!”; I had no patience with artificial barriers to knowledge. I admired the logical positivists such as Rudolf Carnap among philosophers because they expressed themselves clearly and confidently and swept out centuries of accumulated metaphysical cobwebs: swish, there goes Saint Thomas, swish-swish, away with Aristotle. To me the most bestial and shameful appetites were associated with the life of the mind. When I was a teen, I dreamed one night I was a convict worker sweating and labouring in the basement of a luxury hotel; we, the grizzled prisoners, weren’t allowed upstairs with the lovely guests. As an adult I had a dream in which men in tuxedos sipped champagne in a room lined entirely with narrow mirrored doors; in an instant they could go through the doors into a brutal backroom given over to cruelty, blood, sex, sweat, and tears.
If I felt a wan inertia, a tepid depression during all my hours and hours “offstage” (between sexual encounters), I was electrified, face burning, blush blossoms creeping up my chest and neck, when I touched another man. Behavioural psychologists say that the most binding schedule is random reinforcement; the pigeon gets a pellet not after every third or seventh peck but at utterly unpredictable intervals. That was cruising—“random reinforcement,” like slot machines. After only one more plunge of the lever, maybe three cherries will come up, or a slender, smiling young athlete might enter the library toilet.
In Cincinnati one summer when I was working as a fifteen-year-old at my father’s downtown office, I ran over to the public library. A tall, slim college student in a summer suit, starched white shirt, and red-and-yellow silk rep tie walked swiftly, head lowered, to the next urinal, though the others weren’t busy, unzipped—and immediately started to stare at me with an intense frown.
He was the best-looking man who’d ever shown an interest in me. And I certainly wasn’t going to play hard to get. I came from a family that paid so little attention to me that I was a stutterer and had to see a speech therapist (“Just pretend you’re a rag doll, you’re so relaxed you’re falling asleep”); whenever I’d start to speak at the dinner table, my father would glower and my cleverer older sister would interrupt. In such a world you had to light fires atop a chain of watchtowers to send a message (“The enemy is coming! The enemy is coming!”). To this day tomfoolery or irony makes me nervous—why add additional barriers to communication, already so hit-and-miss?
I turned, erect and smiling, toward my admirer—but he immediately zipped up and rushed out. I couldn’t understand what had happened; what was my faux pas? When I left the restroom, I spied him standing beside a pretty girl in a pale blue dress with a white collar and long, glossy hair. He beckoned for me to come over.
Now I felt alarmed. Who were these people? Why did they want to talk to me, a shambling teen with Steve Allen black glasses and a horrible buzz cut my father had imposed on me and that threw my big ears and untanned skin into relief? I was shabby and felt ugly. The handsome man and woman were now smiling with connivance. I was afraid of them. It smelled fishy to me. Did they want to play a trick on me? Was she in on it? What was “it”? I returned to my seat and pile of books a few rows away.
And then he suddenly slid into the adjoining chair. “Why won’t you join us? We think you look interesting. I’m Dan. That’s Sharon. Come with us—I’ve got a convertible. We’ll go somewhere.”
“I’m Ed,” I said, my mind racing. “I have to go back to work.”
“Oh, take the afternoon off.”
“Thanks, but I have only an hour for lunch. I work just three blocks down on Pine.”
I wanted to say, “What do you have in mind?” Or, “Maybe another time.” I was reluctant to shut the door and afraid to leave it open. He got up abruptly and went back to his girl. She lifted her hands, palms up, and shrugged, as if to say, “I give up.”
I’d read The Catcher in the Rye, and though these people didn’t remind me of any particular characters in that book, they seemed to have come right out of that world—East Coast, bored and privileged, too privileged to fail, whereas I felt I was just hanging on by my fingertips. They could afford to have attitudes, to make themselves conspicuous, to play little games on juvenile bystanders. I suppose I was eccentric, a nervous wreck, so graceless you couldn’t tell I was a sissy, afraid of my own shadow, patiently, like a dung beetle, pushing uphill my growing ball of knowledge and culture. But it never occurred to me to question the greatness of the great, of recognized artists and thinkers, and I absorbed them all with the thirst of a desert palm. I didn’t shrug or tempt strangers at the urinal just for fun. I had no sense of humour—though I knew from my reading that that was a desirable quality on the marriage market, a realization that didn’t make it any more likely I’d learn to be funny. The 1950s were before the era of self-improvement. People were handsome because they were born that way, had fine eyes and strong jaws, straight noses and musical voices. Maybe if someone had a disfiguring accident, she might undergo lots of surgery, but only to get her up to speed, out of the monster category, surely not to improve on nature. Men were born tall and long-waisted and so powerful in the chest they looked as if they’d burst out of their shirts. The rest of us fit into our sharkskin suits better than those guys in their tight cords, white socks, run-down penny loafers, their formless blazers and shirts always pulled halfway out and open at the thick neck, but that the blue of the shirt matched their eyes and the red scarf mimicked their winter-rosy cheeks, or that their teeth were white, straight, and always pinging with silver stars—surely these colours and glints were God-given, not somehow…achieved.
If a man on the bus wore a porkpie hat, a pencil-thin mustache, and a maroon silk tie wider than it was long, he was born that way. His ugliness was genetic. That was a sort of ugliness life had drawn for him out of the hat. Boys with fluent waists, girls with resplendent hair, cheerleaders, even off-duty, who effervesced and moved in a swarm, their bracelets tinkling, their laughter rising softly and their white Oxfords unsmudged under the gray, methodically pleated skirts—that was just the way God had made them, and any usurper (awkward, her hair bouncing in long curls like metal slinkies, ambling down the stairs, lipstick on her eyetooth, her ankles bandaged with thin white socks rather than with the trendy fat white socks) was immediately identifiable and expelled.
The Catcher in the Rye was the first book (just as “Blue Denim” and “Rebel Without a Cause” were the first movies) that seemed to be about people like me and my friends. Of course I didn’t really know anyone like Brandon de Wilde or James Dean (besides, Hollywood “teens” looked as if they were in their twenties to our adolescent eyes—the coordinated colours, the gripping undergarments, no pudge or acne), but they illustrated our dreams. Later, in the 1960s, rebels would find causes, but in the 1950s they were possessed by the urge to revolt, which quickly sputtered out in alienated attitudes.
This chic, tall couple at the library could have been Hollywood teens or cousins of Holden Caulfield, ever alert for “phonies,” ready for spontaneous adventure, no sooner kicked out of one prep school than enrolled in another, better one. I wasn’t like them. I was a neglected child. I could be depressed, quietly, privately, but I still had to get straight A’s, work summer jobs, stay in line and inconspicuous. Although I returned often to the library, my exciting couple never made another appearance. I never found what they were up to. Sexual charades were my closest guess. Maybe some kind of unimaginable perversion.
My father disapproved of my reading, especially in the summertime, when I should be doing chores around his lakeside house. Reading spelled laziness, and laziness was next to sissiness. My parents were divorced, but my mother the psychologist had reported gleefully to Dad that I was “acting out,” acting out with “inappropriate object choices.” I begged her not to confide my secret in him, but she did it anyway, despite her promise. He never mentioned it to me but put me on a strict regime of raking pine needles: the cure for homosexuality is yard work. In Forgetting Elena* the narrator is forced to rake needles, which feels pointless and unbearably lonely.
If I was constantly reading, I was also constantly writing. Someone gave me a rhyming dictionary in which the second half was devoted to prosody: how to write a triolet, a sestina, a canzone, a sonnet. I quickly learned to write both Petrarchan and Shakespearean sonnets (different rhyme schemes—the Shakespearean ends with a bumper-car couplet as the clincher). I was impressed by Pope’s versified “essays” and soon, at fourteen, had produced a rather long one on the seasons. My eighth-grade teacher, Mrs. Kincaid, had me read it out loud to three different sections of English class: the girls doodled and the boys doubled up laughing. But I still felt special, and there and then I decided to be a writer (I’d already tried acting, composing, and painting without much success). In the eighth-grade pageant I wore a sort of tunic and sat primly like the White Rock girl with my legs to one side, which my sister later ridiculed, and I processed in and out to Schubert’s “Unfinished” and said, rather loudly, “I am lit-chur” in my midwestern accent.
My erotic fantasies were all mixed up with dreams of tyrannical power, as if the sissy, after having enough sand kicked in his face, becomes the frightening strong man. I had extended fantasies about dominating whole countries, continents, the world. My whole personality, however, was gentle and cowardly, and I would scream while watching a movie where someone on screen broke a nail. I wanted to be a great general. I began a biography of Peter the Great and copied out whole pages from the standard biographies. I begged my parents to send me to Culver Military Academy in Indiana, and they did for a practice summer; I wanted to begin my military career right away. But just as gay men in my generation worshipped athletes but were bored by sports, in the same way I admired sailors, soldiers, and pilots but quickly came to detest marching, six A.M. reveilles, spit shines and hospital corners, trooping the colours across dusty, bug-infested fields, and swimming a mile (my preferred stroke was the backstroke). We were always on the move, either training or on nature hikes, where we learned to identify banal midwestern plants (goldenrod and Queen Anne’s lace). Never a moment to curl up with a book. After six weeks I developed a high fever and strep throat, and my mother had to drive down from Chicago to fetch me out of the infirmary. So ended my dreams of world conquest.
My delusions of grandeur migrated to the Greek gods; I read Edith Hamilton’s mythology and tried to memorize the different Greek and Roman names of the same deity. I had moments when I believed I was Zeus and could control the thunder by shaking my hand in a certain way (three sets of three bolts). I dreamed of my own death, my mother and sister weeping beside my tomb, their stupefaction when I rose from the grave. Now they were sorry they hadn’t been nicer to me—nicer or at least awestruck.
When I was still in grade school, I became friends with Fred and Marilyn; he owned the local bookstore in Evanston, Illinois, and she worked there. If I couldn’t be Napoleon, at least I could be the bewitching little genius. Marilyn wore peasant blouses and too much perfume. Fred was severely ascetic and wore sandals. They were amused by me and decided I should learn German from a Northwestern professor so that I could read Hermann Hesse in the original (he was just beginning to be translated). Accordingly I went twice a week to Dr. Meno Spann’s apartment to take my lessons. I attended a puppet show of a pre-Goethe Faust that Spann devised (he played all the parts and produced all the voices). He’d made the hand puppets, with their large heads of painted, chiselled wood. His Faust was a Renaissance scholar, based on Marlowe’s play, which was the source of Goethe’s poem. I quickly became infatuated with him and insisted my mother invite him to dinner (maybe he should marry her, I thought, but her dinner was not copious enough for him and she must have bored him, though she put on her best dress and drank many highballs and babbled pleasantly). I loved his tallness, his culture, and his masculinity; in his living room there were photos of him in a swimsuit on the beach, holding a woman aloft on one hand. Just recently I learned that he was married five times, each wife having divorced him after just a year or two of marriage. At the time, like Bluebeard, he never mentioned his wives. He wrote a textbook of beginning German for Americans and a study of Kafka. He devised a system of exercise, which he followed all during his long life. His Hungarian mother was an actress.
I made no progress in German, even though I was so motivated; perhaps I was a dumb kid after all, or average, not the little genius my mother pretended I was. On alternating days she questioned all my abilities, and I felt my self-esteem either exalted or dashed; perhaps that’s why I read my reviews to this day with dread in my heart. Was I talented or was I an idiot? This fear never made me cautious. Even in boarding school I was already writing about homosexuality (my first novel, The Tower Window, in which the teen hero becomes gay after a girl rejects him) or nymphomania (my second book, Mrs. Morrigan). That second work made my classmates titter, and when I read a bit out loud, even my teacher, whom we called the Wombat, shook his doughy hand as if he’d touched something hot and smacked his dentured, boneless mouth. Their shock and laughter incensed me; I’d portrayed a serious psychological condition, nymphomania, and all they could do was treat it as pornography. In all my sixty-some years of writing I’ve never written to scandalize or arouse, though people have often been horrified or titillated by my books. Mrs. Morrigan, in fact, was about a middle-aged, middle-class midwestern woman who sleeps around with dangerous, even homicidal riffraff after her husband rejects her. In my mind rejection immediately precipitated sexual hysteria. Because my mother was a psychologist, I tried to take a “scientific” approach to sex, which had already become my great theme in all its many forms.
Once I was ill at the school infirmary for several days and read Wuthering Heights with a total immersion of spirit and mind. I can’t remember what I had, but it was contagious and I was isolated—which was perfect for reading a classic with rapture. Clean sheets. One window. Meals served in bed. I could picture Heathcliff with startling clarity. I thought he was as sexy as a gypsy.
Now, being an experienced writer, I might read Wuthering Heights with an eye to its clumsy construction (all those Chinese boxes, one inside another) or its inconsistent point of view, but back then I read with the same uncritical delight with which I still listen to music. It helps not to “professionalize” an art to remain pervious to it. Our boys’ school, Cranbrook, outside Detroit, was a parody of the Gothic style, with arches and turrets and gargoyles and a red brick tower—a perfect setting for reading the ur-Gothic novel!
When I was sixteen and at home during the summer, I started taking the L from Evanston to downtown Chicago, where I discovered another good bookshop tucked in between an art-movie house showing foreign films and a narrow, expensive coffee shop serving espresso. This was the 1950s. The bookshop was on Rush Street, the heart of the nightclub district, thronged with rowdy drunks, mostly wide in the beam and red in the face. I couldn’t go to a bar, straight or gay, but no one could stop me from “shopping” in a bookstore. I felt at home among the books—and turned on.
The bookstore owner was a pockmarked, somber Texan—and a gay man, I soon discovered. I would spend hours chatting with him, too hot in my overcoat, my feet tired from standing. His shop glittered before my eyes, though only the size of a modest storefront. That was before the era when bookstores sold cute coffee mugs, stuffed animals, and calendars of Impressionist paintings; there was nothing but Fear and Trembling by Søren Kierkegaard, Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and a translation of Thomas Mann’s Dr. Faustus. No travel books, no glossy picture books on the houses of the stars, no do-it-yourself astrology guides. In the 1950s high culture was forbiddingly high, if not widespread. I was fascinated by the owner not because I found him attractive but because I knew he was gay. I told him I was looking for a rich older lover, and he said, “They go for each other—why would a millionaire want you, a simple girl of the people?”
He enjoyed switching genders, which took me a while to get used to. Then I thought it was exhilaratingly funny, a token that I was a gay insider. He told me that European men like to “brown” (anal intercourse), whereas we Americans were famous for blowing men (“No, silly, you suck, not blow. We’re known for it all over the world. Those Europeans were glad to see us arrive after World War II”). I learned that most homosexuals were passive or “femme.” Only a few were “butch.” Best to pay a “real” (that is, heterosexual) man rather than “bump pussies” with another faggot. If a man was “trade,” he might let you suck him, especially if he was drunk enough (“All holes look good to a stiff dick”)—though he might beat you up later. He told me he’d been beaten up often by drunk sailors—it wasn’t so bad, all part of the game, could be kinda sexy. He had a lover who was a married man, a cop, to whom he gave money and who spanked him.
The vogue book in 1956 was Colin Wilson’s The Outsider, which he’d written at age twenty-four while living on Hampstead Heath in a sleeping bag. It was a look at Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea, Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground, Rilke’s Malte Laurids Brigge, Knut Hamsun’s Hunger—all the tormented, isolated, existentialist misfits (I thought, glamorously, of myself as one). I can remember when the box of that book arrived and my friend, the bookstore owner, tore it open with glee, saying “I’ll sell it out in a week!” We started reading random paragraphs out loud to each other: “Oh my God, this is so smart!” we’d exclaim.
Learning to be gay felt not unrelated to learning to be cultured. I forget everything now, but then I was gifted with nearly total recall; I remembered book titles, names of publishers, names of opera singers, names of operas. I was never a systematic, methodical reader. I didn’t read all of Aristotle but just the Nicomachean Ethics and the Poetics. Sometimes I felt I was registered in Cocktail Party 101; I wanted to be urbane more than erudite. Of course my idea of urbanity was based on a comprehensive general knowledge (excluding science) that I’d never encountered in real life except in books (and from Chicago’s cultural radio station, WFMT, which would program competing versions of La forza del destino during the dinner hour, or someone reciting from Pound’s Cantos. I liked the modulated, well-bred tones of the male announcers; I tried to picture these civilized young men). My pornography at the time was black-and-white photos of male ballet dancers in tights. I studied their crotches but could detect no bumps beneath the dance belts. The powerful legs and graceful hands and heads tipped back all bewitched me…
* * *
The writer has the last laugh; even if (as in my case) he is funny at his own expense and self-abnegating, his is still the governing point of view. He is the one who selects details and suppresses others, and he is the one who holds himself up for admiration as fiercely honest and, say, admirably sexual. For if there is a relationship between the writer and the subject, there is also a constantly shifting and growing rapport between writer and reader. There is a whole German literary school of criticism called reader-response theory, founded by Wolfgang Iser, in which the writer constructs an implied reader. Some writers pretend to be indifferent to the reception of their work, but I am constantly modelling in my mind an effigy of the reader—based on how readings go over, what real critics or Amazon readers say. Sometimes it’s obvious that certain readers are hostile or uncomprehending and they can be ignored, but most call for some response, especially in matters of clarity. For instance, at the end of Jack Holmes and His Friend*, some very clever readers have imagined that it’s the straight friend who’s become infected with AIDS—which never occurred to me. I keep trying to find the passage that misled them in order to eliminate it.
In Inside a Pearl: My Years in Paris*, I think I managed to alienate all my English writer friends, which seems a pity. Part of the problem is that admiring verbal portraits are dull; they must be a little bit shocking or scandalous to open the reader’s eyes and leap off the page. Kindness and generosity are usually soporific.
Could it be that prose is dull if it loses its bite? It could be an artifact of vivid style that it’s always nuanced and aggressive. Or it could be that our innate nastiness always comes out on the page. Then again I’ve been praised for being compassionate as often as I’ve been damned for being “critical,” as southerners say.
Sex and literature. Once I was being banged so noisily for so long that the landlady, who lived downstairs, came up at three A.M. to complain. My resourceful roommate said I was piling books. The next day I sent the landlady a bouquet with a note that said, “Sorry for the noise, you’ll be pleased to know Books has moved on.”
* In this essay White mentions three of his published books: his first novel, Forgetting Elena (1973); his tenth novel, Jack Holmes and His Friend (2012); and, a memoir, Inside a Pearl: My Years in Paris (2014).