Edmund White, creative writing professor emeritus in the Lewis Center for the Arts, will receive the 2019 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters from the National Book Foundation.
The National Book Foundation’s website describes the award as “one of literature’s most prestigious honors” and explains that the purpose of the award is to recognize “individuals who have made an exceptional impact on this country’s literary heritage.”
Writer and filmmaker John Waters will present the award to White at the National Book Awards in November, according to the Office of Communications press release.
White began teaching at the University in 1998. The Associated Press described White as “among the most influential gay writers of his time” and described his career as “prolific and versetile.”
According to the Office of Communications, White has written nearly 30 books. White’s bio on the Lewis Center for the Arts website notes he is perhaps best known for his biography of French writer Jean Genet, a book for which he won the National Book Critics Circle Award.
His other works include an autobiographical trilogy, A Boy’s Own Story, The Beautiful Room is Empty, and The Farewell Symphony; a novel about love in the AIDS era called The Married Man; a biography about the titular French author, Marcel Proust: A Life; a book about unconventional Paris called The Flaneur; and a biography of Arthur Rimbaud. His works of fiction include Chaos and Hotel de Dream.
In addition, he has written four memoirs, including Inside a Pearl: My Life in Paris, published in 2014 and The Unpunished Vice: A Life of Reading, published in 2018. His new novel, A Saint in Texas, is forthcoming in 2020.
According to the National Book Foundation, White majored in Chinese at the University of Michigan before moving to New York City, where he would form the Violet Quill, a casual club comprised of himself and six other gay writers: Christopher Cox, Robert Ferro, Michael Grumley, Andrew Holleran, Felice Picano, and George Whitmore.
White also co-founded the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, described by the National Book Foundation as “the world’s first provider of HIV/AIDS care and advocacy.”
The Office of Communications noted that Toni Morrison, the Robert F. Goheen Professor in the Humanities, Emeritus, who died on Aug. 5, received the award in 1996. White and Morrison were colleagues during their time at the University, and White recalled to the Associated Press that the two disagreed about popular culture, with Morrison holding a more favorable opinion while White described himself as “this weird mandarin who never had a television.”
Robert Caro ’57 also received the award in 2016.
An honorary award will be given to Oren Teicher, head of the American Booksellers Association. In addition, competitive prizes for fiction, nonfiction, translation, poetry and “young people’s literature” will be announced, according to the Associated Press.