I get my New York Review in the mail, and read it on paper, so am late to every debate in its pages, but for the record let me say how unfair I think Edmund White was to David Blankenhorn in the latest issue. For the record, I know, slightly, Blankenhorn, the star witness in the California Prop. 8 trial, whom I interviewed for an NPR special that aired the day he reversed his position on same-sex marriage. I have never met White, although I’ve enjoyed the stuff of his that I have read.
To begin, Blankenhorn gets White’s name wrong in his letter, calling him instead “Edmund Wilson.” Instead of doing the graceful thing and correcting it for Blankenhorn, on the principle that we all make such mistakes and magnanimity is the order of the day, White — and the New York Review editors — let stand Blankenhorn’s error, all the better to belittle him. I have to imagine that White gets called Wilson all the time (they are, after all, both high-middlebrow prep-school-educated Anglophone literary men named Edmund), and one wonders if White is always so tetchy about it. Perhaps he takes exception to being called “Bunny.”
But on to the substance of the letter, and White’s reply. Blankenhorn has written for one reason only, it seems to me: to say that the “admissions” wrested of him on the witness stand were in fact things he had stated for the public record for years. In other words, Blankenhorn did not fall victim to David Boies’s Jedi-like cross-ex technique, but rather freely admitted beliefs that he had long held. This is important not just as a matter of Blankenhorn’s dignity (who among us likes to be had on the witness stand?), but also as a matter of historical fidelity. What made Blankenhorn such a curious, and ultimately problematic, Prop 8 witness was precisely that he was not anti-gay, in the manner of somebody like the National Organization for Marriage’s Brian Brown, and he had no religious or moral objection to gay sex or partnering, as Maggie Gallagher does. But Blankenhorn is right to insist that these weren’t witness-stand revelations: they were facts on the ground.
White’s response is utterly baffling. In its entirety, here it is, beginning with his juvenile gotcha: “David Blankenhorn seems to have confused me with the late, great Edmund Wilson (so much for scholarly attention to detail). Nor does he seem to grasp that though he was presented as a witness for the anti-gay team, his remarks and writings actually strengthened the case for marriage equality.”
In fact, of course, Blankenhorn has grasped precisely that point, quite publicly. You can read him on it in the Times; you can listen to him talk about it. This is current events, people. It’s not my sense, reading the entire review, that White, is a fiction writer and memoirist and essayist and gay-sex pamphleteer (he co-wrote The Joy of Gay Sex), is particularly up-to-speed on the swirling winds of gay politics or marriage equality. For further example, he seems not to grasp the extent of the opposition to Jo Becker’s book, which he mentions, in slight passing, near the very end of the piece.
We all make mistakes, and sometimes a mistake is accepting a review assignment that is out of one’s comfort zone. But it could be one definition of grace not to double down when a letter-writer corrects you.