Dreadful: The Short Life and Gay Times of John Horne Burns by David Margolick

dreadful

On the strength of his writing alone, John Horne Burns would merit a long essay. Five thousand words might do the job – ten thousand if The Gallery got a full sounding. This is because two of his three novels, Lucifer with a Book and A Cry of Children, are forgettable affairs and have justifiably been out of print for decades. But add Burns’s life to the mix – his “short life and gay times” as biographer David Margolick would have it – and a complex picture emerges, centered on a conceited, difficult man at pains to navigate an era which fundamentally condemned much of what made up his identity.

Burns grew up in a Catholic family in Massachusetts, and attended Andover and later Harvard. Even before he confronted an America fiercely opposed to his sexual orientation, Burns faced the likelihood of being discriminated against for his Catholic faith. Nathaniel Batchelder, then headmaster at Loomis School, was “infuriated by the anti-Catholic bias Burns had encountered,” interviewed the young man and “snapped Burns up, telling colleagues he was probably the brightest young man he’d ever brought on.” Burns, it transpires, would have agreed wholeheartedly with Batchelder’s assessment.

Early on, Margolick admits that he had some concerns in choosing Burns as a subject. “Readers may have to struggle, as I have, with his prickly personality,” Margolick writes. Indeed, Burns is hard to like at times, and hard to take seriously at others, as when he compares the sophistication of a new work he’s writing to Lear. Margolick also relates his fear that he, as a comfortably established straight writer, early in the 21st century, will struggle to do justice to the hardship Burns’s faced as a gay man, and a gay writer in midcentury America. I share more with Margolick than Burns’s, so my assessment here is less than authoritative, but there’s every indication that he sought to capture Burns’s plight and the toll it took on him, both in his life and work. There must, too, have been the question of whether Burns merited so much attention. Margolick was drawn to Burns thanks to having trod one of the same paths: he attended Loomis, where Burns taught and which served as a model for Lucifer with a Book. He needn’t have worried: Burns emerges as a fascinating and maddening talent, albeit not one of the first order, despite his many inflated claims of his own brilliance.

There’s nothing particularly unusual about a war as the central experience in a life, particularly if that individual dies young. What stands out in Burns’s case is the way in which the war shaped him. He was already a seasoned drinker prior to his wartime service, but his non-combat role in Italy made it possible for him to indulge further still. The full significance of his habit wasn’t clear at first – he was a young man, certainly young enough that it would take very serious drinking to do major harm in the short-term. While gradually following Burns’s struggles with drink, Margolick also provides a detailed survey of his sexual life in wartime and afterward, an account which adds still more to the existing body of work on gay life during the period. In Burns’s case, though, the isolation and the loneliness he seems to have endured are more memorable. He seldom wrote about any enduring bond with the same seriousness as his own alienation. He was, however, a remarkable observer, as evidenced by a letter to his mother in August of 1944:

I met so many of the guys who are taking part in the newest invasion today. They rested here before being jammed into the landing barges. Most of them were pitifully desperate; they’d been through Africa and Sicily and Cassino; and they didn’t see how they’d miss getting theirs this time. Consequently the city was like a plague-town of the Middle Ages: the wildest merriment to drown the steps of Death. I knew some better in an evening than I do many of my friends. Urgency, sorrow, confusion, annihilation of everything they’d known in America.

Well, the death-rattle can’t go on forever. And there’s a cool wind this afternoon. Augury?

The Gallery sits at the heart of Burns’s life as a writer. It emerged from his experiences in Italy during World War II, and is routinely classed among the major works published in the aftermath of the war. I won’t linger on the book itself – it has certain weaknesses, but it’s also vital and surprising and available in a handsome New York Review Books Classics edition, with an introduction by Paul Fussell. Margolick follows Burns, who fortunately left a thorough record of his travels and moods, through the writing of the book and its reception. The book didn’t have an easy birth. Eighteen publishers rejected it. Harper and Brothers took a chance on it. Months later, prior to publication, Little Brown & Co. inquired about the book’s availability, but Burns informed them it was spoken for, adding that, “It is a long job on the war in Italy, and is, I fear, at least as good as War and Peace.”

Critics didn’t go quite so far, but the praise was ample enough to keep Burns’s ego strong. A New York Times review “praised Burns’s ‘rancorously vivid portraits,’ while in the New York Times Book Review, Richard Sullivan noted the book’s sensuous, sympathetic tone.” The Boston Globe called him “one of the finest writing talents in the country.” Perhaps the most telling remarks came in William McFee’s New York Sun review. “Whether [Burns] will use his definite talent to write more novels of this caliber is anybody’s guess,” McFee wrote, and noted that Burns was “recklessly extravagant in squandering material in this book. The clever professional novelist would have made half a dozen novels out of it.” That’s just the figure Burns proved not to be, and Margolick traces that eventuality in sad, sobering detail.

In the aftermath of The Gallery, Burns had a contract with Harper Brothers for two more books. This was maybe the worst possible outcome for Burns. His debut was widely and justly praised. The follow-up was another matter, an ill-considered and vindictive broadside against an institution and group of people he should have acknowledged he owed a great deal. Burns had a tendency to start fires which required him to provide both the fuel and the spark. His dealings with Loomis Academy are a disappointing example. He seems petty and stunted in his attitudes in writing and discussing Lucifer with a Book, which lampoons the faculty, administration and student body of the school. Loomis Academy was tolerant of his excesses and generous toward him even in his absence. The slights he sought to repay – real or imagined – can’t have been as vitriolic as his response, at least not on the basis of Margolick’s portrait of Burns’s time there.

The reception wasn’t so warm this time around. Margolick is no more generous: “Lucifer’s undisputed brilliance – the rich vocabulary, the elegant turns of phrase, all its wonderful metaphor – make it more awful, directed such as it is at such Liliputian targets.” Yet it was still more accomplished than A Cry of Children, his third and final book, written fits of delusion and self-doubt. Harper Brothers didn’t want to publish it, Burns had so lost sight of the gifts which marked him as a talent to watch a few scant years earlier. They decided to go through with it, but the outcome was predictable.

Burns was in genuinely poor shape by that time. He had already retreated to Italy, where he enjoyed greater esteem and found the pace of living more to his taste. It hadn’t helped him recapture the magic that produced The Gallery. Gore Vidal, who considered Burns a rival shortly after the war, attributed The Gallery to “the splendid accident of a moment’s genius.” Little from Burns’s life convincingly contradicts that appraisal. Burns was an ambitious, difficult and self-destructive man. But The Gallery remains a remarkable book, and Dreadful adds much to our understanding of how it came to be.

– John McIntyre

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