Life of the Mind

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

David Margolick. Other Press, 2013. 382 pages. $28.95.

By David Madden

When John Horne Burns, the author of the once famous World War II novel The Gallery, died in Leghorn, Italy, in the fall of 1953, he left few friends but many enemies, steadily accumulated over most of his lifetime. 

Many writers after death—William Styron, James Dickey, John Cheever—are revealed to be flawed, but John Horne Burns' behavior,  many observers, David Margolick reports, was visibly loathsome throughout his life. When he was famous, he was simultaneously infamous, quite possibly the most odious of flawed American writers. 

Even so, one of the finest novels of the 1940s (critics, readers, and fellow novelists agreed then and still agree) is The Gallery. Set in Allied-occupied Naples, it is successfully unusual in structure and generally fine in style. Instead of a conventional table of contents, Burns provides the “Floorplan of The Gallery,” consisting of seventeen “chapters,” a unique structure. Nine portraits of major characters alternate with eight promenades through cities where the narrator (Burns) served as censor in the intelligence corps: Casablanca, Fedhala, Algiers, and Naples, where the last three promenades are set. Reading the novel one might enjoy recalling Spencer's Faerie Queen cantos, Gheberti's and Rodin's doors. 

“Everybody in Naples came to the Galleria Umberto.” The chapter about Momma is generally regarded as the most masterful. “Momma dreamed that she was queen of some gay exclusive club.” Margolick writes that “The Gallery's gayness was almost entirely overlooked or... ignored.” Burns' portrait of “Momma is astonishing, one of those artistic miracles it is almost impossible to explain.” 

Given the times, the novel's “pervasive anti-Americanism” is shocking. “Burns' GIs aren't human at all; they are monsters...” Because Italians had been enemies, Americans felt they had a “license to defecate all over them.” Expressions of “his bitterness against America” often sound ill-conceived, sophomoric. All the sympathetic characters are like Burns' ideal conception of himself as a person made new by the ambience of war. But something happened to Burns in the war. Everything worked on him strangely. “My laughter shifted to the other side of my face and finally died away altogether. The first time in my life I became touched, concerned, moved. Sometimes I even wept. I discovered at long last that I wasn't any different from anybody else.”

Margolick does a fine job of describing the process through which the snarling, supercilious, pseudo-satirical temperament of Lt. Burns, the official censor of letters written by Italian prisoners of war, underwent a transformation that enabled him to depict with compassion and psychological acumen the lives of war-ravaged but proud and courageous Neapolitans who habitually came and went through the Galleria Umberto, a monumental structure the glass dome of which Allied bombs had shattered, while sustaining his contempt for American soldiers, sparing, as usual, himself.

After Phillips Academy, Burns graduated from Harvard, Phi Beta Kappa, and began to teach at Loomis Academy. He was loathed and resented, known among teachers and students as a born snob but a teacher of rare ability and intelligence. “My wild centrifugal spirit” was his conception of himself as a teacher. Margolick summarizes with this phrase: “his brilliant, almost demonic style of teaching.”

He idolized his mother and the Catholic Church; Schumann's songs, opera, prayer, and cigarettes and whiskey consoled him. “The odious little race of vermin to which we all belong,” Burns wrote to his mother, “can also be heavenly lice on the body of God.” His politics was a “half-baked soufflé of pacifism, socialism, internationalism, isolationism, and cynicism …” His attitude about America and the war was contemptible. “The war was all a capitalist plot, with Americans at least as culpable as Germans, maybe more....” He was eager to see his family, “the only ties I have in the world, the only loyalties,” but he never asked about his three brothers who were also in the service and who faced dangers Burns never experienced.

But, he avowed, “We still live under the best government (or scheme of it) in the world.”

Burns became more sensitive to a world that had been “smashed into pieces.... Making sense of it all was something he actually felt divinely ordained to do.” Writing The Gallery, he “was no longer obnoxious, perverse, cynical, or campy, flippant, self-indulgent; he “was no longer writing for him self, or for a select few. He wanted to be heard. He'd grown serious.”

Teaching again at Loomis, he was conjuring up “the building, and the city, four thousand miles away, that had moved him so deeply.” He had started The Gallery in Naples; it took him only June 1945 to April 1946 to finish. His egoism was undiminished. “The Gallery, I fear, is one of the masterpieces of the twentieth century.... There's nothing like it in literature. It has a form all its own, a unity all its own.”

Gore Vidal, who consistently praised Burns' considerable talent for decades, called Burns' second novel Lucifer with a Book: “Perhaps the most savagely and unjustly attacked book of its day.” Vidal and Burns “competed over everything, including which of them was more competitive.” Although Burns' review of James Michener's first work of fiction, Tales of the South Pacific, was mean-spirited, Michener defended Burns' work, saying years later, “I think of him everyday.” To James Michener, Burns was more talented than the two other successful first-time novelists, Ross Lockridge and Robert Heggen, who killed themselves. 

Reception of his third novel, A Cry of Children, may have been a knee-jerk reaction by reviewers then even more eager to see Burns, the arrogant celebrity, fall. Brendan Gill said Burns' dialogue was “of Sequoian woodenness.” Margolick's summaries are very effective: “Because he was never in love with a woman, he could not write about it; because he had few old friends, he could not describe friendship; because he did not much like people, he couldn't capture them; because he could not or would not write about what he knew and cared about most.... he had to write about what he didn't” know. 

While I fervently agree with the positive assessment of The Gallery, I am convinced that Lucifer with a Book and A Cry of Children deserve rediscovery. 

Reviewers of Dreadful would soon run out of adjectives to describe Burns had Margolick not supplied every conceivable one in quotations from people who knew Burns. “You like or dislike him right away,” said an interviewer. If David Margolick, author of six other works of nonfiction on a variety of subjects, leaves the impression that he, too, loathed the man, while praising only The Gallery, the reason for that may be that he had to purvey page after page the lurid, sordid details of the life of Burns, who smoked too much, drank far, far too much. “Burns proved to be a difficult man to know, to like, to write about,” says Margolick. 

Burns fitfully engaged in while concealing or denying his homosexuality. “Dreadful” was his code word for homosexual. “Burns' homosexuality simultaneously marked his greatest work, limited his artistic range, hastened his downfall, and decades later, aided his reemergence as a literary figure of note.” 

Margolick describes Burns's Holiday magazine travel pieces as revealing a quite different sensibility. Burns was assigned to do a series of pieces for Holiday magazine, traveling first to Casablanca, Algiers, Tunis, Naples. Those pieces are free of sarcasm, of the vices of much of his other writings. They are “erudite, sensitive, lyrical, contemplative. And because he was not writing about people, kind.”  

Why bother to experience in this huge book the life of such a self-destructive man so lacking in compassion, so self-indulgent in pursuing his talent and his career? 

One has only to join the thousands who first read and praised The Gallery, and the thousands who, after four decades of obscurity, have read it as a rediscovered novel, thanks in part to the re-issued edition from New York Review Books. 

Among the writers who praised The Gallery and aspects of his other two novels then and over the years were Edmund Wilson, Ernest Hemingway, Martha Gellhorn, Erich Maria Remarque, Lillian Hellman, David Mamet, C. P. Snow, John Steinbeck, and Sinclair Lewis. William Styron said he had to have been inspired by it. John Dos Passos called it” the first book of real magnitude to come out of the last war.” In After the Lost Generation, John Aldridge included The Gallery on his list of the best World War II novels, along with novels by Vance Bourjaily, Norman Mailer, Irwin Shaw, Gore Vidal, and James Michener.

Among those who loathed him and his novels were Orville Prescott and most other reviewers, Mark Van Doren, and Marianne Moore.

Burns publicly ridiculed traditional poets and novelists and those of his own time, while declaring the superiority of his own published and unpublished novels, unmindful of their deficiencies. Among the writers Burns trashed verbally or in reviews were Henry James, Oscar Wilde, T. S. Eliot, Graham Greene, Truman Capote, Christopher Isherwood, Bernard Berenson, Thomas Wolfe, and the Kenyon College New Critics.

But in his reviews and in conversation, he expressed approval of Norman Mailer, Robert Penn Warren, Eudora Welty, Irwin Shaw, among others. 

 

Near where the body of Percy Shelley washed ashore, Burns imprudently exposed his body too long to the sun, and that, combined with an old head injury, episodes of venereal disease, his excessive smoking, and alcoholism caused him to die in a coma August 11, 1953, at the age of 37. Some suspected murder or at least a willed suicide by overexposure to the sun.

David Madden (ΦBK, University of Tennessee, 1976) is the author eleven novels, the most recent being Abducted by Circumstance and London Bridge in Plague and Fire. His third book of stories, The Last Bizarre Tale, will appear in August.
 

(Posted on 12/20/2013 )