Margolick, David. “Dreadful: The Short Life and Gay Times of John Horne Burns”, Othe“Dreadful: The Short Life and Gay Times of John Horne Burns”r Press, 2013.
A Little Known Figure in Gay History
I consider myself a well read person but I had never heard of John Horne Burns before I saw the upcoming announcement about this book. I even asked members of my book club here in Boston and no one had ever heard of him and he went to school in the Boston area. In fact Burns was educated at the very best schools—Andover and Harvard but spent the final days of his short life depressed and drunk. The book looks at the way Burns dealt with American life—he was “morally ambivalent’ regarding soldiers who were stationed with him in Naples, Italy. He lived from 1916-1953.
As a writer, Burns used his dark experiences in life to be the subject of what he wrote. His first novel, “The Gallery” was published in 1947 and was based upon his life during World War II and was acclaimed by critics as an “unflinching” look at gay life in the military. It sold half a million copies upon publication and then faded into obscurity as did Burns.
Burns was a smart man who worked in military intelligence during his service days and had once taught at the prestigious Loomis School in Connecticut. However when his name dropped from the radar so did he and he spent his life with the bottle and severe bouts of depression. Burns seems to have put himself on a collision course in a world that he felt was indifferent. Yet his writing was so good that Gore Vidal considered him to be a rival. He indeed was a writer but one who hated himself.
As we read of Burns’ life, we also see a dark history of American intellectual and literary culture and we learn what it meant and what is was like to be either literary or intellectual or both.
Burns was both smart and cynical, gay man who looked for and found his soul in America after the Great War. But the soul that Burns found was soon destroyed by excess, by alcohol, by being hated for his homosexuality and by his own vindictiveness. His age was one of conformity but he refused to conform. While the book deals with what it was to be gay in America during mid-twentieth century, it also looks at the results of sudden fame and the temptations Europe had for unsatisfied Americans. Burns was a loner who was not liked by many and this weighed on him and was in part responsible for his self-destructiveness. It was not just liquor that brought about his demise; social pressures also had a great deal to do with it.
Margolick brings Burns back to life in a way that makes me want to go back and have another look at him. I cannot help wondering why I have not heard about him until now. I was very lucky to find a copy of “The Gallery” yesterday and sat down and read that all the while thinking to myself that it was a fascinating study of gay life in the military and that had people known about it; perhaps we might not have to endure the embarrassment of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”. It is important to realize that when “The Gallery” was published there were very few gay books anywhere and if, as he said, Gore Vidal felt that Burns was a rival, then we can surely see his importance. The problem here is that without an audience, the importance of one’s work is almost worthless. I hope that “Dreadful” will bring Burns the audience he deserves. The real relevance of Burns is that he was and did what he did when he did it. We must never forget that we are standing on the shoulders of those who came before us. Here is one who might have slipped by had David Margolick not given us this book.