David Margolick: John Horne Burns and the Dreadful Life
Author: Ken Harvey
July 21, 2013
“One doesn’t think of Burns as courageous or engaged–his great intellect and rather supercilious attitude had let him float above everything–but writing so explicitly about gays, and advocating for them, in 1947 was an act of enormous courage. “
A long-time contributing editor at Vanity Fair, David Margolick is also is the author of books on Joe Louis and a seminal song of the Civil Rights Movement, Strange Fruit. His most recent book, Dreadful: The Short Life and Gay Times of John Horne Burns (Other Press), is a biography of the largely forgotten John Horne Burns, whose novel The Gallery is considered one of the most important books to come out of World War II.
Margolick took some time to talk with the Lambda Literary Review about his interest in John Horne Burns, the challenges of writing about a person who was often disliked, and learning about twentieth century gay life.
You make it clear in your book that John Horne Burns was a difficult person, very much disliked by many people. What challenges did this present to you in writing about him in a way that would engage readers?
It hasn’t made things any easier. Fairly or unfairly, some reviewers’ distaste for Burns has spilled over onto their consideration of the book. But an honest writer can’t prettify his characters: he has to take them as he finds them. At times, Burns annoyed me greatly. But that only made his surges of humanity — his compassion for the Italians, his outrage over prejudice, his pleas for fairness and tolerance for gays, his great love of music: in fact the whole struggle between the bad and good angels within him–that was much more powerful for me. As much as he caused me grief, there are also times when I am cheering him on. And, let’s face it, abrasive or obnoxious characters can also be very interesting. We’re not all angels.
Why did you feel it was important for contemporary readers to know about a figure like Burns? Any brief thoughts on what his story can tell us about fame, the writing life, and sexuality…?
I didn’t go into this book with any agenda — that is, to make a specific point. I’d been interested in Burns for decades, ever since I’d first learned of him shortly after arriving at the prep school where he’d once taught (and which, later, he trashed in a book) and I started with him literally from scratch: I didn’t know where he was from, where he’d gone to school, whether he was gay or straight. As these things emerged and the story grew more complex, my interest in him grew. First and foremost, I think his story– the meteoric rise and fall of a literary figure–is compelling in and of itself. And that story contains various compelling themes: the perils of hubris; the terrible difficulties faced by a creative and flawed gay man in what amounts to an prehistoric era; the fleetingness and fragility of fame; the problems that gay men faced even posthumously to get their historic due, etc. Throughout, from his earliest days at Andover to his final evenings standing drunkenly around the Excelsior Bar in Florence, eyeing everyone and muttering bitter things, I just think Burns’s story is irresistible. At least I couldn’t resist it: I was greedy for every detail I could find. And they were elusive, because he had been so completely forgotten. Fame reinforces itself: the famous tend to remain famous, while the obscure only grow more obscure. I’ve reversed that process with Burns: his most important novel, The Gallery, is now selling more than it has in sixty-five years. They’re sold out of it on Amazon. I’m hoping that those who’ve bought it because of the excerpt of my book that ran in the New York Times Magazine will have their curiosity piqued, and will want Dreadful to learn more about who this man was.
In your book, you note that Gore Vidal said that the critics of Burns’ later work had “obliterated” him not because of the quality of his work, but for being gay. Do you agree with this?
No, I don’t. I think his latter work was surprisingly, remarkably poor: first, it was brilliantly poor, as in the prep school novel that originally interested me in Burns, Lucifer With a Book, and then just plain poor, as in The Cry of Children and then in The Stranger’s Guise, his final, unpublished book. For someone who was so bright, to whom writing had always come so easily–he dashed off a novel pretty much every summer in his late teens and twenties — the deterioration is almost inexplicable: it was as if he forgot how to write. Part of it was alcohol; part of it was — as Burns’s first biographer, John Mitzel pointed out years ago– that Burns could not really write about what he knew best. In any case, Vidal’s relationship with Burns was fraught: though he was in awe of– indeed, jealous of–Burns’s talent, he couldn’t decide whether he liked him or not. (Conversely, Burns disparaged Vidal’s books.) But had he read them, Vidal could not have thought these latter books were good. When he made this statement, I think he was trying to ascribe to Burns the problems he felt he had encountered himself as a way writer–to turn him, posthumously, into a comrade-in-arms.
So his second book was pretty bad?
I thought it was selectively bad. The writing is brilliant, but he could not control his spleen, so his brilliance is overcome by his bitterness. Among other things, the book is incredibly brutal to another gay teacher at the school. Burns pleaded movingly, daringly in The Gallery for greater tolerance for gays in the post-war world. But with individual gay men, he could be incredibly mean.
Do you feel The Gallery holds up? Does it deserve a place in the World War II literary canon?
I think The Gallery is a great, but very uneven, book. Parts of it are both wonderful and important. “Momma,” the chapter about the gay bar in Naples patronized by Allied soldiers, is really an astonishing piece of writing. One doesn’t think of Burns as courageous or engaged–his great intellect and rather supercilious attitude had let him float above everything– but writing so explicitly about gays, and advocating for them, in 1947 was an act of enormous courage. “Queen Penicillin,” his recollections of his time in the V.D. ward–he had syphilis–is also remarkable. Some other chapters are wonderfully satirical, like his portrait of the martinet running his unit and another, of the officious Red Cross volunteer. Burns’s devastating portrait of American soldiers and, especially, American officers– sentiments anticipated in his letters from overseas, which are as important as anything else he subsequently wrote — is vivid and, increasingly, important. At other times, though, the book can be very preachy and repetitious. It sometimes seems that every character in the book is Burns himself, and that can grow very tiresome.
Gore Vidal seemed to have a very conflicted relationship with Burns, one that was mired in both jealousy and admiration. I wonder if you had any thoughts on what Vidal would think of your book and your attempts to position Burns as an important literary figure?
That’s a wonderful question. I imagine that the mature Vidal, having grown into such a literary eminence, having outpaced Burns so decisively, would have been in a position to be magnanimous. But with Vidal one can never be sure.
To get a feel of the times, what books did you read to acclimate yourself to the gay experience of the mid-twentieth century?
I read Donald Webster Cory’s The Homosexual in America; John Loughery’s The Other Side of Silence; Christopher Bram’s Eminent Outlaws; and Allan Berube’s Coming Out Under Fire. These books helped me understand how separate and invisible gay culture was, but also how well-defined and developed the gay community was within itself. In a way, the gay/straight divide was like the black/white one: two entirely different worlds, with the majority community having little or no insight into or exposure to the minority one. Only that could explain why so many straight men, even progressive ones, could read The Gallery and completely overlook its gayness. (Of course, some people saw it but chose to look the other way.)
Did you come across anything in your research both about Burns’s life and the mid-twentieth gay experience that you found particularly surprising?
I guess what surprised me most was how poorly documented it is. Because so much of it was clandestine, little was recorded. There are the occasional journals, like Donald Vining’s, and then there were the pack rats like Leo Adams, the Macy’s executive who clipped and saved anything related to gay culture. But these are the exceptions. Because there were no gay publications then, trying to glean the gay reaction to The Gallery is very nearly impossible. It’s what makes books like the ones I mentioned that much more remarkable: men like Berube and Loughery had so little to work with. But at least they had people to interview: I came along too late to talk to the gay contemporaries who read and discussed Burns. As John Loughery pointed out to me, there can be no doubt they did plenty of that, but it’s simply not recorded anywhere. Had there been more Burns scholarship in the years following his death, some of those voices might have been preserved. But as I explain in Dreadful, because Burns’s family clamped down on projects about him– something it could do because it held the copyrights to his all-important letters–those projects were never written. His greatest defender–his sister Cathleen, now in her 90s–would not talk to me at all. All this only assured that Burns fell into an even blacker hole.
As I mentioned in my review, I noted your biography was gorgeously written. Are there any biographers you particularly admire? Are there any who have influenced your own writing?
First, thank you for saying that. It’s funny, but I can’t name any. But I’ve always liked the musicality of good writing–I love to read Walt Whitman or Thomas Wolfe aloud–and it’s something I strive for in everything I write. I re-write a lot. And any project of this magnitude I read aloud, just to make sure it sounds good. But even now I’m still finding clumsy phrases in the book and marking them up. It’ll sound better in paperback!
How do you think Burns’s literary life would have played out if it hadn’t been so ruined by alcoholism?
It’s hard to say. On the one hand, Burns seemed to have run out of things to write. But perhaps if his mind hadn’t been clouded by alcohol, he’d have been able to surmount his limitations and summon something great again. Or at least write more easily, as he had before and during the war, so that eventually he would have hit it right again. Or maybe, as a gay writer, Burns was simply straitjacketed from writing about the world he knew best. Or perhaps, as a reporter who knew him well in Florence near the end of his life concluded, Burns needed great events happening around him to say anything great himself, and without those events, he was through.
What do you think Burns’s literary legacy will be?
I think his legacy will be two-fold. Part of it will be The Gallery, which I think will always stand as one of the most important and original novels about World War II. I think its significance will grow over the years, now that he has been reintroduced into the public memory, and as the Brokawization of that era fades and people feel free once more (as, oddly enough, they felt immediately after the war) to take a more balanced and nuanced view of the conduct of GIs abroad. The second will be his extraordinary letters, which showcase his writing at least as much as his novels, and constitute not only one of the great chronicles of a GI’s experiences–and one of the keenest descriptions of the American occupation of Italy–but surely the most important descriptions ever of the life of a gay soldier. The letters will become still more important once they are collected and published, which I hope they will soon be. Mark Bassett, who wrote his dissertation on Burns in the early 1980s and is responsible for saving the gay letters and all of the other material on Burns that he collected, is the logical person to edit them.
The subjects for your books are extraordinarily eclectic, ranging from John Horne Burns, Joe Louis, to the history of a seminal song in the Civil Rights Movement. Is there a common thread in these books? What attracted you to them?
I don’t think of them as eclectic. If anything, my topics are almost too predictable: I’ve always been interested in people who’ve been treated unfairly, and how well they’ve borne up under the burden. And also in those who dealt out that unfairness –and whether I’d have been one of them, or else one of those who objected. Much has been made about how unpleasant a character Burns was. But surely because he was gay, he had a keen sense of injustice, and objected whenever he saw someone else shat upon. There’s a very powerful letter of his in which he describes some Southern cracker officer in a mindless rage reducing a black officer to tears, and how Burns approached the black man afterward to apologize. It moves me greatly–I like to include it in my readings–and reminds me (and my listeners) that even the most ornery, unpleasant man can have nobility in him. Burns sometimes did.