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It’s a sadly familiar story in American literature: an alcoholic gay writer of great talent comes to a tragic end. Think Hart Crane. Think Charles Jackson. And now think John Horne Burns, the subject of David Margolick’s enlightening biography, Dreadful: The Short Life and Gay Times of John Horne Burns (Other Press). Much of what you need to know about Burns is in that title. He did indeed live a short life, dying two months shy of his thirty-seventh birthday. He was a gay man during times that were particularly oppressive. And while a dreadful was what Burns campily called a homosexual, the word–unsurprisingly–takes on other meanings in the context of his life. Many who knew him would agree that dreadful was an apt description of Burns himself. As Thomas Brush, one of Burns’ former students who later became the Chairman of the Metropolitan Opera in New York, once said, “He was an interesting, even fascinating man, but although he was usually very amusing, he was all but impossible to like…His cruelty always offended me.”
John Horne Burns was born in 1916 to lawyer Joseph Burns and Catherine Horne, a wealthy heiress from one of Boston’s FIF’s–First Irish Families. (Rose Kennedy, mother of the future president, attended a tea to mark the wedding announcement of Burns’ parents.) Like his father, John Burns attended Philips Academy and Harvard University, albeit more predictably. Joseph, born into an Irish Catholic family of limited means, had won a scholarship to Philips Academy, but by the time John was born, members of the Burns family–between Catherine’s fortune and Joseph’s lucrative law practice–led privileged lives. Anti-Catholic prejudice, however, nearly prevented John from getting a teaching job in a private school after Harvard. When Burns wrote to the headmaster of Andover for guidance in securing a teaching position, he was told that the public schools “particularly in Boston and the vicinity, should be open to you if you care to move in that direction.” As Margolick points out, Burns was essentially told to “stick to his own kind.”
Burns finally did get a teaching position, at the Loomis School (now Loomis-Chaffee). By all accounts he was a challenging, engaging, and startlingly frank teacher. He was a lifeline to some gay students, but could also be cruel, reducing boys to tears. When his sister Cathleen described Burns as “one of the most accomplished and beguiling, complex and contradictory persons it was ever a close observer’s delight and dismay to know,” one only had to look at his tenure at Loomis to understand what she meant.
Perhaps the most moving part of the biography is the section dedicated to Burns’ service during World War II, especially his time in Italy as an intelligence officer. He fell in love with Naples and its people, and we get a glimpse of honest emotion–even empathy–so seemingly scarce in Burns’ life before the war. Burns’ experiences in Italy inspired his most famous and acclaimed work, The Gallery, a series of stories based on portraits in the Galleria Umberto Primo in Naples. Critics, who tended to ignore the gay themes of the book, were enthusiastic about The Gallery and the future of a fresh American voice in literature. Among its supporters was Edmund Wilson, arguably the foremost critic of the time.
These critics would soon be disappointed. Lucifer with a Book, Burns’ scathing roman à clef based on his experiences at Loomis, was called “wretchedly bad” by Orville Prescott of The New York Times. “The delicate pen-point with which Mr. Burns wrote The Gallery has turned into a scratchy stub,” said Lewis Gannett of the Herald Tribune. The reviews for Burns’ last published book, A Cry of Children, were no less brutal.
The general assumption was that Burns’ alcoholism contributed not only to his early death, but also to his failure to live up to the promise of The Gallery. Yet Gore Vidal would later say that the critics had “obliterated” Burns not because of the quality of his work, but for being gay. John Mitzel, still an essential figure in Boston’s gay literary scene, concurred. “That Burns was known to the Literary Mobsters as an aggressive faggot guaranteed that his books would never be well received,” he wrote. “They’d trapped him, demanding that he submerge his own sexuality, only to fault him for being ‘unconvincing.’ America had done its work well, wiped out the most interesting writer of his time and turned John Horne Burns into a forgotten commodity.” David Margolick’s elegantly written biography should bring Burns and The Gallery (recently reissued by New York Review Books) out of the shadows.
Dreadful: The Short Life and Gay Times of John Horne Burns
By David Margolick
Hardcover, 9781590515716,343 pp.