Decline and Fall

Dreadful: The Short Life and Gay Times of John Horne Burns BY David Margolick. Other Press. Hardcover, 400 pages. $28.

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

John Horne Burns was the author of The Gallery, published in 1947. At the time, the book was considered a great war novel (less remarked was that it’s also a great gay novel). The book’s publication was widely viewed as the arrival of a huge literary talent and established tremendous expectations for the young writer. What followed, though, was failure on a tremendous scale. On the face of it, David Margolick’s biography of the author, Dreadful (which was Burns’s code word for “homosexual”), is a straightforward chronicle of the man’s rise and fall.

Margolick, a contributor to Vanity Fair and the author of several books, including Strange Fruit: The Biography of a Song (2001), has assiduously traced Burns’s trajectory from his childhood in Andover, Massachusetts, to college at Harvard, to the only job this brilliant, arrogant, alienating, Catholic “dreadful” seemed to be able to land or abide: teaching at a prep school in Connecticut. Warhol superstar Taylor Mead was one of Burns’s students at the Loomis School, and he remembers his libertine teacher with gratitude as an eccentric presence in the buttoned-down environment. Mead was also wary of the older man, though: “Jack was cruel,” he said.

Burns was intensely competitive with one of the school’s other gay teachers, ridiculing him first for being too flamboyant, then for being too repressed. It was a pattern of double-edged contempt Burns repeated with many other men. He seems to have had little feeling for his brothers and a nearly unlimited supply of bile for most other writers, including the masters who had preceded him, such as Henry James, James Joyce, Thomas Mann, T. S. Eliot, Franz Kafka, and Oscar Wilde.

No one was more aware of Burns’s isolationist tendencies than the author himself, who was a prolific, perhaps even compulsive, letter writer. Margolick quotes Burns’s correspondence frequently and at length, including this excerpt of a letter to a former student:

I have known a few people to whom I didn’t have to condescend, against whom I didn’t have to shut off a sensitivity and a penetration that fascinates and horrifies you. There is no need for me to justify myself. I have been lonely because I have been excellent, and you know that you pay a price for everything in this world as the Irish washerwoman says.

The uncompromising Burns opposed America’s decision to enter World War II (he had voted for a Socialist candidate in the 1940 election). Nonetheless, he was called up for duty soon after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. He worked as a censor while stationed in Morocco, and although he didn’t see combat, he saw enough profiteering, predation, disease, and misery to affirm his initial opposition to the war. In 1944 he was relocated to Italy, and spent time in Naples, where he lived near the Galleria Umberto I, the bombed-out shopping arcade—frequented by GIs, prostitutes, pimps, and beggars—that provided the setting for The Gallery. Originally subtitled A Mediterranean Sketchbook, the novel is composed of eight “promenades” (the reveries of an unnamed narrator) and nine portraits of soldiers and local women, including “Momma,” about the owner of a gay bar, which includes startlingly frank depictions of its customers.

The reviews were rapturous. The novel was acclaimed by Edmund Wilson and Ernest Hemingway. It inspired William Styron and Joseph Heller. It filled Gore Vidal with envy and awe. After anguishing over Truman Capote’s and Burns’s success, Vidal tried to console himself: “I know I shall outlast them all: longevity and production are worth more than all the spoils of genius that ever glittered to the delight of the New York Queens, the arbiters of the instant.” Anticipation for Burns’s second novel was intense. Burns assumed that Lucifer with a Book, a satire of a boys’ school, would be received with even greater acclaim than The Gallery was. He was mistaken. It came out in 1949, and as James Michener recalled, “Never in my memory had [the critics] come so close to total annihilation of an author’s work.”

A year later Burns moved back to Italy. He settled in Florence, where he was designated a “famous author and wit” by the local paper, and took up his position at the Hotel Excelsior, where Patricia Highsmith and others would see him knocking back cheap cognac at the bar, surveying the clientele, rarely speaking to anyone. He once got into a brawl with biographer Francis Steegmuller. The response to his third book, A Cry of Children, in 1952, was also uniformly damning. “The work is not only misanthropic but,” Margolick writes, “surprisingly, poorly written.” In 1953, Burns’s publisher rejected a fourth book, and two weeks later, while staying in a small fishing village, the author died of a cerebral hemorrhage. He was thirty-six.

Burns experienced a fate worse than the oft-dreaded writer’s block: He kept writing, but he got worse. This gives Margolick’s fine biography an undercurrent of creeping horror. Dreadful is the story of a man whose talent is obvious and prodigious, who is widely heralded for his ability and promise, and whose subsequent fall from grace is sharp and dizzying. A cruel man, but a good book.

Liz Brown is a visiting writer at Wesleyan University.