Dreadful: The Short Life and Gay Times of John Horne Burns
by David Margolick
Other Press (2013), 320 pages
Dreadful chronicles the life and death of writer, teacher, and WWII veteran John Horne Burns, whose claim to fame was a critically-lauded (though not best-selling) novel, The Gallery, about Naples under American occupation. In fact, the book was at one time considered the best war novel to come out of WWII, even gaining approval from the likes of Hemingway. Margolick, however, found Burns not through his greatest achievement, but by its disappointing follow-up, Lucifer With a Book, a salacious send-up of Margolick’s high school, Loomis Academy, where Burns was a teacher for much of his young adulthood. It was banned at the school’s library, and Burns’s infamous name stuck with Margolick until he took up the project of his biography.
Odd as it sometimes felt to read such a thorough biography of someone I had never heard of, Burns’ life and work are instructional in more ways than one. is letters serve as one of the only chronicles of gay life in the military in WWII. Although he never sees combat, Burns’s letters chronicling his experiences both training in America and stationed abroad make clear that the army had a significant gay contingent, and that they were, for the most part, tacitly tolerated. He also reveals facets of gay life overseas never otherwise recorded--for instance, he seems to be the only one who has written about the syphilis sanitorium set up for soldiers in Italy, many of whom he identifies as fellow “dreadfuls.” These tidbits may serve as both delights to current gay servicepeople in the military, as well as educational for straight people who have consistently failed to recognize the presence and contributions of queer soldiers.
Burns’s literary career also serves as a vivid illustration of the ambivalence of straight publishers and readers toward texts with queer characters, plots, and subtext. As Margolick rightly points out, reviewers tended to ignore the queerness in Burns’s work whenever possible. Burns, though, was never content (or just never able) to excise homosexuality from his work, and to this the wreck of his later career can be at least partially attributed. But not fully attributed, as Margolick makes clear--largely through clips of Burns’s writing itself. It definitely has not aged well, probably because he held a deep scorn for modernism derived from jealousy of its adherents’ success--or indeed the literary success of anyone other than himself. Convinced of his own exceptionalism, even from fellow queer writers, he chose a style that was anachronistic even for his time and is twice-dated by now.
As a biographer, Margolick is sympathetic, but not empathetic. His lack of background in queer life and culture was sometimes quite evident to me as a queer reader. Sometimes it was unclear whether his neglect of Burns’s obvious queer literary lineage, before and since, or his reticence to connect the dots between society’s rejection of his sexuality and his writing, has more to do with his straightness, or with his adherence standards of biography. Unlike Burns’s reviewers, he never shies away from queer subjects in Burns’s life, but sometimes his mere recounting can run a bit cold. For instance, although “dreadful,” Burns’s noun and adjective of choice for homosexuality, appears hundreds of times, Margolick never takes the time to explicitly acknowledge or delight in the campy, ironic genius of the phrase, or mourn the anguish it bravely, if transparently, bandaged.
A biographer always has one privilege over their subject: the future. Of course, other privilege differences are common too, as in the case of a male biographer who writes about a woman. But sexuality, it seems, might be a significantly great divide. Richard Sewall, in his biography of Emily Dickinson, didn’t feel the need to specify at the very beginning that he is not, in fact, a woman. Margolick, on the other hand, wastes no time ‘coming out’ as straight in the first few pages. Perhaps this was actually for the benefit of his inevitable gay readers, a full disclosure. Either way, it brings the gulf between biographer and subject into sharp relief.
While Margolick may not be able to offer a totally empathetic view of Burns’s struggle as a mid-century queer man (typified by the fact that the word he used for his sexuality was “dreadful”), he does offer a sympathetic account of Burns as a character. Reading his letters, the reader appreciates this as no small task--Burns is grandstanding, egotistical, petty, and often just plain delusional, as well as a raging alcoholic. This makes him a mixed blessing as an biographical subject. He becomes something of a tragic hero, since all of us have these flaws to some extent. Other times, as his loved ones must have felt, it’s a bit much to take in.
We usually expect biographies to present us with exemplary lives. This biography challenges that expectation, starting with the title, whose ironic negativity the author can only have learned from Burns himself. Dreadful is a biography of a self-hating man, who was a failure by almost every measure of society at the time, and by many of our measures still. Even so, I finished the book marveling at how complete every life is, no matter how long, and usefully chastened to the caprices of fame and ego. I also was happily edified about the lives of queer men abroad in WWII and in the American literary scene. In short, I was a slightly better person when I finished it than when I began. Which is all one can really ask for, whether in short lives or in “dreadful” reads.