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

By David Margolick

Other Press | June 2013 | 400 pages

Reviewed by M. J. Moore

Meet John Horne Burns

Let’s deal first with the title.  Dreadful: The Short Life and Gay Times of John Horne Burns.  

Translation: “dreadful” was a code word used by novelist John Horne Burns (a gay man) in his personal letters; he used the code to indicate a homosexual person.  Labeling someone “a dreadful” or referring to any “dreadful” antics signified gay orientation.  The military censors never caught on during World War Two, thus the euphemism was exceedingly useful. 

In 1947, John Horne Burns (an Andover-born, Harvard-educated, Irish-Catholic ex-GI) published The Gallery, an unusually structured WW II novel comprised of linked short stories and autobiographical ruminations.  

The Gallery was a critical and commercial success in the late 1940s (lauded by Hemingway and John Dos Passos; selling more than a half-million copies), often cited in subsequent years by fellow “war writers”--from Joseph Heller to Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer, and others--as one of the best narratives by an American to emerge from the war.

Unfortunately, after his Pulitzer Prize-nominated debut, Burns’ career was derailed by the savage reviews that greeted his subsequent two novels.  He died in 1953, at age 36, soaked in alcohol and furiously self-exiled in Italy. 

It’s an understatement to say that Dreadful is superbly researched.  It seems as if Margolick has retrieved almost every letter John Horne Burns ever sent, and Burns was a compulsive letter-writer.

In John Horne Burns’ case, what his voluminous correspondence ultimately yielded was an unparalleled wartime record of allusions, reports, descriptions, and sometimes not-so-coded explanations of what it was like for a gay man to be swept up into military service during America’s years in World War Two. 

And, as Burns made clear to his primary confidantes (and as Margolick is able to illustrate with endless samples and excerpts from Burns’ rhetorically dazzling letters) it was no draconian, celibate limbo. 

On the contrary, much to Burns’ continual amazement (and sometimes his delight), it turned out that despite the sorry fact that homosexuality was illegal in the armed forces (as it was in society at large), the army bases and their barracks and other adjacent sites were forever steamy with carnally deprived men who figured out myriad ways to relieve sexual frustration.

Whether the men were gay, bi-sexual or straight was not the paramount issue.  The critical factor that never ceased to astound Burns was just how deftly men of all sexual orientations accommodated the conning, dissembling or sheer craftiness required to be able to have whatever sex was available, without being caught and possibly hit with a dishonorable discharge. 

With sixteen million men and women in uniform by the time the Second World War peaked in 1944-45, it’s safe to say that statistically speaking there had to be well over a million gay individuals in the ranks.  And while Burns made cautious efforts to shroud his gay characters in his fiction (the most celebrated part of The Gallery that’s enshrined as a gay narrative is the Portrait entitled “Momma,” which is all about the Neapolitan woman whose gay bar is a beehive each night for Allied men who weren’t necessarily panting over Betty Grable’s pin-ups), he was forthcoming in his letters. 

Repeatedly, he marvels at how much same-sex activity is all around him, whether he’s writing from a training camp or an army base or somewhere in Italy.

But it’s not just sex that was on Burns’ mind.  As Margolick shows, Burns was deeply distressed by what the war indicated about the depths of degradation that human beings were capable of.  And year in and year out, from the suffering of soldiers and civilians to the news about the use of two atomic bombs, Burns’ letters conveyed anguish about the degree to which he felt that civilized life was doomed.

But that’s all the more reason to celebrate Margolick’s wide-ranging biography of Burns.  Regardless of Burns’ many personal flaws—and Margolick offers a surfeit of true-life tales about those peccadilloes—we are reintroduced to a man who lived for the arts and who left behind three novels royally informed by his love for music and poetry.  He was also an artist whose career hit both apex and nadir in record time.

Given how Burns smoked and drank, it’s probable that he was destined to die young, no matter what.  Even by the toxic standards of America in the 1940s and 1950s, he was extreme.  He smoked at least two packs of Lucky Strikes per day, drank heavily each and every night, and neither exercised nor rested particularly well. 

And he also demanded of himself a rigorous, manic, frantic daily quota as an author. 

On the flap-copy of his second novel, readers were told that Burns wrote  “3,000 words daily, seven days a week.”  That’s 21,000 words per week.  A novel a month, by word count.  Such stress, compounded by social isolation, a stalled career, unfulfilling sexual binges, psychological pressures harking back to a severe Irish-Catholic childhood, economic struggles that never resolved (at his death, Burns’ net worth amounted to $109) and whatever expatriate misadventures he had, set the stage for the cerebral hemorrhage that killed him in 1953’s early autumn.

With David Margolick reintroducing the author as we approach the 70th anniversary of the war’s end in 2015, Burns and The Gallery should be appreciated anew:

   I remember that in Naples of August, 1944, I came again to realities I’d all but forgotten.  There are three of them: tears, art, and love . . . between Casablanca and Naples I’d lost all three by watching what was going on around me.  So when they came back to me, I felt like one whose heart begins to beat again when he was despaired of.

I remember that Galleria as something in me remembers my mother’s womb.  I walked backwards and forwards in it.  I must have spent at least nine months of my life there, watching and wondering.  For I got lost in the war in Naples in August, 1944.  Often from what I saw I lost the power of speech.  It seemed to me that everything happening there could be happening to me.  A kind of madness, I suppose.  But in the twenty-eighth year of my life I learned that I too must die.  Until that time the only thing evil that could be done to me would be to hurry me out of the world before my time.  Or to thwart my natural capacities.  If this truth held for me, it must be valid for everybody else in the world.

This is the reason why I remember the Gallery in Naples, Italy. . . .

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