Postwar gay casualty
by John F. Karr
Despite its scary title, Dreadful - The Short Life and Gay Times of John Horne Burns would have been the perfect book to review for Gay Pride Week. It's the biography of a once-lionized novelist who became somewhat less than a footnote in the history of both American and gay letters. Biographer David Margolick is understanding of the gay issues that unraveled Burns' life, and is no stranger to civil rights issues. Among his five previous books are the unique Strange Fruit: The Biography of a Song and Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock. In Dreadful (Other Press, $28.95), he depicts with sympathy but not sentimentality the destruction of soul, and ultimately of life itself, caused by the repression of homosexuality during the first half of the last century.
John Horne Burns was born in 1916. Although prolific when young, he was unpublished until after World War II. His observation of wartime life in Naples, where he'd been stationed, inspired him to write The Gallery. A sort of novel by way of short stories, it portrays with appreciably polished prose and keen, unsparing insight the lives of the locals, the WACS and the enlisted men who pass through the Galleria Umberto, one of those enclosed, domed and highly decorated shopping areas that were the Old World antecedent to today's malls. Most pertinent to gay readers are a chapter set in the soldiers' syphilis ward, and another that's a pretty amazing depiction of a gay bar serving the soldiers. No one had ever previously written about gay soldiers, and the bar's whirling life still makes for unsettling reading – particularly the way he so unerringly delineates the different types of gay men gathered together.
The Gallery was a huge success, hailed by Burns' reviewers and even competitors, especially Michener, Mailer and Vidal, who'd also written about the war. But self-negation was settling in, and Burns' second novel – arrogant, filled with bile and spite – was cautiously reviewed before becoming a hushed-up embarrassment. Horne expatriated himself to obscurity and alcoholism in Italy, where he wrote an inchoate third novel that was so dreadful it was refused by his publisher. Not long after, Burns was dead, at the age of 37 in 1953.
Burns was a curious bundle of contradictions, but it's painful to read and understand how his inherent traits were curdled by the period's homophobia. He suffered objectivity common to outsiders. He felt superior, and that deepened his detachment. He was brilliant, and he was brilliantly cruel. He was empathetic, and a cynical misanthrope. He flamed as much as he could, as much as self-loathing and the need to dissemble allowed (or promoted). No wonder he drank.
Margolick's account of Burns' life quickly propelled me to read The Gallery. It's mighty fine. Of course, the gay aspects of the book, its most revolutionary content, were almost entirely overlooked (or perhaps more accurately, ignored) by the book's reviewers. The subject was taboo in 1947. As Burns found fame was difficult to handle while maintaining a public mask, perhaps he got off easy on that account. The next gay-themed novel, published a year after The Gallery, was Gore Vidal's The City and the Pillar, and it was pilloried for its gay subject. According to Vidal, Orville Prescott, the book critic for The New York Times, found The City and the Pillar so objectionable that he refused to review or allow the Times to review Vidal's next five books, creating a long-lasting blacklisting of Vidal's work by other critics. The scandal of Truman Capote's Other Voices, Other Rooms, published later in 1948, was perhaps mitigated by Capote's perfumed prose and oblique handling of his subject. It would be another five years before James Baldwin's gay characters and themes appeared in 1953, followed by Christopher Isherwood's in 1954.
As a preview to Burns' extraordinary novel, here's how he describes the cruising at the Gallery's gay bar, called Momma's: "Restless and unsocketed eyes wheeled all around – looking and calculating – Momma's bar when crowded was a goldfish bowl swimming with retinas and irises in motion."
An important reclamation for gay and American literature, David Margolick's life of John Horne Burns is fascinating, poignant, tragic.