Friday, September 2, 2016

"Dreadful": an excerpt from the biography of John Horne Burns by David Margolick

In the current national mood of public and legal acceptance for gay marriage,  it may be difficult to imagine the hiding and secrecy that once was the norm for homosexuals in 20th-century America. This was especially true in the military, where long-held ideas required that gay and lesbian service members hide or suppress their sexuality.
David Margolick has written a new biography of John Horne Burns focusing attention on Burns's  episodic 1947 novel of war-time portraits, The Gallery. When the novel was published it gathered strong praise among critics and writers from Edmund Wilson to John Dos Passos  to Hemingway, who wrote a friend that the book was "wonderfully written." One aspect of the novel -- bold for the times -- was Horne's depiction of gay life, which few contemporary reviews mentioned, although the Time magazine reviewer noted the scenes of "an evening spent in a homosexuals’ hangout.” 
A lengthy recent New York Times extract from Margolick's new biography refers to Burns in its headline as "the great gay novelist you've never heard of," but it's clear that Burns -- who never expressly hid his homosexuality -- was neither a good fit in the literary world of post-war America nor comfortable in it. He died, without conclusive explanation, in 1953 at the age of 36 while traveling in Europe with his partner, which prompted rounds of curious speculation. His death was a suspected cerebral hemorrhage brought on by alcoholism, but others suggested suicide due to depression, a failed affair, or even murder. 
Some of the response was in keeping with Burns's own literary-misfit personality: one female acquaintance laughed at the cause of a cerebral hemorrhage and suggested "yes, a cerebral hemorrhage caused by a bullet in his brain." From the book Dreadful: The Short Life and Gay Times of John Horne Burns (Other Press):

...“The Gallery” was actually his ninth novel; he wrote one pretty much every summer, first at Andover, then at Harvard, then at Loomis, books that even his friends conceded were unpublishable — nasty, nihilistic and narcissistic things populated with characters his own agent once called “stinkers.” But the war had touched and humanized Burns, changing his outlook, tone and style. He told a friend that he had shed his ungenügender Selbstsucht — a term he would have learned from Goethe and Brahms, meaning unsatisfying egotism or insatiable self-love — and come, at long last, to care about someone besides himself. 
His new war novel wasn’t really a novel at all. It consisted, instead, of nine portraits, alternately caustic and sympathetic but all keenly observed — primarily of American soldiers, but also of two Italian women — and eight “promenades”: personal reflections of an anonymous, Burns-like G.I. wandering from one image and place in North Africa and Italy to another, just as Burns himself had done. ... 
Like a vast majority of G.I.’s, Burns never saw combat: thanks to his fluent Italian (and German and French), he was channeled into military intelligence, which for him meant reading and censoring the letters of Italy’s captured, homesick soldiers. The only weapon Burns ever wielded was an X-acto knife. But whether in Casablanca, Algiers or Naples, he witnessed, then chronicled, first in his letters home and then in his novel, something else: as he put it to a friend, “the effects of war after the wedge has gone through and left nothing but splinters and pain.” ... 
Undoubtedly the book’s most remarkable portrait is of Momma, the proprietress of the Galleria’s gay bar, where, every day but Sunday from 4:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m., gay soldiers from every branch of the Grand Alliance gather to imbibe and cruise and sometimes score. Whether Momma’s Bar ever really existed or was simply Burns’s earnest dream is unclear and, in a way, irrelevant: for someone as evasive about his own sexuality as a gay man of his generation had to be — ostentatiously “dating” and pretending periodically to have a fiancée — it was more than a startlingly ringing endorsement of gay culture; it was an act of enormous and atypical, almost inexplicable, courage. 
The men in the gallery of gays (and, with only a couple of exceptions, they are all men) in “The Gallery” are alternately lonely, proud, unpleasant, sensitive, officious, effeminate, macho, offensive and lovable; in other words, reasonably normal, rather than the suicidal freaks and criminals that had populated American literature, gay and straight, up to then. And they are all in uniform at a time in the history of the United States military when, officially at least, they were not allowed and did not exist. ...

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