Why John Horne Burns Never Became a Gay Icon


By Jerry Portwood

With 'Dreadful,' David Margolick's biography of the maligned gay writer, he's recovered the forgotten author's greatest work from obscurity

John Horne Burns (Credit: Loring Studios)

Was the point of writing the book a larger one: Turning a skeptical eye on this idea of the "Greatest Generation" and all the good deeds of these soldiers and this war, meaning Burns is secondary in that respect?

No, I think that Burns's own story, and Burns's reactions to the war, were equally important in my mind. I never wanted this book to be ghettoized as "gay." And I'd have thought that his vivid descriptions, both in his letters and in his greatest novel, The Gallery (published in 1947), of GIs running amok behind the lines in North Africa and Italy would make Dreadful important to all people, gay or straight, who care about World War II and military history and even the deployment of American troops abroad today.

Burns felt that the combination of arrogance and ignorance he saw among American soldiers, especially in Naples, was very dangerous—to them and to those they encountered. He realized that we send soldiers into strange places at our own peril, and the peril of those we're ostensibly helping. As I've written elsewhere, Burns died long, long before My Lai and Abu Ghraib, but I don't think he'd have been terribly surprised by either of them.

I heard you mention that after that wonderful piece in the New York Times Magazine ran, the sales for Burns's The Gallery shot up on Amazon, but you are still looking for a similar bump in sales for Dreadful? Can you explain the responsibility and frustration of resurrecting an author's work and what it means to you personally?

I'd be dishonest if I claimed it wasn't a bit frustrating to see The Gallery outselling Dreadful. But getting people to pay attention to him and his work was my mission, after all. And Burns and I are really in this together: I'm trusting that people who read The Gallery (and, in some cases, Lucifer With a Book and his last published novel, A Cry of Children) will become so intrigued with the guy that they'll eventually read my book, too. I'd feel the same way if the Burns revival I've sparked prompts someone finally to make a film of The Gallery, as various people over the years have talked about doing.

In some ways you have now experienced the "gay ghetto" of fiction/nonfiction that other gay authors have complained about—and in many ways, gay readers are your ideal readers—but it seems you didn't go in thinking about it in that way. Why do you feel a general interest, straight reader doesn't feel this story talks to them?

It's funny; before Dreadful appeared, one prominent gay literary man predicted that even gay men wouldn't read it: They were too busy in the gym, he said. I hope I'm proving him wrong!

When I began looking into Burns, I didn't even know he was gay. When I first learned of him -- in my freshman year at Loomis, someone pulled me aside to tell me that a former teacher there had written a scandalous book about the place, one that was still banned from the school library, but he never said anything about his homosexuality: It was as if Burns was taboo enough already without adding that.

My hope is that just as I found his story absorbing, other straight people will, in the same way you needn't be black to care about the Civil Rights movement or Jewish to care about the Holocaust. We should all be interested in other cultures, and particularly in discrimination against people within those cultures; most of my books have been on those very themes. If that proves to be untrue, and Dreadful is read only by gay men, I'll be very disappointed. It will mean that for all the progress we've made, straight people still view gays as "other." I was at the New-York Historical Society recently when Tony Kushner interviewed Larry Kramer. It happened to be on the the night the Supreme Court issued its rulings on same-sex marriage, and when Kushner -- clearly, and even playfully, anticipating that Kramer would throw some cold water on the ambient euphoria -- asked him how he felt about the news, Kramer replied, "Yesterday they loathed us. Today they only hate us." It's overstated, perhaps, but there's clearly there's some truth to that.

Following up on that, you titled the book Dreadful because Burns often used “dreadful” as a synonym for “gay,” a mocking jab against homophobia. The fact that your publisher allowed you to title the book that, include gay on the cover (something I've heard is often a publishing no-no), and have such an inventive design (the landscape/horizontal typography) all seems very refreshing. Do you think it could have only been done with a small, independent press?

I didn't know that using 'gay' was a publishing no-no. Without it in the title, it seems to me, people would have been deprived of a vital bit of information, so I very casually included it. Calling the book Dreadful was a different story. I knew it was risky, and not just because I was handing a cheap-shot reviewer a ready put-down. (Fortunately, the few people who've been truly vicious about the book have thus far resisted the temptation.) But when a friend who'd read the manuscript suggested calling it Dreadful, it just seemed so instantly right to me -- incorporating as it did not just Burns's own sardonic use of the term, but the conditions gay men of his era faced and, arguably, elements of Burns's own personality.

I think some people at Other Press might have had qualms about the title, but to their great credit, everyone deferred to me. And no one -- no one -- ever objected to using "gay" in the subtitle. Other Press is small and the people there are gutsy, so I was clearly spared the constraints and inhibitions I might have encountered at a larger house. And I, too, love the cover, which was designed by John Gall. The photograph was taken by Nina Leen of Life magazine, which had assembled the leading writers of World War II, Burns among them, for a group picture. Someone suggested to me that the vertical typography superimposed on it resembles tire tracks, and given Burns's fate, that's peculiarly apt.

Have you heard from anyone at Loomis? Do you think they'd ever invite you to talk about Burns, his books, and yours at the school? Or is he, and the topic, forever on a blacklist?

I've not heard from Loomis -- now, Loomis-Chaffee -- institutionally, though individuals there have complimented me on the book. No one who's there now ever knew Burns, and most of them had never even heard of him or Lucifer, (which is now readily available -- but, I imagine, rarely requested -- in the school library) before Dreadful appeared. More important, the place is much more open and diverse than it was in my day or Burns's (which, though they were 20 years or more apart, were really -- in terms of the mores of the place -- pretty much the same). One of the school's most illustrious recent alums is Frank Bruni, who is gay and often devotes his column in the New York Times to gay issues. So I can't imagine there'd be any objection to my speaking there about Dreadful. Whether they ask me to do so is another question; for some reason, I've never been invited back to talk about any of my work. A more important question is whether they now honor Burns in some way, like hanging his picture somewhere at the school. To those in his charmed circle, Burns was a wonderful teacher, and they never forgot him. Particularly for the school's gay students, he was an inspiration. Recognizing him there would be a truly magnanimous gesture, a blow for tolerance and academic freedom and forgiveness. They should do it.

Dreadful is available now.