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Dreadful: The Short Life and Gay Times of John Horne Burns Hardcover – June 4, 2013

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Editorial Reviews

From Bookforum

Margolick has assiduously traced Burn’s trajectory from his childhood in Andover, Massachusetts, to college at Harvard, to the only job this brilliant, arrogant, alienating Catholic “dreadful” seemed to be able to land or abide: teaching at a prep school in Connecticut. Dreadful is the story of a man whose talent is obvious and prodigious, who is widely heralded for his ability and promise, and whose subsequent fall from grace is sharp and dizzying. A cruel man, but a good book. —Liz Brown

Review

"[An] evocative, strangely moving new biography of a largely forgotten novelist with a poisonous character…Cleanly written, with a measure of sympathy and perhaps a little understandable mystification beneath the sober writing, Dreadful inspires a curious combination of fascination, pity and revulsion."—The New York Times

"[A] vivid biography...Margolick reveals a fascinating, troubling character: Catholic, closeted, and alcoholic, charming and cruel, Burns inspired admiration and confusion...By placing Burns's witty, elastic prose front and center, Margolick's account makes a case for him as one of the best writers of his generation."—The New Yorker

"Despite the decades that have gone by, the lack of living witnesses, and the obscurity of the subject, Margolick has done a superb job researching this sad life."—Edmund White, The New York Review of Books

“Admirable . . . If Burns comes alive in this biography, it is due not just to the enjoyable prose of Margolick—a contributing editor of Vanity Fair—but to the use he makes of Burns’s voluminous, lively, vivid, and evocative correspondence . . . He restores Burns to us without condescension and with enormous sensitivity and sympathy. Dreadful: The Short Life and Gay Times of John Horne Burns is a fine piece of work that I heartily recommend without the slightest reservation.” —Doug Ireland, History News Network

“A fascinating portrait of an heroically difficult character on a collision course with an indifferent world.” —Jonathan Galassi, President of Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Dreadful is a poignant biography of a forgotten man who drank himself to death. It's a brilliant evocation of a self-hating gay novelist in the 1940s whom Gore Vidal once considered a rival.”—Edmund White

“Brilliantly explores and exposes the glories and tragedies of a now-forgotten great American writer. In carefully reconstructing Burns’s life and career, Margolick has uncovered the glamorous and often dark underbelly of post-war American literary and intellectual culture. Burns’s story is not so much about homophobia as it is about what it means to be an American artist and intellectual in the years after World War II. Beautifully written and filled with insight and empathy, Dreadful forces us to rethink not only American literary culture, but America itself.”—Michael Bronski, Harvard University

"Extraordinary. David Margolick takes a once-famous novelist who's become a mysterious footnote in postwar American literature and brings him fully back to life. We see a young, smart, cynical gay man being humanized by World War II and finding a soul—the war chapters are as vivid as My Queer War by James Lord or Naples '44 by Norman Lewis—only to have that soul destroyed by alcohol, homophobia, and his own crazy, vindictive pride. It's a powerful story, and Margolick tells it with great energy, humor and understanding." —Christopher Bram, author of Gods and Monsters and Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America

"The subject of Dreadful is a gifted writer of ultimately dissipated gifts, an unconventional intellectual in an age obsessed with conformity, and one of the great caustic, comic letter-writers of his time—a man to make Gore Vidal or Christopher Hitchens look judicious and mild-mannered. But David Margolick explores a raft of larger subjects as well in this engrossing book: what it meant to be gay in mid-twentieth-century America, the cost of sudden fame in a celebrity culture, the allure of postwar Italy, and the tragedy of the uncompromising loner. Likable, Burns wasn't—vivid and memorable, he is." —John Loughery, author of The Other Side of Silence: Men's Lives and Gay Identities, a Twentieth-Century History

“In his biography of John Horne Burns, the author of The Gallery, one of the great World War II novels, David Margolick has told a fascinating and uniquely American story: the destruction of a writer of first-rate talent by liquor and relentless social pressures arrayed against gay men at mid-century.” —Louis Begley, author of Schmidt Steps Back

"...Mr. Margolick is a stylish, insightful writer, particularly good at evoking the ethos of gay midcentury America."—The Wall Street Journal

"...the book largely hits its mark, and an oft-forgotten literary figure receives overdue attention."—Publishers Weekly

"A revealing biography of the brilliant, arrogant author of The Gallery (1947), a celebrated World War II novel...a wonderfully crafted portrait of a tormented homosexual writer."—Kirkus (Starred Review)

"[A] fine biography...Dreadful is the story of a man whose talent is obvious and prodigious, who is widely heralded for his ability and promise, and whose subsequent fall from grace is sharp and dizzying. A cruel man, but a good book."Bookforum

"Margolick's bio offers high drama, a window into pre-Stonewall gayliterary life, and a cautionary tale about success, the war, and the closet."—The Village Voice

"This book is a well-rounded portrait of an enigmatic man..."—The New York Observer

"[R]eaders of David Margolick’s new biography, Dreadful: The Short Life and Gay Times of John Horne Burns...come away respecting his account of this troubled man for its own sake, but also grateful that an important, if brief, literary life is now saved from oblivion." —Boston Spirit Magazine

"David Margolick rescues [Burns's] sad, revealing life from the shadows of war, drink, and prejudice."—The Daily Beast

"An admirable new biography...[Margolick] restores Burns to us without condescension and with enormous sensitivity and sympathy. Dreadful: The Short Life and Gay Times of John Horne Burns is a fine piece of work that I heartily recommend without the slightest reservation." —Gay City News

"...fluidly written and highly readable..."—Minneapolis Star Tribune

"In his excellent new biography, Dreadful: The Short Life and Gay Times of John Horne Burns, David Margolick has plunged his hands into the messy annals of American literary history and rescued a singular author from obscurity. His book paints a nuanced, engrossing and less-than-flattering picture of Burns...The broken man Margolick gives us, across 382 pages of sensitive and meticulous reportage, is a heartbreaking product of his time and circumstances."—The Buffalo News

"An insightful, gritty biography..."—DenverPost.com

"
Margolick follows his promise to desentimentalize World War II. His product is a narrative that, without polemic rants, tears gloss from the battlefield. At the very least, he inspires readers to question historical convention. At most, he begs Americans to venerate soldiers without holding false impressions of them."—Open Salon

"Margolick has crafted a fascinating portrait of Burns in Dreadful (Other Press), which excavates the "short life and gay times" of this man who deserves recognition for writing one of the first and best novels about gay life in the military."—Out Magazine

"David Margolick’s elegantly written biography should bring Burns and The Gallery out of the shadows."—Lambda Literary

"[Margolick] 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...An important reclamation for gay and American literature, David Margolick's life of John Horne Burns is fascinating, poignant, tragic."—Bay Area Reporter

"With intelligence and insight, David Margolick examines Burns’s moral ambivalence toward the behavior of American soldiers stationed with him in Naples."—East End Beacon

"...Margolick has brought to light what it meant to be an American artist and intellectual in the years after World War II...and shows how Burns paved the way for gay writers to come. Brilliantly written, and a cracking good read."—The Hudson Valley News

"[Dreadful] does illuminate what it was like to be gay at a particular moment in time. And as society moves toward eliminating what some consider to be the last acceptable prejudice, that is a worthy contribution."—The East Hampton Star

"Margolick tells the story of this forgotten writer and his work very well — it’s a powerful combination of history and literary excavation."—CTNews.com

"...David Margolick carves out a breathtaking picture of the brilliant prodigy...This book, centering on the author that Gore Vidal considered a rival and whose work Ernest Hemingway praised as "wonderfully written," is less a biography than a portrait, completing a picture of Burns to the fullest extent with each new word."—Advocate.com

"Surprised you’ve never heard of [Burns]? That’s exactly Margolick’s masterful point in resurrecting through meticulous yet utterly readable facts and research the sad story of a not particularly sympathetic author with such promise, who sunk into oblivion and died at an early age....there’s nothing dreadful about Margolick’s terrifically crafted biography that places Burns back into the public consciousness as a breakthrough gay writer who deserves our respect—and recognition."—Poptimistic

"... a fascinating exploration of Burns’ brief and controversial life coupled with a look at the pressures of being gay in mid-twentieth-century America."—Contra Costa Times

"
Margolick's work is a raw read, dimensional and dynamic, sympathetic without being sentimental, and lifts the veil on a little-known life who, in his own way, paved a literary path for gay writers to come."—Biographile

"[Dreadful] sheds light on a man who was born gay, knew he was special, and died tragically, probably at his own hand. Helping readers understand the importance of sexuality and the impact it can have on one’s life is a powerful statement." —City Book Review

"Margolick not only highlights glimpses of literary brilliance from a cultured writer but also unearths his more complicated and sometimes not-so-likable characteristics." —San Francisco Chronicle

"[An] excellent and highly readable biography... [A] portrait of extremes of the sort that tantalized Burns himself." —Times Literary Supplement

“From Burns’ time as a prep school teacher, to his years serving in WWII, to his rise as a celebrated author, to his inevitable and untimely demise, Dreadful makes for a fascinating read about an all but forgotten American author.” —Queerty
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Other Press (June 4, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1590515714
  • ISBN-13: 978-1590515716
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 1.4 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (43 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #780,622 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

David Margolick is a long-time contributing editor at Vanity Fair. He has held similar posts at Newsweek and Portfolio. For fifteen years he was a legal affairs correspondent for the New York Times, for which, among many other assignments, he covered the trial of O.J. Simpson. "Dreadful: The Short Life and Gay Times of John Horne Burns" originated in a conversation he had more than forty years ago while a student at Loomis, a prep school in Connecticut, and involved extensive conversations with Burns's former students as well as a review of his remarkable wartime correspondence.
Margolick's prior books include "Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock," a study of the iconic photograph taken outside Little Rock Central High School during the desegregation crisis of 1957 (Yale University Press); "Beyond Glory: Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling, and a World on the Brink" (Knopf); and "Strange Fruit: The Biography of a Song." (Harper Collins). In addition, for Kindle Singles he has written "A Predator Priest." He is now working on a study of Sid Caesar and the seminal television comedy program "Your Show of Shows" for Nextbook/Schocken.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

25 of 27 people found the following review helpful By JMW on June 5, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition
David Margolick's, Dreadful: The Short Life and Gay Times of John Horne Burns, is a reclamation project, an archeological dig into mid-century American literature; New England prep-school life; and the romance, loneliness, and desperation of what it was like to be gay in a time when it was still the love that dare not speak its name - or at least, only sotte voce, as its protagonist might have put it, brandy with soda in hand, from his own special place at the Excelsior Sbarra. In this important cultural biography, Margolick takes this lapsed figure and lost time and brings them back to us from obscurity, alive and still quivering.

Margolick first surrounds, and then captures Burns, through the success, excess, and regress of a brilliant self-willed Catholic intellectual who produces one great novel after serving in Italy during WWII as a military censor of POW mail. The book, "The Gallery," a series of set pieces of promenades, prostitutes and pick-ups, is bravely gay, and as Margolick depicts it, despite its heavy autobiographical elements, filled with life. Call that novel, if you will, "Pictures of an Exhibitionist." Regardless, the Galley briefly put Burns in contention with Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal for the literary laurel.

In three more novels, Burns could never capture so much again. But Margolick does. He takes us from Burn's cosseted New England childhood and Phi Beta Kappa Harvard education, through his incarnation as a teacher at Margolick's own Connecticut prep school, the model for Burns' second, satiric novel, "Lucifer with a Book." Margolick is a sure and lively guide, even through Burns' live-action enactment of Dorian Gray's painted alter-ego, in an Italian decay resembling a real-life parody of Aschenbach's death in Venice.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By MichaelBooks on July 9, 2013
Format: Hardcover
"The Gallery" by John Horne Burns was published in 1947; it received coast-to-coast rave reviews. No such luck followed in 1949, when Burns' second novel appeared: "Lucifer with a Book" was bludgeoned by the critics, but at least it drew attention. In 1952, when "A Cry of Children" appeared in the same season as Hemingway's "Old Man and the Sea," Burns' third novel was dismissed outright and for all the wrong reasons. To this day, the same pattern of approbation and denunciation is imposed upon his three works: "The Gallery" is almost universally admired; "Lucifer with a Book" is skewered; and "A Cry of Children" is ignored (usually after one obligatory nasty quotation from an ancient review is repeated as if it's the only possible opinion).

Few seem impressed by Burns publishing three literary novels within five years.

David Margolick, however, is impressed by any number of Burns' achievements and varied personal qualities. If a supposedly "forgotten" novelist ever was retrieved by a superlative biographer, it's John Horne Burns. Sixty years after his death, he's now reincarnated at great length in Margolick's extraordinary chronicle.

This is a biography that's been "gestating for more than 40 years, since my boarding school days" Margolick says. Such potent lifelong interest in his subject manifests on every page of "Dreadful: The Short Life and Gay Times of John Horne Burns."

There's a personal connection galvanizing Margolick's vivid, in-depth recapitulation of Burns' life. Long-story short: Margolick attended (between 1966 and 1970) the same Connecticut prep school (Loomis) where Burns was once an English teacher (both before and after his Army service). But Burns did more than teach English at Loomis.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Bruce L on August 11, 2013
Format: Hardcover
For those of us gay men who grew up before Stonewall, the character of John Horne Burns depicted by Margolick in "Dreadful"--- the brilliant, articulate vicious queen--- is all too well known. Tortured, mostly psychologically, but sometimes even physically, by our peers, in order to defend ourselves, we honed our intelligence to a razor sharpness. Our intellect became a destructive force. While members of the cultural majority could, if they wished, enjoy the life of the mind, many intelligent gay men of pre Stonewall days were forced to wield a verbal stiletto and hide behind a carefully constructed carapace. Of course, this atmosphere and situation--- as is the case with most severe persecutions--- left the victim with a generous supply of self hate.

Margolick talks about Burns' intelligence, talent, sensitivity, all juxtaposed against his ruthless cruelty and verbal brutality, and the destructive effects homophobia had on creativity, hampering his freedom of expression. But in Margolick's portrait, the perceptive, humane,artistic genius and the merciless devil never quite come together. They are portrayed as contradictory, while anyone who has lived through that period in similar circumstances knows that the catalyst of homophobia made them two sides of the same coin.

While "Dreadful" contains a wealth of detail, since it fails to explore the dynamic interaction of the various parts of Burns' character, and also does very little to link it with its cultural context--- despite ample quotes from critics of Burns works---, the biography remains externalized and ultimately unsatisfying. Of course, the task is daunting, since Burns himself was extraordinarily recondite, and very seldom expresses his inner turmoil directly.
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