Role models of greatness.

Here you will discover the back stories of kings, titans of industry, stellar athletes, giants of the entertainment field, scientists, politicians, artists and heroes – all of them gay or bisexual men. If their lives can serve as role models to young men who have been bullied or taught to think less of themselves for their sexual orientation, all the better. The sexual orientation of those featured here did not stand in the way of their achievements.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

John Horne Burns

Born the son of a wealthy Irish Catholic lawyer in Massachusetts, John Horne Burns (1916-1953) attended Andover Academy, where he studied music. His Phi Beta Kappa graduation from Harvard in 1939 resulted in a teaching position at a boys' boarding school, the Loomis School in Windsor, Connecticut. Answering his country’s call, he was drafted into the army in 1942. Thus a gay soldier found himself lucky enough to be stationed in Casablanca, Algiers, and Naples, spending WW II in a military intelligence job censoring the content of mail written by enemy prisoners. Burns used his war experiences, including pickups in gay bars in Naples, in his brilliant first novel, The Gallery (1947), a set of nine vignettes, reissued in 2004 by New York Review of Books Classics. The novel is a semi-autobiographical fictionalized account of his Italian war experiences.

The Gallery – "The first book of real magnitude to come out of the last war."
– John Dos Passos

Set in occupied Naples, Italy, in 1944, The Gallery takes its name from the Galleria Umberto, a bombed-out arcade where everybody in town comes together in pursuit of food, drink, sex, money and oblivion. A daring and enduring novel – one of the first to look directly at gay life in the military – The Gallery poignantly conveys the mixed feelings of those who fought the war that made America a superpower. The book captures the shock that war dealt to the preconceptions and ideals of the victorious Americans. Each of the stories gives the reader a glimpse into the social and sexual practices of American GIs during WW II, from a censorship office run by an egomaniac to an Italian girl finding love in an America officer's club to a gay bar. These portraits are linked by the narrator's own experiences from Casablanca to Naples and his realization of what love and the war mean to him. Upon publication in 1947, the book became a critically-acclaimed bestseller.

His literary debut launched him alongside James Michener and Irwin Shaw (photo above). Two years later, however, Burns suffered a second novel comedown with Lucifer with a Book (1949), a satire which drew on his experiences as a boarding school teacher. Lucifer with a Book was one of the most talked about new novels, because it dealt with the naughty goings-on at an all boys' prep school, something Americans could not handle in 1947. Burns was savagely attacked by the same critics who had praised him as a war novelist. Disappointed, disillusioned and disaffected with American culture, Burns moved to Florence, Italy, where he began drinking himself to death. A third novel,  A Cry of Children (1952), also garnered bad reviews. Supporting himself as a travel writer, he began working on a fourth novel, but died at age 36 of a cerebral hemorrhage brought on by alcoholism.

According to Gore Vidal, Burns once said "To be a good writer, one must be homosexual."

The Gallery: Burns has a brilliant facility for reproducing the sights, sounds, color, feel, and smell of the places he has seen. He uses this to startling effect to recapture what many Americans beyond the frontiers of their antiseptic homeland for the first time found in exotic and warped war centers as Casablanca, Fedhala, Algiers, and of course the twisted and diseased Napoli itself. – William Hogan, San Francisco Chronicle

No one will ever forget this book: a story torn from impassioned experience of modern wars in a shattered city of the ancient world. The Gallery is unique, unsparing, immediate; inextinguishable.
– Shirley Hazzard

The Gallery – John Horne Burns; 392 pages, paperback.

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