American author John Horne Burns (1916–1953) led a brief and controversial life, and as a writer, transformed many of his darkest experiences into literature. Burns was born in Massachusetts, graduated from Andover and Harvard, and went on to teach English at the Loomis School, a boarding school for boys in Windsor, Connecticut. During World War II, he was stationed in Africa and Italy, and worked mainly in military intelligence. His first novel, The Gallery (1947), based on his wartime experiences, is a critically acclaimed novel and one of the first to unflinchingly depict gay life in the military. The Gallery sold half a million copies upon publication, but never again would Burns receive that kind of critical or popular attention.
Dreadful follows Burns, from his education at the best schools to his final years of drinking and depression in Italy. With intelligence and insight, David Margolick examines Burns’s moral ambivalence toward the behavior of American soldiers stationed with him in Naples, and the scandal surrounding his second novel, Lucifer with a Book, an unflattering portrayal of his experiences at Loomis.
“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
"...the book largely hits its mark, and an oft-forgotten literary figure receives overdue attention." —Publishers Weekly