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literature

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Burns, John Horne (1916-1953)  

American novelist John Horne Burns used his outsider status as a homosexual to critique America's class-coded heterosexist morality and its ethnocentrism and marketplace mentality.

Burns was born October 7, 1916, in Andover, Massachusetts, the eldest of seven children in a prominent Irish Catholic family. He was educated at the Sisters of Notre Dame convent school and then Andover Academy, where he pursued musical, rather than literary, endeavors. Burns spent the next four years at Harvard as a loner, studying English literature and finding comfort in music. His 1937 Phi Beta Kappa graduation resulted in a teaching post at the Loomis School in Windsor, Connecticut.

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Entering the infantry as a private in 1942, he served in military intelligence in Casablanca and Algiers until Pentagon officials sent him to the Adjutant General's School in Washington, D.C., when his knowledge of Italian became known. Subsequently commissioned a second lieutenant, he spent the remainder of the war censoring prison-of-war mail in Africa and Italy.War service provoked in Burns a skepticism about America's class-coded, heterosexist, morality, as well as its ethnocentrism and marketplace mentality. He returned to the Loomis School after his 1946 army discharge, but he lasted there only a year.

The cornerstone of Burns's literary reputation, his first novel The Gallery, was published in the summer of 1947. His second novel, Lucifer With a Book, appeared in 1949, but received little praise, and he wrote travel pieces for Holiday magazine to survive. Disheartened by the criticial reception of his novel, he retreated to Italy, where he began his last published work, A Cry of Children (1952).

When this work also received negative press, he wrote a fourth novel, never published because Burns died before making the extensive revisions required for its publication. After a sailing trip, he lapsed into a coma and died from a cerebral hemorrhage on August 11, 1953. Rumors ciruclating at the time suggested suicide because of Burns's frustrated writing career and the ending of a tempestuous relationship with an Italian doctor. Initially buried in Rome, his remains were disinterred and reburied in Boston.

As recorded by his contemporary Gore Vidal, Burns reportedly said that to be a good writer, one must be homosexual, perhaps because his or her marginalized status provides the gay or lesbian author with an objectivity not attainable within mainstream culture. Certainly the type of critique that such marginalization can engender is apparent in Burns's novels and constitutes his contribution to the gay and lesbian literary tradition.

The Gallery, a series of vignettes centered on the Galleria Umberto in Naples, Italy, comments on the social and sexual mores of the American way of life, represented by the escapades of various American service personnel unleashed on the recently liberated Old World.

Similarly, the autobiographical Lucifer With a Book scrutinizes the incubator for such value systems, the private school, as Burns tells the story of a battled-scarred history teacher, who although heterosexual, cannot willingly contribute to the "brainwashing" of the next generation he teaches.

And his last novel, A Cry of Children, chronicles concert pianist David Murray's search for meaning and connection within America's stifling conceptions of motherhood, heterosexual courtship, and religious practices.

Although he primarily focuses on heterosexual characters and situations, in none of Burns's work is some consideration of homosexuality absent. The Gallery, for example, presents a memorable, if not perhaps one of the first, portrayals of a Neapolitan gay bar and the wide spectrum of international patrons, both high- and low-born, who frequent it. And in Lucifer With a Book, Burns reveals the coterie of young homosexuals who form the underground social structure of the school whose other secrets he lays bare.

Had he survived, he may have lived up to his early reputation as among the best of up-and-coming post-war writers. Unfortunately, post-war America had little patience with Burns's critique of a way of life affirmed by victory abroad.

Mark A. Graves

     

    
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    Bibliography
   

Aldridge, John W. After the Lost Generation: A Critical Study of the Writers of Two Wars. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1951.

Byrd, David. "John Horne Burns." Dictionary of Literary Bibiography. 1985 yearbook. Jean W. Ross, ed. Detroit: Gale. 338-343.

Brophy, Brigid. "John Horne Burns." Don't Never Forget: Collected Views and Reviews. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966. 192-202.

"John Horne Burns, Novelist, 36, Dies." New York Times (August 14, 1953): 19.

Mitzel, John. John Horne Burns: An Appreciative Biography. Dorchester, Mass.: Manifest Destiny, 1974.

Smith, Harrison. "Thirteen Adventurers: A Study of a Year of First Novelists, 1947." The Saturday Review of Literature (February 14, 1948): 6-8+.

Vidal, Gore. "John Horne Burns." Homage to Daniel Shays, Collected Essays 1952-1972. New York: Random House, 1972. 181-185.

 

    Citation Information
         
    Author: Graves, Mark A.  
    Entry Title: Burns, John Horne  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
 
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated October 30, 2002  
    Web Address www.glbtq.com/literature/burns_jh.html  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
 
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  
 

 

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