In this week’s TLS – A note from the Editor
John Horne Burns was once “extravagantly acclaimed” and is now “virtually forgotten” writes Eric Ormsby this week, reviewing David Margolick’s “excellent and highly readable biography” of a writer who illuminated the sexual life of Americans in Naples in the aftermath of the Second World War. Burns’s once bestselling novel was called The Gallery, after the nineteenth-century city centre arcade where Italian men and women offered sex to GIs in exchange for cigarettes and gum. Burns was fearless, for his time, in writing “what is often cited as the first open description of homosexual life in American literature”. To be gay was to be “dreadful” – both as noun and adjective, a code word that worked its way into popular comedy of the 1950s. Dos Passos and Hemingway were impressed by The Gallery, but Burns died of sunstroke in 1953, despondent, suggests Ormsby, at the later trajectory of his career.
During the war, Burns was both a brutally frank observer and a censor of letters from prisoners of war. Eric Bulson considers the paradoxes of an earlier generation of censors struggling to deal with the national interest and with vigorous descriptions of sex. The neologisms of James Joyce caused difficulties for authorities around the world. Americans saw the publication of Ulysses in the 1930s as a brave response to book-burnings by Hitler even though Ulysses was not, in fact, banned in Germany till 1938.
Burns was a failed novelist before he reached Italy, and his biographer argues that it was the war which removed his “ungenügender Selbstsucht”, a term for the insatiable love of self which he found in “Harzreise im Winter” by Goethe. W. Daniel Wilson describes how the “exaggerated Goethe cult” in Germany today sits uneasily with the stories, still hidden in Weimar archives, of how the Nazis used the writer, who is “still a central touchstone for national identity”. Wilson recommends that the street in Goethe’s home town named after his Archive’s “committed and active anti-Semite” director, Hans Wahl, should be renamed for Julius Wahle, his Jewish predecessor.