The Book That Unleashed American Grief

John Gunther’s Death Be Not Proud defied a nation’s reluctance to describe personal loss.

black and white photo of John Gunther wearing suit and tie, sitting in a chair, with hands in coat pockets and legs crossed
Photograph by Irving Penn | John Gunther, New York, 1947 | © The Irving Penn Foundation

The book was probably unpublishable. About that fact both the author and his longtime editor agreed. But the author was determined, and he had on his side a brilliant publishing record. For more than a decade, starting in 1936 with his Inside Europe, the reporter John Gunther had been a fixture on the best-seller lists. From the mid-1930s through the 1950s, no one, save the romance novelist Daphne du Maurier, had produced more American best sellers than Gunther.

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Gunther’s unpublishable book was a memoir: an account of the death, in 1947, of his 17-year-old son, Johnny, from a brain tumor. Gunther had started writing while the experience of Johnny’s illness was still raw, finishing the book in a few weeks, six months after his son’s death. He’d set out with the idea of a privately circulated memoir, the sort of volume of remembrances printed in a few hundred copies that parents of soldiers killed in action sent to friends and relations. But as he finished the manuscript, he began to think it should be published for a wider audience.

Surely the book was too personal, Gunther’s publisher, Harper & Brothers, objected. Who would want to read such a dismal book about a complete stranger? And wasn’t it indecent to broadcast an intimate story of suffering in public? But Gunther prevailed. He and his editor came to an agreement: The book would be published with a notice on the jacket that neither Harper & Brothers nor Gunther himself would take any profits from its sale; all the proceeds from the book would go to fund cancer research for children. And with that disclaimer, a title borrowed from a John Donne poem, and a dignified buff jacket ornamented only by a small drawing of a dove, Harper & Brothers published Gunther’s Death Be Not Proud in February 1949 in a modest print run.

Larger print runs quickly followed. By the time that I first read the book, in 1981, it was a mass-market paperback that had sold hundreds of thousands of copies—a publishing success well beyond anything that either Gunther or Harper & Brothers could have imagined. It had been translated into Japanese, Chinese, Italian, Hebrew, Spanish, French, Dutch, German, Swedish, Hindi, and Portuguese, among other languages. For decades, Death Be Not Proud was required reading in many American high schools. In 1960, my mother read it in her tenth-grade civics class in Louisville, Kentucky. It is the only one of Gunther’s books that has remained continuously in print.

In our time, when the intimate memoir has become commonplace, Harper & Brothers’ queasy reaction to Gunther’s project is a reminder of an era when stringent rules of reticence still reigned. The public’s unexpected embrace of the book is disorienting too. The usual assumption is that the modern, unguarded memoir’s origins lie in the narcissism of the 1990s, or the self-revelatory zeal of the ’70s. But Gunther’s surprise hit points to a different genesis: the anti-fascism of the ’30s and widespread revulsion at the dehumanizing horrors of World War II. The predominance of the genre today—which we think about as a celebration of “I”—had its beginnings in an attempt to heal the collective “we.”

By the mid-1930s, the rules about what could—and couldn’t—be discussed in public were changing. The First World War had toppled hierarchies, fraying parental authority and upending rules of propriety. The popularization of Freudian ideas helped make talk about familial dynamics and sexual urges at least semirespectable. The newly founded tabloid papers took advantage of the public’s interest in private lives, inaugurating “I Confess!” competitions that stoked a market for tales of infidelity, out-of-wedlock pregnancies, and other misdeeds. Send in the best confession—anonymously, of course—and the cash prize was yours. In Akron, Ohio, the first Alcoholics Anonymous group met in the summer of 1935, propelled by the idea that “sharing,” either for confession or for bearing witness, was a first and necessary step on the road to sobriety.

The agents provocateurs of this new culture of openness were people born, like Gunther and the AA co-founder Bill Wilson, in the couple of decades around the turn of the 20th century. They were members of the so-called Lost Generation, who, in the words of F. Scott Fitzgerald (a banner member of the club), had “grown up to find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken.” Many of them had lived for a spell in Europe, either as soldiers or as expatriates. Collectively, this generation went on to produce a landmark tell-all book about alcoholism and institutionalization (William Seabrook’s Asylum) and the frankest account of a marriage ever published (Vincent Sheean’s Dorothy and Red ), as well as Gunther’s pioneering Death Be Not Proud.

Even in rarefied literary circles, though, self-exposure was still risky. Take Fitzgerald’s 1936 excursion into self-revelation: the three essays he published in Esquire magazine, later collected under the title The Crack-Up. By today’s standards, Fitzgerald’s account of his nervous breakdown, eloquent as it is, hardly registers on the confessional scale. He likened himself to a cracked plate, claimed (untruthfully) that he’d quit drinking, and expressed his despair about the future of the novel after the advent of the talkies. His account of “self-immolation” was impressionistic and evasive, written as if from behind a veil. He avoided entirely the subject of his wife, Zelda, and her mental illness. Still, his longtime editor, Maxwell Perkins, felt he had committed an “indecent invasion of his own privacy.” Fitzgerald himself ended up fearing he’d damaged his reputation permanently.

The fact that so many of the taboo-shredding American memoirists had lived in Europe wasn’t a coincidence. They had seen up close the battle among fascism, communism, and democracy playing out after the First World War. Inevitably, they took sides and came to rethink their place in the world. This doesn’t accord with the stereotype of the Lost Generation, its members drinking away their anomie in Parisian cafés. But as Brooke Blower noted in her insightful Becoming Americans in Paris (2011), that is because our conception of the Lost Generation is too limited. They weren’t simply running away; they were, as John Dos Passos put it, running toward “the whole wide world.”

The most avidly engaged expatriates were the foreign correspondents, like Gunther, whose job was to translate European news for American audiences. International journalism was thriving in the U.S., as papers such as the Chicago Daily News and the Philadelphia Public Ledger built up their own bureaus abroad rather than relying on wire services. Gunther spent his 20s and 30s dashing between European chancelleries, deciphering coup attempts and revolutions, trying to explain the rise of fascism and the consolidation of Soviet Communism.

Gunther had arrived in Europe in 1924, a cub reporter from Chicago, dreaming, like many of his journalist friends, of writing the Great American Novel. In 1925, he met Frances Fineman, a New York–born Barnard graduate who had become a journalist, and the pair married two years later. An avowedly modern woman, Frances Gunther saw meaningful work and sexual fulfillment as her due: She expected marriage and a career, domesticity and adventure. A serious follower of Freud, she underwent at least four psychoanalyses, grappling with the ways that she frustrated herself, including by trying—and failing—to write her own books. Stymied by a formidable writer’s block, she involved herself in John’s reporting, exhorting him to think harder about both the structural forces—she was also a serious student of Marx—and the psychological dynamics at play in a Europe recovering from a brutal war.

In part influenced by Frances, John came to recognize that the traditional tools of the newsroom hardly sufficed to convey what he was seeing. Objectivity was then, as it is now, the hallmark of the respectable paper. Yet Gunther found it impossible to report dispassionately on the rise of the Nazis or the Austrian dictator Engelbert Dollfuss’s bloody civil war against the Viennese Socialists. He felt mystified by the roaring crowds saluting strongmen and the seemingly irrational, passionate hatreds all around him. Writing articles on elections and bank failures struck him as simply scraping the surface of events. Like many young Americans, Gunther had taken for granted that the whole thrust of human history was toward freedom. But what if the leaders people freely chose were dictators rather than democrats?

Instead of looking for proclivities to authoritarianism in, say, German or Italian national character, Gunther trained his attention on the dictators themselves. He searched out Hitler’s relatives in an Austrian backwater, trying to understand what had made him the man he was. Gunther’s own psychoanalysis in Vienna with Wilhelm Stekel, one of Freud’s first disciples, helped consolidate his views. He’d gone to Stekel wondering whether psychic strains might explain his worsening asthma, but soon was talking about his dissatisfactions with his work and marriage. In his reporting, he started to foreground unconscious urges: the psychological injuries of childhood, repression, frustrated sexual desires.

Feeling the world crashing in around them, he and Frances tracked for themselves how the patterns of public life—a dictator’s machinations, the betrayal of one nation by another—translated into private relations between husbands and wives, parents and children. This was what Virginia Woolf called in Three Guineas (1938) the inseparable interconnection between the “tyrannies and servilities” of the public and private worlds. The global economic crisis of the Great Depression, John thought, had precipitated his own personal upheaval.

Armed with a psychological framework, the Gunthers dedicated themselves to understanding how the pathologies of world leaders became the stuff of international crises. Gathering information about Stalin’s family life and Mussolini’s marriage, about Atatürk’s mother fixation, about the emotional makeup of Hitler’s henchmen, John broke the rules regarding fit topics for reporting. He put his argument right on the first page of Inside Europe: “The fact may be an outrage to reason, but it cannot be denied: unresolved personal conflicts in the lives of various European politicians may contribute to the collapse of our civilization.” So strong was the proscription against such disclosures that Gunther thought he’d have to publish his book anonymously.

In the end, Gunther signed his name to the book, figuring he didn’t want to stay a newspaperman forever anyway. Inside Europe became a sensation: hurriedly reprinted, translated into 14 languages, and banned in Germany, a fact that Gunther’s other publishers ballyhooed in their advertising. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s son Franklin Jr. took the book on his European honeymoon. The young John F. Kennedy toured the continent with Inside Europe in hand, his guide as he weighed the comparative evils of fascism and communism. The book made Gunther enough money that he could quit his day job as a reporter and devote himself, as he’d always wanted, to writing books, novels as well as nonfiction. In September 1936, he, Frances, and Johnny, then 6, moved back to the United States after 12 years abroad.

In the decade that followed, Gunther scored two more publishing hits with his Inside Asia (1939) and Inside Latin America (1941), accompanied General Dwight Eisenhower in the invasion of Sicily, and became the sort of international expert asked to opine on everything from Japanese military strategy to the fortitude of the British home front. FDR invited him to the White House for a tête-à-tête. He and Frances separated in 1941 and then divorced in 1944, their troubled marriage a microcosm, they both thought, of a world at war. She went on to become an ardent campaigner against the British empire: an Indian nationalist—a confidant of Jawaharlal Nehru’s—and then a Zionist, and a leading figure in the American pressure campaigns for both causes.

In the spring of 1946, Gunther was busy writing the book he’d planned about democracy, Inside U.S.A., when 16-year-old Johnny was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. The prognosis was grim; radiation therapy began immediately, and the doctors’ bills piled up. John cried so much that Frances feared he’d collapse. But he had to work. He’d barely made a dent in the book’s projected 50-plus chapters and was running out of money. While Johnny was undergoing treatment, John visited him at noon and in the evenings—Frances was there all afternoon—and returned to his office, writing until 1 or 2 a.m. every night. Thank God for the end of daylight savings time, he noted in his diary: It gave him an extra hour to work. The Book-of-the-Month Club had chosen Inside U.S.A. as its selection for June 1947, a guarantee of big sales. To make that deadline, Harper & Brothers was typesetting the book a chapter at a time, as quickly as Gunther finished them.

He met his deadline, and Inside U.S.A. hit the market with the largest initial print run in the history of American publishing, a half-million copies. Johnny died a month later, on June 30, 1947. At the end of the summer, Gunther put his son’s papers in order: his schoolwork, his diaries, the letters he and Frances had exchanged with Johnny when they were away for eight months in 1937–38 reporting from Asia and, later, when he left for boarding school. John talked with Frances about writing a “Johnny book.” He arranged the hundreds of condolence letters they’d gotten—brief, embarrassed missives from friends and acquaintances, people never at a loss for what to say, acknowledging that the Gunthers’ grief was “beyond words.” Just after Christmas, he started writing.

The book, Gunther decided, would have three parts: his own narrative, then Johnny’s lightly edited letters and diaries, and an afterword by Frances. Gunther had been jotting down notes and phrases all along on the colored slips of paper he always kept nearby. An old reporter’s habit: He’d recorded fragments of conversations, the offhand comments doctors and nurses made, Johnny’s wry observations. His subject wouldn’t be Johnny’s life—the usual territory of the “In Memoriam” volume—but how he’d endured sickness. He was writing a blow-by-blow account of “what happened to Johnny’s brain.”

It was, Gunther recognized, an “unconventional” approach. The standard mid-century source on American autobiography counts only 13 titles dealing with illness out of the more than 6,000 memoirs published before 1945. None of those is a chronicle of cancer, the subject of most illness memoirs today. After the Second World War, scientific advances in cancer therapeutics were just starting to extend survival rates, and with the new medical possibilities came a new narrative form, which derived its suspense from the twists and turns of treatment.

3 photos: a curly haired toddler in short pants kneels on a chair as his mother kisses him; a childhood photo of Johnny laughing; a photo of father and son, holding a puppy, near a shoreline
Top: Johnny Gunther as a toddler, playing with his mother, Frances Fineman Gunther. Bottom left: Johnny in the mid-1930s. Bottom right: Johnny with his father, John Gunther, in the early 1940s, after the family had moved back to the United States from Europe.(Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America / Harvard University)

Gunther brought the skills of a spectacular newsman to bear on the story, taking the reader right into the situation with him. The call from Deerfield Academy, where Johnny was a junior, had come on an April afternoon in 1946. “I think your child has a brain tumor,” the doctor had blurted out. Gunther raced to western Massachusetts, picking Frances up in Connecticut on his way from New York. As soon as he saw the look on the doctors’ faces, he knew there was no hope of a recovery. Three days later, Johnny underwent a six-hour surgery at the Neurological Institute of New York. “I got half of it,” the surgeon told John.

In the 14 months that followed, the Gunthers consulted more than 30 specialists. They searched for the latest medical miracle. Johnny was the first brain-tumor patient in the United States to be treated with mustard gas, an early form of chemotherapy; Gunther himself delivered the canisters full of the toxic stuff to the hospital. As Johnny grew sicker and sicker, they turned to the refugee physician Max Gerson, who insisted that a diet of fresh vegetables, no salt, no fat, and scant protein could cure cancer. And then, for some reason the doctors couldn’t explain—was it the X-ray treatment, the mustard gas, or the diet?—the tumor seemingly retreated. “I was beside myself with a violent and incredulous joy. Johnny was going to recover after all!”

Gunther wrote without euphemism. His metaphors were precise, his descriptions unflinching. The effect of that first surgery was akin to the “explosion of a .45-caliber bullet,” a doctor told him. He made use of a clinical vocabulary, translating the language of the medical case report: Papilledema, he explained, was swelling of the optic nerve; a ventriculogram required drilling holes through the skull. The surgeons left Johnny’s skull open so that the tumor wouldn’t be driven inward; the flap of scalp that covered the soft spot was the size of a man’s hand. When the tumor began to grow again, a few months after the remission began, the surgeon excavated more than four inches into the brain, unable to find healthy tissue.

The multi-perspective memorial volume was a classic Victorian form, but Death Be Not Proud gave it a new purpose. Because each part struck a different emotional register, together they functioned as a sort of Inside Us—taking the reader into the family’s private dynamics to understand how they’d coped. Gunther’s tone was restrained and dignified: “As to our own emotions I am trying not to write about them.” He was reining in his feelings even as he was writing of intimate experiences, exposing just enough to make plain the weight he was carrying. The battle among the doctors over which course of treatment to pursue “all but destroyed us.” At times, Johnny seemed “subconsciously hostile to me as if out of resentment at my good health.” Johnny talked about death with Frances, but almost never with John, changing the subject when his father walked into the room.

Johnny’s letters and diaries reproduced in the second part of the book bore witness to his character. They filled in the details of his life before the tumor: the affectionate young son writing home from summer camp, the prodigious schoolboy playing chess, experimenting in chemistry and physics. He maintained a chipper tone even after he got sick, valiantly cloaking his fear in humor. “I have discovered Utopia here,” Johnny wrote to a friend while in the hospital. “No athletics, No worries.” In his diaries, he admonished himself to make the best use of the time he had left, getting on with his schoolwork and his science projects. He fretted about his parents. In November 1946, as his tumor erupted again, he wrote: “Ask parents what you can do to make them happy.”

Frances’s afterword was the most personal and unabashedly emotional of the three parts. She wrote about her relationship with her son, her attempt to “create of him a newer kind of human being: an aware person, without fear, and with love.” To remake a war-ravaged world required people who cared about others, and Frances had started with her son. She’d reared him to become a cooperative rather than competitive person. But now that he was dead, she was consumed by guilt. She felt remorse about sending Johnny to boarding school; she regretted the divorce: “I wished we had loved Johnny more when he was alive.”

In 1949, the year that Death Be Not Proud was published, new ideas about both the individual and collective psyche were taking root. Rebuilding after the Second World War would require more than simply clearing away the bomb rubble and restarting industry; for the fragile peace to hold, a psychological reconstruction was imperative. President Harry Truman sent a message of encouragement to be read aloud at the American Psychiatric Association’s annual meeting. “The greatest prerequisite for peace,” he observed, “must be sanity—sanity in its broadest sense, which permits clear thinking on the part of all citizens.” To foster a sane and healthy postwar society, people would need to learn how to express the emotions they’d kept bottled up.

This was the context in which Death Be Not Proud caught fire. The old strictures on self-revelation that had hemmed in Fitzgerald hadn’t entirely disappeared. According to the Hartford Times’ book critic, Gunther’s book was “just as breathtaking and shocking as would be a similar confession from a new neighbor, a complete stranger, who suddenly told you his family’s most secret tragedy.” But for every critic who objected to Gunther’s “almost indecent” disclosures or the memoir’s “nauseating” details, many more applauded its frankness and bravery. To read it was to undergo “a magnificent human experience,” wrote the Chicago Tribune’s influential critic Fanny Butcher.

For John Donne, the phrase Death be not proud had conveyed a religious belief in immortality. “Death, thou shalt die,” Donne had written: “One short sleep past, we wake eternally.” Death Be Not Proud, by contrast, represented a bid for a secular afterlife, a testament to Johnny’s courage. As much as it was about one boy, it was also about the worth of the individual writ large. In their son’s illness, the Gunthers saw the same sort of dynamic that had haunted them in Europe—it was “as if the pattern of Johnny’s illness were symbolic of so much of the conflict and torture of the external world.” The battle between Johnny’s fine mind and the savagery of the tumor was like the fight they’d witnessed in fascist Vienna and Berlin: “A primitive to-the-death struggle of reason against violence, reason against disruption, reason against brute unthinking force.”

photo: a woman in white shirt and plaid skirt looks up at her taller son, wearing shorts, with blue sky and beach in background
Johnny with his mother after his brain-cancer diagnosis, which he received in the spring of 1946 (Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America / Harvard University)

To insist on the value of a single existence was to strike back at that shocking disregard for human life. Gunther’s memoir was a literary counterpart to the work then under way in international law, where new concepts of human rights were being invented. As Death Be Not Proud went to press in the fall of 1948, delegates at the recently founded United Nations were debating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That document proclaimed an inalienable right to live free from want and oppression and, still more novel, to develop fully one’s own personality. After half a century of war and genocide that had claimed by conservative estimates more than 70 million lives, the defenders of the individual were gaining the upper hand.

The reading public received the book just that way. “Thank God there are people like you who still realize the infinite value of one soul when the world is devising new means of mass killing,” one woman wrote to Frances. Death Be Not Proud became an instant best seller. In American college towns as in county seats, it topped the list of the books that patrons requested in public libraries. As soon as the first excerpts appeared in Ladies’ Home Journal, then one of the largest-circulation magazines in the United States, the Gunthers found themselves deluged with letters. Readers thanked them for having the courage to put their “own hearts into print.” Some correspondents took the Gunthers’ relative openness about their divorce as an invitation to comment, and urged the couple to reconcile.

By far the largest number of letters, and there were thousands of them, came from grieving parents. Their children had died of meningitis, leukemia, or glioma; their sons had been killed in action in Germany or died in Japanese prisoner-of-war camps. Mostly mothers wrote, but occasionally fathers did too. Some unburdened themselves at great length, filling pages and pages, as though they hadn’t been able to talk to anyone. A minister’s attempt at consolation—“We know it must be for the best. God doesn’t make mistakes”—had proved no comfort at all. These parents blamed themselves, as Frances had. They felt guilty that they couldn’t afford more treatments and private doctors, or they regretted subjecting their children to painful operations. Don’t you ever feel bitter? they asked the Gunthers. “I expect you did, but I suppose that doesn’t help does it?”

These letters comprise an astonishing archive of the repressed grief in mid-20th-century America. Readers peeled pictures of their loved ones out of photograph albums, to enclose with their letters. A mother whose baby had died of pneumonia cut “A Word From Frances” out of the book and put it in her Bible with her baby’s footprints. One father ordered 20 copies of Death Be Not Proud to send to his relatives; his son had polio. Gunther had put their family’s suffering into words. In turn, readers adopted his manner of narrating the course of an illness, telling him their stories, interspersing the clinical details with everyday accounts of how they’d tried to cope. It was as if he’d given them not just permission but a template for relating their experiences.

Beginning in the late 1950s, a different set of readers—readers like my mother—took up Gunther’s book. English teachers assigned Death Be Not Proud; the tribute to selfless bravery fit well on civics syllabi too. It became a popular selection for teen book clubs. Young readers wrote to Gunther in increasing numbers. They wished they’d known Johnny: He was the sort of boy they’d like to befriend or, someday, marry. They saw him as a model against which their own character should be measured, certain that they fell far short of his example. “I only wish that I could be half the person Johnny was!” wrote one high-school girl from Scarsdale, New York.

Gunther’s teenage readers recognized Death Be Not Proud ’s redemptive message. It was a book about an individual whose selflessness was his most salient feature. As an eighth-grade boy in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, put it, “His fight for life was not only for his mortal body but the lives of millions of people.” But Johnny’s wasn’t the self-sacrifice of a Christ figure or the hardened courage of a soldier. It was something altogether more recognizable to young readers. Students put themselves in the shoes of Johnny, Frances, or John. Teachers encouraged that sympathetic identification by asking their pupils to write essays from the perspective of one of the “characters” in the book.

And yet, adolescents were so gripped by Death Be Not Proud precisely because it wasn’t fiction. Like Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, which was translated into English in 1952, Gunther’s memoir demonstrated how life had outpaced fiction, as “millions of people all over the world,” in the words of one Connecticut girl, shared in the “tragedy of your son’s death.” It wasn’t “like the average book,” she added, “perhaps because this really happened.” Teenagers requested photos of Johnny, details of his science experiments, more information about the couple’s divorce. “Some people would say, ‘Oh, its only a story, don’t let it bother you’,” one reader wrote; “but when you realize that it actually took place, it makes a person stop and think.”

Gunther’s young readers were the Baby Boomers, born into the prosperity and stability of a postwar world. Some of them later marched on Washington, protested the war in Vietnam, and eventually popularized the slogan “The personal is political,” an idea that owed much to the slippage between geopolitics and inner life that Gunther and his generation had first chronicled. Youth movements don’t spend much time paying homage to their elders, and the rebels of the 1960s were no exception. But what the Boomers had learned from their transgressive 1930s forebears was that repression had to be combatted by openness and that no subject was beyond words.

For this, at least in part, they had a once ubiquitous, now largely forgotten reporter and his ex-wife to thank. In 1926, Virginia Woolf had lamented how few writers had taken on the subject of illness. Sickness, she wrote, ought to be “among the prime themes of literature,” alongside love, warfare, and jealousy. John Gunther paved a way to talk about cancer and death in public, about divorce, pain, and parental remorse. He did so precisely because he was a reporter who’d taken from the hellish world of the 1930s and ’40s a conviction that the individual needed defending and that the full range of human experiences had to be told. In the next decades, when telling all became the norm, some part of that original impetus got lost, as the imperative to tend to the common good faded. If the “I” became detached from the “we,” that was above all else a measure of the late 20th century’s good fortune.

This article appears in the April 2022 print edition with the headline “The Man Who Told All.” When you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.