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John Gunther rocketed to fame and fortune with the publication of his nonfiction book Inside Europe, and this gave him access to world leaders and world perspectives. Although Gunther enjoyed the jet-set life that his journalistic career fostered, he also suffered great personal tragedy, with the deaths of his two children. He wrote about the death of his seventeen-year-old son in his book Death Be Not Proud: A Memoir. As a journalist, novelist, and biographer Gunther offered his readers a fresh new insight to the world in which they lived.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
An Inquisitive Fact Finder
John Gunther was born in Chicago to Eugene and Lisette Gunther. His father was a traveling businessman and his mother a school teacher. With his father often away, it was his mother who primarily raised John and his sister. As a boy, John showed a great interest in fact-finding and collecting. When he was only eleven years old he set out with the ambitious goal of writing an encyclopedia. Somewhat introverted, he had a less than remarkable academic record at Lake View High School, from which he graduated in 1918.
Making a Career in Journalism
Although his father had other plans for him, Gunther enrolled at the University of Chicago and began studying chemistry. However, he proved less than dedicated to that science, and in his second year he switched to English, a move that affected the rest of his life. Soon Gunther experienced, for the first time in his life, social popularity through his position as the editor of the student newspaper, the Daily Maroon. After graduating from the university in 1922, Gunther traveled around Europe for a short time. When he returned to the United States he was determined to make a career in journalism. He worked for two years, learning the ropes as a cub reporter for the Chicago Daily News.
Front Row Seats in Europe
Gunther quit his job for the Chicago Daily News in 1924 and moved to Europe. He worked as a freelance journalist in London picking up odd jobs until he was again hired by the Chicago newspaper as its roving ”swing man, traveling around Europe to fill correspondent positions that were currently vacant. Between 1926 and 1929 he worked in every country in Europe except Portugal. In 1927, Gunther married Frances Fineman, a fellow journalist working in Europe. He had first met her in Chicago in 1921. Fineman traveled and worked all over Europe with Gunther. in 1929 they had a daughter, Judy, who died suddenly before she was able to celebrate her first birthday. In 1930, their son John Jr. was born.
The paper gave him his own news bureau in Vienna in 1930, and he remained there until 1935. This gave him the opportunity to closely observe the rise of fascism in Germany and Austria. Before World War II, Gunther wrote some of the first articles about the ascendancy of Adolf Hitler and the dangers of his philosophic outlook. This gave the German police, the Gestapo, reason enough to place Gunther on their death list.
Triumph as a World Chronicler
During his time as a journalist, Gunther managed to write four novels, including Bright Nemesis. None of his fiction met with success and reviewers considered his work in this form stale and ordinary. At his wife’s prompting, Gunther decided to write about what he had learned during his many years reporting as a correspondent and traveling around Europe. He took only seven months to complete the manuscript for Inside Europe, even after being moved from Vienna to London, where he took on even greater responsibilities. The book was published in 1936 to great success. Gunther had managed to casually write about each country in Europe, just as the continent was facing the crisis of fascism and the rise of Hitler in Germany and Benito Mussolini in Italy. The book introduced the general public to these political leaders, who would later become household names as they terrorized the world. With Inside Europe the common reader could satisfy his curiosity without feeling too bogged down in details.
Gunther continued to revise Inside Europe during World War II. He published several other editions of the book that led him to fame and fortune. However, he also went on to create other “Inside” works. From 1937 to 1939 Gunther and his family traveled throughout Asia, and in 1939 he published Inside Asia, followed by Inside Latin America just two years later. With his newfound fame and fortune Gunther was able to meet with politicians and statesmen all over the world and to get them to speak candidly during his interviews.
A Study of the United States
In 1944 Gunther’s marriage to Frances Fineman ended in divorce. Gunther returned to the United States and embarked on a new mission: to use the same technique he had used in his analysis of other continents, to produce an overview of the American nation. During the next thirteen months he traveled to every state, interviewed ten to twenty people each day, and wrote over a million words of notes. He spent another fourteen months putting together his manuscript. In 1946 he published the result, Inside U.S.A., which was a huge success. It sold half a million copies in three months.
Personal Tragedy Shared
Just as Gunther was finishing work on Inside U.S.A., his life plummeted into despair with the diagnosis of his son Johnny’s brain cancer. One month after the publication of the book, Johnny died. During the battle that the family waged to keep Johnny alive, Gunther chronicled his pain in a personal memoir to help with the grieving process. Gunther never intended to publish the work. However, he was prompted to offer the memoir as a book in order to help other grieving parents deal with similar tragedies, and in 1949 Death Be Not Proud was published. This is the work by which Gunther is most remembered today. It was filmed as a television movie in 1975, starring Robby Benson.
Living Big and Writing
Big In 1948 Gunther married Jane Perry Vandercook; the couple adopted a son, Nicholas. With the help of his new wife, Gunther continued to write “Inside” books and other sociopolitical nonfiction, including his memoir of General Dwight D. Eisenhower Eisenhower, the Man and the Symbol, written before the famous military leader was elected president. Gunther entertained often in his New York home and lived a lavish lifestyle as a celebrity journalist until his own death from cancer in 1970.
Works in Literary Context
Gunther’s early works document the political and cultural landscape on a world scale, and they analyze the major continents region by region. His writing was thorough and yet simplistic and entertaining. It attracted common readers, not university PhDs, and it satisfied the public’s curiosity about the world abroad. In doing so, he created a new, dynamic style of reporting called “inside” reporting. Gunther is most remembered for his sensitive treatment of death and grieving in his skillful memoir Death Be Not Proud, a chronicle of his seventeen-year-old son’s struggle for life.
In the late nineteen century, William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, owners of the nation’s largest newspapers, declared that journalists had a mission to defend the public interest. In response, journalists searched for sensationalist news and their stories touted shocking headlines to attract readers. This sensationalist journalism eventually led to more investigative journalism, in which reporters took risks to get to the bottom of stories and scandals. Eventually, with the use of the first wireless radio transmitter in 1901, broadcasting journalism and transatlantic wire communications became widespread. Gunther traveled Europe at the zenith of American foreign correspondence, when Americans were excited by and eager for instant news. With the publication of Inside Europe, Gunther used an investigative, journalistic approach to uncover the political climate in Europe, as the war and political upheaval loomed.
Although often seen as interchangeable, a memoir is different from an autobiography, in that it is a reflection of one section of the writer’s life that is not meant as an entire life history. Gunther’s memoir of his son’s struggle for life, Death Be Not Proud, has maintained a place in the literary world because his approach to the subject remains as valid today as it was when the book was written. It is a story of love between a boy and his family, and it searches for answers to the unfairness of the boy’s plight.
Works in Critical Context
Although Inside Europe was criticized for lacking in journalistic objectivity, it won public approval and had remarkable sales for a book of nonfiction. This was also true of Gunther’s memoir, Death Be Not Proud, which received critical recognition for its honest and sensitive treatment of death. It continues to be read and studied in literature classes today.
Gunther’s Inside Europe was an instant success in the United States and was quickly translated and distributed abroad. In Europe critics felt that Gunther had helped educate the world about their precarious situation. Harold Nicolson commended the book, saying it was ”a serious contribution to contemporary knowledge.” J. H. Freeman, writing for the Times Literary Supplement, called the book ”a dramatic, entertaining and informative record of the Europe of the moment.” The reviewer also commented that the ”character-readings of the dictators and would-be dictators are illuminating but not always respectful. Mr. Gunther describes Herr Hitler as given to insomnia and emotionalism; the German people are the chief emotional reality of his life.” In the United States some critics felt that Gunther had allowed himself to distort the truth by inserting his own views and had made the book too personal. In his 1936 review Malcolm Cowley said that the book ”distorts the author’s picture and often weakens his judgment of events.”
Death Be Not Proud
In Death Be Not Proud Gunther’s elegant prose exposes the pain of death and loss without becoming overly sentimental and dramatic. He uses his memoir to illuminate what is important in life, and to reflect on what ”good” truly is. It is Gunther’s son’s embracing of life and his own fearlessness in the face of death that eventually allows the author to accept the inevitable without despair.
- Cuthbertson, Ken. Inside: The Biography of John Gunther. Chicago: Bonus Books, 1992.
- Gunther, John. A Fragment of Autobiography. New York: Harper, 1962.
- Pridmore, Jay. John Gunther: Inside Journalism. Chicago: University of Chicago Library, 1990.
- Cowley, Malcolm. ”The Personal Element.” New Republic (February 12, 1936).
- Freeman, J. H. ”Dictators & Others: An American Looks at Europe.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 1776 (February 15, 1936): 124.
- Rovere, Richard H. ”Inside.” New Yorker (August 23, 1947).
- Schlesinger, Arthur. ”A Man From Mars.” Atlantic Monthly (April 1997). ”John Gunther: An Obituary.” New York Times (May 30, 1970).
- ”John Gunther. Abbreviated profile from World Authors 1900-1950.” Retrieved December 6, 2008, from http://www.hwwilson.com/print/14gunther.html.
- ”Personal Information for Frances Fineman Gunther.” Retrieved December 6, 2008, from http://jwa.org/ archive/jsp/perInfo.jsp?personID=518.
- ”Death Be Not Proud: TV Movie.” Retrieved December 6, 2008, from http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0072854/.
- ”John Gunther. Retrieved December 6, 2008, from http://www.nndb.com/people/875/000048731/.
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