A sensitive teenager faced a devastating illness with grace and intelligence
Death Be Not Proud: A Memoir. By John Gunther. Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 224 pp., $13.95, paperback.
By Janice Harayda
You could argue that John Gunther idealizes his son, Johnny, who died of a brain tumor at the age of 17, in this classic memoir. But parents naturally want to remember the best in children they have lost. So the question isn’t whether Gunther idealizes his son but whether Johnny deserves the near-heroic portrayal he receives in this book. The answer is yes.
First published in 1949, Death Be Not Proud is a slim book that has little in common the sort of memoirs that recently have become fashionable: fat, self-dramatizing stories overstuffed with emotion and incident. Gunther describes with uncommon restraint how he and his ex-wife tried to save their son after he developed a glioma multiforme, a brain tumor that few people then survived.
During his 15-month illness, Johnny endured a series of brutal, long-shot treatments: brain surgery, mustard gas injections, a primitive form of radiation. He showed his character and vivid intellectual curiosity best after the surgery, when father asked if he knew he’d had an operation. “Of course,” Johnny said. “I heard them drilling three holes through my skull, also the sound of my brains sloshing around. From the sound, one of the drills must have had a three-eights of an inch bit.”
A bestseller in its day, Death Be Not Proud appears today on high school reading lists, and many people see it as a book for teenagers. This is a shame. A sea-change has occurred in the advice that parents of sick children get from doctors (who urged Gunther to lie to Johnny to keep him from finding out how serious his illness was). A book club might spend hours talking about just one of the questions raised by this book: Would Johnny really have been better off if his parents had taken the advice of 21st-century doctors instead of their own?
Best line: Many passages attest to Johnny’s unusual intellectual and emotional maturity. His parents once asked him, while he was in prep school, if he wanted to see some home movies taken of him when he was a child. “Only if they’re not too recent – the past is tolerable if remote enough,” Johnny replied.
Worst line: Death Be Not Proud has a scattering of lines such as, “Johnny was as sinless as a sunset” and “Everybody loved him – down to the corner cop.” If these seem too rosy, the book wears them lightly. Gunther is not trying to convince you that Johnny was perfect but to portray his struggle against cancer.
Reading group guide: I can’t link directly to the publisher’s guide, posted at www.harpercollins.com, but here’s a link to it that you can paste into your browser: http://www.harpercollins.com/books/9780061230974/Death_Be_Not_Proud/.
Published: 1949 (first edition) and 2007 (Harper Perennial Modern Classics edition).
Furthermore: John Gunther (1901–1970), one of the best-known reporters of his day, wrote the popular “Inside” series that included Inside Europe, Inside Asia and Inside U.S.A.