Death Be Not Proud: A Memoir

Death Be Not Proud: A Memoir

by John Gunther

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Johnny Gunther was only seventeen years old when he died of a brain tumor. During the months of his illness, everyone near him was unforgettably impressed by his level-headed courage, his wit and quiet friendliness, and, above all, his unfaltering patience through times of despair. This deeply moving book is a father's memoir of a brave, intelligent, and spirited boy.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780812415438
Publisher: Perfection Learning Prebound
Publication date: 07/01/1977
Pages: 205
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.80(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

John Gunther (1901-1970) was one of the best known and most admired journalists of his day. The author of the immensely popular Inside books—a series of profiles of major world powers, beginning with Inside Europe, published in 1936—he was born on the north side of Chicago and died on May 29, 1970.

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Johnny came home for the Christmas holiday in 1945, and he looked fit and fine. He was lengthening out physically and otherwise, as children do all of a sudden, responding as it were to the release of some hidden inner spring. We saw a lot of each other, and just before getting on the train to return to school in January, he exclaimed, "Pop, that was the best ten days I ever had!" He didn't often confess personal emotions so freely, and I was pleased. Then in March, 1946, he came down again for the long spring holiday. Frances and I took him to several Broadway shows, including Show Boat and Antigone—he liked Antigone best; he went to lectures on atomic physics; Frances took him to the public dinner given by the City of New York to Winston Churchill—it was the first, and last, time he ever wore a dinner jacket, borrowed from his uncle; he won the critical game in a chess match against another school (he was captain now of the Deerfield chess team); he monkeyed with his chemicals and read the manuscript of the early chapters of Inside U.S.A. which was just then getting under way. I thought he seemed tired, but I did not take this seriously, believing it to be the normal reaction from a regime as vigorous as that of Deerfield, together with the strains of adolescence. He had his usual check with Traeger, our family physician, who pronounced him perfectly all right. Also he had a check with an eye doctor. This was important. Johnny had suffered some eye strain the summer before and was taking exercises to strengthen his visual acuity. The eye doctor found nothing wrong; in fact, the eyes had improved to a considerable degree. The day after the examination byTraeger, Johnny complained suddenly of a slight stiff neck. If this had happened before Traeger saw him, I would have been more concerned, but since he had just been given a clean bill of health, we did not take anything so minor as a stiff neck seriously. Indeed, it disappeared after a day, and Johnny went back to school, sighing a little that the holiday was over but happy and full of energy and anticipation.
Deerfield had an infantile paralysis case that spring, and, as is the custom of the school with its strict standards, all parents were notified at once. Then in the third week of April I had a wire from the school doctor, Johnson, saying that Johnny was in the infirmary but, though he had a stiff neck, there was no indication of polio and we were not to worry. Nothing at all alarming was indicated. Boys get stiff necks and Charley horses all the time. In fact, Dr. Johnson said, he was informing us of Johnny's complaint only because, knowing of the polio scare and hearing that he was in the infirmary, we might think that he did have polio, which he didn't. I called Johnny up, and we talked briefly. He was lonely and fretful at missing a week of class work, but otherwise nothing seemed to be amiss. He was going into the nearby town the next day to have a basal metabolism test, and Dr. Johnson asked me to find out from Traeger when he had last had a basal, and what it was. I reported all this to Frances, and thought little more of it. Later we found that Johnny might not have gone to the infirmary at all, since he would never admit it when he was ill and never complained, except that one of his classmates, observing his stiff neck, insisted on his seeing the doctor. Then, wisely, Dr. Johnson held him for observation. Had this not happened, he might have died then and there.
At about three in the afternoon on Thursday, April 25, the telephone rang in our New York apartment. Just at that moment I had finished the California chapters of my book, and I had intended calling Johnny that night to tell him.
Without hesitation or warning Dr. Johnson said, "We've had a doctor in from Springfield to see your son—Dr. Hahn, a neurologist. Here he is."
Dr. Hahn said, "I think your child has a brain tumor."
I was too stunned to make sense. "But that's very serious, isn't it?" I exclaimed.
Dr. Hahn said, "I should say it is serious!" He went on, in a voice so emphatic that it was almost strident, "His disks are completely choked."
"His what?"
"Ask any doctor in the world what that means—choked disks!" he shouted.
He proceeded to describe other symptoms, and implored me with the utmost urgency to get in touch at once with Dr. Tracy Putnam, the best man for this kind of thing anywhere within range; in fact, even before talking to me, he and Johnson on their own responsibility had put in a call for Putnam. The next half hour passed in a grinding crisscross of calls. I talked to Traeger, I called Deerfield back, I got in touch with Frances who was out in Madison, I reached Putnam, I consulted Traeger once more, and by half-past four I was at 168th Street, waiting in Putnam's office. We picked Frances up in New Haven and, driving hard through greasy rain on an ugly, gritty night, with the windshield smeared all the time by fog and thick penetrating mist, reached Deerfield at about ten. Putnam said little as we drove, with our hearts dropping out of us. Five minutes after I got there I knew Johnny was going to die.
I cannot explain this except by saying that I saw it on the faces of the three doctors, particularly Hahn's. I never met this good doctor again, but I will never forget the way he kept his face averted while he talked, then another glimpse of his blank averted face as he said goodbye, dark with all that he was sparing us, all that he knew would happen to Johnny, and that I didn't know and Frances didn't know and that neither of us should know for as long as possible.

Table of Contents

PART ONE 3(142)

What People are Saying About This

William L. Shirer

What a tribute to the fortitude, the beauty and the invincibility of the human spirit!

Reading Group Guide

Plot Summary
Death Be Not Proud chronicles Johnny Gunther's gallant struggle against the malignant brain tumor that killed him at the age of seventeen. The book opens with his father's fond, vivid portrait of his son - a young man of extraordinary intellectual promise, who excelled at physics, math, and chess, but was also an active, good-hearted, and fun-loving kid. But the heart of the book is a description of the agonized months during which Gunther and his former wife Frances try everything in their power to halt the spread of Johnny's cancer and to make him as happy and comfortable as possible. In the last months of his life, Johnny strove hard to complete his high school studies. The scene of his graduation ceremony from Deerfield Academy is one of the most powerful - and heartbreaking - in the entire book. Johnny maintained his courage, wit and quiet friendliness up to the end of his life. He died on June 30, 1947, less than a month after graduating from Deerfield.

Gunther concludes the memoir with selections from Johnny's letters and diary and with a short essay by Johnny's mother in which she probes the meaning of her son's death as "part of some great plan beyond our mortal ken." This deeply moving book is a father's memoir of a brave, intelligent, and spirited boy in his fight to overcome a dreadful disease that doctors had then only begun to understand.

Discussion Topics
1. This book is a memoir, a true story of a boy's illness and death, but it is also a carefully crafted narrative. Discuss the techniques and strategies that Gunther used to create characters, to make Johnny come alive for us as readers, to involve us so deeplyin the story. Why is this book so compulsively readable?

2. Many of us read this book in high school or junior high, and then returned to it as adults. Talk about the experience of reading the book at different times and different circumstances of your life - as a young person, as a parent, as a person who has experienced tragic loss.

3. At one point Gunther asks, "what is a mind for except to reason with?" What insight does this shed on his approach to Johnny's illness? What limitations does this approach impose on him as a man, a father, a participant in this tragedy?

4. Gunther grapples in an agonized way with the meaning and purpose of Johnny's life and untimely death. Do you find his thoughts here satisfying? Do you think he has plunged into the heart of the issues here or do you feel he has somehow skirted the issue?

5. The mysteries of cancer are at the heart of the book. Discuss the ways in which Gunther tries to fathom and come to terms with this disease. How has our understanding and treatment of cancer changed in the decades since Death Be Not Proud was written?

6. Gunther writes in a particularly searching, emotionally charged passage of the book: "A primitive to-the-death struggle of reason against violence, reason against disruption, reason against brute unthinking force -- this was what went on in Johnny's head. What he was fighting against was the ruthless assault of chaos. What he was fighting for was, as it were, the life of the human mind." Talk about your reactions to this quote. Do you agree with this view of Johnny's disease? Does this in your opinion capture the essential meaning of the story?

7. Johnny's death is the central event of the book, and yet when death comes it is very quiet and almost anti-climatic. Why did Gunther choose to present the death scene in this way? What impact does it have on your experience of the book?

8. The book concludes with Johnny's letters and journals and then a brief word from his mother. How did the journal and letters alter your views of Johnny's character and situation? Would the book have a different "feel" and different message if Gunther had simply ended with his own description of the events?

9. Memoirs were certainly part of the literary scene when this book was published in 1949, but today they are arguably the dominant and most compelling genre. Discuss the shift in taste, attitude, and literary approach that accounts for the current popularity of memoirs. Talk about recent memoirs that this volume may have influenced. How has the memoir genre changed since Gunther wrote this book?

About the Author: John Gunther was born on August 30, 1901 on the North Side of Chicago. He was one of the best known and most admired journalists of his day, and his series of "Inside" books, starting with Inside Europe in 1936, were immensely popular profiles of the major world powers. One critic noted that it was Gunther's special gift to "unite the best qualities of the newspaperman and the historian." It was a gift that readers responded to enthusiastically. The "Inside" books sold 3,500,000 copies over a period of thirty years.

While publicly a bon vivant and modest celebrity, Gunther in his private life suffered disappointment and tragedy. He and Frances Fineman, whom he married in 1927, had a daughter who died four months after her birth in 1929. The Gunthers divorced in 1944. In 1947, their beloved son Johnny died after a long, heartbreaking fight with brain cancer. Gunther wrote his classic memoir Death Be Not Proud, which was published in 1949, to commemorate the courage and spirit of this extraordinary boy. Gunther remarried in 1948, and he and his second wife, Jane Perry Vandercook, adopted a son. John Gunther died on May 29, 1970.

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