Death Be Not Proud belongs to the relatively small genre of the illness narrative, and it is probably the most popular American death memoir. John Gunther, a journalist, uses spare, factual prose (even when writing about emotions) that is rarely seen in contemporary memoirs. In fact, the memoir genre has exploded in recent years, spinning off into taboo tales (Kathryn Harrison's The Kiss) and self-conscious parody (Dave Eggers's A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius). And while many fictional pieces describe an ailing person's fight with death—Larry McMurtry's popular Terms of Endearment and Leo Tolstoy's more intellectualized The Death of Ivan Ilyich come to mind—few have the emotional power of a true story told in earnestness from a mourner's perspective. Gunther also makes an interesting decision in reprinting Johnny's letters and diary, which are inclusions that, while less illuminating than the rest of the narrative, enable us to see Johnny through other forms of writing. The book is at once an epistolary narrative as well as a memoir.
Of course, Gunther wrote Death Be Not Proud in the 1940s, when memoirs weren't taboo or self-conscious, and we liked it that way. Everything about the privileged world Johnny inhabits seems hermetically shielded from the decay of postwar America; in fact, World War II is not mentioned once, and though the focus of the book is Johnny, it lends a feeling of both irrelevance and timelessness to the memoir. The war may seen irrelevant because Johnny can be viewed as a coddled boy who goes from his posh boarding school to the expensive facilities of New York's top hospitals with breaks in between at his country house, while America and Europe picks up the pieces of a horrific war. Johnny's formal language, and his naïveté (as compared to today's more savvy teenagers), also makes Death Be Not Proud feel like it has little bearing on today's world. It is timeless, however, because Johnny's condition ultimately has little to do with its immediate environment but more so with the ultimate questions of death and life. Perhaps this, then, is its connection to World War II, and Frances briefly mentions this at the end of her note. While other parents lose their sons in a battle as terrifying and nonsensical as Johnny's tumor, they can take heart from the Gunthers' story and learn how to understand, and defeat, death.
John Gunther was born on August 31, 1901. He published articles in national magazines as an undergraduate and worked as a reporter in Chicago after graduation. He traveled throughout all of Europe in the 1920s and 1930s, and in 1936 he wrote Inside Europe, a detailed examination of the political climate there. The book was met with great success, and he published "Inside" follow-ups, including Inside U.S.A.—which is discussed in the memoir—in 1947. He wrote a number of other political books and biographies, including some novels, until his death in 1970, but it is Death Be Not Proud for which he will be best remembered.