The opening page of Death Be Not Proud prints ##John Donne's# poem, Divine Meditation 10, which begins with the words "Death, be not proud." The famous poem, written when Donne himself was sick with smallpox, describes the various ways in which death is a less powerful enemy than normally thought, and it ends with "Death, thou shalt die!"
John Gunther (hereafter referred to as Gunther) writes that this memoir is about death and what his son Johnny courageously endured, in an effort to provide hope to others who have to deal with similar pain.
Johnny was born in Paris on Nov. 4, 1929, and he lived with his family in Vienna and London until he was six years old, when they moved back to the U.S. He attended public school and then his beloved Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts, and he died at age of seventeen on June 30, 1947, after a fifteen-month bout with his illness. He would have entered Harvard the previous fall.
Gunther describes Johnny as tall, still adolescent looking, and with beautiful hands. He mentions Johnny's wit, affability, and above all his selflessness, illustrated with an anecdote about Johnny's anxiety about breaking the news that he had a tumor to his parents.
Johnny's early interests were in art, music, water sports, chess, and other hobbies. He had an extremely high IQ, but he was sometimes an inconsistent student, introspectively daydreaming and showing up late. Still, he generally excelled in his academics, especially in theoretical science—he wanted to be either a physicist or a chemist—and he kept a science laboratory at home, where he happily performed experiments.
Johnny was also very close with his parents, especially his mother, Frances, from whom Gunther is divorced. Johnny split time between them, and from Frances especially he inherited his combination of maturity, both intellectual and personal. Gunther also remarks on Johnny's exceptional willpower, his ability to provide diligent self-criticism, but mostly how his keen intelligence never got in the way of his gentle nature, summed up in his childhood desire to "do some good for the world."
Near the start of this brief foreword, Gunther quickly issues a disclaimer about not trying to give an overly sentimental retelling of Johnny's life. While he often does present anecdotes to show how good a person Johnny was, his elegant prose style for the most part utilizes these stories to shed light on what "good" in itself means: highlighting those actions and words of Johnny's that indicate how he is selfless, empathetic, curious, and mature. Johnny has all these qualities and more, and his greatest personality asset is his combination of child and adult: He is curious for knowledge without being greedy, and he loves people and things unconditionally for their own sake; he has a child's passion for life and an adult's sensitive maturity for how to approach life's pitfalls.
Johnny's scientific precision and penchant for daydreaming—further contradictory qualities—form a young man who can speak his mind, even with critical intentions, such as his discussions with Gunther about the deficiencies of his journalistic reporting. But, Johnny's sensitivity allows him to be critical in such a way that the listener benefits from his words, since above all Johnny never seeks to harm anyone. This overall drive to be good is summed up in his concept of religion at age six: "God is what's good in me." While the Donne poem takes a seemingly violent approach to defeating death, Johnny's embrace of the joys of life acts as his own savior throughout his illness, letting him always see the sunlight on the otherwise bleak horizon.
A main issue that will develop in the memoir is the acceptance of death versus resigning oneself to it. Gunther reproduces the effect on us, when we learn, by the second paragraph, that Johnny will die. Much like in Shakespeare's ##Romeo and Juliet,# this advance warning heightens the tragedy; we come to love Johnny as we await his certain end, knowing that each moment of hope will be followed by a period of despair.