By Jon Kennedy; April 26, 2012

Vintondale literary figure
John ('Jack') Burgan, 1913-1951
John ("Jack") Burgan

John ("Jack") Burgan, author and journalist, was born in Vintondale in 1913, the son of Anne Davidson and John Lewis Burgan, and educated in its public schools through his sophomore year of high school, when his family moved to Ferndale, a borough on the Stonycreek River and virtually surrounded by sections of Johnstown.

After graduating from Ferndale High School, Jack attended the University of Pittsburgh, graduating in 1934 with his bachelor of arts. After graduation he worked in newspaper and public relations jobs in Rochester and Albany, New York, until the beginning of World War II.

He served as a Navy lieutenant during World War II, acting as a gunnery during the invasion of Guam and for his last year served under Admiral Chester Nimitz as a communications writer. After the war he settled with his wife in Ventura, California, and was employed as managing editor of the Ventura County Star-Free Press when he died in a plane crash in 1951.

Burgan wrote features and stories published in magazines including The Saturday Evening Post, Collier's, Harper's, and others and was the author of four novels, two of them set in a small town like Vintondale, one set in an anonymous city in the pre-war years, and one based on his war experiences in the South Pacific.

Even My Own Brother

Even My Own Brother, published by The Bobbs-Merrill company, Indianapolis and New York, in 1942 is a 304-page novel that shows some literary promise while also displaying some tell-tale marks of a first novel. Its protagonist, Lang Taylor, is a 25-year-old antihero whose main sins are ambition and naivete. His vocational strengths lead him into ward politics and civil service in a city never named but, from knowledge of the author's background and the fact that the protagonist in one scene arrives via train at Grand Central Station in New York City, it's safe to assume was inspired by either Albany or Rochester. Another clue that the city was in New York State is that Taylor's daughter starts school at PS22, which is the numerical way schools are designated in New York but no other place I've come across.

The novel's thin storyline revolves around Taylor's being seduced, by nothing more than money and the illusion of "success," by a quasi- or crypto-fascist movement in the years during Hitler's rise and the build-up to World War Two. Reading the novel more than a half-century after that era ended and its initiatives were in ashes, its conclusion seems so flimsy as to have no denoument or resolution (which may explain the publisher's decision to put "the end" at the bottom of page 304). But trying to see it as a reader in 1942 might have, it probably had some pulse-quickening qualities then, when so many questions were unanswered and at least this suggests some might-have-beens.

I've read many stories and novels about political movements and their devotees, and though it's plausible to think that many people in Nazi Germany were taken in by Hitler just because his party offered jobs and money in the waning years of one of history's worst depressions and it became evident by the late 1930's that the Nazis were going to prevail, I've never encountered such a facile scenario in any treatment of Americans being seduced by such political movements in the guise of religions. Always, the seduction has been explained as people being persuaded by the rhetoric of a strong leader and of party propaganda and appeals to heroic self-effacement for a bigger cause, but Lang Taylor is converted by nothing more than circumstances; he saw a chance to use his talents to get ahead, and joined the movement and rose into its leadership in mere months. His wife and elderly uncle see the folly of his conversion and try (but never with any persuasive arguments) to dissuade him, but he is hell-bent in the full sense of the word.

Why he gives his soul to such folly is never explained or shown, and neither is it apparent why his wife and uncle see the folly that so many others fall for. The only telling evidence that the "American Equality Society" (the "movement") is unacceptable is that its organizers use "Jew international bankers" as the fall guys in their rhetoric. But whether this is what repells Lang's wife and uncle is never shown or specified, and why Lang himself fails to see such rhetoric as unacceptable in any Christian or humanist worldview, or at least that it is a cause for grave doubts, likewise goes untreated.

Sad to say, this novel on the whole has little to interest readers a generation or two after its time frame.

Martin is on the right with his father's beagle she-
dog and her puppies, flanked by his pal Sparky on the right and between them Martin's great-uncle Jonathan, the boys' co-conspirator in small-town mischief.

Martin Butterfield

Martin Butterfield, published by John C. Winston, Philadelphia, in 1950, is based on a short story, "The Showoff," that Burgan published in the The Saturday Evening Post. A selection of the Family Bookshelf by Christian Herald, a major mainline Protestant family magazine of the time, Martin is a 10-year-old schoolboy growing up in a village called Fern Township.

Reviewers compared Martin Butterfield with Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer and Booth Tarkington's Penrod. The story's main similarities with Vintondale are the steel bridge across Lick Creek on the lower end of town (like the one that spanned the Blacklick Creek there in 1950 and for decades earlier); my late brother Tom, who grew up in Vintondale, told me that in his teens he and his buddies often scaled the bridge girders, to the top 50 feet or more above the creek, as Martin does in Chapter One. Another similarity is the farm meadows a short farther out of town from the creek, and the fact that "Roberts" is a familiar family name (but both of those may be features in most small towns, not especially true of Vintondale).

Dissimilar is that the only church mentioned in Fern Township is Presbyterian, a denomination that never had a Vintondale franchise. Martin's father is a successful attorney; there is no reference to a state or region, no mention of coal or other mining, or of any industry for that matter. "Lick Creek" is the book's only geographical marker, albeit a fictitious one. There is no attempt to place the story in a time frame or era, so the most likely choice would be "contemporary" (that is, 1950). But the main mode of transportation in the book is the railroad, which Martin and his "bosom friend" Sparky Roberts take to and from summer camp several hours distance, and by 1950 the railroad was past its heyday as a mode of passenger conveyance in Vintondale. So maybe the time frame is closer to when Jack Burgan was 10...1923. I remember no references to automobiles in the story, but there is one mention of a horse-drawn wagon coming up the village's main street.

Two Percent Fear

Originally published by Farrar, Straus, as Two Percent Fear (1947, 261 pages), this story of World War Two was republished, as Cry Attack!, by Avon Publications, New York (not dated), and posthumously in the United Kingdom in 1958, by Panther Books. The mass market paperback, as this cover art shows, was priced to sell for 35 cents in the United States. A used-book vendor selling through Amazon offered it for one cent plus shipping, so this is the edition I ordered and read.

Obviously, this packaging of the book was intended to sell it to the substantial market at the time for World War Two novels. It is that, but it's much better written than its (new) title suggests and much less violent than the cover art implies. I got the impression in Martin Butterfield that John Burgan was feeling his way as a writer, but in this genre his skill is much more apparent. His vocabulary is rich but not distracting, his sentences flow and his scene setting is evocative but not drawn out. The action all takes place on an island in the Solomons in the South Pacific, except for the final chapter which is in mid-1940's Hawaii.

The protagonist, Ted Lloyd (another Vintondale—and Nanty Glo and Ebensburg—family name) is, like the author. a Navy lieutenant during the operations in Guam and the Solomons against the Japanese. Lloyd is a thoughtful man, a commercial artist from New York, and unlike some of his cohorts, he's faithful to his wife. The closest any references to Lloyd's fictional past get to Vintondale are some mentions of Pittsburgh.

The novel evokes military life well and opens some veins for serious rumination, but never goes deep. The meaning of life—and death—is touched, but sin is treated as inevitable and salvation is never broached. Only one of the book's 24 chapters takes place in the heat of battle. Like most "men's novels" of its time it has its quotient of blasphemies, a few profanities, but none of the obscenities still banned in mainstream broadcasting that are a mainstay of today's novels and movies for adult audiences but were not used in mainstream publishing in that era.

I would not have read a book like this one apart from its author's roots in my home town, but it proved worth the time. Though unabridged, the small-print paperback version is only 191 pages; a quick read.

Is this an artist's conception of old-time Vintondale?

Long Discovery

Published by Farrar, Straus (1950, 376 pages), and Putnam & Company, London (1950, 333 pages).
Subjects: Fiction | Mystery & Detective | General
"The name of the town was Beautyburg. It was one of those ironical tongue-in-cheek names which somehow get themselves attached to Pennsylvania mining towns, part mocking, part hopeful, part comic, part truthful."

Though this is the third book Burgan wrote of his four published novels (Martin Butterfield was published after this one, also in 1950); this is his masterpiece. It is the best of the four stories, the most complex and best plotted, with the most authentic and largest cast of diverse characters. It shows the maturity of a man who has made peace with his humble beginnings. And this is also the one that anyone familiar with Vintondale will recognize Burgan's home town as the real "Beautyburg," the Western Pennsylvania coal town mentioned on the dust jacket as Burgan's birthplace. The fact that Burgan's reader-followers—who- and where-ever they may be—consider this his most valuable novel is evidenced by the status it has achieved as a collector's item. I had to order my copy from England (where it was still on offer by the used book trade at a price like a typical current novel) but if Amazon had not located this one for me over the pond, I might have had to pay six or seven times as much for it from one of the few sellers offering it in the American market.

"Beautyburg" has four churches almost identical to Vintondale's: a Roman Catholic, a Russian Orthodox, a Hungarian Reformed, and a "Community" (Protestant) church, which stands in for Vintondale's First Baptist. In the first chapter, young teenage pals go hunting in the woods outside town in 1925 and talk about the Ku Klux Klan rally planned for the hill above Number Four mine (a slight disguise for Vintondale's Number Six, its main mine). And the same Sunday evening when the KKK torches its cross and explodes dynamite pilfered from the mine supply shed to get the town's attention, a Holy Roller evangelist (Burgan's term) from down south is opening a tent crusade by the "river." There was no union or organization of mine workers at the time, so though the motives of none of the Klansmen are never discussed, I suspect its main appeal to men in towns like Vintondale in 1925 was that such shenanigans were to show some machismo power by a few of the many whose job situation rendered them largely powerless.

The book interweaves four plotlines: those of a junior high school student, Zoltan Mur, who was at the top of his school class but was expected to go into the mine to help support the family rather than go on to high school; a daughter of a Russian family who becomes a clerk at the company store and sponsors her brother's break into big-league baseball from the mine league's Vintondale—er, Beautyburg—team. She attracts the attention of the mine superintendent's son, whom she was with in school until his parents sent him away to a high-class boarding school and falls in love with her; the superintendent himself, who ran the town like a despot, and the only man in town not beholden to the mine and its super, a retired railroad worker, and the grandson he is raising. One of the book's greatest strengths is that despite such easy material, the characters are never stereotyped. The super is not a Burl Ives-type good old boy bereft of nuance and humanity; his son is rich but neither stuckup nor a jerk.

The most fascinating character and plotline to me and I think to anyone who has followed Vintondale's twentieth century history, is "Zoltan Mur." I have no way of confirming my suspicion, but it is that Mur must have been based on Zoltan Antol, one of Vintondale's best known and most successful locally born sons. Antol was born in Wehrum in the same year as Burgan and the Antols moved to Vintondale before Zoltan began school, so they would have been classmates until Burgan's family moved away after the latter's sophomore year of high school. And considering that Burgan refers to Johnstown only as "the city" and Ebensburg as "the countyseat" without naming either even by fictitious aliases, but he names one of his main characters with such a rare name as Zoltan, and that this Zoltan like Vintondale's real-life one was a stand-out student who went into the beyond coincidence. The book does not follow Mur after his entrance into the mine—it is a fictionalization, after all—but we know, of course, that the real Vintondale Zoltan was able to pursue his dream of becoming a scholar and a teacher and gave most of his life to Vintondale's High School and, after its merger with Nanty Glo's, Nanty Glo-Vintondale, and even on to Blacklick Valley High. Zoltan Antol died at age 97 in 2010.

The book has been described as dealing with the unionization of the mine workers, but that is an overstatement. The United Mine Workers' did come to power in Vintondale in 1936, but that is treated only as a fact whose time had come, without any recounting of the years of struggle leading to it, in one paragaph, only in the book's epilogue. Apart from the epilogue, which is built around the funeral of the former mine super in 1945, the whole book is set in 1925.

This is a great read and an excellent book. I have no doubt that its English publisher saw it as a worthy successor to the Wales-based coalmining classic, How Green Was My Valley, and expected it to find a market among that best-seller's readers. I hope it did, and continues to find more of them.

John "Jack" Burgan was first introduced in these pages by
Vintondale historian Denise Duza Weber, in a letter linked here.

Other Vintondale pages online: