Enthralling Books: Johnny Got His Gun

This is one in a series of essays about enthralling books. I asked my friends and colleagues to recommend a book that took over their life. I told them the book didn't have to be a literary masterpiece. The only thing that mattered was that the book captivated them and carried them into the world within its pages, making them ignore the world around them. I asked: "Did you shirk responsibilities so you could read it? Did you call in sick? Did you read it until dawn? That's the book I want you to tell us about!" See all the essays in the Enthralling Book series here. -- Mark

Johnny got his gun Johnny Got His Gun, by Dalton Trumbo

I hadn't read my first complete book of fiction until I was twenty-one: The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. I read it all in one night, identifying so strongly with the adolescent alienation of Holden Caulfield that I wrote a letter to Salinger, asking permission to use his character in a novel I planned to write. He gave the most appropriate response he possibly could -- he completely ignored my request. His Zen silence was so eloquent that for years I would continue to cringe with embarrassment at how incredibly naïve I had been.

In 1953, publisher friend and mentor Lyle Stuart lent me the second novel I read, Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo, who had been an unfriendly witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee. “I shall answer in my own words,” he testified. “Very many questions can be answered ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ only by a moron or a slave.”

As a result, he became a victim of the Hollywood blacklist and won an Academy Award for best screenplay under an assumed name. He finally used his own name in the screen credits for Spartacus.

Johnny Got His Gun, originally published in 1939, was about a soldier so severely wounded that, with the aid of modern medical technology, he remained alive but without the senses of sight, hearing, smell and taste. He had nothing left except the sense of touch and his consciousness. The first half was how he came to realize his situation, and the second half was what he could do about it.

That book had such a tremendous impact on me, it served as my literary Bible. The gospel wasn’t about the antiwar stance so much as the urge to communicate. I was afraid that every book I read after that would be anti-climactic.

“There's a whole generation who never even heard of it,” I said to Lyle Stuart. “Why don't you publish a new edition?” Which he did.

He also lent me Kingsblood Royal by Sinclair Lewis. It was about a white man who discovered that he had “Negro blood.” Lyle felt so strongly about the race issue that when he had been courting a lovely redhead, smart and witty, he told her that he was “part Negro.” She passed the test and they got married.

Buy Johnny Got His Gun on Amazon


  1. I have to thank Metallica for getting this young metal head at the time for reading more. Such as this book. Lar’s can still go jump out a window. ( Met him, what an ass)

  2. Ah… an excellent one!  Members of my generation might remember that this book (and the 1971 movie of the same name, directed by Trumbo) were the inspiration for Metallica’s seminal song One.

    After Amy Seidenwurm’s post introduced me to the Little Free Library movement, I was inspired to build my own, which now currently stands outside my house in northwest Pasadena.  It’s dedicated to the memory of Dalton and Cleo Trumbo, and will always contain a copy of Johnny Got His Gun, along with whatever other volumes find their way inside.  My wife is Trumbo’s granddaughter, and the family is very proud of Dalton and Cleo and the principles they stood up for during a trying time, as well as the fearsome talent on display in this book and his many screenplays.  Many of Trumbo’s letters are collected in a volume entitled Additional Dialogue, which is also worth picking up just to see how the guy wrote.  Even cranky letters to the phone company are included, and you never laughed so hard at a note from a disgruntled customer in your life.  Trumbo’s late son Christopher put together a stage play composed largely of Trumbo’s letters, and after several successful runs around the country the play was made into a movie, Trumbo, which is available on Netflix streaming as well as DVD.  I highly recommend it, as it’s both instructive about Hollywood history and the blacklist, and hugely entertaining. Individual letters are read by such personages as Joan Allen, Brian Dennehy, Paul Giamatti, Nathan Lane, Michael Douglas, Donald Sutherland, David Strathairn, Liam Neeson, and Josh Lucas.

    It’s worth noting, however, that Spartacus wasn’t the only movie that ended the blacklist for Trumbo.  Otto Preminger announced via a front-page story in the New York Times that he was going to openly credit Trumbo for writing Exodus, some months before it became widely known that Kirk Douglas planned to credit Trumbo for Spartacus.  Douglas’ recent memoir perpetuates his own bad habit of assuming most of the credit for having the bravery to defy the blacklist, and though Douglas is certainly due a lot of credit for it, we should not discount the contributions that Preminger, Spartacus producer Edward Lewis, and Trumbo himself, as well as many others, made toward ending the blacklist.

    1. I admit I’ve never read Johnny Got His Gun, but thanks to both the post above and your comment I’m about to change that. I happened to check the holdings of a library near me to see whether they also had Additional Dialogue.

      They don’t, but, hey, that’s what Interlibrary Loan is for. And they do happen to have a short volume also by Trumbo called The time of the toad : a study of inquisition in America that sounds both fascinating and like a quick read.

    2. Oh, and I forgot to mention: Trumbo won two Oscars during the blacklist, not one.  He co-wrote Roman Holiday with John Dighton, and Ian McLellan Hunter served as his “front,” so Dighton and Hunter received screen credit and the Oscar statuettes.  The Academy eventually presented Cleo Trumbo with a posthumous statuette for Trumbo in 1993, and last year the WGA changed the official credit to reflect that Trumbo co-wrote the screenplay itself, rather than just the story (those were separate award categories back then, and Roman Holiday won Best Screen Story whereas Best Screenplay was won by From Here To Eternity).

      His second Oscar was for The Brave One in 1956.  This time, he wrote under the pseudonym “Robert Rich,” and when there turned out to be no Robert Rich at the Oscar ceremony to run up and grab a statuette, the award went unclaimed for several years.  (A few people claimed to be Robert Rich in order to get the Oscar after the fact, but none could supply any corroborating evidence that they’d written the winning screenplay.)

      Trumbo was tickled by that one, since “everyone” knew that he’d actually written it, but nobody could publicly acknowledge it.  The Academy awarded him that Oscar in 1975, the year before he died.

      1. Thank you for that background info.  You’ve added a lot to the original post.

        I loved the book in high school (mid-70’s) — and to their credit, the teachers who noticed I was reading it were all very supportive of the choice — and will now re-read it before handing it off to my kids.

  3. I have never read the book, but after seeing parts of the movie in the Metalica video, and looking it up, find this book’s premise the single most disturbing idea I have ever encountered.

  4. Watched the movie because of the clips in the Metallica video.  Thought provoking. maybe I’ll read sometime. I’m getting to point where I’d rather only read the book than see the movie.

  5. I loved the book. It is worth noting that Trumbo wasn’t falsely blacklisted, as some others were. He was a communist, and wrote the book on orders from Moscow to stir up anti-war sentiment among guys like me, which it does.
    – arbitrary aardvark

    1. Uh, no.  He did not write the book “on orders from Moscow.”  He wrote it several years before he joined the Party.

    2. Exercising his freedom of speech and freedom of assembly….sounds like a perfectly fine American citizen to me.

  6. When I was in the army, I used to carry a copy of Catch-22 around with me, and re-read it every time I got reassigned. It was definitely not the brightest thing I’d ever thought of to accompany it with Johnny Got His Gun for the long flight to Vietnam (on Flying Tiger airlines) in the summer of 1971. I got about halfway through it, was so disturbed I skipped to the last few pages in hopes of I don’t know what, and buried it under the seat cushion.
    Never did finish it, although I’ve turned into a big fan of Trumbo since then.

  7. Not only is the video for “One” comprised almost entirely of clips from JGHG, the band actually bought the entire rights to the movie in order to eliminate the complex issues they were having in trying to license it for the video.

    So the movie is now a Metallica property.

    (So, if you’re looking to sample parts of a Metallica song in your own work, perhaps you should look into buying the entire song outright. They probably wouldn’t mind, either.)

  8. If I remember correctly, when I was in VietNam, it was a court martial offense to posess a copy of JGHG. The US Army didn’t need the moral sink or the truth to come out. 

  9. That book is f’n awesome. One could read it as a psychological horror story. It’s been a long time but I remember being completely freaked out by the whole thing.

  10. Trumbo continued to play the Hell-no-I-won’t-shut-up rebel in later life:

    Executive Action is a 1973 film about the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy, written by Dalton Trumbo, Donald Freed and Mark Lane, and directed by David Miller. The film opened to a storm of controversy over the depiction of the assassination … The movie was part fiction, but it would contest other reports of the assassination, including the controversial Warren Commission report of 1964 … criticism of the film and its suggestion of a Military-industrial complex conspiracy led to the film being removed totally from the movie theaters by early December 1973 and getting no TV/Video runs until the 1980s and mid-1990s, when it got legal release and distribution for TV and video.


  11. Wow! For some reason I was wondering not too long ago if Paul Krassner would still regard JGHG as his favorite novel. I was introduced to THE REALIST in 1963 by a girl who had graduated high school a year ahead of me and brought a couple issues back from New York (thanks, Donna!), in the same way someone might have given me my first hit of LSD. Naturally I read every issue I could back order, and when I went to college for orientation I saw Mr. Krassner’s favorite book in the bookstore there. I love it that it’s still the one he picks in 2012 (and, more importantly, that he’s around to pick it). Years after I read it, I read an interview with Paul’s co-editor of the LAST WHOLE EARTH SUPPLEMENT, Ken Kesey, in which Kesey recalled getting to know a little old man to whom no one had paid attention  (he had a very quiet squeaky [“squeeky”, per Kesey] voice). This encounter proved a correctiv e to young orderly Kesey’s previous line of thinking–“Without us these people would DIE–why don’t we just LET them die?”–and made quite an impression on me as I read it.   The anecdote in context reminded me of JGHG, though Kesey and Krassner were not of the same mind re: Christianity and abortion.

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