Remembering Robert Burnham, Jr.

Posted by David Eicher
on Tuesday, May 17, 2011

A month from now, June 16 will mark a special day. It’s the birthday when one of the most famous astronomy writers in the world, Robert Burnham, Jr., would have turned 80 years old. (No, not our Robert Burnham, the longtime editor at Astronomy magazine who now works at Arizona State University. The other Robert Burnham.) Robert Burnham, Jr., died at age 61 in 1993, years after writing the beloved three-volume compendium Burnham’s Celestial Handbook, which served as an observing bible for a generation of skywatchers.

Tony Ortega, the Village Voice
Back in 1998, Astronomy published an article about Burnham written by Tony Ortega, who was then contributing to the Phoenix New Times. Tony has continued his skyward journalistic career and is now editor in chief of the Village Voice in New York. Still interested in the unusual story of Burnham’s life, he has stayed in touch with Burnham’s family and collected materials related to the famous writer over the years.

There’s more Robert Burnham news on the horizon, too. On June 16, the Village Voice will publish the writer’s never-before-seen, 24,000-word “manifesto” that constitutes a long and detailed autobiography. Make sure you stay focused on for that coming story; my blog will make note of it again next month.

There’s another tie to Astronomy, as well. The March 1982 issue contained a self-interview by and with Burnham that is an extremely short version of the much longer story the Voice will publish next month. I’ll be making Astronomy’s version available soon.

As a bit of background, let me quote Tony Ortega from his blog posted yesterday at the Voice:

“Burnham was something of a recluse. Despite the popularity of his work and the intense interest in him it produced, he chose to interview himself about his life and ideas rather than talk to a journalist. The result was a remarkable testament from a man who enjoyed nature more than he did other people, who lived for science but was impatient with other scientists, and who found inspiration in the stars but was skeptical of mankind’s future in space.

“In 1997, I set out to find Burnham to interview him about his work. Instead, I found Viola Courtney and learned that her brother had died several years earlier and almost no one knew about it. Burnham had struggled to make a living after leaving Lowell in 1979; the last few years of his life, Burnham was living in a cheap hotel in San Diego, selling paintingSleep of cats in Balboa Park. He died of congestive heart failure on March 20, 1993.

“Among his papers, I found the 37-page, single-spaced self-interview, and realized that only about a quarter of it had been published in 1982 by Astronomy. In coordination with the Voice’s release of the larger document, Astronomy editor Dave Eicher will be making the 1982 version available again at As June 16 nears, Astronomy and the Voice will mark the countdown with interviews and other material about Burnham, his life, and his work.”

Thanks, Tony, for keeping the memory of Robert Burnham, Jr., alive. And for making astronomy enthusiasts everywhere aware of his remarkable story. More to come.

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