The name may sound vaguely familiar, but basically he’s hardly known and read even less these days. Yet not so long ago John Gunther’s name was a household word. His 36 books sold, altogether, more than two million copies, and many still consider him one of the most prominent journalists of the 20th century. His specialty or trademark was the “inside” book–Inside Europe, Inside Asia, Inside Africa–and his success at this kind of journalism was so great that it led to the coining of the term “Guntherize,” roughly meaning to write in a popular style about a huge subject. He was favored not only by the book-buying public but by reviewers in such magazines as the New Yorker, the Atlantic, and the New Republic, who praised his ability to make political forces come alive for the reader. But if his writing is remembered today, it’s probably only in connection with Death Be Not Proud, Gunther’s moving account of his teenage son’s death from a malignant brain tumor.

Maybe Gunther’s brief renown is a commentary on the nature of journalism, which is after all, more or less by definition, writing on transitory or ephemeral subjects. Certainly his career is testimony to the fickle character of fame. Whatever the reason for Gunther’s relative obscurity, residents of the Chicago area have a chance to lighten it by viewing an exhibit at the University of Chicago’s Joseph Regenstein Library. Gunther, who attended the university from 1918 to 1922, gave some of his manuscripts to the library before his death in 1970; his wife, Jane Gunther, later deposited all of his papers there during the 1970s and ’80s. This marks the first time any of these papers have been made public.

Set up along a hallway in recessed cases, the exhibit–“John Gunther: Inside Journalism”–features first editions and manuscripts as well as photos, letters, and journals spanning most of Gunther’s life. The impression is of a man, and a writer, with the golden touch. Even as a young boy growing up in Chicago and writing to his father (a liquor salesman who traveled frequently), he showed a precocious talent. Although he was not invited to join a fraternity (and the University of Chicago was then very much a fraternity school), he did become literary editor of the school paper and initiated a correspondence with H. L. Mencken, who accepted Gunther’s satirical article on the university for publication in the Smart Set. A cub reporter at the Chicago Daily News after graduation, Gunther was impressive enough to gain entrance to an informal luncheon “round table” of famous Chicago writers of the time, such as Ben Hecht, Carl Sandburg, Sherwood Anderson, and Edgar Lee Masters. Refused assignment abroad because of his youth, he quit the Daily News, went to Europe on his own, and became a foreign correspondent anyway, the experience of which was the basis for his first book, Inside Europe, and all his later successes.

Gunther’s 36 books included reportage, biographies, novels, even children’s books, and he produced a steady stream of pieces for newspapers, magazines, and radio besides. The one book he never wrote, though he planned to, was his autobiography. Jay Pridmore, who curated this exhibit, thinks that perhaps what Gunther didn’t write is related to what he did–that his relentless drive to explicate the world correlates with a deficiency in self-examination. And that this may have something to do with the nature of journalism.

“His ability to be a journalist, to look out at the world and keep traveling, moving on and never really stopping to look at what he was doing, made him a good journalist but made him not particularly happy,” says Pridmore. He sees Gunther’s personal griefs (which included a bitterly dissolved first marriage) as stemming from the fact that he was not particularly self-analytical. Gunther admitted, according to Pridmore, “that he was not a truly successful father to his son Johnny–that was part of Death Be Not Proud, which some people have said was written out of guilt, because of the way that whole episode in his life played out–and he regretted that quite deeply.”

The question is of more than academic interest to Pridmore, who is himself a journalist (he’s been a free-lancer for the Tribune “forever”–or at least since the early 80s–writing on restaurants, museums, exhibits, and cultural events). He’s been attracted to Gunther as a role model as well as a possible subject for biography. Dealing with a difficult interview, he’s apt to ask himself: “How would Gunther deal with a situation like this?”

For Gunther was, Pridmore thinks, a gifted interviewer. His main approach as a journalist was to interview leaders and great men, essentially seeing history and political events as flowing from them. It’s a different sort of method, resting on different beliefs about how the world works, than most serious thinkers would employ today, but it was central to Gunther’s conception of his work. Inside Europe, for example, rests heavily on the theories of Viennese psychiatrist Wilhelm Stekel (Gunther was his friend and patient), which related the rise of dictators in Europe in the 1920s and ’30s to a crisis of authority caused by the breakdown of the family and other traditional forms of discipline following World War I; Gunther saw the dictators–Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, and others–as the fountainheads of history. This book set the pattern for his subsequent writing. In Gunther’s entry for Who’s Who, he seems chiefly concerned with listing the many people he came to interview, from Gandhi to Hirohito.

Did Gunther help set journalism on a course of personality-oriented superficiality, or did he simply find a way to make comprehensible the new and unfamiliar world of geopolitics into which America was at the time just entering? Either way, he was an influential figure. He was also a very successful man, in terms of books sold and money made–which he relished. But did he pay a price for his success, did he fail to explore and nurture his own inner life? “If I do go on to write his biography,” Pridmore says, “this will be a central question: is this a typical journalist–was he a successful journalist because of this aspect of his personality? That’s one of the eternal questions: does a journalist have to do this to himself to get the story?”

“John Gunther: Inside Journalism” will be on display in the Department of Special Collections, Regenstein Library, 1100 E. 57th St., through January 16. The exhibit is free and open to the public Monday through Friday from 8:30 to 4:30. For further information call 702-8705.