Sky Writer

Stargazers revere Arizona Robert Burnham Jr., creator of the most complete, practical, inspirational book ever written about the night sky. But like so many people of genius, he would spend his last years alone and destitute.

Norm Thomas was exasperated by Burnham's refusal to prepare for his termination.

"For years I'd kind of dogged him about investing in some land, some cheap land around here. And he never would do it. . . ."

"In 1979, when he knew he was going to lose his job, I told him, 'You should start moving into something right now that would get you independent of rent.' I recommended a mobile home."

Thomas says Burnham did nothing, and in December 1979, he packed up his collections and books, rented a large apartment in Flagstaff, and severed his association with Lowell. Rent payments would soon stretch his resources despite the royalty checks he was receiving from Dover.

Giclas says that inability to plan characterized Burnham. "He was just that kind of a character. He didn't seem to worry about anything. I don't know what you can attribute it to.

"Burnham did a very good job when he was told exactly what to do and what to look for. That was great. When that ended, we just didn't have any place for him. Which is sad."

Only later would his colleagues and kin learn what a lifeline the observatory had been for him. Once it was cut, Robert Burnham Jr. would never be the same.

I'm sitting here as I have on countless nights before, using as a reference work your Celestial Handbook, and reflecting as always upon what a marvelous book it is. I cannot begin to tell you how much pleasure these volumes have brought me, not to mention their great value as sources of information. I should like, as a token of my appreciation, to send you a copy of the new edition of my book Galaxies. . . . I hope you'll enjoy the book at least a fraction as much as I have yours.

--letter from Timothy Ferris,
dated February 6, 1982

Timothy Ferris, author of the 1981 National Book Award-nominated Galaxies and the 1989 Pulitzer Prize-nominated Coming of Age in the Milky Way, says that he's used Robert Burnham's books for decades, but, when he's asked about them, realizes that he's never talked to anybody about them.

Like others, Ferris professes an admiration for Burnham's writing while knowing little about the man himself. He did, however, correspond briefly with Burnham in 1982.

"I remember his being a rather disillusioned man, primarily over his publisher's handling of the book," Ferris says. The Berkeley journalism professor emeritus also remembers Burnham's anger over his firing.

"Lowell Observatory was famously broke, and a lot of astronomers were supporting themselves with real estate speculation. I guess from his perspective he had worked mightily and had not been rewarded accordingly.

"I can certainly vouch for the book; it's a terrific book. His historical focus ensures the longevity of it. He had the good taste and judgment that sets this type of work apart from others in its field. He had the good judgment, for example, not to focus on flash-in-the-pan research that would go out of date quickly," Ferris says.

As the '80s progressed, Burnham's books continued to gain popularity as his own fortunes began a steady nose dive.

Bruce Thomas remembers that Burnham was initially optimistic when he left the observatory. He received royalty checks in the mid-four figures every six months, he had begun another writing project--a fantasy novel--which was taking on epic proportions, and he'd rededicated himself to painting and other interests he'd put off.

But that optimism, Thomas says, didn't mask his bitterness at Lowell's termination of him.

Burnham also complained about how Dover Publications marketed the Handbook. Its audience was a narrow one, Burnham knew, but he told Thomas that readers were willing to pay more than the $8.95-per-volume cover price. He also believed that Dover was unnecessarily holding up a Japanese translation of the book--he knew that Japan, with its large astronomical community, could be a ripe market.

But the hardest hit for Burnham to take was the deep discounting of the Handbook in 1981. As incentive to join, the Astronomy Book Club began offering the complete set for only $2.95. Burnham told his sister that his royalties that year dropped "like a paralyzed buzzard."

Other complaints, Thomas says, were less rational. One of Burnham's gripes against Dover was its lack of interest in his fantasy novel.

Burnham also admitted to Thomas that Dover had made numerous advances on his royalties to help him out when money was short.

Oddly, Dover Publications spokeswoman Rosa Lopez declined to speak about Burnham or the history of the Handbook, asking that New Times submit a list of written questions. A list was sent, but Dover did not respond.

Bruce Thomas says he became increasingly concerned about the aging astronomer. Years earlier, when Burnham still lived and worked at Lowell, Bruce Thomas and other children of Lowell astronomers had made Burnham's museumlike cabin something of a clubhouse. Thomas credits Burnham and his words of advice for improving his performance in school and his later success as a mathematics teacher.

But after 1980, Thomas says, their relationship was reversed, and he found himself handing out the advice. Although only a recent high school graduate, Thomas tried to help Burnham with practical matters that seemed to mystify him.

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