Herr, Michael 1940(?)-
HERR, Michael 1940(?)-
PERSONAL: Born c. 1940; married; wife's name Valerie; children: two daughters.
Dispatches (nonfiction; also see below), Knopf (New York, NY), 1977.
(Author of narration) Francis Coppola and John Milius, Apocalypse Now (screenplay), United Artists, 1979.
(With Guy Peellaert) The Big Room, Summit Books (New York, NY), 1986.
(With Gustav Hasford and Stanley Kubrick) Full Metal Jacket (screenplay), Warner Bros., 1987.
(Author of narration) Francis Coppola, The Rainmaker (screenplay), American Zoetrope, 1997.
Walter Winchell: A Novel, Knopf (New York, NY), 1990.
Kubrick, Grove (New York, NY), 2000.
Contributor of articles to Rolling Stone, Esquire, and New American Review.
ADAPTATIONS: Dispatches was recorded as an audiobook by Books on Tape (Newport, CA), 1985. Dispatches was adapted into a musical by Elizabeth Swados and produced in New York, NY, at the Martinson Hall/Public Theater, April 18, 1979.
WORK IN PROGRESS: A novel about a friendship that spans twenty-five years.
SIDELIGHTS: Michael Herr's book about the Vietnam War, Dispatches, has been hailed not only as perhaps the finest book about Vietnam, but as one of the best books ever written about war. When Herr left the United States in 1967 to serve as war correspondent for Esquire magazine, his writing experience was not extensive: he had worked on the literary magazine at Syracuse University (where he eventually dropped out), had written some travel pieces for Holiday magazine, and had held a nonpaying film-criticism job at the New Leader—which he eventually lost because of his unconventional taste in films. Yet Dispatches, which was published ten years after Herr's return from the fields of war, was hailed as a masterpiece as soon as it appeared in 1977, and critical opinion of it has not waned since that time.
Major literary scholars of that war are unanimous in their judgments that this "rock 'n' roll work of literary journalism is perhaps the single most powerful book to come out of that war, and the book is almost universally considered a landmark," asserted Donald J. Ringnalda in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. "Dust jacket blurbs rarely reflect a scholarly consensus, but they do in the case of Dispatches. Gloria Emerson claimed that Herr surpassed Stephen Crane in writing about war. Tom Wolfe still maintains that Dispatches rivals Erich Maria Remarque's 1929 masterpiece, All Quiet on the Western Front … John Le Carre calls it 'the best book I have ever read on men and war in our time.'"
Reporting the war was a difficult task, but strangely enough, Herr discovered that he actually enjoyed being there. He wrote about reveling in the danger of war, in Dispatches: "There were choices everywhere, but they were never choices that you could hope to make. There was even some small chance for personal style in your recognition of the one thing you feared more than any other. You could die in a sudden blood-burning crunch as your chopper hit the ground like dead weight, you could fly apart so that your pieces would never be gathered, you could take one neat round in the lung and go out hearing only the bubble of the last few breaths, you could die in the last stage of malaria with that faint tapping in your ears, and that could happen to you after months of firefights and rockets and machine guns….You could be shot, mined, grenaded, rocketed, mortared, sniped at, blown up and away so that your leavings had to be dropped into a sagging poncho and carried to Graves Registration, that's all she wrote. It was almost marvelous."
As a correspondent, Herr was an oddity in Vietnam for he was there by choice. "A GI would walk clear across a firebase for a look at you if he'd never seen a correspondent before," wrote Herr, "because it was like going to see the Geek, and worth the walk." Another passage reflects the disbelief Herr encountered among soldiers: "'Oh man, you got to be kidding me. You guys asked to come here?' 'Sure.' 'How long do you have to stay?' he asked. 'As long as we want.' 'Wish I could stay as long as I want,' the Marine called Love Child said. 'I'd been home las' March.' 'When did you get here?' I asked. 'Las' March.'"
Herr's writing throughout Dispatches is detached yet subjective. Although he romanticized many of his own experiences in Vietnam, he was still able to see the war as a "story that was as simple as it had always been, men hunting men, a hideous war and all kinds of victims." He wrote of one soldier who escaped death by hiding under the corpses of his fellow soldiers while the enemy went about bayoneting the dead. In another episode, American troops escaping by helicopter were forced to shoot their Vietnamese allies who'd jeopardized the take-off by also trying to jump aboard. John Leonard, reviewer for the New York Times, called Dispatches "a certain kind of reporting come of age—that is, achieving literature. It is the reporting of the 1960's at last addressing itself to great human issues, subjective, painfully honest, scaled of abstractions down to the viscera, the violence and the sexuality understood and transcended." Leonard concluded with one word: "Stunning."
Upon returning to America, Herr had to deal with his memories of the war. That was no easy task, as he related to Ed Vulliamy, a writer for the London Observer: "The problem with Vietnam is that if your body came back, your mind came back too." Herr began working on Dispatches, but, he remembered, "Within eighteen months of coming back, I was on the edge of a major breakdown. It hit in 1971 and it was very serious. Real despair for three or four years; deep paralysis. I split up with my wife for a year. I didn't see anybody because I didn't want anybody to see me. It's part of the attachment. You get attached to good things; you get attached to bad things. Then I decided to look the other way. Suddenly I had a child. I went back to my book." Most of the book had been written before the depression had struck, so once he returned to work, Dispatches was soon finished.
After completing Dispatches, Herr contributed to the screenplay for the movie Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola's celebrated work about the Vietnam War. Herr later contributed to the screenplay for another Vietnam-themed movie, Stanley Kubrick's 1987 film Full Metal Jacket. Also in 1987, Herr published The Big Room, a collection of biographical sketches of celebrities who had some connection to Las Vegas. Each of the sketches is accompanied by a painting by Guy Peellaert.
Among the people profiled in The Big Room is Walter Winchell, the famed newspaper columnist and television broadcaster who was known for his acerbic wit. Herr used his short sketch of Winchell as the basis for a screenplay about the man; after unsuccessful attempts to get a movie made from his screenplay, Herr altered the text into a novel. The result, Walter Winchell: A Novel, was published in 1990. It is not a standard novel but rather a combination of novel and screenplay, complete with camera directions, flashbacks, and other cinematic devices. The book follows Winchell from his early vaudevillian days to his first column—a Broadway gossip column—in the 1920s and his growing fame and influence in the 1930s and 1940s. Herr also traces Winchell's decline in the 1950s; despite his earlier courageous opposition to Hitler and various mobsters, Winchell cooperated with Senator Joseph McCarthy during his notorious anti-Communist witch hunts in the 1950s.
Times Literary Supplement reviewer Philip French remarked that "Herr's book is enjoyable enough, but one would rather have seen the movie." But Chicago Tribune Books critic Joseph Coates declared, "Even slightly modified to novel form, this is a brilliant screenplay, full of punchy dialogue, colorful people and places, and period movie devices like spinning headlines that convey both the highly charged era it portrays and the vitality of the times as Winchell himself incarnated it." Similarly, New York Times Book Review contributor Judith Rascoe exclaimed that "Herr's screenplay-novel in the style of the 40's not only captures what we've come to think of as the flavor of that era; it also evokes the same ghostly feelings we get while watching a 40's movie today—of actors vigorously alive in an immortal present tense, yet more inaccessible than creatures in a fairy tale."
Herr's next book grew out of his friendship with Stanley Kubrick, the acclaimed film director who asked for Herr's insight when making his Vietnam film, Full Metal Jacket. The two developed an intense friendship, despite the fact that Kubrick was known for being difficult. After the director's death in 1999, Herr wrote Kubrick, a short memoir. "Uninterested in entombing his friend in a neat analytic package, Herr gives a breezy sketch of the man he knew," advised Tom Tapp in a Variety review. Jayne Plymale, a contributor to Library Journal, also noted that "no pretense is made toward biography" in Kubrick. "More than merely an account of a friendship, this is an elegy to and a meditation upon the Kubrick legend."
Herr's body of work is not large, but as Ringnalda asserted, "That should not in the least minimize the singular and astounding achievement of Dispatches. Stephen Crane also wrote only one great book [The Red Badge of Courage], about a different divisive war, and one hundred years later his fame remains secure. Many believe that Dispatches will have similar staying power."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
American Myth and the Legacy of Vietnam, Columbia University Press (New York, NY), 1986, pp. 150-160.
Beidler, Philip D., American Literature and the Experience of Vietnam, University of Georgia Press (Athens, GA), 1982, pp. 64, 141-148.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 185: American Literary Journalists, 1945-1995, First Series, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1997.
Hayles, N. Katherine, editor, Chaos and Order, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1991.
Herr, Michael, Dispatches, Knopf (New York, NY), 1977.
Limon, John, Writing after War, Oxford University Press (Oxford, England), 1994.
Myers, Thomas, Walking Point: American Narratives of Vietnam, Oxford University Press (Oxford, England), 1988, pp. 146-171.
Ringnalda, Donald J., Fighting and Writing the Vietnam War, University Press of Mississippi (Jackson, MS), 1994, pp. 71-89.
Schroeder, Eric James, Vietnam, We've All Been There, Praeger (New York, NY), 1992, pp. 33-49.
Atlantic, January, 1978.
Book World, November 6, 1977.
Critic, July, 1978, pp. 4-5.
Esquire, March 1, 1978.
Library Journal, June 15, 2000, Jayne Plymale, review of Kubrick, p. 85.
Los Angeles Times, June 21, 1987; June 26, 1987; April 15, 1990, p. 22.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 20, 1987, p. 18.
Nation, June 18, 1990, p. 862.
New Republic, November 5, 1990, p. 27.
New Statesman, September 14, 1990, p. 37.
Newsweek, November 14, 1977; June 29, 1987.
New Times, November 11, 1977.
New York Review of Books, December 8, 1977, pp. 34-35; November 22, 1990, p. 16.
New York Times, October 28, 1977; April 19, 1979; June 26, 1987; May 14, 1990.
New York Times Book Review, November 20, 1977; May 20, 1990, p. 12.
Observer, September 16, 1990, p. 55; July 16, 2000, Ed Vulliamy, "It Ain't Over Till It's Over," p. 3.
Publishers Weekly, March 30, 1990, p. 33; February 20, 1995, p. 118.
Saturday Review, January 7, 1978.
South Atlantic Quarterly, 79, 1980, pp. 141-151.
Time, November 7, 1977; June 29, 1987.
Times Literary Supplement, September 14, 1990, p. 970.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), January 3, 1988, p. 6; May 13, 1990, p. 3.
U.S. Catholic, July, 2002, review of Dispatches, p. 47.
Variety, July 17, 2000, Tom Tapp, review of Kubrick, p. 34.
Washington Post, November 4, 1977, p. D1; June 26, 1987; June 28, 1987; June 12, 1990, p. E1.
Washington Times, May 31, 1990, p. E1.
Back in the World: Writing after Vietnam (videotape), American Arts Project (New York, NY), 1984.*