Herbst, Josephine

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HERBST, Josephine

Born 5 March 1892, Sioux City, Iowa; died 28 January 1969, New York, New York

Daughter of William B. and Mary Frey Herbst; married John Herrmann, 1925 (divorced, 1940)

Josephine Herbst, a proletarian writer, is a major figure in the history of 20th-century literature and radicalism. Although less well known than her friends Ernest Hemingway, Katherine Anne Porter, and John Dos Passos, she is often regarded as their peer. Her most important work is a trilogy, a sweeping reconstruction of the life of an American family from the Civil War through the 1930s. Other works include four more novels, reports from the crisis areas of the 1930s, and numerous short stories and critical essays.

Herbst grew up in Sioux City, Iowa, where her father sold farm implements. Neither of her parents had much formal education, but her mother, a strong influence in Herbst's life, imparted a love of books to her four daughters, and the stories she told about her ancestors formed the beginning of Herbst's trilogy. The family was always poor; consequently, Herbst's college education was spread out over nine years and four different institutions, as she alternated periods of work with periods of study, eventually receiving her degree from the University of California at Berkeley in 1919.

After graduation, she moved to New York City and there became a part of the intellectual and political ferment of the 1920s. Maxwell Anderson, then a socialist journalist and poet, was her first serious lover; a pregnancy resulted, and at Anderson's insistence, Herbst had an abortion. A few months later, her favorite sister died from an abortion. The pain from these two events was devastating for Herbst.

Unable to resume her life in New York, she left her job as a reader for H. L. Mencken's magazines and went to Europe to write. There she met and fell in love with John Herrmann, an expatriate writer, whom she later married. The farm they bought in Erwinna, Pennsylvania, continued to be Herbst's home for the rest of her life. During the first 10 years at Erwinna, Herbst produced five novels. Herrmann, never as ambitious a writer as Herbst, began to write less and to increase his involvement in the Communist Party. Although Herbst never formally joined the Communist Party, her beliefs and activities were sympathetic to it.

The trilogy Pity Is Not Enough (1933, reprinted 1998), The Executioner Waits (1934, 1985), and Rope of Gold (1939, 1984, 1986) tells the story of the Trexler and Wendel families and reveals the development of Herbst's ideas. Walter Rideout pointed out that she views the families' decline as a "tiny part of the dialectical process of world history," and juxtaposes the deterioration of capitalism with the possibility of power for the proletariat. The political message is carried mainly in vignettes about farmers and workers, which give added breadth and force to the main story.

Most of Herbst's fiction is strongly autobiographical. The family of the trilogy is her own, thinly disguised. Two of the characters, Victoria and Jonathan Chance, closely resemble Herbst and Herrmann, and sometimes events in the author's life were being written into the book almost as soon as they occurred. In Rope of Gold, Victoria and Jonathan are growing apart, as were Herbst and Herrmann, and the novel records the pain of their deteriorating relationship, which for Herbst and Herrmann resulted in divorce in 1940.

During the 1930s, Herbst's reports from crisis areas of the world were widely published. She talked with farm pickets in Iowa, reported on the sit-down strike in Flint, Michigan, went to Nazi Germany shortly after Hitler took power, was in Spain with the Loyalists in 1937, and visited Cuban radicals in their mountain hideout. Fired from a wartime job in Washington for political reasons, Herbst spent much of the 1940s and early 1950s at Erwinna, alone and suffering privately over the outcome of her marriage. The two novels published during this period were not given the attention of her previous books. Gradually, she renewed old friendships, and Erwinna became a gathering place for writers and intellectuals. A lesbian relationship with poet Jean Garrigue began during this period.

From the mid-1950s until the time of her death, she was preoccupied with her memoirs, which were never completed because she could not arrive at a portrait of her times that was satisfying to her. Elinor Langer's excellent biography is titled Josephine Herbst; The Story She Could Never Tell.

Other Works:

Nothing Is Sacred (1928, 1977). Money for Love (1929, 1977). Satan's Sergeants (1941). Somewhere the TempestFell (1947). New Green World (1954). The Starched Blue Sky of Spain: And Other Memoirs (1991, 1999).

Josephine Herbst's papers are housed in the Beinecke Library at Yale University, as is "A Bibliography and Checklist of Josephine Herbst," prepared by Martha Elizabeth Pickering in 1968.


Bevilacqua, W. F. Josephine Herbst (1977). Gourlie, J. M., The Evolution of Form in the Works of Josephine Herbst (dissertation, 1975). Cleppe, J., "Down Yesterday's Road: The Radical Spirit and Revolutionary Novels of Josephine Herbst" (dissertation 1991). Cleppe, J., "Josephine Herbst's Trilogy: A New Look" (thesis 1987). Davis, P. J., "Brokenwing" Ellen Glasgow, Josephine Herbst, and the Creation of Mourning (dissertation 1997). Kempthorne, D. Q., Josephine Herbst: A Critical Introduction (dissertation, 1973). Langer, E., Josephine Herbst: The Story She Could Never Tell (1984, 1994). Rasmussen, M. A., "Feminist Representation and Radical Ideology: The Writings of Josephine Herbst, 1917-1939" (dissertation 1991). Rideout, W., The Radical Novel in the United States (1966). Roberts, N. R., Three Radical Women Writers: Class and Gender in Meridel Le Sueur, Tillie Olsen, and Josephine Herbst (1996). Roehrig, E. L., Josephine Herbst and George Orwell: Two Lives, Two Political Journeys (1996). Wiedemann, B., Josephine Herbst's Short Fiction: A Window to Her Life and Times (1998).

Reference works:

DAB (1988). DLB (1981). FC (1990). NAW (1980). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).

Other references:

Great Plains Quarterly (Spring 1998). NYT (29 Jan. 1969). NYRB (27 Mar. 1969).


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