Herschberger, Ruth

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Born 30 January 1917, Philipse Manor, New York

Also writes under: Josephine Langstaff

Daughter of Clarence B. and Grace Eberhart Herschberger

Daughter of two academic parents, Ruth Herschberg was educated at the University of Chicago and Black Mountain College, and later took courses at the University of Michigan and at the New School for Social Research and Union Theological Seminary, both in New York City. For years, she lived in New York and summered on Washington Island, Wisconsin.

Herschberg's career as a writer in both verse and prose has brought her considerable public attention. Her plays have been produced on radio and on stage. Her book of feminist essays, Adam's Rib (1948), was published under the pseudonym Josephine Langstaff, first in England, then in Finland, Norway, and Sweden; and parts of it have been anthologized. Her poems have appeared in over 30 national and literary magazines, including the feminist magazines Aphra and Feelings, and in more than a dozen anthologies. Her feminist lyrics for "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" were sung on Walter Cronkite's show in 1969 and at the 1970 Statue of Liberty sit-in. "A Sound in the Night," first published in Harper's Bazaar, is included in Best American Stories, 1949. Herschberg has received some well-known critical awards.

Herschberg is a multifaceted author, who writes plays, poems, and feminist essays with equal vigor. She is not primarily an academic writer, does not depend heavily on learning, but neither is she a lazy or emotionally self-indulgent writer. She uses strong rather than restrained tones, but she is not flashy or superficial. In "A Day in Autumn," she goads herself to be forthright, unsentimental, and energetic, an active combination of mind and body. She asks the Lord to dissatisfy her because merely to accept the goodness of bodily nature might anesthetize: "Dissatisfy me, Lord, / …Make me all muddy / …Make me unwieldy, / …What is to be done, how can we/ Simplify what is already / Simplified? Ah intellect, / …Get to work." The body and its pleasures are but "slightly earned" and therefore not enough. Mind must discipline feeling and use it.

Herschberg's subjects are as varied as experience, especially female experience. Her overriding theme seems to be that the poet should celebrate all life's contradictions by means of the full range of contradictory emotions available to her nature—except self-pity. The resulting tone of her writing is as various as her subject matter and often complex—tender and at the same time repulsed and horrified ("A Sound in the Night"); playful and macabre ("A Dream Play"); and angry yet somehow sympathetic ("Is Rape a Myth?"). Her most frequent tone is satiric, and she ejaculates rather than whispers.

Herschberg's diversity of genres makes one hesitate to give her only the label of "poet," although two books of published poetry, several awards for poetry, and a number of verse plays have certainly earned her the title. Nevertheless, compared to poets who have concentrated solely on verse, her technical skills are somewhat underdeveloped. She seems to feel most comfortable with end-stopped iambic pentameter lines, often rhymed couplets, or four-line stanzas with alternate rhymes. In other words, though not unskilled, she has done nothing adventurous in prosody. Her diction is often "poetic"—and not always for the sake of humor—and there are flat lines and awkward inversions. But at her best, when she writes epigrammatically, as in the sharply satiric sonnet "Americans All," she fuses diction, rhythm, and metaphor into an intense and successful whole: "Zebras we, a plait of black and lighter, / Running through woodlands like the horse and ass, / With buff for background and jet stripes that pass / Over our sides in camouflage."

Though Herschberg will probably be most easily remembered as an energetic feminist, chiefly because of her book of feminist essays, Adam's Rib, she should also be remembered as a poet whose voice is most often more eager than irate, and more hearty than shrill.

Other Works:

A Way of Happening (1948). Nature and Love Poems (1969).


Reference works:

CA (1973). TCAS.

Other references:

Chicago Sun (28 March 1948). LJ (1 Jan. 1970), NYHTB (16 May 1948). NYT (9 May 1948, 1 Aug. 1948, 30 Nov. 1970). San Francisco Chronicle (13 June 1948). SR (25 Sept. 1948).


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