Herbst, Josephine (1892–1969)

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Herbst, Josephine (1892–1969)

American writer and journalist. Born on March 5, 1892, in Sioux City, Iowa; died of cancer on January 28, 1969, in New York City; the third of four daughters of William Benton Herbst (a salesman) and Mary (Frey) Herbst; graduated from high school in Sioux City, 1910; bachelor's degree from the University of California at Berkeley, 1918; married John Herrmann (a writer), on September 2, 1926 (divorced 1940); no children.

Selected works:

Nothing is Sacred (1928); Money for Love (1929); Pity Is Not Enough (1933); The Executioner Waits (1934); Rope of Gold (1939); Satan's Sergeants (1941); Somewhere the Tempest Fell (1947); "Hunter of Doves," in Bottege Oscure (1954); New Green World (1954); "The Starched Blue Sky of Spain," in The Noble Savage (1960); "A Year of Disgrace," in The Noble Savage (1961).

Best known for her sweeping trilogy which traces an American family from the Civil War through the 1930s, Josephine Herbst figures prominently in both the literature and the political radicalism of the 1920s and 1930s. Her work includes seven novels, a biography, journalistic reports, and numerous short stories and essays.

Josephine Herbst was born in 1892, in Sioux City, Iowa, where her father sold farm implements and her mother strongly instilled in her a love of books and a sense of family history. "The family for generations had kept diaries and letters," Herbst later wrote, "and the first inkling I had of the complexity and significance of people in relation to each other and the world came from those documents." Out of necessity, Herbst's college education was interspersed with periods of work and stretched into nine years. She attended three institutions (Morningside College, the University of Iowa, and the University of Washington) before receiving her bachelor's degree from the University of California at Berkeley in 1918.

After graduating, Herbst moved to New York and immersed herself in the more radical literary and political circles in the city. Through friends, she met Maxwell Anderson, then a young socialist journalist and poet, who became her first lover. When she became pregnant, Anderson, who was married at the time and the father of two, insisted that she have an abortion. The experience, coupled with her sister's death from an abortion a few months later, brought her close to a nervous breakdown. In 1922, she left her job as a reader for H.L. Mencken's magazine and moved to Berlin. There, living on her own, she completed her first novel, an autobiographical account of her affair with Anderson (never published).

While in Paris in 1924, Herbst met and fell in love with John Herrmann, a charming expatriate writer with a predisposition for alcohol. The pair returned to America and set up housekeeping in an old Connecticut farmhouse. After marrying in September 1926, they eventually bought another farmhouse in Erwinna, Pennsylvania, where Herbst lived for the rest of her life. Over the next ten years, Herbst experienced her most prolific period, producing five novels, the first of which, Nothing is Sacred (1928), was widely acclaimed. With the publication of Pity Is Not Enough (1933), the first volume of her trilogy, she was hailed as a major literary figure. Meanwhile, Herrmann, never a serious writer to begin with, was writing less and becoming more and more involved in the political activities of the Communist party. (Herbst never actually joined the party, although she was a leftist sympathizer.) Soon, Herbst's literary reputation surpassed her husband's, driving a wedge between them. Infidelities exacerbated the problem, and, by 1935, the two were living apart, though they would not divorce until 1940.

Herbst's trilogy, which includes Pity Is Not Enough, The Executioner Waits (1934), and Rope of Gold (1939), tells the story of the Trexler and Wendel families, and, in her own words, "covers not only the decay of capitalistic society but also the upthrust of a new group society." Strongly autobiographical, Herbst used her own ancestors, the Freys, as the basis of the trilogy, and in Rope of Gold, she also chronicled the deterioration of her own marriage through the characters of Victoria and Jonathan Chance.

During the political unrest of the 1930s, Herbst was also engaged in journalistic pursuits, and her reports from crisis spots throughout the world were widely published in such diverse newspapers as the New York Post and Nation. She reported the effects of Hitler's regime in Germany, covered the farmers' strike in her home state of Iowa in 1932, traveled to Cuba during the general strike of 1935, and wrote about the automobile strike in Flint, Michigan, in 1937. That same year, Herbst spent six months in Spain, reporting on the civil war, and in 1939, she was in South America.

During the 1940s, Herbst went through a period of isolation, living alone in Erwinna, anguishing over the dissolution of her marriage. In June 1942, she was unexpectedly discharged from a wartime job in Washington which only added to her misery. Even the two novels of this period, Satan's Sergeants (1941) and Somewhere the Tempest Fell (1947), were indifferently received. Gradually, however, Herbst emerged from this dark period. She renewed old friendships and the farmhouse at Erwinna became something of a gathering place for literati, particularly younger writers such as Alfred Kazin, Hilton Kramer, Saul Bellow, and the poet Jean Garrigue (with whom, by one account, Herbst had an intimate relationship). From the mid-1950s until her death, Herbst devoted herself to her memoirs and to a volume of interrelated novellas about writers she knew, although neither were completed. Her last published works included New Green World (1954), a biographical appreciation of botanists John and William Bartram, and some shorter critical essays. Josephine Herbst died of cancer on January 28, 1969.


Green, Carol Hurd, and Mary Grimley Mason, eds. American Women Writers: From Colonial Times to the Present. NY: Continuum, 1994.

Kunitz, Stanley J., and Howard Haycraft, eds. 20th Century Authors. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1942.

suggested reading:

Lange, Elinor. Josephine Herbst: The Story She Could Never Tell, 1984.

Rideout, Walter. The Radical Novel in the United States, 1966.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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