“For understanding what it was like to live to the full the turbulent American literary life of the 1920’s and 30’s as it moved from bohemianism to radicalism, there could be no more revealing figure than Josephine Herbst,” wrote Robert Gorham Davis in his review of Elinor Langer’s 1984 biography of Herbst, Josephine Herbst: The Story She Could Never Tell. “She knew everyone and was in all the right places at the right historic moments – Greenwich Village, the Left Bank, Russia, Germany, Cuba and Spain.”
I won’t attempt to synopsize Herbst’s life and career here. Hilton Kramer did a far better job of that thirty years ago in his New Criterion article, “Who was Josephine Herbst?,” available online and well worth the read (link). What matters for this piece are two times in her life: the first, beginning in 1928, when she and her husband, the novelist John Herrmann, rented a small, rustic house in the Bucks County countryside near Erwinna, Pennsylvania; and the second, twenty-some years later, when she was living there alone, shunned by most of the literary establishment for her politics and struggling to write anything more than the marvelous, fulsome letters for which she was always held in awe by her correspondents and a few snippets of memoirs of her life in the 1920s and 1930s.
While living in Erwinna, Herbst and Herrmann made the acquaintance of Nathanael West, who was still working as the night manager of the Hotel Kenmore Hall in Manhattan and revising The Dream Life of Balso Snell, his absurdist novel set in the entrails of the Trojan Horse. They invited West out to Bucks County, and he immediately fell in love with the area. Throughout his life, West pretended to the style and manners of the rich and landed American gentry, and he loved to hike around the Pennsylvania woods with a shotgun slung in one arm, very much the gentleman hunter.
West quit the hotel job, having decided to make his name as a writer, and worked on finishing his second novel, the black comedy Miss Lonelyhearts. He bought a farm near Herbst and Herrmann and spent many hours with them. Herrmann and West often went out to hunt pheasant, quail, and West’s favorite, doves, although both were terrible shots. However, envious of the money that his friend and brother-in-law, S. J. Perelman (Perelman had married West’s sister Laura), was making writing for the Marx Brothers and others, he accepted a contract to work as a screenwriter in Hollywood. While West’s experience in Hollywood wasn’t a financial success, it did contribute to his greatest artistic success, the novel The Day of the Locust. Only a few months after marrying the vivacious Eileen McKenney, the title character in her sister Ruth McKenney’s smash comedy play, “My Sister Eileen,” West and McKenney were killed in a car crash in California.
West’s novels, which had never been best-sellers, quickly fell out of print, but in the aftermath of World War Two, a new generation of critics, such Lionel Trilling and Alfred Kazin, began to discover and appreciate the bleak and absurdist tone of his work. A number of academics and critics became interested in his life, and their researches led a number of them to Josephine Herbst’s doorstep.
She soon grew aggravated by their inclination to view West’s life and work through a postwar prism that exaggerated his foresight and ignored the good and bad points of his character. And so, sometime in 1953, she set aside the book she had been working on–a dual biography of the early American naturalists John and William Bartram (a book published in 1954 as New Green World), and wrote “Hunter of Doves,” a short novel based on her memories of West.
Although she gave her characters fictional names, “Hunter of Doves” deviates from fact in unimportant ways. Herbst’s own character, Mrs. Heath, is a painter rather than a writer. Timothy Comfort, the would-be biographer, is a stand-in for a handful of real-life researchers. And, as Elinor Langer revealed in her biography, the faint suggestion of a triangle involving West, Herbst, and Herrmann was actually taken from the passion Herbst had developed for the artist, Marion Greenwood.
What was true, however, was Herbst’s desire to have West seen truthfully. “Nothing is reliable except the work,” Mrs. Heath tells Comfort. “People either want to read or they don’t. You can find Noel Bartram, perhaps more than you like, right there, in his novels, if you take the trouble. Or have the sense. The intuitive sense.” Herbst was also true in depicting how the night manager job at the Hotel Kenmore Hall–a job that came his way through his family’s connections in real estate and took at his mother’s insistence–was both his prison and his inspiration:
Whether the mother intended the hotel as her son’s sole future, Mrs. Heath could not say, but it represented security, that shackling iron which simply meant one is freed from necessity to become enslaved….
But the truth was that the hotel and all its occupants surrounded him with the felt mat of a persistent presence. If he were alone in his privacy, the phone might ring, calling him below. One had no idea, he had pleaded, pleading for himself, the nature of the interruptions. He was the guardian of the hotel, its keeper, its jailor. A hotel like this was jam-packed with broken hearts, broken pocketbooks, too, and as the hotel was a genteel one, with a gilding upon it, one could imagine the pride of the victims who, finding themselves slowly drained of their substance, tried to keep up a front, sallied past the door, hummed, pretended light-hearted gaiety, delay of checks from rich uncles, alimony, or the imaginary sale of imaginary real estate that would put them on easy street.
“Hunter of Doves” was published in 1954 in Botteghe Oscure, an acclaimed international literary magazine published in Rome by Marguerite Caetani. It was quickly recognized as Herbst’s finest work since the 1930s, and did lead to a more nuanced view of West.
It did not, however, lead to either a rediscovery of Herbst’s work or a break-through of her own artistic roadblocks. Over the next fifteen years, she only managed to produce three autobiographical pieces–“The Starched Blue Sky of Spain” (The Noble Savage, Number 1, 1960); “A Year of Disgrace” (The Noble Savage, Number 3, 1961); and “Yesterday’s Road” (New American Review, Number 3, 1968). These, along with a fourth piece, “The Magicians and Their Apprentices,” about her girlhood in Sioux City, Iowa, were published posthumously in The Starched Blue Sky of Spain, and Other Memoirs
Given the fact that “Hunter of Doves” has never been reprinted and can be found only in the rare academic libraries holding back issues of Botteghe Oscure, I am taking here a unilateral and perhaps improper step of making the text freely available online.
A quick key to the characters in “Hunter of Doves”:
- Noel Bartram = Nathanael West
- Mrs. Heath = Josephine Herbst
- Mr. Heath = John Herrmann
- Joel Baker = S. J. Perelman
- Nora Baker = Laura Weinstein Perelman
- Parker Grainger = probably Quentin Reynolds