Though one of the most acclaimed of contemporary American novelists when she was writing in the 1930s, Josephine Herbst published just two books after 1941, and her last book, New Green World, a biography of early American naturalist John Bartram, in 1954, fifteen years before she died at the age of 76.
By the time she had turned 60, she was already struggling to survive. Her marriage to novelist John Herrmann ended in 1940 after he discovered that Herbst was in love with another woman. Her work during World War Two for the Office of the Coordinator of Information on a precursor to the Voice of America came to an end when the couple’s involvement with the Communist Party in the 1930s was investigated. (Herrmann was later shown to be not just a public Communist but a covert Soviet agent, but Herbst’s politics were never anything but open and stubbornly self-determined.) What little money she had went for essentials and she often relied on the kindness of friends to get by. And she turned to the bottle for relief more than did her good.
When Saul Bellow and his friends Jack Ludwig and Keith Botsford decided to launch their own literary magazine, The Noble Savage, Bellow reached out to Herbst and offered her some money for a piece recalling her experiences in Madrid and around the Republican front lines during the Spanish Civil War. The resulting essay, “The Starched Blue Sky of Spain,” was long — forty pages — and resolutely unromantic about a conflict that had long been romanticized, thanks to the work of Hemingway and others. Hemingway himself was shown in all his glory and selfishness: “he wanted to be the war writer of his age, and he knew it and went toward it,” but also took advantages of the services a master go-fer, Sid Franklin, who managed to keep his suite at the Hotel Florida stocked with eggs, butter, champagne, and even partridge. (For more on Hemingway’s residence at the hotel, see Amanda Vaill’s recent book, Hotel Florida: Truth, Love, and Death in the Spanish Civil War.)
A second essay, “A Year of Disgrace,” appeared in The Noble Savage issue 2, and recalled how she met and fell in love with Herrmann in Paris in 1924, moved back to the U.S., where they lived for a while in an old farmhouse in Connecticut, then moved to Greenwich Village. In its own way, it was a skeptical look back at a time that had itself become romanticized (by Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and others). She and Herrmann welcomed many friends to the sparse hospitality of their farmhouse, but Herbst was less than thrilled about the many nights the men spent tipping back jugs of applejack in the barn into the wee hours. At the same time, she still felt a rush of emotion when thinking of the lively talks and the celebrations of art that she was able to share with fellow writers and neighbors such as John Dos Passos, Katherine Anne Porter, Allen Tate and his wife, Caroline Gordon, poet Genevieve Taggard, and Catholic activist Dorothy Day:
But it was a mark of the time and the place that a first encounter might last all night, overflowing from the speakeasy to the street, from the street to someone’s room, to pitch you finally into a dawn exhilarated, oddly at peace, for wasn’t it of engagements like this, long talks and walks, that you had dreamed in the midwest town before the war when the sky had pressed above your head like a burnished brass bowl and the long secretive dark express trains zipped into the horizon? You had dreamed of it as surely as you had dreamed of love.
Herbst went another eight years before publishing another article. In 1968, “Yesterday’s Road,” a melancholy memoir of her investigation as a Communist sympathizer — and of her disillusionment with the Party based on her experiences in Spain and as a guest of the Soviet government at a writers’ congress in Moscow in 1930, appeared in the third issue of Theodore Solotaroff’s remarkable literary magazine in popular paperback form, the New American Review. Less than a year later, she was dead of lung cancer.
Over twenty years later, these three pieces, along with an unpublished essay on her memories of growing up in Iowa and of an unforgettable family expedition to the Oregon coast in 1901, “The Magicians and Their Apprentices,” was collected as The Starched Blue Sky of Spain and Other Memoirs by HarperCollins, with an introduction by the novelist Diane Johnson. In Johnson’s words, “it was only in her sixties that in turning to this life as a subject, she found her real tone”:
Where most of us revise the past as we move forward through the present, Josephine Herbst retains something like total recall for the visual details of what her circle wore and ate and did….
… in her last essays, things had begun to come into perspective, and hers was a remarkable perspective, honed in remarkable times.
And, indeed, in commenting elsewhere on the then-contemporary fiction of the 1950s, Herbst would write, “What seems to be missing is a sense of the world. The world around us.”
Of the four essays, the first in order and chronology, “The Magicians and Their Apprentices,” is, in my opinion, by far the best of a very, very good lot — really, something of a masterpiece. I have a habit of dog-earing pages with passages I want to remember or quote, and there are so many in this piece that I could, without a little self-control, easy find myself reprinting nearly the entire piece. It has so many different facets: the simple pleasures of life in Sioux City, Iowa at the turn of the century and the disparate feelings of isolation and small-mindedness; the contrast between her father, the failed businessman, and her uncle, a highly successful pharmacist, businessman and Rotarian — and, at the same time, her uncle’s own sense of being haunted by the ghost of the father who died in the Civil War before his child was born; the excitement of discovering the world of books and writing and the mystifying experience of developing sexuality (“My body was speaking a language I was too ignorant to interpret”). As a work of lyrical yet honest autobiography, I think it ranks with one of my favorite books, James McConkey’s stunningly beautiful Court of Memory.
The Starched Blue Sky of Spain and Other Memoirs is, sadly, itself long out of print since it was reissued by the Northeastern University Press in 1999. Herbst’s only work currently in print, according to Amazon, is Pity Is Not Enough (1933), the first of three novels (the others are The Executioner Waits (1934) and Rope of Gold (1939)) about the rise and decline of an Iowa family, the Trexlers. And you can find her very rare novella based on the life of Nathanael West, “Hunter of Doves,” in e-book formats in this recent piece on this site. I also recommend reading Hilton Kramer’s fine memoir, “Who was Josephin Herbst?” from the New Criterion (Link).