James Leo Herlihy Essay - Critical Essays

Herlihy, James Leo

Herlihy, James Leo 1927–

Herlihy, an American novelist, short story writer, playwright, and actor, is best known for his novel Midnight Cowboy. Most of his fiction delineates the "peripheral world of loners and exotics" and has been compared favorably with work by Salinger, Sherwood Anderson, Flannery O'Connor, and James Purdy. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

[Midnight Cowboy is an] appalling story, told with great skill, and important because Joe Buck [the protagonist] is a characteristic product of the way we live and yet he cannot be adequately discussed outside of a novel. He is not a case but a person, so that poetry and not sociology is the proper instrument for apprehending him, as Mr. Herlihy very well understands. But the poetry sometimes fails because of a gratuitous exercise of Mr. Herlihy's gifts. He has a taste, and a talent, for drawing human grotesques—that literary plague loosed upon us by Sherwood Anderson, confirmed by the Nathanael West of Miss Lonelyhearts, and propagated still, in a somewhat etiolated form, by J. D. Salinger. Good authors, but authors with an infirmity. The defect of the grotesque as a genre is that it exploits exoticism and the nouveau frisson at the expense of reality. Things are not real, in or out of books, simply because they happen. The grotesque ignores the real in favor of a lively surface, and in that way it is sentimental.

Accordingly, I will not mention the bravura scenes of Midnight Cowboy, drawn with great dash but basically frivolous by comparison with the author's chief insight and intention. And that is the social isolation, invisibility even, of Joe Buck—to the point that comment on him in a review must inevitably scant the issue.

Emile Capouya, "Love is Where You Find It," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1965 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), August 28, 1965, p. 40.

In these sunset years of Tennessee Williams's circumscribed talent, and as the freedom for homosexuals to write frankly has given them the chance to write romantically, we have become wary of the theme of the young stud's search for communion in the night-world. There are several questions that can justifiably be put to [Midnight Cowboy]. Do we need still another dumb-brute hero? Do we need still another gallery of grotesques when, for over twenty years, grotesquerie has been substituting for the large emotional experience that is missing in conventional life? Isn't the quest for the terrible beauty of West 42nd Street the equivalent of the 1935 quest for beauty in sweat-stained overalls? Isn't the acceptance of these characters and themes often as glib and fashionable as was that of much proletarian fiction?

To all these charges Midnight Cowboy must in theory plead guilty. In practice, however, it is vindicated. Herlihy quickly disarms us. He conveys a close, affectionate, saddened concern with Joe and Joe's milieu, and only rarely seems to be showing off about either. The prose—despite a few slightly soggy moments—is both hard and imaginative. The dialogue never falters; Herlihy has an unerring and witty sense of the way each of his people speaks…. Because of the combined ease and intensity that he brings to his story, it flows past with affecting verity, never tedious though sometimes familiar, and technically almost seamless…. I note that it contains the best vernacular-poetic descriptions of intercourse that I have read since Shelby Foote's Follow Me Down. But it is not the good details, it is the general rightness of the whole book—a simple ballad of a simple-minded sexual adventurer—that creates interest in Joe, his need, his peculiar sentimental education. At the end, when Joe puts his arm around the runty friend who has just died next to him on the Miami-bound bus, Herlihy reaps his reward. We wince with compassion. The accomplishment in this book is small, but it is admirable. (pp. 31-2)

Stanley Kauffmann, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1965 NYREV, Inc.), November 11, 1965.

Too self-consciously the moral virgin and too facile with her received wisdoms and doubts, Gloria [the heroine of The Season of the Witch] is far less lovable than such fictional older sisters as Christopher Isherwood's Sally Bowles (I Am a Camera) or Truman Capote's Holly Golightly (Breakfast at Tiffany's). Herlihy's lively stock characters and head-shop props come directly from Aquarius Central. Yet The Season of the Witch has its appeal, especially if regarded not as an adult book but a contribution to an as yet nonexistent publishing category—groovy books for juveniles. (p. 78)

R. Z. Sheppard, "Nice Girls Don't," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc:), April 19, 1971, pp. 77-8.

In one sense James Leo Herlihy breaks no new ground in The Season of the Witch because here, as in Midnight Cowboy, his technique is to pack an innocent on to a greyhound bus bound for New York, and watch it happen. The idiom is so limited that what the heroine [who calls herself "Witch"] finds inexpressible sometimes remains stolidly unexpressed. But the jacket blurb, though it talks some nonsense, speaks fairly of Herlihy's 'ability to connect the reader with other people's lives'. He does this by writing Witch's journal as an uncompromising medley of conceit, warmth, gush, exuberance and cliché. Witch … [falls on her feet] in a small commune headed by an ex-psychiatrist, where Edwin Markham is quoted along with Leary, and a conviction of impending Utopia is kept alive with grass, incantation, astrology and a fair amount of discipline and love….

What finally strikes with most strength is not the new banality of the Aquarian language but the extreme familiarity of the adolescent romanticism. It is the American Dream in disguise. I would nominate The Season of the Witch as required reading for bewildered parents, had I not already seen the book bewilderedly reviewed by a man who passes judgment on the heroine and then complains that Herlihy has no point of view. (p. 515)

Janet Burroway, in New Statesman (© 1971 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), October 15, 1971.

[Throughout The Season of the Witch, the reader anticipates that] Mr Herlihy is going to blow the gaff on the Woodstock life-style, revealing the self-destructive qualities in its passivity, the psychedelic con-job, the rustle of dollars drowned by amplified guitars. Witch [the heroine], after all, appears to be perfectly taken in, and Mr Herlihy's object so far seems to have been to demonstrate an ingenuous confusion, extending right down to a vocabulary which categorizes things in terms of the fabulous, the groovy, the magical and the cool….

[But] the realization gradually dawns that this—the love-generation in full-gush—is the novel's true subject; that Woodstock really does mark the dawning of the Aquarian Age; that love really is all you need; that a tab of acid is the key to the Cosmos. When Witch's father finally gets into the book, it is as Devil's Advocate for the communards; his old-style Marxism provides an excuse for some straight polemic from the commune's leader; and when Witch almost allows her unwitting Dad to commit incest before telling him who she is, the episode is intended to wring the heart, not strike the funny-bone.

Looking back, we see those opening pages—the fresh-faced enthusiasm, the corny bus ride, and so on—in a new light, realizing that the schmaltzy dialogue and teeny-bopper evangelism were for real; and with a desperation born of lingering disbelief struggle on through the book in the hope of finding some indication that Mr Herlihy really is kidding. But in vain. There is no let-up in Witch's po-faced narrative, and no hint that we should be laughing at her apologia for the psychedelic revolution, rather than finding some vision of the future in it. Unless Mr Herlihy is taking subtlety well beyond the point where it becomes totally self-defeating, Witch is offered, here, in all seriousness, as a founder member of the New New World. She appears, for all her bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, half-baked iconoclasm, as one of the more tedious remnants of the world we already have.

"The New New World," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1971; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), November 12, 1971, p. 1409.

American drop-out society provides far better material for novels than Mr Heath's England, with its compassion, its purposefulness and its complete lack of any philosophical curiosity.

It removes much of the joy of the Alternative Society if one realises that it can only flourish parasitically on the organised society it affects to despise. In America this realisation is staunchly resisted, at any rate to the extent that it might impinge on the freelove fantasies of the Wall Street commuter. Whether the Aquarian generation of young Americans has really produced characters like Witch Gliz [protagonist of The Season of the Witch]—beautiful, innocent, utterly unselfish and open—or whether she is no more than a literary stereotype is unimportant….

By holding up a mirror to American society which portrays exactly the opposite of the truth American novelists have won instant acceptance and acclaim among their own people. There is no reason why we, on the other side of the Atlantic, should join the applause except that in the process they have managed to create a school of writing which has greater vitality than anything being produced over here. [The Season of the Witch] is a strikingly successful example of this school….

Mr Herlihy approaches [his story], at any rate until near the end of the book, with the same open-eyed matter-of-factness as his heroine….

The debate never rises above the level of simplicity which the authors and high priests of the alternative culture consider suitable for its citizens—that of a nice, highly sexed nine-year old.

He, Herlihy, draws the line at incest and hard drugs—heroin and methedrine. He also takes rather a dim, Anglican view of lying—except to parents, police, etc. Presumably, the line is drawn at incest to show that Mr Herlihy is basically a decent guy. I would like to think he is saying something more complicated—that the drop-out generation owes its essential characteristics—communal living and an almost superstitious credulity—to the collapse of the family as a basic social unit and the discrediting of institutional religion as moral preceptor, and that the confusion of the desire to belong with sexual appetite, shown in the Witch's approach to her father, is symbolic of this. But I am afraid that Mr Herlihy is saying no such thing. He is deliberately retreating into the same simplicities as he describes….

Never mind, the book is beautifully written and a joy to read. Novelists may not be the philosophers or even true observers of American society, but at least they have found a role as entertainers, which is more than can be said for their English counterparts. (p. 929)

Auberon Waugh, in The Spectator (© 1971 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), December 25, 1971.