In 1942, Josephine Herbst—novelist, well-known journalist, and political activist—was dismissed from her job at the Office of the Coordinator of Information (OCI) in Washington, D.C., as a security risk. Her name was later cleared, but she never knew the reason for her dismissal, that a close friend had betrayed her gratuitously, and in a sense the loss of the OCI job marked a downward turn in her professional fortunes from which she never recovered. Herbst, the author of seven novels and more than one hundred published pieces of journalism, the companion and friend of Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, Katherine Anne Porter, and James T. Farrell, had by the time of her death in 1969 been reduced to a name in a footnote. Her works were, and remain, out of print, known only to the most highly specialized students of the decades between World War I and World War II.
Elinor Langer, a critic, journalist, and teacher, came upon Herbst’s name by chance, was bowled over by her historical trilogy—Pity Is Not Enough (1933), The Executioner Waits (1934), Rope of Gold (1939)—and set out to discover the reasons for the author’s virtual disappearance from American literary history. Herbst had been praised by her contemporaries as an important novelist. She was in Paris and Barcelona and Bucks County and Greenwich Village with all of the other writers whose names make up the official canon of the 1930’s. Why was she not mentioned by Edmund Wilson or Maxwell Geismar or Malcolm Cowley? Was some patriarchal conspiracy operating to rob this woman of her reputation and posthumous reward? In Josephine Herbst: The Story She Could Never Tell, Langer describes her efforts to discover more about the life of this almost invisible author and to understand the twists and turns of American culture that account for her obscurity. In her search, Langer consulted the files of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the archives of the Alger Hiss trial, the letters and papers of Josie’s many close friends, and the vast unfinished autobiography with which Josephine Herbst struggled during the last twenty-five years of her life. The result is an important and fascinating biography, a complex story of temperament, politics, and passion.
In many ways, Herbst’s story is from the beginning nearly identical to the biographies of her male contemporaries. Born in Sioux City, Iowa, in 1892, she fled first to San Francisco and Seattle and then to New York to escape the stifling gentility of small-town life. By 1919, she was living in a basement apartment in Greenwich Village, talking radical politics, writing short stories, and moving in and out of the lives of friends and the friends of friends. “I always knew that somewhere in the world were people who could talk about the things I wanted to talk about and do the things I wanted to do and in some measure at least I have found them,” she wrote to her mother, having fulfilled the dream of adolescents everywhere. The radical community was open and filled with an excitement to which Josie Herbst, an instinctive radical, could hardly fail to respond. She wrote for Max Eastman and Floyd Dell, had a dramatic affair with the married Maxwell Anderson, and admitted to being happily unhappy. She had an apparently painless abortion (something her male friends were denied), then went to Europe and wandered the streets of Berlin, where she picked up sexual partners to drown her loneliness, and shaped all of her experiences into a cynical and never published novel.
Josie’s passions were always larger than life-size. Her affair with Anderson ended predictably in misery—for her, if not for him—but it was only the first in a series of extravagant and largely unhappy sexual relationships with both men and women which were to recur throughout her life and cause her violent and often verbalized suffering. In Paris, where she had wandered after her months in Berlin, mourning the death of her sister at the hands of an incompetent abortionist, she fell precipitously in love with an American writer she saw sitting in a café. John Hermann—dashing, romantic, a gifted orator, and some years her junior—was to be Josephine Herbst’s husband for eleven of her most creative years. When he left, Josie never really recovered from the loss.
John and Josie decided to live together in rural Connecticut. They wrote in separate rooms, commiserated with each other over the winter chores and the isolation, and entertained visiting New Yorkers, the people whose couches they occupied when they went to town to get warm. They traveled on impulse and with no money—to Key West, where John went fishing with Hemingway while Josie stayed ashore fuming at the smugness of the bonded male, to Cape Cod, even one summer to the Soviet Union for the International Congress of Revolutionary Writers. The plight of the neighboring farmers in the economic upheavals of the early Depression years, however, began to concern both of them. They spent increasing amounts of time organizing and writing about agricultural workers, publishing articles in the journals that were open to leftist critiques. Some time later, they left the country...
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