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"[Josephine Herbst] had the knack of being in the significant place at the crucial moment, and of being on a footing of comradely equality with many of the most important figures of the day."
Not only was Josephine Herbst acquainted with several major authors of her day, she was also revered by them. Her achievements during the 1930s set her apart from most other female writers at the time, for she was one of the few women reporting on the Spanish Civil War from the front line and, moreover, she was one of the few female novelists regarded on a par with Hemingway, Steinbeck, and Fitzgerald. A prolific and versatile author, Josephine Herbst wrote fiction, criticism, novels, magazine and newspaper columns, biographies, and memoirs. Her literary career began in 1920, when she was hired by H.L. Mencken to read for Smart Set, a popular magazine of the day. As Herbst became involved in left-wing causes during the 1930s, her writing grew more political, earning her a reputation as an anarchist, which harmed her during the McCarthyism of the 1950s. As a mature author during the 1950s and 1960s, Herbst was a part of a circle of young writers, including Jean Garrigue, her life partner, as well as Saul Bellow, Alfred Kazin, and John Cheever.
Education and Training
Morningside College, Iowa
University of Iowa, Iowa
B.A. in English, University of California, Berkeley, California, 1918
Extensive travels as a foreign correspondent; lived in Germany, Italy and France from 1922-1925
John Herrmann, writer and political activist, who was married to Herbst, 1925-1934, but finalized their divorce in 1940
American writers Ernest Hemingway, Robert McAlmon and Nathan Ash, all associated with the expatriate writers
Theodore Dreiser, John Dos Passos, Katherine Anne Porter, and Jean Garrigue
Influenced by Doris Lessing later in life
Her friendship with many of the most important writers of the 1920s into the 1960s led to an immense volume of correspondence, now preserved at Yale University, there is said to be more than 3,000 letters to her lover and companion Jean Garrigue
Connection to Bucks County
When Josephine Herbst and her husband, John Herrmann, purchased an eighteenth-century farmhouse in Erwinna in 1928, they were among the first authors to settle there. They chose the region because Herbst's mother had regaled her with tales of an idyllic childhood in Quakertown. Also, Bucks County offered the quiet necessary for writing and an affordable cost of living. Some of Herbst's fiction was set in Bucks County, including the short story she wrote with her husband, Pennsylvania Idyll, and the novel Satan's Sergeants. Herbst drew other authors to Erwinna, including Nathanael West, who moved there with the Perelmans after having visited with her. During the 1950s, Herbst mingled in other artistic circles, participating in the New Hope Workshop with Stanley Kunitz and Jean Toomer, among others. Retaining her Erwinna farmhouse until her death in 1969, Herbst resided in Bucks County for over forty years.
Nathaniel West, Laura and S. J. Perelman, Alan Campbell, Dorothy Parker, Katherine Anne Porter, John Herrmann, Jean Garrigue, and Lorraine and Charles Rudy
Herbst was actively involved with the New Hope Workshop with poet Stanley Kunitz and other artists in the 1950s.
Guggenheim Fellowship in Fiction, 1936
Longview Foundation Award, 1960
Rockefeller Foundation, Grant, 1965
National Institute of Arts and Letters, Grant, 1966
Nothing Is Sacred, 1928
Money For Love, 1929
Pity is Not Enough, 1933
The Executioner Awaits, 1934
Rope Of Gold, 1939
Satan's Sergeants, 1941
Somewhere the Tempest Fell, 1948
New Green World, 1956
Contributor of fiction and articles to Nation, Kenyon Review, Arts, Commentary, Noble Savage, New Republic, Partisan Review, and other periodicals
"Miss Herbst's social sympathies are obviously on the side of the forgotten men. [Her work] will be read by those who are unafraid to confront the possibility of a disaster for 'the American dream.'"
Growing up in Iowa, Josephine Herbst was enthralled by her mother's tales of childhood in Quakertown. For young Josie, life in nineteenth-century Pennsylvania embodied the American dream of individualism, financial security, caring community, and harmony with nature. Recognizing that this ideal was quickly slipping away, Herbst strove to recover it personally by moving to Bucks County. She also wanted to come to terms with the disappearance of the American dream in her fiction.
In the trilogy composed of Pity is Not Enough (1933), The Executioner Awaits (1934), and Rope of Gold (1939), Herbst explores the political, social and economic forces threatening the American middle class. In these novels tracing her family's, and her own, history from the nineteenth century to the present, she observes how the Reconstruction, Western mining, and the rise of industrial capitalism destabilized the lives of common folk, damaging family life, as well. In her later novel, Satan's Sergeants (1941), Herbst considers this problem on the level of the village, rather than of the individual or the family. Set in a typical, if imaginary, Bucks County town, the novel dramatizes how an influx of urbanites has destroyed its traditional, rustic way of life. These poignant studies of the American middle class speak powerfully to late twentieth-century readers as well, whose lives have been similarly disrupted by changes in business, technology, and family life.