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- Harry Mount, the London Telegraph

Features

September 1984

Who was Josephine Herbst?

by Hilton Kramer

Condemn the fault and not the actor of it?
Measure for Measure

There is a passage in an essay by Henry James—it occurs in the obituary article he wrote on “Dumas the Younger” in 1895— which defines very exactly the feeling we are likely to experience when, at a certain age, we see the people we have known and who have meant a good deal to us pass away and become in death something very different from what they were in life, both in their own lives and in ours.

One of the things that most bring home his time of life to a man of fifty [James wrote] is the increase of the rate at which he loses his . friends. Some one dies every week, some one dies every day, and if the rate be high among his coevals it is higher still in the generation that, on awakening to spectatorship, he found in possession of the stage. He begins to feel his own world, the world of his most vivid impressions, gradually become historical. He is present, and closely present, at the process by which legend grows up.

For the past year or so I have had reason to ponder this passage a good deal as I have read—first in manuscript, then in galleys, and finally in its published form—the biography which Elinor Langer has devoted to my old friend Josephine Herbst.[1] When Josie Herbst died in 1969, I wasn’t yet, to be sure, a man of fifty. I was almost ten years younger than that. Nevertheless, both her death and its aftermath gave me for the first time and to an extent unequaled by the passing of any other writer or artist I have known precisely the perspective, with all of its attendant nuances, that James spoke of. They gave me, that is, my first experience of seeing “the world of [my] most vivid impressions, gradually become historical.” And now, with the publication of Elinor Langer’s book these fifteen years later, I have the distinct feeling of finding myself “present, and closely present, at the process by which legend grows up.” For if I read the signs correctly, Josie Herbst is about to be readmitted—and with a certain fanfare, too —to the public arena of literature and politics where, before her fall, she had passed so much of her adult life. It will not be primarily as an admired author, however, that she will now be rediscovered. Almost all of her writings have long been- out of print, and few of the enthusiasts who are now eagerly preparing to assist in her elevation to stardom can be expected to have read them. This time it will not be as a novelist or journalist or memoirist that Josie Herbst will be welcomed into the company of the elect— not yet, anyway—but as a radical heroine and martyr of the feminist movement. Which, if this should come to pass, would tell us—as all such acts of canonization do— a good deal more about the strange times in which we are now living than it would about the tormented life and the failed work of the woman herself.

To the world that presides over canonizations of this sort—the world where reputations are made, influence wielded, and significant sums of money dispensed—Josie Herbst had become a ghostly figure in the years that I knew her, the last dozen years of her long life. Although recognized by name in the councils of the literary establishment, she was nonetheless shunned and “forgotten"—a writer who, though she might still be expected at some future date to make a comeback, was pretty much left to make it on her own. Except to a small circle of (mostly younger) friends and admirers and an even smaller circle of survivors from her own generation, she had dropped out of sight. Whether this constituted a withdrawal on her part (which to some degree it was) or an outright rejection by her contemporaries (which in part it also was) is a matter likely to be a subject of debate and speculation now that her life and career are up for reexamination. For all practical purposes, however, she was in the years that I knew her an “unknown” figure. She was ignored, she was unread, and she was very poor—living, as a matter of fact, largely on handouts from her friends, a few of whom had some money but most of whom were, like myself, just getting by on modest salaries and makeshift incomes. More often than not in those days she was reduced to wearing hand-me-down clothes, and she spent much of her time, especially in winter, since her house in Pennsylvania had neither central heating nor indoor plumbing, residing in one borrowed apartment after another. She was not only broke, she was broken—shattered by the vicissitudes of an unhappy life that she Was desperately attempting to come to terms with and never quite succeeding.

That she was also in those years a woman of tremendous vitality and spirit, a sparkling talker and articulate storyteller possessed of a vivid personality, an appealing sense of humor, and a genius for making herself interesting and even endearing; a woman, moreover, for whom the glamour and the hardship of the old literary life had never lost their magical spell—all of this only added to the high drama of her situation and the terrible poignancy of her shattered hopes. For make no mistake about it, it was as a failure and as a peculiarly significant failure—as a failed writer and as a failed woman—that some of us knew her in those last years. Call her, if you like, a heroine and a martyr—that, certainly, will be the approach of those now bent on enlisting Josie Herbst in their various causes—but to do so is, among much else, to sentimentalize a tragedy. It was, in any case, as an example of a certain kind of failure that we knew her, and as a failure, oddly enough, that she made her claim upon us.

In the biography that Elinor Langer has now given us—the first to be devoted to Josephine Herbst—no attempt has been made to soften this sense of failure or to shift responsibility for it onto others. Miss Langer understands very well that, whatever else may have been involved, the principal cause of Josie Herbst’s undoing was Josie Herbst herself, and she doesn’t flinch from disclosing a good deal of ugly detail—much of which will be a revelation even to those few who think they know the subject well— in the course of telling her absorbing story. There are villains in the book, and some surprising ones, too, and no shortage of mean-spirited and even horrific actions, all meticulously recounted. But it is one of the virtues of this book that its author never attempts to disguise or to mitigate the role played by Josie herself in some of the most terrible episodes of her life. Miss Langer is an unsparing writer, and a very gifted one, too, and it is a mark of her candor that the tale that is told in Josephine Herbst is almost unrelievedly grim. She not only has a keen grasp of the wretchedness that dominated so much of Josie Herbst’s life, but she has had the skill to so arrange the narrative that many of the most horrifying events are told in Josie Herbst’s own words—though not, of course, from her point of view alone. Miss Langer maintains her own authorial voice throughout, and while her sympathy for Josie Herbst is openly stated and deeply felt, in biographical matters it does not blind her—except in one outstanding regard—to her subject’s more egregious failings.

On only one issue—but one that is absolutely central to the life of Josephine Herbst —can Miss Langer be said to have failed, and failed utterly, to take hold of her subject with the requisite tough-mindedness and deal frankly with its implications. That issue is politics, about which Miss Langer appears to share so many of the illusions that disfigured Josie Herbst’s life and work that she can no more bring herself to deal with them than Josie herself could. As a result, Miss Langer is obliged to lapse into a kind of silence or else take refuge in a kind of innocence or insouciance about the one phenomenon which, more than any other, caused the woman she is writing about to become a casualty of her time. That phenomenon, of course, is Stalinism in all of its many manifestations, political and cultural. About the role of Stalinism, then, both in Josie Herbst’s life and in Elinor Langer’s book, there is much to be said, and I shall address that issue here in its appropriate place. Astonishingly, Miss Langer leaves the subject untouched Yet the life of Josephine Herbst cannot really be understood in isolation from the Stalinist ethos that shaped so crucial a part of it.

In writing about Elinor Langer’s Josephine Herbst, however, I cannot pretend to speak as a disinterested observer. I must declare my interest, which, both in relation to Josie Herbst and in regard to Miss Langer’s book, has been a very close and somewhat paradoxical one. It is not only that I knew Josie Herbst and spent a great many hours in conversation with her over a period of years, or even that I felt—despite our many differences—a deep affection for her. There is more to it than that. Shortly before her death, Josie Herbst made an arrangement with Yale University for the sale of her papers, and as a result an extensive Josephine Herbst archive was established at Yale’s Beinecke Library. At the time she made this arrangement, Josie asked me to serve as the executor of her estate in the event of her death. This I agreed to do. When she died, I therefore found myself with the sole responsibility for granting access to her papers. This meant, among other things, that no serious biography of Josephine Herbst could be written without my cooperation. Perhaps I should add that restrictions had to be placed on the papers in the interest of protecting the privacy of many living persons. All her life Josie had been a tireless correspondent. Often, especially in her later years, she made copies of her letters. In some cases her letters were later returned to her en bloc. Her correspondence with certain writers she had known—Katherine Anne Porter, for example—was copious. Friends frequently confided their innermost secrets to her; perhaps at times they even invented some for her benefit. It was not unusual for casual acquaintances, people she hardly knew but upon whom she had made an emphatic impression, to bare their souls when writing to her—especially in response to her own letters, which were often marvelous. In addition to the letters there are also notebooks. Some of these, too, deal with intimate affairs, her own and others’. Josie appears to have kept everything. The papers are voluminous. Obviously some sort of limit had to be placed on access to them, and I made certain that this would be done. I have never myself read through the entire archive; as far as I know, Miss Langer is the only person to have done so. But in the period immediately following Josie’s death I read just enough in these papers to acquire a pretty good notion of what their potential might be for causing pain, embarrassment, or worse to a great many people. I took it as part of my task as executor to ensure that this would not happen.

Exactly why Josie Herbst selected me for this task is not a question to which I can give a definitive answer. I frankly don’t know for certain. She had several friends with whom she shared political confidences (I now realize) she never shared with me; and there were others she was closer to in other ways. She certainly knew there were many political issues about which we disagreed categorically, and she was well aware, too, that there were many aspects of her life about which she had been less than candid with me. The painful truth is, she lied much and she concealed much. (But this, of course, I did not discover until after her death.) I can only assume that about the things that mattered most to her at that time she trusted my judgment, and that in any case she wanted an executor who would allow the truth to be told about her life when the time came to tell it. I think it was important to her, too, to know that her literary affairs would not fall into the hands of an academic. She had a very low opinion of the way the professors of literature were coming to deal with the writers of her generation. (Carlos Baker’s biography of Hemingway, whom she had known well in earlier years, was a particular object of scorn; she could rail about it for hours. And some of the interpretations then being made of the work of her friend Nathanael West prompted similar outbursts.) About all that, anyway, we were agreed; it was a subject we discussed many times. That -she was also fond of me I knew, and that no doubt contributed to her decision. Perhaps, being childless, she had come to think of my relation to her as somehow filial. (She was thirty-six years my senior—roughly the same age as my mother. Her first novel, Nothing Is Sacred, was published the year I was born.) As far as I know, moreover, she never spoke ill of me. This, alas, was unusual with Josie. She had a volatile temper, and was not always in control of it. She also had a nasty habit of saying—and writing-terrible things about her friends, not only those she had for some reason broken with but even some who remained close and who were important to her survival. Some of this was mere gossip and banter, but some of it was designed to cause pain and it did. Whatever the reason, I appear to have been among those exempted from this disagreeable practice. We never quarreled.

Very soon after her death I faced the first test of the trust she had placed in me. Obliged to go through the things she had left in the little stone house in Bucks County that had been her home since the Twenties—but which she had never owned—I discovered, buried under a pile of old clothes at the bottom of an ancient steamer trunk in the attic, a parcel of papers neatly wrapped in brown paper. On the outside was written, unmistakably in Josie’s own hand, the word “Destroy.” It frankly never occurred to me for a moment that I should follow this injunction, or indeed was meant to. Josie had lived in that house for forty years with a wood-burning stove in the living room, and she had ample opportunity to consign to its flames whatever papers she wished to destroy. I assumed—and Miss Langer’s biography seems to confirm—that Josie could not bring herself either to destroy or to take responsibility for preserving what this parcel contained. What it contained, as it turned out, were the letters, which had been returned to her, that chronicle one of the key episodes of her life. This was the love affair with another woman, Marion Greenwood, that led directly to the breakup of Josie’s marriage to John Herrmann—an event that had caused her the deepest unhappiness of her life, and from which in fact she never recovered.

These letters proved to be important in another respect. For they did much, though far from everything, to explain one of the mysteries of Josie’s later years: why it was that, despite years of work on what she well understood was the best writing she had ever done in her life and the strong and repeated encouragement of her friends—Saul Bellow and Alfred Kazin, among them— Josie could never bring her own volume of memoirs to completion. She had a publisher ready to produce the book, and everyone who read the completed portions of it expected it to be a masterpiece—her first, by the way. Yet it was never finished, and I now realize that there was never any possibility of its being finished. For Josie could never deal with either the sexual or the political events that had destroyed her life, and neither could she deny them. But on this matter, too, I shall have more to say here in the appropriate place. Like so much else in Josie Herbst’s life, it brings us back to the ugly issue of Stalinism, which came to play an important role in her marriage, in its breakup, and in the life she lived thereafter.[2]

She was born in Sioux City, Iowa, on March 5, 1892. (The year is worth noting, for beginning in the Twenties Josie gave 1897 as the date of her birth.) Her parents were poor, respectable, small-town people who had migrated to Iowa from their native Pennsylvania with two baby daughters. Josie’s father, who had a farm implement business that failed, was amiable but unambitious. Her mother, whom Josie adored, was a more spirited character, interested in reading and an avid storyteller herself, and never quite reconciled to life in the Iowa provinces. It was from the stories that she told of her family and its travails that Josie drew much of the material for her fiction.

Josie was the first of the Herbst daughters to be born in Iowa. Her younger sister Helen followed three years later, and they both grew up sharing their mother’s contempt for Iowa and its benighted ways. Like a good many American writers of her generation who came out of the Middle West, Josie had determined from an early age to leave it. But this was not a mission easily accomplished. Lacking money, she was in and out of college for eight years, working at one small-town job or another to pay for her education, and desperately lonely and unhappy the whole time. She first attended Morningside College while living at home, then the University of Iowa and the University of Washington until, at the age of twenty-five, she made it to Berkeley, where she graduated from the University of California in 1918.

She seems always to have wanted to be a writer, and it was at Berkeley that she was first encouraged in that ambition by one of her professors. It was there, too, that for the first time she found a radical milieu hospitable to her own rebellious spirit. “I always knew,” Josie wrote her mother at this time, “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.”

Nothing Josie did with her friends in San Francisco [writes Miss Langer] seems very remarkable now. They listened to speeches and climbed Mount Tamalpais and shared festive bohemian dinners ... or just sat around ... arguing about the war and capitalism and wondering what was going to happen next.

All the same, it marked the real beginning— a late, hard-won beginning—of Josie’s adult life, and not only because of what it contributed to her political or literary outlook. “For the first time in her life,” writes Miss Langer, “she was comfortable with men.”

Despite this initiation into radical bohemia, however, Josie had still never had a real love affair when she arrived in New York in the fall of 1919, and it was never her fate to be lucky in love. When she did have her first affair, she was twenty-eight years old, and it ended badly. Her lover was Maxwell Anderson, who was later to achieve renown as a playwright but who was then an editorial writer for the Globe, a New York newspaper. The problem was, he was married. It was through his wife, in fact, that Josie had met him soon after arriving in New York. For him the affair was a diversion and he soon ended it, but for Josie it was love. When, after the breakup, she discovered she was pregnant, she wanted to have the baby, but Anderson opposed it and persuaded her to have an abortion. It was a decision she bitterly regretted.

The novel that Josie afterwards wrote about this experience—it was never published, or indeed publishable—was pretty grim, a tale in the Dreiserian mode, but the real life story had an epilogue that even Dreiser might have hesitated to write. As she was recovering from the abortion, Josie was suddenly bombarded with appeals from her beloved younger sister. Like Josie, Helen had been determined to get out of Sioux City, but she hadn’t yet made it. She had married her Sioux City boyfriend, who shared her worldly ambitions—he was later to have a distinguished career as a news paper editor—and they had been desperately saving money to make their getaway. But now she found she was pregnant and she didn’t want to have the baby. It would ruin their lives, she thought. Josie thought so, too, and so without ever disclosing to her sister (or to almost anyone else) the nature of the ordeal she had just been through herself, she encouraged Helen to have an abortion. Helen did, and she died as a result.

Overcome by guilt and remorse, Josie suffered something of a breakdown in the aftermath of her sister’s death, and while she eventually pulled herself together it was an event that had a permanent—and damaging—effect on her life. Miss Langer is right, I think, in observing that “when [Josie] lost Helen she lost part of herself and the most important relationships of the rest of her life were attempts in one way or another to bring her sister back.” But there is more to it than that. For what this whole episode revealed was a fundamental fissure in Josie Herbst’s character—a refusal of honesty and responsibility that turned out to be one of the deepest things about her. This was the hardest thing for Josie’s friends to come to terms with after her death. It was certainly the hardest for me, especially since her whole personal style—both in private conversation and in her extraordinary letters— gave the impression of achieving a degree of candor and self-revelation that was both unusual and exemplary. The mask—or what Miss Langer calls the “performance"—was so appealing that many of her friends have to this day refused to abandon their belief in it, preferring the fiction to the reality. And so great is their need to believe in that mask —for it is now theirs as well—that I doubt if even the revelations of Miss Langer’s biography will do much to modify it.

Despite the ordeals that Josie suffered in New York in the early Twenties, it was there that her literary career began in earnest, and there too that she became an active participant in the literary-radical-bohemian world which remained her spiritual home for the rest of her life. In 1920 she landed a job with H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan—not, by the way, on the Smart Set, but working on some of the “sleazier publications,” as Miss Langer correctly calls them, which they were also producing at that time. This led to the publication of her fiction in the Smart Set, and won her Mencken’s support when she later tried to find a publisher for her novel about the Anderson affair. Her friends in this period included Genevieve Taggard, Mike Gold, Joseph Freeman, Floyd Dell, Jessica Smith, Alex Gumberg, Max Eastman, and Albert Rhys Williams, all of whom were already ardent and active supporters of the Bolshevik Revolution. When she went to Europe in the spring of 1922, having saved enough money for the trip, she spent the summer traveling with Eastman and Williams, who then went on to Moscow while Josie herself settled in Berlin. There she remained for the better part of two years, working on the novel that she hadn’t quite finished when she went off to Paris and met John Herrmann—“a young and beautiful boy,” as she described him to Genevieve Taggard—with whom she instantly fell in love.

Herrmann was twenty-three; Josie was thirty-two, but passing for twenty-seven. He was extremely good-looking; she had never been beautiful. Like herself, he had just spent two years in Germany—in his case, Munich, where he had gone to study art history but where he had devoted himself instead to working on a novel. They were both Mid-westerners. He was from Lansing, Michigan, the son of a prosperous, straight-laced businessman with whom he could not get along and not quite get along without. John was weak, and Josie was strong. He was also already an alcoholic. On the day she was introduced to him at the Café du Dome in Montparnasse, he was suffering from a severe hangover. “Everything that was true when they parted,” Miss Langer writes, “was true when they met. Josie was ambitious and John was not ambitious, he preferred the company of the cafes and she preferred the solitude of the typewriter, he had confidence in his charm but not in his book and she had confidence in her book but not in her charm. But what became difficult oppositions when things were dissolving between them were magnetizing complements at the time they began.”

In France their whirlwind romance had been an idyll of sorts, but when they returned to the United States, which they promptly did, there was trouble, of course. John was still dependent on his despised parents. He was also an incorrigible womanizer—he seems never to have been faithful to Josie for very long. What Josie wanted most was for them to live in rural Connecticut, near writer-friends of hers, where they would live simply and work on their books. She was nothing if not determined to have her way. The only obstacle was money, and she solved that problem by blackmailing Maxwell Anderson, whose love letters she had kept. Miss Langer doesn’t use that ugly word, but that is what it came to—and John knew all about it. It was not, perhaps, the soundest basis for a serene relationship.

Off they went, then, to a small farmhouse in New Preston, Connecticut, in the fall of 1925. Josie afterwards called this period “The Hour of Counterfeit Bliss,” and it was undoubtedly the happiest time in her life. But it was soon over. John’s mother got wind of the fact that her son was living in sin, and she hired a private detective to investigate. As a result, since John could not resist the pressures of his family and there was always the hope of getting some money out of them, he was forced into marrying Josie. This was not what they had planned on doing. Josie always spoke of it, with varying degrees of humor, resentment, or sarcasm, as her “shotgun marriage"—though in truth, she wanted very much to be married to John Herrmann. And the hope of getting some money out of it was not unfounded—though, like everything else, this, too, didn’t turn out as they had hoped. John’s parents were persuaded to put up twenty-five hundred dollars for the old stone house in Bucks County that Josie wanted to buy—she had found it, as Miss Langer writes, in “the eastern Pennsylvania countryside she had been hearing about from her mother all her life”—but John’s father kept the deed in his own name. That house was to be the only home Josie had for the rest of her life, but it was never her house, and she had to fight hard to remain in it after the marriage had dissolved.

Still, they were together and they were living the literary life they wanted. In 1927, just before they moved to Pennsylvania, John’s novel, What Happens, was published by Robert McAlmon in Paris, and it was refused entry into the United States on grounds of obscenity. (Morris Ernst took the case, and lost.) Josie’s first published novel, Nothing Is Sacred, followed in 1928. Hemingway and Ring Lardner provided the blurbs, and Ford Madox Ford and Katherine Anne Porter reviewed it favorably. Josie and John were both publishing in the magazines, too, though she more than he, and among the visitors they welcomed to Pennsylvania were Malcolm Cowley and Kenneth Burke. They spent some time with Hemingway in Key West.

By that time, however, they were being drawn into the political movement that came to play a dominant role in their lives. In 1930, at the suggestion of Mike Gold, they went to Russia to attend the International Congress of Revolutionary Writers in Kharkov. Miss Langer describes this trip as “More of a lark than a pilgrimage,” but “lark” doesn’t strike one as quite the mot juste for it. In any case, John emerged from the experience a complete convert to Communism and a dedicated supporter of the Soviet Union. Josie, though she expressed private doubts (as she always would), was also enthusiastic. “Perhaps as early as 19 31 he joined the Communist Party,” writes Miss Langer. “It was something that Josie never did.”

She was still primarily a writer; John was now less interested in literature than in political action. Josie’s response to the political atmosphere was to re-interpret the story of her family’s history in Marxist terms, and this is what she did in the trilogy of novels that was her main work of the Thirties—Pity Is Not Enough (1933), The Executioner Waits (1934), and Rope of Gold (1939). John’s response, in the beginning at least, was to become a public speaker for Communist Party causes, but before long he was drawn into the Communist underground where, if the word of his widow Ruth Herrmann is to be believed, he achieved the historic distinction of being the man who introduced Whittaker Chambers to Alger Hiss.

Before that fateful drama was enacted, however, another, more personal crisis had intervened to shatter what remained of their disintegrating marriage. Josie met Marion Greenwood. In the summer of 1932 Josie was at the Yaddo colony in Saratoga Springs by herself. John had taken her there, and then gone on to Michigan for the summer. Marion Greenwood, a young painter, very talented and very beautiful, arrived at the colony soon after Josie, and Josie fell madly in love with her. Josie had had romantic attachments to other women, but nothing like this. The affair that ensued quite swept her off her feet, and she was tenacious about keeping it going. And as it progressed she still harbored the illusion that she could keep her marriage going too. Toward this end she contrived to bring John into the affair after her term at Yaddo was over. The three of them went off to Mexico together where Josie and John took turns, as it were, as Marion’s lovers. It couldn’t last, and it didn’t. As sexually susceptible and as weak-willed as John was, he was clearly humiliated by the whole sordid experience, and he took off. In a panic, Josie chose her husband over her lover. She still couldn’t believe her marriage was coming to an end—that, in fact, it was over. She clung to John as long as she could, but it was soon over, anyway.

Politically, the issue that most excited them in this period was the effort of the Communist Party to organize the farmers— to organize them, it is worth remembering, against the policies of the New Deal. John was much involved in this effort, and Josie wrote about it for the New Masses. “For Josie,” Miss Langer writes, “it was not only her moment of greatest identification with the farmers but of consonance with the Communist Party ‘line.’” For John, it proved to be his ticket to the Communist underground. In 1934 he was summoned to Washington by Hal Ware, who presided over the special underground operation which Chambers, among others, was already serving. When Josie followed John to Washington, still hoping for a reconciliation, she lived in his apartment, and was thus in a position to know something—if not everything—about the secret Party work that John was engaged in. She knew Hal Ware, she knew Whittaker Chambers, and she knew at least enough about what they were doing to disapprove of it and ridicule it. Which was not, to say the least, the way to John’s heart at that moment, but she did it anyway—and not because she disagreed with Party policy, but ostensibly because she considered the work ineffective (or so Miss Langer suggests). I think the real reason she disapproved was that she feared that she was losing John to his new involvement in the Party underground—which-she was, and in more than one. sense. For the woman John married after he finally broke with Josie and with whom he was already involved was his confidante in Party activities. (It was she, forty years later, who told Elinor Langer that John had introduced Chambers to Hiss over a lunch in Washington in 1934.) One of the things that Josie knew, too—it may have been the only important thing she ever knew about the whole operation—was that Alger Hiss was somehow involved.

It was this knowledge that placed Josie, at the time of the Hiss case, in a position to change the course of history by revealing what she knew, but she never did. Out of her loyalty to the Left and out of her loyalty to John—with the passage of time, these became virtually identical in her mind—she not only didn’t speak up, but she offered her services to the Hiss defense lawyers. (She also lied a good deal to the FBI, and sent word to John, who had fled to Mexico, about what she had said.) Being a true believer in the ideals of the Left, she proved to be something of an embarrassment to Hiss’s lawyers, however. She urged them to encourage Hiss to speak up in court by defending his political beliefs, which she knew to be Communist. But this, of course, would have identified Hiss as a Communist, and it was the whole point of the Hiss defense to deny that he had ever been one.[3] Yet she went along with that, too, and kept her silence— and at considerable personal cost to herself, for Chambers had already given her name, as well as John’s, to the FBI, and she was frequently interrogated on the matter. This was no doubt one of the things that led to the denial of a passport when she applied for one in the Fifties.

There is much more to Josie Herbst’s story, of course—the trips to Cuba, Germany, and Spain in the Thirties; the job she took with the Government in Washington after the United States entered the Second World War, and the reason she was fired from it; the breakup of her long friendship with Katherine Anne Porter, and the reasons for that; and the affair with the poet Jean Garrigue that was even more disastrous and far more protracted than the affair with Marion Greenwood—and Miss Langer has told it all very vividly. Yet there is a sense in which it can truly be said that Josie Herbst’s life came to an end when John Herrmann walked out of it for the last time, and that what remained in all her later years was a half-life of shadows and chimeras, of concealments and denials and lost hopes, which, though she no longer had the power, for the most part, to turn them into effective literary fictions, she became more and more adept at transforming into a fictional personality for herself, the dazzling mask that enchanted so many of her friends. Only once, in my own acquaintance with Josie, was I ever given a glimpse of the ravaged spirit that the mask so effectively concealed. I had been spending the weekend at the house in Pennsylvania, ostensibly to talk over the manuscript of the memoirs on which she was working. It was clear to me that she was stymied—I thought, of course, temporarily—and she talked about some of the reasons why she was having so much trouble writing this book. Lack of money, lack of time, problems with the house, distractions of every kind—as the litany continued, I could see that even she wasn’t convinced by what she was saying, though her life was anything but comfortable or serene. Just before I left—we were standing in the doorway, about to walk down to the car—I said to her: “Josie, you must finish it. Why can’t you finish it?” To my astonishment, she cried out: “It’s John, I can’t deal with John!” And she was so overcome with fits of sobbing that it took some time, and some drinks, before she could pull herself together. All I knew about John then was that he had left her for another woman. I knew nothing about his involvement with Hiss and Chambers and Hal Ware—or Josie’s, for that matter. I knew nothing about Marion Greenwood. But from that moment on I was never as confident as I had been that the memoirs would ever be finished.

What few of Josie’s friends in her later years understood, I think—and it may be that Miss Langer doesn’t quite grasp it, either, though she provides ample evidence for it—is the degree to which Josie’s experience as a woman, especially the experiences that she initiated, together with the passions and dishonesties that marked her political life, and the effort involved in concealing, for so much of the time, the true nature of both, had the effect of brutalizing her personality. There was a streak of sheer ruthlessness and brute callousness in her personality that is as observable in her personal relations, especially in her relations with her lovers, as it is in her politics, and it would be a mistake to think that politics was responsible for what finally must be regarded as a defect of character. Politics does not account for her role in Helen’s death, for the blackmailing of Maxwell Anderson, or for the way she corrupted—there is no other word for it—her own beloved husband in the Marion Greenwood affair. All her life she was drawn to weak, vulnerable, romantic men and women, whose lives she hoped to overwhelm and control, and she could never quite understand why it was that in the end they always fled.

Yet, if politics does not explain Josie Herbst’s character, it nonetheless contributed much to the brutalization I speak of. Which brings us to the question of Stalinism, and its role in Josie’s life. It is in the nature of Stalinism for its adherents to make a certain kind of lying—and not only to others, but first of all to themselves—a fundamental part of their lives. It is always a mistake to assume that Stalinists do not know the truth about the political reality they espouse. If they don’t know the truth (or all of it) one day, they know it the next, and it makes absolutely no difference to them politically. For their loyalty is to something other than the truth. And no historical enormity is so great, no personal humiliation or betrayal so extreme, no crime so heinous, that it cannot be assimilated into the “ideals” that govern the true Stalinist mind, which is impervious alike to documentary evidence and moral discrimination.

Was Josie Herbst a true Stalinist? Despite all the reservations and criticisms she voiced in private and despite her many disagreements with the Communist Party and its policies, I think it must be said that for the most part she was. That wasn’t all she was, of course, but in a large part of her mind for an important part of her life she was, all the same. The slaughter of the peasants in Stalin’s collectivization campaign, the Moscow trials, the Great Terror and the Hitler-Stalin pact, not to mention a great many later developments in the post-World War II period—however much she may have suffered over them, she nonetheless swallowed them. There was a lot she choked on, but in the end she swallowed it all. Which is why she remained “loyal” in the Hiss case, and in many lesser causes as well. Whatever she disapproved or regretted or even disavowed— Miss Langer cites many instances, and I could describe others—was always done privately, and never where it would make any difference, and always subsumed under the comforting and exonerating rubric of “What went wrong?” There was never an acknowledgement—even privately, as far as I know —that it was the whole political outlook that was wrong. There was no conception of how evil it all was.

It was the process of brutalization that resulted from all this, I believe, that first confused and then immobilized her as a writer once the audience ready to embrace radical certainties evaporated from the literary scene in the Forties. When she started to write again in the Fifties, it was in a very different mode—a mode of Proustian reminiscence in which the old certainties were dissolved in an evocation of cherished experience. In the memoirs even the most painful memories of the past are, so to speak, aesthetized in a style that Josie would have been incapable of commanding in the heyday of her radical involvement and personal rebellion. Upon this whole later phase of her literary work there is to be found, I believe, the influence of Jean Garrigue—the poet she met (again at Yaddo) in the winter of 1949-50, and with whom she promptly fell in love —and the influence of Jean Garrigue’s literary tastes. Jean Garrigue had no interest in politics, no interest in social issues, no interest in anything having to do with the radical movement that had shaped Josie’s adult life. She was a romantic aesthete, a lyrical poet of considerable delicacy and nuance whose interests were mainly confined to artistic and amatory experience. In all personal matters she was completely irresponsible, and she and Josie managed to cause each other a great deal of pain .over the long course of their stormy attachment, but in literary matters Jean’s influence proved, I think, to be decisive in the way Josie now conceived of writing her reminiscences. It is precisely their “aesthetic” character that sets them apart from all her earlier writing.

Yet there were some experiences that resisted this new mode of Proustian reminiscence, and they turned out to be the most crucial. The central emotional crisis of Josie Herbst’s life was so intimately connected with its central political loyalty that there was no way of separating them. In the end, the late-blooming aesthetic writer of the memoirs lost out to the vanquished, silent survivor of the Thirties.

Josie Herbst’s death in January 1969 came at a moment when events in the world of both politics and culture were swiftly bringing in their wake a significant change in attitude toward the radical movement of the Thirties. The emergence of the New Left in response to the Vietnam war and the accompanying eruption of a vigorous anti-government, anti-middle-class counterculture had the effect of casting even the most extreme Stalinist positions of Thirties radicalism in a new and more favorable light. Actions and beliefs which had long been regarded as morally repugnant because of their abject subservience to the interests of the Soviet Union and which, as we know, in some notable cases had led to spying and espionage, began to enjoy the benefit of a sweeping revisionism. Liberals who had once known better, or seemed to, now either tempered or abandoned their opposition to radical militancy, as liberals generally do when the tide is running in favor of the radical position. Even in the ranks of the most stalwart anti-Stalinist intellectuals there were some notable defections—such as Dwight Macdonald’s and Philip Rahv’s—to this revival of the radical dream. All of this made it possible for Stalinists who had survived the debacle of the Thirties and the investigations of the Fifties to come forward once again to bask in the rosy glow of yet another (promised) red dawn. As the call to revolution beckoned the young and the revivified romance of the Left renewed the celebrity of aging radicals, a kind of sainthood began to be conferred upon almost anyone who had once been identified with Stalinist causes and had not at any time publically repudiated them.

Josie Herbst died just a little too soon to reap the full benefit of this historic reversal in her lifetime. By the late Sixties, when the new revisionism was beginning to acquire some real momentum and influence, she was too ill, too weak, too demoralized, and too scattered in her efforts to do much more than act as an interested but ineffectual wit ness to its development. That she welcomed it there can be no doubt. But at the time she was extremely discreet, if not actually devious, in what she said about it and to whom. To friends like myself, whom she knew to be unsympathetic to the radical cause, she often voiced skeptical and even critical views of its conduct. Without exactly denying her loyalty to the radical position—something she would never bring herself to do—she could nonetheless be quite vehement in her criticism of the actions and attitudes it was then engendering. Yet in speaking or writing to dedicated radicals or those she hoped to convert to the radical cause, she was even more vehement and a lot less guarded in her expressions of support. It is possible, of course, that this zigzag course reflected a genuinely divided attitude on her part, but I doubt if that was really the case. Elinor Langer’s biography leaves little room for doubt in this matter.

Josie had been dead a very short time when I began receiving inquiries about the Yale archive. Given the political temper of the time, I naturally expected that any new interest in Josie would focus on whatever reputation she had as a radical and, more specifically, on her contribution to the so-called “proletarian” novel in the Thirties. But at the outset this was not usually the case. Most of the inquiries came from graduate students who had little or no acquaintance with the novels Josie had published between 1928 and 1947. Often these students did not even know what she had written. Some may have read an installment or two of the published memoirs. Others, to my astonishment, had read nothing by her. They had simply been given her name as a possible subject for research by faculty advisors who themselves knew little more about her than that she had once been associated with some famous writers—Hemingway, Dos Passos, et al.—in the Twenties and Thirties. Unembarrassed by their ignorance, most of these students were frankly fishing for “original” documents—letters, manuscripts, etc.—that might be turned into thesis material, and they weren’t going to do any unnecessary reading until they knew what they had. They seemed to have no larger literary or intellectual interests, or indeed to have read anything that had not been assigned to them in a course. As kindly as I could, I told them that they would first have to read Josie’s published work, which included short stories, essays, and a good deal of journalism in addition to the books, and then come back with more specific requests. The majority of them were never heard from again. It was all a ghastly confirmation of Josie’s worst fears about the fate of literature in the academy.

Of the people who contacted me about Josie Herbst in the years immediately following her death, the most serious were the young women—there were never more than a few of them—who had come to their interest in her through an involvement in and partial disenchantment with the radical movement of the Sixties, an experience that had somehow led to a rediscovery of her novels. It was very much as a woman and as a radical that Josie interested them. This was the first indication I was given that Josie’s posthumous reputation, if she was to have one, would owe something—I had no idea then how much—to the feminist movement, and specifically to that branch of it in which the residue of Sixties radicalism was quickly finding a home. (For what it is worth, the unserious applicants were all men.) Obviously these young women had been moved —in a way, it must be said, that I had never been—by the portrayal of female experience in the novels and by the sensibility of the female radical who had written them. This response inevitably prompted an interest in Josie herself, for virtually all of her fiction is transparently autobiographical in one degree or another. It didn’t take long, moreover, to discover that Josie had herself been a far more compelling character than any she created in her fiction, and this, in turn, led to expressions of interest in writing her biography.

This, more or less, is how Elinor Langer came to write the biography that has now been published nearly a dozen years after she first contacted me, and how I came to play a role of sorts in its preparation. Miss Langer gives an account of how she came to the subject in the very first chapter of the book:

In 1973, when I first heard of Josephine Herbst, I was living by myself in a small town in Vermont and teaching at a small college ... yet what I appeared to be doing and what I was doing were two different things because, like so many people I knew then, I was in retreat from the radical movement of the 1960s, and in reality I was spending most of my time mulling over what had happened to the movement, and to myself, and why . . . . [T]o the extent that it was possible in my immediate circumstances I included in my brooding and my browsing as much of the literature of the 1930s as I was able to find—something I had always done, more or less, because the 1930s had felt like family history to me even before the “New Left” was born, hut which I now pursued with a greater urgency than ever before. On a visit to Chicago, in a secondhand bookstore, on a shelf labeled “Marxism,” I found a collection of essays by participants in the events of the 1930s called As We Saw the Thirties, and I bought it as a matter of course. The essay on literature had been written by Granville Hicks, and in it... was a small, inviting reference to a trilogy by Josephine Herbst. Not much ... but it was enough to send me to the university library the following morning and home with the novels [Pity Is Not Enough, The Executioner Waits, and Rope of Gold] that very day.

My notes from my first reading of the trilogy are a cross between a sigh of relief and a shout of joy: as if I were a traveler who had somehow gotten detached from my party, and Josephine Herbst were the rescuer sent out to bring me home.... The decades between when the trilogy was written and when I was reading it simply fell away from me as I held it in my hands and I felt as if a conversation brusquely terminated with the turn of the 1970s had suddenly been renewed .... Of my literary reactions I was far less certain.

Whatever her disappointments with the radical movement of the Sixties may have been, Miss Langer emerged from the experience with a good many of her radical pieties intact, and it was clearly in the interest of vindicating them, as well as of attempting to gain a greater understanding of them, that she was drawn to the subject of Josephine Herbst in the first place. In this respect, as in others, her book is very much a product of the cultural ethos of the Seventies. For one of the least examined aspects of the political and cultural history of the Seventies may be found in the widespread effort that began to be made in that decade to justify the spirit of the radical movement of the Sixties, its failures no less than its successes, by rewriting the history of the Thirties. In attributing all manner of innocence and idealism to Thirties radicalism, even in its most blatantly Stalinist manifestations, and by minimizing, if not actually obliterating, all trace of its evil consequences, this revisionist historiography succeeded in exonerating Sixties radicalism, too, of its worst elements. This impulse certainly plays a large role in the book that Elinor Langer has spent a decade writing, and there can be no doubt that her book belongs to this literature of exoneration.

That it has also turned out to be something more than that is a tribute to Miss Langer’s honesty about and understanding of Josie Herbst’s character and the nature of her personal tragedy. A radical feminist herself, at least when she began to work on this book, Miss Langer had clearly intended to cast Josie in the role of a radical feminist heroine, but it couldn’t be done. All the evidence—mostly, of course, Josie’s own evidence—defeated the idea, and Miss Langer found herself obliged to portray a very different figure. This will not prevent others from drafting Josie Herbst’s life into the service of feminist causes, now that the life itself has been so meticulously documented. Ideology, when sufficiently motivated, has a way of overlooking obstructive truths. But Miss Langer, anyway, has escaped most, if not quite all, of the temptations to give ideology priority over truth in this matter.

The same, alas, cannot be said about Miss Langer’s handling, or mishandling, of the role of Stalinism in Josie Herbst’s life and work. In this matter Josephine Herbst does indeed belong to the literature of exoneration. To the whole question of Stalinism and its place in Josie’s life Miss Langer devotes exactly one footnote and little more. The footnote (on page 199) reads as follows:

I have frequently been asked during the course of this Work whether or not Josie was a “Stalinist” and there are those who believe, primarily on the basis of her connection with the Communist Party during this period, that she was. If her relationship to the American Communist Party and in turn its relationship to the Soviet Union automatically makes her a Stalinist, so be it, but for her long record of independent thought and action—albeit in association with the Communist Patty—for my part I find “Stalinism” not only a meaningless, but, indeed, a misleading description.

One could write a lengthy dissertation on the implications of this footnote, and it would begin with an examination of exactly what is meant by its reference to Josie’s “long record of independent thought and action—albeit in association with the Communist Party.” Albeit, indeed. As if the Communist Party had ever, in Josie Herbst’s lifetime, accorded a place for independent thought and action in its programs or policies or in the use it made of writers like Josie! There were, as I have noted, many instances in which Josie criticized the Party and opposed its course of action. But when she was overruled and told, in effect, to shut up, she shut up and she stayed shut up, however much she may have suffered in the process. One wonders if Miss Langer really understands what the word “independent” means in this context.

The sad truth is that Miss Langer cannot deal with the issue of Stalinism and the history that lies behind it. Even on the question of Alger Hiss’s guilt, though the evidence— especially Ruth Herrmann’s revelation of John Herrmann’s role in introducing Hiss to Chambers in 1934—has obliged her to agree that Hiss was indeed lying and that he was working for the Communist underground, just as Chambers claimed, she still cannot quite face the basic truth of the matter. Hiss even lied to her about John Herrmann, as she candidly reports in her book, and yet she goes on to write about the case as follows:

The Hiss case is one of the greatest miasmas of American politics .... There are no arguments which have not been shaken, there is no evidence which has not been obfuscated, there have been no sentences either uttered or written that have not been parsed into nonsense.

Now this is simply not true. Despite massive and protracted legal attempts to have Hiss’s conviction for perjury reversed, the verdict has stuck because the evidence could not— despite Hiss’s best efforts—be obfuscated. It has withstood every challenge. To write about the Hiss case in this manner is not an attempt to deal with the historical truth— never mind the moral truth—but an attempt to escape it.

And this, finally, is what Elinor Langer attempts to do with the whole question of Stalinism, both in Josie Herbst’s life and in itself—escape it. To have faced it, I suppose, would have meant facing something in her own radical past that she has not yet come to terms with. And so, in yet another genera tion of disenchanted but nonetheless loyal radicals, the posture of innocence is invoked as a screen against the political realities of our time. It is sad to see this perpetuated in a new generation of writers—and especially in a writer as good as Elinor Langer —but that too, I am afraid, must be counted as an important part of the legacy that Josephine Herbst’s silence has bequeathed us.

 

  1. Josephine Herbst by Elinor Langer. Atlantic Monthly Press/Little, Brown; 374 pages, $19.95. Go back to the text.
  2. The three published sections of the memoirs are: “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). Go back to the text.
  3. Allen Weinstein’s Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case (Alfred A. Knopf, 1978) was the first work to provide a detailed account of Josie’s role in the case. Go back to the text.

Hilton Kramer (1928-2012) was the founding editor of The New Criterion, which he started with the late Samuel Lipman in 1982.


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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 3 September 1984, on page 1

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