In its first half, as a collection of four essays, one never before published and two among the more famous items in The Noble Savage (Saul Bellow and co.'s first magazine project) and a third appearing in New American Review several years later (the Savage having been tamed into folding early on), this book can be frustrating even as it's rather easy to read. Josephine Herbst was a woman with a passion to write and a passion for justice, and one who had a sensible, nagging dissatisfaction with the log-rolling and willful blindness that being a member of any sort of Movement can require...at least, if one is going to have an easy time of it. The larger sense of the frustration is perhaps unfair--when she glosses quickly over her interactions with many of the most clangorous writers of the 1920s (young Katherine Anne Porter, Ezra Pound, Ford Madox Ford, et al.), or her work with H. L. Mencken at The Smart Set or on unnamed pulp magazines (for all we are allowed to know, possibly including Black Mask) to get to an extended reminiscence of an end of summer sailing trip along the Maine coast, she is writing about what she wants to write about, and what was most important to her about the incompletely liberating young adulthood that had followed a good but not altogether pleasant childhood, one which had prepared her at least with desire to go forth and Do Great Things beyond the standard domestic life of Mid-American women of her time. (We learn that she was in university for three years before completely leaving her family's home, and that she spent time in France and Germany apparently in the '20s, but little more than that.) Rather less unfair is noting overindulgence in what Twain or Borges would call "Fine Writing," particularly in the first, unpublished essay, where a man's suspenders remind her of ladders and various colored stains are cited to no great end on a collection of her mother's correspondence...which much build-up is given about how Herbst dreaded and craved unsuspected revelations when she read the letters after her mother's death, but that thread of the narrative is almost immediately dropped, with not even a "ah, well, that turned out not to be the case" or something similar, as she moves onto other relatively quotidian matters. There is perhaps a reason no one chose to publish the first essay before the book's appearance, even though it does give an excellent sense of the time, just after the turn of the 20th Century, and the detailed account of a family vacation to visit the Pacific Ocean, for the Nebraska girl and her extended family, reminded me of similar passages in the autobiography of science fiction writer Jack Williamson, who had famously moved house as a child with his family via Conestoga wagon at about the same time. The practical feminism and unwillingness to accept the unacceptable her mother imbues her and her younger sister with is not the least of the gifts she's given in those years. She does very much get across the sense of how thrilling it was to see so many of her friends and peers energized by the new trends in literary and other arts, even when, for example, it was clear that some of the contributors to transition, the most famous of avant garde little magazines of the time, were simply aping the Joyce prose their work was published alongside. (And how it seemed both amusing and simply sensible that she and her peers might turn from writing something challenging for This Quarter or transition and then turn, without moderating their voices too terribly much, to work for such far more establishmentarian magazines as The Dial or American Mercury.)
The latter two essays deal more with her adult experiences as a political radical and someone trying to do well with her art, while not choosing to write intentional propaganda, nor willing to parrot that which she is being instructed to say or write by those who Know Better, get to the heart of their matters more consistently and tellingly. You knew that Ernest Hemingway was a pampered jackass (full stop) during his sojourn in the Spanish Civil War, literally feasting and partying while the Spaniards around him and not a few of the various temporary emigres were starving and rather more abruptly dying while actually conducting the war against Franco's Carlist, Fascist and related insurgents, and if you didn't, you need to read the title essay. Herbst and her ex-husband had taken the kind of eye-opening trip Emma Goldman had not enjoyed decades previously to the USSR under the Leninists, and now the Stalinists by the time of Hebst's visit, and how (as Bakunin had put it back in his arguments with Marx) beating the people with the people's stick was not only visited on the Russian and other Soviet peoples but to those who sought to further the supposed champions of the proletariat. While they were in the orbit of the likes of Whittaker Chambers in the 1930s, and how that affected her attempt to do her part in US government work during World War II.
Herbst was an interesting figure and doesn't spare herself much as she recalls the keys events (and not so key ones, except to her personally) that were not only important to the cultural but the political tumult of her century, and her capacity to refuse to blindly commit to any cause is admirable...this imperfect book is yet another unfairly obscure at the present, in part because it will tweak both discredited and entirely too robust (Papa Hemingway cultism) causes she had a better opportunity to observe than nearly anyone else.
For more of today's books, please see Patti Abbott's blog.