This tribute to Josephine Herbst was read at a memorial service held at St. Luke’s Chapel in New York on February 18.
There are people who knew Josie longer than I did, and are better qualified to speak of her, and for her many friends, than I am. I met her early in 1950, a time when she had already endured many disappointments as a writer and as an American radical, and when she was already caught up in the long hard struggle for survival that was to end only in the early hours of January 28th. The nineteen years in which I knew her were years of great poverty, great isolation, often of humiliating frustration and silence. So I cannot speak, as others could directly, of the spunky and brilliantly independent girl from Sioux City who typically enough went off to Berkeley for an A.B. as if college were a romantic adventure—and, the year after, took the life-long adventure that was already herself to New York, where she read for George Jean Nathan and H. L. Mencken on The Smart Set and began to form those friendships with writers for which she had, unlike many writers, a special and enduring genius.
Nor can I speak directly here of her creative beginnings—of how, in 1921 she went to Europe, as so many writers of her marvelous generation did, without quite knowing how she would live, yet typically got right into the heat of things, political and literary, in Weimar Germany. I cannot speak here directly of Josie in the Twenties, when she was so much a part of the new American writing that was emerging in Paris with her friend Hemingway, or of Josie in the early Thirties, when she found expression for all her burning old-fashioned American idealism in identifying herself with, in being right on the spot as a correspondent to report, what then still seemed the old-fashioned Russian idealism, the Negro boys from Scottsboro, the struggling farmers from her native Iowa. She was with Dreiser and Dos Passos when they went down to investigate the terror against the striking Kentucky miners, with the Cuban peasants during the 1935 general strike, with the first victims of Hitler’s terror in those years of the Thirties, before the war, when apparently it took a Socialist experience and imagination to guess the potential horror of what so many bourgeois German Jews could not.
In 1937 Josie was, of course, in Spain to cover the Spanish Civil War—and she was really there, steeped in the life of the frontline villages and, typically enough, getting desperately needed rations for her fellow correspondents in the Hotel Florída from her always well-stocked friend Hemingway, from whose room the smell of frying bacon and other goodies would drive less fortunate writers crazy. And during the Second World War, Josie, who needed the job desperately, was of course fired from the O.W.I., then busily mobilizing American opinion against Fascism, for having been a premature anti-Fascist.
As I say, I did not know her then—I met her only in 1950, when her books were all out of print, when she was out of a job, out of cash, out of fashion, and might have been out of a home if it hadn’t been for that blessed stone house in Erwinna—surely one of the few writers’ residences in Bucks County still dependent on an outhouse. Pauline Pfeiffer, Hemingway’s second wife, said to me in Key West, talking about Josie’s plight with a shudder—“A woman shouldn’t be that poor.” But she was, and every friend of Josie’s knows how tough it was for her up to the end.
Yet—and this is what I have come here to say—I have never known in my life any other writer who was so solid, so joyous, so giving, who was able to take difficulties so much in her stride, and, who even when she was getting pretty old and sick, made you see that flaming girl from Sioux City and Berkeley and New York, Germany and Russia and Cuba and Spain, who was always getting mad about injustice and pompous stupidity, always radiating that marvelous sense of physical space and human possibility that was the gift of the Middle West to so many writers of her generation.
Josie, who could easily get mad and also make you see the fun of getting mad, got mad always in behalf of other people. I was enchanted to read in Carlos Baker’s forthcoming biography of Hemingway that one day in that romantic long ago, when Josie and her husband John Herrmann went fishing with Hemingway off the keys, Hemingway lost his temper at John for not getting enough ice to keep their catch fresh, and kept grousing at him until Josie broke in: “Hem, if you don’t stop I’ll take your pistol and shoot you.” Hemingway, who was so fond of Josie that he later gave her one of his manuscripts, was properly impressed.
Josie had many gifts—she was a natural writer, an expressive lyricist of human emotion and of landscape, a firm and canny observer in her novels of every human snare, an extraordinarily warm, loving woman who could express her love for her friends in letters that were as direct and overflowing as the warmth of her voice and the spontaneity of her soul. On Saturday morning, January 25th, she said two sentences that so impressed Dr. Fries that she entered it in Josie’s medical chart. “I want you to give a final message to my friends. Tell them that I do not repent, that I love life unto eternity, love and life.” When I think of what I loved and valued most in her, as someone in whom the writer and woman were so intermingled, it comes down to this directness, this particular old-fashioned straightness of her every attitude, that exploded out of her, often laughingly, as if Josie Herbst were the shortest distance between two points. This directness was an old-fashioned political attitude in America, it was once our politics, and Josie suffered its loss; it was an old-fashioned morality: you must speak out, now; it was her old-fashioned freedom and her beautiful strength. She was so full of existence, of politics and nature and literature and friendship, that her letters, her incomparable letters, the kind of letters people never even think of writing any more, were an explosion of directness. You received everything on her mind and heart, and it was the gift of her, direct—
Friday morning, Erwinna, Pa. July 7, 1950—
A tiny yellow duck broke loose from its mother and waddled down the hill to my back door—then began a loud squawk in terror and fearful recognition that it was lost, lost. I got it in my hand and it settled down at once—I could have held it like that forever until we both perished, two ninnies in bliss together while the world fell apart. I called up the farm, they came with a truck as if the duck were a cow to be transported only in a huge affair and took it away. I loved it madly—Russell writes Scribner’s may do the Bartram book and that Hastings House are bastards. It will work out. I am glad to think of you with friends away from New York. Here it was divinely cool last night…a late big moon and before that a night thick with fireflies. Some stars are pale green. Some icy blue and there are some as red as my barn.
And on she went for a whole solid single-spaced page, ending—“When one wants grapes, one goes to the poor. They will be willing to rob the birds but they will share with you, share and share alike. They will even love you for your need and shelter you in their arms, hasta revista, Josie.” But alas, we won’t.
March 27, 1969