Josephine Herbst's 'The Starched Blue Sky of Spain and Other Memoirs': Literary History "In the Wide Margin of the Century."

Article excerpt

So let me plunge into my central matter at once: a challenge of time and space, a rejection of the platitudinous interpretations of the twenties. If the twenties has become a kind of fetish may it not be because the thirties has been isolated as a sort of Bluebeard's chamber where the key lies rusted in a pool of blood? The door has been shut and footsteps scamper past the room in an embarrassed rush to that pleasanter beyond, the twenties, where we were all presumed to have been so lighthearted, so irresponsible, so foolish and so lost. And so aesthetic! It is as if the events had been deliberately lost sight of or did not matter. As if it had been possible to have Hart Crane as a contemporary and not Al Capone; or Sacco and Vanzetti and not their executioners.

This passage, from a typescript page of Josephine Herbst's memoirs, recently collected and published as The Starched Blue Sky of Spain and Other Memoirs,(1) articulates the thoroughgoing challenge to conventional views of canonical modernist and proletarian writing posed by the work as a whole. Writing thirty or more years ago, Herbst anticipated recent reconceptualizations of the literary milieu of which she was a part. Like many critics today, Herbst points out the devastating effect of the Cold War upon the assessment of radical writing, including her own, stressing that standard definitions misrepresent the concerns of the proletarian writer as exclusively and dogmatically political, a definition that fails to describe her own Rope of Gold trilogy, commonly categorized as proletarian.

But it is not only the concerns of the radical writer that have been misrepresented as a result of the Cold War critics' flight from what they characterize as the political and literary "mistakes" of the thirties.(2) While the proletarian novel has been constructed as "brutishly" political and lacking in formal complexity, canonical modernism has been defined as exclusively concerned with aesthetics and issues of consciousness. In contrast, Herbst's memoirs, which she intended to be read as literary history, along with her Rope of Gold trilogy, problematizes the relegation of the private to the province of the modernist writer, and the political to that of the proletarian writer.(3) In doing so, Herbst also challenges the relegation of the female to the private sphere and the male to the public one. In her memoirs as in her fiction, then, Herbst brings together several strands of recent criticism: reconceptualizations of modernism that acknowledge the political implications of work that has traditionally been read as abstracted from everyday social and political reality, analyses of the way in which modernism is gendered, and scholarship on radical women writers' challenges to the masculinist aesthetic of the proletarian novel.(4)

Despite Herbst's intentions for her memoirs, such reconceptualizations of the literary twenties and thirties have only recently been seen as crucial. Perhaps if Herbst's memoirs, which she titled The Burning Bush, had been completed and published in a timely fashion, her intervention in literary history might have spurred this process on. However, although three sections of what Herbst intended to be The Burning Bush were published in journals during her lifetime, it remained incomplete and unpublished as a whole at her death in early 1969. The reason for Herbst's inability to complete her memoirs is not self-evident. A combination of psychological, formal, and economic difficulties seem to have conspired against her. Her biographer Elinor Langer notes that "to produce a portrait of her era that honestly reflected the complexity of her own experience she would have had to remove the veil over some very sorrowful private and political moments and this she could not bear to do" (344). Nora Ruth Roberts also cites the difficulties involved in constructing a self within language (164), difficulties Herbst was conscious of, as evidenced in a letter to Peter Davison, the director at Atlantic Monthly Press, which was to publish The Burning Bush: "I keep revising and I, too, am revising myself, for the better, I hope" (qtd. …