Rousing the Nation: Radical Culture in Depression America

By Laura Browder | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FOUR
FAMILY HISTORY AND POLITICAL IDENTIY IN HERBST'S TREXLER TRILOGY

James T. Farrell wrestled with the problem of gender and cultural identity in his trilogy. Although he critiqued working-class manliness, he did not address the problem of how a working-class woman might become radicalized. Josephine Herbst not only accomplished this task but, by bridging Dos Passos's concern with the radical writer and Farrell's focus on the reader, offered a blueprint for transforming readers into writers. Herbst, however, never attained the celebrity of Farrell and Dos Passos. Consider the words of her biographer, Elinor Langer:

Imagine, for a moment, that you are Josephine Herbst. For ten years you have devoted yourself to a grand reconstruction of American history at least as ambitious as the comparable trilogies of your friends John Dos Passos and James T. Farrell, yet unlike those works, which gradually attain the hallowed status of classics, yours is never mentioned.1

Josephine Herbst's career through the 1930s followed a course common to many radical writers. Born in Sioux City, Iowa, in 1897, she moved to Greenwich Village in 1920, already radicalized, in order to lead the life of a writer. Her first literary job was as a reader for a group of magazines, including the Smart Set, supervised by George Jean Nathan and H. L. Mencken. She continued her literary apprenticeship in Germany and in France, where she knew Hemingway, Nathan Asch, and Robert MacAlmon; published her first novels,

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