The University of Iowa LibrariesThe Biographical Dictionary of Iowa: Jacket Art - Agriculture - Cresco, Iowa by Richard Haines ca 1934 -  Photo by Scott Christopher courtesy of Gregg Narber


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Herbst, Josephine Frey
(March 5, 1892–January 28, 1969)

–novelist and radical journalist–grew up in Sioux City, Iowa, to which her parents William and Mary (Frey) Herbst had moved from eastern Pennsylvania in the 1880s, seeking economic opportunity. But William Herbst's farm implement dealership failed when farmer could not pay their debts to him, and Mary never felt comfortable in the then frontier town. Neither did Josephine, the third of four daughters. After a few years at Morningside College and the State University of Iowa, she went to Seattle in 1915 to work as a secretary and to study at the University of Washington, then to the University of California, where she graduated in 1918.

    From 1919 to 1922 she lived in New York, ultimately becoming a reader for H. L. Mencken's magazine, Smart Set, where her first stories were published under the pseudonym Carlotta Greet. Her friends were other writers and political radicals, including the young dramatist Maxwell Anderson, with whom she conceived a child. Then, having terminated the pregnancy (an experience partially recounted in her novel Money For Love), she went to Europe in 1922 to live in Germany, Italy, and Paris. There she met John Herrmann, the son of a well-to-do Michigan family.

    Soon after she and Herrmann returned to the United States late in 1924, she went back to Sioux City to write and be with her dying mother. In her novel Nothing Is Sacred, she described the generation of her two older sisters and their husbands as ambitious but frivolous, dull, and dishonest, unlike the strong and reliable, if poorer, generation of her parents.

    Over the next few years she lived with Herrmann in Connecticut and New York until, after they married, they bought an old farmhouse in Erwinna, Pennsylvania, near the Delaware River, and moved there in 1928. The house appealed to Josephine because of its similarity and proximity to the homes where her Swiss-German ancestors had lived for generations. There she was to live until her death, despite her divorce from Herrmann in 1940 and despite many travels.

    Following her father's death in Sioux City in 1929, she inherited bundles of old letters and diaries that recounted her family's long odysseys in quest of wealth. One uncle went from being a carpetbagger in Atlanta to a gold miner in the Black Hills. Another became a successful druggist and banker in Oregon, neglecting his long-sacrificing mother in Pennsylvania and also his sister (Josephine's mother) in Sioux City. These stories became the basis for her trilogy Pity Is Not Enough, The Executioner Waits, and Rope of Gold, an epic of American family and economic life from the Civil War to the 1930s.

    The Depression aroused her political radicalism, and throughout the 1930s she wrote magazine and newspaper articles on strikes, wars, and revolutions. Among the first was a series on farm conditions in Iowa, Nebraska, and the Dakotas, beginning with "Feet in the Grass Roots" in Scribner's Magazine (1933), which strongly identified her with her Iowa past. She defended the farmer blockading roads outside Sioux City, but also maintained her objectivity and independence. Other brilliant articles were on Cuba, anti-Nazi feeling in Germany, and the Loyalist cause in Spain.

    Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, she went to Washington, D.C., to write government radio broadcasts designed to undermine the German will to fight, but she was soon dismissed. Her old friend Katherine Anne Porter, it was learned much later, had falsely described her to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) as a Communist. Herbst spent the remainder of the war in Chicago and Erwinna. For years she was hounded by the FBI. In 1951, wanting to go to Europe with her lover, the poet Jean Garrigue, she was refused a passport.

    Despite such slander and humiliations, she continued to write fiction, a biography of the naturalists John Bartram and William Bartram, and her memoirs. Along with her earlier achievements and experiences, her work attracted the attention of many younger writers. In the 1960s she received grants and awards and sold her papers to the Beinecke Library at Yale University. The publication of Elinor Langer's outstanding biography of her in 1984 increased interest in her among feminists, both for her writing and for her bisexuality. The Starched Blue Sky of Spain, with four of her best memoirs, was praised for her insights into herself, her friends, and her era. It also revealed, editor Diane Johnson wrote, her deep affiliation with prairie radicalism and "an Iowan skepticism."
Sources Herbst's papers are at the Beinecke Library at Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut. Her novels are Nothing Is Sacred (1928), Money for Love (1929), Pity Is Not Enough (1933), The Executioner Waits (1934), Rope of Gold (1939), Satan's Sergeants (1941), Somewhere the Tempest Fell (1947), and "Hunter of Doves" (a novella in Botteghe Oscure, 1954). Nonfiction is New Green World (1954) and The Starched Blue Sky of Spain (1991). Books about Herbst include Elinor Langer, Josephine Herbst (1984); and Winifred Farrant Bevilacqua, Josephine Herbst (1985), which contains a list of Herbst's short fiction, poetry, journalism, critical writing, and other works about her.
Contributor: Robert F. Sayre