Thursday, June 11, 6:00 Meet the Author, 7:00 Lecture
Library of Michigan
702 W. Kalamazoo St.
The Historical Society of Greater Lansing and the Library of Michigan will honor Lansing’s “most forgotten” author, John Herrmann, with an event celebrating the release of his 1926 banned book “What Happens” 6 p.m. Thursday, June 11 at the Library of Michigan Forum Room, 702 West Kalamazoo. The event is free, books will be for sale. Meet Sara Kosiba, the author of the book’s new foreword, at 6 p.m. with the presentation following at 7 p.m.
Historical Society President Valerie Marvin said that Herrmann was an intimate member of the “lost generation”, friends with Ernest Hemingway and a noted radical writer of the 1930s.
“Herrmann went on to write two other novels and numerous short stories drawing liberally from his experiences growing up in Lansing and using his friends and acquaintances as characters in his writing,” Marvin said.
Herrmann was the scion of a successful Lansing family which owned John Herrmann’s Sons, the largest bespoke tailor in the state which at one time employed 35 tailors in downtown Lansing.
State Librarian Randy Riley said that the confiscation of “What Happens” and the resulting obscenity trial is an important part of Michigan literary history.
“The obscenity trial was one of the first major tests of community standards and what’s obscene. “What Happens” was defended by Morris Ernst who would become a noted free speech expert and one of the founders of ACLU,” Riley said.
“What Happens”, a classic coming-of-age story set in a fictional Lansing, was first published in Paris in 1926 by an avant-garde publisher, but was deemed obscene and confiscated when a shipment of books arrived in the United States and copies were destroyed in New York City following a controversial trial. The book tells the story of Winfield Payne, a young man from a wealthy Michigan family, who struggles with his awakening sexuality and fickle affections.
Now, Hastings College Press of Nebraska, has put the book in print for the first time in 89 years. Learn more about this remarkable author who went on to write two more novels and numerous short stories including “The Big Short Trip” which shared the $5000 prize for Scribner’s Magazine Best Short Novel of the Year Award in 1932 with a story by Thomas Wolfe.
Herrmann is noted for his radical writing and his close association with the U.S. Communist Party figures including Hal Ware, Alger Hiss and Whittaker Chambers. He served in the U.S. Coast Guard during World War II. He later moved to Mexico where he connected with beat writers including William Burroughs. He died in 1959.
Dr. Sara Kosiba, a biographer and English professor at Troy University in Montgomery, Alabama, has written a new introduction for “What Happens” placing it in its proper context in literary history and achievement. Kosiba will present a lecture on Lansing’s most famous and forgotten writer along with his close association with Ernest Hemingway and other prominent Twentieth Century writers and his tumultuous marriage to novelist Josephine Herbst whose novel “Rope of Gold” is semi-autobiographical and partially set in Lansing. The lecture is sponsored jointly by the Library of Michigan and the Historical Society of Greater Lansing.
John Herrmann’s work is important, according to Kosiba, for “the way it adds to our understanding of American literature and history. John Herrmann was a participant in several significant movements in the Twentieth Century, from the famed expatriate literary circle in Paris in the 1920s to the social and political efforts of the 1930s to the Communist hysteria of the late 1940s and 1950s. Herrmann’s life and career provide additional understanding and nuance to these moments and show how a boy from Lansing eventually ended up involved in some of the most interesting and continually debated moments in American history.”
On December 17, 1924 Herrmann presented a talk to Michigan State Library Association in Lansing on books, reviews, and writers with special attention to James Joyce and H.L. Mencken.