Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Lansing's Forgotten Novelist, John Herrmann

Thursday, June 11, 6:00 Meet the Author, 7:00 Lecture
Library of Michigan
702 W. Kalamazoo St.

John Herrmann may be both Lansing’s most notable and most forgotten author. That is about to change thanks to the dogged efforts of Alabama’s Troy University English Professor Sara Kosiba.
Kosiba said she ran across Herrmann’s name while doing research for her dissertation on Midwestern writers and was fascinated by Herrmann who was a member of the “lost generation” in Paris. What tugged at her the most was that he wrote a book, “What Happens,” that was banned in the United States in 1926 for obscenity, the same year Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises” was published.
“The minute I saw “banned book” and read about his scandalous past I was hooked,” she said.

More about the scandals in a moment, but Herrmann who was born in 1900 was a scion of the wealthy John T. Herrmann family which had built a family tailoring business in downtown Lansing catering to politicians, including governors, and the state’s business elite. The likes of W. F. Kellogg sought out the bespoke suits from John Herrmann’s Sons. The company, the largest tailor in Michigan, employed 35 tailors; some travelling the state for trunk shows.

It’s likely John Herrmann, as one of the oldest grandsons, would have taken over the helm of the family business, but after graduating from Lansing High School in 1919 his lifelong wanderlust first took him to Washington D.C. for law school. While there he worked with his high school classmate Paul Mixter as a news correspondent which becomes part of the storyline in his first novel.

Herrmann would then move to the University of Michigan where he studied drama appearing as the lead in Pygmalion. A full page article in the Detroit Free Press showing Herrmann as Professor Higgins likely gave his family bragging rights back home in Lansing. He was then off to Germany in 1922 where he studied art for two years. His next leap was to Paris in 1924 where he would serendipitously meet another aspiring novelist Josephine Herbst while having a post-hangover coffee at the legendary Café du Dome. Herbst and Herrmann would become a couple, later marrying and then divorcing.

Herbst would be his entrance into the “lost generation” where he would meet and become friends with the likes of William Carlos Williams, Isadora Duncan, John dos Passos, Nathan Asch, Gertrude Stein and scores of other ex-patriots.

The affable, handsome six foot three Hermann would also meet up with the group’s alpha dog Ernest Hemingway and through their “up north” Michigan connection they would become close pals. Both the Hemingway and Herrmann families had cottages at Walloon Lake and Hermann’s younger brothers, the twins, Robert and Richard, were friends with Hemingway’s younger sister, Sunny.

Kosiba said most what was previously known about Herrmann was seen through the eyes of Josephine Herbst in her biography.

“Herrmann and his writing became an asterisk, a huge asterisk,” she said.

She said that is in part due to not being able to read his first book. His second books aren’t readily available either. That will soon change. Kosiba has championed the publication of “What Happens” by Hastings College’s small press in Nebraska and has written a new foreword for the book to put Hermann and his writing in context.

Kosiba said she stumbled across Herrmann while researching Midwestern writers and wanted to know “Who is this guy?”

She said much of what has been written about Herrmann is misinformation.

“Some of the core texts are a little bit off,” she said, citing one that has Herrmann only writing one novel and another which has him meeting Herbst in New York.

Even after the bitter disappointment of having his first book banned Herrmann penned two additional novels “Summer is Ended” and “The Salesman” in addition to becoming a formidable short story writer. His 1932 short story “The Big Short Trip” shared the prestigious Scribner’s Best Short Novel Award in 1932 with Thomas Wolfe.

Now back to the scandals. In 1930, Herbst and Herrmann, by then married, travelled to the Soviet Union to attend a proletariat writers’ conference. There they became radicalized about the plight of American farmers and began working for reforms back home.

Herrmann would become involved in the Communist Party and was recruited by another noted communist Hal Ware and although the jury is still out on the depth of Herrmann’s involvement he was named in several House Un-American Committee (HUAC) hearings especially one where prominent Communist Whittaker Chambers named him as the go between and courier for passing on state secrets to communists.

Despite these claims, Herrmann enlisted in the U.S. Coastguard serving through WW II, later moving to Mexico with his new wife Ruth Tate. There he would attend college studying drama and would meet up with a loose collection of “beat writers,” including William Burroughs.

Kosiba has yet to see extensive FBI interview records since they are unavailable, as yet, so she won’t definitively say what Herrmann’s role was during that time..

One characterization, Kosiba decries is that Herrmann was a deadbeat.

“That’s definitely not true whenever he and Josie needed money he would return to what he did best working as a travelling salesman selling seeds as a teenager to later in life selling books and jewelry,” Kosiba said.

However, Kosiba said that Herrmann lived what we describe now as “in the moment” working until he had enough money saved for his next venture. As an example, Herrmann worked in 1927 until he saved enough money to buy a sailboat which the couple christened Josy. They spent that summer sailing.

Kosiba has visited three major university archives putting together the life of Herrmann and has discovered numerous letters to and from Herrmann, mostly from other authors, from which she has started to piece together his life.

The letters include the friendly letters between Herrmann and Hemingway where they go back and forth bantering about writing and their friends.

Kosiba, who initially researched Herrmann and the Hemingway connection for a paper she delivered at the International Hemingway Society in 2012 in Petoskey is now planning on an extended biographical paper or a full- blown biography of Herrmann.

While in Lansing for the annual meeting of the Society for the Study of Midwestern Literature this week Kosiba plans to spend time in Capital Area District Library’s Local History Collection pouring through newspapers.

She hopes to identify characters and places that Herrmann used in his novels.

“They were very autobiographical,” she said. Kosiba knows this since Herrmann would use actual Lansing characters in his novels without changing their names. In her archival research she discovered a letter from Paul Mixter chiding Herrmann for using his real name.

Another letter she discovered between Hemingway and Herrmann has Hemingway thanking Herrmann for sending him one of his suits.

“The suit is fine,” Hemingway wrote in his usual sparse prose.

Hemingway did write he had to have the pants altered, likely because Herrmann was six foot three while Hemingway stood at six foot.

One letter Kosiba hadn’t seen until recently was provided by Herrmann’s niece Susan Brewster of Okemos. The letter was from his later days in Mexico and sent from a hospital bed. After thanking Susan for sending presents for his son Juanito, Herrmann wrote “Please tell your old man (Richard, one of the twins) to speak to some of my old classmates at LHS and let them know I was ill or I would’ve written a humdinger of a letter on the occasion of the class reunion.”
“I bet the punch was spiked,” he wrote.

It’s good to have Herrmann home again and the Historical Society of Greater Lansing in cooperation with the Library of Michigan is hosting a book release party for What Happens, 6 p.m.- 9 p.m., Thursday June 11 at the Library of Michigan,  702 West Kalamazoo St. where Kosiba will speak on Herrmann and will discuss his Hemingway connection along with his life in Lansing. The event is free and books will be available for sale-- the first time in 89 years.

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