Jim Burns


William Herrick is an American writer, author of ten novels and an autobiography, and unfortunately too little known in this country. Some of his books have been published here, but he's rarely mentioned when contemporary American writing is discussed, probably because he doesn't fit into any kind of neat category and can't be lumped in with younger, more fashionable novelists. And I suspect that the political content of much of Herrick's work isn't to the taste of British readers. His concerns are no doubt seen as dated or irrelevant, though nothing could be further from the truth. What Herrick writes about in many of his books are the politics that shaped the modern world, and no amount of talk about the end of history, nor interest in matters meant to divert attention from what really counts, can alter this fact.

He was born in 1915, the son of Jewish parents who had come to the United States from Byelorussia (now Belarus) and settled in Trenton, New Jersey. He grew up in an atmosphere of political commitment and debate, and opens his autobiography with the following words:

"I was born too late to be a Wobbly, one of the I Won't Work guys, the Industrial Workers of the World. Too bad. Over my crib hung a piece of tin embossed with the stern physiognomies of Vladimir Ilich Lenin and Leon Trotsky. It hung on one wall or another until I was in my teens. Finally, it was replaced by another piece of tin, this one stamped with the benign image of Joseph Stalin."

Herrick's father had a wallpaper shop and also worked as a wallpaper hanger, but he died when he was only thirty-six and Herrick was brought up by his mother and various relatives. He records that his mother went to work as a seamstress when she was ten and stopped at the age of sixty-nine. But she was also a woman who was active in the Yiddish art world. Herrick says: "She was sought after by the leading Yiddish poets and actors of the time to read their poems, to sing their songs." I don't want to provide too much information about Herrick's childhood, because it's much better to read the vivid details In his autobiography, but it's worth referring to the kind of environment he grew up in. He recalls a neighbourhood where political activity was central to life, and describes being taken to meetings to listen to his uncles and others argue about socialism, communism, and anarchism. His mother was a charter member of the American Communist Party. And he mentions that, even forty years after those days, a family funeral was likely to turn into a political battleground as arguments raged about which ideology the dead person really believed in.

By the time he was thirteen Herrick was going to Young Pioneer meetings and reading widely. John Reed's Ten Days That Shook The World is in the list he provides, but so is Anna Karenina and the Nick Carter detective novels. There were literary types around his family, too, though at the time Herrick didn't know about them. His cousin had a friend, "a tough-speaking guy from Brooklyn, a know-it-all named Henry," who later wrote a book called Tropic of Cancer and was, of course, Henry Miller.

Herrick and his mother had moved to New York, and when he left school in 1932 the Depression was at its height and jobs hard to come by. He spent some time in a utopian colony in Michigan, then drifted from place to place joining picket lines and protests wherever he found them. And he continued to read - Melville, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky. He is not starry-eyed about being on the road, and mockingly says: " In the seventies I met a forty year-old, over-moneyed, underdressed hippie who, when he learned I had been on the road in the thirties, breathlessly asked me what songs we had sung. He was certain every hobo camp, every Hooverville, sported at least one Woody Guthrie. When I told him that not once had I encountered a wandering minstrel, his face deflated. How terribly disappointing. There were no choral societies, barbershop quartets, or wandering minstrels like Guthrie singing working class songs on the road. Once in a while you'd see a guy playing a uke or banjo on some street corner, his hat at his feet, hoping for a couple pennies. Buddy, can you spare a dime? life is just a bowl of cherries. Three little words, I love you. Later, you might run into him at the Hooverville out of town."

Thoroughly involved with the communists, Herrick helped smash up Trotskyists meetings and then went south, to Georgia, to try to organise the black sharecroppers. When a secret meeting was broken up by local police and racists he was lucky to escape with his life. In later years he realised what he had actually been doing and he quotes from a historian who says that the Communist Party was "recklessly pushing oppressed black people into a premature confrontation with white planters. The result would be the shedding of black blood in a hopeless cause so that Communists could make propaganda from it."

The Party line changed in the mid-Thirties and the Popular Front came in. In retrospect Herrick sees it as "an ingenious scam." The Civil War broke out in Spain and Herrick, caught up in the excitement and enthusiasm for the Loyalist cause and fully believing everything he read in the Party papers, volunteered to join the International Brigades.

Herrick's experiences in Spain are the most colourful parts of his autobiography. Some might also say that they are the most contentious. He came back from Spain disillusioned with the role of the communists and the incompetence of many officers who had been appointed simply because they were politically acceptable and not because they had any military skills. The story of Oliver Law is an example. He was a black American who was given a senior position so that the communists could exploit it for propaganda purposes. But he was hopelessly inadequate in the field and caused the deaths of many of the men under his command. When he was killed in action the Party press had him dying a hero's death when leading an attack, but Herrick suggests that he was deliberately shot by some of his own troops. It's only fair to say that Herrick's account has been challenged by International Brigaders who were actually with Law when he died, and that Herrick himself only got his information from second or third-hand sources. The point is, though, that Law wasn't a good officer, though he seems to have been a courageous soldier when not in command, and that his promotion was a matter of Party policy rather than making sense from a military standpoint.

It slowly began to dawn on Herrick that anyone who even mildly disagreed with Party ideas was likely to be treated badly, even to the extent of disappearing in mysterious circumstances. He cites the case of Marvin Stern who had a good combat record but was inclined to question the capabilities of the leadership of the American section of the International Brigades. Stern was taken from the front line and his friends were warned not to ask questions about what had happened to him. When Herrick approached a high-ranking Party official who was visiting Spain and asked him to find out about Stern he was told to be careful. The official, known to have been Stern's friend in the USA, said: "In Party matters friendship doesn't count, the Party come first - and don't you forget it." Herrick was vehemently anti-Communist in later years, and felt particularly bitter about some of his old comrades in the Abraham Lincoln Battalion, but information that has recently come to light as the archives in Moscow are opened up to scholars does perhaps lend weight to the suggestion that troublesome members of the International Brigades often tended to die or disappear in curious ways. The Communist Party dominated the Brigades and ruthlessly suppressed any opposition.

Herrick was wounded and, whilst recovering, had an affair with a nurse who was married to Laszlo Rajk, then a top communist official in Spain and later active in the Hungarian government until he was purged and then executed in the early 50s. Because of this liaison, and probably because the woman reported him as critical of the Party and the Soviet Union and possibly even sympathetic to the POUM militia, Herrick came under suspicion and was questioned about his loyalty. He was taken to watch the execution of some Spaniards who were members of non-communist left organisations, and had no doubt that it was meant as a warning to him. He eventually left Spain because his wound (a bullet was lodged in his spine) needed special treatment, and on his return to New York was given a job with the communist-controlled Furriers Union. But in 1939 the Nazi-Soviet pact finally pushed him into leaving the Party and he was fired from his job. He trained as a court reporter and made a living that way, and got around to publishing his first novel in 1967.

I've spent a little time giving a rough outline of Herrick's life because the details are important to his writing. He has, in several of his books, used his experiences, and those of his friends, as a basis for what he has written. In The Itinerant (1967) the hero, Zeke Gurovich, grows up in the slums, meets artists and revolutionaries, visits a utopian commune, knocks around the country during the worst of the Depression, organises blacks in the southern states, goes to Spain, serves in the American Army during the Second World War, and finally comes to terms with life and the failure of his dreams. Put this way the novel sounds like a lightly-fictionalised version of his autobiography, though Herrick was medically unfit for service in the American Army. But he introduces a rich cast of minor characters into the novel, has a love theme running throughout the story, and uses dialogue and description in a way that allows him to colour his writing and keep the story line constantly moving. Zeke's activities in Spain are much more varied than Herrick's, and the book as a whole has a panoramic feeling that only fiction can truly present.

Another Herrick novel, Hermanos! (1969) is probably his best known and is, as the title suggests, about the Spanish Civil War. But the hero of the book is not an autobiographical figure in the way that Zeke in The Itinerant often appeared to be. Jake Starr is a hard-line Party activist, rushing around organising strikes, going to meetings, giving speeches, enrolling volunteers for Spain. The background, as so often In Herrick's writing, brings in real events, as when he refers to a group of Communist Party members boarding a ship in New York harbour and ripping down a Nazi flag. You can find a factual account of this incident in Bill Bailey's The Kid From Hoboken (Bailey was one of the people involved and later fought in Spain) and a fictional one In Irwin Shaw's short-story, Sailor Off The Bremen And it's easy to recognise the real-life basis for a character like Joe Garms in Hermanos! He was Joe Gordon, one of Herrick's friends In Spain and after.

Starr is ordered to go to Europe to help with getting volunteers into Spain and spends some time In Paris where he has an affair with an English woman whose husband is a Professor who has a great deal of influence in Communist Party circles. Starr moves to Spain, is wounded in action, and is later incorporated into the secret police and is responsible for hunting down and executing alleged enemies of the Republic. These are not just fascists, but socialists, anarchists, and anyone else seen as a threat to communist domination of the Loyalist war effort. This isn't pure invention on Herrick's part, as historians have documented how the communists did operate such a policy. In one key scene in Hermanos! Starr executes an anarchist who has cropped up earlier in the book and is a kind of spokesman for the anti-Communist left. Before Starr shoots the man they debate their respective philosophies, with the anarchist pointing out that Starr's cause is doomed to failure because of the perversions of the truth practised in its name.

Throughout Hermanos! a second story, that of Joe Garms and the rank-and-file in the front line, tells how they fight and die and are constantly let down by bad planning and poor leadership. Their story is sometimes in the form of letters from Garms to Starr and sometimes in straight narrative accounts of the fighting. Garms is wounded and evacuated to France, along with a man called Horton who is the nearest to Herrick in terms of autobiography, though he figures as only a minor character. And then the Republic begins to fall apart as the war comes to an end. Starr, by now distrusted by the Party because he has begun to express doubts about communist policy and has helped dissidents to escape, is finally hunted down by the secret police and killed.

Hermanos! is probably Herrick's finest work and offers a balanced portrait of individuals and events. Numerous subsidiary characters come into it, and their lives add up to a picture not only of Spain in the 1930s but the whole world that was represented there as volunteers poured in from the international communist movement. It's well known that many of the people who survived Spain became leaders in the various communist governments established in Hungary, Poland, East Germany, and elsewhere, in the post-1945 period. And the countries that didn't fall under communist control but which had large communist parties (France and Italy are two examples) also saw Spanish Civil War veterans in important positions. Herrick is good at showing how Spain was, for many of them, a rehearsal for what came later. And he expresses clearly how cynical they could be about why they were in Spain. When Starr voices his concern about the tactics used to fight the fascists, a Russian officer tells him: "This Spain is only a game. What do we care what happens here. What is Important are the lessons we learn to take home to the Red Army...."

Herrick used Spain in at least three other novels, Shadows and Wolves (1980), Love and Terror (1981) and Kill Memory (1983), though in varying ways. Shadows and Wolves is set in post-Franco Spain and concerns the conflict between an elderly Falangist general who may have been involved in the murder of the poet, Federico Garcia Lorca, and his son, who is working with an underground organisation planning strikes and other protests against the government. It neatly exploits the situation to comment on how things change, and to show how the different generations may arrive at an understanding about the events of the 1930s.

Love and Terror is similarly interested in the clash of generations, though in this case it is between old and young revolutionaries. A group of German and Arab terrorists hi-jack an Israeli jet and hold the passengers and crew to ransom. On board the jet are three elderly Jewish left-wingers, Avram ben Itzchak, Clara Z., and David Grad. Itzchak was an early member of the Polish Communist Party, fought in Spain, and after various other adventures, including being an assassin for the Party, had a place in the post 1945 government in Poland. He was forced to leave the country when anti-Semitism reared its ugly head in the 1960s. Clara Z. was also born in Poland, joined the Party, went to Spain as a nurse, and worked for the Polish government in exile in England, though she was acting as a communist spy at the same time. Later in the Second World War she was in Hamburg, again spying for the Party. Like Itzchak she was forced to leave Poland because of anti-Semitism. David Grad, an American, served in Spain and in the Second World War and was a union organiser in the 40s and 50s. He seems to have been based on a man named Robert Gladnik who is mentioned in Herrick's autobiography. lt's wise, though, to remember that Herrick is writing fiction. He based the character of Clara Z. on someone referred to briefly in a letter from a friend, and "gave her a full life," as he put it.

Intertwined with their stories are those of the terrorists, particularly Viktor and Gabriele, two young middle-class Germans at war with their society. Again, Herrick skilfully plays off their experiences and ideas against those of the older revolutionaries, and raises the question of how much the young terrorists are the children of the older activists. Is there a line that can be followed between them? It's interesting that Herrick appears to suggest that, although the elderly Europeans have a kind of understanding, if not sympathy, for the terrorists, the American looks on them with contempt. But Grad had never been as involved in the dark side of communist activities and Clara describes him as "very sentimental."

Another old revolutionary is at the centre of Kill Memory, as Boishke, living alone in Paris, reflects on her life, past and present, and her time in Spain where she met a wounded American. In his autobiography Herrick says that the woman was partly based on the Boishke he had an affair with, though in actual fact he never did find out what happened to her after Spain. When her husband, Laszlo Rajk, was purged in the 1950s the newspapers referred to someone called Julia as his wife, but Herrick didn't know if it was the same woman. So the character in Kill Memory is largely a product of his imagination though with some historical background to give his story a feeling of reality. Novelists often base characters on real people, but it's a mistake to assume that fiction is fact.

It may seem that Herrick has over-used the same material, but he has, rather, exploited it adroitly. The point is that the material lends itself to so much interpretation that it provides for endless variations on the basic theme of how and why people allow their humanity to be taken over by ideology, and what it does to them. The problems he deals with are just as relevant today as they were in the 1930s, even if we glibly believe that we have somehow exhausted our capacity to be taken in by seemingly perfect solutions for solving all the problems of mankind. A glance at the newspapers will tell us that people still lie and murder for some cause or another. And attempt to excuse and explain it all by saying that the end justifies the means.


Herrick's Jumping The Line:The Adventures and Misadventures of an American Radical was published by the University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, 1998. The Itinerant was published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1957, and Hermanos! by Weidenfeid and Nicolson, 1969. Shadows and Wolves (1980), Love and Terror (1981) and Kill Memory (1963) were all published by New Directions, New York.

Bill Bailey's The Kid From Hoboken was published by Bailey himself in San Francisco, 1993, with funds for publication raised by friends in the radical movement. Irwin Shaw's Sailor Off The Bremen was first published in The New Yorker in the 1930S, and in his collection Sailor Off The Bremen and Other Stories, Random House, New York, 1939. It has been reprinted in other Shaw collections, including Mixed Company, New English Library, London, 1977.

The literature concerning the Spanish Civil War is voluminous, but of particular interest in relation to Herrick's views are Cecil Elby's Between the Bullet and the Lie: American Volunteers In the Spanish Civil War, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York, 1969, and Peter N.Carroll's The Odyssey of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, Stanford University Press, Stanford, 1994.