Josephine Herbst’s “Pity is not Enough”

Against the Current, No. 79, March/April 1999

Angela Hubler

Pity is Not Enough by Josephine Herbst, with an introduction by Mary Anne Rasmussen (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998) $16.95 paper.

WHILE JOHN DOS Passos’ U.S.A. trilogy has remained in print for the past sixty-some years, Josephine Herbst’s nearly contemporary Trexler trilogy has not been so favored.  The first volume, Pity is Not Enough, was published in 1933 by Harcourt Brace.  Although Warner Books republished the trilogy in 1985, it quickly went out of print again.

Now the novel has been republished as part of “The Radical Novel Reconsidered,” the University of Illinois series edited by Alan Wald. Like Dos Passos’ trilogy, Herbst’s is complex, both formally and thematically.  Herbst herself best summarizes it: the Trexler trilogy covers, she wrote:

.  .  .  not only the decay of a capitalistic society but the upthrust of a new group society.  In Pity Is Not Enough an historical period following the Civil War is covered in the light of the present.  The light by which that generation lived, individual initiative and “more capital,” is shown to be no light at all. All the fine qualities of the characters blur and dim, trapped in a scheme they cannot encompass but which encompasses them. In their trap they fall back upon pity but pity cannot save them. The old standbys of their generation, religion, respectability, are so many straw bridges.  Yet they have covered the country, sending members to south and west, giving energy and faith.  Alone and isolated they are lost against the union of greater strength of the class pitted against them. The prospector sells out to the capitalist from the East, the vain hope for capital leads each member of this generation by the nose. The book is written on two levels, the one covering the main narrative from 1865 to 1896 and the second, composed of interpretive inserts which give the reaction of that generation upon the generation now living.  This younger generation will dominate the second volume, their reactions from the illusions of their parents plunging them into pitfalls equally deadly until history moves faster than they, awakening them to new roles and reviving old virtues (book three).  (Autobiographical Sketch)

While she had previously written three novels, two of which were published, Nothing is Sacred (1928) and Money for Love (1929), with Pity is Not Enough Herbst’s fiction changed.  While it remained heavily autobiographical, Herbst’s work moved from narrowly focused narratives of the way that the predominant values of capitalist society corrupt human relationships to a historical novel which interrelates individual experience with the broad sweep of historical events.

Easy Money

The novel focuses on the efforts of young Joseph Trexler to make his fortune in the world-to accumulate a bit of capital.  Joe leaves an apprenticeship in a bakeshop in Philadelphia to go South to work in a tobacco warehouse.

But with “everybody talking easy money, money that came hard and slow made him feel behind the times,” Joe quickly gets a job working for the Western and Atlanta Railroad and becomes involved in the railroad’s looting of Georgia: charging for railroad cars that were never delivered, bribery, outright theft and so on. (24)

Though only a clerk, Joe observes the major figures in the events, and learns from them that Reconstruction is not charity on the behalf of former slaves, but-as administered by the Northern governor of Georgia, Rufus Bullock, and those he appointed to state office-a business opportunity.

Mary Anne Rasmussen’s introduction is particularly useful in understanding this portion of the novel.  Her original research into the historical models for the fictional characters highlights the interrelation of racial and class oppression depicted in the novel:

In her representation of the death of Reconstruction in Georgia, Herbst presents a reading of Southern history in which the ascendancy of Hooverism is forcefully linked to the rise and preservation of Jim Crowism.  The advancement of free market capitalism, Herbst suggests, was integrally linked to the abandonment of the North’s commitment to racial justice.  (xxx)

Male and Female Burdens

Crucial to Herbst’s depiction of these public events is the way they have been structured by and impact upon the private sphere, in particular the women in Joe’s life: his mother, his sisters, and his Southern belle sweetheart.

Because Joe’s mother has been widowed, she urges her sons to assume financial responsibility for the family.  She teaches her girls to guide the family not financially, but morally, imposing the cult of domesticity upon them, in her dislike of “women who were too clever” and her insistence that “Anne would wake up some day and find herself on the shelf and wish, too late, that she had been just a womanly woman.” (204)

Joe fulfills his mother’s expectations that he will provide for his family, though he involves himself in scandal to do so. Having also been taught that “women are to be protected and guarded from all the wickedness they couldn’t understand,” he shields them from the details of his behavior.  (21)

Consequently denied the ability to confide in them, and thus their advice, he remains loyal to the wrong people and is made a scapegoat.  Herbst represents the isolation of women in the private sphere as fatal, in the narrative of Joe’s sister Catherine, who reads the newspaper accounts of his disgrace she finds in his trunk in the attic and falls immediately into “fever, delirium and then unconsciousness.” (196)

Rasmussen explains that “as readers witness the production of asymmetrical heterosexual relationships within the Trexler family-the boys learn to differentiate themselves from their mother and sisters while the girls acquire a passivity and pietism necessary to the maintenance of separate spheres-they learn to connect sexual politics with the needs of capital.” (xxiii)

Fragmentation and Totality

While Rasmussen’s analyses of racial, sexual and class politics in the novel are insightful and original, I’m not convinced that it is useful to cast them in terms of postmodernist literary and social theory.

For example, Rasmussen says that “Herbst represents Catherine and Joe Trexler as conflicted subjects whose contradictions illuminate the social construction of a class and gendered self in a racialized American landscape.  Anticipating postmodern critiques of the unified self as the ground of revolutionary politics, Herbst’s characters are essentialized by discourse but inwardly in motion, at odds with the divisions of race, class, and gender at the heart of capitalist relations of production.” (xxv-vi)

Herbst, however, did not share a view of the subject as multiple and fragmented, but believed that people were motivated by “essential qualities” (Letter to Mitchell).  In a letter commenting on the conservative turn of left intellectuals, Herbst wrote:

The thirties have been mostly swept under the carpet.  The penitents have pretty well clouded it up. I am not sorry for anything I ever thought or did. In fact, I am still proud of many of the deeds thrown back at me by the inquisitors of one brand or another.  I have changed opinions many times but not my nature.  I was born with it and I want what I always wanted.  Only now I don’t know how it is to be. (Letter to Josephson)

While Joe and Catherine are certainly riven by contradiction, those contradictions are not to be celebrated, as postmodernism so often does. They lead not to political agency nor even to play, but to the destruction of these characters.

As Victoria, the niece and namesake of “poor Joe” (and the character based on Herbst herself) realizes, it is an understanding of social totality (tabooed by postmodernists) that enables political agency.

Pity Is Not Enough begins with Victoria as a child growing up in Oxtail, Iowa (Sioux City), hearing the stories of her Uncle Joe from her mother, Anne, while they waited in the cellar for the storms outside to subside:

She made a little island of the past and climbed aboard with all her dead and gone and took us children too, clinging and listening, fascinated and scared of the rushing water around us and she had to sit there on that island and see us overboard and sink or swim according to our business and the chance.(3)

Though these stories and memories remain private and function as an escape for Victoria’s mother, as the novel and the trilogy progress, Victoria sees, slowly but surely, the political significance of Joe’s failure, later replicated by her own father’s failure in business.

Recovering Consciousness

In the final Oxtail interchapter of the novel, Victoria and her sister, who have gone to Seattle to work, read “a yellowed newspaper with an account of the Haymarket Riot and the hanging of the anarchists and their silent defense” that Joe had saved and that their mother had sent to them:

They shivered reading the words of the dead men that leaped at them alive and vigorous after so many years .  .  .  .  they suddenly wondered what that paper had meant to Uncle Joe and they began to talk about him and to feel that the paper had a relation to themselves.  .  .  .  When the unions called a general strike in Seattle, the Wendel girls wished they were a part of it. They read all the papers and got in fierce debates at the boarding house and through talk more and more sympathized with the strikers.  (342-3)

Thus Victoria is radicalized by the words of the Haymarket martyrs, which she relates to the Seattle General Strike.  The past links to the present, and private family stories are transformed from an escape from a painful public world into an avenue back into it.

Formally, Herbst represents the social totality that Victoria comes to apprehend in the trilogy using the techniques of the collective novel.  Like Dos Passos’ U.S.A. and more recently Marge Piercy’s The Longings of Women and Leslie Marmon Silko’s The Almanac of the Dead, Herbst’s trilogy follows not a single protagonist, but a number of different characters who are significant not only as individuals but also as representatives of classes.

Thus the failures of Joe and Victoria’s father Amos Wendel are not personal, but typical of the disintegration of the middle class.

In the Oxtail sections of the novel, and in the documentary sections which replace them in the second and third volumes of the trilogy, Herbst employs another technique that Barbara Foley describes as typical of the collective novel, “experimental devices that break up the narrative and rupture the illusion of seamless transparency.  .  .  .  These devices direct attention to the process of textual construction and invite the reader consciously to consider the paradigm the author has chosen for describing and explaining the social totality.” (Foley, 401)

Tragedy and Hope

Herbst’s and Dos Passos’ novels both rely on such technical devices.  In Dos Passos’ novels, however, characters are clearly shaped by and the victims of social forces, but as characters they are unconvincingly shallow.  They lack emotional resources to resist the oppression they encounter.

In Pity Is Not Enough, it is not only Herbst’s autobiographical character Victoria for whom one has sympathy-this in contrast to Dos Passos’ autobiographical Camera Eye sections, in which the narrative consciousness seems possessed of a humanity and emotional depth denied the other characters in the novel.

Dos Passos’ pessimism is contrasted by Herbst’s hope, a hope which survived the historical tragedies detailed in Pity is Not Enough and its sequels: Reconstruction, World War I, the Great Depression, the Spanish Civil War.

While U.S.A. has been rightly celebrated for its technical innovation, it is less clear why it has been hailed, by Alfred Kazin, for example, as the “dominant social novel of the thirties.” (Kazin, 359)

Despite what he sees as the overwhelmingly negative tone of the novel, his positive assessment of it stands: “There are no flags for the spirit in it, and no victory save the mind’s silent victory that integrity can acknowledge to itself.  It is one of the saddest books ever written by an American.” (352)

Kazin is not so generous in his comments about his good friend Josephine Herbst, or about other writers: “In [Wright’s] work, as in Gold’s Jews Without Money, in the stories of Albert Maltz, in the desperate pedestrianism of Josephine Herbst’s saga of the declining middle class, in Farrell’s novels, the reverberation of the struggle of millions in America to survive disaster.  Once the point had been made, the reader’s apathy destroyed, the moment’s release effected, there was nothing left but to go round and round in the same vindictive circle.” (387)

Clearly this criticism, if applicable at all, would seem more appropriately directed at U.S.A.  than at Herbst’s trilogy.  U.S.A., however, could be more easily made to fit into the Cold War critics’ agenda of discrediting any radical political movement than could Herbst’s or Farrell’s trilogies.

It is precisely this kind of ideologically driven misreading and erasure from literary history of many “revolutionary” (Herbst’s terminology) writers of the twentieth century that the University of Illinois series corrects.

Herbst deserves to be read. In language both colloquial and powerfully metaphorical, she maps social reality in such a way that we see both the way in which individuals are limited and wounded by capitalism, and the potential for healing and resistance in familial and political histories.


Foley, Barbara.  Radical Representations: Politics and Form in U.S. Proletarian Fiction, 1929- 1941. Durham: Duke University Press, 1993.

Herbst, Josephine.  “Autobiographical Sketch of Josephine Herbst, American Novelist.” Authors Today and Yesterday.  Ed. Stanley J. Kunitz.  New York: H. W. Wilson Company, 1933.

—.  Letter to Matthew Josephson.  17 October 1963.  Josephine Herbst Collection.  Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

—.  Letter to Burroughs Mitchell.  2 October 1959.  Josephine Herbst Collection.  Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

Kazin, Alfred.  On Native Grounds.  New York: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1942.

Angela Hubler is an assistant professor of English and women’s studies at Kansas State University.

ATC 79, March-April 1999