In 1930 the novelist Josephine Herbst travelled to the Soviet Union with her husband, writer John Herrmann, to attend the International Congress of Revolutionary Writers in Kharkov. While the conference has been criticised as laying down a party line on proletarian fiction, it had a liberating rather than a restrictive effect on Herbst. In an article about the conference for The New Republic (April 29, 1931), she wrote, “To me it was new to learn th[at] subject matter, to be valuable, need not even deal with actual workers, so long as the writer is cognisant of the Marxian theory of class.” In fact, the trilogy that Herbst published over the next eight years applied Marxist theory to the history of her family, fictionalised as the Trexlers. Thus, the trilogy is both autobiographical and historical, interpreting family and personal experience as it is shaped by structural changes in the U.S. economy. In the downward trajectory of the Trexler family Herbst represents the fate of the middle class, while in the organisation of the working class she suggests the possibility of their liberation.
The first volume, Pity is Not Enough (1933), takes up a fictionalised version of the story of Herbst's uncle as representative of the destruction of the traditional value of individual initiative by monopoly capitalism. Joe Trexler leaves Philadelphia for Reconstruction Georgia, where he hopes to make his fortune working for the company building the railroad, but is made to take the fall for those higher up when the railroad's looting of the state is discovered. As Mary Anne Rasmussen (1998) observes in her introduction to a reprint of this novel, it “links the advancement of free market capitalism. . . to the abandonment of the North's commitment to racial justice.” Through the character of Joe Trexler Herbst reveals the destructive trajectory of capitalist ideologies; through him, his sisters and his southern belle sweetheart she also shows that these ideologies are gendered. While Joe is expected to provide for his widowed mother and his sisters, his sisters are encouraged to sacrifice their intellectual and sexual desires in favour of their brothers and their perceived moral duties.
In the trilogy Herbst wanted to accomplish what the critic Georg Lukács identifies in The Historical Novel (1937) as the task of the classical historical novel: to represent the historical past as the “prehistory of the present,” as it contains both the origins of oppression and the emergence of the forces of liberation. Thus, along with the destruction of characters like Joe, his sister Catherine, and the character modelled on Herbst's father, whose small business failed, the novels also represent resistance to the forces of capitalism: the Haymarket anarchists, I.W.W., the 1919 Seattle General, and efforts to organise the packing houses in Chicago, to name just a few instances.
While the content of the trilogy is influenced by a traditional literary genre, its form is heavily influenced by modernism. Fragmenting the linear chronology of the trilogy are what Herbst called interpretative inserts: Pity is Not Enough begins with an first-person section titled “Oxtail, 1905” in which Victoria Wendel, the character based on Herbst herself, recalls hearing her mother Anne's family stories, including that of “poor Joe”. While these inserts suggest the influence of the earlier generation upon Victoria's generation, in the second volume, The Executioner Waits (1934), the broader social content suggests, for the events depicted in the novel, a context beyond the fictional one. In it, the reportage of the inserts, blending journalism and fiction, also disrupts the chronology, which spans WWI to the stock market crash, by representing events from 1932-4: farm radicalism in Iowa, the desperation of drought-stricken farmers and their families in the Midwest, labour organising at the Ford plant in Detroit, and a Mayday Celebration in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
The Executioner Waits focuses on the Wendel family: Anne, and her daughters Victoria and Rosamond. Anne and her husband Amos strive for but fail to achieve the economic success enjoyed by Anne's brother, David Trexler, a successful banker. Victoria falls in love with and marries Jonathan Chance, based on John Herrmann. While Jonathan finds in bohemian literary circles a means and arena in which to express his repudiation of his comfortable, middle-class upbringing, through his character Herbst articulates the need to more directly confront the intensifying class conflict. Dissatisfied with creating a new world in language, he and Victoria become involved with organising farmers in rural Pennsylvania. The novel's conclusion dramatically represents this conflict and illustrates Marx and Engels assertion in The Communist Manifesto (1848) that “what the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.” Victoria's visiting Uncle David observes with fear and anger the funeral of a striking mill worker killed by police. The speaker at the funeral proclaims, “They can shoot some of us down, they can't shoot all of us. Every time they make us dig a grave for one of ours, they are digging the pit from under their own feet. Every time they fire us and cheat us and drive us from our homes, they only increase the forest of hands that will rise up against them.”
Throughout the trilogy, Herbst focuses on the interrelationship between the public and the private spheres, respectively gendered as male and female. While the first volume reveals the tragic consequence of their sundering and asymmetry; the final volume, Rope of Gold (1939) depicts Victoria and Jonathan's efforts to bridge the divisions between the two. Though they attempt to unify their lives, to make their personal relationship not an escape from, but the avenue into the public, political realm, the disintegration of their marriage shows how difficult this is. Nevertheless, the trilogy implies that only by modelling political and economic relationships in the public sphere on relations of mutuality found in the private sphere can social regeneration take place. The conclusions of both the primary and secondary plot lines of Rope of Gold highlight this. Victoria, a journalist, devastated by her separation from Jonathan, has gone to Cuba to report on a sugar strike. She makes contacts with revolutionaries in Havana, who guide her to Realengo, where peasants in the mountains have won the right from the government to control their own land, and have established cooperative farming communities. As she returns home, Victoria thinks of Navarro, whom she has met in the mountains:
She seemed to have been floundering around in the dark and had just seen a tiny light on the other side of a black swift-running river. Navarro's children, sitting on tiny stools, were again looking at her with big, wondering eyes. . . . I won' t forget them, I won't forget them, she promised and already she was borne up by her own pledge. Navarro had looped his entire life to an entire world; was she less able than he?
Thus, despite her own miscarriage and failed marriage, Victoria is able to find in a commitment to Navarro's children the ability to continue her struggle.
The secondary plot line in this novel depicts the conflict between capital and labour in the depression era automotive industry, through the character of Steve Carson. Locked inside the auto plant during a sit-down strike, Carson sees “his whole life spin out, fitting itself together. . . . Oh, my dear wife, my darling, and it seemed to him he had never loved her so much as now, lying on this cold stone floor with all the men around him who were thinking his same thoughts.” Carson's love for his wife leads him to demand social justice for her and for himself, and his attempt to transform society deepens his love for her further. With this as a model, Herbst concludes the trilogy on a hopeful note, although the Republican defeat in the Spanish Civil War, represented in its final insert, sobers this hope and projects it into the distant future.
The trilogy was widely and positively reviewed, but the Cold War shift to the right led to the critical rejection of revolutionary writing such as that by Herbst. Reconsiderations of literary modernism, and the development of feminist criticism, however, have resulted in insightful new readings of Herbst's trilogy, reprint editions of the novels, and a biography. Unfortunately, in 2001, only the first volume remains in print. Yet, Herbst offers a constructive vision of the social world in her trilogy that is more humane than that of her friend John Dos Passos in his bleak USA trilogy, which remains more available. While Herbst was influenced by the technical devices he used in his trilogy, her characterisation is more complex than his, recognising that individuals are not simply the victims of social forces but can hope to transcend oppression.