Faculty Bookshelf: Robert Ward

Understanding James Leo Herlihy

Robert Ward

 

In the winter of 1947, James Leo Herlihy, then studying at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, met Anaïs Nin who was on a four day visit to the college. At the time, Nin was a diarist, artist, and model. She asked the young student what he wanted to do with his writing. The answer seemed straightforward: to show the suffering in the world and seek changes to that suffering. Herlihy asked the same question of her.“I want to contribute to the world one fulfilled person - myself,” she replied. As Herlihy recalls almost twenty years later, “that was like the beginning of - for me - a life-long double mindedness. There was this part of me that wanted to do something for the world and part of me that wanted to understand what it meant to be a fulfilled individual. I think she was the first person I ever encountered in my life who really understood that the great art form of the twentieth century is the art of the person.”

In Understanding James Leo Herlihy, the first book-length study of one of America’s most neglected writers, Robert Ward suggests that that sense of double-mindedness is at the heart of Herlihy’s body of work. That work included numerous plays, two collections of short stories, and three novels, all written between the 1950s and the late 1960s. Perhaps the finest of these novels was Midnight Cowboy, which was adapted to screen by John Schlesinger. In 1969, it became the first X-rated film to receive an Academy Award - three, in fact, for best picture, best director, and best screenplay by Waldo Salt. Despite that success, Herlihy became increasingly forgotten as a major mid-century American writer.

Robert Ward examines Herlihy’s writing with reference to the peculiarities of post-war society, the youth rebellion, the erosion of the traditional family, an increasing sexual freedom, and the birth of hippie subcultures. Herlihy’s fictional characters move in and out of these experiences. Some of these characters, especially in short stories and plays, suffer grotesque forms of alienation that Herlihy would have drawn from Southern Gothic writers like Carson McCullers. But other characters, especially in his novels, are capable of finding individual fulfillment, in the Emersonian sense of self-reliance, as well as living and contributing to a community, in the Whitmanian sense of commonality and human bonding. As Ward argues, this tension between individual alienation and fulfillment of the self originated as a theme in Herlihy’s first meeting with Nin in the late 1940s. They would go on to be life-long friends, readers of each other’s work, she referring to him as “my spiritual son.”

"Robert Ward's Understanding James Leo Herlihy is an appealing introduction to this neglected gay American author. Talented and charismatic, Herlihy told sympathetic stories of outsiders and pushed the envelope of acceptable material on the stage and page. Herlihy journeyed through the U.S. Navy, Black Mountain College, Pasadena Playhouse, Broadway, Key West, hippie communes, and Los Angeles, and on the way befriended luminaries Anaïs Nin, Tennessee Williams, and Tallulah Bankhead. This first book on Herlihy incisively discusses his work within its socio-cultural contexts and positions Herlihy in dialogue with his better-known contemporaries such as James Purdy, Carson McCullers, and Williams. Robert Ward's thoughtful and concise monograph represents a notable contribution to the study of post-World War II and gay American literatures." —Michael Snyder, PhD, Professor of English at Oklahoma City Community College

ISBN: 978-1-61117-074-0