In 1926 Robert McAlmon’s Contact Editions of Paris published John Herrmann’s first novel, What Happens. Herrmann, who was from Michigan, would go on to publish several more works of book-length fiction and, in [End Page 147] what Sara Kosiba suggests was the high point of his literary career, even to share the 1932 Scribners Magazine Award for short fiction with Thomas Wolfe. Born in 1900, Herrmann associated with Lost Generation figures including Hemingway, John Dos Passos, Katherine Anne Porter, and William Carlos Williams during the 1920s. He had married in 1924 to leftwing writer Josephine Herbst, and spent time in literary Paris before returning to the US, where for a while he alternated between writing and work as a traveling salesman. By the mid-1930s he was working for Communist-front organizations, and was separated from Herbst (divorced in 1940). He remarried, served in the Coast Guard during the Second World War, and ended his life as an exile in Mexico, succumbing to a heart attack in 1949.
What Happens did not turn out to be another high point in Herrmann’s career for reasons that have much more to do with the cultural and legal status of literature in the US, circa the mid-1920s, than with the novel’s own merits. Some three hundred copies of What Happens were intercepted at the border by US Customs, and the novel was the subject of a 1927 trial on the basis of obscenity that led to its suppression. Kosiba’s introduction to the novel traces this well, including the details that jurors wished to keep their reading copies of the book, that at least one felt it would not harm him, an adult male (but might hurt others less mature), and that the judge followed the suggestion of the prosecuting attorney in not allowing testimony regarding the book’s literary merit from figures such as Porter and H. L. Mencken. That Herrmann used the word “masturbation” several times in the novel probably did not help his case.
The novel’s literary merit from the point of view of the twenty-first century is interesting to contemplate. From the point of view of 1926 or 1927 it likely would have been considerable. It centers on the person (and often within the mind in stream of consciousness style) of Winfield Payne, a young man from Benton (read Lansing), Michigan and from a family of solid middle class status, covering his life from age seventeen through four or five subsequent years as unsuccessful law student, Detroit newspaper correspondent in Washington, DC, travelling salesman of garden seeds and cultured pearls, and one year as a Michigan Man (yes, the phrase existed even back then) on that university’s Ann Arbor campus.
But really, the novel is a satirical bildungsroman covering the education and coming to young manhood of Payne, who is the sort of character that one can love to hate. He is not very smart, not hardworking, plagued sometimes by doubts, willing to cut corners and even embezzle a little when [End Page 148] it seems he will not get caught. He coasts on his solid family background, counts on his father to bail him out of jams and his mother to discourage too-marriage-minded young women, gets drunk in high school (and as a result of this and a pregnancy scare will end up repeating his senior year there), does not outgrow his taste for drink, survives an automobile accident that kills his probable best friend, and generally seems lost in the new cultural milieu of post-World War I America. His ambition is not to get rich, but to live a solid, comfortable life—not because he aspires to a graceful life but because getting rich would entail too much effort. Most importantly to the novel (and to its trial for obscenity), he discovers young women and his own sexuality. In fact, it is only in his relationships that he is much of interest, or particularly alive.
The many young women who pass through his life...