The Anatomy of an Enigma: The Unknown Hervey White

From Life magazine, August 22, 1938

Part One

Erroneously named “founder” of Woodstock by Life magazine in 1938, Hervey White [1866-1944] is better described as godfather of a town he personally transformed into America’s most famous Bohemia, earlier even than 1920. But despite this fact, and although admired by artists and farmers alike, Hervey lived and died an enigma. Some knew part, but none knew all his secrets. 

As a novelist White was caught between Victorian prudishness and the reckless candor of DH Lawrence, whom he preceded by a generation and originally surpassed in daring.  However, Hervey’s youthful impulse to reveal all of himself (as inspired by the poetry of Walt Whitman) was eventually cancelled out by a sabotaging, deep-seated shame. White’s vastly disappointing literary odyssey, therefore, leaves any newcomer stubborn enough to read his almost three thousand page output frustrated in the extreme, and any old-timer, already familiar with the legend of Hervey White, scratching their head in disbelief.

After all, this was the founder of the Maverick Colony, who our lauded historian Alf Evers called “the first hippie,” a man whose rebellious reputation defied the very idea of caution or deviousness. Hervey was Woodstock’s original Pied Piper, who, after his abrupt 1905 departure from our original art colony, Byrdcliffe, built his own ramshackle retreat named after an uncapturable horse. 


At The Maverick both artistic experimentation and sexual freedom flourished, wealth was despised, and most colonists were made welcome unless or until exhausted by communal poverty. Here, starting in 1916, the annual decadence of the Maverick Festival provided such stalwarts the bare necessities for a far less glamorous remainder of the year; while Hervey, between self-publications on his own primitive printing press, dreamed up the following mid-summer’s “performance art,” generations before the term was ever uttered. 

Yes, these were the all-night extravaganzas inspiring the “Sound Outs” on Glasco Turnpike in the mid-sixties, which in turn inspired “Three days of Peace, Love, and Music” better known as The Woodstock Festival held at Bethel in 1969. 

Yet the puppet master at the heart of The Maverick Festival’s 16 year reign — fated to change Woodstock forever — remained aloof as a visiting god. Though he provided shelter and encouragement to young people in search of a better world, and would read aloud through the late afternoons in that soft, soothing voice to however many of his followers gathered ‘round to listen, at his core he was unknowable. Certainly, he’d read to them from Whitman, Wordsworth and Thoreau, or from John Ruskin or The Sermon on The Mount or the Bhagavad-Gita. Yet the experiences which shaped this different drummer were mute, even if his sexual preference for men was not. For after his brief, disastrous marriage at the end of which his two boys were taken from him for 30 years or more, Hervey’s essentially homosexual nature became an open secret at The Maverick. Similarly, his inner circle learned of the great love of Hervey’s life, and his all-but-eternal war with this beloved enemy, (concerning which all but one of Woodstock’s twentieth century scholars betrayed their calling by suppressing.) Yet Hervey’s secrets went far deeper than mere affairs of the heart.

Like so many haunted individuals before him, Hervey White’s life story was a dodge ‘n weave, invent ‘n avoid exercise. Even so, some factual accounts or hints too numerous to be ignored invariably survived. It was almost as if Hervey’s original impulse to reveal everything about himself had made a deal with history, and his ghost goaded town historians from that famous hillside graveyard: “Search out and study every shred that isn’t burned…See past the lies and obscurations…follow the ragged trail of truth and…there I am.” 

For instance, Hervey famously abstained from alcohol. However, this was not for the sake of the saintliness he feigned, but rather  because he feared liquor would loosen his tongue, or set ablaze that rigorously repressed if most violent temper, or re-awaken madness, itself.

To begin with, the most self-punishing of Hervey’s great secrets amounted to nothing more or less than original sin. He’d been born a bastard in Iowa (on a day which long remained a secret) in 1866. He would never learn the identity of his true father back in upstate New York. And he would only discover at about 17 that the man known to his siblings as “The Dad” was indeed theirs, but not his own father. Only then would Hervey finally understand why his older brother resented him so, why his older sister protected him fiercely, why he’d always been an outsider among his cousins, and — most important of all — why his mother had refused to breastfeed him, and seemed to welcome her own illness and death well before “Will White” (as he was first named) was even three years old.

Yet once revealed, this source of damnation he’d instinctively felt hanging over him his entire youth, freed the fearless adventurer in him. Stranger still, this mystery, solved, also flushed from hiding his greatest ally. Namely, that Civil War veteran who’d sought out his family’s “fresh start” a year after war’s end in 1867 — the 41 year old Private William Andrew White had never seen New London, Iowa before nor the lonely cabin at the edge of town, on the porch of which he encountered a stranger’s infant son in his own eleven year old daughter’s arms. Yet from that day forward this remarkable man (descended from the White family of Mayflower fame) proved to be this lonely little tyke’s most loyal if indeed most secret friend. 

We know this principally because “The Dad” legitimized the babe with his own name: “William White.” And in doing so he showed the bastard favor which, for reasons unknown, his own natural son never enjoyed. In fact, “The Dad” fed the weakling warmed milk from his own canteen, and soon plowed the field with the runt seated on a perch that weighed down the blade. Will White’s life long wanderings helped explain similar epic journeys undertaken by the enigma soon to grow tall in their midst. Even after, that is, Will Jr. ran off to Mexico and changed his name to “Hervey” on the train; this being the name of his deceased Mother’s brother, another oddball, who’d commanded a battalion of negro soldiers for the Union Army. 

But young Will only changed his name (after, at 16, he’d already paid for his own Freshman year at college) because his enraged older brother had at last blurted out the truth about him, while admitting to deeply resenting the whelp long before his birth. 

This we surmise through the most thorough description of Hervey’s illegitimacy as appeared in his 1900 masterpiece Quicksand, a book which doubtless threw the entire White family into pandemonium. Theodore Dreiser would eventually call it, “one of the six great novels in the world,” for which Hervey thanked him most graciously, (while making certain Quicksand was never republished, not even on White’s own Maverick Press, where it would have made him a fortune.) 

By far the most troubling aspect of this, Hervey’s most courageous work, was that it exposed that well-crafted lie explaining why, in 1866, a pregnant Martha White disembarked in Iowa from the train she and her half-grown daughter and son boarded the week before in New York. The family’s invented history told of an 1865 furlough visit made by Martha’s husband, Will, back to the original White homestead in Oswego, NY, and of the babe he left in her belly before returning to General Butler’s forces in New Orleans. Ironically, this fabrication became so prominent a feature in White family history that it turned up in Hervey’s grand-daughter, Christie Dauphin’s otherwise impeccable account of both her grandparent’s remarkable lives. And were it not for the lie, the truth would likely never have emerged. For this family legend, once investigated, encounters two impossible problems.                   

Firstly: furloughs in the Union Army were most commonly granted to Republican soldiers, so they could return to cast votes in their home states. Yet governmental protocol dictated such furloughs were dispensed in the election year of 1864, not ’65 — when White family tradition insists Will White returned to Oswego and impregnated Martha. 

Secondly: even if White had been granted a furlough in ’65, this would still fail to explain Hervey’s birth date, which obscurely emerges as November 29, 1866. For Lee surrenderd to Grant in early April ’65 and so a “furlough pregnancy” (necessarily caused during the war and thus earlier than that date) could not possibly justify the birth of a boy in November of ‘66. However, as long as the birthdate of Martha’s third child remains  unmentioned, then that furlough explanation justifies Martha arriving in Iowa pregnant by her husband. When in fact, she arrived after the war was over and — doubtless in the wake of celebrations surrounding such — adulterously pregnant. 

That is the factual explanation. 

Additionally, Hervey’s own writings teem with disguised, illegitimate births; particularly in his plays, “The Runt,” “The Prodigal Father,” as well as in “Border Freaks” wherein we find:

Maria: And your mother? Who was your mother?

Gregorio: You always told me she was your sister, Julia.

Maria: All women lie, Gregorio. They lie to shield themselves.

It’s the only way they have…the only way.

And from Quicksand:

Then he spoke of the family shame and the silence to all the neighbors…They decided to go to Iowa and take Hubert [aka Hervey] with them as [their] brother…They would cut off all communication with the past, and start a new life in the west…

But most pointedly from the same novel, when Hervey’s stand-in “Hubert” coolly informs his older brother, Sam (who has just seduced Hubert’s young wife:)

“If there is a child, I can disown it as a bastard.”

“It will be of your own company, then,” sneered Sam.“You yourself are nothing but a bastard.”

Then, thirty three far-more-philosophically disposed years later, at the age of 66, Hervey self-published a one hundred and thirty nine page mock-epic poem called, “Tinker Tom,” in which — out of nowhere and in relation to no specific character — he provides the following meditation on illegitimacy:

…The children gotten within wedlock

Such as escape forbidden birth control,

Have more respect for treasure, bank, and padlock,

Lacking originality of soul…

Horse breeders teach us that the better fed stock

Produce a milder, easier governed foal…

With men, there is more spirit in a bastard,

and daring temper, not so meekly mastered.

We all have seen how children, illegitimate…

‘Love Children’ is the term employed in Sweden…

Do more originality of wit emit

Than those by matrimonial he and she done.

They have a tendency to question, flit a bit,

The spirit that incited Eve in Eden;

They’re not so willing to walk in a garden,

And take the law from an established warden.

There springs a freedom from the open heather,

Defiance of four walls with shut-in ceiling,

When dawn and stars of morning sing together,

When passion ‘opes the gates of Heaven, revealing

The realms of nature, swept with wind and weather,

While arbitrary laws of men go reeling

A’down his trivial centuries, to the chasm

Bridged by the first organic protoplasm.

From the wild, fierce embrace of nymph & satyr

Must spring a freer, wilder, nobler spirit,

Born of the fire of nature’s chemic crater,

Choosing a body beauteous, to bear it,

Closer resembling image of Creator, 

With more pristine virtue, more of merit,

Than the smug humdrums of our pious streets.

Got by staid deacons ‘twixt two tepid sheets.

This secretly confessional self-portrait — far transcending evidence of illegitimacy — veritably brags of bastardry. However, Hervey White must become an old man, with his secret long and well hid, before he’ll arrive at such peace of mind concerning having been born a “Love Child.”

Read other articles in this series.

There are 2 comments

  1. Suzette Green

    Remarkable and insightful treatise on a man I long admired, and did not fully understand why. Well done research, and timely published, thanks again, Tad Wise, for for keeping us apprised as you so eloquently do. Looking forward to more of your words-work.

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