The Land of Tomorrow: The Unknown Hervey White

(Photo by Dion Ogust)

Part two (read part one)

Those who begin to study this town’s most elusive character at his end rather than at his beginning, won’t ever capture Hervey White. That’s why the godfather of Woodstock has eluded so many for so long. Scholars read Hervey’s last and least honest effort, that paid-for-but-never-published “Autobiography” and consider it gospel.

But our only chance at catching the Maverick’s Maverick with his guard down requires, first off, basic mastery of his trio of highly accurate memoir-novels: Childhood Fancies  [1927]; Boy’s Vision [1928]; and Youth’s Worship [1929]; all set by hand on White’s own Maverick Press, with a print run of between 50 and a hundred copies each. Yes, here — once you’re wise to him — White’s illegitimacy (as exposed in Part I of this series) is subtly but distinctly clear.

Next, sprinkle in his plays and early short stories, especially “The Anatomy of An Enigma.” Pay careful attention to his poems and their original inscriptions. The latter you’ll find in his archive at Iowa University, where several abandoned novels additionally reveal that early, reckless courage which the later, far more cautious author couldn’t maintain. As a result all but four of White’s finished novels are mediocre or worse, while the best seem written by an entirely different man. But all of Hervey’s life is encoded in his fiction, so get busy. And don’t overlook the Italian wanderer diary he kept after that most mysterious last year at Harvard. Then compare the re-drafted version of that diary, which he serially published in one of his Maverick Press magazines, to the 1894 original — and you’ve finally cornered him. That said, Hervey’s earliest and most revealing diary doesn’t exist in original form either.

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But before that story, this one:

White filled the post of a “broken down” school teacher in a one room schoolhouse near Stockton, Kansas when he was 16 and, despite the protests of certain parents, kept it for two years. Although his own family had moved into a sod-buster’s cabin when he was 13, at ten he secretly vowed  to attend Harvard — and so he saved every penny. The runt was paid to play the fiddle at dances, cook for cowboys in the summer, pick apples in the fall. Then came his years as a teacher which, after a raise, resulted in the princely salary of thirty five dollars a month. In 1885, at 19, he could afford the first semester of a seven year degree at the University of Kansas. Here, despite co-education, young Will White (as he was then known) fell under the spell of a classmate named Gilbert — as well read as himself, and whose letters the older, wiser “Hervey” White would “never bring himself to burn.”

It’d be another University friend, George Virtue, who’d blaze the trail to Harvard from Kansas, which “Hervey” White would follow, although — or perhaps because — he was by that time profoundly changed.

It happened like this.

Will White had been unable to pay for spring tuition in 1885 and so accepted a job from his older brother, Bart, to help on the ranch. Their relationship had always been strained and in a fit of rage, Bart finally told the whelp why.

Why it was they’d moved out west (to be near their Mother’s people) while “The Dad” was still fighting for the Yankees; why it was they settled out of town in a hidden, broken down place where Mother soon took sick and died — most grateful to be dead! Why? Because that bum they called “the Dad” returned from war and gave his Christian name to the bastard son of some stranger back East, a screaming brat who’d cursed the family with unmentionable shame and drove Mother to her early grave — that little bastard who was none other than his own so-called “brother,” Will White! The pale, weak, cowardly, little excuse of a fancy pants run off to get some fancy degree, now reduced to mowing hay like an ignorant field hand!

(Photo by Dion Ogust)

At the news Will went pale and ran. Evidently he followed a stream bed with trees at its banks where he writhed, moaned, and tore his clothes in the mud and mire. Then? He plain lost his mind.

But 15 years later this bastard son had vengeance on his beast of a brother by retelling all that was said that day (in White’s groundbreaking, Quicksand.) And how it cursed and blessed him, both. For though Will White henceforth wallowed in a shame setting him apart from other men, he also felt that secret thrill of being set free from society’s rule. From his enlightenment forward the bastard, Will White, knew himself to be profoundly “other.” Yet except for the reckless publication of Quicksand in 1900, no one would ever again have cause to guess the reason why.

He was back at college and working as a lamp-lighter when a favorite professor asked Will who he thought would best fulfill the requirements of scribe on a three year archeological expedition through Northern Mexico. On the train bound for the Rio Grande Will took his mother’s brother name of, “Hervey.”

But after only a year in the field, the leader of the expedition went back to his professorship and stopped sending assistants their checks. So White resigned and returned to the Univ. of K in 1890. Here, the newly-renamed and altogether altered adventurer adapted the Mexican diary he’d kept by campfire light into The Land of Tomorrow. Hervey’s “romance of 40,000 words” created quite a stir among friends and faculty, for it not only announced White’s homosexuality but provided fair evidence of genius. Today, what may be the only surviving manuscript is in Hervey’s own hand, a Xerox copy that — God only knows how — has ended up in the Woodstock Library.

Some 40 some years later this same journal-transformed-into-first novel, itself, served as rough draft for Youth’s Worshipthe last of White’s memoir-novels. Read the two together for a autobiographical experience like no other. (Hervey must’ve figured: “Who would ever read both?”)

 

On a journey by train into The Land of Tomorrow, an unnamed American narrator careens between grief and adventure while sharing the state of his broken heart. With whom? (Well, aside from the few of us reading a lost manuscript…) Of course, the young man responsible for breaking it. In reality, this would be “Gilbert,” White’s college lover who succumbed to marriage. So Hervey’s first novel, aside from constituting a homosexual bombshell, depicts a genuine and by no means uneventful journey of healing in a longer than lengthy letter of farewell.

Of course, the desolate ex-pat soon finds amorous distraction riding alongside a gorgeous mule-herd named Marselino, the swarthy, denim-clad muchacho who volunteers as our narrator’s personal assistant. But Marselino seduces or has already seduced a different sweetheart in every village, so it’s only through the effervescent charm fully obvious in Hervey’s narrative, that his stand-in finally gets this mucho macho Mexican alone in as romantic and exotic a location as any Hollywood has yet contrived.

Youth’s Worship — with a transparently hot ‘n heavy title — tells the same tale in the third person. The plot today? Seems a likely candidate for a carbon-fourteen test. Nevertheless in 1890 it was faaaaar too daring for any known American publisher, since The Land of Tomorrow fomented not one, but two revolutions.

The first prophecies our present day gender-blended world in a scenario fated to become its author’s recurring triumph and tragedy, both. Yes, the homosexual Hervey White would, again and again, fall in love with and somehow manage to seduce a handsome Casanova, while invariably losing out to this otherwise archly heterosexual’s fiancée or wife.

The novel’s second rebellion is stylistic but just as off-putting to a reader of the day. For what changed Will into Hervey, that is: what exactly he learned about himself from his half brother, eventually forces out of him a new kind of language, not yet written or heard — except as it was derived, obscurely, through Wordsworth, Whitman, and Poe. Yet the awful irony surrounding White’s breakthrough  (anticipating Gerard Manley Hopkins, DH Lawrence, Joyce, and Dylan Thomas — to name a few) is that it accompanies a white-hot plot rendered through language which occasionally soars into what would then be considered unintelligible.

Take for or instance this section from early in the Mexican diary, when Hervey is sitting on a raised grave out in the middle of nowhere. Like many a would-be Hamlet before him, Hervey rhapsodizes on whoever might be buried beneath. Although by now (we know that) any such grave has become his mother’s grave, and thus triggers Hervey’s desperation to be forgiven for hastening her early death (or his desire to at least live a life noble enough to off-set the curse of his birth.) But no one will ever realize any of this in White’s lifetime, and so how would or could anyone in 1890 react to the following?

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“The sharp sweet stroke of the old town bell awakens me and bids me be content. Time is hurrying on, and soon I will know all the whys or never care to know.

‘Already I feel the daisies growing over me,’ said the dying Keats. One does not need to be dying to feel that. He may be in his youth and in the best of health and if he goes out into the night when the rain is falling quietly, he can feel the white-human-like rootlets creep down into the friendly soil, the soil that has lain so long in its place that all men have forgotten when it was disturbed or who was the man that was placed beneath; when the old world is turning as before with all its colonies of human ants each one running about mad as ever, intent only upon his own sorrows. And as the tenth stroke of the bell has ceased, and the pleading silence comes flooding in my ears, a wild passionate longing to be good, simply good, seizes my whole frame and sends it vibrating in throbbing unison with the throbbing growth of root and bud that are leaking under the falling life and I see the faces of all my friends from childhood up, and I think how many times I might have done something for them that would have made their world a fleck brighter for a moment, and the longing goes striving up against the beating and now repelling rain trying to find a God to plead with if there is a God, and then I suddenly remember it is time to go to work and leave off thinking. What is the used of thinking anyway? It only unsettles one.”

 

So the above appears in the unpublished novel of a young poet who’ll be brought to Woodstock in 1902, under circumstances never revealed before. He’ll eventually break away from his patron, the love his life, an all-powerful bisexual, who — like the rest — returns to his Mrs. Indeed, Hervey stalks off in a jealous (if thoroughly censored) rage to briefly and disastrously marry. By then, with another, since married, ex-lover, he begins an anarchistic colony based on true freedom: artistic, sexual, and philosophic.

To Woodstock, his followers, and to a certain extent among the world at large, he is known as a revolutionary. (And to be fair Hervey does build an utterly unique shrine to classical music, The Maverick Concert Hall, as well as devise an entirely original means of maintaining an art colony free of the narcissistic whims of a millionaire: The Annual Maverick Festival.) But in his heart, Hervey realizes once Oscar Wilde is sentenced to two years hard labor for “indecency,”  that whatever homosexual tolerance had slowly evolved was lost again. And so — except in the sanctuary of his own Maverick Colony — he remains a closeted lover of men, a closeted Christian, a reformed anti-Semite, and increasingly crotchety old fuddy-duddy. Shortly before his end, Hervey tries to start afresh on a larger property in the deep South where he briefly succeeds in placing blacks and whites on the same Christian stage. But he is prisoner of his own legend and promulgates such in an autobiography too elusively highbrow to even publish. Hervey’s is a sad if brave end back in Woodstock — nor has the truth of it ever been told.

But instead let’s stay a minute longer with his almost unimaginably courageous beginnings, and how he began wrapping up the dream he never lived to see; a dream called, The Land of Tomorrow.

 

“…Here I sit on this lofty hill beside a ruin of which all archeologists have read, and I am thinking of Marselino, and how beautiful he is, and how he is going tomorrow and I will never look far back into those deep dark liquid love wells more. How surprised I was yesterday to see the difference in the color of our hands when clasped; his, so dark, almost as dark as a negro’s yet having nothing of the smokey greasy black, but a clear bronze. 

Both the ruins and the view from this mountain top are grand, but I am tired now and heartsick. Still I will remember all as long as I live. If I forget the heart sickness no matter…I went to the river with them [the other Mexican hands] and as were riding together, he told me again how often he would think of me, he and Catalina [“his intended”] together, and how he would write, and he would be very angry if I did not send him a photograph for I was his dearest friend and then slowly:

          ‘I care a great deal for you.’

And when I replied that I liked him better than all the others he said simply: ‘I know.’

I could look at him then, and I saw the lines around the beautiful mouth were quivering and drawing, and his throat was writhing. He turned toward me quickly and his eyes met mine. Ah, the shining of those eyes! He smiled; and I saw in every feature that he was saying, “It is hard to bear, but we are strong.”

He was gay when we parted; but the soft tender light was shining in his eyes. As he pulled his horse about and took off his hat waving a last laughing lingering good bye, he made the most beautiful picture I have ever seen.”++


Tad Wise wishes to thank Jean Lasher Gaede for her unique knowledge of, and passion for, Hervey White & The Maverick. She lit the fire.

There is one comment

  1. Suzette Green

    WOW! I am gobsmacked by this epistle. Before I can really comment, I must read it again. Now I understand how this journey with Hervey has taken so much of your brainiac energy and hominid measure. To invest in this research is phenomenal, thank you, Tad Wise, for giving us the real Mr. White.

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