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Robert Herrick

Written in a time of turbulent change, Herrick's novels described the personal consequences of social upheaval: avarice, infidelity, cowardice, separation, and torn hopes. William James, among others, praised Herrick for his frank view of modern society.




 "Love," manuscript notebook

Robert Herrick, "Love," manuscript notebook, 1916.

Seldom hesitating to write what he thought, Herrick produced novels that many considered licentious. His work was not only controversial; as the entries from this notebook make clear, much of it drew heavily on his own experience and observation.


Robert Herrick | Rhetoric

In his time a prolific and influential novelist, Robert Herrick was a professor of English and rhetoric at the University of Chicago from its inception until he resigned in 1923. Coming to Chicago from MIT at the urging of William Rainey Harper, Herrick anticipated an exciting intellectual environment, but his experience proved to be bittersweet. Personal and family problems, combined with a dislike for the Midwest and the city of Chicago, produced almost immediate dissatisfaction and periodic despair.

While Herrick often chafed under his teaching obligations, he benefited from the University's intellectual ferment and the unusual freedom from teaching responsibilities that Harper had provided him. During his tenure at Chicago, Herrick produced thirteen novels, spending lengthy periods of time in Europe and in the East while he wrote.

Part of a rising generation of American realists, Herrick's works dramatized contemporary social questions. His novels and plays were often thinly disguised autobiographical accounts of life in Chicago and elsewhere. If Herrick was a controversial man, it was not only because he criticized important Chicagoans, but also because he drew attention to the evils of industrialism and to the darker side of human life. His book, The Common Lot (1904), was a fictionalized account of his own unhappy experiences while building a house on University Avenue. Architects and builders appear as incompetent money grubbers, eager to exploit an unsuspecting public. In Chimes (1926), Herrick settled his score with the University, explaining its birth as the coming together of new wealth and an energetic but uncultured president. The streets of mud and the primitive urban frontier setting of the young University that Chimes described had many elements of truth, but even Herrick's close friends criticized his harsh caricature of Harper.

Not a particularly happy man, Herrick's personal and professional life was often in turmoil. In an autobiographical note titled "In Search of One's Soul," Herrick described his personal pilgrimage.

The image of man toiling up desolate windswept heights, with some unknown destination, unrealized aim. As the journey progresses the scene has grown wilder, sterner, more desolate, less distracting, less peopled, and less cumbered...[H]e is more and more definitely conscious that his pursuit is necessary, inevitable, and that its sole consolation is that at each stage he finds himself strong enough to rise and resume the toilsome way, without enthusiasm or emotional delight, perceiving more clearly that the road will be increasingly lonely, severe, and the end defeat .... The reward? Somewhere, somehow, around some dark, forbidding cliff he will come face to face with himself, entire, complete.

Despite being counseled against it, Herrick resigned abruptly from the University in 1923. He never forgave the University for refusing to pay him what he regarded as an adequate and justly earned pension. It was during the last years of his life as governor of the Virgin Islands that Herrick unexpectedly achieved a measure of both personal satisfaction and wider recognition for his abilities as a capable administrator.

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