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Banned for 89 years, "What Happens" is finally getting a release party

Jun 10, 2015

Eighty-nine years after being banned, John Herrmann’s first book What Happens is finally being published.

Arguably Lansing’s best forgotten writer, Herrmann was part of the famous expat American writers’ crowd in Paris in the 1920s and called Ernest Hemingway a friend.

All photos are from a collection from Susan Brewster, niece of John Herrmann, and have not been published until now.

Herrmann was born on New Year’s Day in 1900.

Vice president of the Historical Society of Greater Lansing Bill Castanier tells us that Herrmann's family was very wealthy and very loving.

"But I think we can understand from some of his writing, and some of the later correspondence he received from his parents, that they were very strict, and they had high regards for what he would and wouldn’t do," says Castanier.

Formal portrait of Herrmann taken in the 1930's .
Credit Susan Brewster

Sara Kosiba, Herrmann biographer and English professor at Troy University in Montgomery, Alabama, says that Herrmann probably started writing in college.

“He was surrounded by people, even early on who were doing a lot of … writing and exploring those ideas,” Kosiba says.

Herrmann lived in Paris for a number of years in the 1920s, where Kosiba believes he wrote What Happens.

In the U.S., obscenity had been banned in most states for around 100 years and by the federal government for almost 50 by the time What Happens was ready to be published.

Kosiba tells us that Herrmann’s writing style was very honest and forward-thinking for the time in ways that sometimes flew in the face of what society accepted morally.

“Especially during that time period there was a high sense of sort of what morality should be and what we wanted to sort of publicly, you know, endorse it as,” Kosiba says, “and so a book like Herrmann’s sort of subverted some of that.”

What Happens drew the attention of the U.S. Customs Office, and was accused of violating the 1922 Tariff Act which banned the import of obscene materials from other countries.

“It ended up being that basically Herrmann’s battle was with the Treasury Department,” Kosiba says.

According to Castanier, Herrmann’s trial was one of the first major obscenity trials in the United States.

“He was one of the first people to hire an attorney and fight it,” Castanier says.

Despite a statement from a psychologist saying that this book would have no impact on young adults and a number of authors writing in to support Herrmann’s effort and speak on his behalf, Herrmann lost the trial and the book was banned.

“It was a very quick trial, I think it was only one day,” Castanier says. “And [the book] was deemed obscene and destroyed.”

Kosiba tells us that Herrmann continued to write through the following years, publishing predominantly in smaller magazines of the time. His second novel, Summer Is Ended, didn’t appear until 1932, though she believes he may have written it as early as 1928 and simply struggled to find a publisher.

“[It] was likely in many cases because he had such difficulties with the first novel,” Kosiba says. “So he didn’t have that sort of reputation built up that would have made it easy to continue.”

Later in life Herrmann came under investigation for some of the things he had done in relation to the Communist Party in America.

Modern book jacket for "What Happens." The original book published in Paris did not have a cover design.
Credit Hastings College Press

Living in rural Pennsylvania through much of the Great Depression, Kosiba says that Herrmann developed a sympathy for the conditions that they were dealing with.

"I think that’s really where his more radical ideas started," she says. "I think he really just had sort of the working class in his heart to a great degree and was sympathetic to the concerns they had."

The Library of Michigan in Lansing is hosting a release party for What Happens, first published 89 years after being banned.

More information on the event can be found here.