Hervey Allen

Born - Dec 8, 1889   |   Died - Dec 28, 1949   |   Genres - Adventure

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Hervey Allen is best remembered as a major American novelist of the 1930s and 1940s, specifically for his book Anthony Adverse, one of the biggest selling novels of the 1930s and the source for a massively successful Warner Bros. film. In actual fact, he enjoyed two successful careers as an author, first as one of the most popular poets of the "lost generation" that immediately followed World War I, and then as a bestselling author of historical fiction. Rather ironically, he'd never set out specifically to be an author, per se, but fell into writing while in search of a career for himself and convalescing from injuries suffered during World War I. Born William Hervey Allen Jr. in Pittsburgh, PA, he was the son of William Hervey Allen Sr., an entrepreneur and inventor, and the former Helen Eby Myers. He grew up very distant emotionally from his father, whom he held responsible for impoverishing the family with his dubious business ideas, and was, instead, an admirer of his paternal grandfather, who had been a pioneer and an engineer. The pioneers, the spirit behind them, and the builders of the American continent, would later become key focuses of his fiction. Allen qualified for admission to the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis, but he was forced to leave as a result of serious sports injuries. He received a degree in Economics from the University of Pittsburgh in 1915, but in the absence of any serious career goals, he began writing poetry and also seeking out some larger cause in which he could serve a useful purpose. He became a passionate believer in President Woodrow Wilson's attempt to intervene in the Mexican Revolution on behalf of democratic rule, and this was how Allen came to join the Pennsylvania National Guard in 1916; he served in a unit posted to El Paso for several months before returning to civilian life.

Allen was only back three months when the United States entered World War I, and he was recalled, promoted to first lieutenant, and posted to France. He might well have not lived through the conflict: Allen served in combat and was gassed, succumbed to shell-shock (what is now called Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), and spent an extended period in the hospital. It was there that his literary career began, with the poetry he wrote about his war experiences. His work was filled with cruel, bitter imagery and a profound sense of waste, reflecting the author's own disillusionment. His writings found a wide audience among millions of readers for whom the American involvement in the European war -- though it had very likely saved civilization in Europe -- was a psychological and social wound that wouldn't heal. The Blindman, published in the December 1919 issue of North American Review, became his best known poem; read by millions, widely praised, studied, and discussed, it heralded the perceived birth of the "lost generation" of the 1920s, dislocated from their social moorings, their youth and expectations shattered, and adrift in life. The acclaim for his work hit Allen rather suddenly, and at a point when he was still putting the finishing touches on his skills and credentials as a writer; in 1919 and 1920, as he was becoming a major poet, he was taking graduate courses at Harvard. By the early part of the decade, Allen had gone into retreat from his fame, taking a job as a high school English teacher in Charleston, SC, where he also took a part in founding the Poetry Society of South Carolina. He later taught at Columbia University and Vassar College -- where he subsequently married one of his students, Ann Hyde Andrews -- and gradually shifted his work toward prose as well as poetry, publishing a personal remembrance of the war entitled Toward the Flame: A War Diary in 1925, and Israfel: The Life and Times of Edgar Allen Poe the following year.

During the 1930s, Allen gave up writing poetry almost entirely, turning to prose with greater energy and ambition than ever. His most widely read work, the epic novel Anthony Adverse, followed in 1933. One of the biggest bestsellers of the 1930s, its success only surpassed by Gone With the Wind and a tiny handful of other books, Anthony Adverse was a historical novel set during the Napoleonic era, telling of a man's journey across life and several continents in search of a meaning to his life. In a manner that anticipated the selling of the Harry Potter books and other late-20th century pop-culture phenomenona, Anthony Adverse was among the first American novels to be cross-promoted to the public through product tie-ins and other similar promotional devices. The screen rights were purchased by Warner Bros., which spared no expense in filming this blockbuster, among the most expensive releases by the studio before the 1950s. The studio assigned as producer its most prodigiously talented executive, David O. Selznick, who really broke the ground for his production of Gone With the Wind (which hadn't even yet been published) with this film; director Mervyn LeRoy turned it into a box-office hit starring Fredric March. The movie also served as a vehicle for one of the most distinguished film scores ever written by Erich Wolfgang Korngold. The novel would prove to be the commercial high point of Allen's literary career -- his subsequent novels all sold very well but never dominated the imagination of the mass public in the way that Anthony Adverse had, and none of his later books were brought to the screen.

As late as 1940, his chronicles and observations of World War I were still commanding serious critical attention and readership -- a 1940 publication, It Was Like This: Two Stories of the Great War, was represented in the personal library of Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of the president. Allen's outlook on the world changed with the times, and in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor, he abandoned his pacifism. He began work on The Disinherited, which was conceived as a pair of historical epics starting in colonial America, dealing with the birth of the United States, telling of the resourcefulness of the people who started the spread of democratic ideals across the continent. He had finished most of the first volume, The City and the Dawn (which included the books The Forest and the Fort, Bedford Village, and Toward the Morning), and they were completed posthumously with sections of a fourth book that rounded out the planned first half of the epic; the second half, Richfield Springs, was never finished. Even as he spent his last years on this massive series of novels, Allen also branched into nonfictional work, as the editor of a series of books called "Rivers of America." The latter helped popularize an environmental consciousness decades before such notions were widely acknowledged or accepted. This was principally a result of his decision to move his residence to Florida, where he developed a deep love for the Everglades. He kept a residence at the Glades in Dade County, where he worked during the last years of his life. Allen died in his home there at the very end of 1949, just weeks after his 60th birthday. Along with Kenneth Roberts and Ben Ames Williams, Allen was one of the most widely read authors of historical fiction of his generation, and his books were heavily reprinted in paperback long after his death.