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Art Notes: Ernest Hebert’s novels have had as tough a life as his characters

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    Author Ernest Hebert at his home in Westmoreland, N.H., on Thursday, July 29, 2021. When he started reading American classics, Hebert thought Hemingway was precious, Faulkner was a windbag, and The Great Gatsby was just about the worst book he had ever read. "I wanted to read about characters like myself," said Hebert, who went on to populate his Darby Chronicles Series with working class characters. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

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    Ernest Hebert at his home in Westmoreland, N.H., on Thursday, July 29, 2021. "I just can't believe I'm 80," Hebert said, "I feel 90." (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News / Report For America — Alex Driehaus

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 8/4/2021 9:22:05 PM
Modified: 8/4/2021 9:40:08 PM

Like a lot of books, Ernest Hebert’s Darby novels have had a hard-knock life.

Set in a fictional Cheshire County town, the Darby novels chronicle the lives of a working-class family, the Elmans, and an upper-class one, the Salmons, and the people surrounding them.

The first five Darby books came out from 1979 to 1990 through Viking, a big New York publishing house. Hebert’s editor there was planning to package the five books as a set for publication.

What happened next mirrors the way the working-class characters of Hebert’s novels experience the world: He found himself at the mercy of larger economic forces.

At Viking, “new people went through and saw that I wasn’t selling a lot of books and they essentially fired me,” Hebert said. “Another editor told me, ‘Once you’re out, you’re out,’ and that turned out to be true.”

The University Press of New England picked up some of the Darby books, but Dartmouth College, where Hebert taught creative writing for 25 years, shut down the Lebanon-based imprint in 2018. Late in his long career, Hebert found himself searching for a home for his fictional world.

A writer’s life can seem cushy, but it demands perseverance and resilience, qualities that might be more important than talent in pushing a book into print. Hebert’s novels are replete with characters, many of them like the people he grew up with in his native Keene, who rely on their determination and grit. More than anyone in New England letters, Hebert has held a mirror up to working people. At 80, he’s still at it.

On Tuesday, Wesleyan University Press brought out new editions of Hebert’s Darby novels. And he has written a new one, Whirlybird Island, due out from a small New Hampshire imprint.

Except for a few stints outside New England and the years he spent living in West Lebanon while he taught at Dartmouth, Hebert has lived in Cheshire County. Last week, Hebert received the Ruth and James Ewing Arts Award for Lifetime Achievement.

Sitting on the screened-in porch at his Westmoreland, N.H., home, Hebert took the award, a thick wedge of engraved glass, out of its protective box. The Ewings own the Keene Sentinel, where Hebert had his first writing job. The award honors a native son who as much as anyone has defined the class tensions at work in New England, a job no one else wanted and that has otherwise earned Hebert little thanks.

For a reader who wants to learn about the economic and social pressures at work in New England, there’s no writer other than Hebert to turn to, said Phil Pochoda, who knows Hebert well and published some of the Darby books and his later novels Mad Boys (1993) and The Old American (2000), at UPNE.

“Ernie put class back into American fiction,” Pochoda said.

“You would have thought class was a ripe subject in American fiction,” he added. “But we’ve always denied class.”

Hebert’s first novel, The Dogs of March (1979), introduced an indelible character, Howard Elman. A worker in a textile mill, as Hebert’s father was for 45 years, Elman loses his job when the mill closes. At the same time, the wealthy Salmons are angling to buy his old farm out from under him.

“He’s one of the great characters in fiction,” Pochoda said. “Nobody but Ernie could put across Howard Elman.”

The only series of American regional novels superior to the Darby books is William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County novels, Pochoda said. The best of the Darby novels, Dogs of March and Live Free or Die (1990), deserve a wide readership.

“At his best, he writes like a dream,” Pochoda said.

None of that guarantees publication. Hebert lobbied the remaining staff at UPNE to get the rights to his books. He got them back, except for The Old American, which is distributed by the University of Chicago Press.

He thought he might publish them himself, as e-books or with cover art he made himself. Visual art has been his chief preoccupation since he retired from Dartmouth in 2009.

But Wesleyan University Press contacted him out of the blue, he said. Leaving publication to someone else suited him, he said.

Getting Whirlybird Island into print was more difficult.

“Not only couldn’t I get an agent, I couldn’t even get anybody to read it,” Hebert said.

While it’s set in Darby, Whirlybird Island is a departure for Hebert. It’s a murder mystery.

The story was inspired by Hebert’s father and the generation of men who fought in World War II and returned to civilian life still paralyzed by the horrors they’d witnessed.

Hebert’s father, Elphege Hebert, got dressed in a suit and tie every morning and sat by the window of his house on Oak Street in Keene. This went on for months, and eventually he went back to work and resumed living. The generation’s post-traumatic stress disorder was passed down, Hebert said.

“I think a lot of the ’60s madness was the result of young people who were traumatized by fathers who were traumatized by World War II,” Hebert said.

A cousin of Hebert’s whose father fought at the Battle of the Bulge and whose mother was a combat nurse experienced the trauma firsthand.

“She said, ‘My parents were never abusive, but it was kind of lonely growing up in that house,’ ” Hebert said.

He had long wanted to write about this idea, but felt he couldn’t while his father’s generation was still alive. In 2017, he realized they had all died.

He found a publisher in Plaidswede Publishing Co., a small outfit in Concord.

The seven prior Darby novels were an easier sell, both at first and later on.

“We went through some of the books that UPNE published” in search of titles to reprint, Stephanie Elliott Prieto, a publicist at Wesleyan University Press, said in a phone interview. The Darby novels are of ongoing regional interest, she said. (The press also picked up Going Up the Country, Yvonne Daley’s account of hippies moving to Vermont in the 1960s and ’70s.)

The novels follow Howard Elman and his son, Freddie, who must negotiate the ways in which higher education tugs at a person’s roots. After the first five novels, which appeared in a dozen years, Hebert added Spoonwood, in 2005, and Howard Elman’s Farewell, in 2014.

The final book came to him in a flash, over lunch with Hanover publisher Chip Fleischer, who had been Hebert’s student at Dartmouth and who suggested Hebert write another Darby book.

“My suggestion was really a selfish request,” Fleischer said. “I wanted to read more about the people and places of the Darby series. But also, I sensed from talking with him that it might be something he wanted to do but simply had not let himself realize yet.”

During that conversation, Hebert said, he could suddenly see the entire book. “I’ll always be grateful to Chip for helping inspire that book,” he said.

Asked about his legacy, Hebert wasn’t certain what was in store. He cares about it, but recognizes that it’s out of his hands.

“I don’t think you should run away from your vanities,” he said. “Everybody wants to leave a legacy.”

He would like to get The Old American into the hands of Wesleyan University Press, he said. And he’d like one thing that has been denied him as a writer: a big score. The Darby books, he said, would make “a great background for a television series.”

Hebert and his wife of 52 years, Medora Hebert, a former photographer at the Valley News, live a comfortable life, he said. He wants what most working-class people want.

“I would like to do it for my kids,” he said. His daughters, Lael and Nicole, are approaching middle age, and he’s got a grandson, Zeno, in Washington state, with Lael.

Since 2009, Hebert has been back on his home turf. Westmoreland is just north of Keene. He goes to the gym in his native city and is still in touch with friends from grade school, some of the people who made him the writer he is.

“I’m very much in touch with my roots here,” Hebert said.

He spends much of his time in a basement office in the small home he and Medora had built for their retirement. The windows look out on his woodpile and the trees and a stone wall that crosses the backyard. He draws on a tablet, or writes. His creative life is ongoing.

“If I could live another 50 years,” he said, “I’d have plenty of stories to write.”

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207.




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