American writer whose Vietnam War book, Dispatches, was hailed as a model of New Journalism
MICHAEL HERR, who has died aged 76, was the author of Dispatches, the definitive account of the war in Vietnam; John le Carré called it “the best book I have ever read on men and war in our time”.
“I went to cover the war and the war covered me,” wrote Herr, who from 1967 until 1969 was in Vietnam as correspondent for Esquire. “Have you come to write about what we’re wearing?” a soldier asked him, alluding to the magazine’s traditional focus on men’s fashion.
However, it had also begun to publish articles by the likes of Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe that used techniques of reportage traditionally reserved for literature. Although he actually filed very little from Vietnam, Herr became a central figure in this “New Journalism” with the publication in 1977 of Dispatches.
Written with both high-octane immediacy and trance-like lyricism, it conveyed precisely not the events of the war, nor even perhaps episodes which had actually happened, but its mood, in which the eternal certainties of death and defeat were dulled by drugs and embraced to a soundtrack of rock ‘n’ roll.
“There was such a dense concentration of American energy there,” he wrote, “American and essentially adolescent, if that energy could have been channelled into anything more than noise, waste and pain, it would have lighted up Indochina for a thousand years.”
Though there were descriptions of combat, Herr’s vantage point was that of a writer rather than a soldier. None the less, so intense was the experience of being there that he rapidly abandoned any notions of objectivity, embedded as he was with the ordinary infantrymen, many of them teenagers, whose perspective he absorbed.
“You cannot be detached,” he later observed. “If you are, you don’t get it, however much you want to be a pure observer. If you are neutral, you don’t understand it.” But the price of this revealed itself when he returned to New York, and when he had already written much of the book.
“Within 18 months of coming back, I was on the edge of a major breakdown,” he revealed. “It hit in 1971 and it was very serious. Real despair for three or four years; deep paralysis. I split up with my wife for a year.
“I didn’t see anybody because I didn’t want anybody to see me. It’s part of the attachment. You get attached to good things; you get attached to bad things.” But when he managed to finish the memoir, it was at once recognised as a masterpiece.
“It summons up the very essence of the war,” thought the novelist Robert Stone, “the dope, the Dexedrine, the body bags, the rot, all of it.” “It’s as if Dante had gone to hell with a cassette recording of Jimi Hendrix and a pocketful of pills,” wrote John Leonard in the New York Review of Books. As it was, Dispatches also proved to have absorbed most of Herr’s creative energy.
Of Jewish descent, Michael David Herr was born on April 13 1940 in Lexington, Kentucky. The family soon moved to Syracuse, New York, where his father worked as a jeweller. David attended Syracuse University, where he wrote for the literary magazine, edited by Joyce Carol Oates, but he soon dropped out to travel.
He picked up occasional commissions from the press, being hired and then fired by a film magazine for “liking all the wrong movies”. Herr got his job with Esquire after striking up a friendship with its editor and pitching the idea of a monthly letter from Vietnam.
Although Dispatches satisfied his ambition to be recognised, he soon discovered that he loathed the consequences of fame. He especially disliked being asked by newspapers to write about Vietnam. “Haven’t you read my f------ book?” he exclaimed. “I’m not interested in Vietnam. It has passed clean through me.”
Indeed, he never returned to the country, and in 1980 moved to London in search of a quieter existence. Yet both the subsequent works for which he was best known drew on the experiences that had made his name.
In 1979, he wrote the narration spoken by Martin Sheen’s character in
Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola’s film of the war. Although based on Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart
of Darkness, the movie’s cinematic language shared many of the characteristics of Herr’s book.
John le Carré subsequently introduced Herr to another director, Stanley Kubrick. Long resident in Britain, he and Herr became good friends, enjoying lengthy, cigarette-fuelled telephone calls in which they discussed literature. Kubrick hoped to persuade Herr to script a film about the Holocaust, but instead the two eventually collaborated on one about Vietnam, Full Metal Jacket (1987). London’s Docklands, then still in a state of decay, stood in for South-East Asia during filming.
Kubrick’s parsimonious attitude to payment affected their relationship, however. “Stanley was a good friend,” recalled Herr, “and wonderful to work with, but a terrible man to do business with, terrible.” In 1991, he returned to America, where he made a living doing what he called “a wash and a rinse”, uncredited rewrites of screenplays for Hollywood.
Kubrick asked him to “colloquialise” the script for what proved his last project, Eyes Wide Shut (1999), which starred Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. Herr resisted his blandishments, astutely predicting that the shoot would last much longer than the six months scheduled; it eventually took 15.
As well as a brief memoir of Kubrick, Herr published two other books. The Big Room (1987) contained profiles of stars of Hollywood’s golden age, while Walter Winchell (1990), a biographical novel about the broadcaster that had begun as a script, examined the rise to dominance in American life of entertainment.
Latterly, however, he had devoted more time to Tibetan Buddhism, which he practised at his home in New England. Herr attributed his coming to terms with what he had seen in Vietnam to the healing power of meditation.
“I know this,” he said, “that whatever you are dealing with is real all right, but what you do with it is in your mind… You take responsibility in your own mind, and that is how I cleaned it all out.”
He is survived by his wife Valerie and by their two daughters.
Herr and, below, his 1977 book, praised for its literary approach to reporting the nature of war