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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Michael Herr
(b. 1940)

Among the most private of contemporary writers, Michael Herr has revealed little of his personal life. He was born and raised in Syracuse, New York, and attended Syracuse University. He then moved to New York City, where he worked in the editorial offices of Holiday magazine and produced articles and film criticism for such periodicals as Mademoiselle and the New Leader. In 1967, he persuaded Harold Hayes, the editor of Esquire magazine, to send him to Vietnam. He stayed there for over a year and witnessed some of the most intense fighting of the war. For a writer, Herr’s situation in Vietnam was ideal: he had no specific assignment, he was relatively free to travel where he liked, and he was unencumbered by deadlines. Herr initially intended to write a monthly column from Vietnam but soon realized the idea was “horrible.” In fact, Herr published only a few Vietnam pieces in Esquire and did not get his war experiences into a book until 1977.

After the war, Herr lived in New York for a time. After finishing Dispatches, he collaborated on the screenplay for Apocalypse Now and, more recently, for Full Metal Jacket. At last report, Herr lives in London.

Dispatches is perhaps the most brilliant American literary treatment of the Vietnam War. Ostensibly journalistic, Dispatches is more properly regarded as a painstakingly executed product of the author’s imagination, if not quite a novel then certainly a literary work whose most dominant and satisfying qualities are novelistic. Dispatches is organized tautly, provides rich characterization, and evinces an extraordinary style thoroughly compatible with its subject. As Herr tells it, the Vietnam War was very much a 1960s spectacle: part John Wayne movie, part rock-and-roll concert, part redneck riot, part media event, and part bad drug trip. Herr’s style, so perfectly grounded in the popular culture of the time, pulls at the reader with great power and unmistakable authenticity. After a particularly terrible battle, a young Marine glared at Herr, knowing he was a writer, and snarled: “Okay, man, you go on, you go on out of here, you cocksucker, but I mean it, you tell it! You tell it, man.” And so Herr did.

The excerpt from Dispatches printed in the book comes from the beginning of the first section, called “Breathing In.” Herr immediately establishes the hallucinatory quality of the war, against which he depicts the violence and remarkable array of characters. Herr’s field of vision is broad but always at its center are the “grunts,” the infantrymen who invariably carried themselves through the war with dignity and a carefully cultivated and life-sustaining combination of humor and cynicism.

Raymund Paredes
University of California, Los Angeles

In the Heath Anthology
from Dispatches (1977)

Other Works
The Big Room (with Guy Peellaert) (1986)

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About Dispatches
Information about Herr and his book, including an excerpt.

Kubrick gets a Herr piece
A article about Herr's memorial words on Stanley Kubrick.

The Forward to Full Metal Jacket
Michael Herr on Kubrick's film.

The Sixties Project & Viet Nam Generation
Includes several essays that refer to Herr's works.

Secondary Sources