Henry Herschel Brickell, a columnist and editor and US State Department official in Colombia, was born on 13 September 1889 in Senatobia, Mississippi. The son of Henry Hampton Brickell and Lula Johns Harrison Brickell, he grew up in Yazoo City, where he developed an insatiable appetite for reading. He enrolled at the University of Mississippi in 1906 and quickly became involved in campus literary activities. In 1910, after repeatedly failing mathematics, Brickell left without graduating and began a career in journalism, working for a series of southern newspapers. For several months in 1916 he served as a battalion sergeant major in the Alabama National Guard along the Mexican border, where Pancho Villa’s raids were threatening American citizens. After returning to Mississippi, Brickell became editor of the Jackson Daily News. In 1918 he married Norma Long of Jackson, and the following year the couple moved to New York so that Herschel could pursue greater journalistic opportunities.
His first assignment in New York was at the copy desk of the Evening Post. From 1919 to 1923 he penned articles and editorials and carved out a niche reviewing new books by southern authors. In 1923 he launched his pioneering daily column, “Books on Our Table.” Over the next three decades Brickell contributed reviews and essays to the New York Times, New York Herald Tribune, Saturday Review of Literature, Atlantic Monthly, and a host of other major publications, firmly establishing himself as one of the country’s most influential book critics. In 1928 he left the Post to join Henry Holt and Company, where as editor he sought out new literary talent. As a result of many trips to Europe in the 1920s and 1930s, he developed strong feelings of kinship with Spain and became enamored of all things Spanish. A great admirer of Cervantes, Brickell wrote the introduction to the Modern Library edition of Don Quixote (1930). To memorialize his friend Federico García Lorca, he led the effort to get Lorca’s Poet in New York (1940) published in the United States. In 1934 Brickell returned to the Post for a second stint, this time as literary editor, and remained there until 1938. He also authored “The Literary Landscape,” a regular feature in the North American Review from 1927 to 1935, and in the 1940s he contributed annual essays on American literature to the Britannica Book of the Year.
Brickell’s other literary activities included lecturing at writers’ workshops such as the prestigious Bread Loaf Conference in Vermont. At these gatherings he established close ties with seasoned writers as well as newcomers. His Writers on Writing (1949), an edited volume, grew out of these workshops. Because he devoted so much time to developing the talents of others, he neglected his own work. He received two prestigious awards in 1939—one from the Julius Rosenwald Foundation to research the history of Natchez and the other a Guggenheim Fellowship to write a book on Spain—but failed to complete either project. Brickell is perhaps best remembered for his editorship of the O. Henry Memorial Award Prize Stories series from 1941 to 1951. In these annual collections of the best short stories published in American magazines he introduced the wider reading public to an impressive list of young fiction writers, among them Eudora Welty, Truman Capote, J. D. Salinger, and Ray Bradbury.
In 1940 Brickell began serving on the editorial staff of the Latin American edition of Reader’s Digest, and the following year he took a job with the State Department as senior cultural relations officer assigned to the US embassy in Bogotá, Colombia. While there he wrote, delivered lectures on US literature and history, met prominent literary figures, and helped establish libraries. After returning to the United States in 1944 he remained in government service, using his position as head of the State Department’s cultural relations program in Latin America to promote hemispheric cooperation and understanding. He made subsequent trips to Latin America in the early 1950s under the auspices of the State Department and the American Council on Education.
Brickell collected his Colombian lectures in Literatura norteamericana contemporánea (1943), Cosecha colombiana (1944), and Panorama de la historia de los Estados Unidos (1945). During this period he teamed with Carleton Beals, Bryce Oliver, and Samuel Guy Inman to produce What the South Americans Think of Us (1945) and collaborated with Carlos Videla on a translation of Ricardo Rojas’s biographical study, San Martín: Knight of the Andes (1945). He also coedited (with Dudley G. Poore and Harry R. Warfel) a short story collection, Cuentistas norteamericanos (1946).
Overworked and suffering from lingering ill health, he committed suicide at his home in Ridgefield, Connecticut, on 29 May 1952.
- Melvin S. Arrington Jr., Chasqui (1994)
- Melvin S. Arrington Jr., Southern Quarterly (Summer 1989)
- Herschel Brickell Collection, Department of Archives and Special Collections, J. D. Williams Library, University of Mississippi
- Grace Leake, Holland’s (February 1938)
- Omie Wall Parker, “Herschel Brickell: An Estimate of His Works as Critic, Writer, and Lecturer” (master’s thesis, Mississippi College, 1961)