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Comeback Kid

Having failed to assimilate, Ludwig Lewisohn went on to write the great American Jewish novel

Josh Lambert
November 13, 2008

In the fall of 1924, Ludwig Lewisohn had all sorts of worries: He’d left his wife in New York and run off to Europe with a younger woman, and, on a recent jaunt to Poland, all the “filthy, starved, oppressed” Jews in Warsaw’s ghetto had depressed him. Clearly, he needed a therapist. Since he happened to be in central Europe, and since he never did anything by half measures, he had a friend lend him a room on Wahringerstrasse in Vienna, and went straight to Sigmund Freud. Though Freud, who lived a couple of blocks away, was happy to psychoanalyze him, Lewisohn ended his treatment after a few sessions. According to his biographer, Ralph Melnick, he feared “the loss of his anxieties” would be “the destruction of what had driven him as a writer.”

Though he is little known today, Lewisohn’s was the most fascinating career in pre-WWII American Jewish letters. He grappled with the neuroses that plagued him as a foreigner in patriotic America, finally recognizing that the only way for him to live as an alien in the United States—and to produce a masterwork of American fiction—would be to accept, and even cherish, his outsider status.

Born in Berlin in 1882, Lewisohn immigrated to the U.S. with his parents at the age of eight. After the family settled in South Carolina, the boy yearned to become as deeply naturalized as he could. As Lewisohn would later recount in his memoir, Up Stream (1922), a family friend suggested “it would improve [his] English if [he] were to join her Sunday School class” at the local Methodist church. Even though his mother was a rabbi’s daughter, she “had precious memories of snow-swept Christmas services in her native East Prussian village.” Neither she nor her agnostic husband objected to their son’s early exposure to Christianity. A perspicacious pupil, Lewisohn quickly learned exactly what his teachers wanted him to know; “I accepted Jesus as my personal savior,” he recalled.

His problematic ethnicity thus squared away, Lewisohn imagined as he matured that nothing stood between him and American cultural authority. Before he turned twenty, he’d earned a master’s in English literature from the College of Charleston and had his thesis on Matthew Arnold, that paragon of high culture, serialized in the genteel Sewanee Review. He aspired “above all things to be a poet in the English tongue,” as he put it in Up Stream. What better way to demonstrate one’s American bona fides, after all, than “to speak”—as Lewisohn’s unacknowledged spiritual descendant, Alex Portnoy, says—”absolutely perfect English,” with “not a word of Jew in it”?

In 1902, Lewisohn relocated to New York to pursue a PhD at Columbia. He found the lectures boringly remedial, already having completed all the required readings as an undergraduate, and instead devoted his attention, Melnick claims, to a homosexual relationship with a fellow student and poet, the future Nazi apologist George Sylvester Viereck. Before long, the head of the English department, George Rice Carpenter, informed Lewisohn that if he sought a professorship, “the chances are going to be greatly against you,” as they would be against anyone of “Jewish birth.” Everyone knew about academic anti-Semitism, but Lewisohn, a prodigy who saw literature as his ticket to cultural respectability, took this situation personally. He drifted in and out of school, churning out potboiler serials under a pseudonym and devoting his spare hours to more sophisticated writing. His first real novel, The Broken Snare (1907), concerned a young woman’s loss of innocence, and went largely unread. Nothing survives of his second novel, which was, he claimed, burned up without a trace by the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. Along with these failures, he’d been virtually blackmailed in 1906 into marrying Mary Childs, a conniving Christian literary hack twenty years his senior: he feared that if he didn’t marry her, she might publicize the affair they’d had while Mary was still married to another man, or perhaps make public his early homosexual experience, and shame his parents out of their conservative South Carolina community. All of these frustrations strengthened Lewisohn’s conviction that scholarship was the only profession in which I would have the chance to do whatever lay in me.” Despite Carpenter’s warning, then, he was crushed when jobs for which he was extraordinarily qualified—a German and English literature gig at the University of Virginia, for example—rejected his applications, without explanation.

Though he was granted a final opportunity to polish off his dissertation in 1910, he abandoned it for a teaching position at the University of Wisconsin that lasted just a few years. Lewisohn never earned his PhD, but he managed nonetheless to establish himself in the literary circles of the teens through ferocious industry. He paid the bills by translating avant-garde German (and, in one case, Yiddish) literature for the dynamic young publishers Ben Huebsch and Horace Liveright, and by reviewing for The Nation, editing anthologies, and penning introductions. Such activity attracted further scorn from the Ivy League arbiters of culture: In the wake of WWI, amid a rush of anti-German and anti-immigrant sentiment, critics now long forgotten declared that Jews were a “menace” because they had “no understanding of our background and our traditions”; censorship bills were proposed so as to protect American literature and culture from degrading foreign influences. Lewisohn was prominent among the Jews repudiated: one self-appointed cultural steward, Stuart Sherman, claimed that Lewisohn’s criticism “pervert[ed] the national genius.”

Lewisohn vented his rage over his academic misfortunes and this trend toward “Neo-Puritan barbarism” in Up Stream, railing against the wartime demand for one hundred per cent Americanism.” That book itself came under fire as evidence of the author’s fundamentally alien character; in The New York Times, Brander Matthews, a Columbia professor and defender of the old guard, called Lewisohn a “fraud.” This isn’t the worst treatment a Jewish writer has received in American print, of course, but as H. L. Mencken and Anzia Yezierska noted, it wasn’t a moment at which anyone could be complacent about reactionary politics: Lewisohn’s antagonists were marching in lockstep with the anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant zeitgeist, the Ku Klux Klan, and Henry Ford’s hateful Dearborn Independent. After a 1923 speech in Cincinnati in which Lewisohn defended German high culture—”Luther, Kant, Goethe, and Nietzsche”—the Times ran a reaction piece beginning with this quote from an American Legion official: “Ludwig Lewisohn has insulted every American who died in France, every disabled soldier who lies in a hospital today and every man who fought in the American army.”

By 1924, the nativists had pushed through the Johnson-Reed Act, crippling Jewish immigration to the U.S. Lewisohn reacted to what he saw as pervasive anti-Semitism by reclaiming his own once-rejected Jewishness. He abandoned Mary, his Christian wife, in favor of a new half-Jewish muse, Thelma Spear, an aspiring opera singer half his age with whom he would live for years and have a son. With Thelma, he traveled to Europe and Palestine on a Zionist junket, and then initiated a decade of astonishing literary productivity. Crucially, Lewisohn had cottoned to the message of jurist Louis Brandeis, who wrote “To be good Americans, we must be better Jews, and to be better Jews, we must become Zionists.” By 1917, Brandeis had been appointed to the Supreme Court and the American Zionist movement numbered two hundred thousand adherents. Addressing this audience as well as the assimilationists who rejected Zionism, Lewisohn offered up a travelogue-cum-exhortation, Israel (1925), which insisted “assimilation is impossible. . . even for America,” lamented the rise of anti-Semites such as Adolf Hitler, and advocated the “upbuilding of Palestine” as a Jewish homeland with “bilingual—Hebrew and English” education. The book sold ten thousand copies within months, embraced by Zionists not only in the U.S., but also among the settlers in Palestine.

Israel positioned Lewisohn as a leading Zionist and, with Up Stream, as a bestselling author; sessions with Freud notwithstanding, though, his personal life remained a disaster. He marooned himself in Paris with Thelma, while Mary fumed in New York, refusing to divorce him and dispatching letters to his contacts at the State Department to shame him for marital impropriety. This struggle haunted Lewisohn for years, but by thinly fictionalizing his loathing of Mary, he achieved a major triumph as a novelist with The Case of Mr. Crump (1926). Banned in the U.S. for its potentially libelous depiction of Mary and what was, at the time, shocking treatment of “the impersonal, undiscriminating sex hunger of the young male,” the harrowing autobiographical novel earned plaudits from heavyweights Sinclair Lewis (“great literature”) and Thomas Mann (“in the very forefront of modern epic narrative”); even Freud himself offered a blurb (“an incomparable masterpiece”). Stateside, no publisher dared touch the book, however, until Farrar, Straus picked it up in 1947, and only then did an abridgement, retitled The Tyranny of Sex, sell a million copies in paperback.

While Israel and Crump dramatize the twin fascinations that drove Lewisohn’s career—his own sorrows and those of the Jewish people—the single novel that most powerfully captures these interrelated tensions, and remains his masterpiece, is The Island Within, first published in the U.S. eighty years ago. The novel particularly reflects Lewisohn’s self-righteousness in having already achieved so much in the 1920s despite heavy opposition, and starts out with a spot of braggadocio on par with the audacious self-assessments of Norman Mailer.

“What, in fact, is a story?” Lewisohn asks, in the first of the metafictional essays interspersed throughout the novel. “Is it a meticulous account of the stream of consciousness as it flows through some carefully isolated mind? . . . Or the symbolical doings of a day? . . . An elegant bed and in it, in silken pajamas, a gentleman who cannot sleep”? Are you, in other words, looking for the au courant stylings of Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, or Marcel Proust? If so, Lewisohn says, look elsewhere: “Let us tell wiser, broader, deeper stories,” he proposes, “stories with morals more significant and rich. . . . Let us recover, if possible, something of an epic note.” Lewisohn is effectively claiming that he’s written a smarter and more resonant fiction than anything by the reputed masters of modernism, and, moreover, that he has created this instant classic by grounding his work in the history and psychology of the Jews.

The Island Within tracks a single family through the momentous turn of the century, beginning in 1840s Vilna, passing through Germany and New York City, and ending on the eve of a return voyage to Romania in the years after the First World War. The Levys assimilate before our eyes: Mendel, a traditional scholar, tempted by haskalah—the Jewish Enlightenment—begets Ephraim, a prosperous liquor merchant in Insterburg, Prussia, who in turn begets Jacob, a “hopeless shlemihl” who chooses America over three years of enforced military service and the virulent anti-Semitism to which he witnesses his father kowtowing. Jacob, in turn, raises his son Arthur in an Upper West Side household from which Jewish practice has been so thoroughly extirpated that the boy doesn’t even hear the word “mezuzah” until he’s in college.

Like Lewisohn, Arthur experiences Jewishness at first only as an identity foisted onto him by bigots: Walking home from the public library at 96th Street, a group of kids chase him and jeer, “Pipe the sheenie!” In his training as a psychiatrist—he’s particularly drawn to what one of his colleagues refers to as “that degenerate, dirty Freudian stuff”—and in observations of his coreligionists, Arthur discovers that assimilation has some serious discontents: his sister, for one, is “ashamed of being Jewish.” His training positions him well to address the social epidemic of self-hatred, given that “the mechanism of the Jewish anti-Jewish complex [is] precisely analogous to the mechanism of insanity.” The only sane course, as he comes to see it—“since one was a Jew and had to live Jewishly”—is not to efface or abjure one’s heritage, but to get “the maximum of good out of one’s Jewishness, out of one’s traditions, one’s racial poetry, one’s ancestral history.”

Lewisohn hammers home the point by having Arthur choose Reb Moshe Hacohen, a Hasidic relative and bearer of the family legacy, over Elizabeth Knight, his own non-Jewish wife. Arthur introduces Elizabeth to sex, and they have a son together, but erotically and spiritually they never quite meet. (In this sense Island anticipates Portnoy’s Complaint and Annie Hall, too: The heroes in all three chase non-Jewish women but don’t find enduring happiness with them.) The last straw for Arthur is Elizabeth’s response to a strange question. Arthur, born and raised in New York, asks her if he is an American. “Are you an American?” Elizabeth answers, distractedly. “No, of course not.” She recants a moment later, but he’s discovered the unconscious truth: Whatever his passport or birth certificate says, he’ll never be accepted as native.

There to pick up the pieces, Reb Moshe offers Levy a history, in the form of a family chronicle of martyrdom and suffering (an actual medieval text that Lewisohn reproduces in loose translation), as well as a mission to minister to persecuted Jews in the old country. Lewisohn’s not the only author to locate salvation for a secularist in a landsman with payes; as Julian Levinson notes, in a study of Lewisohn, the “romance with the east European Jew . . . has been a hallmark of modern Jewish culture” from Martin Buber and Franz Kafka to Malamud, Roth, and Ozick. Rarely, though, has this figure so directly competed with, and so completely triumphed over, its opposite number—the fictional shiksa, assimilation incarnate—as in Lewisohn’s novel.

Island hit a nerve: With blurbs from Freud and Albert Einstein, and a torrent of laudatory reviews (Carl Van Doren applauded “a book which is at once a document so penetrating and profound and a work of art so solidly constructed and so brilliantly written”), it flew off the shelves, selling two thousand copies a week, but didn’t spark the revolution in identity politics that Lewisohn desired. America wouldn’t fully embrace the “morals” of The Island Within until a decade or so after Lewisohn’s death in 1955.

Until then, he continued to churn out books, none of which attracted quite the attention of his works of the 1920s. From 1948 onward he lectured at Brandeis University, and watched his celebrity fade as a brash generation of alienated American Jewish critics and novelists followed, often unknowingly, in his footsteps, overtaking the anthologies and book review pages with less precious prose.

It wouldn’t be until the 1960s and 70s that the thesis of Island—that the celebration of ethnic identity is critical for cultural and personal development—would return forcefully to the center of American Jewish culture, and, for that matter, become a primary conceit of American minority identity across the board. As far as I know, no Hispanic or Asian American communities have yet acknowledged Lewisohn, in particular, as a precedent. Anecdotally, though, one college professor mentioned to me that when he taught Island to undergraduates, “an American-born girl from an Indian background was fascinated to see what she took to be striking analogies between his depiction of the drama of Jewish assimilation and her own experience among her friends.” Lewisohn fits right in, nowadays: What’s cooler or more sympathetic in contemporary America than to take pride in your heritage?

To remember Lewisohn solely as a rediscoverer of Jewishness, as a paradigm for the secular ba’al tshuva, does a disservice to the range of his life and work. It’s unfortunate that despite his energetic and eclectic criticism, his insights into sex and expression, and his role in introducing Freudianism into American fiction, most of his books—including the novels Stephen Escott (1930) and An Altar in the Field (1934), which, more directly than either Island or Crump, associate Jewish distinctiveness with sexual health—remain out of print. There are reasons, of course, that Lewisohn’s not read as often as, say, Saul Bellow; As Ruth Wisse points out, the German dialect in Island is patently ridiculous, and Lewisohn does tend more to didacticism than a fiction writer should.

Yet Lewisohn needs to be appreciated as an author of extremes: more assimilated than most American Jews, he swung back further toward parochialism, too. What’s most tragic about Lewisohn’s story is that he would probably have felt more comfortable—and would loom larger in our understanding of American Jewish culture—had he been born a couple of decades later and lived to see the aftermath of the Six Day War. When it comes to ethnic pride, our America looks a lot like the one that Lewisohn imagined.

Josh Lambert (@joshnlambert), a Tablet Magazine contributing editor and comedy columnist, is the academic director of the Yiddish Book Center, Visiting Assistant Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and author most recently of Unclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews, and American Culture.

Josh Lambert (@joshnlambert), a Tablet Magazine contributing editor and comedy columnist, is the academic director of the Yiddish Book Center, Visiting Assistant Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and author most recently ofUnclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews, and American Culture.