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Reviewed by:
  • The Life and Work of Ludwig Lewisohn
  • Carole S. Kessner
The Life and Work of Ludwig Lewisohn, by Ralph Melnick. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1998. Volume 1: A Touch Of Wildness, 754 pp. $39.95. Volume 2: This Dark and Desperate Age, 596 pp. $39.95.

Ralph Melnick’s prodigious two-volume biography of Ludwig Lewisohn tells us everything we might want to know, and quite a number of things we don’t especially have to know, about the life and letters of his subject. This mammoth 1300-page study traces Lewisohn’s peregrinations from his birth in Germany in 1882 till his final years at Brandeis University from 1948 to 1955. Melnick gives us the intimate details of one homosexual affair, three legal marriages, one non-legal marriage, three divorces, the birth of one son, and one public custody battle. During this time Lewisohn produced 40 full-length fiction and non-fiction books, nearly as many translations and edited works, and countless magazine articles, journal essays, and pamphlets. He was a literary critic, the drama editor of The Nation, the editor of the Palestine Post, a speaker and polemicist [End Page 179] for the Zionist Movement, an outspoken enemy of Jewish assimilation, a professor of German and Comparative Literature.

In the light of so prominent and diverse a career, a lengthy biography seems fitting. And yet—one must acknowledge the sad fact that few under the age of sixty remember Lewisohn, and if they do recognize the name, they probably are engaged in Zionist research. Why is it that a man so profoundly wedded to the practice and criticism of belles lettres, so famous in his own time, should be so little known today? His obscurity notwithstanding, Ludwig Lewisohn’s life story proves to be a fascinating one—at times painfully sad, at other times inspiring, sometimes exasperating, often admirable—but never ordinary.

Ludwig’s childhood in Charleston, South Carolina was lonely and overly bookish. At the age of 21 he went to New York to pursue graduate studies in literature at Columbia University. A brilliant student, but academically unappreciated, socially isolated and alienated, he found solace in his books, his own poetry, and in a few homoerotic relationships; the most intense of these was with the German-born poet, George Viereck. At the very moment of his breakup with Viereck, Lewisohn’s graduate thesis was rejected and he was told that no Jew would ever find a position teaching English on the college level in America. He turned for solace to the embrace of an undivorced English-born woman twenty years older than himself who had four children. She was the first in a series of disastrous marriages.

Marital problems were not the only difficulties Lewisohn faced in his life. During the early years, having been denied an academic career in English literature, Lewisohn could secure a position at Wisconsin and then at Ohio State in only German Literature. Here, during World War I he found himself marginalized as a Germanophile and as an antiwar pacifist. That he was Jewish had gone undisclosed. After the war Lewisohn returned to New York and Greenwich Village, where he began to travel in literary circles. He became fast friends with the notorious antisemites H. L. Mencken and Theodore Dreiser, but, oddly, this did not seem to trouble him, nor does Melnick make much of it. In 1919 he became the drama and fiction editor of TheNation. It was in this period that his interest in Judaism began to grow along with his reputation as a literary scholar and critic. By now he had published books on German drama and literature, on literature in general, articles and essays all in the service of freeing literature from the bonds of Victorian repression and American Puritanism, although these had little to do with his burgeoning interest in Jewishness. That quest had begun perhaps as early as 1915 when he spoke before the Menorah Society at Ohio State.

By 1924 Lewisohn, now living in Paris, had begun to make an international reputation as well as a good bit of money. He lived the high life, hobnobbing and drinking with such famous figures...

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