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Reviewed by:
  • Louis D. Brandeis: A Life
  • Stephen J. Whitfield
Louis D. Brandeis: A Life, by Melvin I. Urofsky. New York: Pantheon Books, 2009. 953 pp. $40.00.

Psychoanalysts would call this magisterial and compelling biography "over-determined." Its author has already co-edited (with David W. Levy) a five-volume edition of the Letters of Louis D. Brandeis. In A Mind of One Piece (1971), Melvin I. Urofsky explored important facets of the jurist's career as a reformer and his effort to reconcile Zionism with progressivism. A decade later came a crisp and lucid contribution to the Library of American Biography series, Louis D. Brandeis and the Progressive Tradition. Each of its chapters, Urofsky once told this reviewer, had been written on a weekend; after ten weekends, the book was done. Such fluency testifies to mastery of the subject and to a flair for writing at Mach 2 speed. He is also the author of the standard two-volume history of American Zionism (1975, 1978), and has published extensively—both books and articles—on American Constitutional and legal history and issues. No scholar has therefore been more prodigiously prepared to write a definitive biography of "the people's attorney" and Zionist tribune who became one of the most brilliant and influential justices ever to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. No scholar has ever been more knowledgeable about Brandeis than Urofsky, whose book is modestly subtitled A Life. Yet this volume is about as close to meriting classification as The Life as can be imagined.

His subject is a worthy one. The distinction of Brandeis's mind and character was certainly appreciated in his own lifetime. His first major biographer, Alpheus Thomas Mason, had the advantage of conducting interviews with the retired Justice. Before Brandeis: A Free Man's Life (1946) appeared, Mason had already published two books about him, in the previous decade. No disparagement of other biographical studies—for example, by Philippa Strum and Lewis Paper—is intended in insisting upon the primacy, the comprehensive authority of Urofsky's new book.

Mason's was especially thin on Brandeis's Zionist allegiances and activities, now long since corrected. No historical figure who contributed so decisively to the collective interests of his people was so dubiously a Jew as was Brandeis (with the possible exception of Herzl). Brandishing no known religious convictions, Brandeis certainly never practiced Judaism. No one ever observed ethnic feelings bubbling to the surface, either; no one was ever struck by [End Page 167] Brandeis's yiddishkeit. Neither his parents nor his wife nor his brother felt the allure of Zionism; and his famous brother-in-law, Felix Adler, founded Ethical Culture, and thus sought to dissolve the claims of Jewish history itself.

Urofsky lays out the full case for Brandeis's likely motivations in committing himself to Zionism, and emphasizes how devoted he was to meeting the financial, organizational, technical, and practical challenges of settling the Holy Land, where the curse of bigness afflicting his own country could be dispelled. To the impalpable appeal of restoration, to the messianic longings that enabled the chalutzim to drain the malarial swamps and battle Arab marauders and make alabaster cities gleam in the desert, Brandeis was indifferent. He was also the rare progressive who showed no interest in the Soviet experiment, and once wondered: "Why visit Russia when you can go to Denmark?" (p. 721). Then why champion the yishuv? Brandeis's involvement in Palestine remains elusive; the mystery defeats even his most energetic biographer.

Among the special strengths of his book is the treatment of Brandeis's Supreme Court career. In 1916 seven past presidents of the American Bar Association had opposed his Senatorial confirmation, charging that the nominee was temperamentally unfit for the bench because of the passions he had invested in the civic causes that had made him famous. Such warnings were not only ignored; they were mistaken. Urofsky shows how consistently Brandeis deferred to the judgment of the Congress and of state legislatures, even when he questioned their wisdom. Of course he got along famously with his patrician ally in dissent, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. But Justice Holmes took for granted that...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-5165
Print ISSN
0882-8539
Pages
pp. 167-169
Launched on MUSE
2012-06-01
Open Access
No
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