IN 1965, THREE BRANDEIS University students came to St. Matthews, South Carolina, to help with voter registration among the town’s largely disenfranchised black community. With the exception of the court clerk, none of the players in this drama—neither students nor townspeople—knew anything of the man from St. Matthews who had in so many ways struggled to remake the country in which this was now possible. He had been largely forgotten in the decade since his death, but it was here, in this up-country village, that Ludwig Lewisohn, social iconoclast and founding member of the Brandeis faculty, had seventy-five years earlier spent his first days as an immigrant child in America. It was here that he had first tested this new world, and found it wanting.
Though from time to time his name has appeared in one place or another, in America and abroad, Ludwig’s vast contribution to literature, the theater, social change, and the struggle for Jewish survival and renewal has remained all but forgotten—as he believed it would. He had harbored few illusions. Once of great concern, this loss of fame seemed not to matter after a time. Where once “the immortality urge” had driven him to write, he had in the course of his years found a more important reason to continue. Had he not, he might have laid aside his pen when the veil of obscurity began to descend upon his prominence and notoriety. But he simply could not remain silent before the injustice and moral error that had moved him to such great efforts, even as his energies waned in the final days of his life. “Man is only half himself,” he affirmed, “the other half is his expression.” If he had experienced more than his share of pain, disappointment, and abandonment, there was in him an underpinning of prophetic belief that would not allow him to desert the fight. Yet if he could offer so positive an example, how had he come to this end? Why the obscurity when lesser men remained known, even celebrated?
I was only nine years old when Lewisohn died in 1955, and a dozen more years would pass before I first encountered Up Stream, his piercing critique of America, written more than four decades earlier. I had found it during a time of national turmoil and personal soul-searching, and despite its distance in time, it rang true in so many ways—as it still does. Fifteen years later, I would begin to seek a better understanding of his experience and to write about it. The search for an answer would demand these many years, and in its pursuit, I would learn to take seriously his advice, that all who would “explore the recorded deeds and sayings of a famous man … [must] search among them for hints of secret things from which to weave a clear and animated picture of his life.” In the years since I began, there have been reasons enough to stop. Each life has its own detours. But few biographers choose subjects who have not in some way already touched their lives. There is a resonance. Something compels, if only the questions that echo in ourselves.
How might understanding his fall into obscurity help us, I wondered? At the height of his fame, Ludwig had argued that “all sound creative art is rooted in a ghetto,” a notion I discovered to be both true and damaging to him in an America not yet willing to accept the realities of ethnicity. “I am still necessarily functioning as the product of that smaller ghetto which, in fact, I had never left, which no one can leave but only pretend to leave.” As an exile in search of himself and his community, as the outsider shorn of the need to defend the world as it is, might he not have something to teach us for our own time of radical change? “My hierarchy of values is different,” he proclaimed openly as a part of his insistence upon the right to share in the larger society, but on his own terms.
Such forthrightness, however, had contributed not only to his vision of the life around him and to his rejection by those against whom he had rebelled, but to attacks by those whose struggle for a more just society he had once shared. They, too, could brook no dissent. Pacifist and socialist, he had come ultimately to question even these positions as the years brought the challenges of Nazism and Stalinism. If others wished to hold him to ideas they had once espoused together, he could respond only as the person who had emerged from the struggles of his day with a deepening Jewish consciousness. And if Zionism remained for some either too bourgeois or an article of old-world faith, he could not so readily dismiss the liberation of his fellow Jews. The world had grown too dangerous for that, too uncaring and worse, and he, too deeply committed to his Jewish self. How could he set aside the obvious in order to defend the abstract? Above all else he was a Jew, and his values and sensibilities had been stamped irrevocably by that fact. Who else would he be if he would not be himself, that person he had become by force of will?
And if there was to be some meaning to his life, it would be found as a Jew vying for all men’s souls against those forces arrayed against them. Believing himself endowed with a sacred trust, he had little choice. He saw the sham more clearly, felt it more deeply, worked more passionately for its demise. His life and the works that grew out of it were products of this vision, personal experiences and global events transformed onto the scale of universal drama in the ever-changing process of the written and spoken word. Little was spared his insightful pen. He could cut deeply, but never without a cure in mind. There were, inevitably, errors in judgment—of people, of events, of ideas—but there was an uncompromising honesty that pierced straight into the frail human heart and demanded of others the same persistent and passionate search for truth.
In the closing days of his life, Ludwig would look back to see what he had learned that was worthy of being passed forward into the future. “There still remains the me, the I, the innermost,” that person he could recognize most clearly. “Who am I?” he asked. Merely “a very humble person who must try to keep hold of the insight that has been granted to him, who must try not to lose it again amid the clamor of the world.”
For it was a life that spanned the end of the old order and the onslaught of the new. Born in Berlin to a highly assimilated, upper-middle-class Jewish family in 1882, he had been ripped away from this comfortable setting by the financial necessity and emotional instability that characterized his parents’ lives. When continuing failure brought the Lewisohns from Germany to rural South Carolina in 1890, and then to Jim Crow-era Charleston, they fared as poorly, sealing the family’s isolation from those among whom they had hoped to find acceptance.
A precocious and prodigious student, Ludwig entered the College of Charleston at the age of fifteen, having graduated the city’s high school as its valedictorian. But academic honors could not breach the social walls built by class traditions and religious prejudices. And so, despite the continuing scholarly success that earned him a master’s degree after only four years at the college, he spent these years largely in solitary contemplation of the society around him—and of the literature it had composed to defend itself—and in a fierce debate on campus, defending the most unpopular political and social issues of the day.
He had planned to continue his graduate education as the necessary stepping-stone to an academic career in English, but Jews were seen as unsuited by birth for such positions in early-twentieth-century America. Denied a fellowship by both Columbia and Harvard, he sat out the year following his graduation, frustrated as well by the refusal of the local academy’s headmaster to allow him to teach his students, though Ludwig had for years lived as a Methodist in a bid to win acceptance. Then, with limited funds raised by his father and other local supporters, he set out for New York in 1902, only to abandon his dissertation after another two years of pressure from advisers at Columbia, who repeatedly warned that no college or university would ever offer him an English position. Repeated failure to secure one of the many openings available to others confirmed their assessment.
Seeking to begin a career as a writer, he worked as an editor for Doubleday, while writing literary reviews and serialized potboilers in the evening. After labor activism cost him his job, he fled homeward, leaving behind his lover, a woman nearly twice his age. In flight from husband and children, she later followed him to Charleston, where they wed in 1906. The circumstances of their marriage, however, would remain a matter of dispute during the more than three decades that passed before Mary granted him a divorce.
Completion of his first novel brought them back to New York, where, with the help of Theodore Dreiser, The Broken Snare was published in 1908. It would prove fortuitous, enabling him to join the growing circle of iconoclasts in the period before the Great War. Offered teaching positions in German first at the University of Wisconsin and then at Ohio State, they left New York two years later, only to return in 1917 when his German birth and antiwar advocacy caused his dismissal.
A reputation as an astute critic and scholar of French, German, English, and American literature built up through these years in the Midwest now brought writing assignments with a number of leading journals, and, eventually, positions first as theater critic and then as associate editor of the Nation. In the years that followed, Ludwig would count among his close friends and associates Sinclair Lewis, Paul Robeson, H. L. Mencken, Edgar Lee Masters, Edward G. Robinson, Upton Sinclair, George Jean Nathan, and Carl and Mark Van Doren. So, too, did he win the unending enmity of those who opposed his shattering voice in the hundreds of critical articles that spilled from his pen, and in the books that appeared, one after the other, particularly after declaring in his coming-of-age memoir, Up Stream, that “Life among us is ugly and mean and, above all things, false in its assumptions and measures. Somehow we must break these shackles and flee and emerge into some beyond of sanity, of a closer contact with reality, of nature and of truth.”
With the death of his mother in 1914, Ludwig had faced a crisis of spirit and identity that brought with it a new commitment to his Jewish heritage. Deepening slowly in the years that followed—and strengthened by his struggle against a “puritanical” society that held him hostage to a failed marriage—this interest turned to dedication. In 1924, he leapt at the chance to go to Europe, North Africa, and Palestine on a fact-finding mission for the Zionists with his new love, Thelma, a woman half his age.
After completing his report in Vienna in 1925 and publishing it under the title Israel, he settled with Thelma in Paris, where they established one of the great salons of the Left Bank. Until 1934, Ludwig spent his mornings writing, his afternoons afoot or at a café, and his evenings either at the theater or entertaining James Joyce, Thomas Mann, Roy Titus, and a host of Europeans and Americans who passed through his doors. Here, too, he wrote endlessly, including his most widely acclaimed and translated novel, The Case of Mr. Crump, praised by Sigmund Freud as a masterpiece of psychological drama.
But the Crash of 1929 changed life for everyone, and as financial hardship raised the specter of Nazism in Europe, Ludwig sensed the danger ahead. Speaking out on the threat of anti-Semitism as early as 1925, he extended his warning to the whole of European civilization in a series of articles written in the early 1930s. With the birth of his and Thelma’s son, James, in 1933, Ludwig made renewed efforts to regain his passport, lost when Mary’s wrath brought his flight with Thelma to the attention of the State Department. Only the intervention of friends having influence with Franklin Roosevelt allowed him to return home in 1934 after ten years abroad.
Ludwig’s skill as an orator would help supplement his earnings as a writer. A tireless spokesman for the Zionists and for the best in Western culture, he repeatedly crisscrossed the country, lecturing everywhere on the threats few yet recognized, including the dangers he saw posed by Stalin’s tyranny. An engagement in Rochester, New York, in 1939, at a time when his relationship with Thelma was ending, brought him in contact with a second woman twenty years his junior. They would marry in the coming year, but Edna would not prove to be the stabilizing force he needed, nor he the literary catalyst she hoped would make her a writer. The notoriety of their wedding followed by widely publicized court battles over James’s custody, and then by Edna’s tubercular collapse in Santa Fe, eventually broke their marriage. As she returned to her former lover, Ludwig sought comfort from Louise, the woman with whom he would spend his remaining years.
The Holocaust in Europe and British intransigence in Palestine after the war continued to propel Ludwig forward as he poured much of his remaining energy into the editorship of the New Palestine. But he soon added a second issue to that of promoting a haven for Europe’s despised Jews. Commitment to his fellow Jews in America now extended to their spiritual health as well, an issue that few Jewish leaders had yet to seriously consider. Long after the establishment of the State of Israel and his appointment in 1948 as Brandeis University’s first full professor, Ludwig continued to speak out on this need for American Jewry to rebuild itself by adapting the best of its religious and cultural heritage.
During his last years, Ludwig won his greatest audience from among the students who applauded him wherever he appeared. Of those who memorialized his passing in 1955, it was they who seemed to take most seriously his charge to the future—that life could not be fully lived without the soul’s striving for redemption in an imperfectible world. A decade later, other students would come to St. Matthews from Brandeis to aid with voter registration. They would not have recognized Ludwig’s name, but his life had helped to radically alter their world.