A Jewish Voice
FTER A BRIEF RESPITE from his fall lecture schedule, Ludwig once again ascended the podium on January 2, 1935, and continued throughout the winter, covering, by March, every region of the country except the Southeast. Wherever he spoke, audiences warmed to his message and crowded in upon him, greeting their guest with requests for his autograph on one or another of his works, care of Harpers’ sales department and their now unflagging effort to shadow him.1 But the many months of this grueling pace, and the absence from family it had forced upon him, had already grown tiresome. The years of leisure in France were now far behind his new world’s horizon.
“I’m having a dull and rather routine time,” he wrote Thelma on January 10, “but discovered a man … who will see to it that hereafter you get the cheapest frocks in N.Y. at 60 p. c. off.” It was the most memorable event of that first week’s travels.2 The country he had readopted rolled on as the weeks of train travel and speaking engagements carried him thousands of miles that season. “You know it comes all over me now and then how frightfully far from home I am,” he wrote Thelma’s mother on February 18 from San Francisco. “The people here seem very appreciative and generous and promise me to get both Thelma and me engagements for next year,” but only the thought of his journey’s end could cheer him. “I’ll really feel better when I start for Utah tomorrow because it will at least be turning toward home.”
Ludwig’s note to his mother-in-law had been prompted by the receipt of her telegram that day. “That’s what I needed,” he responded, adding the request that she “kiss my little boy and my little truant wife for me. Tell them that they are always in my heart.”3 Thelma’s own notes to him had grown increasingly infrequent, and on February 25 he gently chided her by describing his state as “frightfully tired and melancholy because (quite by accident, no doubt) no letter had yet come from you … my dear and only beloved.”4 These last weeks had been particularly difficult for him, as Thelma well knew. In the loneliness of hotel rooms, his thoughts had been on events unfolding more than a thousand miles away, events that were soon to further complicate his legal problems. Days before, Arthur Hays had traveled to Juárez, Mexico, where he filed and was granted a divorce from Mary on Ludwig’s behalf. Hays had convinced Ludwig that this alone possessed any real possibility of legitimizing his previous rabbinical marriage to Thelma, through a new civil ceremony immediately following the divorce’s conclusion, performed by proxy directly across the border in El Paso, with a local attorney, Salvador Urias, and his secretary, Jesus Navarro, acting as stand-ins.5
A week later, while on board the train to Salt Lake City, Ludwig wrote Thelma how he wished he had not accepted the engagements in Saint Louis and Tulsa that would now “keep me five days longer from you. Is that foolish? I don’t care. Handy as the money is I wish it hadn’t happened.” If he could not be with them, he wanted “to be at least near home. The train shakes. But I love you—more and more. Tell Jim I’m lonesome … kisses!” Such thoughts, built on his attorney’s assurances, would ill-prepare him for his homecoming to a charge of bigamy, as New York refused to recognize the Mexican divorce while accepting his Texas marriage to Thelma. By early April, a new warrant for his arrest on charges of failure to pay support to Mary would be issued by a more outraged court.6
Thelma’s account of these events is unmistakably truncated and confused, with two years telescoped into one. By her telling, they had traveled from Paris to Mexico, obtained the proxied divorce and marriage while touring together in Texas (he to lecture, she to sing on the same program), and then “headed homeward … [with] the whole future … bright before us.”7 Not until the following year would Thelma and Ludwig travel together, after he succeeded in arranging recitals for her. Why she exercised so faulty a memory, or purposefully rearranged the details only five years after the events, is open to question. Doubtless this telling placed her at the center of his life, as so much else of her post-separation account did. But what is most curious is the retelling that followed.
Ludwig arrived home in Burlington on March 15, greeted by his mother-in-law, son, and wife. Thelma’s anticipation of good news from him regarding concert dates, and his lack thereof, apparently caused her to rage on throughout the day, bitterly complaining even to Wise how “his Jews” could do little to help launch her career in the States.8 Perhaps her mother’s stroke hours later was unrelated, but by the sixteenth she lay totally paralyzed and in a coma, “this disaster suddenly upon us … she, who all these years has been a tower of strength to us both, latterly to us three.”9
Much of the next month was occupied with caring for Thelma’s “desperately ill” mother. “We’re both tied down here for heaven knows how long,” Ludwig wrote Cerf, imploring him to send books in payment for advice on possible publications. “It’s desperately needed,” Ludwig added in a postscript,10 to which Cerf quickly responded, sending the Swift, Coleridge, Arnold, and Danby Mishnah translation requested.11 “She hovered between life and death for just one month,” Ludwig wrote Canfield on April 20, five days after her death. He and Thelma felt “rather dazed,”12 and yet, Thelma inexplicably made no mention of this loss in her account of the period five years later.
As always, the complexities of Ludwig’s life had continued throughout these weeks. He wrote twice to Canfield in connection with his fight with Mary, once to report her theft of the “remnants of my mother’s silver and the silver rattle (silver elephant with ivory ring) which I had from my childhood,”13 and later to give Mary’s birthday as March 2, 1861, in contradiction to the later date she had claimed repeatedly.14 Financial matters had only worsened despite his income from lecturing and the small supplement provided by sales of his books in the States and Europe.15 On April 20, Ludwig told Canfield of their need to convert part of their newly inherited house into apartments so that mortgaging it could be prevented. “Mother left no cash reserve at all and it will be very hard sledding for a while to keep the little property here unencumbered for Thelma and Jimmie.”16
The same letter contained news of Ludwig’s correspondence with the Jewish Publication Society (JPS) regarding their adoption of Rebirth as a selection for their membership, with a possible purchase of four thousand copies.17 Canfield found the news “interesting” and promised to “try to work out a satisfactory arrangement.”18 Ludwig had written to the society on April 3, “on a matter of very vital common interest,” the tragic “lack of Jewish knowledge” of American Jewry and the need for “active dissemination of sound Jewish literature and learning among our young and younger people.” His attempt to satisfy this need through Harpers had met with failure, as minimal sales of Lowenthal’s translation of Glückel von Hameln’s memoirs had made subsequent volumes impossible. “I am wholly concerned for the cause which we both have at heart,” he told JPS. Rebirth was “the most sorely needed single volume for an intelligent young Jew today.” Given “the present state of things in Germany,” much of its content was now “so difficult of access as to be all but lost.”19
The society’s agreement to consider the volume, however, all but evaporated by mid-June for reasons both financial and ideological. “It was felt that for our own constituency the selections proposed were not sufficiently inclusive to represent all points of view,” the society’s president, Julius Grodinsky, noted in reflecting the board’s negative response to Ludwig’s heavily weighted Zionist perspective.20 Apparently unaware of the division caused by the Zionist issue within American Jewry, and without discussing the matter with Ludwig, Canfield offered the society the opportunity to make “suggestions for a few selections to be added to the book,” which, in his opinion, would become “a standard in the field.”21 Two weeks later, on June 27, Grodinsky reported that the society would take up the issue again in October.22
Before the Holocaust, it seemed reasonable to individuals of good faith to oppose the Zionist program of a reconstituted homeland. Those who felt most secure in America, or wished it were so, were often the most opposed, despite the rising tide of anti-Semitism in the United States that began in the mid-1920s and increased with the grinding away of tolerance during the worsening years of the Depression. Even Gentiles who once seemed untouched by this negative strain in American culture added their voices, perhaps with more shallowness, to those of Father Charles Coughlin, William Pelley’s Silver Shirts, and a few years later, Gerald L. K. Smith. If more polite, theirs was no less damaging. Friends of Ludwig’s from years past—Mencken, Dreiser, O’Neill, and others—now openly proposed quotas in the professions or the removal of Jews from the States to a territory of their own—or in a less hostile manner, would ask if “Jews walked differently from other people,” as Lewis Gannett did of the young Alfred Kazin in the New York Herald Tribune. The 1930s in America, as Kazin would later recall, were “a time when there was still a lot of open anti-Semitism.… I don’t think people today realize quite how much the situation has changed toward and about Jews.” But the board of JPS was not unaware of the world they shared with their enemies. During the very weeks of Canfield’s negotiations with them, a debate between proponents of Jewish disability and the defenders of Jews’ rights raged on in the pages of the American Spectator, the Nation, and the New Masses.23 With this ignoble cast growing as the world slid toward Holocaust, there can be little wonder, despite judgments of hindsight, at the hesitancy over actively espousing Zionism felt by some Jewish leaders who might otherwise have openly supported its goals of rescue and refuge.
The College of Charleston, celebrating its 150th anniversary that May, had invited Ludwig to participate. Unable to be there, he had, instead, sent a long letter of appreciation for all that the college had done for him. Harrison Randolph thanked Ludwig for “this tribute to the College, since the voice which gives it utterance is a voice which has been heard with respect and admiration throughout the western world.”24 More significant, however, were Thomas della Torre’s remarks, given the darkening atmosphere in America and abroad. Having recognized Ludwig’s special nature long before others, he took this opportunity to congratulate his former pupil on having found for himself his proper identity.
What of fame I have comes, it seems, from my quick perception of your early genius. I recall the figure of that little boy very well—the strange, pathetic, foreign little figure—so keen, so responsive even then to beauty and art as they were first revealed to him in a foreign literature…. And will you think it too personal if I add that you were more interesting to me, excited in me what I may almost call a protective feeling because you were a Jew and a foreign Jew at that? Did you know (my intimates always knew) that I was strongly pro-Jew?… You never knew how furiously I researched and resent the persecution of the Jew in all ages, in all countries, under all religions (my own included), and how furious it makes me to see the most ancient and venerable traditions in the world, which are the fountain-head of my own faith, insulted and mocked by vulgar people. I rejoice that you now stand on your two feet as a Jew. I do not mean religiously, but racially—so, indeed, you have a firm foundation under your feet which all the assaults of the centuries have been unable to shake…. I sincerely rejoice at the honours and the fame which have come your way not through grace or favour, but because they could not be denied you.25
Della Torre understood, as the others did not, that Ludwig’s involvement in Jewish affairs had represented the rediscovery of his identity. “It does us both so much good to be actively within Zionist life and activity,”26 Ludwig wrote Wise a month later, though Ludwig had earlier reacted angrily to what he termed for Wise “(this strictly between us) certain phenomena toward me in the Zionist world.” Approached by the Zionist leadership, rather than approaching them, he had lent his voice until suddenly “the stage is dark and silent.” Had “they thought I ought to work for nothing?… I have no salary, fixed income or anything except what I go fishing for with the immortal mind.” As the keynote speaker that June for the New England Zionist Convention, he had asked “ever so gently for our expenses.” They had agreed to cover these personal costs on behalf of the organization, “but with a little—shall we call it gasp?” Were all Zionist leaders “gentlemen of independent fortunes?” he asked Wise. It was Ludwig’s old plaint, not unjustified, that he was receiving inadequate compensation for his unfailing efforts. “I’ve invented an anecdote about myself: My publishers and other good goyim say softly to each other: L.L.? Don’t worry about him. You know how the Jews are; they take care of their own. And the Yidlach say: L.L.? Fees he wants too? He’s rolling in American royalties! And neither statement is true.”27 Yet, there he was a month later, happily returning from the convention in New Bedford, actively involved in translating Chaim Bialik’s Yiddish poem “Dos letzte Wort” into English and planning to attend the national Zionist conference in Atlantic City that July.28
Ludwig’s attendance at the New Bedford convention had reinforced his commitment to the Zionist program, making the JPS rejection even more objectionable. The “catch” in their letter was the phrase “not sufficiently inclusive,” he told Canfield on June 20.29 Had these Jewish leaders not yet seen what was happening around them? Did they not know of developments abroad? “I had hoped, do you see, that the events of the past two years had knocked some sense into these people. Vain hopes. Only pogroms (God forbid) in their own bailiwick will do that. Never mind!” Ludwig exclaimed angrily, before speaking against Canfield’s hiring a man known to him in Paris. Though intelligent, capable, talented, and honest, he could only add how “I dislike him intensely.” For here was a man who represented so much of what Ludwig was struggling to reverse—“the Jew who has turned himself (or thinks he has) into a cold destroying intellectual machine and mans the stupid radicalisms of the world and has no reverence for other peoples’ sanctities or his own, and proposes to root out and overturn”—the very type he had attempted to illustrate in “The Bolshevik.”30
Both the Jewish leaders opposed to Zionism and the assimilated Jewish radicals who denied their ethnic identity had blinded themselves to their fate and that of their people, and in response to this wrongheadedness Ludwig had worked hard that spring to help establish a “Zionist district in Vermont, of which I’m president,” as he wrote Canfield on July 5. With this latest note, Ludwig sent the last pages of Rebirth, accompanied by suggestions for promotional efforts among rabbinic organizations and Jewish social workers. A brochure advertising the book was needed (“even if it’s only such an inexpensive leaflet … as the French publications put out”), which he once again offered to write. “We must sell at least 10,000 copies of this book, not only, not primarily because the workman is worthy of some hire, but because (as I’m telling them) the people for whom this book is meant dare not let it fail.”31
Ludwig believed that his still ill-defined “epic of the 2nd century,” the new novel “more or less in progress,” and Rebirth offered the possibility that some difference could be realized, some renewal and rescue achieved. And quite possibly, some allies within the Christian community might be won over to the effort being waged against anti-Semitism and the imminent danger of destruction—even from among those of his old friends who now were so clearly moving against his concerns. “Yes, it is my hope and it is my faith that gradually many, many Christians (including so many of my closest friends) will be persuaded to read this book to see (1) the insane intricacy of the problem and (2) the high-mindedness with which our best men have tried to meet it.”32
Though prospects for the upcoming winter lecture season were far less “rosy” than the previous year’s, Ludwig felt certain that they would “pull through,” that expenses would somehow be met, that one day they would be able to live in their inherited house “almost rent free. Then I’ll go to Palestine for a winter … and write a BOOK,” for which “I’ve got everything … but the vision.”33 Burlington had met most of his needs. “I’m profoundly satisfied to live here and have Jim grow up on his own bit of earth. I missed that unconsciously in my childhood.”34
Yet he could not shake the disquieting thoughts that came to share his private moments. In a 1933 “Miscellaneous” notebook entry, Ludwig had repeated lines written following his mother’s death, as if he had achieved only some partial fulfillment of a sacred pledge. “I could not say Kaddish for you then … I Now I say Kaddish with my life.”35 This same consciousness of the past, and of the route he had taken, would become central to the biographical note he was to prepare two years later as an introduction to the several selections he had chosen from his own work for inclusion in Rebirth. Here, for the first time publicly, he dated his break with assimilation to the years immediately following his mother’s death, choosing this moment to unveil the origin of his Jewish life. Perhaps now those who had recently taken to condemning his choice of direction might better understand why he had taken the path he had. “This American novelist … descended from German Jews assimilated for several generations … in his confused and misled twenties as alienated from his people as has often been assumed (and then with a recurrently evil conscience) … returned to the faith of his fathers and embraced the Zionist cause, in which he has been as active as life has permitted him to be, fifteen years ago.” With two exceptions (Crump and The Golden Vase), “only his Jewish works: The Island Within and more especially The Last Days of Shylock and This People” held any lasting value for him. They alone were of “the path of Zionist activity [which] he hopes to continue to the end.”36 Nowhere else had he so explicitly narrowed his focus of interest for the public to see, or so consciously risked further marginalizing himself by alienating those whose ideas he condemned but who, nevertheless, had not as yet turned their backs to him.
Nor does he seem to have been terribly concerned about the negative effects of such a disclosure. There were issues of far greater moment now occupying his thoughts, questions of “What shall Israel do to be saved” that were central to each of the writers he had chosen to include in Rebirth. “The only Elders of Zion who exist,” he declared in response to the anti-Semites’ repeated reference to the infamous Protocols, were those whose “plan for unifying and saving the Jewish people constitutes the only Jewish world conspiracy.”37 Centuries earlier, Jews had sought an answer to this problem in a world determined to remain intrinsically pagan despite outward adherence to the Christianity whose faithful adoption, he maintained, would have Judaized them and set in place a moral code by which persecution of the Jew would have been anathema—witness the Nazis’ attack upon Christianity of which he had spoken earlier.38 More recently, the Enlightenment had posed the problem in a new way, offering emancipation from centuries of disability, but at the price of sacrificing the Jew’s soul, a failure again by pagan Europe to understand the moral thrust of Judaism.
The Emancipation was never a true emancipation, which must be an emancipation toward being what you are and desire to be; its tolerance was veiled intolerance, for tolerance has no meaning unless it is a tolerance of difference, an acceptance and even an appreciation of the other-ness of the other, of the Eigenart of that fellow-man whom you are feigning to tolerate. The emancipation of Jewry carried an implication subtler, more deadly, and yet no less tragically absurd and contrary to possibility as would have been an implication in Abraham Lincoln’s proclaiming of the freedom of the slaves that that freedom and its resultant rights were conditioned upon the black men becoming white men within two generations.39
Both solutions, the Christianization of the West and its Enlightenment, had failed to sow the seeds of acceptance for Jews. Pagans once, pagans still. The masses and their new leaders were at heart unchanged and at fundamental odds with the central principles of Judaism—justice and mercy, particularly for the outsider who chose to remain himself.
In all the many commands in the Torah concerning justice to the stranger, the ger, containing mercy and love to him and equality for him, there is never the shadow of a hint that the stranger must first acquire a right to justice and mercy by becoming other than he is, by ceasing to be a ger, a guest or stranger. It is precisely because he is not an Israelite that he is to be protected and given not only equality but love. “Love ye, therefore, the stranger, for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt—Va-achab’them eth hager khi gerim heyiytbem b’eretz Mizrayim!” The pagan cannot understand that, and the Jew, though he may never have read these words of the Torah, can understand nothing else. To unspoiled Jewish instinct it is blazingly self-evident that tolerance of your fellow-men is a duty that admits of no condition, and that equality has no meaning if you are to buy it with the warping of your soul. It is the pagan who demands his pound of flesh.40
How, then, Ludwig asked, were the Jews to find a solution to this third confrontation with paganism, made more threatening, and yet, because of this state, more imperative “in spite of murder and torture, of the rubber truncheon and the concentration camp, of brutal extrusion from one economic order after another … [by] a mounting world conjuration against the very life of Israel?”41 In the face of such terror, Ludwig called for no less than an act of self-emancipation into a Jewish life which, he believed, even “the most assimilated and preëminent Westerners of Jewish lineage still preserved in their psychical physiognomy, if in nothing else.” In this darkening hour, this “unmistakable and eternal stamp of Israel” was, for Ludwig, as for his many authors, the only viable response to those who, through violence physical and spiritual, sought to destroy Jewry and its values, as they did those “Gentile friends who are Christians and not pagans,”42 and, ultimately, all that free people everywhere cherished.
We must reëmancipate ourselves upon other and upon truer terms. We must reject the pagan demand of paying with our spiritual destruction for an apparent equality. We must cleanse ourselves of the servility and falseness and inner division which the attempt to meet that demand has brought upon us. We must reintegrate ourselves with our culture, our instincts, the very sources of our being. We must be Jews, and as such we must demand of a world that feigns to be a Christian world our rights as individuals, as minority groups, as a people in the land of our fathers. We must strive after the coöperation of all free men in the world, of all Christian men in the world. And at last we must ask that coöperation and that friendship upon honourable terms—as Jews, as conscious bearers of one of the world’s great spiritual civilizations and therefore as men and brethren, not as suppliants, imitators, henchmen, and hangers-on. How clear that should be to any unspoiled human instinct! But precisely the gravest wrong done us by the false emancipation, the emancipation offered and accepted upon false and dishonourable terms, is the warping and defiling of our instincts and the disintegration of thousands upon thousands of Jewish souls. Hence our immediate task is to cure the warped and broken soul of Jews and to make them worthy of being Jews. The spiritual wounds of the emancipation must be healed. To save the Jewish people we must convert that people to itself and every Jew who puts off the falseness and dishonour of servile assimilation and puts on the new man of his reintegration with his people shall know that he is helping to save not only Israel, but a world pagan and unredeemed.43
What better proof than the events in Germany that had so quickly unfolded during the preceding two and a half years? In their shadow, it seemed fitting to Ludwig to conclude this collection of modern Jewish thoughts—of writings by Moses Hess, Leon Pinsker, Theodore Herzl, Max Nelson, Ahad Ha’am, A. D. Gordon, Martin Buber, Louis Brandeis, Mordecai Kaplan, and a dozen others, Zionist in the broadest sense of cultural renewal as the end of all their efforts—than with the statement issued by the Berlin Jewish weekly, the Judische Rundschau, following the Nazi declaration of a boycott of all Jewish shops on April 1, 1933. “This volume could have no more fitting ending and epilogue than the great editorial” written as German Jewry was being “publicly nailed to the cross for the sins of their fellow men.”44 Finding some solace and immense pride in their willingness to assert themselves, Ludwig hailed their act of self-determination in the face of a reality many others still sought to deny. “Jews,” they wrote in response to the painting of the Magen David on their windows, “take it upon yourselves, that shield of David and honour it anew.… Let it not be forgotten that today and for long there has existed a new type, that free and proud Jew, whom the non-Jewish world does not yet know.”45 These words from his beleaguered cousins had roused in Ludwig the hope that his more complacent co-religionists in America had yet to confirm. “That inner yearning is the source of your being troubled and of your very irritations and resistances. You are burning to take upon yourself the yoke … of a wholly Jewish life.”46 Here, suddenly and unexpectedly, was emerging in reaction to the worst expression of oppression in personal memory, the purest sign of change from Jews not unlike those in America.
Evasion or hiding is at an end. The Jewish answer must be clear. It must be that briefest of sentences that Moses spoke to the Egyptian: IVRI ANOCHI. I, a Jew. We must affirm our Jewishness. That is the moral meaning of this hour in history. The time is too agitated for argument…. But we, the Jewish people, can defend our honour by a moral act. We remember all those who in the course of five thousand years have been called Jews and have been stigmatized as Jews. The world reminds us that we are of them, that we are Jews. And we answer: Yes, it is our pride and glory that we are!47
Ludwig was anxious to see the volume play its role and, while still in the process of editing it that July, thanked Canfield for having paid “such keen attention to this Ms.”48 He was pleased, as well, that “my friend and right-hand man here, a very young Palestinian scholar and writer, has written a pamphlet length essay about me with particular/culminating reference to Rebirth.” Fifty-five hundred words in length, its writing “betrays by a quaintness here and there” the original Yiddish in which it had been first written, and which Ludwig saw as an element that “heightens its authenticity and appeal.” Ludwig had himself written a small pamphlet for the Zionist youth organization Masada. Both his and Saul Spiro’s had been written with the understanding that the verso of their front covers would contain an announcement of Rebirth, which he was now asking Canfield to print on his pamphlet and to provide copy for his friend’s.49
Though Spiro’s approach was that of a partisan, much of his assessment of Ludwig’s efforts rang true. Energetic far beyond the average man his age, this “unaffected human being” had made comfortable all who sat beside his “vivid brimming spring which powerfully fructifies the land through which it flows. It is quickly forgotten that you are with a genius of literature and a scholar of Jewish texts, and soon you begin to wonder how one so accomplished could possess such modesty, such patience.” The answer, Spiro held, was in Ludwig’s deepest concern for his own people’s fate.
In the mind and heart of Lewisohn at once there burns the flame of a passionate love for his people and for all who possess a truly feeling soul. The echo of his people’s woe, the stoic silence of their suffering assails his ear and pierces into his very soul and suffuses his entire being … his convictions and his thoughts and his sympathy do not remain locked up within him. He discourses, he speaks, he writes; he shares his thoughts with the world. He does that with a fire, with a force of which but few people in the world are capable.50
But this had led, as Ludwig himself had already acknowledged, to his increasing marginalization within the gentile world, a phenomenon more ominous in its wider context. “The American people with all its vaunted liberalism has not reached the elevation from which it will overlook his Jewishness. In fact, his Jewishness is like a thorn in its flesh. In that situation there lies a deep Jewish tragedy. For if a Jewish master cannot gain the right acclaim of the world, what is likely to be the fate of common Jewish men and women?” While admitting Ludwig to their circle of leading critics, these same arbiters of acceptability “have slighted his creative work,” unwilling to admit that “a Jew can create non-Jewish fables and characters” who also creates those that are Jewish, and often both in the same work.51 Yet, as Spiro noted, Ludwig was not angered or upset by the rejection he now understood as inevitable. His primary focus lay elsewhere.
I am little concerned as to what this or that other critic thinks of me; I am little concerned over the attitude to me as a Jewish writer of the Gentile world. I have long ago ceased writing with an eye on the world; my books have a specific aim. They are being written for my people, for their torn and wrestling souls and for those among them who hide behind masks in order to befool both themselves and the world. My books are written for those young and older souls which are famished for the Jewish idea in the language that they understand. I write them for the children of chaos to awaken in them the sparks of self-respect and self-reverence—the spark of the Jewish national ideal. My mission is a much more significant one than to worry exactly how my name will be carved into the annals of American literature.52
For Ludwig’s passage to this point had painfully rendered “the permanent peace” of his life. Not anti-Semitism, but the spiritual chaos of assimilation had been the root of both turmoil and resolution, he had confessed to Spiro, as it had been for his “overburdened” father in his permanent “melancholy” and for his mother’s “gentle and beautiful soul,” broken not by the cancer that invaded her body but by the conflict she had lived, exemplified by the secret notations of the date of Yom Kippur she had added each year to an old prayer book kept hidden from her husband’s view. Ludwig was convinced that their “desperate and voiceless inner cry, the hopeless conflict in their souls,” had led to their untimely deaths. “These burned them to ashes; the merciless sword of assimilation cut short their lives.” In the despair that followed each of their deaths, Ludwig had found his own inner voice.53 “Lewisohn evokes our Jewish hope, yearning and faith,” Spiro asserted. “He awakens in us the feeling of duty that we owe our Jewish culture, history, and traditions. He infects us with his idealism and his devotion.”54
Ludwig’s selflessness was, of course, not as complete as Spiro would have had it, nor his lack of attention to American critics of his novels so total. By July 1935, Thelma was busily gathering Ludwig’s correspondence for a proposed volume of letters, perhaps in response to Leonard’s former student, Clara Leiser, whose preparation for a biography of her mentor had led her to request copies of his correspondence. In searching for this material, Thelma discovered that much had disappeared. Ludwig assumed this to be Mary’s work,55 and suggested that the gathering be extended beyond the Lewisohn household to include Harpers’ files and those of friends. Mann granted permission to quote from his correspondence with Ludwig, the sole exception being passages of a political nature.56 Few others were as helpful. While this volume never appeared, the absence of such foresight would have made any effort at reconstructing his life far less rewarding. At the time, however, not all concurred with Canfield’s directive to preserve it all. Wrote one disgruntled staff member to his subordinates,
Ludwig Lewisohn has confided to Mr. Canfield that the royal consort, to wit, Thelma, will soon apply herself to the task of collecting letters from his immortal pen. Let it therefore be made known that henceforward, no communication from Ludwig, however trivial it may seem to the untutored mind, should be destroyed. I have brought up from the vault with due ceremony and ritual all old correspondence and placed it in the current book file. From now on, nothing should be sent to the General File. Scrupulous care must be exercised to see that not one message goes astray and not a single precious word is lost.57
As for the critics he could more easily ignore in moments of idealistic flight, he had again grown conscious of their impact upon his life by late September. “If every reviewer in America had not as though by a unanimous impulse stamped his more or less asinine hoofs on it,” Altar could have sold reasonably well, and he would not now have to “fiddle with small time journalism for pittances” when a new novel, already grown “in many ways beyond its original plan,” was waiting to be written. Admittedly “second-rate” relative to his best, Altar was no worse than the lesser accomplishments of other noted authors. “Inhibited” by economic circumstances exacerbated by the unrelenting critical response of those who demanded that he alone either “be at the height of my possibilities or be treated with contempt,” he hoped soon to talk with Canfield and Saxton about his new novel and the impact that such treatment was having upon his ability to work on it. What, he asked of them in the meantime, were their thoughts “on the matter which has many other and subtler aspects”?58
By early December, after a season of lecturing and poorly paid journalism, Ludwig was more adamant than ever about the unfair treatment that had kept him from creative work. Huebsch had sent him a review of one of his novels recently translated into Swedish, to which Ludwig responded, “On the continent I am rated as the best of American novelists, though second in immediate popular effectiveness to Sinclair Lewis. Let anyone tell that to the lice—forgive me—who review books in New York.… If I live long enough they’ll probably come around. Then I’ll tell them to go to hell. Don’t think I let it actively bother me,” he cautioned Huebsch. So many other “rich compensations. But I am not displeased at the right occasion to speak of it to an old friend like yourself.”59
Such a moment had arrived several days before his September letter to Saxton, as financial problems at home forced him to postpone a lecture and concert tour to South Africa for himself and Thelma. Planned to last three months “till we all dropped,” it was to have earned him enough to be able to return home and simply write. “I find the economic struggle getting quite sharp,” he bitterly complained to Stephen Wise, annoyed that despite all assurances from the Jewish National Fund (JNF) and the United Jewish Appeal, he had earned only a few dollars for his great effort. “They need me…. When I go anywhere, as recently to Pittsburgh, the moment is triumphant and has permanent repercussions.” Yet they were offering “for further work pittances which, with all good will and all devotion to the cause, I dare not and cannot accept.” The one bright spot was the possibility of ultimately going to South Africa.60
Two weeks later, at the conclusion of Yom Kippur, “still affected by a rigid 24 hours fast,” he wrote again promising “to be brief and not unpregnant.” He was now planning to go to South Africa during the winter and spring of 1937, and had so informed the Zionist Federation there. It was his hope to revisit Palestine then as well, and he suggested that Wise make this same trip in his place in the coming year. At the moment, he would have to content himself with the lecturing circuit that was about to begin again, though “by no means grand this season.” He was to speak that week in Massachusetts and Connecticut before going west on behalf of both the JNF and Harpers, part of the promotional campaign for Rebirth. “And so it goes,” without a chance to satisfy his creative needs. “I feel very deeply the need of plastic creation again: all this publicistic work is secondary to my nature. But in one way or another we are all bound to the wheel.”61
Circling homeward through Baltimore, he arrived early on the morning of October 30 and took a few moments to answer belatedly Leonard’s latest note. Perhaps he would again have time “to myself here in this lovely and friendly town and home in order to try to do again what I like best to do—write a story.” But for the present, he could only give himself “wholly to that publicistic work in journalism and speaking which is my one imperative duty and function and excuse for living in this dark and desperate age.” And though his efforts were “specifically Zionist in content,” this work had broader implications, “universal in its ultimate meaning.” What must be recognized, he insisted, was that nationalism and “nationalists exist. There they are. It’s silly to try to negotiate that,” as had his parents’ generation before, and “as the Communists in a certain sense are trying to do again.” Instead, a way had to be fashioned where nations could “coexist without trying to murder other nationalities in war or through ‘liquidation.’” This, for Ludwig, seemed the central issue for a world “up against horrors and tragedies and miseries,” so radically changed from that “easier, simpler world” of his youth where “we could afford to be unhappy poets.”62
Nor was Ludwig merely pandering to an old and dear gentile friend out of fear that Leonard might condemn his seemingly narrow Zionist activism. For in the privacy of a letter to Wise written three weeks earlier, Ludwig had just as emphatically posited a similar thesis regarding the errors of communism in its antifascist stance. To Ludwig, true freedom was the freedom to maintain a separate identity, not the accession to a demand to commit cultural suicide. “And I know from things I witnessed in Germany in 1927 and even in France in 1933 how dangerous Communist implication is to us. And it is so unnecessary a danger. The Jewish cause is the cause of liberalism—of cultural and economic pluralism. Totalitarian despotisms that work with the principle that extermination works and that the dead are silent—these are our enemies as both Jews and free men, irrespective of the paper theories with which these despotisms operate.”63 Zionism alone could save the Jews, Ludwig insisted. Not less nationalism, but more, and this time, for the Jews as Jews. “Abysses yawn,” he told Leonard, and though Jews had not declared war on either the Germans or the Poles, they had declared war on them. “They have us in a trap,” he wrote that October of 1935, four years before Germany’s invasion of Poland. “Through no fault of ours, [they] are torturing us to death, men, women and children.” The Jews’ own shortsightedness had sealed their fate as they foolishly hoped for conditions to change. “But things are as they are. And the reason why the diaspora must be liquidated is so that no one can trap us again.”64
So divisive had these matters become that they were systematically destroying Ludwig’s lifelong relationships as “all the old German friends,” displaying a “bad conscience,” had “faded out of the picture,” but not before Camillo von Klenze had offered him an opportunity to identify himself as a German. He “thought I’d be pleased to get out from under and disassociate myself from my people at such an hour,” Ludwig wrote Leonard with amazement after reading von Klenze’s recent review of Expression in America. Nor would Ludwig agree to support Viereck in his struggle with the United States government, given Viereck’s propaganda and information-gathering activities for the Nazi regime. An advocate of many of their policies, he had curiously been able to separate their anti-Semitism from the remainder of Hitler’s program. As Ludwig and Thelma would not “conspicuously break the dietary laws nor break the Sabbath at all,” so would he not “have the poorest little peddler who reads my stuff in Yiddish in his daily paper for one moment lose his faith in me on account of a wilderness of G.S.V.’s.”65
So emphatic was Ludwig’s identification with his people’s suffering that he had come to see Nazi persecution as a metaphor for his own difficulties with Mary, whose vindictiveness he likened to that of the Germans toward the Jews as a projection out of their own failures. “I am to her (the analogy is psychologically quite exact) what the Jews are to Hitler. By punishing me she wants to prove to herself that the bitter failure of her life is not her fault but mine.” As Germany had inflicted itself with the illness of barbarism, born of its pagan heart, so, too, did Mary remain “a lost, wretched, utterly sick human soul struggling in the meshes of her self-prepared fate.” And as the Jews were being made to suffer for Germany’s own self-defeating illness, so, too, was it “a grim shame … that I and mine should be hampered.”66
The only true consolation in all of this, Ludwig told Leonard that October, was his family. More conscious now than ever of the passage of time and the paucity of real happiness in the world, he spoke of how “the damned gong of the years gives me the jitters … especially when I look at Jimmie, utterly adorable at 25 months—but only twenty-five months old.” Though he wished his life had taken a different course, he was thankful at fifty-three that this sense of fulfillment was at last his to enjoy, if only in his later years. “Still, better to have Thelma and him late in life than not to have had them. There is the meaning of life. If I were ten years younger I’d take all the babies that God would send. I’m grateful to the bone for him meanwhile.”67 Not that Ludwig was without concern for his son’s future. As he wrote Wise the following day, he anticipated the possibility of one day having to criticize Jim severely for embarrassing them both. “Some day … God help us all … [he will probably] make himself and me look foolish in the eyes of the judicious!”68 Ludwig’s fears would, of course, be realized, though he would not live to witness his son’s most injudicious act. Perhaps Ludwig, so often prescient, could already sense that tragedy lay ahead.
On December 1, 1935, Ludwig paid a visit to New York, Hays having learned that the legal authorities of the state rested on the official Sabbath. At Wise’s request, Ludwig had come to address a Zionist meeting and to engage in a full day of related activities. He felt good being back in the city, and promised himself to return often in the coming year. His one regret, as he told Canfield on the fifth, was not having sufficient time to visit. He had wanted to discuss his new novel, “extraordinarily ripened in my mind,” composed of “two themes (as has happened to me before) [that] have coalesced in my mind.” The final pages were already visible in his thoughts. “A good sign.” If only he had the time. “I’m kept too busy making a living in a rather scattered, rather restless way,” though it enabled him to keep a roof over his family and to pay “his minimum bills by honest work.” He was “damned well off, of course,” but felt “the lack in this life of creative work,” looking back “upon those (to me) golden years between, say, Crump and This People.” His plan was to finish lecturing by March and devote the next half year to The Trumpet of Jubilee, as he titled the yet unwritten work. Despite “horrid doubt” that the book might ever be written, he was already planning two others, Star Son, “when I’ve been in the Near East once more,” and “a sort of both Jewish and universal modern Decameron with a background in eternity of which twenty stories are complete in my mind as well as the character of the connecting and enveloping narrative and which is to be called The Well of Jacob.” Still smarting from critics’ recent attacks upon his last novels, he was determined to “do it yet, by the Eternal.” Till then, he told Canfield, let them all go on praising “their Thomas Wolfe and his merciless verbosity and his string of passages trying to be purple and succeeding in being only red in the face or their pseudo-proletarian neo-naturalistic fragments. Writing remains. I’ll do some more.”69
Canfield responded with encouragement two days later, agreeing “very thoroughly” with Ludwig’s assessment of Wolfe (“annoyed me as would the babblings of an intelligent person, able to do something much better”) and assuring his author that he need not care “what some critics may say about some of your fiction.” If only he could recapture the place of prominence Island had given him, Canfield offered, and the “larger audiences than any [other] book you have written.”70 What Canfield could not have known, however, was that Ludwig was, in fact, at work on a project that would have just such a sizable audience, but which would be based on another’s creative effort and for which he would receive only minimal recognition. Despite his personal commitment to the project’s intent, his work on it would add to his frustration and deepen his need to work on what was wholly his own.
On September 4, the writer Franz Werfel, composer Kurt Weill, and director Max Reinhardt had set sail from Cherbourg, arriving in New York six days later, midway between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Two years earlier at the Chicago World’s Fair, the Zionist leader and publicist Meyer Weisgal had produced a musical survey of Jewish history titled The Romance of the People. Though it had a short roadlife, its true theatrical importance lay in its becoming the germ for a larger undertaking which Weisgal had contracted for in the summer of 1934, after an earlier meeting with Reinhardt.
The threesome of Werfel, Weill, and Reinhardt had already worked through the details of their collaboration at a July 1934 meeting in Venice. The largely biblically based retelling of early Jewish history, of destruction, prophecy, and redemption culminating in national rebirth, was to be written by Werfel, who for nearly two decades had openly displayed his ambivalence toward all things Jewish. The passage of the Nuremberg Laws during the days of his voyage to America in 1935 would affect this attitude, yet he would go on to write not only of the Holocaust in Jacobowski and the Colonel, but of the miracle at Lourdes in The Song of Bernadette. Reinhardt was more confident in his Jewish identity, but did not share Weisgal’s Zionist concerns. Nor was Weill any more Jewishly involved than his director, seeing the biblical themes in their universal setting far more than Weisgal had, choosing to use Jewish music only for the final synagogue scene. It was a curious mix: Weisgal, the wholly dedicated Zionist, who alone saw the production’s full importance as a “Zionist undertaking,” and these three refugees from Hitler. To them it was theater, and they would do all they could to bring forth the best possible production regardless of the content. The American theater designer, Norman Bel Geddes, himself no strong philosemite, was brought in to create sets and costumes. Opening night was initially scheduled for December 23, 1935, but a series of postponements due largely to Bel Geddes’s financially escalating aesthetic demands prior to his dismissal in late 1936 caused it to be rescheduled a dozen times, until the curtain rose at the radically redesigned Manhattan Opera House on January 4, 1937. Sam Jaffe, Lotte Lenya, and Sidney Lumet held major roles in what had begun two years earlier with the working title The Road of Promise and opened as The Eternal Road, a purely coincidental reference to this never-ending process.
Not long after the arrival of Werfel, Weill, and Reinhardt in New York, Ludwig was commissioned to translate the German text from which they had already begun to work in Europe. Lyrics that fit so nicely to the music in the original became problematic in translation. Having written lyrics in the past, and with his vast background as a translator, Ludwig was perhaps the best person for this task. Given his commitment to the subject matter and to the purpose behind the production, Weisgal had made a wise choice. The translation was needed as soon as it could possibly be completed. With an estimated opening date of late December, Ludwig quickly set to work in his usual fashion, rendering to his typist sight dictation in English from the German.71 Nearly a dozen years earlier, Ludwig had offered unqualified praise in the Nation for Reinhardt’s “visionary” artistry. “To Reinhardt art is the reason for his existence and the existence of the theater and almost of the world.”72 And in “An International Symposium on Reinhardt” published in this same period, Ludwig had written, “What was the character of the vision that came to him? It was a vision of the play’s soul, of its innermost nature.”73
While Ludwig could no longer subscribe to the notion of art as the “reason for existence,” he retained his deep admiration for the theater and for Reinhardt, and undoubtedly saw this as an opportunity to participate in a Zionist enterprise that might absorb some of his creative frustration. To translate is to recast, and Ludwig made certain that his “Translator’s Note” was included in the published edition of the play in 1936. “Important: To read this play with proper insight,” he advised, “it is necessary to observe that the bulk of it is composed in a metre which Werfel has invented.” Yet there was, as with all translation, room for variation from the original, born of selection from among near equivalencies. “Each line of the translation reproduces the precise pattern of the line in the original.” But did it precisely reproduce the nuance of the original, or had he enhanced the text? “The prose passages and those in rhymed fixed verse need no elucidation,” he offered in conclusion, having already provided the necessary clarifications.74
Ultimately, Ludwig saw in the play more than its assimilated creators had intended it to convey. Here was a message of universal yearning symbolized in the Jewish struggle and hope that “When the Lord brings back the redeemed to Zion / Then shall we be like unto dreamers.”75 Weisgal had conceived the project’s Zionist theme, with references to exile and “the thousands of years of torment” foreseen in those ancient days,76 but Ludwig saw in it both the universal and the particular. In this prewar hour, he wrote in the New York Times that December of 1935, The Eternal Road served as “an unvarying mark of the great theatre, the eternal theatre, the mythic theatre … [to] energize symbols and emotions that are already present in the consciousness of its audience.” It was Ludwig’s hope that Jew and Gentile alike would be aroused by a sense of the tragedy befalling his people, that they would feel the tug of those universal values violated by such injustice, and yet realize that to diminish, even partially, the enormity of what was happening in Europe would be an exhausting task, awaiting without end a helping redeemer to embrace the efforts of man.
Not only the people Israel is in exile; mankind is in exile. Not only the people Israel hopes and yearns for the Zion of its salvation; all mankind does so too. We change our Utopias from age to age; we do not change the motives that impel us to imagine or to build them. We would be free and happy and at peace—all men, even as Israel desires to be. We are huddled in our narrow civilizatory structures even as in the play that little group of persecuted Israelites is in its house of study and of prayer. War and need and injustice harrow us. We dream dreams and see visions—dreams and visions of a redemption, of a redeemer. But always, again as in the play, when the caravan of man through its leader stretches out arms of aspiration toward him or that which shall redeem it, redeemer and redemption fade and the outstretched arms sink and the road—the long road of Israel’s and of mankind’s exile from freedom and from peace and from justice stretches out unendingly before it.77
But in the end, The Eternal Road remained someone else’s creation, and an incomplete expression of Ludwig’s own thoughts which he felt more than ever needed to be cast abroad. Wise was pleased that Ludwig was now able to enter New York, and on December 19 invited him to lecture together with a few musical selections by Thelma.78 Ludwig agreed to speak in March after returning from an upcoming eight-week tour that was soon to begin in Winnipeg, and thanked Wise for the opportunity before repeating how he longed to be at work on his next book. “I’m aching to write the novel Trumpet of Jubilee, which is built in my mind and which ought to outweigh and outlast all the miscellaneous stuff.”79 Returning the following week from a pleasant day of lecturing in Haverill, Massachusetts, he wrote Spiro that “Upon the whole I prefer infinitely my meditative life at home. I so feel the need of concentration of my inner man—not the scattering of the inner substance! I must succeed in dulling the edge of that feeling in order to face and come through the long journey with serenity and effectiveness.”80 And again, arriving home from a day-trip to Lynn, Massachusetts, on January 2, 1936, he complained to Spiro about the upcoming eight weeks’ trip that was to delay his “settl[ing] down for seven months with work and winks and home.”81
Still, for all of his longing for rest and quiet and a chance to work without “scattering … the inner substance,” he had found the time to articulate effectively how “the Jewish people was in much greater trouble” than even the better informed suspected. In the Atlantic Monthly that January, he chronicled the long history of anti-Semitism and its most current manifestations in Central and Eastern Europe. “Jews see the same terror approaching and slowly creeping nearer and nearer as a man in the very agony of fear sees coiling slowly nearer and nearer a monstrous serpent unescapable and sure to strike.” Only the Zionist program, he repeated over and over again, could “liquidate the intolerable exile of Israel in the lands of oppression and re-establish that people among the peoples of the earth.”82 And so, on January 13, 1936, after a ten-day surreptitious stay in New York involving business meetings at Harpers, Zionist conferences, lectures for the movement, and a gathering of the American Jewish Congress at which Thelma sang, he came home, reported to Spiro that “I’m dead for sleep,”83 and four days later climbed on board a westward train, first stop, Indianapolis, and then southward toward St. Louis, Oklahoma City, and beyond.