Into the Wilderness
N “AUTUMNAL CHILL is in the air,” Ludwig wrote Canfield in the late New England summer of 1936. “Not much of a climate for my South Carolina–Oriental taste,”1 with which he had at last made peace. “We need not blindly accept our heritage,” Ludwig argued that fall in what was to be used several years later as the preface to the Canadian Jewish poet A. M. Klein’s first collection. “We may legitimately rebel against it,” Ludwig acknowledged quite readily. “But he who blankly ‘represses’ it, denies it, flees from it cannot evidently be a poet. Deep and strong poetry as deep and strong imaginative literature of any kind is not written, to use the common phrase, from the neck up.”2
By now, Trumpet of Jubilee, “for better or worse,” was “absorbing” nearly all of Ludwig’s time. He had, as well, begun to involve himself in the planning of “a dollar library of Jewish books” for the Jewish Publication Society, first proposed by him in a Seven Arts column. Given the old-guard, non-Zionist membership of JPS’s board, he wondered whether its publication committee “could be made to stomach any of” the book plans he was beginning to formulate. “That is the question,” he told Maurice Jacobs, the society’s executive secretary. Having searched for certain Jewish texts, and encountering only “imbeciles” at the other major Jewish publishing house (Bloch), he promised his support should the society agree to his proposal. He would come to Philadelphia in October and share his ideas with its board so that some meeting of minds and objectives could be reached. Several speaking engagements were to bring him there, affording him the opportunity to meet with them without stealing additional time from Trumpet.3
Ludwig returned from his meeting in Philadelphia enthused by JPS’s plans and the reception his ideas had found, including a prospective collection of his Jewish essays written “on and for certain historic days under the aspect, if not of eternity, then surely under that of the entire history, character and fate of Israel.” Ludwig was certain that the book would draw discussion, though not agreement among all Jews. “I can say truly that no Jewish mind will fail to be stirred to fundamental reconsiderations. Isn’t that enough?” Planning “to peg away at the novel” during the upcoming week, he told Jacobs on October 25 that he was sending along the table of contents for The Jewish Question, “which may well serve as a prospectus.” With prefaces addressed to the world, Christians, politicians, and American Jews, he planned to confront this broad spectrum of readers with issues of cultural and physical survival, in Europe, America, and Palestine.4
Jacobs assured Ludwig “that the matter will be considered very carefully” when the publication committee met that Sunday, and thanked him for the opportunity “to sit at the feet of those who know and listen, and consequently, permit oneself to grow,” having “learnt [much] during my meeting with you.”5 The committee, however, would make no decision without first seeing the manuscript “in its final form,” a rule applied to every proposal, as Isaac Husik, the society’s editor, wrote Ludwig in a rather curt response to his offering. No word of thanks or of anticipation accompanied the message.6 Ludwig was angered by Husik’s note and immediately answered this “melancholy witness to the weight of the dead hand that lies so icily on a good deal of Jewish life in America.” Never before had any publisher failed to contract for one of his books, “sight unseen.” He was certainly not an “unknown and untried author.” It would be “amusing,” he told Husik, “if it were not so sad.” His hope had been to give some assistance to “the cultural life of our people in America” through his writing and the promotion of Jewish books through Jewish publishers. There was no question that gentile publishers would, as before, bring it out if asked (as Liveright Publishing ultimately would in 1939, though without the involvement of Horace Liveright, who had died six years earlier). “I will be very frank with you. The chief reason why I wanted your society to take this book was that I am ashamed in the eyes of my Christian publishers not to have it do so.… It is shocking in the extreme.”7
A week later, Ludwig found himself “again hounded—unendurably” by Mary, with “something of the mechanism of a kidnapping” at work, holding his wife and child’s future happiness as ransom. “In my darker moods,” he wrote Wise, “I feel that something in me—what, Stephen, what?—must have drawn down on me these sordid horrors.”8 Six days later, on November 22, Ludwig wrote to Mrs. Wise, informing her of the Lewisohn family’s flight to New York to avoid the service of papers from Mary’s “blackmailers.” He asked her to befriend Thelma, who was staying with Jim at the Midtown Hotel on Sixty-first Street just west of Central Park, if only “a little at this time,” while he searched for a buyer for his collection of Jewish antiques, rather than mortgage or sell Thelma’s house to pay the suddenly vastly increased sum demanded by Mary. Only then could he purchase “freedom and peace … for Jimmie’s sake.… [S]he and the child are my all in life.”9 A flurry of financial and legal activity ultimately produced the cash needed for Mary’s agreement to sue for divorce. Papers to that effect were signed by her on December 20, 1936, thirty years and eight days after they had wed in Charleston, and thirteen years after they had separated. “At long last, we are morally and legally free,” Ludwig wrote Wise that day, but for “a portentous mountain of debt.”10 Only the formal judicial proceedings lay ahead.
The battle had left Ludwig drained and near collapse as the year ended. “Ludwig hasn’t written,” Thelma told Leonard, “because he’s just had a terrific final fight with the ‘Fury’ which, at the price of more money than we could afford, has ended in a moral victory but left him weak.”11 It also left him ill-tempered, as evidenced by his note to Spiro on the rabbi’s departure from Burlington to Pittsburgh for a larger congregation and a different community. “You’re well out of it. American Jewry may not be anything to brag of. Thank God, this, at least, is no fair specimen.” By the end of the new year, 1937, he, too, would be gone from Burlington, as old warrants, now being rescinded, would soon no longer restrict his freedom. The town that had once afforded a refuge had grown too small. As a first act of freedom, he would attend the premier of The Eternal Road in New York, at last opening the first week of January. While in the city, he hoped to straighten out his “business affairs … [grown] messier and messier because I could not attend to them in person.”12
Concluding these matters as quickly as possible, Ludwig returned to Burlington to finish Trumpet. On January 20 he wrote to thank Mordecai Kaplan for the gift of a copy of his third book, The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion. “Although I am writing the very last pages of a novel under high pressure I must hasten to tell you how truly touched and honoured I am,” Ludwig wrote his old associate for peace in the days immediately following the Great War. He would not have time to read it until his “rather long speaking-tour which begins quite soon,” but he felt compelled to comment on Kaplan’s “not so enigmatic inscription.” A rationalist who had posited the notion that “conceptions of God” were dependent upon temporal human needs and the projection of their fulfillment upon what was seen as demanded of man by this God as proper human behavior, Kaplan could not abide the eternal, seemingly otherworldly pronouncements in Ludwig’s writings. Kaplan attributed Ludwig’s position to his having lived for too long in isolation from contemporary Jewish intellectual life. Conceding this fact, Ludwig acknowledged that whatever eccentricity (“Eigenbrodlerei”) had resulted had only sharpened his vision. “I doubt whether I shall be persuaded to give up certain metaphysical certainties,” particularly since Freud’s teachings appeared to confirm them. With an obvious cut at Kaplan’s own basis in nineteenth-century rationalism, Ludwig acknowledged that even Freud himself would probably disagree with this use of his ideas. “The dear great old sage himself, so rooted in the 19th century, will not admit it.” Still, Ludwig wondered critically if Kaplan had read his chapter “Toward Religion” in The Permanent Horizon.13
Six days later, Trumpet was completed. Ludwig was generally pleased with the way it read, particularly after being so worried about its unorthodox story and style of composition, and its vision of civilization beginning anew after a cataclysmic third world war, there as yet having been no second. “I have a sudden hunch (Thelma concurring) that my worst fears concerning the second [futuristic] part were not justified and that the book as a whole is at least a creditable performance.” Of the whole, the epilogue raised his spirits most, with its portrayal of humanity’s slow rediscovery of the truths embodied in Judaism. “I will swear by the Epilogue. That, at least, is Dichtung [poetic writing], and not the American Romanschreiberei [novelistic writing].” Still elevated from the excitement of having finished, he predicted to Spiro that the critics, just on reading the epilogue, would be “kicking sky-high their asses’ heels.” To this sudden rush of emotion was coupled the “strange” feeling of being “free in other senses,” now that divorce terms had been agreed upon. Despite “a solid month’s hard and not very profitable lecturing” ahead, he felt sustained by this new “sense of freedom and that the novel is not at least bad and will appear in Spring.”14
It was to be a grueling month of travel and speaking, spent with people he cared little for personally, but with whom he was forced to socialize while separated from those things he cared for most, his family and his writing. More difficult still was the growing realization that despite having finally won his freedom from Mary, relations with Thelma were worsening. Just as he began to put his other affairs in order, his personal life had begun to visibly unravel. A year older than on his last tour, and facing an unpleasant homecoming, Ludwig was exhausted from the start. Myron Nutting, his former Parisian neighbor, was living in Milwaukee now, and invited Ludwig for the evening after his lecture. Ludwig accepted on condition that no one else would be there. “I’d like to spend the evening with you,” he confessed to Nutting, “but I really haven’t the energy to see other people.” Nutting agreed, to the disappointment of the many others who waited in vain on the street below for a change of heart.15 In Chicago, where long friendships with the Ashers and others made escape impossible, he sought refuge in his hotel room during the few rare moments he could steal between obligations. “Tired, lonely, more homeless because of the real homelessness of the house in Burlington,” he sent a note pleading with Thelma for change, for renewal.
Three years later, Spiro would testify to his friend’s long-suffering relationship. “I never could understand why … he never lost his patience. I, too, am a patient man, but I could not have maintained the attitude toward a woman who did the things Miss Spear did publicly, without losing my temper!”—among these, a concert performance so bad that the audience walked out in the middle.16 Desperate for peace at home, Ludwig had increased his efforts in these last few years to help enhance her career at a time when her abilities were declining, even going so far as to write “to a small group of our best friends who may not yet have been heard from” in an attempt to build a larger audience.17 Now, as the tour was ending, he sent Thelma a note from Providence, Rhode Island. “Fed up for this season,” and fearing that his lectures had become “too listless” and that his homecoming would prove confrontational, he asked Thelma, “Do you love me? Sometimes your words belie your protestations. But then I think your actions don’t. Anyhow, I love you and kiss you.”18 Weeks later, he would write Spiro from Burlington that “I’m in my usual condition of gevurah [strength], but,” physical restfulness aside, “I need tranquility.”19
Not only had he returned to the volatile Thelma, but he had found Jim in a more agitated state than when he had left barely a month earlier. Accepting Wise’s invitation to speak in New York on April 18, he told his host that it would have to be a short visit, as Jim “suffers nervously from my too frequent absences and he is now my first and dearest concern.”20 Had Thelma realized this change, or that she might be its cause? Had Jim already become the pawn in the struggle developing between his parents? Three days before his New York trip, Ludwig wrote Spiro of Jim’s insomnia. The pediatrician was baffled as to its cause or cure, so Ludwig, believing his son to be overstimulated by things around him, decided to try stimuli deprivation as therapy. This “temporary starving of the over-active imagination,” he reported with relief, seemed to be working.21
While in New York, he attended a “coming-out party” for Trumpet on April 21. The first reviews had not yet appeared as glasses were raised in Ludwig’s honor and all held their breath in anticipation of the book’s critical reception and sales. Three weeks earlier, Ludwig had written a preemptively angry note to the editors of Opinion, insisting that they not review the book “unless it is reviewed in an article devoted to it alone and written by a gravely responsible person without a pro-communist ax to grind … in order not to be shamed and embarrassed before the American literary world.” Anyone who thought Meyer Levin’s recently published book, The Old Bunch, an “important book” was not, in his view, competent to review Trumpet. Like Mann, his purpose in writing Trumpet had been “to transcend once and for all that weary creation of the mere illusion of a flat reality,” as he described the proletarian novels being written by this next generation of Jews.22
In a review that spring, Ludwig had credited Levin with a greater awareness of the “power, grandeur, form,” and ongoing ability for “infinite renewal” of Jewish culture than was indicated by the “spiritual slum” in which he had left his characters. Ludwig had met Levin in Paris some years before, and recalled his Jewish passion, as all who met him over the years would. “Why does he not communicate that knowledge to us?” Ludwig asked. Where was the metaphysical vision, that realm beyond “life’s realities” which, in fact, lent it its meaning?23 Unless a reviewer understood and appreciated this same element in Trumpet, he preferred that Opinion not treat the book at all. “My Christian publishers who agree with me that this is my most important work since Shylock are making a tremendous splash.” Why, then, should they not expect the same from his Jewish colleagues, whose “special ties and spiritual obligations and shared responsibilities” should normally produce a review “in a very definite spirit”? Of course, Ludwig acknowledged, they were “ignorant of the unhappy cross-currents in Jewish life.” Had they known of these, their expectations would undoubtedly have been lowered. That they hadn’t now placed him in a precarious position which he hoped James Wise would “put in his pipe.”24
Ludwig had noted in his review of Levin’s novel that Abraham Cahan’s The Rise of David Levinsky had begun the genre of the American Jewish novel whose “thread … many years later I may be said to have taken up.” He mentioned this bit of literary history “not on my own account” but out of a concern over “the work of the younger men.”25 Clearly, they had veered from this tradition of portraying Jewish life in its Jewishness, and into the “foolish narcotic dreams” of utopian visions born of flight from themselves. When, he demanded, would they awaken from such “escapes into a fancied better world?… Utopia is the opiate of great sections of the Jewish people. When will they face reality?” Why had some found the dreams of other peoples more compelling than their own? Why were they seeking to escape their own inescapable fate, to avoid their responsibility to create a better world for themselves and their people?
Comment is superfluous. Escape, escape. Anything on any irrelevant periphery. Anything but the center, the heart, the blood. Virgin Spain. The Soviet Fatherland. Anything but the real, the attainable, the given, that for which real work can be done in a world of reality and real sacrifices made and real tears shed and real blood; anything but that to which one is called by nature and unperverted instinct and tradition and where one is wanted and needed and where, despite insufficiencies and inadequacies and a thousand human imperfections, one can give one’s whole heart. Any place but home. Any people except one’s own. Any God except the God of one’s fathers. To that is to be preferred any exotic perversity, any bloody dictatorship—anything, everything, so it be not Jewish, so it be not the Jewish people, so it be not the land of Israel.26
Theirs was a “peripheral” quest shared by many. Yet something important if still unformed had begun to stir among so many more. That winter’s trip had convinced Ludwig that a “definite and spontaneous movement among Jews toward concentration, toward a more vivid Judaism, toward return, remembrance, reconciliation … [a] yearning toward a source of fortitude and healing which they themselves do not understand” was beginning, and required such nurturing as could only come from the act, individually and as a people, of renewing the covenant with God in ways coincident with the needs of this moment—much as Abraham had in that first instance millennia before. If not, then the covenant would break under the pressure of an imposed inflexibility, and with it, the Jewish people themselves. “It is renewed in different ages in different ways,” Ludwig reminded his readers in his call for each Jew to assume responsibility for the spiritual renewal of himself and his people. “Our historic and historical religion was always a developing one until it was petrified in the Shulcan Aruch [the sixteenth-century codification of religious law]. We need to re-ally ourselves with the days before the closing of the Talmudim. We need new halachoth [laws].”
This renewal, whatever its final configuration, had to grow out of what he identified as “the chief halacha,” that “path [which] today is the path first to the Zion in our hearts,” and only then “to the new Zion in Eretz Yisrael [Land of Israel].” As important as the rebuilding of the Jewish homeland was to Ludwig, he placed this personal spiritual renewal as a prior need of the people. First one step, then another, he reassured his hesitant readers, until they, one by one and then in concert, would make their way back. As the
am ha-aretz [one Jewishly unlearned] and at most wandering substitute Maggid [teacher of elementary Jewish knowledge] that I have become from time to time, I beg my poor, seeking, melancholy unfulfilled friends to begin with gestures, mere gestures if need be, which will at length, since they are right and native and saving in their nature, induce the higher emotions, the prouder thoughts. I beg them to learn one beracha [blessing], that over the bread and to cover their heads and repeat it before their children … to abolish Christmas trees and burn the Chanukah lights … to make their houses by some quietly conspicuous symbol Jewish houses in the sight of their gentile friends…. To find the path, in other words, by treading it—which is the only means of finding any path. Of such paradoxical nature are all the classical truths of the moral life.
To accomplish this goal, Ludwig realized, some new text would be needed that would give “directions … on that basis for renewal of the covenant. And if the gedolim [the great ones] among our spiritual leaders slack on the job much longer I may be forced to undertake it myself.”27 (Thirty years later, such manuals would grow out of the Jewish renewal movement spurred by the activity of a younger generation.)
If some, like Mordecai Kaplan, had mistakenly seen Ludwig’s intent as that of attempting to create a neo-orthodoxy, Ludwig moved quickly to dispel such misperceptions. Kaplan’s Meaning of God had, of course, recently appeared and was held by some to offer the theoretical underpinnings for just such a guide as was needed for this renewal. But after “first paying … homage to the most learned, vigorous and influential thinker now visible upon the American Jewish scene,” Ludwig launched into a critique delayed earlier only by his novel and his tour. “I am not, to be sure, as Orthodox” as the journal Dos Yiddishe Folk had “made me out to be…. I am not even mystically, if you like, quite as ‘rightist’ as Buber himself and find it difficult to follow that great artist, sage and saint on some of his flights into the ultimate.” But between Buber’s “flights” and Kaplan’s religion as “a national social process, verifiable in the laboratory this month,” Ludwig felt a far greater kinship with the artistic and sagely wisdom of the mystic than with the “sop” Kaplan had “thrown to anti-metaphysical positivism…. Let’s be ‘natural’ and ‘scientific.’ God help us all!” Were the day’s social scientific analyses and programs needed before the path to human perfection could be found? “Have there been through the ages no just men, no righteous men, no saved men? It is this ‘amazement and blank awe’ before Science (with a big S) on the lips of the learned that sometimes makes me talk more orthodoxy (if one may say so) than I believe. But I will in deed and in truth pray with the humblest Chasid in a Polish village of mud and be nearer the sources of our being than go in for this ‘social process’ business with its essential atheism and its essentially unserious meliorism.”28
Reviews of Trumpet began appearing in late winter and continued through the spring in their now familiar mix of praise and condemnation. Ideas “so out of touch” with the world had been expressed in a “beautifully articulate prose style, one of the finest in modern writing,” wrote one critic.29 Alfred Kazin more emphatically expressed his displeasure at Ludwig’s exhibition of intolerance toward opposing ideas,30 while the New York Times reviewer admired the “heat and power … of his polemics” even where “his spiritual and intellectual passion is not fused.”31 Most caustic of all was that of Time magazine, which described Trumpet as “about equal parts of Zionism, Wellsian phantasy and Oz.”32
Yet Ludwig was moderately pleased, telling Spiro on May 9 that the reviews “have been handsome in tone and temper. That is all I’ve ever asked for. Space has been given and serious attention.” More disturbing was the silence, to that point, of the Jewish press, whose thoughts he most wanted. “So far it has been a purely goyish matter.” Only Wise had spoken publicly of the book, praising it while introducing Ludwig before a lecture at the Free Synagogue two weeks earlier. Accompanied by Thelma’s “offertory solo,” Ludwig had again argued for a return to Jewish traditions as the means by which true freedom for the Jew could be found. “Our freedom is achieved by our power, our right, our ability and our will to maintain our form. Freedom is not the freedom of lawlessness, but the freedom to choose and abide by our form. That which is formless is at home nowhere.”33
Early sales figures of what would prove to be Ludwig’s last book for Harpers had not been disappointing, though not overly encouraging, when in late May Ludwig complained to Spiro that “my Yidlach [Jews] are letting me down,” repeating his long-running criticism that American Jews bought non-Jewish books more readily than Jewish. His pamphlet for the Zionists’ Shekel fundraising campaign had garnered excellent returns, but all Ludwig had received was “moral satisfaction,” something no grocer would accept in exchange. “However, God will provide,” he told Spiro on May 21, with half a heart. “My idea [was] emunah [faith] embodied in Dichtung,”34 but still, there were bills to be paid, particularly now that he had agreed to the terms of Mary’s latest suit for divorce in New York State Supreme Court: a cash settlement of thirty-five thousand dollars, and the additional requirement that he agree never to publish Crump, his one hope for financial recovery.35
The next several weeks before the matter was concluded were trying, but by standards set between them over the decades, not all that unusual. Ludwig wrote Canfield on June 11 that his recent trip to New York had been completely occupied with the task of seeing the people from whom he hoped to borrow the now increased amount of money and, thereby, free himself “finally … of these vulture clutches.” Returning home, he received an “immensely curious” telephone call from Mary. All that was heard was the voice of her daughter Helen, off in the background yelling that she refused to speak with him. Apparently, Mary had tried to use Helen to communicate directly with Ludwig, the first such attempt since his flight from Jane Street. “These people—ils sont capables de tout! There’s no limit—not any.” Ludwig wondered whether the problem regarding Mary’s allegation of never having received Harpers’ checks was not the result of her son’s drug addiction and thievery. “The son has all kinds of small skills,” he alleged. “There is a mysterious sinister element in this incident. Never before, remember, have I heard except through a legal leap from ambush. Something is desperately wrong there.” Perhaps Helen’s cry had come after “furious family quarrels” had bullied her into temporarily agreeing to speak with him.36 Ludwig, fearing that the newspapers would create another damaging scandal, telegraphed Lewis Gannett at the New York Herald Tribune, advising him to speak with Hays if he wished to know the true story behind the “treacherous machination” being played out in these last days before their scheduled court appearance of June 17.37
What more, he wondered, might happen in those final hours? Mary was truly capable of the unexpected. For years she had silenced him with her “blackmail game,” only to have recently published a play in her own defense against his claims, using one of Ludwig’s own literary devices, the mask of Heinrich Heine, behind which she could portray herself as “the great love” of his life, while mocking his penchant for passionate self-expression, having him declare that “Love has always been my happiness and my despair.”38 On the day prior to their court hearing, Mary filed new papers before Daniel Cohalan, a referee in the state supreme court, and one of the few to defend Viereck in his later fight over charges of aiding the Nazi regime. In her continuing effort to undermine Ludwig’s position before the court, she now claimed never to have received notice of either of the two divorce proceedings concluded by Ludwig in Poland and Mexico.39
Ludwig would eventually have his divorce, but would never be totally free from the decades of assault, emotionally or financially. The burden of debt, still mounting as the final settlement neared, threatened to end all chance of ever again having the time needed to produce the great work he believed still lay within his grasp. “To me it means the continuance of mere grinding and the pretty complete hopelessness of continuing on the path of creative activity,” he wrote Spiro on May 21. How much more needed to be accomplished for his people, particularly given the near silence of so many in the face of repression and pogrom in Europe and Palestine, even by those Jews who could speak out. “No use exchanging wails as to the situation of Khol beth Yisrael [the voice of the house of Israel]. I start up sometimes in the middle of the night. And there is, despite all business and striving and crying, a center, a core of moral supineness about the damned Jews in this crisis that makes me feel very Jabotinsky-ish. If I were financially independent I’d go about the country on my own and dynamite the rotten fools into a sense of their own danger and responsibility.”40
A photograph of Ludwig in the gardens of Manhattan’s Tudor City apartment complex in mid-June 1937 shows clear evidence of the frustrations he felt, and a striking resemblance to the face that appeared in his 1924 passport. His ability to walk the city openly now was little comfort or compensation for the diversion of time and energy in directions he thought meaningless, yet necessary. He would do all that he could, but he could have done more had events turned his life in other directions. Having reached his fifty-fifth birthday, only to find the shackles loosened but not yet gone, he feared that he might never be free of them, never able to do as he wanted. That day, amidst flowering plants heralding a new summer, the despair lay sharply etched on his prematurely aging face.41
But if he felt such crushing disappointment, it was, in part, because of all that he had wanted to see change, and not just because of his inability to involve himself more in the struggle. Given the times, he was doing exactly what needed to be done—speaking out publicly in lecture and in print. What the situation needed least from him was a work of fiction. What could have stirred his audiences more than a simple retelling of the facts in the style that was uniquely his? And though in his anger he could not appreciate the fully positive impact of Mary’s willingness to finally grant the divorce, it was this changing condition in his life that enabled him to increase his effort where it was most needed.
In late May he had addressed a gathering in Town Hall for EZRA, the women’s section of the Federation of Polish Jews in America, assembled there to raise funds for “our little children and women” suffering under the repressive and impoverishing measures of the Polish government.42 “The Poles are utterly merciless,” Ludwig wrote in a follow-up article. “They are out to destroy utterly.… The Polish barbarians are murdering, slowly, systematically, our brethren in Galicia.” Why, he demanded, was so little heard from American Jews, why so little relief given? And why nothing “concerning the murder of the innocents in Palestine,” the only possible refuge after this failure of minority rights, granted by treaty in Poland after the war? Where was the outcry “concerning a servitude harder than that of Egypt, concerning that blot of Polish ruthlessness upon the shield of Western civilization, concerning the absurdity that cries to heaven and echoes in hell of any temporizing with a group of Arab notables and capitalists when a group of people is to be saved from the hands of murderers?” Why this failure to come to their own people’s aid while assenting to work on behalf of others for whom aid would be given from within that other community? Unashamedly, he insisted upon an answer in the most passionate voice he could raise, calling to some future judgment those content now to sit idle while Jews elsewhere “are permitted to perish slowly, awarely, crushed bit by bit under an iron heel.” When, he asked finally, would the Jews of America see that even their existence was imperiled?
Yes, I want to wring your hearts. I want to rob you of sleep. I want to stab your consciences, Jews of America—as my heart has been wrung and my sleep broken and my conscience wounded. I can only speak. You can act. When will you act—all, all; when will you, respectable American bourgeois Jews, who blush when your sons and daughters mention sharecroppers in our South or millhands in our middle West, men and women who are oppressed, I grant you, but who can appeal as of right to this great, strong, ineffably mighty Christian America with its hundreds of thousands of good and just men and women from our President down…. When will you, Jews, say to your sons and daughters: You have only one duty and that is to share all you have and are with your brethren beyond the seas and at the same time to work for Eretz Yisrael, for a greater and more populous Eretz Yisrael. You are before the judgment-bar of history, Jews of America—today!! Note then, how hard times, instead of invalidating great truths drive them home. The Galician Jews partook of the emancipation in the old Austrian empire. Where is that emancipation today? All the Jews of Poland were promised full minority rights by the peace treaties made with the Polish republic. Their ghostly helpless deputies still sit in Parliament. What does it mean? Minorities are at the mercy of majorities. No law can restrain the latter. No humanity. No treaty. That is the consideration that makes the Galuth an intolerable and unworthy way of life…. When, Jews of America, will you see and when will you act?43
On the eve of the Zionist Organization of America’s annual convention that summer, Ludwig again attacked those Jews who, through indifference or opposition, had continued to withhold the assistance they could have lent the Yishuv for rescue and refuge. “The darkness deepens in all Central and Eastern Europe and the Nazi network is spreading dangerously in America,” he warned. Who but the Jews themselves could save Jews and “the eternal ideas and ideals which that seed has from the beginning embodied”? The Poles? The Nazis? “Shall we appeal to feelings from humanity which do not exist—simply do not exist, except in our breasts?” Only one solution remained. “The diaspora of Eastern and Central Europe must be liquidated,” but for two reasons, not just the one that is apparent, “to save the lives of 5,000,000 Jews. It must be liquidated, secondly, in order that the diseased example may not spread and we be faced in twenty-five years by the alternative between extinction and the liquidation of the entire diaspora.” The one hope that remained was Palestine, “there is no other answer.” Stop “fretting over Spain and China and Puerto Rico,” he admonished; worry about the Jews and their fate, and “ask yourself what you have done and what you are going to do concerning these matters which ultimately will mean life or death to you or your children.” Was he “obsessed by Zionism,” as some reviewers, among them Jews, had claimed after reading Trumpet and other recent writings? Of course he was, as he would remain in the months and years that followed. “Let us hope,” he wrote in response to what some assumed to be a critique or condemnation, “that these ladies and gentlemen will not one fine day, in the whirling waters of a deluge, wish that they too had been obsessed. It happened in Germany—just that—just the other day.”44
Ludwig’s pen and voice continued through the summer and fall to attack away at complacency and excuse, condemning those whose inaction condemned his Jews to death wherever they were under the “iron heel,” be it German, Polish, Arab, or English. And he would do so despite the growing crisis in his own home, growing more acute that summer in the wake of the divorce, whose finalizing proved more precipitous than healing. The Town Hall meeting for EZRA had included a recital by Thelma, part of Ludwig’s continuing effort to include her in his work and to build her career. But there was less and less of a voice to build on. Still, Ludwig persisted. “He was always urging those of us who did programming to hire Thelma as she was ‘a remarkably fine singer,’” a local Jewish leader later recalled. “We invited her once. Her voice was disappointingly ordinary.” As Thelma’s distress deepened, she struck out at those closest to her whom she increasingly and mistakenly believed had destroyed her artistry. It was an awful summer, and the more Ludwig tried, it seemed, the worse their relationship became. “Up to certain fatal and indescribable days in the summer of 1937,” Ludwig noted three years later, “I did all I could to resist that process and to save her and all that had once been between us. It was useless. The axe bit to the core. The tree fell. The summer was irrevocably lost.”45
All attempts by Ludwig that summer to convince Thelma to marry him, to legitimize their relationship and their son’s birth, failed. In front of witnesses who would later testify to her repeated hysterical responses, she refused on the grounds that her career would be destroyed if she agreed. Thelma, in fact, had made this same claim and refusal in front of witnesses as early as 1934, repeating it whenever the subject was raised regardless of who was present.46 A woman in Burlington who read Thelma’s fortune and with whom she shared her most intimate thoughts, later wrote to Ludwig about Thelma’s “adventures” during her many “solitary trips to New York” the previous winter, and recalled how Thelma, in response to Ludwig’s pleading for marriage, had been “so virulent in her tirade, it was simply crazy.”47 By July 1937, Thelma’s emotional instability had worsened. She had quickly begun to unravel after the divorce agreement had been reached in December 1936, and as the divorce itself grew nearer, and marriage to Ludwig became possible, the pieces fell apart. It is likely that the pattern of alcohol and men attested to three years later began at this time as a flight from the permanency she feared. Ludwig, witnessing this decline, fell ill, and throughout much of July had a highly debilitating fever. He, too, could no longer manage the situation and had found flight through illness. In a final attempt to keep their home together that summer, Ludwig moved his family to a house owned by Hays in the Westchester town of New Rochelle, just north of New York City.48
By September they were settled into their new quarters, a fine residence in a quiet, affluent neighborhood. In time they would have a butler, as well as a housekeeper,49 all part of Ludwig’s effort to ease the domestic scene. At first, the move brought the relief he had hoped for, as newness often will. “It makes Thelma so happy to be for the first time a member of a normal American Jewish community,” he wrote Wise on October 5, “singing for Hadassah, Sisterhoods, etc., mingling with people of her own kind. She was so lonely in Burlington,” he added, perhaps willfully trying to deceive himself into forgetting Thelma’s psychological state, though acknowledging in moments of honesty, “so was I.”50
Thelma’s own account of these first months confirmed Ludwig’s. “It was with great happiness and a new hope that we left Vermont and went back to New York…. We no sooner had opened our home than it was once more the center of activities, a salon for some of the brilliant minds of this country and for many of our friends who had been forced to flee Europe.” But she and Ludwig could not re-create their Paris years, nor the relationship they had shared. Too many bad days had now passed between them. She later claimed to have been unaware of the problems between them until Edna Manley’s role in Ludwig’s life began to usurp hers, blaming her loss on the decision which she and Ludwig had reached—that one or the other always be with Jim, now that he was getting older. Imagining herself to have been a dutiful wife, she claimed always to have seen to the needs of her family, while only rarely attending to her career. “Although there were times when I gave concerts, I was content to be the housewife, mother and inspiration of my home,” she wrote in her Living Romances article in 1940. But if she sang less and less, it was because her small talent diminished as the years passed. What began as a nearly weekly schedule of performances in October 1937 had shrunk, by 1940, to a few very occasional appearances.51
“Disillusion is not in bed … for Men!” Ludwig noted in a sketch for his next novel, For Ever Wilt Thou Love. “It is the characterological traits—the meanness, pettiness, etc.—that bring the disillusion to bed.” A “cruel summer” would be followed, in this fictional view of life, by a “triumphant winter! How the soul colors the world!” he wrote next, before adding, “she gets tipsy and says: Nothing is like my dreams … (Her lover?) (Child?). I am more than slightly drunk,” the woman confessed to her husband, an architect hoping to abandon the dross of the world so that he might build “a house of a poet or prophetic tomb or temple to Eros!” Much pain was then followed, in his notes, by resolution and renewal. “She has learned a lesson,” Ludwig hoped for his protagonist, adding, “I will teach you to need me again.”52
But he couldn’t, no more than she could change—or wanted to. Their lives were now irrevocably separating, and though Thelma wished the world to believe hers a case of parental dedication and domestic forbearance ill-rewarded, the truth was that they were both now willingly going their own ways. A former student recalled several outings with Ludwig and Jim to the theater, followed by dinner at Luchows, without “little Thelma” in attendance.53 On another occasion, Thelma was staying at a hotel in Manhattan, but was out when Ludwig came by with one of the Shuberts and so they had dinner without her.54 If she later wrote, and perhaps believed, that their life together foundered on her sacrificing for home and child, there is enough evidence to indicate that the cause of this steady deterioration lay elsewhere. “I do want to see you: I must, in fact,” Ludwig told Wise on November 9, seeking aid and comfort.55
His private life in disarray, Ludwig turned with greater effort to his work on behalf of the Yishuv, finding that “faith which divines the mystical tie between the People Israel and the earth of Palestine.” Writing in an October plea for funds that “history has a way of finding out our errors and omissions,” he demanded action from those who would otherwise seek to ignore “the harsh realities of the world.” Even these Jews would come one day to assist in the Zionists’ program of “redemption through the redemption of the land.” The history of their own past and the events unfolding could not be evaded forever. Ludwig was as certain of this as he was that a Jewish state would one day exist, but a state unlike the binational entity hoped for by many Zionists, a state in which Jew and Arab would live alongside one another. Arab attacks had repeatedly made clear that such a state was not mutually sought. Nor did it have the British blessing it needed. “That Jewish State will not be the bi-national State of a greater Palestine on both sides of the Jordan for which we have so honorably and effectively striven. It will be a small State; it will be a State that will have to guard its interests jealously, intensely, as a matter of [its] very life and death.” In such a partitioned state, few Arabs, though welcome, were likely to remain. Should most, as expected, seek homes in Arab lands, then Jews would need to provide the funds necessary for purchasing their vacated property as a security measure. But few Jews seemed prepared to admit this reality as yet, or to act positively upon it, though doing so would prove nothing less than an act of “salvation and self-determination.” Speaking before a group of Brooklyn Zionists a few weeks later, he openly deplored the apathy of a great number of Jews toward the Zionist effort, a position that found its way into the New York Times.56
With equal certainty, Ludwig pushed his readers to understand that the Jews were truly alone in their redemptive push. All evidence had demonstrated conclusively that few outside the Jewish world were willing to assist. Anti-Semitism was just too deeply rooted. In response to the pope’s 1937 Christmas condemnation “with an unwonted bitterness of the persecution of Catholics of Nazi Germany,” Ludwig asked why the pope had voiced no objection to the Polish Catholic clergy’s and laity’s persistent and far more virulent attacks upon the Jews. “No one will do anything strong, anything effective, anything that comes from a deep sense of conviction,” he added in broadening his critique beyond the pope and the Catholic Church. “That fact proved again the utterly unredeemed character of Christendom…. The test of Christ in men today is abstention from persecution, from hate, greed, war-lust,” but the test had been failed by Western man in Europe and America as they failed to see that this “Disease of the Gentiles” would infect them as well, and for years to come. “The Nazi regime will stick long enough to make race hatred a problem for generations.” “We must continue to bear almost alone the burden not only of our fate as a people but also part of the ethical burden of Western man. For we are terribly alone with our desire for peace, for life, for creative work.… We are alone, [and] from that aloneness we must draw consecration and strength.”57
And so, in the midst of his own “aloneness,” he gathered the strength to ascend once again the stage from New York to Chicago through the early winter of 1938. But Ludwig would complete these trips as quickly as possible, afraid now to leave Jim for more than a few days at a time, but seeing no other choice but to lend his voice.58 It proved a greater struggle than in previous years, forcing him to put aside his despair in order to speak with force and clarity. How deeply this pain ran can be measured by the “psychical lift” he felt from the mere signing of a new publication agreement with Covici Friede, a small publishing house that had shown some daring in the past but which, unknown to Ludwig, was near financial collapse and was looking to him as a possible source of new life. “This is the quaintest thing that has ever happened to me,” he wrote in thanking Pascal Covici, “a publisher who really cares for my work, who really understands it.” Huebsch had, in the early years, “up to the moment of my developing into something,” he recounted for Covici, and “poor Liveright had gleams,” but Canfield and Saxton, though they “seemed occasionally to know,” had lost interest “whenever I tried to turn that shadow into substance.”59
What comfort he took from this new arrangement was soon countered by other forces. Thelma continued to refuse marriage (though in that year’s Who’s Who in American Jewry she reported having wed Ludwig on July 9, 1924), and appeared instead to be assuming a position somewhat reminiscent of Mary’s. “I don’t care if you have another muse, of course, as long as you live with me,” she informed Ludwig on January 20, 1938. She had no intention of releasing him, though she wished not to make their relationship legally binding, fully expecting him to find another muse now that she had willingly withdrawn herself from that role. She insisted only that there be no scandal or embarrassment. Whatever happened, she warned Ludwig, there were to be “no public declarations!” She would tolerate nothing short of complete secrecy and discretion. “You could make acknowledgement in other ways.”60 Before the world, she was to seem his lover and inspiration, as she had appeared in their first days together before Europe.
A letter from Sholem Asch, now living in Nice, heightened Ludwig’s grief in the wake of Thelma’s declaration. Recalling happier days in Paris, Asch spoke with sadness of the great distance that now prevented them from seeing one another “as often as we used to,” though they remained bound by their “deep understanding for the Jewish mission.”61 Ludwig had himself confirmed this bond when, in a Seven Arts column some months earlier, he had briefly recounted his time with this “great spirit … [and] servant of the creative act.”
I want on this occasion to pay a tribute to Shalom Asch, the man and the writer. For over a decade we have been very close friends, for nearly seven years of that time we were neighbors. He read me great parts of “Three Cities” and of “Salvation” in the original as they were written—in my home, in his, on the terrace of the Café de la Coupole. I read him the novels and tales I was writing during those years. I learned immensely from him of the Jewish spirit, of Jewish life. He is good enough to say that he, too, learned from me in matters of technique, art.62
This shared time was now in the past as Ludwig struggled to keep his family together in spirit and body, without great success. On January 22, 1938, in Washington, D.C., he rose to deliver a keynote address at the National Conference for Palestine, focusing on the issue of aid to the Yishuv as central to Jewish rescue and the moral survival of Western civilization. There was about his plea something of his own feelings of victimization and homelessness as he condemned “the moral Black Death of this disastrous age.… No man is good enough to rule another and no majority is good enough to rule a minority,” he declared, in speaking of the absolute need to return to that place in life in which a people could be themselves, forever.
Home for a people is a land where soil and sky, where hill and plain, where mountain and star witnessed its becoming a people, witnessed the birth of its myth, speech, genius. There is no other homeland for any people. And were any other people, even like the Jewish people, hopelessly driven out into the wilderness of constant powerlessness and minority status in a world that is neither just nor humane nor merciful, that people, like my people, like the Jewish people, would have to strive and struggle and wander until it could regain and rebuild the Zion of its fulfillment first in its heart, next in its land. It would—like the Jewish people—have to go home.63
Returning from this nationally covered gathering at which he had been featured alongside Wise, Nathan Straus, Interior Secretary Harold Ickes, and U.S. Senator Robert Wagner, Ludwig discovered that Trumpet’s poor sales were now forcing him to sell his antique Jewish ceremonial objects, “that collection,” as Wise noted to a potential buyer, “which is almost as much a part of his life as is his son, and very much more than his wife.”64 Debt would similarly force Ludwig back on the road in early February for a longer period than he desired. Away from home and concerned about his son, he wrote in his notebook on the eighth, “gloom and self-hatred,” and four days later, “my bad hour.”65
Ludwig arrived home on the fifteenth to find new trouble from an unexpected corner of his life. Sinclair Lewis, now heavily involved with alcohol, and with his literary abilities greatly diminished, was threatening to sue over a remark his former mentor and promoter had made in a Town Hall lecture.66 Ludwig had pointed to the similarity between his first chapter of The Permanent Horizon, “A Bourgeois Takes His Stand,” and several pages in Lewis’s latest book, The Prodigal Parents. It appeared that either Lewis had read Ludwig’s essay or that it was “a most curious and interesting instance of how certain types of minds come to identical conclusions under the pressure of this age.” Ludwig asked Hays, as go-between, to reassure Lewis that he had never claimed it to be an act of plagiarism.67 Lewis, already under severe attack for what Upton Sinclair had called a “defense of the American businessman and the world he has created,”68 was unconvinced. Even after Hays’s conciliatory letter (“He has at no time charged you with anything that would suggest the slightest impropriety”),69 Lewis threatened to take action at “his ever repeating such a statement.”70 The last word on the matter would be Ludwig’s. Lecturing March 2 on the question “Is There an American Culture?,” he spoke of how a few members of the “Little Renaissance” generation (pre- and postwar), himself included, had “in spite of our great esteem for him … always suspected that he was Babbitt, but it wasn’t fashionable then to be Babbitt. It is by way of being fashionable to be Babbitt now, so he is Babbitt.”71 It was Babbitt, Lewisohn wrote in his subsequent review of The Prodigal Parents, “with whom Lewis is in love.” Had Ludwig recognized in Lewis another developing feature of this Babbitt-like character, that of anti-Semitism, as Howard Fast would two years later when, during “a memorable afternoon,” the conversation “erupted into a violent argument about anti-Semitism,” with Lewis assuming “the part of the genteel anti-Semite, which shocked Bette [Fast] and me, long-time admirers of the novelist”?72
Ludwig’s lecture had been given extemporaneously. A “very heavy lecture season” had necessitated that each be “sufficient unto the day.” That morning Ludwig had discovered that the day’s topic was one “I have never heard.” Unguarded, without the opportunity for revision, he had spoken his mind on Lewis, and on the movement of which he had been, at times, an important part. The rebellion against the dominant cultural and social mores in the years immediately preceding and following the Great War had produced some lasting works in literature and the theater, but not of the magnitude in number or significance that he and his fellow revolutionaries had imagined they would. The seeds had been planted earlier, even before many now realized, but the “frenzies of the war” and the sense of newness had made it all seem larger than it was. “Some of us lived through that Renaissance with a good deal of consciousness and even self-consciousness.” Only now, two decades later, could an assessment of “the things of permanent value that really came of it” be truly drawn—“at least tentatively.” Perhaps another generation or two would be needed. And if they had seemed to themselves so filled with promise and importance, much of this could be counted as the stuff of youth. “There was a sense of dawn, there was a blessed haze of smoke through the air,” but the years had passed. The rebels had grown older, some as Babbitts, some lost in Marxian foolishness, many just living and seeking the meaning of their daily struggle and pain. Had they produced an American culture? Not yet, for a culture was the product of a people and its land, and this American people had not yet sufficiently lost its old-world ethnicities, nor yet found a home in its vast landscape. Until then, a truly indigenous American culture could not arise. Twain and Gershwin were only hints, steps along the way. Perhaps in three hundred years such a native culture would exist. But even then, not all of its people would melt into this new man. “In three hundred years there are going to be three kinds of people, American people—those who have forgotten their racial strains, Negroes and Jews,” the assimilable and those who were not.73
In mid-March, Ludwig would address Jewish audiences in Detroit on the need for a Zionist response to the Nazis’ March twelfth invasion of Austria and its annexation the following day into what was termed the Greater Germany. Three days later, all that he wrote in his notebook was the single word, “Heloise!” Home for a brief stay the third week of March, he left once again on the twenty-fifth for a final three-day trip. “At one!” he recorded in his notebook, perhaps in anticipation of another meeting with Heloise. “My hand in yours,” he added on March 28. “I shall never fail you,” he pledged.74
On April 1, Ludwig wrote Wise that he was “really at home to stay.… I’ve just come back from the last trip of the season. It was complicated and most tiring.” They had not seen each other in some time, the tour having been “impossible,” but now that “spring is coming with crocuses and hyacinths in my garden, I hope that we may get together.” Most upsetting were the developments in Austria. “I’m soul sick (as you are, of course) over Vienna. I see the streets, the faces,” among them “Freud in his place in the Berggasse.” What had happened to his own friends and relatives? “I dare not ask.” Was Richard Beer-Hofmann safe? he wondered, unaware that he was alive and would flee to Palestine the following year. Ludwig had already learned that his “cousin and close friend, the (once!) eminent writer and historian of German literature, Dr. Arthur Eloesser, is dead in Berlin—succumbed finally to grief and despair.”
Others, too, were dead, “familiar friends” like the writer Egon Friedell. A particularly poignant reminder of the failure of assimilation for Ludwig, Friedell had earlier repudiated Judaism, placing his hope for human salvation in the promises of German race purity. But in 1933 the Nazis quickly rejected his overtures, forcing him back to his Jewish identity. With Austria’s fall, he would become a victim of suicide as the Gestapo entered his apartment. Though exhausted and with a new novel to begin, Ludwig wondered whether he could speak out even more forcefully and more often than before. The road ahead for the Nazis was clear enough to read—the fate of Europe’s Jews was sealed. And almost no one—Jew or Christian—had sufficiently condemned the oppression or moved to aid the oppressed. “All that is done is small, insufficient, unzulanglich [inadequate]—utterly so, both morally and materially. It sometimes seems to me that you and one or two others and I should lay aside all, all that we do and go upon a pilgrimage from place to place and conscience to conscience and shake the sere and calloused souls of Jews first and Christians next,” he wrote Wise.75
Surprisingly, Ludwig made no mention in his letter of difficulties between himself and Thelma, though Thelma was soon to write Wise for advice, unable to decide the fate of their troubled relationship. Instead, Ludwig turned to his novel, beginning work on April 6 and completing For Ever Wilt Thou Love six weeks later, on May 19—a span of time reminiscent of how quickly he had worked during his years in Paris and Nice.76 The previous January 13, while resting in his Des Moines hotel, he had written in his notebook, “You know how to love me, don’t you?”77 (Was this a reference to the unidentified Heloise? Or to Louise, the woman he would later marry, who, in 1938, was a young journalist from Des Moines?)
For Ever opened with a visit to the architect/protagonist, Mark, by several men from Des Moines who may have discovered an impropriety about which they now approached him. “The old gong sounded in his brain once more, the old wound bled through its scar. Damn them! Futilely he muttered.” Why had he not yet found some peace in his life? “Weren’t middle aged people supposed to have attained, if not adjustment and content, then resignation and tranquility?” What had he done to cause his wife (like Thelma, nearly thirty-seven years old) to torment him “with her too conspicuous little performance” in front of their friends?78
Seeking relief from the growing chaos in his personal life, Ludwig had once again turned to fiction for a resolution of sorts. Two women were central to the novel: Lydia, the wife now determined to destroy their relationship, and Constance, with whom for two years he had known the most satisfying love of his life. In her, he had created the image of all that he had always sought in a lover. “A small woman … with a dewy and girlish aspect and yet a gentle seriousness that was more mature than that aspect. A lovely well proportioned little figure,” as Ludwig described Constance in contrast to Thelma. “What I liked at once was the shape of her head with the very thick dark locks, not too curled at the ends, parted in the middle—and the mouth … sensuous and fresh-looking … full of anima—soul and sense and goodness inextricably interblended.”79 Their first encounter had left Mark with the “feverish sensation and … the faint phantasmagoria that I’d always had in the fevers of my childhood that I had to swallow the universe. Strange and troubling it all was, and I woke up limp.”80
But Constance, reflecting Ludwig’s own fear of losing yet another lover, had felt a hesitance which Mark had not shared in his blinding response to her presence in his life. “Struggling against her feeling for me with a prophetic insight into what she feared was to be our fate and was,” they began to part. “I didn’t write as often as she did. I couldn’t keep to the tone she wanted. I poured out in page after page my passion and my longing and then tore up the pages,” as Ludwig himself may have done out of his ambivalence toward Thelma and the final break he knew was approaching. “So I wrote rarely and her notes grew rarer. Though she was in my mind and my heart every day I didn’t mind the notes not coming because every time one did come it was like a stab, literally, like the stab of a dagger into my vitals.” In time, he came to realize how much better he felt by not being reminded of all that was now lost. “Just the first sight of her handwriting on the envelope made me tremble through my whole being and brought back to me my thousand memories and, above all, my sense of loss.” So upsetting, in fact, that only after a few days could he “work without her image between me and whatever I was doing.”81
“Time dulls,” Mark hoped. “It had better.” He wished only to recall the good that had come to him from their time together. And if he was not truly happy, who really was? Besides, the “very little” he had accomplished was certainly more than most others could claim. Even by losing Constance, he had gained a sense of humility. More importantly, “the fact that I had her and had her so profoundly has … drawn a magic circle about me which certain annoyances and irritations can’t break through.” The advancing years, even death itself, held less fear. Though she was gone, she had given him the inspiration he had so desperately needed to begin again to live and work. “Now and then, as this morning, the old yearning after creation and love surges irresistibly up in me. And with it comes a shadow of the old glory and a pang of the old pain.” Ludwig had found that “in a sense I love both, both the shadow and the pang, and am sustained by them.”82 But shadows could not sustain Ludwig forever. He would need once again to seek out this idealized image in another.