Circus of Fantasies
AM, I am sincerely more interested in keeping my better books in print than in the precise number of pennies I get. You do understand that?” Ludwig asked Saxton pointedly on June 24, 1938.1 Despite debt and domestic despair, he still hoped to maintain some sense of dignity. In a letter to Cerf three weeks later concerning the possibility of the retitled Modern Library edition of Expression in America (The Story of American Literature), Ludwig voiced some expectation of a reversal in his worsening affairs. Certainly, he was doing all that he could to effect change. “Thelma has had quite a siege of illness, but is now very well again.” He would try to see Cerf in New York before departing on a “little motor trip with friends” as a part of Thelma’s recuperation.2 By the following week, they had agreed “en principe” to publish the original text with a postscript that would carry the story to the present.3
All that remained, Ludwig promised Cerf on August 4, was “to get Harpers into a frame of mind in which they will make me a more acceptable offer than their first, which I considered raw and grasping.”4 Eight days later, Ludwig broke formally with Harpers, writing Saxton that “I was driven to it by the feeling that the whole outfit chez vous had, as it were, grown anesthetic to me.”5 Neither party was saddened. Ludwig’s agreement with Covici was already established, and Harpers no longer looked on him as profit-bearing. So, too, had Dick Simon of Simon and Schuster recently contracted, with Harpers’ blessing, to publish two “full-length works” by Ludwig, though Ludwig, believing For Ever Wilt Thou Love to be a short book, had made other arrangements with Covici. He had also sent proofs to Cerf as a possible Modern Library reprint. Simon was upset by what he considered Ludwig’s “defection,” requiring Ludwig to ask Cerf to send Simon his copy of For Ever's proofs. All at once, four publishers and two books were becoming entangled in what by mid-August Ludwig would characterize as “insane and confusing little controversies.”6 In the end, neither Simon nor Cerf wished to publish the novel, allowing it to revert to Covici, as Ludwig had judged initially.7
For the moment, all seemed settled as Ludwig quickened the pace of preparation for Expression’s new postscript. “I consider it an interesting and even amusing job,” Ludwig had told Cerf some weeks earlier, adding that “I’ve kept up my reading pretty well. But I’ll check up.”8 Though it was no longer his prime interest, he still wished to be certain that nothing significant had escaped him. A month later he would write Gannett that not only was he finding new materials to study, but that he was reexamining what he had previously analyzed in light of “the dreadful pre-occupation with the fate of our people.”9 Such “pre-occupations” would leave their imprint on the postscript he was about to write. “I’m deep in American literature once more,” he wrote Cerf on August 27, “making discoveries in re-reading, too.”10
With the new lecture season soon to begin, Ludwig was determined to complete the postscript by the end of September. Midway through the month, however, he wrote Wise that the financial vise had suddenly tightened. Covici had unexpectedly gone bankrupt, leaving For Ever without a publisher, moments before it was to have appeared. (Only the threat of legal action to recover damages caused by further delaying For Ever's release would force Covici’s creditors to issue it in the late winter of 1939.) Seven Arts was now eight months in arrears in paying for his weekly columns. And there were still the payments to Mary, for which others were advancing the money. Once again he would try to sell his Jewish antiques, asking Wise to identify several potential buyers. Soon there would be lecture fees, but in some cases, especially among Zionist youth groups, he could not ask for money. “It would invalidate and ruin and embitter; it would poison the very sources of the spirit.”11
In a world already under siege by imminent war, it appeared to Ludwig that each spirit had grown more precious. “The coherence of culture seems torn asunder in a fragmenting world,” he wrote in the opening pages of the postscript he had managed to complete that September of 1938. “Books are regarded like horses or dogs in a race,” with little concern for the artist’s development over time. Only the “fortuitously ‘successful’ book” seemed to matter now. Drama, history, and the essay had lost their ability to gather an audience. Only the work of “imaginative prose … still competes energetically with the cinema and the radio.” But the novel’s very fragmentary nature, made more evident by “sudden flashes and even blazes of creative energy” against a background of pedestrian prose, had left it spiritually impotent, a mirror of the larger cultural dissonance out of which it had emerged. Even a writer as gifted as Thomas Wolfe, whose work demonstrated more evidence of the true artist than others’, “showed no sign of mastering that welter and chaos out of which he poured his books.” This “unconquerable chaos in him,” Ludwig rigorously maintained, “was a tragic symbol of the age. For form is not only strength, it is the human personality’s highest assertion of creative freedom. The extinction of personality means the extinction of that freedom and so the destruction of the spiritual universe of Western man. Perhaps he felt the dark depersonalizing undertug of the age’s collapse into barbarism and stupor. With an almost Promethean gesture he fought against it—to no avail.”12
Poetry alone held some promise of escape from “this curse of fragmentariness or sudden impotence.” Among contemporary American poets, Archibald MacLeish appeared most destined for permanency because of style and content. Who had matched MacLeish’s “Litany for Dictatorships,” “which does as much honor to the man as to the poet?”—a litany of inhumanity written “For all those strangled and gelded or merely starved / To make perfect states; for the priest hanged in his cassock / The Jew with his chest crushed in and his eyes dying … / To make perfect states, in the name of perfect states.” MacLeish’s work had maintained that “deeper and broader libertarian tradition of America” which neither Depression nor “clamorous fashion” had destroyed—“that Western tradition of the free human spirit, of which America is today the chief guardian and may soon be the only one.”13
Yet even in MacLeish’s work there were no “great or faultless masterpieces.” The age simply militated against such achievement. Though far from Europe’s conflicts, Americans had not been “unaffected by the dread, the horror, the confusion that have engulfed the Western world precisely since the year 1933. No man, least of all the creative spirit, has been able to remain aloof from these portents and disasters.” In such a world where “the foundations crack and quiver” and “the very pillars … of the enduring imagination tremble and threaten momentarily to crack,” it was a sign of America’s relative health “that some sound and not immediately perishable work has been done … [by] artists whom that people still brings forth.”
The postscript was nearly completed when word reached Ludwig on September 30 that Britain and France had capitulated to Hitler’s demands in Munich and had signed away the peace of Europe, if not of the world itself. “These lines, which complete for the present and perhaps finally my history of our national literature, are written at the very hour when over cable and radio comes the message that England and France have … grovelled in the dust before a barbarian beside whom … Attila still bore the kindlier lineaments of men.” A new task had fallen to America, Ludwig proclaimed in his concluding remarks. “In a world so poisoned, abject and distraught … let Americans see to it that this polity of ours remain the unconquerable outpost of freedom and so of the creative imagination. It may yet be fate and function to save the eternal humanities abandoned by all others and to be mankind’s single bridge across an immeasurable abyss of darkness to some far shore of light.”14
With conditions worsening in Europe, rescue efforts in America accelerated. Speaking for the Zionist Organization of America on October 11, Ludwig sent a telegram to one hundred American intellectuals following news that Britain intended to close Palestine to all further Jewish immigration. The recently held Evian Conference, despite its creation of an Intergovernmental Committee for Refugees, had made it clear that no country wished to accept these refugees. Only the Dominican Republic had offered entry to the refugees, at so much per head. No real solution had ever been intended prior to the conference’s convening. None was formulated. The Jews had been abandoned, their only hope, Palestine, now severely jeopardized by British accession to Arab presence. Ludwig and the ZOA hoped that messages from these American leaders would move President Roosevelt to pressure the British into leaving the borders open.15
But few other voices outside the Jewish world would be raised. A handful of antifascist committees, too often more concerned with the survival of Stalin’s Soviet Union, had occasionally made brief mention of the Jews’ fate in their outspoken protestations. Major American leaders seemed more concerned with bolstering traditional American institutions against challenges from the Left or the Right, not unlike the president of Columbia University’s Teachers College, who, in a major address to the American Congress of Industry, called for the creation of a “United Front” against the fascists and communists, though emphasizing the latter while failing to mention the attack against the Jews perpetrated by the former.16 Even Thomas Mann barely mentioned the Jews in his hurriedly published essay This Peace, written within weeks of the Munich pact. Listing those he believed soon to be “delivered up to German domination,” he included along with democrats and socialists of German descent a brief reference to the “Jews, whose lot would now certainly be a tragic one.”17 Only in May 1939, long after incontrovertible proof had repeatedly reached their offices, would the Nation begin to speak out clearly and more often than most other major journals concerning the atrocities being committed against Europe’s Jews.18
Throughout the fall and winter, Ludwig accepted more than one hundred speaking engagements in nearly as many cities. And as the weeks passed and the tour assumed “murderous proportions,” he felt more drained, as if he left a piece of himself at each stop. “I lecture easily and, as a rule, well. But I’m not by nature a public performer or exhibitionist, and hence those thousands and thousands … of eyes upon me, the empty signs of respect and even reverence seemed finally to strip the skin from my bones, the darkness of natural privacy from my heart; I seemed often to myself a wandering myth and symbol and not a human, no more a man who had any right to be weary or discouraged or upset.”19
And yet, as always, the distress of his private life played its role, first engendering and then deepening this sense of loss of self. Even before he had set out on the road again, he knew that the once “justified hope of domestic happiness” was lost forever. He had begun to drink more often than he knew he should, troubled by this development, but unable to cope otherwise as each day came to feel more lifeless than the last. Ludwig had already entered into a “friendship to which I clung with a despairing ardor,” but had discovered early in the relationship that his neighbor, “narcissistic, inward-looking,” and fearful of losing the secure and comfortable life provided by her husband, rejected all thoughts of ending her unhappy marriage, though she may, in fact, have been in love with him. “Often and often I seemed to myself like one of those ‘weak hands of the dead’ that came fluttering from the underworld when Odysseus summoned them. A grey world punctuated by little fiery dots of drunkenness.”20
The first of these one hundred invitations had reached Ludwig in early October. It would prove to be the most fateful. Rabbi Philip Bernstein of the Rochester, New York, Temple B’rith Kodesh had asked Ludwig to address his congregation at noon on Friday, October 21. To entice him northward, Bernstein had promised to secure additional engagements in Syracuse and Utica. Ludwig appeared “tired [and] somewhat discouraged at the picture of the world,” Rochester’s evening newspapers reported. There was, Ludwig insisted in his talk that day, “a general paralysis of the wills of democratic powers” as they allowed the “hoodlums and gangsters of Fascist powers” to transform Palestine into “a little Spain.” Decades-old strife between Arabs and Jews had begun to lessen when the beginnings of accommodation were suddenly “destroyed by Rome and Berlin, by Mussolini and Hitler, by propaganda, money and arms.” With Hitler as their “protector” (having recently invited the mufti and one hundred of his associates to the Nazi’s “Party Day” rally in Nuremberg), the Arab Council was again making demands for what Hitler himself had termed the “oppressed Arabs,” demands that were calculated to disrupt British rule and all attempts by Jews and moderate Arabs to find a way toward peaceful coexistence. Only the elimination of “propaganda and money and arms and a small group of terrorists” could ensure peace, as Ludwig had reported earlier that month to Canada’s governor-general, Lord Tweedsmuir, when invited to Ottawa to confer on “The Palestine Problem.”21
Ludwig had accepted an invitation to dine that evening at the home of the Heilbrunns, arranged for him by Louis Asher’s daughter, Elise, then residing in Rochester following her recent marriage to Arnold Becker. (Some years later, she would divorce Becker and marry the noted poet Stanley Kunitz, as well as earn a reputation of her own as a poet and artist.) Only a handful of others would be present, but among them was to be Elise’s close friend, Edna Manley, and her industrialist father. Ludwig later spoke of his initial distress at learning that a wealthy Gentile and his “invalid daughter,” though an “ardent admirer of his work,” were to be among the otherwise Jewish guests. “Tired to the bone and my soul … tired to the … permanently dead and damned core of it,” he had hoped to relax, only to be confronted unexpectedly by the presence of these outsiders. His immediate response to the daughter’s “countenance of Botticellean rhythms,” however, was one of “spiritual refreshment.” They spoke to one another throughout dinner and the hours that followed, despite the arrival of an additional thirty guests who had come to greet and honor him. Ludwig would record in his diary a year and a half later how instantaneously “our souls began to communicate with each other.”22
Edna Manley, with whom Ludwig would spend much of the next five years, had been a journalist and an aspiring writer of essays and fiction when, in 1936, she had collapsed in New York from bone tuberculosis. Cared for initially by Scott Graham Williamson, her lover of two years, and his mother, who had cared for her son under similar conditions during his adolescence, Edna had gradually worsened until hospitalization became necessary. Returning to her home in Rochester, she had been placed in a sanatorium, where she remained for the next two years. Confined to a full-body cast throughout most of this period, she had been released only days before Ludwig’s arrival. It was Scott, himself a novelist and writer for the WPA Artists Index and other related projects, who had first brought Ludwig’s work to Edna’s attention during her long months of confinement. While he had since grown less enthusiastic for the older man’s thoughts on love and the artist’s life, Edna’s less occupied imagination had deepened its appreciation.23
At the time of Ludwig’s visit, Scott and Edna’s plans for their future together were already falling into place, including a move to Los Angeles and marriage24 (though she had yet to divorce her second husband, whose disappearance was to require her father’s resources to remedy). Scott had reassured her of their coming happiness, urging her to “be secure” in a love that would prove to be the pivotal relationship of their lives.25 He had hoped to be in Rochester for Ludwig’s visit, but his position with the WPA had forced him to cancel his plans that weekend. In his note to Edna the day before Ludwig’s arrival, Scott had told her that he was willing to share her with Ludwig, but only intellectually, apparently fearful that his absence might compromise their relationship,26 a fear confirmed by what he saw in Edna’s face when he visited ten days after Ludwig had first entered her life.
Friends in Rochester had listened patiently to Edna’s unending praise and analysis of Ludwig’s ideas and writing style during their visits with her at the sanatorium, and had seized the occasion to bring author and recuperating admirer together that Friday evening. The local newspaper reported the dinner as “something thrilling to remember for a long time.… Dr. Lewisohn was the center of an interested throng, and he completely charmed them with his discussion of people, places and conditions.” The paper further noted that Ludwig had been the guest of the Manleys on Sunday, before leaving on the next leg of his tour.27
“I struggled out of bed,” Edna wrote a friend a year after meeting Ludwig, “and with long underwear, blankets and all the paraphernalia, limped to meet him. And that was that.… Then the next day he came over here, and then he sent me the manuscript [actually, first chapter] of a book [For Ever] … and I criticized it, and we wrote.”28 Years later, Edna would recall their first encounter with greater detail and passion.
As Ludwig had explained my relationship with Scott through his relationship with Thelma (of course, he’d written that book several years before), I couldn’t wait to ask him how it had gone…. And so of course we were introduced and that was the end. That was the end and that was the beginning. And he—he looked at me and the answer to my question, as to how it had gone and how it was, was a very—what shall I say—strange one. He said, “The human heart is always alone.” Well, it caused a moment’s pause, but not long, and then we went on about other books of his, and about everything.
They had so totally shut out the world that first evening together that the dinner party’s hostess had to insist that he “return to the fold.” But this proved impossible, as Edna recounted forty-two years later. “We had such a passion, a friendship from the moment we met, even though I was a little surprised at what he said about the human heart.”29
The next morning and throughout the weekend, Ludwig telephoned or made brief but frequent visits to the Manley house as his rapidly changing schedule and her medical regime permitted. In recapturing those first days, she would think back with wary fondness on what quickly “became a very passionate literary relationship.” Only two days after leaving Rochester, he had sent her the promotional pamphlet released by Covici Friede that contained the opening chapter of For Ever. A stream of writings followed in the months ahead, with Edna “reading and analyzing and sending him my reactions. Not all of them were one hundred percent,” she piquantly remembered years later, believing she had found “disagree[ment] with certain things that he had done in some of his books.”30 But in those first days of their “very passionate literary relationship,” her response had been less critical. “Oh, how I cherished it and ran around the house showing it off and then locked my door and reread it … and touched the words you had written at the top,” she would write in Haven, their joint diary of these first eighteen months together,31 recalling how on October 25, but four days after their first encounter, Ludwig had inscribed the pamphlet, “For Edna Manley, asking her not to forget me.”32
Each was clearly taken with the other, though years after their brief marriage had ended, Edna would equivocate, claiming to have been disappointed from the start, after learning that Mid-Channel had not mirrored her own relationship with Scott, but rather that Ludwig had written it, as she claimed he told her, “only to try to remind Thelma of his dream of love, that she might try to become equal to it and stop humiliating both of them in Europe.” Such a characterization of his work by Ludwig himself is quite conceivable, given his disillusionment by late 1938. Yet, thirty-two years had reshaped her memory of their “Eliz. B. Browning-Robert affair [begun] as I still lay convalescent in my Father’s House,” an affair that “thrilled my parents even more than it did me [because] such a great and famous man found me of the slightest value.”33 There is ample evidence demonstrating just how quickly she herself had been smitten by his sudden and overwhelming presence in her life. A week after their first encounter, she wrote in her diary that
Ludwig Lewisohn is a man of the world with the sudden smile of a child. A comfortable person, a mixture of continentalism and simple poet, sudden and direct, whose rather heavy lidded eyes do not dare at first to look at you fully, he has been so disappointed at what he has found, so many times. Rather short but powerfully short. His man-of-the-world exterior covers up the shy and lyric flame that burns beneath. A completely cosmopolitan person, completely tolerant, to whom you could confess on meeting, that you had a bellyache. A man who would eat in your kitchenette with gusto (while illuminating those painted walls with glamour, while making profound and magnificent music ring where there were only pots and dishes before) and who would with equal pleasure share a banquet at Lord Tweedledums. Into both dining halls he would walk directly, perhaps once adjusting his eye glasses, either to take them off or to put them on, oblivious personally but poet-alive to his surroundings. Once he is seated the music starts. You enter another, richer air, another, higher sphere. You are free. When Ludwig Lewisohn goes out of your door the prisms break, but it does not get dark in the room for a very long while.34
Ludwig appeared uncertain as to what he wished at first from this relationship, evincing true ambivalence in its first days, attracted to her, yet mourning the death of his life with Thelma. From his lonely hotel room in Rochester on the day following the dinner party, he wrote Thelma of how “driven” he had been, “so tired that I just couldn’t write.” Fie thanked her for the “two sweet letters” she had sent, and spoke sadly of his “wish [that] somehow we could make our love a concrete factor between us again.” “How I’d like to kiss you,” he added with futility, as the moment of reconciliation seemed clearly to have passed forever.35
Thelma, as she was to maintain eighteen months later, may have been unaware of just how precarious their relationship was. “I did not realize that a cloud was approaching on the horizon of our life together. I thought that life would go on, serenely and lovely, as it had in the past.” Perhaps, though a long chain of unpleasant instances had already passed between them. “I sensed a restlessness in Ludwig,” she acknowledged, “but I attached no real importance to it for he often was restless when he was in the throes of creative work.” Yet Ludwig had not begun anything new since completing For Ever in May of that year.
When Ludwig returned home, he told Thelma of the young woman he had met in Rochester. “I thought she was just another passing fancy,” Thelma would argue after their breakup, an “infatuation” like all the others she had witnessed over the years, solely “of the mind,” certain to run its course “and then simmer into nothingness.” Even when Thelma met Edna some months later, she thought her husband’s friend “a charming and intelligent woman” and “gave her no further thought.”36 Or so she later claimed, despite all of the activity between them, much of it in full view. We must wonder at how self-deluding Thelma was, or later wished others to believe she had become. Ludwig had spoken openly of Edna even to Jim, who was not likely to have remained silent at the age of eight. Nor is it likely that Ludwig had asked him to remain so. “I spoke to Jimmie of her when we went walking together,” Ludwig wrote in his diary, as he thought of her constantly during those first days home from Rochester. “I lay upon my lonely couch and held her, body and soul, in my arms. All men and women and all the world fell away from me into a mist about a peak and on that peak stood Edna and I, Edna and I—hopeless and fired by an indomitable hope, divided by all the apparent forces of this world and irrevocably one.”37 He had returned with a renewed sense of his life, transformed visibly during his brief absence. It was evident in his stature, even to Edna, who herself had witnessed the transformation in the final moments of that first weekend. “Your head above your shoulders was tipped up as though you were watching a bird, and you seemed even to be standing a little on your toes. All of you was so young and lifted and full of hope.”38 Could Thelma have missed all of the signs?
By November 4, two letters from Edna had arrived at the Lewisohn home. “You need not have ‘trembled’ to send” them, he reassured Edna. “I told you I was lonely. Surrounded by people, good intelligent well-meaning people who think they know and understand and, as a matter of fact, ‘mythologize’ me for their specific uses and leave me in an icy void.” In sharp contrast, “that Friday evening as we spoke a faint warmth, a breath of spring blew into that void.” He had found in her a kindred soul, an “understanding of the eternal stranger and outcast” born of the illness that had separated her from others and had, in the end, he told her, made her “so much more whole than all the people who have never been broken…. Let me offer you my homage and devotion,” he added. “Seeing you so gallant—I can’t offer you any sympathy.”39
“Who has so lived love, and dreamed it?” Edna asked in her journal, answering with absolute certainty that his suffering as an outcast had given him the “spiritual depth and consolation” which most other Americans lacked. “Our only heritage are myths—‘liberty, equality, etc.,’” she maintained, “fine phrases with no meaning, no meaning whatsoever. ‘Justice for all.’ Etc. Bah! Justice for the rich, liberty for the rich.” But Ludwig had achieved his transcendence of this myth by embracing his otherness, she realized, “reaching] the core of your greatest development when you recognized yourself as a Jew.”40
“I’m not as wise as you think and, to my shame, not nearly as serene,” Ludwig cautioned Edna when she repeated similar claims for him in her earliest letters. “I’ve seen so many of my dearest hopes (I thought them so well-grounded) go down to disaster; I am still today so often hard beset, not least, not least, by what must be my own insufficiencies, since after all we do create at least half of our destiny as we go along.”41 Undaunted, she reassured him in a “beautiful and moving letter” of her concern and interest, to which he then confessed how, still seeing her “at the head of the stairs that day … the image helps me.” With time “filled and crowded” as he prepared for his next trip to the Midwest, he took “five minutes … to say a few simple things. I believe we could laugh together; I think you’ve made me smile from somewhere near the heart already, which hasn’t been for some time. I’ve been aching, not quite consciously, to tell some one what precisely has happened to me since 1934—but the realities. I think you will let me. I think you will hear me—hear me not only with the ears but with the soul, as I hear you. And when I see how gallantly you have endured such hurts, I am ashamed to trot out mine which have been to the spirit.”
Ludwig knew of Edna and Scott’s plan to move to California, and hoped to see her before she left in January. But if her plans should change and “you do live in New York, of course I will come to you.”42 If hesitantly, they were clearly courting each other. From the train station in New York, Ludwig telegraphed Edna. “On way to Chicago. Infinitely refreshed and consoled by your exquisite understanding and insight. All my thanks dear friend, and affectionate greetings.” When the cable arrived, she secured it into the newly begun scrapbook that was to chronicle the months leading to their engagement.43
The all-too-few years that Ludwig and Edna were to share would be filled with excitement and tragedy, and, ultimately, a time of too great a strain for either, though not always because of the dynamics between them. It was a period of transition for both, he into the final phase of his life, she out of illness and toward a deeper sense of identity and direction. One wonders if either could have accomplished these transitions as fully without the other during these years. “I taught Ludwig how to laugh and how to be gay,” Edna would proudly recount more than thirty years later; and he, she would quickly and unquestioningly assert, helped to “unfreeze me,” “to open so many windows,” enabling her to break from the torturous ideas of her Yankee ancestors, signers of the Declaration of Independence among them (she claimed Ludwig called her “the only real American”), who, through her loving but demanding father, had long made her feel inadequate and unaccomplished, unworthy because unproductive. Only in her later years did she realize that she “should never have spoiled my friendship by marriage!… Ah, yes, Edna; she is a psychological case alright. But I would pity the novelist who attempted to write a novel from her diaries and letters!”44 Even she failed this task, repeatedly.
In the end, Edna may have been too hard on herself, taking a larger share of the responsibility for their marriage’s collapse than was rightfully hers. “When he and I met I was the Criminal who engineered the marriage, out of my own confusions and ego needs.”45 However the responsibility should have been apportioned, there is little doubt that both fulfilled the needs of the other as few might have. Only when this moment had passed, and the gloss of pride had faded, did reasons enough surface to make apparent the need for each to take a separate path.
Should they both have been more conscious of what they were entering into from the beginning? With two failed marriages in each of their lives they might have exercised better judgment, Ludwig more than Edna, being twenty-six years her senior. But they were hopeless romantics in the end. (Each would marry again; he once, she twice.) In the final days of their relationship, when Edna’s father accused Ludwig of acting in bad faith toward his daughter, Ludwig would defend himself by alleging that she had “hypnotized and seduced him,” to which her father countered that Ludwig was “old enough to guard against seduction…. Both men had truth on their side,” she would one day judge with the wisdom of intervening years.46 “I won’t say more, but I wouldn’t want to be thought to be anything that I wasn’t in L.L.’s life…. So alike yet divided by age and separate problems…. As poet-friends, at a low and confused point in our personal lives, we gave each other a tremendous buck-up, which should have remained as such, for neither Ludwig nor I are capable of loving anyone in the normal sense, or of living or loving in any area except our Imaginations. I sent off Ludwig on a bout of Poetry—and he sent me off on a circus of fantasies.”47
At a point of great darkness in Ludwig’s life, Edna had brought light. “I overcame my habitual shyness to tell her of my inmost self—All that I told her she knew. No one in the world had ever known me as she already knew me.” He had never enjoyed the vain act of autographing his books, as if he were a mere celebrity. But her asking “did not seem to me nuisance or vanity but confirmation and consecration and the sealing of a bond”—a bond strengthened by “that slight touch” of her back, “by accident—or predestination,” which “married my body to hers for ever as my soul had already chosen hers from all the other souls in the whole world.”48 Months later, on August 24, 1939, moved as he was by each new relationship to take up the poet’s pen, he “wrote verses to commemorate that first meeting.”
Our burning hands were close and dared not touch;
Our breathless lips could not declare the word
Of summons which our vigilant ears had heard.
We sat there with our helpless hearts pierced through,
Condemned a glittering pantomime to watch,
And all the while we knew … we knew … we knew…49
From that very moment, Ludwig felt better able to confront his world again, determined not to lose himself in the myth of the crowd, whatever the demands of the world. “Life has been a minor turmoil—lectures and articles and the inevitable fictions (which bother me most)” between himself and Thelma, he wrote Edna on November 4.50 But all seemed slightly more bearable than before. Even his troublesome financial affairs appeared to the calmer Ludwig to be manageable and capable of resolution, if only his creditors would practice a bit more forbearance.
On October 26, his patience at an end, Wise had sent Ludwig a rather stern reminder that the promissory notes guaranteeing Mary’s monthly payments as a part of their divorce settlement, signed on his behalf by himself, Louis Asher, and William Rosenblatt, were now being called in by her because of his recent failure to pay. His guarantors were concerned, and were now appealing to Ludwig to meet his obligations to her and to them. Their role was to have been exercised only in extreme emergency. Ludwig’s increased income should have freed them from any real concern over the possibility of a growth in his indebtedness, and, subsequently, in theirs. Only with this understanding had they finally agreed to sign.51 On October 27, the day he sent Edna the Covici Friede pamphlet, Ludwig wrote Wise of his efforts to clear away this mounting debt, pointing out, however, that the “American novel” (Trumpet of Jubilee) had not fared nearly as well as expected, though written for the broader public. For Ever was as yet unpublished, making sales unpredictable without first seeing the reviews; and his next effort, tentatively titled As a Jew Thinks (ultimately, The Answer), was addressed to a much smaller readership and unlikely, therefore, to earn the money he needed.52
Wise, ever resourceful, quickly arranged for Ludwig to deliver yet another series of lectures before Jewish audiences, not all of whom were committed Zionists, as previous groups had been. “Certainly I’ll be there,” Ludwig replied with some concern as he readied to enter battle wearing his new title of “Honorary Secretary” of the ZOA, secured for him by Wise the previous August.53 Would he have to fight old battles with non-Zionists, or with anti-Zionist Jews, even now, amid undeniable Nazi oppression?54 Even among Zionists, opinions were far from unanimous on a number of issues of seemingly little importance given the current state of Jewish affairs—issues complicated by fears that this relative newcomer on the American Zionist scene might be coveting one of their hard-won positions of authority and power. (Chief among them, Ludwig believed with good reason, was Louis Lipsky, an opponent of Wise and, ironically, the father of Ludwig’s attorney in two legal entanglements.)55 To Wise, Ludwig would confide on November 2, “You do not know all the intricacies of my position. I’m too conservative for them and too Zionist for fashionable temples and too given to ideology (Zionismus als Weltanschauung, called maggiduth behind my back even by leaders) and too religious for the godless and too lax for the observant. I am read and not understood and heard and misinterpreted and yet my position seems to me, as my father olav hasholem used to say so klaar wie Klosbrüe [as plain as the nose on my face]. It would be funny if it weren’t so annoying.”56 Few, in fact, would ever really understand or acknowledge the individualistic stance he had assumed, seeing him, all too often, as an extremist for positions they themselves opposed.
On November 6 he rose once more before Wise’s Free Synagogue to warn against that “shallow optimism” that would “deny the profound wound inflicted on the Jewish people by homelessness and persecution,” a “wound in the very soul of a people [which] manifests itself all the way from self-deprecation and self-hatred to a defeatism in the processes of life itself.” Such “defeatism,” he argued, echoing more personal matters, “weakens the physical and, above all, the moral resistance of the Jewish people as a whole.… He who is determined to be healed alone recovers fully and triumphs over adverse circumstance.” Life would go on for the Jewish people, he insisted. “The choice is not between extinction and survival. The choice is between feeble and negative or strong and affirmative survival.”57 Two days later, the nationwide pogrom against the Jews of Germany, Kristallnacht, brought home to all who had heard his voice or read of his talk in the New York Times the reality of his plea.
Shortly before he set out on the lecture tour partly arranged by Wise, Edna telephoned to wish him well. “Nov. 18! The call,” he recorded in his notebook.58 Their correspondence had become more intermittent by mid-November. Perhaps they were pulling back from what must have seemed a headlong pursuit, trying to reassess their positions before it became too late to stop. Each knew of the other’s attachments, but now seemed prepared to set aside this awareness. “I marvel to this day how I swept aside both the warnings in my mind and in yours,” Ludwig would recount for Edna two years later. “I had, for myself, no doubt, no hesitation…. I carried the image of you with me in my nerves, in my heart of hearts,” and onto the road with him that fall and winter.59
Returning home to be with family for the Thanksgiving weekend, he wrote Edna of his need to see her again, to tell her “face to face” what he had written, how “No one, no one,—literally and soberly—has in all my many years of writing, so understood any work of mine as you have this [For Ever], no one so vibrated where I did, no one so felt it even as I did in the very act of creation.” You have found “all my key passages,” he assured her, “and made me feel, as life and people have not let me feel for years, that I am after all an artist.”
He would be leaving again on Sunday, November 27, and planned to be gone at least until December 18, traveling throughout the Midwest and Southwest, where he had been assigned the specific administrative task of reorganizing the Texas Zionist region. He wished it could be otherwise. “The heart yearns, foolishly doubtless, for a little creative leisure.” As he confessed to Edna that Thanksgiving, “the flesh is weaker … [than] the spirit [which] is perfectly willing, as it should be in these supremely dreadful times.” Was he happy? she had asked him in her last letter. He was too conscious of the larger world to find much comfort in it. Only “my child … mitigates that,” he answered, painting for her images that came to him “often in the night as though with a mad lucidity I could see and feel the unspeakable suffering and the unspeakable wrong that is endured and inflicted in Berlin, Vienna, in a hundred spots that I can see—as in better days I saw them…. I feel the stripes, I see the blood; the pain-contorted faces are all around me…. It is too deep for tears, too unutterable for words.”
Even his deteriorating relationship with Thelma took on a different coloring against the perspective of this greater tragedy unfolding before him. “That is no one’s fault or guilt,” he assured Edna, with a conviction as deep as the unsuspecting blindness with which he was about to repeat this same error. “We are what we are, each one of us; we develop and change as we do. We cannot ask of anyone more than he has to give or something other than he has to give. If we are disappointed it is doubtless because we pitched our expectations too high or nursed expectations of the wrong kind.”60
For all that he wished to remain at home and to focus on personal and artistic matters, the worsening international scene had already made the always tenuous status of the Jews even less certain. Eternal outsiders, they were fast losing even this status in lands under German dominion or influence. During these November weeks, Ludwig joined his voice to those other world-renowned writers protesting Britain’s move to end all Jewish immigration to Palestine, an apparent “nullification of the Balfour Declaration,” as their telegram to President Roosevelt urging his intervention with the British tried so forcefully to make clear.
But joining Albert Einstein, Thomas Mann, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Carl Van Doren, Oswald Villard, Dorothy Canfield Fisher, Carl Van Vechten, and the others was insufficient to Ludwig’s own need for protest.61 He wished to enlist Americans—Jewish or gentile—in a grand coalition, taking to the road on November 28 in pursuit of his goal, knowing full well that it could not be achieved, but unable to desist. From Houston on December 9, one month to the day after Kristallnacht, he thanked Edna for her response to his letter, but was unable to respond “at any real length till I get home again,” consumed and exhausted by his efforts on behalf of his fellow Jews caught by the German onslaught.
I am—the least I can do, God knows—spending myself without stint…. You see, Edna, I know Berlin and Vienna and Frankfurt. I see as in a hallucination the good, the high-minded, the intelligent, the sensitive literally driven to despair and death. I see the faces; I touch the hands; the tears fall like fire on my very soul. I could not eat or sleep or risk the light of the sun or the beautiful thought of you or enjoy my child, if I didn’t do the utmost—so little, so maddeningly little—that I can do…. And the people are stricken, many Christians too, and I speak several times a day and the distances between cities here are, as you know, immense.62
Starved for love, for understanding, for spiritual intimacy, Ludwig recounted in Haven how he had discovered in their letters that “our souls clung to each other more and more and gradually it was borne in upon me—though I had many hours of desperate doubt—that you felt even as I did.”63 Edna had begun her letter by demanding that he “take the time to write.… A world in which the things can happen that are happening today,” she insisted, “is only bearable because of you, as an artist.” Had he himself not written that “the artist’s duty is to offer, or give salvation, or a hope of salvation to man”? But Edna knew, also, that Ludwig had other needs and obligations that took him from this creative effort, “other work that you are doing for your people [which] you must do.… In the last chapters of ‘Israel’ you are the leader of your people. I can hear your voice as I did ‘that Friday night’ and I can feel you in Texas giving encouragement and inspiration to everyone. While you are with them everything must be clear to them. And easy. After you have left, not so clear or easy I can imagine.”
She had understood so clearly what had taken Ludwig a lifetime to acknowledge, that “man’s highest moment [is] stubbed at the end by the human limitation, the helplessness of the greatest soul before inevitability.” If he was misunderstood or vilified by critics or fellow artists or the reading public, it was not his shortcomings that had caused the rift between them. They “have no intercourse with the words of life,” and “cannot follow you.” Worse, “if they understood you they would see their own lives for what they are. And for their own sanity they cannot face that. Therefore, they fear you.” She advised Ludwig not to be distraught. “Time will take care of … the tremendous disappointments and frustrations that have come to you because of the reception of your work. My god, they must have been terrific.” So, too, had she sensed the depth of his “personal disappointments” that his life with Thelma was ending, a “fact that you could not face two years ago. But you have figured it all out, and it is alright now, isn’t it?” she offered, hoping to still his troubled heart.64
The vision of her letter being brought “into the sun-flooded hotel room and I … pressing it between the palms of my hands” remained clear two years later, so brightly had it cheered his darkened world.65 On December 12, 1938, he wrote in his notebook, “I was never so happy in my life.… I’m poetry with you.” Though he had not seen her since that first weekend nearly two months earlier, he would add eight days later, “I’ve loved no one more! You’re bigger and better,”66 a brief encounter and a handful of letters all that he had to grasp onto for judgment and sanity.
Not until December 26, fifteen days after his last letter, did Ludwig find the time he needed to contact Edna. Much had awaited his return on the twenty-first. When he was not occupied with family or professional matters, guests would arrive, “perfectly nice and well-meaning, though slightly irrelevant people.” He told her again how her letter had comforted and supported him throughout his “many weary miles,” confirming “the precious gift of your friendship and understanding. I am essentially shy or I would use even deeper words,” he added a bit hesitantly. “I’m afraid of words,” he confessed, honoring the power they carried with someone as skilled as he. “I deal with them too much.” Instead, he limited himself to sending Edna “my admiration, my devotion, my tenderest thoughts,” expressing his hope that they might soon be together. “I should like to sit beside you and touch your hand and go over that letter you wrote me to Houston with you and tell you how no one, no one at all, has so probed into the core of my life and its fundamental dismay.”
Knowing that such thoughts presented her with a New Year’s greeting “dark in spiritual color,” he hoped to brighten the occasion by having her know “that only one thing has surely mitigated fate for me”—“that a very few times in life I have come upon some other soul that was mine even as profoundly I belonged to it and that these meetings have given me a hope in the ultimate triumph of the values I need to believe in.” All else had proven “fugitive and doubtful.” Only these few individuals, Edna among them, had made him “feel more at home in a rather homeless world.” Of this, he wished her to be certain.67
Three days later, Edna assigned to him a similar role in her life. She recounted her two loveless marriages (forced into by convention and parental demand) and her escape into a life of “ecstasy” with Scott, and disclosed how her parents’ rejection of him had been complicated by her descent into a life-threatening illness that had left her at their mercy, incapable of fighting effectively for what in her soul she had wanted most. As the year ended, she told Ludwig how she had now found in his friendship a concurring sense of fulfillment, quoting his own closing lines as proof.
So you see. In this chaos you have been my guide and my light, you have kept me from being submerged in darkness, all the days and nights of this three year nightmare you have kept me alive and led me forward instead of letting me slip backward into the final bewilderment which would have been mine if I hadn’t found you. And I was able to see you and touch you and give back to you a very little something for all you have given me. Ah, yes, a fine year, 1938. And while we are both suffering, as you say, I have come upon some other soul which was mine … [which] has given me a hope in the ultimate triumph of the values I need to believe in and have made me feel more at home in a rather homeless world.68
Ludwig had helped her to accept the person she had discovered within herself during her forced confinement. In her journal the following day, she spoke of how “the only additions you make to yourself after you are born are reinforcements of what you are. If lucky you find affirmations and explanations of yourself. If fortunate.”69
She had been fortunate twice, even if this good fortune had left her conflicted over which path into the future to choose. “It has taken all the years of my life to piece my soul together, but my body has been shattered in the process. My body quivers but I am unweary of spirit, but ill at heart. Ill, ill at heart.”70 Attempting to sort through her emotions, she attributed to each of these men what they had contributed to her. “Scott Graham Williamson pieced the pieces of my soul together. Ludwig Lewisohn irradiated them with meaning,” she noted on the dawn of the new year, 1939.71
But it was Ludwig alone to whom Edna chose to write that first of January, telling him of how she had “read and reread your letters, so young, so vibrant, so hopeful of me.” She declared her intent “never [to] hurt you by dullness of perception, by lacks in myself,” though she was certain he “would put it down to the inevitable disappointments of quest,” though aware that he “would grieve again.” Fearing that his life was again “mad with terror and sadness” having once again returned to Thelma, she wanted him to know how much he meant to her. “I cherish you as a person,” she confessed guardedly, still unsure herself of the course she wished to take in the days ahead. “A simple sentence,” she added, “but it is written with the deepest tenderness…. Keep my love and gratitude in a corner of your heart.”72