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The Life and Work of Ludwig Lewisohn: "A Touch of Wildness"

by Ralph Melnick

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An imposing literary figure in America and Europe during the first half of the twentieth century, Ludwig Lewisohn (1882-1955) struggled with feelings of alienation in Christian America that were gradually resolved by his developing Jewish identity, a process reflected in hundreds of works of fiction, literary analysis, and social criticism. A friend and associate of Sinclair Lewis, James Joyce, Thomas Mann, Paul Robeson, Edward G. Robinson, Theodore Dreiser, H. L. Mencken, Stephen Wise, Maurice Samuel, and a host of others, Lewisohn impacted the intellectual, cultural, religious, and political worlds of two continents. This first volume, chronicling his life until 1934, is followed by a second volume that portrays Lewisohn's last decades as an outspoken opponent of Nazi Germany, a leading promoter of Jewish rescue and resettlement in Palestine, a member of Brandeis University's first faculty, and one of the earliest voices advocating Jewish renewal in America. Born in Berlin, Lewisohn moved with his family in 1890 to South Carolina. Identified by others as a Jew, he remained an outsider throughout his youth. As a graduate student at Columbia University, warnings that a Jew could not secure a position teaching English forced him to abandon his studies. The Broken Snare (1908), Lewisohn's story of a young woman's acceptance of her deepest thoughts and desires, paralleled his own reaction to this isolation. Attacking the social mores of his age, the novel was judged as scandalous by critics. In time Lewisohn became a notable scholar and translator of German and French literature, teaching at Wisconsin and Ohio State. Following his mother's death in 1914, he began to explore the Jewish life he had rejected, and by 1920 became a Zionist committed to fighting assimilation. Accusatory and inflammatory, his memoir Up Stream (1922) struck at the very heart of American culture and society, and caused great controversy and lasting enmity. As strong emotional influences, the women in Lewisohn's life-his mother and four wives-helped to frame his life and work. Believing himself liberated by the woman he declared his "spiritual wife" while legally married to another, he proclaimed the artist's right to freedom in The Creative Life (1924), abandoned his editorship at The Nation, and fled to Europe. Lewisohn's fictionalized account of his failed marriage, The Case of Mr. Crump (1926), once again attacked the empty morality of this world and won Sigmund Freud's praise as the greatest psychological novel of the century. A creator of one of Paris's leading salons, Lewisohn ended his leisurely writer's life in 1934 to awaken America to the growing Nazi threat. Poised to face the unfinished marital battle at home, but anxious to engage in the coming struggle for Jewish survival and the future of Western civilization, he set sail, unsure of what lay ahead.… (more)

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