The island within and Jewish revelation: a surprise hit of the 1920s.

Author:Benjamin, Robert
Position:Book review

In 1928, the influential man of letters Carl Van Doren extolled a book in which, he wrote, "both Jew and Gentile may take an equal pleasure," and "which is at once a document so penetrating and profound and a work of art so solidly constructed and brilliantly written." (1) Van Doren was one of many contemporaries who extolled Ludwig Lewisohn's The Island Within. The 1928 novel soared onto the New York Times' bestseller charts, and received lengthy and glowing reviews in journals across America and England. Contemporaries often praised its stylistic and moral balance and its historical and psychological revelations. As recently as 2000, Yiddish scholar Ruth Wisse entered The Island Within in her Jewish canon--the only American work of the 1920s that she included. But she also rightly noted the book's limitations as a work of imaginative art--limitations that, together with cultural shifts, have made it a work read mainly by academics and the chance reader. (2)

Given that The Island Within was an earnest and Jewish-centered "thesis" novel about Jewish assimilation and peoplehood at a time when Jews were rarely dignified in fiction and when the literary scene had livelier offerings, its hold on gentile and Jewish readers was remarkable. Cultural historian Steven Zipperstein described the "major impact" of this now-forgotten novel. A closer analysis will illuminate gentile and Jewish relationships and attitudes in America that were distinctive in the second half of the 1920s--a period that has been obscured by the more turbulent periods of 1918-1924 and 1929-1945.

From Assimilated German Jew to Cultural Zionist

In 1928, Ludwig Lewisohn became the only man of letters to earn a place in James Waterman Wise's survey of nine influential, Jewishly active figures in Jews Are Like That! A Collection of Biographies.' Yet, only seven years earlier, as he neared the age of 40, Lewisohn was much more tied to German and American culture than to the Jewish. As a boy and young man, he worshipped as a Christian; in his 20s, he married an Anglo-Saxon, gentile wife in a Unitarian service; and, in his 20s and 30s, he was intimate with gentile friends such as writers George Sylvester Viereck and William Ellery Leonard. Lewisohn's long assimilation and his later embrace of Zionism would shape The Island Within.

Born in Berlin in 1882 to German-Jewish parents who embraced German folk and high culture, Lewisohn was uprooted as a boy from his familiar German setting when his family moved in 1890 to the rural town of St. Matthews, South Carolina and then, in 1892, to Charleston, South Carolina. In high school and at the College of Charleston, Lewisohn mastered Anglo-Southern culture, earning the respect of fellow students and teachers but not their full acceptance. His parents, who were excluded by their inferior social position from the company of their cultural equals, led even more isolated lives. As a Zionist, Lewisohn came to view their fate as the "tragedy" of assimilated Jews who were caught between a world they had left behind and a world they could not join.

In 1902, aspiring to cultural dignity for himself and his parents, Lewisohn entered Columbia University to prepare for a career teaching English at the college level. Despite his precocious scholarship, his lucid and harmonious prose, and the encouragement of the eminent Southernborn man of letters William Peterfield Trent, Lewisohn nevertheless failed to earn a teaching position in English literature during the years from 1904 to 1910. His was a pioneering case--and, ultimately, a prominent one--of the academic exclusion of Jews in tenured English positions. From 1910 to 1918, Lewisohn turned to German literature, which he taught at the University of Wisconsin and Ohio State University. In 1915 and 1916, through scholarly books that defended naturalist theater (especially in Germany) and, in 1919, through his anthology of insurgent literary critics (American, English, and continental), Lewisohn became known as a literary scholar who advanced modern ideas and literature. From 1919 to 1924, he had an influential forum as the theater critic and the all-purpose literary commentator for the distinguished and newly progressive journal the Nation. Novelist Sinclair Lewis and playwright Eugene O'Neill each singled out for praise Lewisohn's understanding of their works.

In 1922., the innovative firm of Boni & Liveright (both Albert Boni and Horace Liveright were acculturated Jews) published Lewisohn's memoir Up Stream: An American Chronicle, a significant American work for the period. Contemporary writers and thinkers as disparate as H.L. Mencken, James Thurber, Horace Kallen and Anzia Yezierska acclaimed Up Stream, and Israeli President Chaim Weizmann remembered it in 1948 as Lewisohn's "great book." On purely literary grounds, it was the finest work Lewisohn ever wrote. (4) Especially in the chapters on Germany and South Carolina, Lewisohn achieved a minor classic, writing with sensory precision and elegiac restraint on the shocks and respites, illusions and disillusions of his assimilating family. In later pages of Up Stream, which lacked the grounding of his parental world, Lewisohn resorted to caricature and overstatement, as when he remarked: "[The] trouble with the American professorate was its cowardice and its effeminacy of mind," or when he asserted that immigrant intellectuals such as himself, rather than Anglo-Saxon guardians, upheld the best American traditions. In an irascible book review that targeted Lewisohn as a German rather than as a Jew, the conservative man of letters Brander Matthews sneered at Lewisohn as "a stark emotionalist" who reflected "a militant group of un-American aliens." (5)

On occasion, from 1915 to 1921, in reviews and the introductions of plays, Lewisohn honored the suffering and moral dignity of East European Jews. But, as late as 1921, when he finished Up Stream, he still identified himself as a cosmopolitan intellectual who transcended a "tribal" nationalism--an identity he shared with many fellow intellectuals of Jewish origin and some of gentile origin. (6) Even in Up Stream, although he granted at one point that " alienation from my race ... has been the source to me of some good but of more evil," in a later passage he stated calmly that "I can, in reality, find no difference between my own inner life of thought and impulse and that of my very close friends whether American or German." (7)

Though not an affirming Jewish work, Up Stream catalyzed Lewisohn's recovery of a Jewish national identity. His account of the prejudice suffered by his family and his asides on postwar "Jew baiting" caused Jewish readers to view Lewisohn as a kinsman. During book tours in late 1922 and early 1923, readers confided in him their worries about postwar American antisemitism. In April 1923, as Harvard University considered explicit quotas on Jews, Lewisohn addressed the Harvard Menorah Society and stirred the audience by asking them "to follow their inner law as human beings and as Jews." (8) The German Zionist Kurt Blumenfeld, who had recruited Albert Einstein to Zionism, strove to recruit Lewisohn as a major American cultural figure. Talks with Blumenfeld and then with the international Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann convinced Lewisohn to announce himself a Zionist in 1924, two years after he had turned 40.

During a period when almost all other American Jewish intellectuals and writers saw Zionism as a quixotic movement without relevance to their cultural role as Americans, Lewisohn embraced Zionism. Why? Although no cultural identity is predetermined, Lewisohn had a distinct set of qualities that, with the right timing, made him a Jewish writer and a defender of the Jewish people. Because of his uprooting and chaotic personal life and also because of his youthful religiosity, Lewisohn went further than most of his intellectual contemporaries in seeking "principles of coherence." In 1921, he confided to his diary: "I want God--the absolute. There is none. Very well. Then something to take his place: permanent values somehow embodied and so to be served." (9) By 1923, Lewisohn was tiring of his role with Mencken and other insurgents as a fighter against Puritan and genteel culture--a battle that had almost been won. By 1923, though he continued to admire individual German writers, he was aware of the virulent antisemitism of postwar Germans. Whereas in 1920, Lewisohn had rejected overtures by Reform Rabbi Judah Magnes to learn more about Zionism, by 1923 he was receptive when Blumenfeld and Weizmann sought him out. The more he spoke with them (sometimes in German) and the more he read the Zionist classics, the more he was impressed. Above all, Weizmann engaged Lewisohn's "affection and respect." Weizmann, a renowned English scientist who was able to speak as an equal with English gentlemen, had remained loyal to the East European Jewish culture from which he sprang. Weizmann struck Lewisohn as a "melancholy poet with a touch of elegiac humor." Lewisohn, more than other American intellectuals, could be stirred by the spiritual and cultural historicism and the sense of a Jewish people of European Zionists such as Weizmann and Blumenfeld (and then by Ahad Ha'am and Martin Buber). In cultural Zionism, Lewisohn found his permanent values as a Jew while retaining his insights as a modern individual and a multiculturalist. Only in the mid-1950s did Lewisohn augment his Zionism with Conservative Judaism.

In July of 1924, Lewisohn accepted Weizmann's offer to visit Europe and Palestine and to write his personal impressions of the Jewish problem and the Zionist answer. In his resulting book, Israel, published in 1925 by Boni & Liveright, Lewisohn lucidly analyzed Jewish insecurity in America, Jewish vulnerability in Germany and Poland, and Jewish promise in Palestine (though he warned against a provincial folk nationalism in a Jewish homeland). Like...

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