To the Editor:
In “The New York (Jewish) Intellectuals” [November 1987], Ruth R. Wisse properly disposes of Alfred Kazin’s putdown of the “dreary middle-class chauvinism he encountered in Zionist clubs” for the jealous and empty statement it was. Yes, middle-class American Zionists were and are provincials—but they have some accomplishments. It is they whose crucial efforts restored the state of Israel and they who support it till this day. As Mrs. Wisse notes, those others did nothing and felt nothing for the crimes against the Jewish people—not even in 1944! But then, how could they be expected to? It was easier to adopt the mindless pose of enraged internationalism they still pursue.
Ludwig Lewisohn was a far better writer and scholar and critic than Mrs. Wisse allows. It took courage in his day to publish The Island Within and the other works that followed. That novel sold sensationally well but cost him his position in the world of letters as he foresaw. Yet any comparison of the few Zionist writers like Lewisohn with the Partisan Review multitude is misleading. The Zionists lived in the small Jewish world, the others in the vastnesses of world Marxism. But what have they to show for it but empty nostalgia for a dead movement without believers? The Zionists have a state reborn, a language revived, and a people saved.
Which movement is in the dustbin of history?
New York City
To the Editor:
I cannot help admiring Ruth R. Wisse’s knowledge of the New York scene conveyed with great skill in her article. Her critical view tends to confirm what has been suspected for some time, especially since the definitive Holocaust research done by . . . David Wyman charging that not only Christians but Jews were at fault for allowing the unparalleled misfortune to happen to the European Jews when hundreds of thousands could have been saved perhaps as late as 1944. . . .
I share Mrs. Wisse’s outrage at this callous disregard and insensitivity [which] . . . illustrate what the German Jewish novelist Jakob Wassermann has called Trägheit des Herzens (“sluggishness of the heart”), a condition which affected many people including artists and intellectuals. . . . It is the leitmotif of many of Wassermann’s books such as The World’s Illusion, The Goose Man, and Wedlock. These books, incidentally, were masterfully translated into English by none other than Ludwig Lewisohn. . . .
Permit me to say a word here in vindication of that thoroughgoing individualist, literary critic, and early Zionist, Ludwig Lewisohn. . . . His position as a human being and as an inspiring teacher/scholar cries out for understanding. . . .
As to Lewisohn’s literary stature as an American author, I wish to draw Mrs. Wisse’s attention to an article by Henry Mentor in the Universal Jewish Encyclopedia as well as to another article in the Encyclopedia Judaica and to Charles J. Glicksberg’s fine critique in American Literary Criticism. In Glicksberg’s considered judgment, Ludwig Lewisohn was “a scholar, a creative critic, a scrupulous craftsman whose work is informed with high seriousness and moral passion” as well as “a passionate Jew.” There is also Seymour Lainoff’s study, Ludwig Lewisohn (1982). Lainoff says of Lewisohn . . . that he “will be remembered . . . for [his] distinguished contribution to American literature.”
New York City
Ruth R. Wisse writes:
The altogether welcome support of Eleazar Lipsky and Henry Regensteiner somewhat distorts my article, which acknowledged the important contributions of the New York Jewish intellectuals to American literature and politics, and in the light of those achievements expressed dismay at their failure to consecrate the same intense intelligence to the Jews. I share my correspondents’ interest in Ludwig Lewisohn, whose embattled plea for political assistance to the Jews (e.g., in the pages of the Nation in 1933) remains eloquent proof of his “moral passion.” Yet the quality of his ideas did not make him a better writer. I believe the artistic problem begins with his inability to find a natural literary voice, a comfortable level of language—a failure by no means unique to him. In any case, the critical reassessment Lewisohn deserves should try to uphold the honest standards that he himself set.