Lewisohn Versus Nativism

Nextbook has a fine essay on Ludwig Lewisohn, author of a handful of important novels addressing Jewish-American identity in the early 20th century, the best-known of which is 1928’s The Island Within. Josh Lambert’s piece is also a reminder of just how deep anti-Semitism ran in nativist United States between the wars. Lewisohn was all but shut out of academia; following a speech in which he defended German high culture, the New York Times led an opinion piece with the quote, ““Ludwig Lewisohn has insulted every American who died in France, every disabled soldier who lies in a hospital today and every man who fought in the American army.”

If nothing else, such antagonism inspired Lewisohn to be ambitious in his work. Using a quote from The Island Within, Lambert makes clear how provocative the author could be:

“What, in fact, is a story?” Lewisohn asks, in the first of the metafictional essays interspersed throughout the novel. “Is it a meticulous account of the stream of consciousness as it flows through some carefully isolated mind? . . . Or the symbolical doings of a day? . . . An elegant bed and in it, in silken pajamas, a gentleman who cannot sleep”? Are you, in other words, looking for the au courant stylings of Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, or Marcel Proust? If so, Lewisohn says, look elsewhere: “Let us tell wiser, broader, deeper stories,” he proposes, “stories with morals more significant and rich. . . . Let us recover, if possible, something of an epic note.” Lewisohn is effectively claiming that he’s written a smarter and more resonant fiction than anything by the reputed masters of modernism, and, moreover, that he has created this instant classic by grounding his work in the history and psychology of the Jews.