Levine, Lawrence W(illiam) 1933-

views updated

LEVINE, Lawrence W(illiam) 1933-

PERSONAL: Born February 27, 1933, in New York, NY; son of Abraham and Anne (Schmookler) Levine; married Cornelia Roettcher, May 29, 1964; children: Alexander, Joshua, Isaac. Education: City College of New York, B.A., 1955; Columbia University, M.A., 1957, Ph.D., 1962. Religion: Jewish.

ADDRESSES: Home—431 Boynton St., Berkeley, CA 94707. Office—Department of History, George Mason University, B353 Robinson Hall, 4400 University Dr., Fairfax, VA 22030-4444. E-mail—[email protected]

CAREER: City College of New York, New York, NY, lecturer, 1959-61; Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, instructor, 1961-62; University of California, Berkeley, assistant professor, 1962-67, associate professor, 1967-70, professor of history, 1970-84, became Margaret Byrne Professor, 1984; George Mason University, Fairfax, VA, currently professor of history and art history. Visiting professor at University of East Anglia, Norwich, England, 1967-68, and Free University of Berlin, West Germany, 1977. Member of national advisory board of the Center for American Culture Studies, Columbia University, 1983-84. President of Congregation Beth El, Berkeley, CA, 1979-82.

MEMBER: American Academy of Arts and Sciences, American Studies Association (member of national council, 1980-82), American History Association (member of council, 1987-90), Organization of American Historians (member of executive board, 1984-87; president, 1992), American Folklore Society, American Film Institute, Society of American Historians, Phi Beta Kappa (bicentennial fellow, 1973).

AWARDS, HONORS: Social Science Research Council fellow, 1965-66; Chicago Folklore Prize, 1977, for Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom; National Museum of American History Smithsonian Institution Regents fellow, 1981-82; Woodrow Wilson fellow, International Center for Scholars, 1982-83; MacArthur Foundation fellow, 1983-88; Center for Advanced Study in Behavioral Sciences fellow, 1990-91.

WRITINGS:

Defender of the Faith: William Jennings Bryan; The Last Decade, 1915-1925, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1965, reprinted, 1987.

(Editor, with Richard M. Abrams) The Shaping of Twentieth-Century America: Interpretive Essays, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1965.

(Editor, with Robert Middlekauff) The National Temper: Readings in American Culture and Society, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1968.

Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1977.

Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1988.

(Contributor, with Alan Trachtenberg) Documenting America, 1935-1943, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 1988.

The Unpredictable Past: Explorations in American Cultural History, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1993.

The Opening of the American Mind: Canons, Culture, and History, Beacon Press (Boston, MA), 1996.

(With wife, Cornelia Levine) The People and the President: America's Conversation with FDR, Beacon Press (Boston, MA), 2002.

ADAPTATIONS: Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom was adapted for audiocassette, read by the author.

SIDELIGHTS: Professor Lawrence W. Levine has written books on various aspects of American culture. His first, Defender of the Faith: William Jennings Bryan; The Last Decade, 1915-1925, is a look at the last years of American politician and lawyer Bryan, who is best remembered for fighting to uphold the anti-evolution law during the "Monkey Trial" of teacher John Scopes in Dayton, Tennessee, during the 1920s. A Washington Post Book World reviewer of Levine's portrait of Bryan remarked that Defender of the Faith is "brilliantly and sympathetically reconstructed by the distinguished Berkeley historian."

Among the most critically acclaimed of Levine's works is Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom, which examines African-American culture and viewpoint from slavery to the twentieth century through religion, music, humor, folk tales, and superstitions. Levine points out that slaves, despite the horrible and depraved conditions thrust upon them, were nonetheless able to develop their own culture within the confines of slavery, enabling them to at least overcome their circumstances psychologically. Beginning with the era of slavery, Levine expounds upon the spiritual essence of slave songs, observing that the songs promised a better future, in this life or the next. Levine also relates slave jokes that reveal a determined effort by black Americans to laugh in the midst of their trials. This humor, according to Levine, also served as a means of liberating hostile feelings toward their white masters.

Black Culture and Black Consciousness was praised by critics such as the Washington Post Book World reviewer Al-Tony Gilmore, who deemed it "a thoughtfully organized, smooth reading, well researched study that ranks among the best books written on the Afro-American experience in recent years." In his Nation review, Jerry H. Bryant noted that Black Culture and Black Consciousness "is a fine book on a number of levels. It contains a tremendous store of information drawn from a huge array of sources, some readily available, some not.... Nevertheless, this is a book of history, albeit folk history, or social history. It examines the everyday experience of ordinary people. Levine comes to his work as a serious historian who believes that much important history has been lost because of the limits orthodoxy has placed upon its subjects and evidence, but this does not mean he abandons thorough and systematic research and presentation."

Levine's 1988 book, Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America, addresses the labels "highbrow," "middle-brow," and "lowbrow," used by certain intellectuals to categorize other members or elements of society. Levine was inspired to write Highbrow/Lowbrow by his learning that at one time, during the nineteenth century, Shakespearean plays were considered entertaining by virtually all segments of the population in America. Levine writes that the values espoused in Shakespeare's writings meshed with those of nineteenth-century Americans and that the love of Shakespeare's works, including burlesques and parodies of them, knew no cultural boundaries. Towards the end of the century, Levine proposes, lovers of European culture began to approach the arts as something exclusive that must be taught in order to be appreciated. The result: the fine arts eventually were reserved for a select group (the highbrows) and out of the ready reach of the common man (or lowbrows). Thus, Levine asserts, came the existing hierarchy of culture.

Reaction to Highbrow/Lowbrow was mixed, undoubtedly because its audience would largely be considered "highbrow." Nevertheless, several critics have expressed appreciation of Levine's effort, among them Carlin Romano, who wrote in the Washington Post Book World: "We can all appreciate a scholar who bites the process that feeds him. Highbrow/Lowbrow sinks its teeth into our smug cultural assumptions and holds on for dear life." Los Angeles Times Book Review critic Alex Raksin concluded that "Levine's elucidation of the dangers in denigrating other cultures without truly understanding them is sharp and unrefutable, while his overview of cultural hierarchies since the nineteenth century is spirited and entertaining."

The title of Levine's 1996 work The Opening of the American Mind: Canons, Culture, and History plays off the controversial bestseller of 1988, Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind. In his book, which sparked widespread debate on just how students should be taught at the university level, Bloom gave the opinion that the modern-day educational system—with its growing curriculum of multiculturalism—was failing Americans. He argued for a politically conservative approach that stressed Western culture. In The Opening of the American Mind, Levine counters that conservatives like Bloom nurture "nostalgia for a past that never existed," as Gregory Streich noted in Journal of American Ethnic History. The author "illustrates that past changes in curricula that produced the canon that conservatives now defend—the addition of Shakespeare and Milton, the addition of American literature by Melville and Hawthorne—were all made despite fears that such changes would lead to declining standards and values."

American Scholar critic Seth Forman pointed to that perceived nostalgia as a failing of The Opening of the American Mind. "Most of the critics Levine discusses," including Bloom, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and Richard Bernstein, "do not long for some nonexistent past," Forman commented, "but merely for that period of American higher education before the late 1960s, when the university was shedding its former provincialism, dropping its discriminatory admissions policies for ones based primarily on academic merit, and generally realizing the liberal 'cosmopolitan' intellectual of that era."

In an article for Locke Book Report, Andrew Cline felt Levine "sees everything in black and white....He pigeonholes everyone into either the conservative or the liberal camp. But his categories are too neatly drawn, and the inaccuracies of these neat boxes show in his treatment of Allan Bloom." Wilfred M. McClay, writing in the Wilson Quarterly, also held the view that Levine "repeatedly goes overboard in fulminating against critics and traditionalists" but also found that the author "correctly points out that many of the contemporary critics of higher education have themselves been guilty of sloppy research and excessive rhetoric." Booklist reviewer Donna Seaman found value in Levine's argument, saying that he "reminds us that to understand the present, we must understand the past and not traffic in nostalgia."

With his wife, Cornelia, Levine turned from cultural history to political biography with their 2002 publication, The People and the President: America's Conversation with FDR. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whose three-term administration spanned the Depression and World War II, was considered among the most accessible of presidents. He was famous for his "Fireside Chats" radio addresses given regularly beginning a week after FDR took office in 1933. "Tell me your troubles," he said during his first chat, and "so the nation did, flooding Washington with millions of letters," summarized a Kirkus Reviews contributor. Those letters make up the basis for the Levines' book, a compendium of correspondence on nearly every topic. Some of the missives complement the president; but many of the included letters are critical of FDR's alliance with England against Germany, for example. Other letter-writers were more personal in their complaints: "I would feel more confident if you didn't have so many smart alex young Jews and Irish around you," wrote a farmer in 1940, as quoted in a Publishers Weekly review. Library Journal contributor Thomas Baldino made special note of the "fascinating and touching letters [that] provide much more insight into the lives of average Americans . . . than simply reading a historical account."

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

PERIODICALS

AB Bookman's Weekly, May 29, 1989, review of Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America, p. 2411.

American Ethnologist, spring, 1992, review of Highbrow/Lowbrow, p. 818.

American Historical Review, June, 1994, review of The Unpredictable Past: Explorations in American Cultural History, p. 958; April, 1990, review of Highbrow/Lowbrow, p. 569; October, 1998, review of The Opening of the American Mind: Canons, Culture, and History, p. 1357.

American Literature, March, 1989, review of Highbrow/Lowbrow, p. 157.

American Quarterly, September, 1991, review of Highbrow/Lowbrow, p. 518.

American Scholar, fall, 1997, Seth Forman, review of The Opening of the American Mind, p. 619.

Antioch Review, winter, 1989, review of Highbrow/Lowbrow, p. 113.

Booklist, September 15, 1996, Donna Seaman, review of The Opening of the American Mind, p. 181.

Books & Culture, May, 1997, review of The Opening of the American Mind, p. 7.

Choice, July, 1989, review of Highbrow/Lowbrow, p. 1895; October, 1993, review of The Unpredictable Past, p. 354; March, 1997, review of The Opening of the American Mind, p. 1227.

Christian Science Monitor, July 12, 1989, review of Highbrow/Lowbrow, p. 13.

College Literature, February, 1991, review of Highbrow/Lowbrow, p. 111.

Come-All-Ye, summer, 1990, review of Highbrow/Lowbrow, p. 6.

Contemporary Sociology, July, 1990, review of Highbrow/Lowbrow, p. 508.

Dissent, winter, 1997, review of The Opening of the American Mind, p. 115.

English Journal, November, 1989, review of Highbrow/Lowbrow, p. 86.

Georgia Review, spring, 1989, review of Highbrow/Lowbrow, p. 179.

History, spring, 1989, review of Highbrow/Lowbrow, p. 109; summer, 1994, review of The Unpredictable Past, p. 148.

Journal of American Ethnic History, fall, 1997, Gregory Streich, review of The Opening of the American Mind, p. 86.

Journal of American Folklore, April, 1980, review of Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom, p. 187.

Journal of American History, September, 1989, review of Highbrow/Lowbrow, p. 565.

Journal of American Studies, August, 1990, review of Highbrow/Lowbrow, p. 292.

Journal of Interdisciplinary History, autumn, 1989, review of Highbrow/Lowbrow, p. 329.

Journal of Popular Culture, summer, 1989, review of Highbrow/Lowbrow, p. 143.

Journal of Social History, winter, 1989, review of Highbrow/Lowbrow, p. 387.

Kirkus Reviews, August 1, 1996, review of The Opening of the American Mind, p. 1124; April 1, 2002, review of The People and the President: America's Conversation with FDR, p. 472.

Libraries and Culture, summer, 1991, review of Highbrow/Lowbrow, p. 557.

Library Journal, May 15, 1993, review of The Unpredictable Past, p. 83; April 15, 2002, Thomas Baldino, review of The People and the President, p. 105.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, October 9, 1988, Alex Raksin, review of Highbrow/Lowbrow, p. 4.

Modern Language Review, October, 1990, review of Highbrow/Lowbrow, p. 934.

Nation, March 12, 1977, Jerry Bryant, review of Black Culture and Black Consciousness, pp. 311-313; October 7, 1996, review of The Opening of the American Mind, p. 25.

New Leader, December 16, 1996, review of The Opening of the American Mind, p. 7.

New Republic, December 3, 1977, p. 25.

New York Times Book Review, January 22, 1978; October 27, 1996, review of The Opening of the American Mind, p. 14.

Nineteenth-Century Literature, June, 1990, review of Highbrow/Lowbrow, p. 120.

Partisan Review, no. 2, 1990, review of Highbrow/Lowbrow, p. 317.

Publishers Weekly, June 22, 1996, review of The Opening of the American Mind, p. 221; April 15, 2002, review of The People and the President, p. 49.

San Francisco Review of Books, number 4, 1989, review of Highbrow/Lowbrow, p. 33.

Shakespeare Quarterly, fall, 1991, review of Highbrow/Lowbrow, p. 373.

Sociological Review, August, 1990, review of Highbrow/Lowbrow, p. 608.

Southern Humanities Review, summer, 1999, review of The Opening of the American Mind, p. 297.

Theatre Journal, October, 1990, review of Highbrow/Lowbrow, p. 391.

Times Literary Supplement, May 25, 1967, p. 468; July 14, 1989, review of Highbrow/Lowbrow, p. 767.

Virginia Quarterly Review, summer, 1989, review of Highbrow/Lowbrow, p. 97; spring, 1998, review of The Opening of the American Mind, p. 368.

Washington Post Book World, April 10, 1977; February 19, 1978, Al-Tony Gilmore, review of Black Culture and Black Consciousness, p. E7; July 5, 1987; January 8, 1989, Carlin Romano, review of Highbrow/Lowbrow, pp. 3, 6; September 29, 1996, review of The Opening of the American Mind, p. 3.

Wilson Quarterly, summer, 1993, review of Black Culture and Black Consciousness, p. 30; autumn, 1996, Wilfred M. McClay, review of The Opening of the American Mind, p. 94.

ONLINE

Locke Book Review,http://www.johnlocke.org/ (July 16, 2002), Andrew Cline, review of The Opening of the American Mind.*

About this article

Levine, Lawrence W(illiam) 1933-

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article