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Levin, Meyer

LEVIN, Meyer

Nationality: American. Born: Chicago, 8 October 1905. Education: University of Chicago (founder, with John Gunther, Circle ), 1921-24, Ph.D. 1924; studied art, Académie Moderne, Paris, 1925. Military Service: United States Army Psychological Warfare Division, France, during World War II. Family: Married 1) Mabel Schamp Foy in 1935 (divorced 1944), one daughter; 2) Tereska Szwarc in 1948, two sons. Career: Reporter, feature writer, and columnist, Chicago Daily News, 1922-29; moved to Palestine and lived on a kibbutz, beginning in 1928; opened an experimental marionette theater in Chicago and taught puppetry, New School for Social Research, New York City, 1930s; associate editor, Esquire, Chicago, 1933-39; war correspondent during the Spanish Civil War; worked for the U.S. Office of War Information and as a war correspondent for the Overseas News Agency and the Jewish Telegraphic Agency during World War II. Awards: Jewish Book Council of America William and Janice Epstein fiction award and Harry and Ethel Daroff fiction award, both in 1966, for The Stronghold; Jewish Book Council of America Isaac Siegel memorial juvenile award and Charles and Bertie Schwartz juvenile book award, both in 1967, for The Story of Israel; honored, World Federation of Bergen/Belsen Associations, 1969. Died: 9 July 1981.

Publication

Novels

Reporter. 1929.

Frankie and Johnnie: A Love Story. 1930; revised edition, as The Young Lovers, 1952.

Yehuda. 1931.

The New Bridge. 1933.

Old Bunch. 1937.

Citizens. 1940.

My Father's House. 1947.

Compulsion. 1956.

Eva: A Novel of the Holocaust. 1959.

The Fanatic. 1964.

The Stronghold. 1965.

Gore and Igor: An Extravaganza. 1968.

The Settlers. 1972.

The Spell of Time: A Tale of Love in Jerusalem. 1974.

The Harvest. 1978.

The Architect. 1981.

Plays

The Good Old Days (produced Paris, 1951).

Anne Frank (produced Israeli Soldiers Theatre, 1966; Brandeis University, 1972). 1957.

Compulsion, based on his novel (produced New York, 1957). 1958.

Screenplays:

My Father's House, 1947; The Illegals, 1948; Mountain of Moses, 1968; The Falashas, 1970; The Unafraid, 1978.

Other

The Golden Mountain (folk tales). 1932; as Classic Hassidic Tales, 1966.

If I Forget Thee: A Picture Story of Modern Palestine (synopsis of his screenplay, My Father's House ). 1947.

In Search (autobiography). 1950.

The Story of the Synagogue, with Toby K. Kurzband (for children). 1957.

The Story of the Jewish Way of Life, with Kurzband (for children). 1959.

God and the Story of Judaism, with Dorothy K. Kripke (for children). 1962.

The Haggadah Retold. 1968; as An Israel Haggadah for Passover, 1970; revised edition, 1977.

Beginnings in Jewish Philosophy. 1971.

The Obsession (autobiography). 1973.

Editor and translator, Selections from the Kibbutz Buchenwald Diary. 1946.

Editor, Diary, by David S. Kogan. 1955.

Editor, Golden Egg, by Arthur D. Goldhaft. 1957.

Editor, with Charles Angoff, The Rise of American Jewish Literature. 1970.

Translator, Tales of My People, by Sholem Asch. 1948.

Translator, Women's Barracks, by Tereska Torres. 1950.

Translator, Not Yet, by Torres. 1957.

Translator, The Dangerous Games, by Torres. 1957.

Translator, The Golden Cage, by Torres. 1959.

Translator, The Only Reason, by Torres. 1961.

*

Film Adaptation:

Compulsion, 1959.

Critical Studies:

Meyer Levin: Fifty Years in Writing, 1973; "The Haunting of Meyer Levin" by Benno Weiser Varon, in Midstream, 22, 1976, pp. 7-23; The Literary Achievement of Meyer Levin (dissertation) by Gary Bossin, Kent State University, Ohio, 1980; Meyer Levin, 1982, and "The Ghetto and Beyond: First-Generation American-Jewish Autobiography and Cultural History," in Multicultural Autobiography: American Lives, edited by James Robert Payne, 1992, both by Steven Joel Rubin; "Meyer Levin's The Old Bunch: Children of the Immigrants" by Leslie Field, in Yiddish, 6(4), 1987, pp. 73-86; An Obsession with Anne Frank: Meyer Levin and The Diary by Lawrence Graver, 1995; The Stolen Legacy of Anne Frank: Meyer Levin, Lillian Hellman, and the Staging of the Diary by Ralph Melnick, 1997; Audacious Pilgrim: The Story of Meyer Levin: A Biography by Martin Litvin, 1999.

* * *

In his own estimation Meyer Levin's career was a testament to the divided sensibility of the Jewish American writer, who must struggle to reconcile his cultural identity as a Jew with his participation in American ideology. Throughout his career Levin was quick to understand—in the eyes of his many critics, far too quick to understand—the obstacles he encountered in the publishing world or the disdain with which some of his books were received as owing to a larger American cultural discomfort with Jewish identity. Even before he became involved in an infamous legal fight over the suppression of his preliminary dramatization of Anne Frank's Diary of a Young Girl, Levin perceived himself to have been several times the victim of an implicit censoring of Jewish identity. Never himself an observant Jew, Levin was focused mostly on the cultural dimension of Jewish identity. Having defined himself as a leftist progressive in the Roosevelt New Deal era, Levin's discomfort with the Marxist left stemmed from the inhospitality in such circles to particularist models of ethnic identity. Although his experiences during two trips to Palestine in the 1920s informed the novel Yehuda (1931) and a collection of Hasidic tales called The Golden Mountain (1932), his first two novels, Reporter (1929) and Frankie and Johnnie (1930), had been works of American social realism indebted to his work as a journalist in Chicago. Much as Ludwig Lewisohn had begun late in his career to write alternately and differently for the American and Jewish public, Levin's early works also seem written for two distinct audiences. Arguably, however, in his best work the two are held in tension, as was the case with the commercially successful Old Bunch (1937), a novel in which Levin explores the lives of a circle of Jewish friends from the west side of Chicago and traces each character's more or less successful assimilation into the currents of contemporary American society.

In later years Levin would himself rehearse and lament a perception about his career that he had begun as a promising social realist novelist and gone astray when he started to treat too explicitly Jewish themes. It is hardly an overstatement to say that Levin's encounter with the Holocaust galvanized the Jewish identity of his authorial voice. If one were to choose a single Jewish American author who seems most defined by Holocaust consciousness, it would have to be Meyer Levin. No fewer than seven of his post-World War II authorial projects treat the Holocaust either as central subject or as central to the book's construct of Jewish identity. Having worked as a correspondent in Spain alongside a number of other American writers (including Ernest Hemingway) who explicitly sided with the losing anti-Fascist cause, Levin desperately wanted to be useful in the American fight against Nazism. To this end he signed on with the Office of War Information in 1941 to create and produce documentary films and later got himself assigned as a war correspondent to cover the final Allied campaign. As a consequence of his desire to be present at the American front, Levin witnessed firsthand the liberation of the camps and tried there to gather the stories and names of the Jewish victims of the Nazis. After the war Levin wrote and produced a film about the illegal emigration to Palestine of a group of Holocaust survivors, which he quickly turned into a novel by the same name. As the first of his Holocaust works, My Father's House (1947) begins aboard an illegal emigration ship offering brief life histories of several survivors and then follows in particular the life of a boy whose desperate search to find a father and family killed by the Nazis causes him to resist incorporation into the Zionist dream. The boy and novel are delivered from this recusant Holocaust memory only through the device of the boy's mental breakdown brought on by extreme grief, as the boy symbolically regresses to a younger age in order to be reborn a child of the emergent Jewish homeland.

Soon after this, while working for the Haganah as a filmmaker and helping to promote the illegal emigration of Jews to Palestine, Levin began and completed an autobiography he would self-publish several years later in France. In Search (1950) chronicles Levin's struggle to become an authentically Jewish writer, and at the literal and spiritual center of the book is his encounter with the Holocaust. As Levin recounts his work as a reporter interviewing survivors of the Nazi genocide and trying to bring out the Jewish perspective of the tragedy in dispatches that were picked up here and there by smaller American papers, he names and explores questions of survivor guilt; he also details rifts in the Jewish community over questions of collaboration in order to suggest the long reckoning with this terrible history that will have to take place within the Jewish community. Shortly after the publication of his autobiography, Levin read Anne Frank's Diary in French and believed he had found the document that would bring the Holocaust home to the rest of the world. Initially humbled by the burden of witness, Levin had predicted in his autobiography that a teller would have to arise from the ruins of the European Jewish community to get the story across. Confident that Anne was that voice, Levin befriended Otto Frank and began almost immediately to help him seek an American publisher for the Diary. He acted for a time as the book's unofficial agent in America, and his review in the New York Times Book Review helped make it an overnight success. For his services Levin was promised first rights at a dramatic adaptation. But after positive preliminary readings of his work, his script was suddenly dropped for commercial reasons, and Levin responded with a public campaign in the press, in the Jewish community, and in the world of letters to protest the censorship of his voice. Before the play became a hit in the fall of 1955, Levin filed suit against Otto Frank and the play's then producer, Cheryl Crawford, although the case would not come to trial for several years. Levin argued that his play had been dropped because it was too Jewish and that his ideas for the dramatization had been appropriated. A jury decided in Levin's favor on the second point, although the verdict was put aside by the judge.

What is perhaps most significant about Levin's suit is that it proves a symbolic site for the conflicting imperatives of cultural memory of the Holocaust in America, with Anne Frank made a symbol of the universalizing patterns of Holocaust memory in the 1950s. In trying to challenge his audience with a slightly more contentious mode of remembrance, Levin had depicted an Anne who interpreted her plight in terms of her Jewish identity. The legal controversy over the Diary would eventually yield two books, a fictional roman á clef called The Fanatic (1964) and a memoir called The Obsession (1973), in which Levin laid bare the wrong that had been done both to him and to Anne as a de-Judaized Holocaust victim. These books bore the memory of Levin's attempt to win the conscience of an American public. In the midst of the controversy he had written the novel for which he is most remembered, the best-seller Compulsion (1956), which like his 1940 labor novel, Citizens, was an example of documentary fiction. For this fictional rendering of the Leopold-Loeb murder case, Levin drew from his past experiences reporting the trial and from interviews with the imprisoned Leopold. Following the success of Compulsion Levin spent much of the latter half of his career in Israel. Of his other two Holocaust novels, Eva (1959), based on his interviews with a survivor, allows Levin to offer a parable against integrationist or assimilationist models of cultural identity as he retells a woman survivor's story of passing among Nazis while yet remaining true to her Jewish identity. In The Stronghold (1965) Levin developed a fictional scenario about the last days of the war, in which a group of mythic European statesmen are forced to confront a war criminal modeled on Adolf Eichmann and thus to wrestle in advance with the memory of their own complicity in anti-Semitism and the difficult memory the Holocaust will pose to all European nationalisms. As these two novels treat Holocaust history and memory in the European and Israeli contexts, they give evidence of the author's having solved his own transnationalist dilemma by removing himself imaginatively from the American context, and most of his later writings might as well be termed Israeli as American fiction.

—R. Clifton Spargo

See the essays on Eva: A Novel of the Holocaust, The Fanatic, My Father's House, and The Stronghold.

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