Academic journal article American Jewish History

The Island within and Jewish Revelation: A Surprise Hit of the 1920s

Academic journal article American Jewish History

The Island within and Jewish Revelation: A Surprise Hit of the 1920s

Article excerpt

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. …

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