Lewisohn’s first novel, The Broken Snare, was published in 1908. Trumpeted by the naturalist writer Theodore Dreiser, it was condemned in Charleston for the author’s advocacy of “free love.”
Novelist, critic, activist. Born on May 30, 1883, in Berlin, Germany, Lewisohn immigrated to America in 1890 with his assimilated Jewish parents, Jacques Lewisohn and Minna Eloesser. The family stayed with relatives in St. Matthews, South Carolina, for two years before moving on to Charleston, where the young Lewisohn’s stellar performance in high school and at the College of Charleston, from which he graduated with a B.A. and M.A. in 1901, sustained the family. He was brilliant but did not fit in, either intellectually or socially. His Semitic looks stamped him as an outsider and denied him access to a fraternity, even though he considered himself Methodist. Charleston gentlemen helped pay for his schooling at Columbia University. The practice of denying professorships in English to Jews so dismayed him that he took no degree. In 1906 he married Mary Arnold Child Crocker, twenty years his senior.
Lewisohn’s first novel, The Broken Snare, was published in 1908. Trumpeted by the naturalist writer Theodore Dreiser, it was condemned in Charleston for the author’s advocacy of “free love.” In 1910 he taught German at the University of Wisconsin, and he then taught at Ohio State University from 1911 to 1917. His promoting and translating of German literature at the outbreak of World War I stymied his advancement, which frustrated him greatly. From 1919 to 1924 he was drama critic for the Nation, and in 1922 his first important book, Upstream, a veiled autobiography in which he grappled with the issues of Puritanism, xenophobia, and the American dream, appeared. Although the term was not in vogue then, his book was a call for pluralism. This landmark work made Lewisohn a champion to intellectuals and immigrants.
In 1924, unable to get a divorce from Crocker, Lewisohn moved to Europe with the singer Thelma Spear. His novel The Case of Mr. Crump, set partially in Charleston and based on his disastrous marriage, was published in Paris in 1926. Hailed by Sigmund Freud and Thomas Mann, it is one of the finest naturalistic novels produced by an American in the 1920s. Lewisohn began to investigate his Jewish heritage and write novels and nonfiction regarding it. He was one of the first to see the looming horrors of Hitler. He became an elegant polemicist and propagandist for the Zionist cause, but his fiction suffered, and there was embarrassment to the cause from his personal entanglements. The tabloid press followed his nonmarried life with Spear, their breakup, the histrionic displays of his first wife, and then two subsequent marriages. Only with the death of Crocker and the relaxing of obscenity laws could an unexpurgated edition of The Case of Mr. Crump appear in the United States in 1947. By that time much of his critical work–on drama, American life, and literature–was being forgotten, although he had published more than a dozen works on these topics.
In 1948 Lewisohn became a founding member of the Brandeis University faculty. He died in Miami on December 31, 1955. By then Lewisohn, who had been praised and vilified in his lifetime, merited almost no notice and had nearly been forgotten. His great works include some of his literary criticism, The Case of Mr. Crump, Upstream, and The Island Within, one of his Jewish-themed novels that helped open up the field to the many American Jewish novelists who followed him.
Lainoff, Seymour. Ludwig Lewisohn. Boston: Twayne, 1982. Melnick, Ralph. The Life and Work of Ludwig Lewisohn. 2 vols. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1998.