Meyer Levin Essay - Critical Essays

Levin, Meyer

Levin, Meyer 1905–

Levin, a journalist, novelist, and playwright living in both Israel and America, dramatizes in his fiction the modern Jewish experience in the Old World and the New. In his nonfiction, too, he writes on aspects of Judaism. Two of his important contributions are his collected Hasidic tales and his translations of Sholem Asch's stories. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

The abduction, murder, and mutilation of Bobby Franks in 1924 by two brilliant college students named Loeb and Leopold sent an awful thrill of outrage through the nation.

The two young men came of distinguished and wealthy Chicago families. Their crime seemed utterly without motive, without the mitigating circumstances of anger or hatred or envy or even malice. It was, by their own description, an act of "pure" criminality, a demonstration of their freedom from the ordinary moral restraints of ordinary men.

The avowed purpose of Meyer Levin's "Compulsion" is to answer the anguished question of motive—the question which must have corroded the hearts and minds of the three families involved; the question which was too glibly answered by the prosecutor in terms of sex perversion and economic gain.

Mr. Levin describes his book as a "contemporary historical novel" and sets about giving us, in a thinly disguised form, the story of the two young men whom he calls Artie Strauss and Judd Steiner. Mr. Levin himself flits through the book, a contemporary of the two young men (as he actually was in real life). Mr. Levin's personal intrusion in the story is a serious distraction. Mr. Levin, the novelist, is a much more sophisticated man than the nineteen-year-old newspaper cub who stumbled on one important clue after another. The duality of the narrator-novelist does not make a complex story any simpler to follow. But fascinating it is, almost every word of it. This is a story out of Mr. Levin's heart and mind and experience, and the fiction and fact flow easily and readily together, though not so readily as to make it too difficult to tell where one leaves off and the other begins.

The pictures of Clarence Darrow for the defense, the emotional climate of the community, the shock and dismay and despair of the families of the two young men are all vividly drawn by the author. He has also managed to catch something of the witless bravado, the inept strutting of the two "super criminals" in such a way as to tell the reader, who was not there in 1924, that this was the way they were, this was the way they behaved in police custody. In physical details Mr. Levin carries us with great sweeps of conviction to believe everything he says. But what of the motive? What lay behind the gruesome crime?

Mr. Levin has much to say about the backgrounds of the two young men, the influence of governesses and doting parents, sexual symbolism, the half-baked philosophy of the precocious. But too many of Mr. Levin's explanations sound like do-it-yourself psychoanalysis and the net effect suggests that Mr. Levin's conclusions are no better than those drawn by observers of the two killers thirty-two years ago. Nonetheless, it is a graphic and absorbing reconstruction of an infamous crime.

David Karp, "In Search of a Motive," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1956 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), October 27, 1956, p. 16.

In a way, "Compulsion" is a frightening book because the author has such an uncanny ability to make the dark recesses of perverted abnormality seem so thoroughly logical. In this book we come face to face with what happens when human beings get the idea that intellectual advancement can become superior to ideals; that morality is purely a question of expediency; that the ego is supreme….

The writing shows the hand of a master. Despite the fact that the reader who is familiar with the history of the case (and what reader is not?) knows the outcome, Mr. Levin manages to fill this book with sustained suspense. This is a masterly achievement in literary craftsmanship.

I have only one major criticism of "Compulsion." I feel that the last chapter has been omitted. This book is, after all, a story about people. What has happened to the one central character who has remained alive? Has his brilliant mind reached maturity or gone to seed? Has his remarkable brain developed such a stability that society can use it? If so it might well be utilized in one of the most significant fields of intellectual exploration confronting us today—the field of penology. To my mind, a present-day appraisal of this man, and the effect of his confinement, should be in this book. Without this last chapter I feel the book is incomplete….

Every parent should read "Compulsion." It is entertaining, shocking, enlightening and fascinating. In the author's own words, it is not "recalled for the sake of sensation." He has written the whole story down "in the hope of applying it to the increase in understanding of such crimes that has come during the years."

Erle Stanley Gardner, "Killers for Kicks," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1956 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 28, 1956, p. 7.

Choosing the crime of our time does not mean that you have written the novel of our time. [In Compulson,] Levin has slapped together a strong indictment of our ignorance, our malice, our inhumanity; but he has done so in what is often painfully awkward, stumbling prose. And the book fails on several other counts. The first half, leading up to the trial, is spotty, utilizing kaleidoscopic flashbacks where a straight bit of chronological reporting would have served. And as Dreiser often failed when he tried to recreate society talk, so Levin's characters are often still caricatures, talking like automatic dispensers of jazz age jargon….

Despite its crudities and its sophomoric air of wisdom, Compulsion is a significant and moving work. For, as one of the driven sufferers in Crime and Punishment puts it, "though we do talk a lot of trash, and I do too, yet we shall talk our way to the truth at last." In his concern for his story, and in his understanding of the importance of the crime and the trial, Levin is writing his way to the truth. He has given us an important novel. (p. 484)

Charles Shapiro, "The Crime of Our Age," in The Nation (copyright 1956 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), December 1, 1956, pp. 482-84.

Meyer Levin, who has been active as both journalist and novelist for more than 30 years, has shown a strong preference for fiction not too far removed from fact. His first successful novel, "The Old Bunch," published in 1937, describing what had happened to a group of Jewish boys in Chicago during the 1920's and 1930's, was sometimes compared to the Studs Lonigan books of his fellow-Chicagoan James Farrell. In 1940, Levin published "Citizens," about the 10 steel strikers shot and killed by police in 1937. (Farrell observed that it was "not a novel of character," and that Levin's "eye for detail is reportorial.")

A much more popular novel, "Compulsion" (Levin's best-known title), was based on the Loeb-Leopold case, and "Eva" described the massacre of European Jews under Hitler. He has spent much time in Palestine, and has written extensively about the development of that country and the emergence of Israel.

"The Settlers" may be regarded as the latest [at the time of this essay] in a series of books on his favorite theme. It is also his most ambitious treatment of that theme—and, in all likelihood, the best.

The strengths and weaknesses of the novel are such as might have been expected. In any fiction portraying historical events the author has to ask himself how much knowledge he can assume on the part of the reader: if he gives too much, the reader will be bored; if too little, he will be confused. So far as I am concerned, Levin misses the mark, sometimes one way, sometimes the other…. The strength of "The Settlers" lies in its variety. There is always something going on. (pp. 30, 32)

Granville Hicks, "A Family Bound for Jaffa," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 23, 1972, pp. 30, 32.

"In the middle of life"—the first words of Meyer Levin's arresting confessional [The Obsession]—may or may not be borrowed from the opening line of The Divine Comedy. As the sentence goes on, its Dante-like phrasing disappears, yet the metaphorical sweep of the words that describe the author's sufferings suggest the infernal if not the purgatorial: "I fell into a trouble that was to grip, haunt, occupy, and all but devour me, these twenty years."…

[With] Otto Frank's consent, Levin wrote a play based on [Anne Frank's] Diary, but when he attempted to get it into the theater he ran into what seemed to him brutal obstructions imposed by playwrights, producers, directors and agents. Another version was prepared and staged, with Otto Frank's approval. Levin, soon to acquire a Dickensian mistrust of lawyers, brought the matter into court, and after battling against all the organized trickery won a dubious victory. Levin's story at this point becomes complicated by his parallel difficulties over the dramatization of his best-selling novel about the Leopold and Loeb case, Compulsion. By this time he hated law suits, though when he was dragged into more of them he seemed to be, in his own rueful phrase, "litigious Levin."

If his account of all this is more journalistic than eloquent, it nevertheless projects an intensity and is full of lively scenes and characters. But the reliability of the author must of course be the supreme consideration in any comments on The Obsession….

Levin's main point—in and out of what he regards as a series of betrayals, misconceptions, blacklistings, evasions and blockades—is that his dramatization of the Anne Frank story is better than the one that appeared with such emphatic success on Broadway and in a Hollywood film. He provides some staunch testimonials, again giving names, as to the greater effectiveness of his own version and notes how successful it has been in various productions. These performances (illegal! illegal!) have usually been knocked in the head by lawyers' threats, which have even invaded Israeli kibbutzim….

[Even] if it doesn't have Dantean stature, this polemic, however much or little it may persuade its readers, is surely one of the most exciting and hard-punching tracts of its kind since Zola's of 1898, "J'accuse."

Harry T. Moore, "Ah, Paranoia!," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 by The New Republic, Inc.), February 2, 1974, p. 21.

[Meyer Levin's] disturbing, strangely involving new book, "The Obsession,"… is part autobiographical follow-up to his earlier "In Search," part therapy, part Kafkaesque brief for the obsessed (to be obsessed, he points out, doesn't necessarily mean one is wrong), and part the injustice-collecting of a possibly paranoid, definitely trouble-making, constantly complaining tower of tsouris. (p. 5)

The first thing that must be said is that, whatever the answers to [his] questions may be, one will not find them in a book whose power comes precisely from the fact that Levin sees the world from the cave of his preoccupations, call them what you will, and what he is describing are the shadows on his wall….

Levin himself sees that his story is less about a man who won't let go of an issue than about an issue that won't let go of a man. Along the tortured way we learn much about the tensions within the Jewish community, the history and mystery of the Jewish people, the grubby realities of freelancing, the frustrating relationship of the literary layman to analysts and lawyers, the impact of McCarthyism on America, the link between Israel's heritage and her stance, and about the agony of a man doing his best "to unravel the three-threaded intertwinings of fate, manipulation and one's own will." (p. 6)

Victor S. Navasky, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 3, 1974.

It must be said at once that [The Obsession] is a fascinating [work] and that its frankly assaultive character and its frequent harsh simplicities do not diminish certain truths Mr. Levin has seen very well…. The Anne Frank issue aside—and Mr. Levin hardly ever puts it aside—the book is a study in psychic pain. There is rashness and cruel accusation aplenty in it. It is the testament of a psyche as aware of its madness as of the truths it has divined, and one cannot, reading it, escape the intense humanness of the character revealed upon these pages or, for that matter, the gallantry inherent in so long an effort at redemption. It is not an illuminating book in the traditional sense of the word; yet, in the end, one has caught a view of the world as Mr. Levin sees it and has felt with an almost unnatural immediacy the shock of his shock, the force of his anger. That translation of vision is a writer's triumph, and Mr. Levin has accomplished it against heavy odds. (p. 28)

Dorothy Rabinowitz, in Saturday Review/World (copyright © 1974 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), February 23, 1974.

Meyer Levin is a versatile as well as a prolific novelist. He has been producing novels, short stories, plays, film scripts and high quality journalism for fifty years. His autobiography, In Search, remains one of the remarkable Jewish documents of our time, just as a handful of his novels are seminal works of Jewish creative writing….

Now, in a short, tender, artistic 127 pages, he has produced [The Spell of Time,] an intriguing novella which involves the city of Jerusalem as the centerpiece of an imaginative, mystic short story, really, subtitled, "A Tale of Love in Jerusalem."…

It seems like a slight book, but it remains in the mind. (p. 19)

Harold U. Ribalow, "Levin's Spell," in Congress Bi-Weekly, December 27, 1974.

As a writer Levin came of age during the twenties, an innocent time during which he admired hard-nosed journalists, big urban novels, what he calls "social realism." His first ambition was to develop as an experienced, "tough" young writer. This was the heyday of Ben Hecht and H. L. Mencken, Hemingway's best years. But even at this time Levin felt a duty to his parents, their European, Yiddish speaking forbears. This part of himself pained him because it seemed irreconcilable with his ambition. To use one of his earliest metaphors, he had to fight against the temptation to "amputate" it. How "American" could he be if he still felt so haunted by his "greenhorn" parents, his Jewish fate?… The Holocaust thrust upon him a new responsibility, to the murdered Jews, and increased the anguish of his own fate as a Jew who had by circumstances of birth escaped the most devastating effects of that fate.

As soon as he entered the camps Levin perceived the need nurtured in each survivor almost to a prophet's certainty to proclaim what he had seen. Levin, through Anne Frank, wanted to proclaim himself, as if he were a survivor. The Anne Frank Diary was an opportunity to articulate his Jewish interests and stay in the American limelight, to balance his passions. He could not help but be enraged when the play was denied him. It is not unusual for an English speaking Jew to grapple with these horrors, to, as it were, assimilate them, and feel himself a victim of Europe's crimes. No one suspected the motives of the others involved with the diary, yet these others suspected Levin. He came up against people who abused and punished him, circumstances which encouraged him to identify his ordeal with that of the dead. In Eva (1959) and The Stronghold (1965) Levin evokes the Holocaust but stops short of that identification; they are awkward books. In The Fanatic (1963) Levin goes as far as he can, and haunts his persona with that of a victim's ghost. (pp. 71-2)

His political thinking is unpleasant, indicative of neither study nor reflection but only bitterness.

Because of that aspect a good part of The Obsession is difficult to read; it gives the feeling of having one's head squeezed by a large and powerful hand. Yet as the oppression lifts, the legal complications become gross. Another drama of his, Compulsion, is mutilated; the tragedy, enacted a second time, tends toward the farcical; Levin senses this and relaxes. With familiarity, even self-mockery for his curiosity about Jewish matters, he recounts a family trip through Western Russia, the old Pale…. This is the unpretentious Levin, who blushes when a Russian mistakes him for a Soviet citizen illegally in a tourist bar. That is the sadness here: Levin—stifled and distorted by his difficulties—heard his voice grow ever more strident, ever more graceless with each year's protest, petition, or complication. He knew that the Anne Frank case had extended itself further than it should have, that it had become unseemly. It reached to his private life: to his wife, his sister, his brother-in-law, everywhere. He suffered twice over. "What had I brought on here, what was the meaning of all this—a play, another play, what did it matter before the fate of Anne Frank, before the Holocaust, before all death?" This is Levin's dilemma, an older man, sure of his views, unable to work easily and comfortably, longing to do so, yet despite embarrassment and discomfort, somewhat driven in his anger. (p. 72)

Philip I. Chassler, "More Confession Than Exposé," in Midstream (copyright © 1975 by The Theodor Herzl Foundation, Inc.), April, 1975, pp. 70-2.

Levin, like many another major professional writer, does not have an easy time "coming to his best self at all points" (in Matthew Arnold's Victorian phrasing) or "getting it all together" (as we would say today). For one thing, he sometimes writes too much about what is too topical to be of sustained and widespread interest; his "masterwork," The Settlers (1972), for example: an 832-page novel about a Palestinian halutz family from the turn of the century to 1917. In these very critical times of Arab economic and political threat to the entire Western world, it is difficult to find much comfort or aesthetic pleasure in such a "period piece" tome, although this may not be true of his Chicago novel, The Old Bunch (1937), which runs to 964 pages. And, perversely, in his autobiographical accounts, In Search (1950) and The Obsession (1973), he reveals either too little of the personal I when we need more, or far too much when we need to be filled in on other matters and personalities…. Yet when one considers the literary artistry of The Old Bunch and parts of The Fanatic (1964—Levin's fictional account of his personal Anne Frank tragedy) and In Search, it is clear that he is a writer of enormous talent, at home if never at ease in America, Europe, and Zion. I do not believe this can be said of any other important American Jewish writer except Saul Bellow, and while Bellow's sophisticated, polylingual flights of ideas are in a class by themselves, he lacks the dogged insistence on Jewish ethical and cultural values we find everywhere in Levin's work…. Levin's own five character types, his alter egos … are: (1) the camera eye; (2) the still small voice; (3) the fanatic; (4) the bumbler; and (5) the seeker. (pp. 111-12)

As any good reporter should have, Levin has an eye for detail, a prehensile organ of vision that picks out what really matters and what the reader back home might be interested in. But no less important, Levin has always possessed a good pair of travelling legs, and as we read his fictional and reportorial accounts of people, places, and events, we are reminded of other great globetrotting reporters of earlier years: Richard Halliburton, John Gunther. (p. 112)

Never able fully to relinquish his American cultural ties, he was ultimately to become a man with two countries: the United States and Israel. Out of his associations with [Israel] … (for years he has maintained two homes: one in New York and one in Herzlia-on-Sea) have come some of his most sympathetic writings. In addition to The Settlers and portions of The Old Bunch, In Search and The Obsession, he wrote a novel of life on a kibbutz, Yehuda (1931), The Story of Israel, Gore and Igor (1969—actually, a tasteless comic extravaganza) and other works. (p. 113)

His war correspondent experiences as he followed the American armies through Hitler-ravaged Europe and the upheavals which preceded the collapse of the Nazi war effort make unusually gripping reading and must be compared with the best that any other correspondent has produced in the way of eyewitness accounts of that war. And his narration of his discovery of the death camps and their surviving victims is a landmark in Holocaust literature and World War II writing. Had he written only In Search (the record of his youthful journalistic experiences, his war travels, his work with Jewish survivors, his two motion picture projects—actually continuations of his first-hand Holocaust and war reports, and the Israeli struggle for Independence), it would have been sufficient. (pp. 113-14)

Levin's sense of his own Jewishness … is a peculiarly pervasive influence on his life and on his artistic creativity. Most of his books deal specifically with Jewish matters, as though he is unable to forget something basic and will never let his readers (and movie viewers) forget…. The insistence of [a] still small voice calling, "Come ye back, ye Jewish writer, come ye back to Is-ra-el," may be heard throughout In Search. (By Israel I refer to the Jewish people as a continuum in space-time.) (p. 114)

Levin felt, as he explained in The Search, that the tragic epic of the Holocaust was really beyond his scope as a writer, since he had not been a part of it and thus lacked the moral sensitivity of the actual survivors. "Occasionally I could tell a story that gave a tangential glimpse into the hearts of the survivors. Some day a teller would arise from amongst themselves."… From this feeling developed his all-consuming absorption with the Anne Frank story and his determination to produce a play faithful to it in letter and spirit. Thwarted to distraction by an endless series of suppressions, lawsuits, conspiracies, he became more determined with each setback to get the real Anne Frank record, in all its Jewish poignancy, before the general public.

His novel, The Fanatic (1963), a beautiful and haunting book, is a concerted attempt to achieve this through the mode of fiction. But it could not assuage his burning frustration and sense of outrage, and for years he dissipated his energies and resources trying to fight back against the forces of control (most of them Jewish) that prevented him from producing his genuine version of Anne Frank's diary on the stage, while the allegedly false and dejudaized play version became an incalculably successful theater classic. The autobiographical book, The Obsession, is a melancholy record of this vain and almost self-destructive struggle lasting twenty years. It concludes on a note of hope for justice, peace, universal illumination: the Jewish Messianic ideal expressed through Levin's own defeats at the hands of corrupt wielders of power. (pp. 114-15)

This is what makes Levin such a fascinating, undismissable popular writer on Jewish themes: his many-sidedness, his blending of lights and darks, his ad astra per aspera ("To the stars through difficulty") reaching for Heaven, even if it is only to be sought within his all-but-unidentifiable psyche. His lifelong, and doubtless uncompletable, search—through war ravaged Europe, ancestral villages in Europe, Eretz, etc.—marks what is perhaps best and most widely applicable in this major writer. Who am I? What is God? Let us first consider our brothers, wherever they may be scattered. So might Walt Whitman have written. (pp. 115-16)

There has always been more to Levin than meets the eye, just as there always has been in the case of habitual stumblers, tireless wayfarers, and cryers in the wilderness. (p. 116)

Samuel I. Bellman, "The Literary Creativity of Meyer Levin," in Jewish Book Annual (copyright 1975 by the Jewish Book Council of the National Jewish Welfare Board), Vol. 33, 1975, pp. 111-16.