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My Father’s World

Posted By Laura Levitt On March 12, 2008 @ 2:32 pm In Biography,Non-Fiction Reviews,Writers | 1 Comment

Childhood home of Irving Levitt, Schenectady, New York

In my father’s world, books are sacred objects. Authors are to be worshiped, especially those who write literature. Novelists, poets, and playwrights are among those ensconced in his pantheon. For my father, literature was not simply a subject he studied formally, but a larger vocation. He haunted bookstores. In Albany he sat at the feet of a man named Lockrow who owned his favorite shop, Lockrow’s Bookstore at 52½ Spring Street. More than any of my father’s other fellow book lovers and collectors, Harman Lockrow was a mentor to him. He encouraged my father to collect books. My father began this collecting as a college student in the late 1940s. By now he has an impressive collection of first editions. Mr. Lockrow taught him a great deal about the publication history of many of the books he collected. This is still the basis for much of my father’s knowledge about these things.

Because my father held writers in such high esteem and valued their published works, I think it was always a challenge for him to take his own writing seriously. When he met my mother he had published a few poems. She liked to think of him as a poet and a writer. This is a vision that still haunts our family. And because my parents have always been so invested in this vision, it has become almost mythic, making it that much more difficult for my father to scale the heights of those expectations. I suspect that this is also why he continues to hide his notes for that magnum opus he is supposed to be writing. I am not sure he can imagine writing anything that is not exceptional, that does not meet his own very high standards.

For as long as I can remember, my father has had “his boys.” These “boys” are his favorite writers. They are the writers he worships and whose standards he can hardly fathom reaching. I could name the mostly I9th- and 20th-century Americans, but I don’t want to get lost in the reverie. Instead, I want simply to note their looming presence and the ways I see them both inspiring and hindering my father’s sense of himself as a writer. My father longs to be a writer, but I would argue that his imagination has really always found its most powerful means of expression in visual form, mostly through literally thousands of drawings and paintings, and even in his single film. In these works I see my father as less self-conscious. I have often found it hard to read through all of the various writings he has shared with me that go back to the early 1950s. Although I greatly appreciate these texts and the fact that he wrote them, I do not find them as compelling as his images. They don’t touch me in the ways that his artwork has always moved me. In his pictures and even his film, there is a sense that he is not trying so hard, that he just lets himself go. There is something freeing about his pictures that I do not sense in his writing. He is not judging himself against the legacy of his boys.

All of this is a bit awkward for me to write about. As I have suggested elsewhere, unlike my father and my brother, I am not an artist. I do not have those talents. But even as I write, I also need to say that I am not a writer in the ways that my father ever wanted to be a writer. I am neither a novelist nor a poet. Mine are the words of a scholar, albeit one who writes in the first person, a scholar who cares about writing and hopes to be able to communicate to a broader audience. In this way, I am grateful not ever to have to compete with my father’s boys. And yet, there is something about my writing that speaks to my father’s love of books, his sense of history. It was, after all, the publication of my book that led him to reveal these long-hidden family pictures. And here I do feel that my writing about him, about these hidden legacies, does make a kind of sense. It feels as if my father trusts me as a writer, that as someone who writes I will know what to do with these things. And, for me, the connection between us is a link between his artworks and my writing. For my father, books have been a perfect place to hide things. For me books are the perfect place to unveil things. For both of us books provide safety for what is precious.

By the early 1950s, my father had begun to amass his library. And thanks to his mother Mary Levitt, he could confidently amass these possessions knowing that she would take care of them. For many years when my father’s life was still in transit, this library lived boxed up in his parents’ home. In the early 1950s, he hid this particular stash of family pictures in the pages of Frank Norris’s 1899 novel Blix. When I asked my father to explain this choice of texts, his answer was enigmatic. He said he thought it was a clever choice. The book was not valuable. It was not one of his prized first editions and therefore not where someone might expect to find something of value. This was an undated reprint of the first edition of the novel published by Grosset and Dunlap. Grosset and Dunlap appear to have bought the plates for the original edition and reprinted it under their own company name. Although my father owns first editions of many of Norris’s works, he purposely chose this volume, a large square yellow book that would in no other ways call attention to itself.

In terms of the content of the story of this book and its relationship to his decision to choose it as his hiding place, my father was very dismissive. He thought the book was dated and not of much interest to anyone at this point. What he did tell me was that Blix is a sentimental work. Looking again at the book, my father discovered a note in his own hand that said that he purchased the book during the summer of 1952, August 15 to be exact. He assumes that he must have put the pictures inside the book then and that they remained there until he showed them to us in the late 1990s. This is about all my father has to say about why the pictures were in this book. Even as he told me this just a few years ago, I could still hear a certain glee in his voice, a satisfaction with his own cleverness. It felt childlike. I had the keen sense that even now, he takes pride in how well he hid these things.

I am less sure than my father about the meaning of his choice of Blix as the place where he would hide these family pictures. My first cursory reading told me early on that there were some formal connections between the family described in the novel’s opening pages and my father’s family of origin. There are also major differences. As if in some kind of funhouse mirror, in the novel we find a solidly upper-middle-class Episcopalian family of four, a widowed father and his three children. This family resides in a comfortable middle-class home complete with the requisite parlor described in vivid detail, including a view of the bay. This family, even without a mother, is quite well taken care of. They have both a housekeeper and a cook to attend to their domestic needs. They are quite different from my father’s poor Jewish family trying to hold on to their small home in Schenectady, New York, a house without a view. There are, of course, other differences. The novel is set at the end of the nineteenth century in San Francisco, while my father’s family story is set during the Depression in the 1930s. Although there is a ten-year-old boy in the novel, he is the middle child and not the oldest; he is not the center of this story. This boy plays a minor role in relation to his older sister, and he has no brother to bond with. My father was ten when his mother died and he, too, lived with his father and two siblings, but the only help in his household once his mother died was his grandmother, an immigrant Yiddish-speaking Jewish woman who had little knowledge of how to best raise young children in America. There is little to connect these stories.

The thrust of Norris’s novel has less to do with the family and its dynamics and more to do with the love story between Blix, the oldest daughter, and Travis, the man who falls in love with her and gives her this peculiar and endearing name. As Norris scholars have noted, Blix is a highly autobiographical novel. It offers a lightly veiled fictional account of Norris’s courtship with the woman he would eventually marry, Jeanette Black. In the novel, the newspaperman and aspiring novelist and writer, Candy Rivers, plays the role of Frank Norris’s alter ego. As many commentators have noted, this sweet and indeed sentimental story contrasts sharply with some of Norris’s most famous works. Nevertheless, Blix offers rich insight into this important relationship and its powerful role in spurring Norris’s career. Like Candy Rivers, Frank Norris had the support of a spunky young woman who believed in him. Her inspiration helped him take himself seriously as a writer. Eventually, as he writes more and more, Candy leaves his job as a reporter in San Francisco and eventually goes to New York to take a position at a major publishing house. This is not unlike Frank Norris’s experience writing for the magazine, The Wave.

Perhaps there is something about this story and its happy ending that spoke to my father in 1952. Maybe he simply identified with this hopeful and talented writer who was destined to live a tragically short but highly productive life. It might also be that he found in this slightly embarrassingly happy story by Norris, known for his much more serious and somber tales, an ironic statement about his own sentimentality, his desire to hold on to these pictures.

That my father is drawn to Crane and Norris is striking. Both wrote at the turn of the century, and both were innovators, writers with a new vision, a very masculine and quintessentially American vision for the new century. My father owns first editions of these writers and of some of their contemporaries with similar inclinations. (Here I am thinking of my father’s shelf filled with all of the works of Jack London. I would have expected to see Henry Roth, whose novels evoke the atmosphere of my father’s childhood home.) For my father, the otherness of these American writers was both alluring and compelling.

By reading the words of these writers and collecting various editions of their work, my father was also making space for a different future, his future as an American, as an intellectual, a reader who could appreciate and savor the production of a new American literary tradition at the turn of the last century.

From “American Jewish Loss after the Holocaust” with permission of NYU Press.

American Jewish Loss after the Holocaust
by Laura Levitt
NYU Press, 207 pp.


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