Several months ago, when I discussed the work of the little-known German writer, Grete Weil, I posed certain questions and discussed conundrums surrounding the fickle nature of reputation in the arts. Why is it, I wondered, that certain writers achieve fame far out of proportion to the reality of their talent -- and that such reputations persist, despite the evident lack of quality in the works they continue to publish? On the other hand, I asked, why is it that certain good writers, who entertain and enlighten audiences throughout long and productive careers, lose their reputations the moment they die and then are lost to history, never to be heard from again?
And why is it that truly fine writers -- who manage to turn out superlative work with each effort -- exist among us, but are known to so few? (I placed Weil in this category, then went on to explain why it might be so -- and that her fate is undeserved.)
Now, with the appearance of Alvin Levin's collection of writings from New Directions, titled Love Is Like Park Avenue, another question must be asked: How is it that a writer so good never found a publisher in his lifetime, and is only appearing in book form 27 years after his death?
The poet John Ashbery provides a brief laudatory preface about first reading a story by Levin back in the early 1940s; and the volume's editor, James Reidel (who has also retrieved the life and work of vanished poet Weldon Kees) offers an introduction that places Levin in his milieu and that speculates on why the writer mysteriously gave up the struggle.
Some biography is necessary here to understand what this gifted writer was up against. Though his fictional locale was mostly New York, and the Bronx especially, Alvin Frederick Levin was born in Paterson, N.J., on May 16, 1914. His father, Nathan Levin, the son of Russian immigrants, made his living by driving a horse cart and delivering bottles of soda made by relatives. He was married to Rose Botwick, and they had a daughter, Shirley, three years after Alvin was born.
Levin's father eventually bought a garage in the Bronx, where he ran a used car business for a time. But geography and economics wound up undoing this entrepreneurial effort. Reidel tells us that, first, the construction of the Third Avenue El line in the Bronx blocked access to the garage. Then came the stock-market crash of '29. The elder Levin decided to drive a cab for one of his better-off relatives in order to support the family and pay for his son's frequent medical needs.
Reidel explains that, when young, Alvin Levin contracted polio, perhaps during the 1916 epidemic that struck New York City. The result was that Levin walked "with some means of assistance for the rest of his life."
Despite his physical problems, Levin was a brilliant student. And his lameness, says Reidel, only intensified his intellectual development, especially his voracious reading and his early efforts at writing. After attending Morris High School, he went on, like many another Jewish middle-class young person, to City College, where in 1936 he earned a degree in sociology.
From there he went to Brooklyn Law School (his degree was conferred in 1940). It was also during this period, states his editor, that he started writing stories with a seriousness of purpose. By then, he had even chosen a title for the long manuscript he was working on -- Love Is Like Park Avenue -- and he never swayed from it, even if he never managed to finish the novel or short-story cycle -- or whatever it might have been -- that would bear that moniker.
In discussing Levin's style, Reidel says the writer whom Levin sometimes evoked was William Saroyan. Like Sayoran, Levin wanted to offer a slice of life in a particular region -- what Reidel describes as the author's "take on the Jewish American experience set in an insular and yet permeable Bronx (and Manhattan, which serves as an appendage, or afterthought, to Levin's center of the world)." What he seemed to borrow from Saroyan, says Reidel, "is the other man's spontaneity and confidence. In contrast to the California writer of Armenian ancestry, Levin is darker, more bittersweet, sadder. ... He has a remote, touch-me-not quality despite how richly he peoples his stories and seems quite comfortable among them, like family. He prefers to narrate from inside them, from an interior and private vantage point."
Between 1936 and 1939, Levin had his work published in the small magazines of the time, such as Tempo, Literary America, American Scene and Parchment, rather than slicker publications like Esquire and The New Yorker. His big break came when James Laughlin, the publisher and editor of New Directions, asked Levin in the spring of 1939 to submit a story for ND's annual anthology of new writing. Laughlin accepted and printed the story, which appears in this new compilation, called "Only Dreams Are True."
It wasn't until 1941 that Levin, responding to another Laughlin request, submitted a longer piece for consideration; it was a portion of Love Is Like Park Avenue and carried that title. During this period, Levin continued to publish pieces elsewhere.
But in 1941, he also opened a law office with his brother-in-law, Abraham Cohen, Shirley's husband, though, as Reidel explains, "their partnership really became the Williams-Frederick Press, derived from the proprietors' middle names. This new company eventually absorbed [Levin's earlier small business] Pamphlet Distributing Company and published clothbound books as well as ephemeral chapbooks and bibliographical listings. The press was modestly successful, enough to boast a staff, an advertising manager, an executive editor and an office manager -- all of them Levin."
Too Quirky for the Mainstream?
In fall 1942, Laughlin published the 60 pages of Love Is Like Park Avenue in that year's anthology. Its appearance brought requests from other editors, some of which came to fruition, others did not. But soon after this point, it seems, from all the evidence, that Levin pretty much stopped sending his writing out.
Reidel speculates about why it ended this way, and all of his suggestions make perfect sense -- and center on the writer alone. But I would say that Levin's drive may have been nipped in the bud because of a lack of true interest shown by publishers. One of the interesting things about this little collection is that Reidel has included rejection letters Levin received over the years. Most praised his talent, but noted that his work was not for them.
And that seems like a correct assessment. He was too quirky to be published by the mainstream press, like Simon and Schuster, where he sent his work; only a place like New Directions would have taken him on -- especially in the 1930s and '40s -- but even Laughlin, after praising him, said he wouldn't publish the book.
You could argue that Levin had only a modicum of talent, and lacked the drive to finish his novel. Perhaps he didn't have the stick-with-it-ness necessary to be a writer; perhaps life and making a living got in the way. And you could also say that a real writer would never have let it happen. Few would debate the point.
But New Directions could have brought out a small collection of his pieces in the 1940s or '50s. Throughout its stellar history, it's done many such compilations, and a number of them have contained work far less promising than Levin's.
If Laughlin or any other interested book publisher had made that one gesture -- and I know it's a significant one, based as it is on commerce -- it might have gotten Levin over the hump, given him the boost he needed at the absolutely right moment. Writers thrive on such tokens in order to press on. If it had happened, American literature might have been enriched repeatedly, instead of only this once by a compilation filled with odd, incomplete, but indisputably original writing.