BOOKS AND ARTS MARCH 9, 2011
“The concentration camps are a dangerous topic to handle,” the British critic A. Alvarez once wrote. “They stir mud from the bottom, clouding the mind, rousing dormant self-destructiveness.” This has perhaps never been more true for anyone than for Meyer Levin, the author of middlebrow Jewish-American novels such as The Settlers who is now better known, alas, for an obsession with the diary of Anne Frank that seems to have sent him over the edge of sanity. As Rinne Groff tells the story in her new play Compulsion, now playing at the Public Theater in New York, Levin (who appears in the play, barely fictionalized, under the name Sid Silver) was a promising writer and documentary film-maker who was one of the first to interview survivors of the newly liberated concentration camps. (I spoke at an event Monday night that included Groff, Francine Prose, and Nathan Englander.) After he read a French translation of Anne Frank’s diary, Levin was moved to contact Otto Frank, who became his friend and promised him the rights to adapt it for the stage. Levin may also have played some role in convincing Doubleday to publish the diary in English translation after it was rejected by numerous other houses.
Levin was initially happy to work with Doubleday in promoting the book, and even managed to place (at their suggestion) a front-page rave in The New York Times Book Review. What happened afterwards is murky, but it seems the publisher soon decided Levin was not the ideal writer for the dramatization. His draft of a script was rejected; the smash-hit Broadway version was written by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett. In Levin’s eyes, these writers—non-Jews who were best known for their work on the Frank Capra Christmas film It’s a Wonderful Life—“de-Judaized” Anne Frank by transforming her character from a persecuted Jewish girl into a kind of universal victim. In this, he saw a communist conspiracy masterminded by Lillian Hellman, who was brought into the mix early on as a possible adapter, among others. Now, in Groff’s play, Levin comes across ultimately as a pathetic figure, blinded by his own arrogance, who spends decades torturing himself and his family with his all-encompassing fixation on controlling Frank’s legacy.
But Levin was right. Not necessarily about the communist conspiracy, although Ralph Melnick, in his book The Stolen Legacy of Anne Frank: Meyer Levin, Lillian Hellman, and the Staging of the “Diary,” came to support that conclusion. (Groff’s play is only the latest addition to a pile of texts about the turbulent Levin-Frank affair, which also include Levin’s own account, The Obsession, published in 1973, and another historical treatment more even-handed than Melnick’s, Lawrence Graver’s An Obsession with Anne Frank: Meyer Levin and the Diary.) Levin was right about the de-Judaizing of Anne Frank, which is apparent not only in the Broadway play but also in the presentation of her diary from the start. What he seems not to have realized, however, was the extent to which he too was implicated, with his prominent New York Times review stressing Anne’s “infinite human spirit” rather than her Jewishness.
The story of the reception of Anne Frank’s diary is a pungent case study of the way works of literature come to be understood as “universal”—which, as Francine Prose adeptly points out in her book about Anne Frank, had come to be used, in the publishing climate of the 1950s, as “the antonym of Jewish.” Levin writes in The Obsession that the problem centered around a passage in the diary in which Anne wrote with pride of her own Jewish identity. “Who has made us Jews different from all other people? Who has allowed us to suffer so terribly up till now?” she wrote. “It is God who has made us as we are, but it will be God, too, who will raise us up again. … We can never become just Netherlanders, or just English, or just … representatives of any other country for that matter, we will always remain Jews, but we want to, too.” In the play, Anne’s emphasis on the particularity of Jewish suffering was erased. “We’re not the only people that have had to suffer,” her character says. “There have always been people that have had to. … Sometimes one race … sometimes another.” Levin was understandably apoplectic at what he called the “censoring” of Anne’s Judaism, an essential characteristic not only because of what happened to her, but also in terms of her own self-definition. Though his fixation would ultimately spin out of control, his outrage was initially justified.
But the flattening out of Anne’s Jewishness was not unique to the play. It started with Doubleday’s choice to present the diary with a preface by Eleanor Roosevelt—a shrewd marketing move, but one calculated for its appeal to a general rather than a Jewish audience. As Francine Prose notes, the words “Jew” and “Jewish” never appear in Roosevelt’s preface. Instead, it celebrates the book as “one of the wisest and most moving commentaries on war and its impact on human beings that I have ever read.” This elision cannot be explained as a matter of simple anti-Semitism, especially because the book was championed by a Jewish editor: Barbara Zimmerman, later Barbara Epstein, one of the founders of The New York Review of Books. (In fact, Prose said Monday night that, based on information she received after her own book appeared, she now believes Zimmerman was the true author of the preface.)
The “universality” question is bound up with the way we understand literature itself. The greater a work of literature is—so we have been taught to believe, at least—the more completely do the particulars of its plot and characters dissolve into the universal. Anna Karenina is not simply a novel about romantic intrigues among the nineteenth-century Russian aristocracy; it is an exploration of love and family, fundamental aspects of the human condition. Likewise for Jane Eyre, Madame Bovary, and virtually all the great novels of the nineteenth century. Things became more complicated in the twentieth century, as the novel form was used more and more often as a vehicle for communicating a social or political message. Can All Quiet on the Western Front, The Grapes of Wrath, and Beloved—to choose three fairly arbitrary examples—be appreciated separate from the particularities of their settings? Perhaps, but to do so seems to contravene the intentions of their authors. And it also robs these books of part of their special value: to broadcast the news of a catastrophe.
Of course, the diary of Anne Frank is not a novel, although Prose argues in her book that it has more in common with that form than is usually appreciated. (Anne Frank revised the diary heavily during her last months in hiding with an eye to its potential future publication, cutting some entries, clarifying and expanding others, and even writing new ones from scratch.) But, as a work of literature that strives to reach a general audience, it is subject to the same pressure as these catastrophe-novels: It must bear witness to an atrocity, yet—if the book is to be widely read—it must depict that atrocity in a way that will generate the greatest sympathy and understanding.
Levin understood this tension. His Times review seesaws between his understanding of Frank as a Jewish victim and his desire to present her as a young girl who was in many ways like any other. The word “Jew” appears early on, as Levin sets the diary’s scene: “the life of a group of Jews waiting in fear of being taken by the Nazis.” But he goes on to emphasize that this is “no lugubrious ghetto tale, no compilation of horrors.” Rather, “it is so wondrously alive, so near, that one feels overwhelmingly the universalities of human nature. These people might be living next door; their within-the-family emotions, their tensions and satisfactions are those of human character and growth, anywhere.” Anne Frank’s voice, Levin says, becomes “the voice of six million vanished Jewish souls.” But, in her crush on Peter, her squabbles with her sister, and her ultimate disillusionment with the romance, she is also an ordinary teenager whose feelings are “of the purest universality.” And, in his desire to emphasize the diary’s relevance to Americans, Levin goes even further in his universalism than the Broadway adapters later would:
This quality [the depiction of life under threat] brings it home to any family in the world today. Just as the Franks lived in momentary fear of the Gestapo’s knock on their hidden door, so every family today lives in fear of the knock of war. Anne’s diary is a great affirmative answer to the life-question of today, for she shows how ordinary people, within this ordeal, consistently hold to the greater human values.
Levin declined to quote the passage he cited in The Obsession in which Anne reflected on her Jewish identity. His review ends with the line: “Surely she will be widely loved, for this wise and wonderful young girl brings back a poignant delight in the infinite human spirit.”
Here, perhaps, is the root of Levin’s fury: his awareness of his own role in creating a vision of Anne Frank that would ultimately work against him as her dramatist. This role was hardly unique, either to him or to Doubleday: Both Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi acceded to their publishers’ pressure to emphasize the universal aspects of their memoirs. The fact that such impulses were motivated by considerations more literary than anti-Semitic does not necessarily make them easier to accept. Are human beings so fundamentally lacking in natural empathy that a Jewish catastrophe must be universalized in order to generate feeling? Do we really seek only ourselves in the books we read? If this is true, then Meyer Levin’s obsession with his own grievances might be the most universal tragedy of all.
Ruth Franklin is a senior editor at The New Republic.