An intellectual biography that reassesses one of the premier Jewish humanists of the mid-twentieth century
In Maurice Samuel: Life and Letters of a Secular Jewish Contrarian, Alan T. Levenson captures the life, works, and milieu of the Romanian-born, English-educated, American belletrist Maurice Samuel. A diaspora intellectual—or a rooted cosmopolitan, as Levenson describes him—Samuel made an indelible mark on many features of contemporary Jewish thought and culture. A generalist in an age of experts, an independent scholar in an age of rabbis and professors, Samuel was one of the most productive and visible members of the group dubbed the “other” New York Jewish intellectuals.
His fame as a public intellectual and popular speaker were well warranted: no mere popularizer, Samuel contributed significantly to four seemingly unrelated but critical areas of modern Jewish thought. Samuel is characterized by some as principally a Zionist, by others as an accomplished translator and many Americans’ first entrée into the world of Yiddish literature, by still others as a polemicist and campaigner against anti-Semitism, and finally as a media-savvy Biblical critic, essayist, and radio personality. But he was all of these things, since Samuel succeeded in an era when it was possible to be a public intellectual without being an expert.
Drawing on Samuel’s vast literary opus, as well as previously unexplored archival material from three continents, this study writes Samuel back into the history of mid-twentieth-century American letters. Levenson argues that Samuel’s varied and substantive contributions demand reconsideration of our assumptions about the means and ends of cultural transmission, and merit him a place as one of twentieth-century American Jewry’s most significant cultural and intellectual voices.
Alan T. Levenson is Schusterman/Josey Chair in Jewish History and Director of the Schusterman Center for Judaic and Israel Studies at the University of Oklahoma. He is author of Joseph: Portraits Through the Ages; The Making of the Modern Jewish Bible: How Scholars in Germany, Israel, and America Transformed an Ancient Text, and An Introduction to Modern Jewish Thinkers: From Spinoza to Soloveitchick.
“I have often been struck by the relative paucity of critical appreciations of Maurice Samuel’s extraordinary life and intellectual legacy. It is to Levenson’s considerable credit that he does justice to so many fascinating aspects of Samuel’s life and oeuvre. Maurice Samuel: Life and Letters of a Secular Jewish Contrarian is the book for which many of us have been waiting.” —Ranen Omer-Sherman, author of Imagining the Kibbutz: Visions of Utopia in Literature and Film
“Dr. Levenson’s important study explores the trajectory and impact of Maurice Samuel’s life and career. Defying biographical conventions, Levenson's probing investigation of Samuel's papers, correspondence, public utterances, and published work offers a fresh and up-to-date reexamination of this singularly fascinating public intellectual and giant of Jewish letters.” —Mark A. Raider, editor of The Essential Hayim Greenberg: Essays and Addresses on Jewish Culture, Socialism, and Zionism