Judah Philip Benjamin, descendant of Spanish Jews, was born in the West Indies, under the British flag, in 1811. At an early age his family moved to Charleston, and later, he went on to New Orleans, there to carve an independent career, first as merchant, then as lawyer and planter. At the outbreak of the Civil War, he was U. S. Senator from Louisiana. In the Confederate Cabinet under Jefferson Davis, he held the portfolios, successively, of Attorney General, Secretary of War and Secretary of State. As Secretary of State, he strove to counteract the victories of Federal arms with the strengthening of Confederate diplomacy in London and in Paris. He was of course not successful. When Lee surrendered to Grant, Benjamin fled, his fortune and estate an ash-heap, his career wrecked. Arrived safely in London after surviving mid-ocean perils, he began all over again, although he had already passed his prime. In little time he had mended his fortunes, gained new prestige before the bar and when he passed away he had won an eminence as Queen’s Councillor almost equivalent to that he had obtained in Louisana. He was a statesman and an orator who had the misfortune to pick the wrong side of the argument and choose the wrong side of the Mason and Dixon line to live in.
Mr. Rollin Osterweis has attempted to make a book out of the life story of this man, under the title of “Judah P. Benjamin” and the sub-title of “Statesman of the Lost Cause.” What this book makes painfully evident is either the skimpiness of Mr. Osterweis’s material, or the inadequacy of his research, or his failure at interpretation. My own fear is that there is no more than a magazine article in Benjamin, a consideration which fails to deter would-be biographers. It is almost painful to observe the expedients to which author and publisher are driven to eke out a book from the slender materials at their disposal. A good deal of this consists of printing in extenso speeches and comments thereon, both beyond their proper length. Perhaps if the twin causes of Slavery and Secession which Benjamin represented had triumphed, his personality too would have derived a little bit of gain from the greater triumph. But Judah Benjamin, I fear, goes back to the shades from which Mr. Osterweis has ineffectually attempted to rescue him.
THREE CITIES MAKE A TRILOGY
In “Three Cities” Sholom Asch gives us the life of the Russian and Polish Jew in the years preceding the days which shook the world and a glimpse of what happened to him during those October days. This makes, most of it, very good reading.
The three cities of this trilogy, which originally appeared as three separate books, build the triangle, Petersburg, Warsaw, Moscow, with the last city the center of interest and the scene of the most engrossing episodes.
Telling the story of the rise of the revolution of 1917 and its course as inexorable leveller bringing in its wake a new life for each man and demanding of one the price he should have paid and of another one he cannot, “Three Cities” at the same time, and primarily, portrays or suggests every phase of Jewish life for the past two generations.
All the phases of Jewish life and all the people that lived them are in this 899-page volume (just published in an English translation by Putnam). In Petersburg there are the families of the wealthy Jewsâ€”Mirkin the industrialist and Halperin, the liberal attorney. While the heads of these families are Jew-conscious as a result of the growing anti-Semitism which they encounter in the world of business and government, their family life is so un-Jewish that Zachary Mirkin, old Mirkin’s son and the central figure of the story, is unaware of his Jewishness until, when he is twelve and his mother has died, his old nurse refuses to give him the great Christmas tree to which he is accustomed and sends him, instead, to a synagogue.
In the Warsaw that was under the Czar there are the pitiful pinched inhabitants of the Jewish quarter. They live from handâ€”not always their ownâ€”to mouth, in tatters, fear, filth and uncertainty. They have time for neither dissolution nor negation of their beliefs and interests. Those of them who are pious are avowedly so, and those who are workers for the revolution are known as such to their neighbors, who never give them away.
All of them meet, with the other peoples of Russia, for the “constituent assembly” at Moscow.
“Three Cities” is like a highly detailed friezeâ€”a running story with recurring figures, not stylized but changing in stature and appearance in harmony with the historical events, which the author infuses with vividness and credibility of a very high order. However, the whole effect of the book is to leave the reader with the impression that he has been witnessing a well-directed play.
All the figures familiar to us from the lives of our parents and grandparents are in “Three Cities.” We recognize their appearance and we know their problems on parenthood, filial love and duty, patriotism, national affiliation and religious faith. We know the Darrow-like Halperin, the liberal advocate who has won freedom from death or Siberia. We know Naum, the semi-parasitic dilettante who lives to collect porcelain knick-knacks for Halperin’s wife Olga. We know Sosha, of whom the revolution has made a terroristic fire-brand; her sister Helene, gentle and faithful; Anatol, the idealist and theorist who will not desert his truth; Koenigstein, type of the Palestine pioneer.
And we know and like best Hurvitz and his wife Rachel-Leah, the parents of Sosha and Helene, and old Mirkin and his son Zachary. Mirkin is wealthy, living the life of a wealthy, albeit disappointed, man. He believes himself independent of considerations of race and religion. He is dauntless, boundless in energy and ability, and a patriot in the true sense of the word, giving his last years to Russia.
Hurvitz, too, is a patriot. He believes that he is not so much a Jew as he is a Pole. His heart aches for his country’s bondage to Russia. He studies Russian only under compulsion, and will not teach it to his pupils. Nor will he teach Yiddish, although he lives (willy-nilly, it is true) in the Jewish quarter and most of his pupils are Jews. Zionism to him is inconceivable. After the revolution, however, Yiddish becomes the chief language of instruction in his school, and even before the revolution comes he sells his books, his dearest treasure, to buy a ticket for the consumptive Koenigstein.
Frau Hurvitz, his wife, is of that clan of powerful women with whose freely-given help the revolutionists stepped to their goal.
And Mirkin is the universal idealist who because of his Jewishness is intensely sensitive, searching, and honestly desirous of aiding that cause which will bring true good and true peace to all people. Because of this intense desire he joins first one group and then another, thus giving the impression of shilly-shallying. But actually he is in search of self-forgetfulness. Strangely enough, or perhaps because he is so clearly drawn, he appears most puppet-like of all the characters in this vast drama.
“Three Cities” is one of those books which because of the very fact that they are illustrative documents of a national group belong to world literature and should have been translated a long time ago. “Three Cities” is also too great a book, and Sholom Asch too fine a writer, to have been translated from anything but the Yiddish original. It is true that Willa and Edwin Muir have made a very readable job of this, but an occasional phrase or sentence structure, and a usage like “Frau” instead of the Yiddish “Froi” suggest that the work must have been done from the German.