Declan Spring
on Alvin Levin

July 21st, 2009 by EVENTS

In the early nineties, I met John Ashbery at a poetry reading at The New School. I was just out of college and remember somewhat nervously introducing myself, telling him I’d begun working as an editorial assistant at New Directions. He looked me over and proceeded to ask me if I’d ever read Alvin Levin, whose “unfinished novel,” Love Is Like Park Avenue, he’d read in the 1943 New Directions annual. He’d been bowled over when he first read it and wondered what had happened to Levin since. I promised to do some research, and the next day, at the office, I dug up the annual, read the piece, and looked through the editorial files to see what I could find about Levin. There was nothing.

Back then, our publisher James Laughlin resided in Norfolk, Connecticut. He hardly came to the New York office but oversaw business from up there. The staff sent him copies of our letters, and when we had something specific to ask, we’d write him a memo to be sent up with his daily package of correspondence. JL, as we called him, wrote me back saying he’d had no correspondence with Alvin Levin for years, and didn’t know what had happened to him.

Then a couple of years ago, Mr. Ashbery asked us again. At that point, the New Directions archive at the Houghton Library, Harvard, was up and running; Leslie Morris, the archivist, found some interesting material from the 1940s and we asked her to send copies to Mr. Ashbery. A bit later, a manuscript arrived here, sent in by the poet and translator James Reidel, a former student of Mr. Ashbery. Mr. Reidel specializes in forgotten American writers, and has written a biography of the poet, novelist and painter Weldon Kees, whose milieu, by extension, ran through the Little Man Press, which published Levin’s first and, until now, only book. Ashbery, with the newly discovered material from the New Directions archive, had contacted Reidel, and gotten him to track down all the fragments of Alvin Levin’s writing that had appeared in the little magazines and anthologies of the period, including an English anthology co-edited by the English poet Nicholas Moore, and a book titledLittle Alvin’s Storybook hand-printed by that same avant-garde Cincinnati press called Little Man. Some of Levin’s writing was found in a cardboard box in the Greenwich Village home of Alvin Levin’s niece Margaret Ratner, the late William Kunstler’s wife.

As it turns out, Alvin Levin was born in 1914 in Paterson, New Jersey (possibly brought into the world by William Carlos Williams), and he grew up in the Bronx. He entered City College, got a law degree from Brooklyn Law School, then opened up a law office with his brother-in-law which ended up becoming the William-Frederick Press, a pamphlet distribution company. All along, inspired by the literary success of writers like William Saroyan and Sherwood Anderson, Levin was contemplating a literary career. When the excerpt of Love Is Like Park Avenue appeared in New Directions 1943, other editors—like William Maxwell of The New Yorker—took note and sent letters of encouragement to Levin offering to publish more of his stuff.

Levin never completed Love Is Like Park Avenue, his novel in progress. The letters he wrote to James Laughlin in their correspondence reveal a somewhat angst-ridden soul; they don’t delve much into his personal life, but clearly Levin was stuck, unable to finish a substantial work, more than a bit mixed up in his life, but full of grand ideas. At least that’s how he comes across in our book.

What most bowls me over is that the writing is so brilliant—and now New Directions is proud, at the decades-long suggestion of John Ashbery, to bring out all that James Reidel assembled from the career of this incredible outsider artist. What these “stories” offer is an amazing window into the lives of lower-middle-class loners and intellectuals, Communists, students, drifters, as they struggle against the odds, longing for the more affluent life of Manhattan socialites (the Ivy-Leaguers and Vassar girls frequenting the Rainbow Room and dancing to the popular swing bands of the era). Much of the writing is about sex and longing: as John Ashbery writes in the book’s preface, Levin’s graphic accounts of steamy sexual encounters drew him in with their “breathless run-on sentences that suggested the author too had read Molly Bloom’s soliloquy.”

Loneliness, alienation, and desperation are conveyed so poignantly, so beautifully in these compelling Depression-era portraits. The first sentence of a short piece Levin contributed to a review called Literary America in 1936 says it all: “When I sit here alone and so full of weary sadness and I think about myself with plaintive yearnings my heart is heavy and all I can do is sit on the hard chair and look out of the window up at the sky.” That sentence conveys a bit of the dark beauty of Levin’s writing, with its unbelievable social and psychological scope.

And still, Levin, this undiscovered writer who never finished the novel he set out to write, disappeared and died relatively unknown in 1982; we have John Ashbery and James Reidel to thank for bringing this unique author to light. What I especially love about this book, these gathered gems of a writer’s frustrated career, is the genius at its heart, and the strangely undying quality of the hope of real genius, even in shards. Levin’s pieces of exquisite writing are interspersed with letters from editors and publishers encouraging him to keep at it and try and finish something for them to publish. Levin didn’t quite accomplish that, but what we have in this wonderful volume is a look at the life and writing of a great undiscovered “find,” from an era where America, and in particular New York, shines in all its sad and dirty glory. I’ve never encountered a time capsule with the punch of Love Is Like Park Avenue, or a gift quite like Levin’s.

Declan Spring is the senior editor at New Directions. Alvin Levin’s excellent Love is Like Park Avenue is available next month.

Posted in Editors Speak

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