Com­modore Levy: A Nov­el of Ear­ly Amer­i­ca in the Age of Sail

Irv­ing Lit­vag; Bon­ny V. Fet­ter­man, ed.

  • Review
By – September 4, 2014

Irv­ing Litvag’s wid­ow inher­it­ed the 1,350-page man­u­script of a nov­el about the first Jew­ish com­modore in the Amer­i­can navy and want­ed to see her husband’s dream of pub­li­ca­tion real­ized. Sub­se­quent edit­ing whit­tled the final ver­sion down to a still hefty 672 pages, and pre­sum­ably those involved did not feel they could change the writ­ing fur­ther and still hon­or the integri­ty of the orig­i­nal work. It is impos­si­ble to know how Litvag’s writ­ing might have improved if he had been able to con­tin­ue revis­ing, but the marks of a novice writer are appar­ent enough here to affect the qual­i­ty of the book.

The sto­ry is fas­ci­nat­ing, begin­ning with Uri­ah Levy’s deci­sion at age ten to become a cab­in boy for a two-year voy­age on a sail­ing ship. His tra­vails aboard, and the learn­ing curve which earns him the respect of the cap­tain and crew, are well described, as is the dif­fi­cul­ty read­just­ing when he returns home at twelve to find his fam­i­ly changed in ways he did not antic­i­pate. Over the next decades, Levy goes to sea inter­mit­tent­ly, ris­ing through the ranks and set­ting his sights on a com­mand of his own.

Levy soon real­izes that being Jew­ish is a major bar­ri­er to his dream of accep­tance and advance­ment in the navy. A fiery tem­per doesn’t help, and he finds him­self court-mar­tialed and pun­ished for actions that might have been over­looked for a non-Jew. Drummed out of the navy on sev­er­al occa­sions, he is able to fight back via appeals to high­er author­i­ties, includ­ing two Unit­ed States pres­i­dents. His final achieve­ment is being returned to ser­vice as a com­modore in charge of the Mediter­ranean fleet when he is near­ly sev­en­ty. His oth­er great accom­plish­ment is pur­chas­ing and restor­ing his hero Thomas Jefferson’s dilap­i­dat­ed home, Monticello.

Novice writ­ers often don’t trust the read­er to get what they are try­ing to con­vey, and this mars the work through­out. For exam­ple, after deft­ly describ­ing a wide-eyed five-year-old Uri­ah and his old­er broth­er as hav­ing faces etched with expec­ta­tions,” Lit­vag adds, They obvi­ous­ly were on a mis­sion of great import.” Inserts of dia­logue and the occa­sion­al let­ter are also clum­sy here, used to con­vey infor­ma­tion Uri­ah or oth­ers would already know.

Nev­er­the­less, those who are inter­est­ed in the his­to­ry of anti-Semi­tism in the armed forces (Levy’s tra­vails have earned him the title of the Amer­i­can Drey­fus), the age of tall ships, or Amer­i­can his­to­ry in gen­er­al might want to over­look the weak­ness­es of this ambi­tious book to gain the copi­ous knowl­edge it contains.

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