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.