Historical novel relates colorful life of early Jewish American naval leader

 “Commodore Levy: A Novel of America in the Age of Sail” by the late Irving Litvag; Texas Tech University Press, $45. 

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

The late Irving Litvag had a passion for history. He liked nothing more than to immerse himself in meticulous research on various topics, including the lives of remarkable people. That passion is in full display in Litvag’s posthumously published historical novel “Commodore Levy: A Novel of America in the Age of Sail” (Texas Tech University Press, $45). 

Litvag was a former news writer for the CBS Radio Network and a public-relations executive, along with being a former editor of the St. Louis Light, predecessor to the St. Louis Jewish Light, in the early 1960s. The lifelong St. Louis resident published two earlier books: “Singer in the Shadows,” about the famous St. Louis case of a young woman named Pearl Curran, who seemed to “channel” the poetic and literary voice of a young English girl from centuries ago; and “The Master of Sunnybank: A Biography of Albert Payson Terhune,” the dog breeder and noted novelist of canine adventure stories (about his beloved collies).

Litvag manages to strike just the right balance with “Commodore Levy,” whose life was so filled with actual drama that it keeps the reader’s attention as it moves through the turbulent true story of Uriah Phillips Levy (1792-1862).

Levy’s life spanned the lives of some of the greatest presidents of the United States. He was 5 years old when George Washington died in 1797. He worked with, and greatly admired, Thomas Jefferson and provided the funds to restore Jefferson’s estate at Monticello. Levy also lived long enough that when he was almost 70, he pleaded with President Abraham Lincoln to let him rejoin active naval duty during the Civil War. Lincoln politely refused.

Not only did Levy’s life straddle the lives of Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln, but his incomparable naval career, as noted in the title, also straddled the Age of Sail and the Age of Steam in nautical history.

We learn from Litvag’s detailed account that Levy was born in Philadelphia in 1792, into a distinguished Sephardic Jewish family known for its patriotism. His parents, Michael and Rachel Phillips Levy, were from wealthy Jewish family backgrounds. 

From his earliest childhood years, Levy was drawn almost magnetically to the sea and seafaring. He ran away from home at 10 to become a cabin boy. Ten years later, he became a sailing master in the U.S. Navy, then a midshipman four years later.

Levy’s rise in rank continued at a fast pace throughout his career, interrupted only by his unruly temper. He was very open and proud of his Jewishness. When he was the target of anti-Semitic remarks or actions, he would often punch out the perpetrators, which resulted in naval discipline and ultimately six courts martial. 

He served during the War of 1812 aboard the Argus and later endured a term in the infamous British prison at Bartmoor. Although he had been commissioned a lieutenant in 1816 and a captain in 1844, he saw little active duty from 1827 to 1857 because of his disciplinary problems.

Levy could not be kept down despite his temper and was equally noted for his calm and cool demeanor in combat and during storms. In 1857, he was reinstated by a naval Court of Inquiry and ordered to the Mediterranean, where in 1859 he served for six months as commodore of the U.S. fleet.

Litvag mines the considerable detailed records from the transcripts of Levy’s six courts martial to fill in the gaps in his otherwise scant personal biography. Much of what is known about the facts of his life is in the records of the legal proceedings against him. Especially gripping is Litvag’s description of Levy’s legal fight against an 1855 order dropping him from the naval lists along with 200 fellow officers. Litvag’s account fully documents that Levy’s career had “suffered because of anti-Semitism.”

Not only did Levy strike back against anti-Semitism, he was very proud of his Jewish status and became an active member of Congregation Shearith Israel in New York. He was also a charter member of Washington Hebrew Congregation and supported other Jewish institutions.

Levy also made naval history by becoming a fierce opponent of flogging and other forms of corporal punishment. He banned the practice on ships and fleets under his command, which drew the ire of some of his fellow officers. Levy was foremost among Navy officers who backed an anti-flogging bill introduced by U.S. Sen. John Parker Hale of New Hampshire.  

Perhaps Levy’s most impressive accomplishment was not connected to his naval career. During his inactive career, Levy acquired and at great personal expense fully refurbished Thomas Jefferson’s estate at Monticello, which later became the summer home of Levy’s nephew, J. M. Levy, and the burial place of his   mother, Rachel Phillips Levy. Monticello, located outside of Charlottesville, Va., later was taken over by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation as a national historic site. 

Levy, during his 1855 trial as noted by Litvag, testified that his “parents were Israelites and I was nurtured in the faith of my ancestors.” He was given a traditional Jewish burial in the Cypress Hill Cemetery of Congregation Shearith Israel in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Levy was certainly one of the most storied and colorful characters in American Jewish history and this book offers contemporary readers access to a fascinating account of Levy’s life. 

The novel is a  testament to Litvag’s research and writing, but also the determination of family and friends, most notably his widow, Ilene Gallop Litvag, to get the book edited and published. The book’s 672 pages derived from a manuscript of more than 1,000 pages that Litvag completed shortly before his death in 2005. That task was completed splendidly by the book’s editor, Bonny V. Fetterman.