Born in 1905, Meyer Levin was raised in the section of Chicago notoriously known in the days of gangster warfare as the “Bloody Nineteenth” ward. At the age of 18 he worked as a reporter for the Chicago Daily News and during the next four years became an increasingly frequent contributor to the national literary magazine, The Menorah Journal. In 1929 he published The Reporter, which was the first of his 16 novels.
Throughout his 60 years of professional work, Levin was a constant innovator, reinventing himself and stretching his literary style with astonishing versatility. From the early documentary experimentation shown in The Reporter to the wildly satiric black humor of Gore and Igor (1969), from the industrial novel Citizens (1940) to the historic epic The Settlers (1972), Levin was attuned to changes in society and structured his work for the times while never compromising his own inner vision.
Perhaps Levin’s best-known work is Compulsion (1956), chronicling the Leopold and Loeb case. This compelling book was the first “documentary novel” or “non-fiction novel” (a style later used in Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song) and both a great critical and popular success. The masterpiece was brought to the motion-picture screen in 1959 to wide acclaim. Levin also wrote a series of non-fiction and educational books about Judaism, Israel, and Jewish philosophy and literature; the illustrated Haggadah on which he worked is to this day a staple of Jewish ceremony during the Passover holiday.
When Meyer Levin died in 1981 he left a remarkable and diverse literary legacy that not only reflected the life he led but chronicled the development of Jewish consciousness during this century. Levin’s evolution paralleled that of the generation of which he was part, and it is for that reason that he is considered by many today as the most significant American Jewish writer of the twentieth century.