Martin Litvin, Author

by Norm Winick

When he passed away suddenly at supper last Saturday, Martin Litvin left behind a legacy of works and an equally large collection of unfinished and unpublished manuscripts.

The prolific 71-year-old writer most recently published a biography of Meyer Levin, Audacious Pilgrim, his 17th book. Among them are biographies of Galesburg-area prominent residents such as Mary Allen West, George Fitch and The Young Mary, Mother Bickerdyke. His works also include an autobiography, The Inept Apprentice, recollections of life in Galesburg with Good Morning, Miss Freeman, several novels, a collection of short stories and Voices of the Prairie Land, a two-volume set including the only reproductions of many documents relating to the founding and history of Galesburg.

Litvin's forté was historical fiction, and even his biographical works included dialog that served to bring characters of the past to life. For that, he was often criticized by academic historians for not being a purist. Often his work was based on painstaking research through ancient manuscripts, old newspapers and personal diaries. He was a familiar figure at many local libraries as well as several in Chicago. He often discovered details unknown by others or contradicting popular conceptions. For that, his work was often overlooked or discounted by other historians. If a fact was challenged, Litvin could cite the source and, given enough time, produce a copy of it.

Martin Litvin had a wide range of experiences before settling down on a farm near Wataga with his longtime companion Anna Sophia Johnson. He graduated from the University of Southern California, attended the University of Iowa Law School for one year, served with the U.S. Army in Great Britain, worked for a brokerage firm in New York and, constantly, wrote. He had a longtime friendship with Robert MacNeil of PBS and many other personages in the literary world -- many of whom would write capsule reviews or forwards to his publications.

Martin Litvin was not an easy person to know. He had long ago given up on traditional publishers and their demands; he wanted control over his words. That also led to a wide variance in the quality of his publications: some are near-masterpieces; others are difficult, at best, to read.

His works were essentially self-published with financial assistance from an assortment of friends. He never really had any money himself.

He developed love-hate relationships with members of his family and friends and professional associates. He could be furious with someone one day and best friends the next.

He renounced his family, including his stepmother, who, unbeknownst to him, kept track of his activities, read his published works and, on several occasions, tried to renew familial ties.

While he called himself a ''prairie-Jewish author'' and Jewish characters almost always found their way into his stories, he had little to do with the Jewish community here. He refused to attend the local synagogue despite the importance of his Jewish heritage.

Litvin was an FDR ''New Deal'' Democrat, proud of a photograph showing himself with Eleanor Roosevelt. To his death, he despised Republicans and their ideals -- especially the influence of the Christian right.Locally, he was involved in a variety of causes. He was passionate about saving the Orpheum Theatre and worked fervently when its future was insecure and was proud when it was saved and renovated. He and Anna Sophia attended nearly all the events there when it first reopened.

In his own cantankerous way, Martin Litvin instructed in his will that no obituary be printed and no funeral be held. Per his instructions, an autopsy was performed before cremation. His cremains will reside in Anna Sophia's family plot in Oneida, identified by a government-issue military marker.

A tribute with comments from several of his friends will be held Sunday, February 6th at 4pm at the Lincoln Room at Knox College. It is being planned to be as un-funerallike as possible and everyone is welcome. The Fletcher & McDougald Funeral Home is in charge of arrangements.

A list of his books that are still available is at

Uploaded to The Zephyr Online February 3, 2000

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