How Jewish Authors Reinvented the American War Novel

March 9, 2016 | , , ,

Young Lions:
How Jewish Authors Reinvented the American War Novel
By Leah Garrett
Northwestern University Press, 275 pages, $34.95

Which works of Jewish literature do we remember, and which do we forget?

The story we like to tell about American Jewish literature in the mid-20th century is that in the 1950s, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud and Philip Roth leapt to prominence with books that pulled off the trick of making Jews’ experiences relevant to everybody. Those writers remained prominent for half a century, and Roth, the only one still alive today (though allegedly retired), can still make the Internet take notice by griping about Wikipedia orhaving a birthday party. Over many productive decades, these three writers picked up every major prize open to Americans, from the Pulitzer to the Nobel.

Even before this “breakthrough,” though, Jewish writers were already doing just fine, thank you. As Leah Garrett explains in an important new book, “Young Lions,” in 1948, five writers dominated the American best-seller lists, each with a novel about the experiences of Jewish soldiers in the armed forces during World War II. Some of them — Irwin Shaw, Ira Wolfer, and Merle Miller — have since been almost entirely forgotten, even by scholars of American literature. Another, Norman Mailer, achieved lasting celebrity while remembered as something other than a Jewish writer (a desire that was at least nominally shared, though never actualized, by Bellow and Roth). Certainly Shaw, Wolfert and Milles aren’t held up as exemplars of American Jewish literary excellence, and very rarely are their works taught in schools or given any attention from professional critics or literary scholars.

Of course, a writer isn’t forgotten for no reason, and the reasons, in these cases, are legion. Some of the writers were blacklisted in the 1950s while others had simply written the kind of long, engrossing best-seller that’s dismissed as commercial pap by the literary elite, whether or not readers are clamoring for a sequel. But Garrett, a literary scholar and professor at Monash University in Australia, argues that this strain of popular writing, in which Jews described the war, is much more important than we have realized.

For one thing, these novelists were among the first writers to describe what later came to be called the Holocaust. In Shaw’s “The Young Lions,” Miller’s “That Winter,” Stefan Heym’s “The Crusader,” and Martha Gellhorn’s “The Wine of Astonishment,” American Jewish boys witness the concentration camps firsthand, and offer up, as Garrett writes, “the liberation of Dachau as the moment when the Shoah is brought home to American generally, and Jewish Americans specifically.”

For anyone who still believes the myth that American Jews didn’t talk about the Holocaust until 1961 or 1967, pile these best-sellers onto the mountain of evidence that Jews were fascinated and shaken by the genocide and began to respond vociferously as soon as they learned about it.

These 1948 best-sellers also represented the specific experiences of Jewish soldiers. The World War II platoon, as Garrett notes, became a dominant metaphor for the American melting pot: a Texan, a Californian, a couple of immigrants, a Connecticut WASP — who have to work together to defeat the enemy. Of course, this metaphor for American society excluded women and African-Americans, but it included Jews, more than 500,000 of whom served during the war, and that service, along with the GI Bill, helped them rise socially and professionally after the war.

Importantly, though, in the novels, the U.S. military is no picnic of inclusion. Several of the books describe intense, brutal anti-Semitism rampant within the American armed forces. In Shaw’s “The Young Lions,” for example, a Jewish solider is called “Christ-killer” and “herring eater” by the guys in his unit, and when he challenges them to fight, they accept, pounding on him one by one until, as Garrett summarizes, “his nose is shattered, his teeth are knocked out, and his bones are broken.” Meanwhile, in Mailer’s “The Naked and the Dead,” one weak Jewish soldier, ridiculed and excluded by the other men in his platoon, falls to his death. With fellow Americans like these, who needs Nazis?

Such fictions were addressed to postwar American readers and by portraying American anti-Semitism they were making the case that one of the key legacies of the war needed to be the complete eradication of anti-Semitism from American life. In the 1950s, Judaism became one of America’s three faiths, and discrimination against Jews became the kind of thing you just couldn’t do anymore in almost any corner of American life. Surely it helped, to this end, that millions of people had just read moving fictional stories about brutal American anti-Semitism.

Though the heart of Garrett’s book is extended treatment of these late-1940s novels, she also looks at two later waves of massively best-selling novely American Jews wrote about the war. First, she covers Herman Wouk’s “The Caine Mutiny” and Leon Uris’s “Battle Cry,” published in 1951 and 1953, respectively, to thunderous responses: Wouk won the Pulitzer Prize and sold 3 million copies, Uris remained on the best-seller list for a year, and both novels were swiftly adapted by Hollywood. Then Garrett addresses Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22,” (1961), which sold 10 million copies and redefined how World War II was represented in the 1960s.

What interests Garrett about these works is the way that they swing back and forth politically and ideologically, tracking shifts in the zeitgeist in the way that only popular culture can. While the 1948 best-sellers were critical of the American military and its anti-Semitism, the 1950s novels by Wouk and Uris offered stirring parables of conformity for the Cold War, dripping in patriotism and American exceptionalism. Heller, meanwhile, transformed World War II into a comic metaphor that allowed it to express the anti-authoritarian, countercultural fervor that was just coming into fashion in the early 1960s. In each case — and even in “Catch-22,” where Heller avoids any explicit discussion of Jews or the Holocaust — Garrett argues these fictions aren’t just fables about America’s changing military-ideological complex, but also about the place of Jews within that structure.

Often, when a scholar devotes a book to the idea that we’ve been neglecting a specific set of texts from a previous period of history, her expectation is that some of those texts will be reread, rediscovered, maybe even republished. But it is not at all clear that Garrett intends that here. For every novel she discusses, she provides a thorough, extended plot summary, as if to tell us, “No, really, it’s okay if you haven’t read this book, or if you read it half a century ago and remember it only vaguely now — I’ll tell you everything you need to know about it.” In other words, she reads them so we don’t have to.

This is a service, because it’s no secret that these writers were uneven at best. Uris, for all his appeal, was a God-awful prose stylist, and Shaw was too slick. Wouk, who had real chops, tended to spoil an excellent novel with a perplexing, contradictory conclusion, and Mailer himself looked back at “The Naked and the Dead” as the work of an amateur. Garrett’s sparse quotations don’t suggest that anyone should be rushing back to read these novels, either. They were written not for a literary elite, but for the mass market, and even if they stormed the best-seller lists, they weren’t meant for posterity.

But these were impressive authors. Unlike Bellow, Malamud and Roth — who were in the Merchant Marine, excused from service and too young, respectively — they all served during the war. Most had egghead jobs, but Uris was a Marine until his dying day, and saw combat. Some of the most fascinating material Garret presents comes from the letters the writers sent home during their service, when they were just teenagers on bases across Europe and the Pacific. Finding these in the authors’ archives, Garrett has unearthed treasures, includine a 1943 letter from Guadalcanal, in which Uris tells his sister that “if some S.O.B. ever writes a book about escaping from the evils of modern civilization and going to some South Sea tropical ‘Paradise’ I think I’ll cut his gizzards out.”

That’s more compelling than most of what one finds upon opening these novels. Garrett makes her case very well, and it’s clear that Uris’s novel should not be forgotten, nor should the best-sellers of the 1940s. It’s just that they aren’t nearly as interesting to read as they are to read about.

[Originally published in The Forward.]