- - Sunday, March 6, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

YOUNG LIONS: HOW JEWISH AUTHORS REINVENTED THE AMERICAN WAR NOVEL

By Leah Garrett

Northwestern University Press, $34.95, 275 pages

 

SAILOR AND FIDDLER: REFLECTIONS OF A 100-YEAR OLD AUTHOR

By Herman Wouk

Simon & Schuster, $20, 135 pages

Leah Garrett is a professor of Contemporary Jewish Life and Culture at Australia’s Monash University, but “Young Lions” shows that she has a rare understanding not just of American Jewish life and culture during World War II and its aftermath, but of U.S. society in all its glorious complexity for all seasons. She makes a convincing case for the thesis summed up in her probingly intelligent book’s subtitle, starting with the statement that in 1948, there no fewer than five best-selling novels “all written by Jews [which] made Jewish soldiers central protagonists and which together created the new genre of World War II fiction.” Although some are forgotten, two of them, Norman Mailer’s “The Naked and the Dead” and, even more, Irwin Shaw’s “The Young Lions” have stood the test of time. Mr. Mailer’s novel marked the beginning of a long and varied career, while Mr. Shaw was already an established writer whose prewar output oddly included a strongly anti-war play, “Bury the Dead.

This 1948 phenomenon was no flash in the pan, as we can see from other important books which followed through successive decades, from Leon Uris’ “Battle Cry” to Herman Wouk’s “The Caine Mutiny” to Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22.” Unlike the major novels which defined the American experience of World War I, like Ernest Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms”, John Dos Passos’ “Three Soldiers” and “E.E. Cummings’ “The Enormous Room” — all written by non-Jews, works by Jewish writers continued to dominate World War II fiction, although of course not exclusively.

This is all the more remarkable, because of the striking number of descriptions of the anti-Semitism prevalent in U.S. military life during the war and the robust responses of Jewish servicemen. Nowhere is this more vivid than in the Shaw novel which provides this book with its title. The series of travails endured by Noah, a slightly built but courageous soldier who ultimately gives his life for his country, makes reading about them a combination of the heartening, heartrending, and heartbreaking. In Shaw and in Uris, we see genuine tough guys in real life, much more macho through and through than Hemingway’s swaggering assumption of its mask, while Mr. Wouk is milder-mannered yet just as steely inside. More astonishing still than all the rebarbative prejudice is the almost universal respect shown by these writers for the U.S. military as an institution, in Mr. Wouk’s case approaching what can only be termed reverence for the United States Navy.

Ms. Garrett’s thesis is strengthened not only by all the research and thought she has put into her enterprise, but also because she is nothing if not plainspoken and forthright:

“‘Young Lions: How Jewish Authors Reinvented the American War Novel’ documents how Jews, traditionally denigrated as weak and cowardly, for the first time became the popular literary representatives of what it meant to be a soldier. America had transformed the Jew from a weak sufferer into a proactive warrior who fights and slays the enemy. The popularity of these best sellers suggests that they offered a mainstream readership an exciting and new vision of the American Jew.”

These works were fertile both for the individual writers and for their new subject. Both Mr. Uris and Mr. Wouk would return to the war which had shaped them both personally and literarily, with great results. Ms. Garrett is adept at showing how so many of these writers had to battle the curse of popularity which too often denied their work the cultural respect and position it merited. She also highlights, in an admirably clear and dispassionate manner, the differing political stances and crosscurrents that affected these writers’ product and its critical reception:

“Ten years before the publication of “Catch-22,” Herman Wouk had tapped into the conservative ethos of his time in “The Caine Mutiny”, voicing the outlook of Jews who wanted to conform and be accepted. In contrast, Heller’s novel spoke for the rebellious urges of the late 1950s . Where Wouk’s writing was highly patriotic and suggested that Americans in general and Jews in particular should be profoundly grateful to the military, Heller challenged the basic premise that American efforts in World War II were noble.”

In today’s academic environment she is a refreshing exception to the prevailing tendentiousness and fashionable prejudices, a model of accurate and fair characterization.

The only survivor of this diverse group of America’s Jewish writers who were the definitive interpreters of that unique wartime military experience is Herman Wouk. And is he ever a survivor, as is shown by the subtitle of his latest book “Reflections of a 100-year-old Author.” Even more remarkable than its writer’s age is the way it pulsates with energy, integrity and other fine qualities which have made his a life exceptionally well-lived. He is too modest ever to suggest what I am about to. But if the magnificent text of his magisterial World War II novels “The Winds of War” and “War and Remembrance,” with their amazing combination of inventiveness and veracity, were not enough to convince that they are American literature’s counterpart to Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,” the spare but heartfelt description here of the effort and sacerdotal commitment he brought to them should erase any doubt.

• Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, California.

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