From the moment Leah Garrett’s Young Lions announces its thesis in the subtitle, it seems indisputable that scholars should have examined this issue decades earlier: the impact of Jewish authors and their works on the American war novel. Garrett’s arguments involve innovative rereadings of several familiar texts and ample explorations of several lesser-known titles that deserve the attention she gives them.
After an elaborate introduction, Garrett provides an overview of the Jewish soldier over time. It is not a pretty picture, with the smothering stereotypes of weakness prevailing amid outright expressions of antisemitism. Early World War II novels hint at a transition, but a handful of 1948 bestsellers were the first to truly introduce a new kind of American Jewish soldier and, as a consequence, a new kind of Jew: a hardened masculine figure equal to the demands of war, an image that anticipated Israel’s War of Independence and echoed the decades of heroic Zionist activity that preceded it.
Focusing on the Pacific Ocean theater of World War II, Garrett examines Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead and Ira Wolfert’s An Act of Love. Garrett’s artful comparison-and-contrast analysis is strikingly revealing, particularly in demonstrating how the military melting pot did not erase antisemitism, though it did allow for the possibility of friendships that, within limits, “could overcome class and ethnic hatreds” within the Pacific War.
Four novels also published in 1948, set in the European theater and in the context of the Holocaust, all end with the liberation of Dachau. Garrett convincingly demonstrates that “seeing the Holocaust first-hand forever transforms the Jewish-American soldier, and results in a radical change in his life.” Her readings of Shaw’s The Young Lions, Merle Miller’s That Winter, Martha Gellhorn’s Point of No Return, and Stefan Heym’s The Crusaders may be the heart of the book, mixing the familiar and the unfamiliar, and fashioning (along with Mailer’s early masterpiece) the American Jewish soldier as a figure of heroic possibility.
Moving into the 1950s, Garrett considers the shift in political ideology reflected in representative novels. Intellectuals, Jewish and otherwise, were transforming in the wake of the war toward a more conservative outlook. Garrett writes, “The shift rightward was seen emblematically in the Jewish war novels that were becoming best sellers at the time: Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny and Leon Uris’s Battle Cry.” The Allied conquest of Nazi Germany demanded a patriotic response on the part of American Jews, no matter that an earlier entry into the war might have saved millions.
Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 anchors Garrett’s chapter on the swing back to liberalism in the 1960s. Beyond Heller’s modern classic, the titles examined from this period are not directly or essentially war novels, yet Garrett’s concern with how war representation made Jewish ascension in the literary world possible lies behind her recounting the recognitions garnered by Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth, Arthur Miller, and Stanley Kunitz. She also bolsters her main themes through references to popular genres, movies, and television.
Though peppered with stylistic and grammatical lapses, Young Lions: How Jewish Authors Reinvented the American War Novel is an exciting, wide-ranging, and necessary book. Its powerful and welcome perspective and sturdy research make it an important platform for future studies.
Philip K. Jason is professor emeritus of English at the United States Naval Academy. A former editor of Poet Lore, he is the author or editor of twenty books, including Acts and Shadows: The Vietnam War in American Literary Culture and Don’t Wave Goodbye: The Children’s Flight from Nazi Persecution to American Freedom.