Young Lions: How Jew­ish Authors Rein­vent­ed the Amer­i­can War Novel

Leah Gar­rett

  • Review
By – December 22, 2015

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.

Discussion Questions