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Postwar novel is as relevant now as it was then

The Young Lions by Irwin Shaw (University of Chicago Press)

The last week of July and the onset of August were grim in America. The relentlessness of the violence, the political partisanship and the absence of a single guiding voice of leadership present an atmosphere of grinding hopelessness.

One hundred years ago, events in the United States had a similar character: the stoning death of a black child on the Chicago lakefront kicked off a melee of street violence that left 38 dead and 537 injured.

The underlying cause for white-on-black violence, aside from latent racism, was a large black migration to the city from the South. Whites perceived a threat to the labour market and resisted new black communities in parts of Chicago that had been largely segregated.

As always, what people read and hear makes a difference to the way events take shape. Back then, Chicago newspapers harped on threats to white labour and housing, sounding much like Internet sites today, where grievances of white “replacement” receive a sympathetic hearing.

In the years immediately following the Second World War, the subject of race, in light of the Nazi disaster, gained special attention. American readers welcomed what might be viewed as a mini-wave of books by Jewish authors, which offered mainstream audiences Jewish characters with special relevance in the years following the Holocaust.

Among the authors of these novels are forgotten men – Ira Wolfert and Merle Miller – and the unforgotten, including Martha Gellhorn, Norman Mailer and Irwin Shaw.

Gellhorn and Mailer’s reputations remain intact, while Shaw, a major figure in the prewar and postwar years, teeters on the verge of neglect. Yet his breakout first novel of the war, The Young Lions (1948), calls to be read today. Its value rests on its novelistic power, as well as on its portrait of war on the European and North African battlefields. Even more importantly, it’s the kind of book a country reads to learn about itself.


Born in Brooklyn in 1913, Shaw’s success came early. He made his name with an antiwar play called Bury the Dead, after which he took a rich deal as a Hollywood scriptwriter. In 1937, he made his first short story sale to The New Yorker. He enjoyed continued success there, as well as on Broadway. The war took him first to the North African front, and later to France in the final stages of the German retreat. He was in Paris when it was liberated in the summer of 1945.

Some of what Shaw portrays in The Young Lions is drawn from his own
experience, but a climactic chapter depicting the American Army’s liberation of Dachau is likely based on what he heard from Gellhorn, who rode with the Seventh United States Army through the gates of the camp.

The Young Lions would have surprised American readers in 1948, with its extended portrait of anti-Semitic enlisted men and officers, in both a southern U.S. training camp and across the ocean. Shaw explores this theme via one of his three male characters, Noah Ackerman. After enlisting, Ackerman is sent to a training camp where his Jewishness sets him apart from the other enlisted men and gains him snarling disinterest from his company’s officers.

Ackerman proves himself a calm and thoughtful leader in battle, an accomplishment crowned by the witless remark of one of his stupidest comrades: “Oh, Christ … oh Christ, we still got the Jew.”

Critics and reviewers disagreed about Shaw’s portrayal of the Jewish-American experience in the U.S. Army. But it’s notable that non-Jewish Americans wanted to read about this in an effort to understand their country and themselves. In the postwar moment, German race hatred lead Americans to see the underlying threat of such ideas in their own society.

Through Ackerman, the postwar American reader learned what motivated Jews to enlist. At a recruitment office, Ackerman recognizes that “his conscience had made the decision for him. If the war began, he could not hesitate. As an honourable citizen, as a believer in the war, as an enemy of fascism, as a Jew.” He gazed at the others who were there to enlist: “Most of these men were not Jews, and yet here they were at 6:30 of a winter’s morning … ready to die.”

Along with Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead and Gellhorn’s The Wine of Astonishment, The Young Lions presented non-Jewish readers with an intimate view of a little-understood minority, while the majority was offered the opportunity to see themselves from an unexpected point of view. Shaw succeeds at telling the story of Americans at war from surprising angles: Ackerman’s Jewish perspective is contrasted with that of a German Nazi, who sees battle in Africa and, at war’s end, in France and Germany.

The Young Lions is a great novel, written at a time when big novels were the venue for serious, character-challenging ideas. It may be too late for any novel to have the same kind of impact in today’s America. 

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