I AM IN NEW YORK CITY UNTIL APRIL 2016 AND FREE TO DO TALKS ABOUT MY NEW BOOK YOUNG LIONS
MY NEW BOOK, YOUNG LIONS: HOW JEWISH AUTHORS REINVENTED THE AMERICAN WAR NOVEL, WAS JUST NAMED AS A FINALIST FOR A NATIONAL JEWISH BOOK AWARD.
I am the Loti Smorgon Research Professor of Contemporary Jewish Life and Culture. My research focuses on the relationship between Yiddish, English, German, and Hebrew literature and the modern world. I teach courses on 20th century American literature considering in particular the ties between ethnicity and poverty in contemporary life.
This is the full review of my new book in the Wall Street Journal on December 26th:
By DAVID MARGOLICK
At the outset of this scholarly and provocative book, Leah Garrett points out a couple of remarkable facts. First, the five books about World War II that dominated the New York Times ’s best-seller list in 1948, including Norman Mailer’s “The Naked and the Dead” and Irwin Shaw’s “The Young Lions,” were all written by Jews and had Jewish soldiers as protagonists. Second, four of the best-selling war novels from that year set in the European theater, again all written by Jews, culminated in the liberation of Dachau.
In perhaps the last era when novels were the primary form of civic instruction, books like Mailer’s and Shaw’s—as well as novels soon to come like Herman Wouk’s “The Caine Mutiny,” Leon Uris’s “Battle Cry” and Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22”—“created the template through which Americans saw World War II,” Ms. Garrett writes. All featured Jewish perspectives and Jewish (or Jewish-style) characters and, more than the works in any other medium, brought the catastrophe that had befallen European Jews into the American consciousness.
The war, and the literature it spawned, and the Jewish soldiers depicted in it, helped Jews enter the American mainstream. It also helped Jews overcome enduring wartime stereotypes as shirkers and weaklings, connivers and cowards.
The enormous audiences that these novels enjoyed—“The Caine Mutiny” sold more books than any novel had since “Gone With the Wind”—meant, Ms. Garrett argues, that Jews “became the popular literary representatives of what it meant to be a soldier.” Even widely read war novels by non-Jewish writers, like James Jones’s “From Here to Eternity,” featured sympathetic Jewish soldiers. In John Horne Burns’s “The Gallery,” a Jewish GI is practically the only likable soldier around.
Of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II, 500,000 were Jews. Jews (my father among them) volunteered in greater proportions than the general population, and 11,000 of them were killed. Their rate of service was three times that of Jews during World War I, and not surprisingly: Many in that earlier era had been newly arrived immigrants hardly eager to return to the benighted, blood-soaked continent from which they had only recently fled. Their roles in the literary depictions that followed the two wars varied correspondingly.
The authors of some of the most critically acclaimed American novels of World War I weren’t Jewish and, as their writings make amply clear, didn’t much like Jews either. In “Three Soldiers,” for instance, John Dos Passos describes Eisenstein as a “little man of thirty with an ash-colored face and a shiny Jewish nose,” whom his fellow soldiers dismiss as a “kike” and a kvetch. In E.E. Cummings’s “The Enormous Room,” a Jewish soldier is known as “The Fighting Sheeney.” Americans forever braying about their exceptionalism should compare these calumnies with Rosenthal, the deeply sympathetic Jewish soldier in “Grand Illusion,” the classic French film of the Great War.
But by the time the world went to war a second time, the composition of the armed forces had changed, and so too did the writing that ensued. More Americanized American Jews, most of them second-generation, participated eagerly in World War II, both to help their country and to save the Jews of Europe. (Mailer had an additional incentive. He believed that war, especially in the more dangerous Pacific Theater, would help him write the Great American Novel.)
The bumper crop of novels during and shortly after 1948 also offers a highly disconcerting portrait of the United States and the American military. Jewish soldiers faced prejudice, as did their families. In Ira Wolfert’s “An Act of Love,” a bereft Italian-American mother hysterically boards the train carrying her son off to war, but the hero’s Jewish mother, fearing embarrassment in front of the Gentiles, betrays no emotion at all. Jews, Wolfert explained, “felt they didn’t have the right to behave like people.” To Wolfert’s hero, bigoted country-club Americans “were stronger enemies of his than the Japanese ever could be.”
Ms. Garrett, a professor of Jewish life and culture at Monash University in Australia, writes that Shaw’s “The Young Lions” “is as much an exposition of anti-Semitism in Europe and America as it is a portrait of war.” In basic training its hero, Noah Ackerman, is called “Jew-boy,” “Christ killer” and “herring eater”; he is repeatedly beaten; and he is told that the Jews are why everyone’s fighting in the first place. In Miller’s “That Winter,” an enlisted man tells Lew Cole (né “Colinsky”) that the Germans “had some pretty good ideas” about the Jew. No wonder Jewish characters in several of these novels undertake suicide missions; they’re desperate to prove, once and for all, that they’re not wimps.
These characters are almost uniformly sympathetic—sensitive but tough, courageous but intelligent. Still, judging from their almost-apologetic feelings about their background, plenty of the Christians around them remain unconvinced. Self-hatred suffuses their souls. They are invariably ignorant of their faith and eager to escape it, often by changing their names or finding themselves good Christian (even anti-Semitic) wives. Only Jew-hatred makes them Jews.
That may be why the Holocaust, as yet unnamed and barely understood, figures so prominently in these books: It infused new meaning into Jewishness for some Jews. The choice to write about it was as much reportorial as literary: Because the American press had largely ignored the slaughter—as had American movies and, newly arrived on the scene, American television—the wartime novelists, Ms. Garrett argues, felt bound to describe it. (Of the four writing about Dachau, only Gellhorn had actually been there; J.D. Salinger, who helped liberate a camp near Buchenwald, did not write about it.) Probably not all this was quite as high-minded as she suggests. To a degree, these novels were precursors of cynical ahistorical films like “Inglourious Basterds,” which exploit the carnage for cheap thrills. Dead Jews can make great props.
What Jewish soldiers did, and what Jewish novelists later wrote, surely helped protect American Jews during the 1950s, when the prominence of Jews in the Rosenberg case and the Hollywood witch hunts could easily have produced a wave of demagoguery. But Mr. Wouk and Uris, whose more “middlebrow” books appeared in the early 1950s, took no chances. They rejected the skepticism and individuality of Mailer and Shaw—and their criticism of the military—in favor of conformity, loyalty, gratitude, obedience. Suddenly, Jewish characters were not only full-fledged patriots but were lecturing everyone else about patriotism.
All this is embodied in Lt. Barney Greenwald, the savvy military lawyer who gets the mutineers on the Caine—the ones who seized command from the meshugah Capt. Queeg—off the hook. Greenwald, too, has the Holocaust on his mind: Were it not for all the Queegs, crazy or otherwise, in the U.S. military, he insists, his own Jewish mother would have become soap. Or, as he puts it, for all their flaws Queeg and his ilk “stopped Hermann Goering from washing his fat behind with my mother.” Unsurprisingly, that bit was omitted from the movie. Also unsurprisingly, Mailer—precisely the kind of critical smart-ass soldier that Mr. Wouk was targeting—disagreed. “The Caine Mutiny,” he wrote to an Army buddy, was “about the best slick novel I ever read until I got to the last fifty pages which were pretty god-awful.” Jews, after all, hadn’t done so well with people “just following orders.”
Just in time for the 1960s, the pendulum between skepticism and reverence swung back, with “Catch-22.” It surely signified something about the progress that American Jews had made that, when Heller wanted to make his hero an outsider, casting him as a Jew no longer worked. So he turned him into an Assyrian, or Armenian, or something. Only many years later did Heller admit that, whatever his official ethnicity, Yossarian was really “very Jewish.”
Ms. Garrett’s book can be repetitious, but in academic books of this kind you’re almost grateful for that: You can be sure you’ve understood the more opaque passages. While phrases like “mediated novelistic discourse” pop up, and “privilege” becomes a verb, such jargon is mercifully scarce. Ms. Garrett is clear and clear-eyed. But I do have one quibble.
We Jews aren’t entirely consistent about who’s actually Jewish. When it involves scandal or crime, we’re highly restrictive—e.g., David Berkowitz (“Son of Sam”) was adopted—but when shepping naches (celebrating accomplishments) our definition becomes far more encompassing than either Jewish law or Israel’s Law of Return. Still, Martha Gellhorn was barely Jewish, and Merle Miller not Jewish at all. Meantime, Ms. Garrett relegates such forgotten World War II novelists as Gilbert Wolf Gabriel, Martin Dibner, Alan Marcus, Murray Gitlin, Louis Falstein, Mortimer Kadish, Joseph Landon, Sam Ross, Saul Levitt and Irving Schwartz to one intriguing footnote. Maybe their books aren’t any good. But they’d probably have been more representative and maybe even more revealing.
—Mr. Margolick is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair.
The Sydney Morning Herald just reviewed Young Lions:
For a recent interview about Young Lions on the Podcast New Books in Jewish Studies:
See info on the book below along with some recent blurbs:
Deborah Dash Moore, Professor and Director of Jewish Studies at the University of Michigan and The New York Times best-selling author of GI Jews: How World War II Changed a Generation said this: “Young Lions persuasively presents a fresh interpretation that illuminates previously hidden aspects of these [novels]. Leah Garrett’s lucid study will change how we think about World War II, the Holocaust and American Jews.”
Harvard Professor of English, American and African American studies, Werner Sollers, said this: “theoretically sophisticated and probing, Young Lions is full of insights that are of interest to the literary scholar, the historian, and the student of American ethnic relations.”
Stanford Professor of Jewish Culture and History, Steven J. Zipperstein, wrote of the book: “A masterful exercise in excavation by a superb literary and cultural historian. Here is an extraordinary tour of literary terrain so familiar and accessible to the common reader and so mariginalised in literary criticism. Leah Garrett opens up for a crucial chapter in American Jewish cultural expression with consistent intelligence and infectious enthusiasm.”
I recently arranged with the Wheeler Center to have the students in my Race and Class in American Literature course have a private class and question and answer session with the prominent American author Jonathan Lethem whose novel, The Fortress of Solitude, the students studied in the class. Lethem spent a large block of time with the students answering their questions about a range of issues and discussing his writing with them.
My most recent essay, ‘Joseph Heller’s Jewish War Novel Catch-22‘ published with the Journal of Modern Jewish Studies can be read on line here: Link here
I was recently made an Honorary Professor of History at Warwick University:
For a link to a Harvard Crimson write-up about my talk on the project at Harvard University:
For my lecture on the project at the University of Washington you can see it on youtube, here.
I have just begun work on a new research project on the manner in which Jewish discourse, in a range of languages and mediums, wrote about post-war American suburbanization.
I am also beginning new research on comparative genocide literature looking in particular at Jewish literature in relation to Native American literature.
Wagner and the Jews:
My last book, A Knight at the Opera, examined the relationship between Richard Wagner and major Jewish cultural figures. I was asked to write a piece for The Guardian about whether we should divorce Wagner’s antisemitism from our appreciation of his music. This is the tab to read the article in The Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/culture/2013/nov/20/wagner-dilemma-hate-bigotry-love-music
On Sunday November 24th, I was part of a panel at the Melbourne Town Hall partaking in an Oxford style debate run by the Wheeler Centre on the question of whether one can separate Richard Wagner’s political views from his art. Our side won the debate, arguing that one can not separate the two.
Click here for the link to the Wheeler Centre page
On November 11, 2013, I appeared on the Radio National program “The Drawing Room” to discuss if art and politics can and should mix. To hear the radio program:
A Knight at the Opera: Heine, Wagner, Herzl, Peretz and the Legacy of Der Tannhäuser (Purdue University Press, 2011) In this book I discuss the remarkable and unknown role that the medieval legend (and Wagner opera) Tannhäuser played in Jewish cultural life in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Click here for the book on Amazon
The Cross and Other Jewish Stories by Lamed Shapiro, editor (Yale University Press, 2007) This volume that I edited focuses on the groundbreaking and controversial Yiddish writer, Lamed Shapiro, whose stories run the gamut from pogroms in Russia to hardship tales of life in New York and Los Angeles.
Click here for the book on Amazon
Journeys beyond the Pale: Yiddish Travel Writing in the Modern World (University of Wisconsin Press, 2003) In this book I explore how Yiddish writers in Eastern Europe and the United States used motifs of travel to express their complicated relationships with modernization.
Click here for the book on Amazon