Jews and the American War Novel

Rachel Gordan

Leah Garrett's new book, Young Lions: How Jewish Authors Reinvented the American War Novel (Northwestern University Press, 2015) explains how Jews, a group that has been traditionally denigrated as weak and bookish, "became the popular literary representatives of what it meant to be a soldier" in the post-WWII years. In surveying the dominance of Jewish authored war novels throughout the 1950's and 1960's, Garrett's book shows that, "In much the same way that in Hollywood, Jewish studio heads and directors helped shape how mainstream Americans understood cultural touchstones such as Christmas, best-selling Jewish American war novels influenced how the public came to understood the recent war."

Leah Garrett is the Loti Smorgon Professor Contemporary Jewish Life and Culture at Monash University in Australia. Her previous books include A Knight at the Opera: Heine, Wagner, Herzl, Peretz, and the Legacy of Der Tannhauser and Journeys Beyond the Pale: Yiddish Travel Writing in the Modern World. Northwestern University Press describes Garrett's scholarship as "devoted to understanding how Jewish authors in an array of languages used their literary discourse to enact, reimagine, and subvert conventional ideas about the relationship between Jews and the modern world."

RG: Young Lions, or readings from it, might be usefully paired with Deborah Dash Moore’s book, GI Jews(or her Religion & American Culture journal article on that topic). You expand on her theme of WWII providing American Jewish servicemen with an education in what it meant to be an American, a Jew, and a man. You both correct the view that it was only with the 1967 view that American Jews felt pride in their status as fighters and soldiers. What do the war novels reveal about the American Jewish experience with WWII that we wouldn’t learn if we didn’t pay attention to this genre?  

LG: The war novels reveal that military service was profoundly important for American Jews in terms of reckoning and grappling with their position in American society. In the war novels, the authors use the events as a means to teach their audiences, and themselves, that the role of Jews in America was permanently altered because of their successful participation in the fight against the Axis forces. By so doing, they showed that the American Jewish position as the fighter of the Germans was in opposition to the European Jewish position as the 'passive' victim of the Nazis. In this way the novels positioned American Jews as ideal, new American men--able to fight the good fight by combining a new type of Jewish physicality with the best aspects of Jewish intellectualism. They were, moreover, a rejection of the 'negative' shtetl Jew who, according to the worst stereotypes, was weak and cowardly. I believe this goes a long way towards explaining the huge popularity of the Jewish authored war novels. They presented to the American public an idealized and acceptable portrait of the American Jew who had been reborn by becoming an American and had therein become the opposite of the despised shtetl Jew.

RG: You interviewed Pulitzer Prize-winning (now centenarian) author, Herman Wouk for your book. When I spoke with Wouk at his home in Palm Springs, in 2011, he showed me the Lone Sailor award he had received from the U.S. Navy, which recognizes veterans who have distinguished themselves in their subsequent careers and lives. Wouk shared that he felt more proud of this award than any other he has received. What was your understanding of why military service was so important to Wouk? 

LG: For Wouk--I communicated with him via snail mail (which was pretty lovely), and since my interest was focused on the 'Jewish aspects' of his service, the sense that I got from him was that a large reason why the military was so important to Wouk (and for Leon Uris as well) was because in his experience it was entirely accepting of him as a Jewish serviceman. I think he felt the military was the best of America because it enabled an intellectual Jewish kid to thrive and lead and it therefore was an example of how deeply accepting America was of Jews (in stark contrast with what had occurred in Europe). 

RG: You use the term "cloaking" in your book to describe how some of the authors present their Jewishness. Why this word and what does it mean in this context?

LG: In postwar Jewish American literature, there is a regular and constant form of poetics where writers used a range of 'Jewish' cultural and literary forms--Yiddishisms, immigrant issues, intergenerational conflict, talmudic style humor- but never labelled them as 'Jewish'. The archetypal example was the Loman family in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman which he only admitted was Jewish decades later. I came up with the term 'cloaking' to discuss this trait in postwar Jewish discourse, where the Jewish aspects were rendered in a range of ways but never labelled as such because the authors, for a range of reasons, were reluctant to have their works 'limited' by the Jewish label. I came up with the term after getting into trouble in an old essay for instead using the term 'marrano' to describe this trend of hiding the Jewish aspects in plain sight, since that term was too politically loaded.

RG: Your book exposes a wrinkle in what historians call the “golden age of American Jewry.” Yes, things improved dramatically for American Jews after WWII (anti-Semitism declined, Jews became more middle-class, etc.), but as you point out, we find, during this era, an American Jewish literature in which Jewish authors continue to “cloak” and hiding their Jewishness. If things were so good for Jews at this point in American Jewish history, how do you explain these authors’ reticence about their Jewishness?

LG: As I discuss in Young Lions, the reasons for Jewish cloaking varied with the different authors and in response to different historical trends, but together they absolutely challenged the notion that the 'Golden Age of American Jewry' was quite so golden and secure. Right after the Holocaust ended, authors like Arthur Miller decided to cloak their Jewishness because, as he said, he was terrified of what the Nazis had done and did not want to be vulnerable to antisemitic hatred in the United States. Fifteen or so years later, with Joseph Heller, his reasons for cloaking the Jewishness of Yossarian in Catch-22 were a bit different. For him, Jews had become so mainstream that in order to create a character who had traits of the rebellious 'other' he needed to go further afield, transforming the essential Jew Yossarian into an Assyrian. I'm currently writing a new book on Jewish literature of suburbanization, and working on the history of Mad Magazine, I'm finding the exact same trends: in the 1950s, the Jewish staff used an intensely Jewish poetics (lots of Yiddish, Jewish cultural references) in the magazine but refused to label it as Jewish. Overall, this trend suggests that in order for these male (and they were almost all male authors) writers to be fully accepted as ' Americans' they had to disavow their ethnic and religious specificity. To me this says that below the surface of the 'golden era' there were profound and insistent insecurities about what it meant to be an acceptable American artist, and although we often read that this was the time when Jewish authors in America dominated the literary scene, winning all the major awards, for a much larger group of artists beyond the Bellow/Roth/Malamud triad, there were intense pressures to distant themselves from their Jewish origins.

RG: Historians and laypeople continue to debate how and when Americans responded to the Holocaust. I hear you arguing that, in their own way, these Jewish war novels constituted a response to the Holocaust, as authors presented information about the Holocaust along with information about the war. It’s the stylein which these novels presented the Holocaust that differs so much from contemporary Holocaust literature. How would you describe the way in which these novels deal with the Holocaust?

LG: For the first wave of Jewish novels that came out in 1948, the Holocaust was described using an extremely graphic, journalistic style with detailed depictions of the machinery of the deathcamps. This suggests their aim was to disseminate information about what the Nazis had done to an ignorant, mainstream reading public. In the 1950s, authors like Herman Wouk, revisited the Holocaust, but he used his descriptions of what had happened for a different aim: rather than circulating historical information, he assumed readers were now fully aware of the Holocaust and he did not need to give explicit, journalistic renditions of the deathcamps. Instead, in The Caine Mutiny, he would use the Holocaust to show the readers that American Jews were profoundly grateful to America for having saved the Jews of Europe. And by the time we get to the early 1960s with Joseph Heller, the style has changed again. In Catch-22, the Holocaust will become symbolically rendered and a catalyst for Yossarian to embrace an ethical stance in a meanlingless and absurd war.
RG:As you describe it, one of the reasons these Jewish war novels have not received much scholarly attention is because they did not seem sufficiently Jewish -- to critics and scholars.  And yet few things seem more postwar American-Jewish, to me, than the assimilationist cast of this writing. When you teach these novels, how do you explain the Jewishness expressed by these novelists?

LG: When I teach these novels, I explain to my students that authors frequently turn to genre fiction as a means to use a standard, set plot and stylistic rubric to delve into a range of issues of importance for them. By turning to a set genre--the war novel--the authors have in place a series of devices: a protagonist attempting to overcome his fears to become a heroic figure, intense scenes of life and death battles, sex on the periphary of battles with prostitutes, etc. They can then extend on this to delve into larger issues about what it means to be a Jew and a man in settings where idealized platoons require that they assimilate into the military culture and shed their ethnic and religious specificity. So I agree completely with your question that these war novels use the platoon as a means to cultivate, explore, and in the end wholeheartedly embrace the assimilationist platform. Yet at the same time, they enabled the authors to put forth a liberal, multiethniic stance for postwar readers: "you need to see American Jews as part of the brotherhood of men symbollized by the ideal, united platoon, and therefore you must accept us into postwar society as your equals."

RG: Another reason these novels have been neglected is their middlebrow status. In my own work on post-WWII Jews, I call this the middlebrow moment in American Jewish culture, and I read the mainstream popularity of these cultural works as an achievement.  Whereas some scholars or critics have been embarrassed by these novelists’ middlebrow nature, you have been attracted to them. What is it about these popular novels that appealed to you as a scholar?

LG: To be quite honest, I was tired of the focus of postwar Jewish American literary studies being almost entirely on the same group of writers: Roth, Malamud, Potok, Bellow, Pailey, Ozick etc. I decided that I would go back to the NY Times bestsellers lists and go through all of them and figure out which Jewish writers were actually being read by the mass public, and to my surprise I discovered that in 1948 five of the best selling novels were by and about Jewish soldiers, most by writers no one has currently heard of. As I read these largely unknown works I discovered some unknown gems. I was attracted to them, because as someone who considers herself a cultural and literary historian, I was far more interested in what the mainstream public was reading and debating that the more elite works that have had tons of analysis over the years. And I also discovered that while quite a few of them were definitely written in a middlebrow way, there were quite a few that did much more experimental writing styles but that still appealed to a massive public of readers. So part of my aim with Young Lions had been to decenter and challenge the centrality of the small group of overly analyzed Jewish authors to consider the writers that actually had the greatest impact on broader America.  A second aim was to challenge the negative and elitist connotation of the term 'middlebrow' that white, male, anglo critics used as a means to attack literature written by Jews, women, etc and to challenge the idea that if a book was popular with the mainstream, non elite public, then it was somehow less worthy of analysis.

RG: How do these Jewish war novelist complicate our notions of Jews as liberals or conservatives in the postwar era?

LG: The first wave of writers in 1948 emphatically embraced and perpetuated a liberal stance: depicting the racism and antisemitism in the military, calling for an ideal, egalitarian society in America. As I discuss, all of these writers followed up their war novels with works challenging the worst aspect of McCarthyism and Cold War conservatism. Thus this group fit well with our general notions that American Jews continued to embrace liberal platforms in the 1950s. Yet when we come to the huge bestsellers of the mid 1950s, Herman Wouk and Leon Uris, we find them perpetuating an opposite stance: they used their novels to push for a very conservative set of beliefs: conformism, anti-individualism, loyalty to the government, and so forth. Wouk in particular, went out of his way to stamp on the liberal agenda of writers such as Norman Mailer, by creating a character who was a negative portrait of Mailer as a charlatan rebel who was too selfish to sacrifice himself for the greater good of America. Part of the reason the war novels are such fantastic portals into American history, is that they depict all the struggles of postwar Jews to find a path between the poles of liberalism and conservatism, and their paths show how very insecure the authors felt about making sure the mainstream public viewed them as embracing the acceptable and appropriate politics of the era.