The Fight of Their Lives, and Not Just on the Battlefield

Irwin Shaw did his best work in short stories, though his nearly 700-page novel
Irwin Shaw did his best work in short stories, though his nearly 700-page novel "The Young Lions" still reflects his strengths. (By Benno Friedman)
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By Jonathan Yardley
Friday, March 6, 2009; Page C01

An occasional series in which The Post's book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.

In the years immediately after World War II, four immensely long and immensely popular novels were published that seemed, at the time, to change forever the American literary landscape. Two -- Norman Mailer's "The Naked and the Dead" and Irwin Shaw's "The Young Lions" -- were published in 1948, while James Jones's "From Here to Eternity" and Herman Wouk's "The Caine Mutiny" appeared in 1951. All four became huge bestsellers and were made into highly popular movies, only one of which, "From Here to Eternity," has proved to possess much staying power. Today, at a remove of well over half a century, it is difficult to conjure the incredible excitement these books created, not merely the sense that the terrible war had inspired fiction of lasting importance but also the belief that the "Great American Novel" at last was within reach.

We know now that both assumptions were wrong. Some excellent fiction was indeed written about the war, but it came later and today even the best of it -- I think in particular of Jones's visceral novel about combat, "The Thin Red Line," and his taut novella "The Pistol" -- is on the literary margins. It further developed that this brief outburst was pretty much the last gasp of the competition to write the "Great American Novel," as writers turned inward if not outright narcissistic and became more interested in the esteem of their peers than in that of the mass readership. Though all four of these books remain in print and enjoy occasional sales, they have more value now as documents about the war than as literary accomplishments.

Still, I remember all four with affection and no small measure of gratitude. I entered my teens in the early 1950s and cut my literary eyeteeth with a vengeance. Young though I was, I was old enough to have memories of wartime: Three of my uncles had been in the service, I had known a young man who was killed in combat, and I was endlessly curious about how the war had been fought by ordinary soldiers and what the experience had done to them.

Though today's reconsideration of "The Young Lions" marks the first time I've reread any of the four, for a long time they occupied a large piece of real estate in my private literary landscape. However pronounced their shortcomings may seem to me now -- in particular those of "The Naked and the Dead," a book whose clumsy prose I cannot imagine rereading -- they taught me lessons about manhood and courage, betrayal and deceit, that remained long after my memory of them had faded. They were as important to me as were Tim O'Brien's novels about Vietnam to a later generation of young readers.

Still, one of the built-in liabilities of doing a series of literary reconsiderations is that it exposes one's treasured youthful tastes to the cold light of a more mature reading. I came to "The Young Lions" for the second time with high expectations but found them, if not exactly dashed, considerably disappointed. This long story (nearly 700 pages!) of three soldiers in the European Theater, two Americans and one German, retains considerable force, but it underscores the central truth about Shaw's writing: Though many of his elephantine novels, in particular "Rich Man, Poor Man," were great popular hits, his best work was done in his short stories, which you can -- and should -- read in "Short Stories: Five Decades" (University of Chicago Press paperback, $20). At least two of those stories, "The Eighty-Yard Run" and "The Girls in Their Summer Dresses," are minor classics. Though moments in "The Young Lions" approach this level, overall it is too prolix and flabby to fulfill the high ambitions Shaw obviously had for it.

Shaw, who was born in New York City in 1913, achieved early success with his short stories and a play, "Bury the Dead" (1936), all of which had made him, as the late James Salter says in his excellent introduction to the University of Chicago edition, "one of the principal voices of his generation." In the war he served as a photographer for the Signal Corps, but there can be little question that he was really gathering material for the novel he so badly wanted to write. After "The Young Lions" he published seven more novels (most of them bestsellers), several story collections and plays, and a couple of volumes of nonfiction, including a tribute to his beloved Paris. He was, Slater writes, "manly, moral, sentimental, observant, with an immodest impulse for the dramatic," and he had many friends. At his death in 1984 he was widely mourned.

Clearly he had "Great American Novel" in mind as he wrote "The Young Lions." It begins in prewar America and Germany, marches resolutely through many of the war's most dramatic moments, and ends with the Allies on the brink of victory, the ironic aspects of which Shaw does not shy away from making clear. It is loaded with, and weighed down by, extended ruminative passages in which Shaw expresses his views on various moral and other questions provoked by the war, and though the sincerity of these sections is beyond dispute, their overall effect is more soporific than enlightening. By the testimony of his friends -- among whom were James Jones, Willie Morris and William Styron, for he was very much a man's man -- he was a delightful and thoughtful conversationalist, but this does not come across in the philosophical musings of "The Young Lions."

The novel's strengths, and they are considerable, lie in its depiction of America on the brink of war, of the brutal training conditions in the U.S. Army, of warfare itself, and of the evolving lives of the three young men who are its protagonists. These are Christian Diestl, a sergeant in the German army, a loyal but scarcely fanatical Nazi; Michael Whitacre, a stage manager for Broadway productions and, according to Salter, "in many respects, Shaw's representative in the novel"; and Noah Ackerman, a young Jewish American whose life has been "wandering and disordered" but who has begun to put things together after moving to New York. Each in his different way is an exceptionally attractive person; they are of course fated to arrive at the same point in the book's final pages, but the obviousness of this narrative device does not diminish the poignancy of those pages.

Shaw was an interesting mix of macho man and antiwar moralist, and both aspects are on display in "The Young Lions." He knew, as virtually all Americans did, that the war against the Axis was both necessary and "good," but he deplored much of the leadership on both sides and found the Army stultifying, bigoted and claustrophobic. Michael, speaking for Shaw, says:

"When I went into the Army, I made up my mind that I was putting myself at the Army's disposal. I believe in the war. That doesn't mean I believe in the Army. I don't believe in any army. You don't expect justice out of an army, if you're a sensible, grown-up human being, you only expect victory. And if it comes to that, our Army is probably the most just one that ever existed. . . . I expected the Army to be corrupt, inefficient, cruel, wasteful, and it turned out to be all those things, just like all armies, only much less so than I thought before I got into it. It is much less corrupt, for example, than the German Army. Good for us. The victory we win will not be as good as it might be, if it were a different kind of army, but it will be the best kind of victory we can expect in this day and age, and I'm thankful for it."

One of several characteristics that "The Young Lions" shares with the three other big postwar novels is that it is written from the point of view of the rank-and-file serviceman and expresses all the cynicism that was prevalent in the ranks. Today we wax egregiously sentimental about "the Greatest Generation," and more than a few of its surviving members have turned sentimental about themselves, but at the time there was much less talk about noble causes and heroic deeds than about the indignities to which men were subjected, the arbitrariness of officers at all levels, the bureaucratic ineptitude, the daily struggle for survival in dreadful conditions. There was also precious little talk among non-Jews about the routine, quotidian bigotry to which Jewish Americans were subjected. Noah, sent to boot camp in the South, finds himself quartered with a gang of bullies who subject him to psychological and physical abuse. He resists it bravely and forcibly, but the odds against him are overwhelming, and he absorbs beating after beating.

"The Young Lions" was published one year after "Gentleman's Agreement," by Laura Z. Hobson, the first widely read novel about anti-Semitism in America. I have no idea whether it had a comparable effect on readers, though since it usually is described as a "war novel," that seems unlikely. Still, at least some readers must have been shocked to realize that Hitler did not have a monopoly on bigotry, that it was widespread and often unchecked by authority in our own country's armed forces: a reflection, needless to say, of anti-Semitism in the country itself, as embodied by the Georgia landlady who turns away Noah and his bride because "we were Jewish."

The country has changed significantly in that regard and so has the Army, in both cases much for the better. Today's reader of "The Young Lions" will also have to shift gears to comprehend that the vast majority of Americans who fought in World War II were civilians, draftees or volunteers; the Army was essentially amateur rather than professional, and thus quite different from what it is today. This is another way in which "The Young Lions" will seem something of a period piece to readers in the early 21st century, but the portrait it paints of those distant days is in most important respects accurate, so we still have much to learn from it.

"The Young Lions" is available in a University of Chicago Press paperback ($22.50).

Yardley's e-mail address is


The next book in this series is "The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War, 1890-1914," by Barbara W. Tuchman (Ballantine paperback, $18).

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