Although Jews were only 3.5 percent of the American population in the 1950s, in their war literature they created the template through which Americans saw World War II. For instance, nearly all of the bestselling American war novels between 1948 and 1961 were by or about Jewish soldiers. In Jewish authored works, members of this statistically marginal population therefore became the principle figures through which the story of World War II was told. Yet the central role of Jews in fictionalizing War World II for a postwar readership has gone unnoticed in literary and historical studies. Either the Jewishness of the writers is uncommented on, or, the Jewishness of the text is negated. This factor is central, because as I will discuss, Jewish authors wrote about the war in very unique ways, and since their novels were bestsellers, they had a direct impact upon how postwar Americans understood the war effort. Revisiting best-selling works ranging from Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead to Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, and uncovering a range of unknown archival material, I will show how Jewish writers used the theme of World War II to reshape the American public’s ideas about war, the Holocaust, and the role of Jews in postwar life. In contrast to most previous war fiction these new “Jewish” war novels were often ironic, funny, and irreverent and sought to teach the reading public broader lessons about liberalism, masculinity, and pluralism.
About the Speaker
LEAH GARRETT is Loti Smorgon Professor of Contemporary Jewish Life and Culture at Monash University in Australia. She has published four books and numerous articles on Jewish literature. Garrett's scholarship has been 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. This talk is based on her recent book that was shortlisted for the National Jewish Book Award: Young Lions: How Jewish Authors Reinvented the American War Novel (http://www.nupress.northwestern.edu/content/young-lions-1)