Bread upon the Waters

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)
ph_0111207208-Shaw.jpg Irwin Shaw Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Irwin Shaw is a durable monument on the American literary landscape. He began his career during his years at Brooklyn College (1930-1934), when he wrote plays and did columns for the school newspaper. During the 1930’s, he wrote radio serials and screenplays as well as stage plays and short stories, many of which were published in such popular magazines as The New Yorker, Collier’s, and Esquire. During World War II, Shaw served in the United States Army, seeing action in Africa, England, France, and Germany. Drawing upon that experience, he wrote his first novel, The Young Lions (1948), which became a best-seller and was later made into a motion picture. Since then, he has lived in the United States and abroad, producing a considerable body of work, including the short story “Walking Wounded,” for which he received the O. Henry Memorial Prize (1944). With Bread Upon the Waters, Shaw has, to date, published five plays, two works of nonfiction, eight collections of short stories, and eleven novels of which the most notable have been The Young Lions, Rich Man, Poor Man (1969), Evening in Byzantium (1973), and Beggarman, Thief (1977).

So established a writer has, predictably, a reputation as well as a recognizable style. Shaw’s early work was noted for its thinly disguised commitment to liberal sociopolitical principles. With The Young Lions, however, Shaw softened his stridency and turned to craftsmanship, a path which he has pursued ever since. The results have been mixed: at times, he appears superficial, oversimplifying the complexities of the real worlds which he describes; on other occasions, he depicts genuine human actions, thoughts, and passions with a verisimilitude reminiscent of turn-of-the-century naturalists. His strong points are his capacity to observe, to feel, and to believe. More important, Shaw utilizes his own firsthand knowledge in creating the characters, settings, and incidents in his work—a technique which, at its best, creates a close bond between characters and readers. Shaw is not a profound thinker, but he is a skilled novelist.

From time to time, Shaw indulges an intriguing eccentricity: he draws a title from an Old Testament passage which he quotes at the beginning of the novel as a tantalizing clue to the novel’s meaning. In The Young Lions, for example, he quotes Nahum 2:13:Behold, I am against thee, saith the Lord of hosts, and I will burn her chariots in the smoke, and the sword shall devour thy young lions; and I will cut off thy prey from the earth, and the voice of thy messenger shall no more be heard.

Shaw selected the passage as a strong antiwar protest to demonstrate that no one wins in war. In fact, none of his protagonists in that novel—a Nazi, an American Jew, an American East-coast liberal—gain anything from the gruesome carnage in which they engage. By contrast, the children’s counting jingle—“Rich man, poor man,/ Beggarman, thief,” which furnished two titles for Shaw’s novels—has no biblical source, and neither novel is prefaced by a biblical quotation. Yet Bread Upon the Waters carries the by-now-familiar Shaw signature: “Cast thy bread upon the waters, for thou shalt find it after many days” (Ecclesiastes 11:1).

In the case of Bread Upon the Waters, Shaw’s signature is particularly apt. The passage from Ecclesiastes is conventionally interpreted to mean that one who does good deeds (“Cast thy bread upon the waters”) will be rewarded at some later date by having a good deed done in return (“. . . thou shalt find it after many days”). The most obvious application of the biblical quotation is to Russell Hazen, who tries to befriend the Strand family after Caroline saves his life. Yet every member of the Strand family also casts “bread upon the waters”—tries to do “good” unto others, including one another—and with hardly any greater success than that experienced by Hazen. In this somewhat depressing testimonial to human frailty, it is also curious to note that Shaw dedicated Bread Upon the Waters to Irving Paul Lazar, also known as “Swifty” Lazar, the renowned literary agent.

To be sure, the novel suffers from minor anomalies. The essential time period covered is from May to December, probably in 1979 (give or take a year), but in any case a seven-month span with a brief epilogue eleven months later. In that essential seven-month period, the length of Allen and Leslie Strand’s marriage is mentioned variously as twenty-three years and twenty-five years. Moreover, their oldest daughter, Eleanor, appears to be of indeterminate age, although Eleanor’s siblings (Jimmy and Caroline) are clearly age-designated early in the novel. Since Allen’s Victorian attitudes preclude premarital sex with Leslie, Eleanor would have to be more than the suggested twenty-two years old, if she were, as represented, a college graduate with two years’ experience as a computer systems analyst at the time the novel commenced. In addition, Eleanor, on one page, is driving a station wagon (Hazen’s gift) to New York’s Kennedy Airport and two pages later is leaving the same airport driving her own battered Volkswagen. Further, Hazen gives Allen and Leslie “ten thousand dollars in five hundred dollar bills,” although the Bureau of Engraving and Printing in Washington, D.C., stopped printing five-hundred-dollar bills in 1945....

(The entire section is 2235 words.)

Bread upon the Waters Bibliography

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

Library Journal. CVI, July, 1981, p. 1444.

New Statesman. CII, August 7, 1981, p. 21.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVI, August 23, 1981, p. 14.

Observer. August 2, 1981, p. 25.

Saturday Review. VIII, September, 1981, p. 79.

Times Literary Supplement. July 31, 1981, p. 878.