Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 849
Irwin Gilbert Shamforoff (his father changed the family name to Shaw) has been most widely acclaimed as a writer of ironically urbane short stories, which helped to define what many think of as “The New Yorker story,” and for The Young Lions, which remains one of the most noteworthy American novels about World War II. Shaw was born in New York City on February 27, 1913, to William Shaw and Rose (Tompkins) Shaw. He attended public schools in Brooklyn before enrolling in Brooklyn College. After his freshman year, however, he was forced to withdraw from college because of academic difficulties. For the next several years, he worked in a variety of jobs in local factories and retail stores in order to make his reenrollment financially feasible. In 1934 he graduated from Brooklyn College with a B.A. degree, having distinguished himself by writing several plays for the college dramatic society and a regular column for the college newspaper. He also played quarterback for the varsity football team.
After graduation, Shaw helped to support his family by writing radio scripts for the serials Dick Tracy and The Gumps. In 1936 he submitted Bury the Dead to the New Theater League, and after several Off-Broadway performances, it was produced on Broadway, establishing Shaw as an important new voice in the American theater. The play concerns the refusal of six ordinary soldiers to be buried after they have been killed in battle. In technique, it owes much to the experimental German theater of the 1920’s; in tone and theme, it is distinctly American, resembling much of the antiwar literature that followed World War I.
The success of Bury the Dead led to a Hollywood contract. Shaw’s second stage play, The Gentle People, was produced on Broadway by the Group Theater. Also during this time he published his first collection of short stories, Sailor off the Bremen, and Other Stories. The Gentle People had more commercial success than Bury the Dead, but the critical response was more lukewarm. When The Assassin was dismissed for its fairly conventional technique and structure and for its seemingly propagandist acceptance of conventional views of the war, Shaw responded bitterly in the 1946 preface to the published play, denouncing the narrow ideological range afforded by the major Broadway critics to political plays and, in effect, ending his career as a dramatist.
Still, Shaw’s reputation as a writer of short stories became firmly established, with his stories being included regularly in the O. Henry Prize collections and with several, such as “Walking Wounded” in 1944, being awarded first prize. This war story appeared in Act of Faith, and Other Stories, which, along with Sailor off the Bremen, and Other Stories and Welcome to the City, and Other Stories, established Shaw’s range as a writer of short stories. The much-anthologized “The Girls in Their Summer Dresses” and “The Eighty-Yard Run” deftly treat the sexual and social ironies that undercut the success seemingly inherent in upper-middle-class American life. “Second Mortgage” and “Main Currents of American Thought” are notable explorations of the effects of economic turmoil on the urban family struggling to avoid poverty. “Residents of Other Cities,” “Act of Faith,” and “Medal from Jerusalem” are notable for their treatments of Jewish issues.
In 1948 Shaw published The Young Lions, his first and still most highly regarded novel. The first American novel to attempt a panoramic treatment of the European theater of World War II (and still generally acknowledged as the most successful of all such treatments), The Young Lions presents the eventually interconnected experiences of three soldiers, two Americans and one German. The structure of the novel depends on very elaborate parallels between events and characters and on a subtle pattern of interrelated symbols. It has been criticized for being structurally too contrived, but it has been praised for its precise depiction of incidents and its memorable characterizations.
Shaw subsequently published many other works of both short and long fiction. In general, the short stories have been much more highly regarded than the novels, which have been seen as relying too much on melodramatic structural devices. This impression of the novels has been reinforced by the publication of “entertainments” such as Nightwork and The Top of the Hill. In addition, the television adaptation of the Jordache novels, Rich Man, Poor Man and Beggerman, Thief, did much to increase Shaw’s commercial success at the expense of his critical reputation.
In almost all Shaw’s work, there is an underlying pessimism about the horrors of experience, represented as “accidents” that dramatically alter a character’s circumstances and attitudes. This pessimism is balanced only by a restrained faith in the basic goodness of some individuals who can by their actions somewhat mitigate the effects of those horrors. The critical consensus is that the balance is maintained effectively by the ironic detachment in Shaw’s short stories but is undercut in the novels by the melodramatic structuring. Nevertheless, the response to Shaw’s last two novels, Bread upon the Waters and Acceptable Losses, has suggested to some critics that a serious reevaluation of Shaw’s importance is necessary.
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