Irwin Shaw Shaw, Irwin (Vol. 23) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Irwin Shaw 1913–

American novelist, dramatist, short story writer, and scriptwriter.

Shaw received critical recognition at age 22 with his vehemently antiwar play, Bury the Dead. He has since written historical/political plays, adapted a French sex farce, published several collections of short stories, created three popular television mini-series, and become a best-selling novelist.

Critics of Shaw's work are divided: some applaud his agile characterizations and talent for dialogue while others label him a propagandist churning out formulaic best-sellers. His recent Bread upon the Waters garnered such reactions but was also favorably compared to his early The Young Lions, a widely-read World War II novel.

(See also CLC, Vol. 7; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 6.)

Joseph Wood Krutch

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["Bury the Dead"] is based on a conceit of originality and power. Six men just laid in their new dug graves by a weary detachment of fellow-soldiers rise slowly to their feet and with quiet persistence refuse to submit to the final indignity—dirt on their faces. They are dead all right. There is no doubt about that. But they won't be buried and they won't lie still no matter how anxious the living may be to have them covered, and forgotten, and quiet at last.

The men ordered to bury the rebellious corpses are struck with terror. So, too, are the captain who comes to investigate, the general who appeals to their sense of duty, and the six women who are brought as a last resort to give their various reasons why the dead, once they are dead, should cease from troubling those living to whom alone the earth belongs. But terrified though they all are, they are not really surprised. Something of the sort, they knew, was bound to happen. Too many people have been killed and too many have been buried. Earth herself has rebelled. She will not receive any more of her children dead before their time, and dead men will submit no longer even to death itself. One of the six has a vision of a better world. The other five merely know that they have never seen nor heard nor felt what they were destined to see and to hear and to feel. They are dead and it can't be helped. But the living must not be permitted to forget them or to suppose that they found it sweet and proper to die. "De profundis clamavi."

If only the play as a whole were as original and arresting as this central conceit, if only the author's macabre imagination had sustained him to the end, then "Bury the Dead"...

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Stark Young

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["Bury the Dead"] presents the finest image that has appeared in our theatre this year. A great theatre image is when there is discovered something seen and done in which the central idea is completely expressed, and is revealed without effort, as if creation had fully taken place already and were all exhibited. Not often in drama anywhere do we find so powerful an image as dominates the whole of "Bury the Dead." A myth is created, a veritable fable is established. When these six dead men arise from their graves and refuse to be buried, the imagination is shocked and caught by the sheer sight of them and the light upon them: Possibilities in fear and living variety, nostalgia, and pity, immediately swarm to the full powers of the stage. As theatre image this motif ranks with the entrance of Oedipus with his blinded eyes, in Sophocles' play, with the sleep-walking scene in "Macbeth," with Lear in the storm, with, that is, such consummations of action, the visual and the idea as are rare even in first-rank drama. The idea and the tone, inseparable, are first and last the chief necessity in a drama; the final need for its vitality is the discovery of a strong, full image for their conveyance….

"Bury the Dead" is obviously an anti-war play. By those interested for or against, it may be called a propaganda play. There can be no objection basically to art that is propaganda, but ultimately there is every objection to propaganda that is not art. It can be said to Mr. Shaw's credit … that he never in the outline or structure of his piece relies on propaganda to hold him up. But the weaknesses of the play do at times proceed from the fact that the statement in itself seems left to do the work without much creation on the author's part.

Stark Young, "The Great Doom's Image" (reprinted by permission of the Literary Estate of Stark Young), in The New Republic, Vol. LXXVII, No. 1119, May 13, 1936, p. 21.

Gould Cassal

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

New York City's Borough of Brooklyn has been for so long a subject of literary and vaudeville humor that it is pleasant to find Irwin Shaw defending it in several of the twenty stories which make up "Sailor off the Bremen." Unlike most native Brooklynites, who are nearly always ashamed to admit that they hail from the City of Churches, he is forthright in declaring his affection for his home town and the three million who live in it.

Though the title story, a vigorous melodrama, is the outstanding item in the collection, the ones set in Brooklyn come off to better advantage than those which find Mr. Shaw wandering in distant parts. "The Boss," "The Monument," "Second Mortgage," and "The Girls in Their Summer Dresses" enlist our sympathies with greater shrewdness than such stories as "The Deputy Sheriff" (New Mexico) or "Walk along the Charles River" (Middle West). All of them, like his charming play of last season, "The Gentle People," combine understated sentiment and a wry, sympathetic humor; and all of them have an immensely graphic quality. His taxi drivers, pugilists, little business men, and their domineering wives are commonplace people who are never puffed up beyond human recognition. Those who have compared Shaw to Clifford Odets in the theater will find in his first book none of that oblique lyricism and Chekovian intellectualism so peculiar to Odets's characters.

Mr. Shaw proves that he is a playwright...

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Otis Ferguson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Irwin Shaw is one of the very few writers of whom it may be said that they are a delight, rather than a duty, to read. His stuff may be momentous or it may be casual, but it gets going. There is always that sense of motion. A hundred years from now some dusty fellow will be attributing this style in writing to the influence of that brisk and highly dramatic technique of the movie cutter (the influence of the film in literature has already been noted, usually by people who were insufficiently dusty, who were scarcely initiated in the simple matter of fiction writing, and who knew nothing about the movies whatsoever). But I think Shaw, along with O'Hara, Fuchs, Weidman, Smith, Odets and Newhouse, is an exemplary of the time and the place, of a new shift of style into a pattern recognizable as New York-American, early twentieth century.

After a noisy and bum play, Shaw found a market for his best talents, which are in the field of the short story…. [He] has never published a story that I put aside before I finished it. Trivial sometimes, yes. Without a plot or a sharply driven point, often. But if his characters merely talk, or act to no avail, there is still that indefinable sense of imminence, the feeling that something is about to happen even if nothing does, like the setting for a summer afternoon of rain and lightning, when the electric storm retreats over the near hills or passes around. I am sick of writers whom we should "watch" or "expect fine things from," after they have grown up, that is. I will settle for anybody who can keep the book light in my hand as I read it, reading for pleasure. "Welcome to the City" is not Irwin Shaw's best work to date, and it probably is not his best work for the future. But I will settle for Irwin Shaw.

Otis Ferguson, "Reading for Pleasure" (reprinted by permission of Dorothy Chamberlain; © Dorothy Chamberlain), in The New Republic, Vol. 106, No. 5, February 2, 1942, p. 157.∗

Howard Barnes

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Irwin Shaw has written a semi-documentary melodrama in "The Assassin." His [play] … sticks to facts with reasonable authority as it celebrates the killing of the wily French collaborationist Admiral Darlan, in 1942. Unfortunately, it takes an unconscionable time getting to the pay-off, and winds up with no more than a tiny distillation of dramatic meaning and feeling. Occasionally the writing and the acting make a scene flare up rather triumphantly. This does not keep the cadences of the acts from having a dying fall. Even a good blast of the "Marseillaise" could not have saved the climax from an inherent confusion of construction.

There is no possible question of the author's sincerity and sensitivity. He has singled out the events that led up to Darlan's assassination as the crux of the French defection to the cause of democracy. He has tried to show that patriots, no matter what their particular political beliefs, worked together against traitors in the darkest days of Vichy opportunism. What he has written is sometimes stirring and fundamentally disturbing, but the final soap-box speech of the heroic assassin, who warns his compatriots to be wary of the Germans within themselves, as he is led off to the firing squad, is more trite than trenchant….

There is more than a little eloquence in this Shaw work, but it is smothered in a hodge-podge of ill-assorted scenes.

Howard Barnes, "Misfires," in New York Herald Tribune (© I.H.T. Corporation; reprinted by permission), October 18, 1945 (and reprinted in New York Theatre Critics' Reviews, Vol. VI, No. 15, October 22, 1945, p. 140).

Lewis Nichols

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"The Assassin" is not a good play. It is too often wordy, too often high-sounding without substance, it has too many waits and too little dramatic drive. The melodramatic phase of the murder runs into a sentimental love affair and that into a discussion of philosophy—and none of them fare well from the union….

On the political side, Mr. Shaw is saying that men of honesty, regardless of faith, eventually will reach the common good; that mistakes, such as the "Admiral," may happen, but they will be corrected. It is perhaps fair enough on a playwright's part to offer this through melodrama, but once he has started, Mr. Shaw should keep the local blood-pressure higher. "The Assassin" is fitful. There are long speeches relieved only by suddenly opened doors and the prowl of police, sent there, it often seems, just to end the talk. The love affair is the weakest link of all. It is set down as a sort of lip service to tradition, and, as the author apparently doesn't care much about it either, it succeeds in ruining more scenes than it helps.

Lewis Nichols, "'The Assassin'," in The New York Times (© 1945 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 18, 1945 (and reprinted in New York Theatre Critics' Reviews, Vol, VI, No. 15, October 22, 1945, p. 140).

Robert Gorham Davis

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Irwin Shaw is a moral writer who conceives moral problems simply, feels them deeply, and dramatizes them with an often terrifying historical relevance. As a result, once met, his stories stay in the mind….

[The stories collected in "Act of Faith and Other Stories"] were written during the war about the war, but they cannot be taken retrospectively as an account of what has been. One finds, re-reading them in a period of unreal, unstable peace, that they gain in meaning, in the power to disturb, with the passage of time. For though Shaw was himself a soldier who was in these places at the time and brilliantly re-imagines for us the actualities of New York, Paris, Dakar, Cairo, Jerusalem and the...

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Brooks Atkinson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Being dramatists first and reformers second, Peter Viertel and Irwin Shaw have written a rattling good play with a meaning. It is "The Survivors."… The authors are demonstrating the futility of killing. But instead of presenting it as a political argument, they have embodied it in a rousing gun drama laid in Missouri after the Civil War….

["The Survivors" begins to get down to the core of its thesis when] Steve, hesitating between principle and tradition, has to listen to the bitter arguments from both sides….

In essence those are intellectual arguments against war. But Mr. Viertel and Mr. Shaw are not wasting their breath on abstract discussion. They have written an...

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Milton Rugoff

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The plight of liberals] in a period whose chief contribution to politics is the smear, guilt by association, conviction without hearing and loyalty by threat is the general subject of ["The Troubled Air"]. Since the particular subject is the firing of five persons from a radio program because a fly-by-night magazine charges they are Communists or fellow travelers, it could hardly be more timely. The point it makes may not endure, but meanwhile it should interest anyone who gives a second thought to his political position.

Considering the present state of political feeling, it took courage on the part of the novelist to make a liberal the sympathetic central character. (p. 1)


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Stephen Stepanchev

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In "The Troubled Air", his] brisk, journalistic second novel, Irwin Shaw describes the plight of a politically liberal radio director who finds himself embroiled in a purge of Communists and fellow-travelers touched off by a super-patriotic magazine. With impressive circumstantiality he demonstrates what a great many people have been suspecting for some time: that radicalism is no longer fashionable on the air waves and can, as a matter of fact, spin careers downward to economic ruin and suicide. The story has the tantalizing suggestiveness of a roman à clef and in its breathless argumentation can well serve as an index to the political anxieties of our time, but the speechmaking is easy and tedious, after...

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Richard Gilman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

We shed our sicknesses in our books, D. H. Lawrence wrote, but there are novelists like Irwin Shaw who seem able only to restate their maladies in each successive work. This sad, sterile, absolutely immobile talent has a medical dossier that reads like this: immaturity; false (or Hollywood-engendered) vitality; melancholia; concern with popularity; arrest at the second or possibly third most superficial level of the Zeitgeist; an ear for talk but not speech; a vision of love that delineates its ape.

Nothing can be done for him; there is no cure for pseudo-creativeness, and what is the point of trying to alleviate the pain of an imagination impaled on mediocrity and nevertheless obsessed with raising...

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Norman Nadel

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Melvin Peabody is an awesome, proud, defiant, defensive, embattled, embittered, eloquent and furious figure. Somebody should write a play about him.

And this is just what Irwin Shaw has failed to do in ["Children From Their Games"]…. He has fashioned a whale of a dramatic portrait, on the assumption that it constitutes a play.

It does not. A play must move—progress from here to there. The characters, once developed, must participate in either a purposeful action, or the construction of a point of view.

"Children From Their Games" eventually does bring Peabody out of his suicidal gloom and into a reminiscent escape from present misery. Through the help of an old...

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W. G. Rogers

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The two sons and one daughter of Axel Jordache, a small town-on-the-Hudson baker, form the triangle on which ["Rich Man, Poor Man"]—as on an armature—is unshakably constructed….

Tom starts out as a ne'er-do-well, Rudolph as the priggish mother's bright hope, and Gretchen as the renegade. A vast, shifting circle of acquaintances, friends, lovers, wives and husbands springs up around them. The directions they take and the goals they actually reach differ drastically.

A wealth of know-how has gone into the fictional creation; even today, few of our younger technicians can beat Irwin Shaw's expertise…. Shaw whisks us off from a standing start to a velocity well beyond familiar...

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Christopher Lehmann-Haupt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Michael Storrs, the hero of Irwin Shaw's … novel, "The Top of the Hill," can't seem to adapt himself…. Despite the glib self-knowledge that permits him to best his wife in the game of psychoanalysis, he goes right on "jumping out of airplanes etcetera"—which to him means taking risks that make him feel more alive, and to [his wife] means that one day soon she may be married to a corpse. So what with his failing marriage and job as a management consultant growing steadily more oppressive, Michael decides to run away…. (p. 535)

Now, Michael's "textbook case" is so familiar that it's almost a cliché of an American type. So you might expect that Mr. Shaw dreamed it up to make some observation...

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William Boyd

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Young Lions was one of the few genuinely praiseworthy "big" novels to come out of the Second World War. Unfortunately for Shaw it landed him with the legend (one he shares with his contemporary Norman Mailer with whom he was often compared) that he wrote his best novel first. His latest is going to do nothing to dispel that impression.

Bread Upon the Waters concerns the effects of misdirected philanthropy on a middle-class New York family—the Strands….

[If the plot] sounds implausible, that's because it is. Shaw has been afflicted with ideas. He has a moral point of view, a modestly stoical theory of how to cope with the contemporary world—in itself quite...

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Ross Wetzsteon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[With] 10 of his 11 novels having appeared on the best-seller list, and with his new novel, Bread Upon the Waters, headed there in the fall …, Irwin Shaw has come to represent big bucks and bad books.

The unexamined consensus among the quality controllers of American literature is that Shaw was an exceptionally gifted short-story writer who published a promising first novel and then betrayed his promise. According to the official line, with his laconically pointed dialogue, his controlled tough-guy lyricism, and his anti-rhetorical skepticism, he could have been the heir to Hemingway. Instead, by turning increasingly to beautiful-people potboilers, full of sex and violence, set against the...

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Nicholas Shrimpton

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Irwin Shaw confronts the … problems of wealth and freedom, in a novel which represents a welcome return to form after the blustering machismo of The Top of the Hill. Bread Upon the Waters offers both a richly realised account of life in contemporary New York, and a real sense of engagement with moral theme. Allen Strand, its hero, is a middle-aged history teacher whose strenuous work in a tough urban secondary school is relieved by an idyllically happy home life. One evening, as the family sits down to dinner, his youngest daughter brings in a bleeding man whom she has rescued from muggers in Central Park.

In the best fairytale manner, the battered stranger proves to be an immensely rich and...

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Evan Hunter

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In "Bread Upon the Waters," Irwin Shaw details] the burdens of limitless bounty, the temptations of accepting overwhelming generosity, the attempts to keep a family together when outside forces are threatening its preservation as a tightly knit unit. But there is much more here, and if we accept this novel as only a Santa Claus fantasy gone awry, we are doing its author a great disservice. Allen Strand is a curiously old-fashioned man adrift in a culture moving too swiftly for him, protected from the intrusion of modern everyday realities by an overindulgent family. Largely because of Hazen's entrance into his life, he begins to learn—slowly and painfully—that surface appearances (like the book's fairy tale plot)...

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