Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 920
Leon Marcus Uris (YEWR-ihs) endures as one of the most popular—and controversial—American novelists. Born on August 3, 1924, in Baltimore, the son of Wolf William and Anna Blumberg Uris, he was educated in the Baltimore and Philadelphia city schools before enlisting in the United States Marine Corps in 1942. He served with the Marines in the Pacific and in Northern California and was honorably discharged in 1946. In 1945, while stationed near San Francisco, he met and married Marine Sergeant Betty Katherine Beck, with whom he had three children: Karen, Mark, and Michael. To support his family while struggling to publish, he worked as a home delivery manager for the San Francisco Call-Bulletin. When he finally sold an article on football to Esquire in 1950, he decided to work on a novel about World War II because “the real Marine story had not been told.” That novel was Battle Cry, and its astonishing success in 1953 established him as a full-time writer. This realistic account of World War II introduced the formula that Uris would follow throughout his canon: rather stereotyped characters whose personal drama is played out against a background of international crisis.
The triumph of Battle Cry, made into a successful film in 1955 with a script by the novelist, was not to be repeated with Uris’s second novel, The Angry Hills. Published in 1955, it is a less ambitious and less appealing story of Greek resistance fighters during the Nazi Occupation. The novel repeated the Uris approach, however, being loosely based on the diary of an uncle who had fought in Greece as a volunteer in the Palestinian brigade. In the late 1950’s Uris’s fortunes soared once again. In addition to writing the screenplay for the successful Western Gunfight at the OK Corral, he published Exodus, a novel which not only stands as the author’s greatest literary accomplishment but also entered mass culture as the definitive popular work on the birth of modern Israel. This success, coupled with the equivalent popularity of the film, which starred Paul Newman, established Uris as the unofficial historian of modern Judaism. It is because of his treatment of Jews and Arabs that he has engendered much controversy.
In Exodus Revisited, a work of photojournalism published with Dimitrios Harissiadis, a picture of Hasidic children is contrasted to a full-length photograph of a “modern” young woman: “A very few Jews cling to the ways of the ghetto. But Israel pins her hopes on her tough and wonderful sabras.” It is this obvious polarization that has bothered even Jewish critics. Throughout his works, Uris is uncompromising in his treatment of Arabs as primitive and misled in politics.
After four more novels, a second marriage, and a six-year hiatus (during which he researched the background of modern Ireland), Uris produced his second greatest work. Trinity is a sprawling novel which dramatizes the background of modern Ireland from the potato famine to the Easter Rebellion of 1916. Very much like Exodus in theme, characterization, and structure, the novel was both a critical and a popular success. To do research for the novel, he and his third wife, Jill Peabody Uris, a professional photographer whom he had married in 1970, spent nearly a year traveling throughout Ireland. This expedition resulted in another photographic essay, Ireland, a Terrible Beauty, which actually appeared a year before the novel, in 1975. In 1995, Uris published Redemption, a novel set in Ireland during World War I that treats some of the same families that appeared in Trinity.
It was not until 1984 that the Uris name again appeared on the best-seller lists, but when it did, it accompanied the most controversial work of his controversial career: The Haj. In what appeared to many critics and readers as a classic example of chutzpah, this champion of Zionism chose to write the modern history of the Palestinians from an Arab point of view. Perhaps because the novel seems to conclude that the Jews are the Arabs’ “bridge out of darkness,” the novel was generally savaged by the critics.
In Mitla Pass, published in 1988, Uris turned again to the familiar subjects of Zionism and Israeli-Arab conflict, this time the 1956 struggle over the Suez Canal. Although the structure of the story follows the traditional Uris formula of individuals caught up in conflicts of global significance, there is a different emphasis. The book seems much more personal, more of an “author’s life” than the other novels.
Redemption returned to Irish history, carrying on the story of two of the families from Trinity, the Larkins and the Hobbeses, into World War I and its aftermath, contrasting the conflicts in Ireland with the battlefields of continental Europe and Turkey. A God in Ruins takes place in 2008, featuring a Catholic presidential candidate who was, unbeknownst to himself, born a Jew. Uris uses the plot as an opportunity to explore questions of religion and politics in the United States, but the novel was generally felt to be a weak effort, overwhelmed by excessive flashbacks. Uris died in 2003.
It is perhaps surprising that Uris did not do more in the area of motion pictures, considering his early success and the cinematic quality of his narratives. The majority of his novels have been filmed, but when Uris worked on the screenplays, his strong personality clashed with those of the filmmakers. As Sharon Downey and Richard Kallan observed, Leon Uris was “a reader’s writer and a critic’s nightmare.” Yet when his material meshed with his abilities, he became a dramatic chronicler of the events that shaped the modern world.
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