Upon publication, What Makes Sammy Run? was an immediate though controversial success, much like Sammy himself. Though Schulberg presents a great range of Jewish characters, from Sammy to the saintly Blumberg, What Makes Sammy Run? was called anti-Semitic by many.
The novel grew out of Schulberg’s political convictions and his experience growing up in Hollywood and later working as a screenwriter himself. His fable dramatized many of the social and political issues of his day, giving Sammy’s story a politically left-of-center reading that was not so strident as to offend many readers. In addition, readers were both fascinated and repelled by its central character and by the Hollywood background: the infighting, intrigues, and sexual escapades of that city’s glamorous people. The book raises serious issues as well. Its treatment of sex was frank for its day. It deals sympathetically and openly with the problems that immigrants experienced in adjusting to American life.
This was Schulberg’s first novel. He went on to write other successful works that show many of the same concerns. His novel The Harder They Fall (1947) was about corruption in professional boxing. His story and screenplay for On the Waterfront, which dramatized corruption at the docks, won an Academy Award in 1954. His 1950 novel The Disenchanted drew upon the life of his acquaintance F. Scott Fitzgerald, a man who could be seen as defeated by Hollywood, a clear contrast to the successful Sammy Glick.
Echoes of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) are heard in some descriptions of Sammy Glick. The greatest stylistic emphasis on What Makes Sammy Run? may be the slapstick, smart-talking comedies that Hollywood was turning out during Schulberg’s early years as a screenwriter.