Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

After the war, literary critics expected much of the novel in general and much of Shaw in particular. Hope was high that World War II would produce the novel that summed up the American experience as Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (1926) had epitomized America’s World War I. Hope was high for Shaw, especially since his prewar plays and wartime stories tackled the issues of a national struggle.

Inevitably such high hopes could not be met. As a genre, novels of American involvement in World War II have generated little critical enthusiasm. Something always seemed lacking: The novels (such as The Caine Mutiny, 1951) that are positive about the war are lamented as jingoistic and naïve; those (such as Catch-22, 1961) that are negative about the war parrot fashionable nihilism. A war novel may be a book that can never be considered apart from its political implications and therefore will never please every critic. General readers respond more favorably to war novels: For twenty years after the war, fictions about World War II constantly made best-seller lists.

Shaw’s novels after The Young Lions continued to draw similar reactions. Brisk sales and favorable reviews confirmed his ability to produce interesting narratives with large, intricate casts of characters, but his works have not received serious critical attention. Shaw’s fiction is limited in its ability to deal with subtle ideas; for the most part, he contented himself with reflecting popular worldviews rather than with shaping a vision of his own. Shaw himself countered that critics have yet to appreciate an ironic vein that underlies his work.