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Shaw, Irwinlocked

(27 February 1913–16 May 1984)
  • James R. Giles

Shaw, Irwin (27 February 1913–16 May 1984), writer, was born in the South Bronx, New York, the son of William Shamoroff and Rose Tompkins. Shaw’s father was a Russian-Jewish immigrant, and his mother was an American-born daughter of a Lithuanian-Jewish family. The Jewish immigrant experience was central to the future writer’s childhood and furnished material for later stories. When Shaw was seven, the family moved to Brooklyn where for the next seven years he enjoyed a stable and secure childhood. In 1923 William Shamoroff changed his name to William Shaw and began, in partnership with his two brothers, a real estate brokerage firm that initially prospered. The process of assimilation into mainstream American society seemed well on its way to a successful social and financial resolution for the Shaw family. But in 1928 the real estate firm began to lose money, and in 1932 it had to close. William Shaw was never again able to support his family. This domestic tragedy at the onset of the Great Depression left its scars on a young Irwin Shamoroff, who independently kept the original family name until his high school graduation at age sixteen. Throughout his life, even after phenomenal financial success as a he was haunted by fears of imminent and total economic disaster.

Money problems aside, Shaw entered tuition-free Brooklyn College in 1929 with his family’s new last name; he graduated in 1934 with a B.A. While in college he was prominent on the varsity football team; athletics would remain important to him throughout his life. After graduation, he held a number of temporary jobs to support his family. The most important was writing adventure serials for radio. Turning out episodes of “Dick Tracy” and “The Gumps” hardly constituted the creation of genuine literature, but it enabled Shaw to support his parents and his brother and to become, in the most literal sense, a professional writer. In addition, when he could find the time he was writing ambitious short fiction and a one-act play. In 1936 Shaw enjoyed his initial breakthrough as a serious writer. His play, an experimental antiwar drama entitled Bury the Dead, was produced in New York to critical acclaim, and its 23-year-old author was called a major new voice in the American theater. This sudden success would prove to have its ironic side, however. Despite several attempts, Shaw would never again enjoy an unqualified triumph as a playwright. Bury the Dead’s success did result in offers to write for movies, and Shaw produced his first screenplay, The Big Game, a forgettable thriller with a football motif, for RKO, in 1936. Of much more importance were the screenplays for Act of Love, a 1953 film directed by Anatole Litvak depicting a tragic love affair in occupied Paris, and the 1963 film In the French Style, adapted by Shaw from two of his short stories. Shaw also adapted Eugene O’Neill’s Desire under the Elms for the screen in 1958. Shaw would work in films often during his life; they provided money for his serious work and for his stylish living, but he was embarrassed by a great deal of his work in Hollywood, frustrated by the writer’s lack of control, and regretful of the time he gave over to that work.

In 1939 Shaw published his first collection of short fiction, Sailor off the Bremen and Other Stories, and witnessed the production in New York by the Group Theatre of his most ambitious play, The Gentle People. Several stories from the book, including the title story and the frequently reprinted “Girls in Their Summer Dresses,” had previously appeared in the New Yorker. In the late 1930s and the 1940s Shaw established himself as a leading practitioner of New Yorker short fiction, modernist stories distinguished by consciously controlled narrative technique and a detached sophisticated authorial consciousness. “Sailor off the Bremen” and “The Girls in Their Summer Dresses” illustrate two dominant elements in Shaw’s fiction—social protest with a strong undercurrent of violence and studies of adultery and troubled marriages. “Sailor off the Bremen” is a deliberately shocking warning against the rise of international fascism and its threat to world peace and stability, while “The Girls in Their Summer Dresses” is a tense and controlled portrayal of a married couple quarreling over the man’s threatened infidelities.

The Gentle People, especially as performed by the leftist Group Theatre, cemented Shaw’s early reputation as a protest writer. Subtitled “A Brooklyn Fable,” it depicts two modest and aging Brooklyn fishermen’s successful defiance of a gangster who is clearly intended as a personification of international fascism. In the late thirties Shaw felt an obligation to warn his fellow Americans of the dangers represented by Hitler and Mussolini. His writing during this period occasionally advocates armed resistance to the fascist threat. This militant posture prompted some critics to accuse Shaw of betraying the pacifist spirit of Bury the Dead. In fact, Shaw was never a philosophical pacifist, and his understanding of Hitler’s terrifying intent toward Jews made it impossible for him to ignore events in Europe, for he knew they related directly to all Jews.

Despite a remarkable cast including Sam Jaffe, Franchot Tone, Karl Malden, Sylvia Sidney, Elia Kazan, and Lee J. Cobb, The Gentle People was only a modest commercial success. Subsequently, without entirely abandoning the theater, Shaw increasingly turned from drama to fiction. On 13 October 1939 he married Marian Edwards, but virtually from the start of married life, he engaged in frequent, often public, affairs with other women. Not surprisingly, the marriage, while complex, was often stormy.

During World War II Shaw served as a noncombatant in a documentary filmmaking unit under the command of Hollywood director George Stevens. Although not in combat, Shaw was present during or shortly after some of the war’s most dramatic events—the campaign in North Africa, the Normandy invasion, and the Allied liberation of Paris. His experiences inspired a new and memorable stage of his career. In 1945 his play The Assassin, which dramatizes the assassination in Algiers of a pro-German French admiral by the French Resistance, opened in New York after a successful London production. Wounded by lukewarm reviews, the play closed after a ten-day run. For the 1946 publication of The Assassin by Random House, the embittered playwright wrote a preface condemning the New York theater as being dominated by artistic compromise and creative cowardice. At this point Shaw had seen seven of his plays produced in New York with steadily diminishing success. His disappointment was intensified by the largely unappreciated artistic integrity of The Assassin, which remains an undervalued work. Although he would publish one more ambitious play (Children from Their Games in 1962), the critical and commercial failure of The Assassin accelerated his retreat from the theater.

His war fiction, in contrast, was consistently well received. “Walking Wounded,” an atmospheric study of the loneliness and desperation of a young British soldier trapped in a tedious, noncombatant post in Egypt, won the 1944 O. Henry Memorial Award First Prize. The next year “Gunners’ Passage,” an elegiac account of the painful fragility of friendship in wartime, was awarded the O. Henry Second Prize. “Act of Faith,” published in the New Yorker in 1946, treats the theme of friendship in war against a backdrop of anti-Semitism in the U.S. Army and on the home front. One of Shaw’s most frequently anthologized pieces, it served as the title story for his 1946 collection, Act of Faith and Other Stories.

In 1948, at thirty-five, Shaw published his first novel, The Young Lions, an ambitious and panoramic fictional treatment of World War II. The novel interweaves the lives of three protagonists (an innocent Jewish-American enlisted man, a cynical intellectual from Broadway and Hollywood, and a fanatical Austrian Nazi) into a realistic allegory of the war and its immediate aftermath. A considerable critical and commercial success, The Young Lions inaugurated a new stage of Shaw’s career. Eleven more novels appeared before his death, and he increasingly became known as a novelist.

His second novel, The Troubled Air, published in 1951, a denunciation of McCarthyism in postwar America, dramatizes the destruction of individual careers that resulted from blacklisting in the entertainment industry. Never associated in any way with the Communist party, Shaw was briefly blacklisted largely because of the pacifist overtones of Bury the Dead and his financial support for the Loyalists during the Spanish Civil War. Two of his best short stories, “Goldilocks at Graveside” and “The Green Nude,” also satirize McCarthyism. While not achieving the overwhelming success of The Young Lions, The Troubled Air was still well received. However, five years after its publication, Shaw’s critical reputation as a major American writer began to deteriorate.

Shortly after the birth of their only child in 1951, the Shaws, who for some time had lived and vacationed in Europe, began a 25-year voluntary exile, with a grand residence in Paris, a chalet in Klosters, Switzerland, and various summer homes in the south of France. While living in Paris, Shaw would increasingly be charged with abandoning his American roots as a writer and indulging in a life-style devoted to materialistic excess. The attacks on Shaw’s Parisian life-style became reminiscent of the criticism directed against F. Scott Fitzgerald during the 1920s; also like Fitzgerald, Shaw suffered from alcoholism, though he worked every morning of his life and never lost the capacity to order his hours at the typewriter.

In 1956 his third novel, Lucy Crown, was widely condemned as representing a betrayal of its author’s artistic principles, and none of his other expatriate works would receive high critical regard, even though the novels Two Weeks in Another Town (1960) and Evening in Byzantium (1973) and the story collection God Was Here But He Left Early (1973) are much underrated serious works. Shaw’s personal life was troubled as well; in 1970 the Shaws’ marriage was interrupted by divorce.

Despite the critical attacks on it, the fiction that Shaw produced during his expatriate years fared well with the reading public; 1970 saw the publication of his most commercially successful book, Rich Man, Poor Man, a sweeping fictional treatment of two generations of an immigrant family. The even more successful 1976 television miniseries adaptation of the novel assured Shaw the widest public recognition of his literary career, and in 1977 he published a sequel, Beggarman, Thief. After his earlier recognition as a radical playwright, a master of the social protest short story, and a major war novelist, there was no little irony in his final reputation as a bestselling popular novelist.

In 1976 he left Paris to divide his time between Long Island and Klosters. Two years later, he published the most important book in his long, prolific career, Short Stories: Five Decades, an omnibus collection of sixty-three of his stories. The volume clearly demonstrates his major contributions to the development of the American short story. Shaw’s short fiction stands as the cornerstone of his artistic achievement. His personal triumph at the appearance of Short Stories: Five Decades was marred by a series of illnesses, however and in 1981 he discovered that he was suffering from cancer of the prostate. He credited Marian with saving his life during several medical crises, and the two reconciled and remarried in 1982. They remained together until Shaw’s death in Davos, Switzerland.

Despite the critical reaction against his work during the last thirty years of his life, Shaw remains an important American writer. Besides his paramount achievement in short fiction, he produced one of the major American World War II novels, The Young Lions, and two political plays that make intriguing use of experimental techniques, Bury the Dead and The Gentle People. In addition, the novels Two Weeks in Another Town, Evening in Byzantium, and Bread upon the Waters (1981) are masterfully crafted modernist fiction, while The Assassin is a powerful exercise in traditionally realistic political drama. If the range and scope of Shaw’s literary achievement have rarely been appreciated, almost all of his work is distinguished by flawless literary craftsmanship.


The manuscript of The Young Lions is housed at the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York City. Boston University and Brooklyn College have collections of Shaw papers, including letters. Michael Shnayerson’s Irwin Shaw: A Biography (1989) is the only comprehensive biography of the writer. Other Shaw novels are Voices of a Summer Day (1965), Nightwork (1975), The Top of the Hill (1979), and Acceptable Losses (1982); his short fiction appears in Welcome to the City and Other Stories (1942), Mixed Company: Collected Short Stories (1950), Tip on a Dead Jockey and Other Stories (1957), and Love on a Dark Street and Other Stories (1965). The only book-length critical studies of Shaw’s work are by James R. Giles, Irwin Shaw (1983) and Irwin Shaw: A Study of the Short Fiction (1991). See also Chester E. Eisinger, Fiction of the Forties (1963); Peter G. Jones, War and the Novelist: Appraising the American War Novel (1976); and Ross Wetzsteon, “Irwin Shaw: The Conflict between Big Bucks and Good Books,” Saturday Review, Aug. 1981.