Uris, Leon Marcus

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Uris, Leon Marcus

(b. 3 August 1924 in Baltimore, Maryland; d. 21 June 2003 in Shelter Island, New York), popular historical novelist noted for chronicles of World War II, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the fight for Irish independence.

Uris was the son of Wolf William Uris, a paperhanger and shopkeeper, and Anna (Blumberg) Uris, a homemaker. Wolf Uris, a Polish immigrant who had lived for a time in Palestine, also worked as a Communist Party organizer. An admittedly poor student, Uris attended school in Norfolk, Virginia, failing English three times and never graduating from high school. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, he dropped out of school and lied about his age in order to enlist in the Marine Corps. He served 1942–1945 in the South Pacific, participating in a number of fierce battles, including Guadalcanal and Tarawa. His military experience would later provide him with the material for his first book, Battle Cry (1953), which he considered to be the “real” story of the Marines.

Upon his discharge from the Marine Corps, Uris married Betty Katherine Beck on 5 January 1945 and began working as a circulation manager for a San Francisco newspaper. He wrote furiously, eventually publishing a football article in Esquire magazine in 1950. Battle Cry was rejected by several publishers before being accepted by Putnam; favorable critical and popular reception of the novel led Uris to devote his full attention to writing. He wrote the screenplay for the novel’s film adaptation, which was produced by Warner Bros. in 1954, and a year later published The Angry Hills (1955), based loosely on the adventures of an uncle’s espionage activities during the Nazi occupation of Greece.

It was the focus on Nazism in The Angry Hills that kindled Uris’s interest in the Holocaust and the settlement of Israel. Although he continued to work in Hollywood, writing the screenplay for Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), Uris spent most of the next several years traveling through Israel. He covered more than 12,000 miles and interviewed more than a thousand people in preparation for writing Exodus (1958), the story of the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine. Clearly his most famous work, Exodus spent more than a year on the New York Times best-seller list and remains one of the best-selling novels in American publishing history. Since its publication the novel has never been out of print. Otto Preminger’s film adaptation (1960), starring Paul Newman and Eva Marie Saint, achieved blockbuster status immediately upon opening and has since become an American movie classic.

Exodus contains extensive flashbacks to the Holocaust, the most gripping of which involves the battle for the Warsaw Ghetto. That struggle became the basis for Uris’s next novel, Mila 18 (1961), named for the address of the resistance fighters’ headquarters. Although not quite as popular as his previous novel, Mila 18 still became a best seller. The novel also had an inadvertent impact on American literary history: Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, scheduled for publication soon after Mila 18, underwent a title change as a result of the success of Uris’s novel. The original title of Heller’s book had been Catch-18.

After exploring the origins and development of the cold war in his next two novels, Armageddon: A Novel of Berlin (1964) and Topaz: A Novel (1967), Uris returned to the subject of the Holocaust in the 1970 novel QB VII (a reference to the British courtroom Queen’s Bench 7). This semiautobiographical work deals with a libel suit brought by a concentration camp survivor against a novelist who had depicted him as a Nazi collaborator. While the present time of the novel is the 1960s, trial testimony carries readers back to the horrors of the death camps.

Early in 1968 Uris was divorced from his first wife, with whom he had three children. On 8 September 1968 he married Margery Edwards, who committed suicide five months later. He married for a third time, to the photographer Jill Peabody, on 15 February 1970. The couple had two children. While traveling in Ireland with Peabody, Uris became intrigued by the Irish struggle for independence from Britain, an interest that led to the kind of extensive field and bibliographic research that produced Exodus. The result, Trinity (1976), did for Irish-American readers what the earlier novel had done for Jewish Americans. Indeed the two quests for an independent homeland shared many key features in Uris’s work: brutal oppressors, larger-than-life heroes, and epic battles. Trinity’s success almost equaled that of Exodus; it remained on the New York Times best-seller list for almost two years and sold more than five million copies. Uris also provided the commentary for Peabody’s photographs in Ireland: A Terrible Beauty (1975).

Although Uris and Peabody published another photographic essay, Jerusalem, Song of Songs, in 1981, almost a decade would pass before he published his next novel, The Haj (1984), a bleak account of the settling of Israel from the point of view of a Palestinian Arab. He followed this work with the equally dark Mitla Pass (1988), which chronicles the adventures of an American soldier fighting in the 1967 Sinai War. These two novels signaled a distinct change of tone for Uris. While his earlier works featured brutal violence, graphic battles, and exceptional cruelty, underlying each of their stories was a singular hope, a faith in the essential goodness of humanity. The refugees who settle in Israel, the fighters in Warsaw, and the concentration camp survivors in Nazi-dominated Europe all exhibit an indomitable spirit and will to live. The Haj and Mitla Pass, on the other hand, while populated by a few noble characters, reflect a much darker vision of the human condition. The Palestinians in the former are lazy, depraved, and bestial; the Israeli officers in the latter are fanatical warmongers.

A glimpse of the underlying faith in humanity that characterizes Battle Cry, The Angry Hills, Exodus, and Mila 18 reappear in Uris’s last novel of any note, Redemption (1995), an expansion of the Larkin family story begun twenty years earlier in Trinity. In 1999 Uris turned his attention to his native country with A God in Ruins, the tale of an American president who discovers his Jewish roots on the eve of his election. His last novel, the Civil War narrative O’Hara’s Choice, was published posthumously in 2003. Neither of these final works received the critical or popular attention of his earlier writing. Several months before publication of O’Hara’s Choice, Uris succumbed to renal failure in his home in Shelter Island, New York. He is buried in Quantico National Cemetery in Quantico, Virginia.

Uris’s popularity among American readers waned after the publication of Trinity in 1976. With the exception of Redemption, the success of which may be attributed to a coattail effect, none of the novels published during the last thirty years of his career achieved the status of his earlier work. In part this may have been a result of the works themselves. Critics and readers alike, for example, considered the author to have crossed a line in his savage depiction of Palestinian Arabs in The Haj. The central character of Mitla Pass—although clearly fashioned after the author himself—is profoundly unsympathetic. A God in Ruins and O’Hara’s Choice were considered muddled and lacking focus.

These explanations reveal only part of the story, however. Uris was always intensely partisan, and several of his earlier protagonists were severely flawed. Furthermore, critics had complained often and forcefully that his characters were one-dimensional, his dialogue wooden, and his command of English syntax less than perfect. Despite all of these drawbacks, however, readers devoured his earlier work. The reason for the decline in his popularity may well reside outside the author’s purview. The period between publication of Battle Cry in 1953 and Trinity in 1976 corresponds roughly to the height of the cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union, with all of its attendant tensions. Armageddon (1964) and Topaz (1967), for example, focused directly and intensely on the threat posed by the Soviet Union in Europe and in Cuba. The former was published shortly after the Cuban Missile Crisis and the erection of the Berlin Wall, and the latter appeared just as the United States was becoming mired in the Vietnam War. Uris’s work, like that of less prolific authors such as Allen Drury (Advise and Consent, 1961), Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey (Seven Days in May, 1962), and Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler (Fail Safe, 1964), gave voice to the fears and anxieties of a nation that felt itself constantly on the brink of nuclear annihilation or imminent invasion. Uris’s novels of the Holocaust and its aftermath also reflected the sentiment of the times, casting the Irish and the Jews as heroic fighters against the oppression of the British, the Nazis, and the Arabs—just as contemporary Americans resisted the threat of Soviet domination.

The emergence of détente between the United States and Soviets, coupled with the increasing economic and military strength of Israel, may well have resulted in a shift in taste among the American reading public. In setting his last two novels on United States soil, Uris may have been attempting to win back his readership. But the heroes of the Holocaust and the cold war no longer resonate with readers, and thus it is his early work for which Uris will be remembered. That work remains among the most popular fiction in American literary history.

Notes and manuscripts for all of Uris’s novels except The Haj and Mitla Pass, as well as the manuscripts for Gunfight at the O.K. Corral and Uris’s correspondence, are at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin. Kathleen Shine Cain, Leon Uris: A Critical Companion (1998), is the only book-length study of Uris’s life and work; biographical information is also in Marian Christy, “Leon Uris: His Word Is Truth,” Boston Globe (26 Oct. 1988), and Bernard Kalb, “Leon Uris,” Saturday Review (25 Apr. 1953). For a scholarly analysis of Uris’s work, see Sharon D. Downey and Richard Al Kallan, “Semi-Aesthetic Detachment: The Fusing of Fictional and External Worlds in the Situational Literature of Leon Uris,” Communication Monographs 49 (Sept. 1982): 192–204; for a critique of the author’s style, see Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, “How to Write a Leon Uris,” review of QB VII, New York Times (2 Dec. 1970); for praise of his storytelling ability, see Pete Hamill, review of Trinity, New York Times Book Review (14 Mar. 1976). Obituaries are in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times (both 25 June 2003).

Kathleen Shine Cain