Leon Uris, a high school dropout, was 34 when he achieved fame. With the publication of his novel, Exodus, he blazed a path to celebrity. Selling more copies than any other American book since Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, Exodus, published in 1958, was a world-wide sensation, printed in 50 languages.
Exodus, transformed into a blockbuster Hollywood movie starring Paul Newman, was not Uris’ sole success. QB VII, Mila 18 and Trinity were hits as well.
But as Ira B. Nadel observes in his first-rate biography, Leon Uris: Life of a Best Seller (University of Texas Press), his decline was equally precipitous, his subsequent novels having bombed.
Still, Uris single-handedly changed the popular perception of Israel in America during the late 1950s and 1960s. “As a literary work it isn’t much,” David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, is supposed to have said. “But as a piece of propaganda, it’s the greatest thing ever written about Israel.”
Exodus, Uris wrote, “tells the story of the Jews coming back to [their ancestral homeland] after centuries of abuse, indignities, torture and murder to carve out an oasis in the sand with guts and blood.”
By creating dashing and heroic Jewish figures capable of vanquishing the enemy, Uris reconfigured Israel’s image, says Nadel, a professor of English at the University of British Columbia.
The late Edward Said, in a critique of U.S. foreign policy, wrote in 2001 that “the main narrative model that dominates American thinking still seems to be Leon Uris’ novel Exodus.”
Beyond that, Uris had a profound effect on the psyche of American Jews, the primary consumers of Exodus. As Nadel puts it, “Uris pairs the Jewish catastrophe of the Holocaust with the Jewish triumph of Israel. They became the two pillars of Jewish American identity.”
M.M. Silver, in Our Exodus: Leon Uris and the Americanization of Israel’s Founding Story (Wayne State University Press), elaborates upon this important point.
Exodus, he writes, was deeply influential, prompting American Jews to display open ethnic pride regarding Israel, playing a vital role in the recovery of Jewish self-confidence after the devastation of the Holocaust and galvanizing some Jews in the Soviet Union to demand the right of emigration.
And, of course, Exodus was a public relations coup for the Zionist movement. With tourism to Israel having jumped by 70 percent after 1958, Ben-Gurion personally urged Uris to write a novel about the last stand of Jewish rebels against a Roman army at Masada.
Some Israelis, however, were less than enthralled. Israeli journalist Uri Avneri described Exodus as “revolting kitsch” and complained it had turned Israelis into “ridiculous cowboys.” In vain, Avneri called on the Israeli government to ban the screening of Exodus, directed by Otto Preminger. Needless to say, Arabs were far more scathing in their condemnation.
Ironically, as Silver notes, Exodus was composed by a man who had virtually no knowledge of Jewish subjects before embarking on a crash course in Zionist history.
Born in Baltimore in 1924, Uris was the son of Wolf Yerushalmi, a left-leaning Russian Jew who arrived in Palestine in 1920, during the Third Aliyah. “Illness, little work, unhappiness and political unrest” marked his interregnum in Palestine, Nadler comments.
Immigrating to the United States in 1921, he earned a livelihood as a garment worker and then as a paper hanger.
His son, Leon, aspired to be a writer, eager to denounce oppression and work for no one but himself. Joining the U.S. Marine Corps in World War II, Uris fought in the Pacific theatre against the Japanese. Ill with malaria and dengue fever, he was shipped back home and honourably discharged in 1945.
Uris’ first book, Jewish Youth at War: Letters from an American Soldier, was followed by Battle Cry, a pro-military novel about the Pacific war. Warner Brothers purchased the film rights, and Uris wrote the screenplay for the movie.
After finishing The Angry Hills, a novel set in Nazi-occupied Greece, Uris set his sights on writing a novel about the struggle for Jewish statehood in Palestine. He had a personal motive for composing Exodus, Nadel says. In short, Uris wanted to reexamine his own Jewish background. Until then, he had never identified strongly with it. And he was determined to bury the stereotypical image of the “soft Jew.”
Uris, too, was clear about his intended audience – “the American people” rather than American Jews and Zionists. His objective was to present Israel in such a way that its very existence and raison d’etre would be fully understood by the American public.
He spent three and a half months reading nearly 300 books on the Jewish state and the Middle East before going to Israel in the spring of 1956. His personal guide in Israel, Ilan Hartuv, was a junior foreign ministry official who had once been mayor of Kiryat Shmona. Hartuv took him around the country and introduced him to Israeli figures ranging from Yigael Yadin to Golda Meir.
With so much material at hand, Uris churned out one million words. His editor cut down Exodus to 250,000 words. Sales were initially slow, but within a year, 399,384 hardback and 1.6 million paperback copies had been sold, outpacing competitors like Doctor Zhivago, The Ugly American, Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Lolita. “Uris treated history liberally, taking liberties with events, facts, time lines and character,” Nadel writes in a blistering indictment of his methods. “Exodus aimed at impact rather than strict accuracy.”
Much to Uris’ bitter disappointment, Preminger rejected his screen treatment of Exodus, claiming he was a poor scriptwriter. Preminger turned to Dalton Trumbo, who had been blacklisted during the McCarthyist era.
At Preminger’s behest. Trumbo removed all references of Jewish divine claims to Palestine and presented a more optimistic view of Jewish-Arab relations.
Exodus, premiered in New York City on Dec. 15, 1960, was the first major American film shot entirely on location in Israel, and was nominated for three Academy Awards. It also set box office records in the United States.
Uris adapted Exodus as a Broadway play, but it flopped. In the wake of the Six Day War, he contributed an essay to an instant book, Strike Zion!, and cobbled together a lavishly illustrated coffee-table volume, Jerusalem: Song of Songs. Drawing upon his research notes, he wrote The Haj, which Nadel dismisses as a simplistic account of the Arabs.
Although Nadel is critical of Uris’ prose style and rates him as a minor writer, he respects his powers as an entertaining storyteller who engaged readers and lauds his talent for blending facts with fiction. Certainly, in Exodus, Uris’ gifts as a novelist were prominently displayed.