This is the grave of Leon Uris.
Born in 1924 in Baltimore, Uris was the son of Jewish immigrants. He later remembered his father as a bitter failure, someone Leon believed was so shaped by the experience of growing up in the oppression and hatred of Russia that he was a ruined person. Uris was just a regular kid, a bad student who didn’t take too much very seriously. He never graduated from high school. When the U.S. entered World War II, Uris joined the Marines and was part of the the Guadalcanal and Tarawa invasions as a radio operator. Like many American soldiers in the Pacific, he was felled by the non-Japanese enemy: mosquitoes. Suffering from dengue fever and malaria, he was sent back to the U.S. in 1944 and did not return to action before the end of the war.
After the war, Uris began to write. He got some newspaper jobs and then moved into magazines. Seeing some success, he began to work on a novel. That was one of the most popular American World War II novels, Battle Cry, based on his own experiences in war. I don’t know if this is read anymore. I haven’t read it anyway. The book was not particularly liked by critics, but was a bestseller and was made into a film in 1955 that Raoul Walsh directed and which starred Van Helfin and Aldo Ray. Uris wrote the screenplay for it. Like the novel, the critics didn’t care for it but it sold well. He also wrote the screenplay for Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, which might in fact be the best work of his career, very much including his novels.
What we remember Uris for today is Exodus, his pro-Israel book that basically ignored the reasons why the Palestinians may not have been real happy at being expelled from their homes and forced into exile to create an ethnic-nationalist state in their homeland. This book was one of the biggest sellers of its day, as it told a story a lot of people wanted to hear when it was released in 1958. Uris came to write about this when he was doing journalistic work in Israel during the Suez crisis in 1956. Strongly identifying with Israel, Exodus is effectively a propaganda novel, and a bad one. But again, it’s what people wanted to read. They also wanted to see the not great movie, starring Paul Newman and which was released in 1960. And let’s be clear–Ben-Gurion himself stated “as a piece of propaganda, it’s the greatest thing ever written about Israel.” There have been long been rumors that Uris was sent to Israel to gin up support for Israel and to write the book intentionally to get readers to compare the Palestinians to the Nazis, but some have disputed the truth of this. But whatever you want to say about it, the book is pretty racist.
Now very rich, Uris continued to mine both World War II and Israel for additional novels. I could go into these novels, but they are too irrelevant to bother with. Anything Uris wrote became a best-seller no matter how trite. He loved big historical epics with overly broad characters that wouldn’t force anyone to think. Perhaps the most interesting thing about any of these books is that when he published Mila 18, it forced Joseph Heller to change the name of his forthcoming novel from Catch-18 to Catch-22. He continued writing until his death, in 2003, of kidney failure. He was 78 years old.
Here’s a recent Chicago Tribune column about how great it is that people aren’t reading hacks like Uris and James Michener as much any more. Couldn’t agree more.
Leon Uris is buried in Quantico National Cemetery, Quantico, Virginia.
If you would like this series to visit other bad novelists of the 20th century, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. James Michener is in Austin, Texas and Zane Grey is in Lackawaxen, Pennsylvania. Previous posts in this series are archived here.