Authors: Irwin Shaw

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American short-story writer and novelist

Identity: Jewish

Author Works

Short Fiction:

Sailor off the Bremen, and Other Stories, 1939

Welcome to the City, and Other Stories, 1942

Act of Faith, and Other Stories, 1946

Mixed Company, 1950

Tip on a Dead Jockey, and Other Stories, 1957

Love on a Dark Street, 1965

Retreat, and Other Stories, 1970

God Was Here, but He Left Early, 1973

Short Stories: Five Decades, 1978

Long Fiction:

The Young Lions, 1948

The Troubled Air, 1951

Lucy Crown, 1956

Two Weeks in Another Town, 1960

Voices of a Summer Day, 1965

Rich Man, Poor Man, 1970

Evening in Byzantium, 1973

Nightwork, 1975

Beggarman, Thief, 1977

The Top of the Hill, 1979

Bread upon the Waters, 1981

Acceptable Losses, 1982


Bury the Dead, pr., pb. 1936

Siege, pr. 1937

The Gentle People: A Brooklyn Fable, pr., pb. 1939

Quiet City, pr. 1939

Retreat to Pleasure, pr. 1940

Sons and Soldiers, pr. 1943

The Assassin, pr. 1945

The Survivors, pr., pb. 1948 (with Peter Viertel)

Children from Their Games, pb. 1962

A Choice of Wars, pr. 1967

I, Shaw, pr. 1986 (two one-act plays

The Shy and Lonely and Sailor off the Bremen)


The Big Game, 1936

Commandos Strike at Dawn, 1942

The Hard Way, 1942 (with Daniel Fuchs and Jerry Wald)

Talk of the Town, 1942 (with Sidney Buchman)

Take One False Step, 1949 (with Chester Erskine and David Shaw)

I Want You, 1951

Act of Love, 1953

Fire down Below, 1957

Desire Under the Elms, 1958

This Angry Age, 1958 (with Rene Clement)

The Big Gamble, 1961

In the French Style, 1963

Survival, 1968


The Top of the Hill, 1980


Report on Israel, 1950 (with Robert Capa)

In the Company of Dolphins, 1964

Paris! Paris!, 1977

Paris/Magnum: Photographs, 1935–1981, 1981


Irwin Gilbert Shamforoff (his father changed the family name to Shaw) has been most widely acclaimed as a writer of ironically urbane short stories, which helped to define what many think of as “The New Yorker story,” and for The Young Lions, which remains one of the most noteworthy American novels about World War II. Shaw was born in New York City on February 27, 1913, to William Shaw and Rose (Tompkins) Shaw. He attended public schools in Brooklyn before enrolling in Brooklyn College. After his freshman year, however, he was forced to withdraw from college because of academic difficulties. For the next several years, he worked in a variety of jobs in local factories and retail stores in order to make his reenrollment financially feasible. In 1934 he graduated from Brooklyn College with a B.A. degree, having distinguished himself by writing several plays for the college dramatic society and a regular column for the college newspaper. He also played quarterback for the varsity football team.{$I[AN]9810000838}{$I[A]Shaw, Irwin}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Shaw, Irwin}{$I[geo]JEWISH;Shaw, Irwin}{$I[tim]1913;Shaw, Irwin}

Irwin Shaw

(Library of Congress)

After graduation, Shaw helped to support his family by writing radio scripts for the serials Dick Tracy and The Gumps. In 1936 he submitted Bury the Dead to the New Theater League, and after several Off-Broadway performances, it was produced on Broadway, establishing Shaw as an important new voice in the American theater. The play concerns the refusal of six ordinary soldiers to be buried after they have been killed in battle. In technique, it owes much to the experimental German theater of the 1920’s; in tone and theme, it is distinctly American, resembling much of the antiwar literature that followed World War I.

The success of Bury the Dead led to a Hollywood contract. Shaw’s second stage play, The Gentle People, was produced on Broadway by the Group Theater. Also during this time he published his first collection of short stories, Sailor off the Bremen, and Other Stories. The Gentle People had more commercial success than Bury the Dead, but the critical response was more lukewarm. When The Assassin was dismissed for its fairly conventional technique and structure and for its seemingly propagandist acceptance of conventional views of the war, Shaw responded bitterly in the 1946 preface to the published play, denouncing the narrow ideological range afforded by the major Broadway critics to political plays and, in effect, ending his career as a dramatist.

Still, Shaw’s reputation as a writer of short stories became firmly established, with his stories being included regularly in the O. Henry Prize collections and with several, such as “Walking Wounded” in 1944, being awarded first prize. This war story appeared in Act of Faith, and Other Stories, which, along with Sailor off the Bremen, and Other Stories and Welcome to the City, and Other Stories, established Shaw’s range as a writer of short stories. The much-anthologized “The Girls in Their Summer Dresses” and “The Eighty-Yard Run” deftly treat the sexual and social ironies that undercut the success seemingly inherent in upper-middle-class American life. “Second Mortgage” and “Main Currents of American Thought” are notable explorations of the effects of economic turmoil on the urban family struggling to avoid poverty. “Residents of Other Cities,” “Act of Faith,” and “Medal from Jerusalem” are notable for their treatments of Jewish issues.

In 1948 Shaw published The Young Lions, his first and still most highly regarded novel. The first American novel to attempt a panoramic treatment of the European theater of World War II (and still generally acknowledged as the most successful of all such treatments), The Young Lions presents the eventually interconnected experiences of three soldiers, two Americans and one German. The structure of the novel depends on very elaborate parallels between events and characters and on a subtle pattern of interrelated symbols. It has been criticized for being structurally too contrived, but it has been praised for its precise depiction of incidents and its memorable characterizations.

Shaw subsequently published many other works of both short and long fiction. In general, the short stories have been much more highly regarded than the novels, which have been seen as relying too much on melodramatic structural devices. This impression of the novels has been reinforced by the publication of “entertainments” such as Nightwork and The Top of the Hill. In addition, the television adaptation of the Jordache novels, Rich Man, Poor Man and Beggerman, Thief, did much to increase Shaw’s commercial success at the expense of his critical reputation.

In almost all Shaw’s work, there is an underlying pessimism about the horrors of experience, represented as “accidents” that dramatically alter a character’s circumstances and attitudes. This pessimism is balanced only by a restrained faith in the basic goodness of some individuals who can by their actions somewhat mitigate the effects of those horrors. The critical consensus is that the balance is maintained effectively by the ironic detachment in Shaw’s short stories but is undercut in the novels by the melodramatic structuring. Nevertheless, the response to Shaw’s last two novels, Bread upon the Waters and Acceptable Losses, has suggested to some critics that a serious reevaluation of Shaw’s importance is necessary.

BibliographyEisinger, Chester E. Fiction of the Forties. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963. In the section titled “Irwin Shaw: The Popular Ideas of the Old Liberalism,” Eisinger both praises and condemns Shaw for his treatment, in the four volumes of short stories he produced between 1939 and 1950, of racial and social prejudice.Giles, James R. “Interview with Irwin Shaw.” Resources for American Literary Study 18 (1992): 1-21. Shaw discusses his experiences writing for movies, his reaction to being a “popular” writer, his blacklisting, and his opinion of Ernest Hemingway. Contends “Act of Faith” is an “angry” story.Giles, James R. Irwin Shaw. Boston: Twayne, 1983. This book is one volume in an expanding series of literary biographies.Giles, James R. Irwin Shaw: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1991. An excellent review of Shaw’s short stories.Placzek, Walter H. “Irwin Shaw (1913-1984).” In American Playwrights, 1880-1945: A Research and Production Sourcebook, edited by William W. DeMastes. Greenwood Press, 1995. Provides useful production data on Shaw’s plays.Reynolds, Fred. “Irwin Shaw’s ‘The Eighty-Yard Run.’” The Explicator 49 (Winter, 1991): 121-123. Interprets the story as a case study in psychoneurosis in which the protagonist exhibits three symptoms of arrested development: sexual confusion, Oedipal relationships, and neurotic fixation on the past.Shaw, Irwin. “Interview with Irwin Shaw.” Interview by James R. Giles. Resources for American Literary Study 18 (1992): 1-21. Shaw discusses his experiences writing for movies and his reaction to being a “popular” writer.Shaw, Irwin. “The Art of Fiction IV.” The Paris Review 1 (1953): 26-49. In this interview, Shaw discusses all the different forms he explored. Beginning with his earliest efforts as a script writer for the radio series Dick Tracy, he lays out many of his theories and techniques as playwright, novelist, and screen writer. Of the short stories he says “The form … is so free as to escape restrictions to any theory.”Shaw, Irwin. “The Art of Fiction IV, Continued.” The Paris Review 21 (Spring, 1979): 248-262. This interview is an update of the one conducted twenty-five years earlier. Shaw discusses being an expatriate writer, how he feels he has mellowed, and how dramatically his lifestyle changed when he gave up writing for the theater.Shnayerson, Michael. Irwin Shaw: A Biography. New York: Putnam, 1989. A good look at Shaw’s life and times.Startt, William. “Irwin Shaw: An Extended Talent.” Midwest Quarterly 2 (1961): 325-337. In comparing Shaw’s short stories to his novels, Startt credits the shorter works with projecting more “immediacy” and a greater sense of “reality.” Shaw is compared favorably with Ernest Hemingway.
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