Leon Uris's 1958 best seller Exodus teaches us a great deal about bestsellers in general. To begin with, it informs us that journalistic fiction is a major category of best-selling novels. Exodus can be grouped together with many other best sellers based on this common thread. For example, many of Uris's other works, as well as other best sellers published around the same time as Exodus, such as Michener's Hawaii, Drury's Advise and Consent, and Lederer and Burdick's The Ugly American, all concentrate foremost on recording the facts surrounding some political or historical event. In order to learn more about this type of best seller, as well as best sellers in general, one can analyze the recipe for Exodus. What are some of the vital ingredients in this novel? Do these ingredients seem to be part of the recipe for other best selling journalistic fiction? For best sellers in general? How are the common ingredients employed in different ways in each best seller? What does this tell us about readers? In the search for answers to these questions, we are able to closely analyze several aspects of Exodus as well as gain insight into the intriguing popularity of best sellers.
Exodus belongs to the category of bestsellers known as journalistic fiction. Set in the mid-1940s, Exodus recounts the events leading up to the founding of the state of Israel. Using flashbacks and digressions, Uris describes important events such as the Holocaust and rise of Zionism, as well as instrumental political documents such as the British White Paper. One critic refers to the novel's story line as "the plot that history has already written" (Wakefield 318-319). Thus, although Exodus includes fictional characters and minor sub-plots, the historical narrative is the essence of the novel. It is clear that this is what Uris intended, considering how he went about preparing to write the novel. Critic Dan Wakefield writes that "Leon Uris?arrived in Jerusalem armed with notes, pencils, khakis, typewriter, revolver and Bible; served as a war correspondent in the Sinai campaign, traveled thorough Denmark, Italy, Cyprus and Iran, and covered more than 12,000 miles within Israel's borders to "research" the story of Exodus" (Wakefield 318).
Most of Uris's other best-selling novels also fall into the journalistic fiction class of bestsellers. Critic Paul Hendrickson explains that, "Picking up a piece of territory?pouring the lava of fact?onto a runaway story, is the particular genius of Leon Uris. This is not Harold Robbins or Jackie Susann or Sidney Sheldon writing. This is someone whose passion is the sweeping historical event" (Hendrickson B3). An example of Uris's other journalistic fiction is his 1960 best seller Mila 18 which tells the story of the1943 Warsaw Ghetto uprising of the Jews against the Nazis. Not only is the subject matter of Mila 18 taken from the Warsaw Ghetto scene in Exodus, but the two novels are constructed similarly with historical facts playing a central role and fiction sporadically appearing to keep the reader's attention. Additionally, Uris prepared to write Mila 18 in the same manner as he did for Exodus?He played the role of the avid journalist in search of a story. Uris did his homework: He traveled throughout Eastern Europe, visited Warsaw's Memorial Archives, and voyaged to Israel and other countries to interview Jewish survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.
Another Uris novel that is a member of the journalistic fiction category is his 1970 best seller QBVII. This novel relates the story of a real libel suit that took place a few years before the publication of the novel. In fact, Uris himself was the individual sued for libel. A German doctor, Wladislaw Dering, sued Uris and his British publisher in 1964, claiming that in Exodus Uris names Dering as a Nazi doctor from Auschwitz. The characters in QBVII are thinly disguised and it is obvious that the historical facts propel the novel.
Leon Uris is not the only author to contribute novels to the journalistic fiction category of best seller. James Michener has produced numerous successful novels of this type. In fact, Uris acknowledges that Michener has influenced him. An interviewer of Uris writes, "he [Uris] professes an admiration for Michener's prolific research?probably greater than his own. [Uris says,] ?It's fascinating how he picks up a piece of territory' (Hendrickson B3). An example of one of Michener's works from this category is Hawaii, a best seller from 1960, just one year after Exodus reached the top of the charts. This novel tells about the history of Hawaii, beginning with the geologic evolution of the islands, and continuing up until its statehood (Lum). It too was thoroughly researched, and reviewers ? "said it was another example of ?Mr. Michener's specialty: dramatized journalism'" (Lum).
The late 1950s was a period in publishing history that especially favored the journalistic fiction type of best seller. In her description of best sellers from the late 1950s, Alice Payne Hackett writes, "The modern world was decidedly replacing history as the basis for best-selling novels" (Hackett 117). Exodus certainly dealt with the modern world. In fact, it focused on the largest geo-political event to occur since the Second World War. At the time of it's publication, people were quite interested in Israel, and it is very likely that a main force behind Exodus's great popularity was the immediacy of its subject matter. Likewise, Michener's Hawaii appeared at a time when people were very curious about "the tiny islands laying in the Pacific Ocean that would join the United States" (Lum).
In addition to Exodus and Hawaii, several other best sellers of the 1950s fit nicely into the journalistic fiction category. For example, Lederer and Burdick's The Ugly American hit the best seller list in 1959. This novel centered around "American diplomatic behavior in a small Southeast Asian country" (Hackett 117). Critic John Coleman compares it to Exodus when he writes about a general trend toward journalistic fiction, "?there are danger signals from across the water?the novelist is preparing to transfer his creative functions to material more properly that of the social or political historian. A few months ago we had the fictionalized indictment of US policy in the Far East, The Ugly American, and now we have Mr. Uris's mammoth novel [Exodus] about the rise of the state of Israel?" (Coleman 44). Another best seller of this type is Allen Drury's Advise and Consent, which describes the inner workings of congressional politics. Like the various other novels described above, Advise and Consent first and foremost presents the facts, but also captures the reader's interest with a collection of fictional characters.
As is evident from the numerous examples cited above, many works of journalistic fiction reached the best seller lists. What can Exodus, as a work of journalistic fiction, teach us about the characteristics of this category, and how does Exodus relate to best sellers in general? First, it teaches us that journalistic fiction presents historical or contemporary facts. Many readers like to feel like they are educating themselves with the books they read. Joel Carmichael writes, "Even the most ignorant man-in-the-street can take it for granted, and rightly, that he is being given a glimpse into the raw material of recent history. It is the knowledge that the books have an authentic background that provides these books with such a strong framework for the reader's attention?" (Carmichael 87). However, the popularity of these books lies in the fact that they are not solely factual information. They include fictional characters and sub-plots to make the facts more easily digestible. Wakefield explains that the long historical narratives are always inserted at an exciting point in the plot to leave the reader hanging. Thus, the reader is motivated to plow through the drier historical sections in order to find out what happens next in the plot. Wakefield comments that readers would not read this information if it was found "in the Sunday supplement section" (Wakefield 319).
Second, Exodus teaches us that best-selling journalistic fiction includes books which present a great deal of information and have a wide scope. Exodus has an extremely broad scope. One critic writes, "It's a pretty good guess that no other novel has covered so much of the historical development of Palestine as this book does" (Bresler 2443). Another exclaims, "It is, I think, an enthralling book, both for the richness of its detail and for the range of its historical content" (Haas 3). Critic Harold Ribalow explains that unlike Exodus, other Zionist novels did not become best sellers because they are "narrowly focused" (Ribalow 19). Citing Humana's Blood and Water, Ribalow writes, "But it is too deficient in scope and falls victim to its comparatively narrow vision" (Ribalow 20). He explains that it "doesn't manage to encompass the ?big picture'" (Ribalow 21). In addition to Exodus, Hawaii presents a very broad spectrum of information. Doris Lum declares that Hawaii "gives a panoramic view of the coming of four groups to the islands. The Polynesians from Bora Bora, the American missionaries, the Chinese, and the Japanese form the backbone to this epic tale. It is this epic quality that draws in readers" (Lum).
Due to the fact that Exodus and other journalistic fiction include such a broad array of information, it is not possible for them to include all of the facts on each and every area of interest. Thus, the authors must pick and choose what aspects of the information they wish to present to their readers. It is often the case that journalistic fiction reaches the best seller list because the specific facts chosen happen to be biased in favor of what the reader wants to be told. For example, Exodus gives a specific image of the Zionist movement, leaving out its most distinctive aspects. Joel Blocker explains, "The history of Zionism [in Exodus]?seems like a one-way express highway: from the brain of Theodore Herzl directly to the War of Independence" (Blocker 539). Additionally, Uris simplifies the War of Liberation, like he does with many other aspects of the novel, to a simple fight between good and evil.
Closely related to this is the fact that Exodus includes flat, stereotypical characters that represent social types with which the readers are familiar and comfortable. For example, Uris describes the major female protagonist. He writes, "?Katherine Freemont. She was one of those great American traditions like Mom's apple pie, hot dogs, and the Brooklyn Dodgers. For Kitty Freemont was the proverbial ?girl next door.' She was the cliché of pigtails, freckles, tomboys, and braces on the teeth; and true to the cliché the braces came off one day, the lipstick went on and the sweater popped out and the ugly duckling had turned into a beautiful swan" (Uris 4). Uris describes Katherine Freemont completely by her appearance, not bothering to inform the readers of any internal traits. Additionally, he gives no specific details about her looks such as her hair color, eye color, or stature. Rather, he describes her solely as a member of a certain stereotypical category, the all American girl. Analyzing the description further, it is clear that Uris recognizes that Katherine Freemont is a stereotype, and has intentionally described her as such. He makes this clear by including the term "cliché" twice in one sentence.
The use of stereotypical characters is an ingredient which is not unique to Exodus. Rather, it is quite common in bestsellers. For example, almost every character in Eleanor Porter's Pollyanna is a social type. Miss Polly Harrington is the prototypical wealthy but stingy old maid. Porter writes, "She knew Miss Polly now as a stern, severe-faced woman who frowned if a knife clattered to the floor, or if a door banged?but who never thought to smile even when knives and doors were still" (Porter 2). An additional description is provided a few pages later, "She was forty now, and quite alone in the world. Father, mother, sisters?all were dead. For years, now, she had been sole mistress of the house and of the thousands left her by her father.?She was not lonely she said. She liked being by herself. she preferred quiet" (Porter 6). Mr. Tom is another stereotypical character, the old and faithful gardener. Porter writes, "?Old Tom, who had pulled the weeds and shoveled the paths about the place for uncounted years" (Porter 8). He is subservient, quaint, and relates stories about how things have changed over the years. Additionally, Dr. Chilton is the kind old doctor who has no family and devotes his life to his work, and Jimmy Bean is the stereotypical young orphan boy.
Another best seller which depicts characters that are merely social types is Peyton Place by Grace Metalious. Similar to Pollyanna, Peyton Place includes a "kindly doctor" who is an older man with a strong sense of morality. Dr. Matthew Swain, like Dr. Chilton, has no wife or children and dedicates himself to his work. A second social type in Peyton Place is Leslie Harrington, the stereotypical rich and powerful man who takes advantage of others. Metalious writes, "At the extreme western end of Chestnut Street stood the imposing red brick house of Leslie Harrington. Harrington, who was the owner of the Cumberland Mills and a very rich man, was also on the board of trustees for the Citizens' National bank and the chairman of the Peyton Place school board. The Harrington house?was the largest in town" (Metalious 20). This sentence reveals the stereotypical nature of Mr. Harrington because his house was the largest in Peyton Place, not merely one of the largest or a very large house, but absolutely larger than every other house existing in the community. Additionally, he controls almost every aspect of Peyton Place life?the education, the money, and the labor force. Later in the novel we learn that he abuses this great power, like his type of character so often does.
In addition to simply sharing with Exodus the ingredient of stereotypical characters, Philip Roth's best seller Portnoy's Complaint shares something else?stereotypical Jewish characters. However, this link between Exodus and Portnoy's Complaint is quite interesting because they present two very different stereotypes of the Jewish people. Roth describes the stereotypical neurotic Jewish family?the overbearing, guilt-tripping, and force-feeding mother, the whining, unsuccessful, and unmanly father wrought with gastro-intestinal problems, the overweight and ignored sister, and the sex-crazed, guilt-ridden son who is the family's pride and joy. All of these people are depicted as pathetic and unsuccessful.
In many respects, Exodus is an attempt by Uris to cry out against this stereotype of Jews. Uris asserts, " ?The lowest writers on my totem pole?are those Jewish novelists who berate the Jewish people' writers depicting ?caricatures of the Jewish people?the wily businessman, the brilliant doctor?the tortured son?the coward' ; authors ?who spend their time damning their fathers, hating their mothers, wringing their hands and wondering why they were born.' These portraits, Uris believes, are erroneous: ?We Jews are not what we have been portrayed to be'" (Downey 200-201). In his effort to correct this stereotype, he creates another?the superhuman Jewish fighter. Most of the Jews portrayed in Exodus are strong, brave characters, but one stands out as the supreme infallible warrior: Ari Ben Canaan. Uris writes, "Ari Ben Canaan was the pride of his father's heart. By the age of seventeen he was six feet tall and had the strength of a lion. Besides Hebrew and English he mastered Arabic, German, French, and Yiddish?" (Uris 272). Thus, Uris describes Ari Ben Canaan as being perfect?incredibly able, both physically and intellectually. Throughout the novel, Ari is repeatedly described as this unwavering model of perfection. His great physical stature is mentioned innumerable times. "[Ari] towered over the other two men" (Uris 22); "[Ari] was a big man, well over six feet and well built" (Uris 21); "He was large and husky" (Uris 13). Additionally, he is continually appointed as the leader of numerous fighting battalions and spy organizations. Ari Ben Canaan's endeavors never fail, and he never flinches under pressure, regardless of the situation.
Why would so many best-selling authors use social types rather than unique individuals for their characters? Is it because best-selling novels are generally of low literary merit and stereotypical characters are just one aspect of an author's overall poor writing ability? Or do authors have a specific goal in mind when they use stereotypical characters? There is no one answer to this question. Each best-selling author needs to be evaluated individually to determine his or her intentions in creating stereotypical characters. However, with respect to Exodus, it seems that Leon Uris may have purposely depicted his characters this way. One reason for this may be that he wanted to emphasize the historical events and thus de-emphasized all other aspects of the novel. He may have wanted his readers to think about the actual events and follow along with the history that he unfolds, rather than become preoccupied with the inner turmoil of the characters. If readers focus on the characters, they may miss Uris's larger socio-historical lesson, the plight of the Jewish people and their triumph in creating the state of Israel. Critics Downey and Callan explain this. They write, "They [readers] are forced, on one hand, to recall the external world, given that any stereotype survives apart from its fictional life and simply mirrors and/or embellished external world preconceptions" (Downey 200-201). The tendency for authors to create social types in order to emphasize the story's action may be a key ingredient in the recipe for best-selling journalistic fiction. It is evident that not only Uris employs this strategy, but Michener as well. Deanna Zwarich, the author of the database entry on Michener's Return to Paradise, writes, "The quirks of personality, the oddities of character, the unpredictable Brownian motions of human psychology appear to interest him [Michener] little. He prefers to represent a history in action." Thus, like Uris, Michener wants the historical events to be the focal point of his novel.
A second reason why Uris may have intentionally made his characters stereotypes is because they helped make Exodus into propaganda in support of the Jews. Uris wanted to inspire Americans to provide support to Israel. Thus, he created characters which were social types, but more specifically, very positive social types. His characters were divided into black and white categories?the good guys and the bad guys. All of the Jews and the Americans were the strong, brave, morally righteous individuals, and the Arabs, Germans, and British were the "bad guys." Uris portrays his Jewish characters as stereotypical heroic fighters to prove that they "are worth battling for?worth saving?because they are willing to fight and accordingly risk their lives. The stereotype assures and motivates the Jew, and ?provides the non-Jew with additional incentive to aid Israel" (Downey 200-201).
Recall that Kitty Freemont, the American nurse who works at Jewish refugee camps on Cyprus, and Mark Parker, the American journalist who writes exposés about mistreatment of the Jews, are social types. Their internal states are not fully explored, and thus their external goodness prevails. Uris may have created Kitty Freemont and Mark Parker as models for his American readers to respect, admire, and most importantly, imitate (Downey 199).
The stereotype of the brave Jewish warrior is such an important ingredient in the recipe for Exodus that the publishers have emphasized it in the marketing of the novel. First, the dust jacket of the original 1958 Doubleday edition depicts an Israeli soldier scaled so that it spans the entire front of the jacket. The soldier is so large that the top of his head touches the top edge of the book and the bottom of his combat boots reach the very bottom edge. Second, the front cover of a later paperback edition published by Bantam pictures a dramatic image of Ari Ben Canaan with a determined look on his face and a rifle in his hand. Next to him is a woman who presumably is Kitty Freemont (the gentile converted into a benefactor of the Jews) looking off into the distance valiantly with a rifle on her back and ammunition strapped across her chest. These two characters are framed by an overlay of the Israeli flag, making it clear that they represent Jewish warriors. Third, an advertisement for Exodus featured on page 43 of the August 4, 1958 issue of Publisher's Weekly includes not only a drawing of the first edition of the novel, clearly showing the depiction from the dust jacket described above, but transposes the exact image of the soldier again, standing in front of the drawing of the novel. Thus, the publishers want to emphasize the brave Israeli soldier.
In addition to the impact of the Israeli soldier illustrations, another visual ingredient plays a vital role in Exodus's recipe. Exodus has a cinematic quality and a movie version was created shortly after its publication. Joel Blocker explains that Uris knew the novel was going to be made into a movie even before he wrote it. Blocker writes, "Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer contracted for the movie rights and financed the author's trip to Europe and Israel to "research the story." Thus, Exodus is not really a novel at all, but a sketch for a scenario with a few prose accretions?The distinctive quality of the book is cinematic; it contains an almost exhaustive repertoire of film devices (fadeout, close-up, montage) rendered in prose terms" (539). Exodus was in fact made into a major motion picture by United Artists in 1960. It starred Paul Newman.
A connection with the cinema is not only an ingredient of Exodus, but one of other best selling journalistic fiction and best sellers in general as well. For example, Doris Lum explains how the success of James Michener's Hawaii was also related to the making of a movie version. She writes, "The marketing of ?Hawaii' extended to a production of a motion picture. Hopes were high since ?South Pacific' had been so successfully transformed into another media. The movie rights were bought by the Mirisch Corporation even before the book was published for a record amount of $600,000. Articles were also published over the making of the film in "Look," with full pages of colored pictures." Additionally, Deanna Zwarich, the author of the entry on Michener's Return to Paradise, explains that Michener's "straitlaced, educational stories are so episodic that they are perfectly suited to the movie and television adaptations that have propelled Michener's success."
Finally, numerous other best sellers have been made into movie versions. A prime example is the work of John Grisham. Almost all of his novels are immediately transformed into film. Many times best-selling novels have a distinct cinematic quality about them that readers like and thus the novels sell enormously well. Other times, the creation of the movie brings the book so much attention that it becomes a best seller. How this is all played out depends on the particular novel and the circumstances surrounding it.
One last ingredient vital to the recipe for Exodus is a strong emotional appeal. Uris describes the events in the novel with sweeping heroic language, forcing the readers to feel the triumphs along with the characters. Additionally, he describes the tragedies that have befallen the Jews in very emotional language, making the readers feel their pain and suffer with them. For example, Uris describes scenes from the beginning of the Holocaust. He writes, "It was hard to believe that things could get worse. But the tide ran higher and higher, and the waves finally crashed onto Johann Clement's island when one day little Karen ran into the house, her face covered with blood and the words, ?Jew! Jew! Jew!' ringing in her ears" (62). Here Uris is appealing to readers' emotions strongly by describing how the Holocaust had so directly affected even an innocent little girl. Harold Ribalow addresses this issue, writing "What Exodus had in degree was passion, anger, emotion, a feeling for events, and heroic material?a woman from Iowa, in a letter to the editor of the Zionist journal?said, in effect: Never mind the literature; Exodus made me cry?and made dozens of hitherto indifferent women eager to join Hadassah" (Ribalow 19). The last portion of this excerpt explains that it was not only the emotion but the fact that the emotion inspired readers to take some sort of positive action toward personal growth. In the case of Exodus, this action may be for Jews to become more active in their culture as did the women described above, or for readers in general to provide aid to Israel.
The tendency for readers to buy books which inspire them is very clear in the world of best sellers. For example, one of the most popular category of non-fiction best sellers today is the self help book. Millions of people run out to buy books which they believe will change their lives. Best sellers of this type cover a range of topics from diet and exercise to spirituality and religion. For example, a long-time best seller, Dr. Atkins' Diet Revolution, inspires readers to change a major aspect of their lifestyle for the better. Additionally, Norman Vincent Peale's The Power of Positive Thinking motivates people to take action in order to lead more fulfilling lives.
In closing, it seems that many of the ingredients vital to Exodus's recipe are also instrumental in other best sellers, whether it be in the journalistic fiction category or not. When viewed as the entire recipe, one learns a great deal about twentieth century best sellers, and more importantly, about society of the twentieth century. It can be argued that the fast pace of modern American life is clearly reflected in this century's best selling novels. First, the incredible popularity of journalistic fiction?a wide-scope of facts presented in an easy-to-read format?illustrates that people do not have the time to travel to the faraway places described, or do not want to take the time or expend the energy to read a more scholarly text on the subject. As cited above, one critic explains that people do not have the patience to read the dense information found in a newspaper. Second, people are so preoccupied with their own problems, internal struggles, and longings that they do not want to read about them in fictional characters. Additionally, American society today is so rushed and everyone so over-worked that people do not want to have to think when they read for pleasure. Thus, readers prefer stereotypical characters who neatly fit into the distinct categories already existing in their minds. Third, the fact that movie versions of best sellers are so popular reflects the fast pace of American life. Movies take novels hundreds of pages long which would take quite a bit of time to read, and condense them into an action packed two hours. Finally, the last point about American readers' great desire for books to inspire them and the popularity of self-help books makes an important statement. At the end of the twentieth century, readers are finally realizing that their fast-paced lives take a toll on them. They have not only become physically and spiritually unhealthy, but they have grown apathetic about many important aspects of life. Although they want to reverse these trends, they are not willing to go out and take action on their own. Rather, they turn to books, for reading about self-improvement is a lot less time consuming.
Blocker, Joel. "Fantasy of Israel. " Commentary. June 1959: 539-41.
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Coleman, John. "Proper Study." "Spectator." July 10, 1959: 44.
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Roth, Philip. Portnoy's Complaint. New York: Vintage Books, 1994.
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