In commemoration of the life and literary career of novelist Herman Wouk (1916-2019), we’re re-posting this appreciation of his work by Tom Carson, originally featured in 2016 — Ed.
To legions of mostly elderly folk from Miami Beach to San Diego, Herman Wouk is one of the giants of American fiction: a national treasure, a great novelist, someone who’s enriched their lives in ways Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo never stood a snowball’s chance in hell of doing. It goes without saying that critics think otherwise, but what do they know? Most of them couldn’t tell an aircraft carrier from a Norwegian Lines cruise ship, let alone appreciate the uses of each. Whatever else he is, the author of The Caine Mutiny, Marjorie Morningstar, Youngblood Hawke, and The Winds of War is no dinghy.
Me, I wouldn’t dream of telling those legions their devotion is misplaced. The audience Wouk writes for may be unhip, but they know good value when they see it. His readers are people with sturdily old-fashioned ideas of what novels are good for: pleasurable moral and social instruction, reliable-sounding descriptions of how made-up people behave in assiduously reconstructed real-world environments, a reassuring solemnity of purpose, and never an ounce of mystification or oddity. Wouk’s integrity is all in his indifference to the fact that such endeavors are as out of style as paintings of cavalry charges — or, for that matter, cavalry charges themselves.
He sees them instead as challenges, which they are to a writer with his altogether admirable belief in doing right by his public and his subject matter alike. Wouk’s pride in having lived up to his self-devised responsibilities isn’t fatuous, considering that The Winds of War and its sequel, War and Remembrance, really did end up as America’s foremost popular chronicle of World War II and the Holocaust. Whether you know those books firsthand or in their miniseries incarnations, his gigantic soap opera didn’t fail at the job of enshrining the “Good War’s” significance for a mass audience, not that Tolstoy’s ghost had much to worry about otherwise.
Disparaging this kind of achievement just because it’s not great art, which it obviously isn’t, has never made much sense to me. Even 1955’s relatively forgotten Marjorie Morningstar, whose heroine is née Morgenstern and pines to see her new moniker on Broadway marquees before life and Wouk teach her that Scarsdale is more her speed, doesn’t get enough credit for introducing a vast and mostly clueless gentile readership to the Jewish-American vantage point on the USA’s appealing but perplexing circus, prefiguring the next decade’s cultural deluge of Barbra Streisand, Philip Roth, Mel Brooks, and Woody Allen. Decades from now, anyone trying to understand how twentieth-century America understood itself — that is, swiftly reconceived itself to stay in business at the old stand — will bump sooner or later into Herman Wouk, a ziggurat disguised as a traffic cone.
If you’ll forgive me for quoting Arthur Miller — who’s closer to being Wouk’s theatrical (and liberal) equivalent than is commonly recognized, if only because Marilyn is so distracting — attention must be paid to such a man. Pasteboard characters, proficient but humdrum prose, proudly square convictions, and all, something about him compels respect. Even Gore Vidal, taking a brief break from being sardonic about The Winds of War, startled New York Review of Books readers back in 1973 by announcing he didn’t regret reading a single word of it. Then he called Wouk’s professionalism “awe-inspiring,” something mean old Gore certainly never said about any of his flashier contemporaries. Or Arthur Miller, for that matter.
My own high estimate of The Caine Mutiny and Youngblood Hawke — Wouk’s 1962 doorstopper about a virile, doomed facsimile of Thomas Wolfe, still my favorite among his books — had bumped down a few rungs by the time I finished high school, because encountering Lolita will do that to a guy. But my affection for Herman Wouk will never die, and apparently (knock wood), neither will he. Born the year D. W. Griffith directed Birth of a Nation, this hardy centenarian’s newest book is called Sailor and Fiddler: Reflections of a 100-Year-Old Author. Summing up his works and days in just 137 pages of genial reckonings and vignettes, it’s such a nonchalant little charmer that I happily read it twice in an afternoon.
Of its two sections, “Sailor” covers what Wouk calls “my adventures in the narrative art” — with a nod, of course, to the Navy days that gave rise to Caine, The Winds of War, and War and Remembrance. “Fiddler,” as in Fiddler on the Roof, recounts his embrace of his Judaism and increasing identification with Israel, to him still a heroic place rather than an increasingly isolated target of international contumely. To put it mildly, if you’re in the market for latter-day misgivings about what Zionism wrought, this is not the book for you. But the man has spent his career romanticizing the United States every bit as sunnily, so no surprises there.
Despite their supposedly divergent priorities, “Sailor” and “Fiddler” are both in the same key: anecdotal, glancing, casual, and far more concerned with sharing fun facts about Wouk’s career than divulging anything especially intimate. His wife of over sixty years until her death in 2011, Betty Sarah Wouk — or “BSW,” as he a mite disconcertingly calls her — appears mainly as his testiest critic and invaluable literary helpmeet (she was his de facto agent for decades). A few jokes about her mania for decorating aside, the love story that their marriage obviously was remains off limits. Except for a single, pained mention, so is its major tragedy, the death of the couple’s firstborn son, Abe — “lovable and winsome beyond telling” — at age five in a swimming pool accident. Says Wouk firmly, “I have not written, nor will I, about this catastrophe, from which we never wholly recovered.” Curtain down again, and readers are put on notice that this author’s private life isn’t our concern.
At the urging of Sir Isaiah Berlin, no less — for a guy supposedly outside the intellectual swim, he’s done his share of hobnobbing — Wouk did once consider writing a full-scale autobiography, so he tells us. But BSW, immediately guessing that hubby was trying to avoid buckling down to his next novel, put the kibosh on that: “You’re not that interesting a person.” So he mostly gets chatty here about his interesting profession instead, going back to his chipper pre–Pearl Harbor days as a gagman for radio humorist Fred Allen. “If there is a trace of Fred Allen’s art in my books, that is all to the good,” he says, and he’s not wrong. His solemn streak would make his novels much duller if it wasn’t at least occasionally offset by whimsy.
Then comes the war, and a few coy glimpses into the real-life makings of “That Crazy Captain Book,” a.k.a. the Pulitzer-winning The Caine Mutiny. The rattletrap minesweeper Wouk actually served aboard was named the Zane. Its cuckoo captain made “surviving” seem like a matter not wholly in Japanese hands. Not unlike the book’s Lieutenant Keefer, he spent his spare time scribbling away a novel: his first, 1947’s lighthearted Aurora Dawn.
Left unexplained is what prompted him to turn Caine’s rattling good yarn into a scolding by switching gears at the climax to proclaim crazy Captain Queeg the hero and his own stand-in as the villain of the piece. But that’s the somewhat clumsy way Wouk the emerging Jewish moralist — he hadn’t taken his own faith too seriously in his younger years — said goodbye to the frivolity of being a mere entertainer. From then on, despite occasional reversions to larkiness — e.g., 1965’s Don’t Stop the Carnival — he aimed at being a consequential one.
Because Wouk has always presented his material as if its sociological value outweighs any merely personal agenda, it’s charming to get filled in about how intimately his next two novels also mined his own life. His sister sat for Marjorie Morningstar’s portrait. As for Youngblood Hawke, however much his hectic career owed to “presumptuously touching in color from the great Thomas Wolfe’s short tragic life,” he was simply Wouk himself in Dixie-fried disguise. Or anyhow, “my nightmare vision of what might have become of me” if he hadn’t married Betty Sarah, here identified as the novel’s tartly loving but stymied “Jeanne Green.”
Those of us whose lifelong adoration of Suzanne Pleshette was spawned by the immortal 1964 movie version may irrationally catch ourselves thinking that BSW’s husband was one lucky dog. But the most delicious surprise for literary trivia buffs is learning that Hawke’s demeanor and speech were inspired by Georgia-born comic novelist Calder Willingham, a attractively colorful figure compared to “my dull synagogue-going uptown look.” Unexpectedly, Willingham — whose books are as gleefully dirty-minded as Wouk’s are notoriously chaste — was also the fellow author he was fondest of: “Our friendship lasted until he died.”
For many readers, however, all this will be a mere warm-up to the pages of Sailor and Fiddler devoted to The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, the enormous project that Wouk was calling “the Main Task” long before he girded himself to tackle it. First conceived as a single huge novel centered on WW2’s Pacific campaigns — enough, so he thought, “to epitomize the folly of industrialized war” — it expanded once historian Raul Hilberg’s The Destruction of the European Jews convinced him, with some trepidation, that he had to deal with Hitler and Auschwitz as well.
What Wouk doesn’t say outright is that this was commercially risky. Unlike the war’s rather more salable guts-and-glory aspects, the Holocaust was still a relatively alien subject to his primarily Gentile public. If that seems preposterous today, The Winds of War and War and Remembrance played no minor part in effecting the change. Indeed, the latter book’s depiction of the Final Solution’s day-to-day workings — above all, the excruciating scenes from the German perspective, convincingly putting us inside the mentalities of petty careerists jockeying for favor as the gas chambers operate — may be the closest Wouk has come to being a great writer, if only because no one else had had the nerve to try. Never underestimate the determined popularizer’s ability to go where capital-L Literature fears to tread.
From then on, he was more or less done with the goyim, at least as novelistic subjects. After Inside, Outside, his most candidly autobiographical novel — although, with Woukian concern for larger relevance, he turned his stand-in into a hapless Jewish adviser to President Nixon as Watergate and the Yom Kippur War erupted — came The Hope and the Glory, the twofer that meant to do for Israel’s battles what The Winds of War and War and Remembrance had done for WW2. His most recent novel, at age ninety-seven, was 2012’s sprightly The Lawgiver, which converted his long-mulled dream of writing a fictionalized life of Moses into an antic fantasy about being dragooned into helping concoct a movie about him instead. It’s the only one of his later books I’ve read, but a dotty delight, right down to the affectionate spoof of — wait for it — Lena Dunham. (Attention must be paid to such a girl.) When Herman Wouk finally goes, our literature may not be much the poorer, but creating literature has never been the vital yardstick in his case. Transcending it is.