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Herman Wouk, a prolific novelist and dramatist, has written nine novels and three plays. Though the critical response to his works vary as much as the subject matter, at least five of the novels that Wouk wrote between 1947 and 1978 were best-sellers. A reading of his works makes the reasons for their popularity apparent: each displays his expertise at composing a compelling narrative. Wouk first gained prominence with his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Caine Mutiny (1951) and has since written several best-selling novels, including The Winds of War (1971) and War and Remembrance (1978). His best-selling American novels, which have been translated into some thirty languages, portray significant moral dilemmas. Wouk is best known for his epic war novels that have been the source of popular movies and television programs.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
From Gag Writing to War
Wouk was born May 27, 1915, in New York City, to Abraham Isaac and Esther Wouk, Jewish immigrants from Russia. His father was an industrialist in the power laundry field who started as an immigrant laundry laborer. Wouk was raised in the Bronx area of New York City where he attended school, graduated from high school and then enrolled in college at Columbia University. In 1934 he received his B.A. from Columbia with honors. Following graduation, Wouk wrote for radio comedians in New York City during 1934 and 1935 before becoming a scriptwriter for a top radio show, hosted by the very influential comedian, Fred Allen, from 1936 through 1941.
Wouk began writing fiction in 1943 while serving in the navy during the global military conflict of World War II. During the war between the Allies and the Axis powers that began when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939, Wouk was on sea duty on the Pacific Ocean. He later used his Navy experience aboard the USS Zane and USS Southard as background for his third novel, The Caine Mutiny (1951). In 1945 he married Betty Sarah Brown, with whom he had three sons. Wouk made his debut as a novelist a year later with Aurora Dawn (1946), a satire about the New York advertising business, which was inspired by a wave of post-World War II experimentation. It was followed by City Boy (1948), a partly autobiographical story of a Bronx boy.
Upon publication, The Caine Mutiny was acclaimed by critics, who considered Wouk’s treatment of the military affair insightful and carefully constructed. The novel was awarded the 1952 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and was made into a hit Broadway play starring Henry Fonda, and a film starring Humphrey Bogart. Harry Gilroy, writing for The New York Times, commented that Wouk ”has a profound understanding of what Navy men should be, and against some who fell short of the mark he has fired a deadly broadside.” The book is not concerned with battles at sea, but with adherence to appointive authority. The conflict centers around Lieutenant Commander Philip Francis Queeg, who, according to W. J. Stuckey in The Pulitzer Prize Novels, ”manifests a professional incompetence that will probably remain unparalleled in or out of fiction.” When it appears that Queeg is too terrified to issue the necessary orders to save the ship during a typhoon, Lieutenant Maryk, the ship’s executive officer, is persuaded by Lieutenant Keefer and his followers to seize control. Maryk is subsequently tried for creating a mutiny, but he is acquitted through the efforts of Lieutenant Barney Greenwald, an adept trial lawyer. At a party celebrating Maryk’s acquittal, Greenwald tells Maryk that it is he, Maryk (and not Queeg), who is morally guilty, for he deserted a military system that had, despite its flaws, protected America from foreign fascists.
Embracing Jewish Faith
The drowning death of Wouk’s oldest son, Abraham Isaac, in 1951, ”deepened his father’s position against ‘the fashionable, unthinking agnosticism of the age.”’ His religious faith is expressed in This Is My God (1959), an informal but detailed account of Judaism for ”the many Jews who do not observe the religion, who yet would like to know a lot more about it.” Wouk extended his writing on the Jewish faith with his fourth novel, Marjorie Morningstar (1955), as in previous novels, the story focuses on rebellion, but this time, in a civilian context rather than military. The book traces the life of a beautiful, intelligent girl who renounces the values and authority of her hard-working Jewish parents only to end up, years later, affirming them as a suburban matron and community servant. The journey of Marjorie parallels Wouk’s own conflicts with his Jewish heritage. Wouk’s protagonist, Marjorie Morgenstern, faces the duplicity inherent in attempting to live by both Jewish and American standards and the struggle young American Jews experience in coming to terms with the traditions of their elders. E. W. Foell notes in the Christian Science Monitor that Wouk ”has not flinched at what he sees in his characters’ thoughts, [but] many of his readers are likely to.” Critics aside, Marjorie Morning-star was a best-selling novel and became the basis of a popular film in 1958, starring Natalie Wood and Gene Kelly.
After Marjorie Morningstar, Wouk interrupted his career as a novelist to be a visiting professor at Yeshiva University and to write a short, clear account of the Jewish faith from a personal viewpoint—something he had been thinking of doing for years. Dedicated to the memory of his grandfather, Mendel Leib Levine, a rabbi from Minsk, This Is My God (1959) became a best-seller. In his next novel, Youngblood Hawke (1962), based on the life of the American writer Thomas Wolfe, Wouk depicts the obsession of a writer who is caught up in the intrigue of the publishing world.
A Jewish History of War and Independence
Wouk then decided to write a panoramic novel about World War II. Having begun reading standard histories of the war in 1962, Wouk moved to Washington two years later in order to utilize the National Archives and Library of Congress, as well as to interview surviving military leaders. His quest for information also led him to England, France, Italy, Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Israel, Iran, and the Soviet Union. Because of the scope of his task, Wouk ended up writing not one, but two novels: The Winds of War (1971) and a sequel, War and Remembrance (1978). During the writing of War and Remembrance, he spent time as scholar-in-residence at Aspen Institute, Colorado, in 1973-74. Generally praised by critics for their depth and accuracy of detail, the two books may be described as the history of World War II seen through the eyes of an American family and their immediate friends and contacts.
Wouk’s 1985 novel Inside, Outside ”comes as close to being an outright autobiography as he is likely to write,” declares John Eisenhower in the Chicago Tribune Book World. It tells of a Jewish man who, like Wouk, was born in New York City in 1915, the son of immigrant parents who established a commercial laundry business. Like Wouk, protagonist Israel David Goodkind—”Yisroelke” to his friends and family on the ”inside”— worked as a gag writer, although Goodkind becomes a lawyer rather than a novelist.
Nearly a decade later, Wouk produced two expansive historical novels on the founding of the modern state of Israel. The Hope (1993) picks up at the end of World War II, and recounts the creation and early development of Israel through the lives of several military men and their families. The central character is Zev Barak, an Israeli officer who participates in the 1948 War of Independence, the 1956 Suez Campaign, and the Six Day War of 1967, and who is privy to political and diplomatic intrigue involving David Ben-Gurion, Yitzhak Rabin, and Menachem Begin. In The Glory (1994), the sequel, Wouk continues his story of Israel’s struggle for nationhood through the experiences of the Barak family, covering the period from 1967 to the early 1980s.
A Hole in Texas (2004) recounts the adventures of a physicist involved with a super collider project who learns that the Higgs boson, an electromagnetic particle for which he has been searching, has already been discovered by a Chinese physicist. On September 11, 2008, The Library of Congress honored Wouk as the first recipient of the Library of Congress Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Writing of Fiction. Wouk, 93, has published more than a dozen novels. ”Though underappreciated by literary types,” writes Arnold Beichman in the National Review, ”Herman Wouk is one of our outstanding historical novelists.”
Works in Literary Context
Wouk’s novels uphold such traditional values as respect for religion, belief in honor and valor, patriotism, and deference toward authority and order. Wouk rejects modernist devices in favor of traditional storytelling with several of his novels, recalling narrative techniques of other authors. His first novel, Aurora Dawn (1946), a satire on the advertising industry, is reminiscent of Henry Fielding’s novel Tom Jones (1749); The City Boy (1948) and Marjorie Morningstar (1955), both initiation novels about Jewish youths, echo Sinclair Lewis and Mark Twain; and The Winds of War (1971) and War and Remembrance (1978) were compared to Upton Sinclair’s ”Lanny Budd” stories. His fiction is characterized by a direct narrative style in which the protagonists describe the events they experience.
Wouk’s work, in contrast to the mainstream of contemporary novelists, draws thematic dimensions based on traditional morality and virtue. His moral perspective is evident in his stories of characters grappling with everydaylife judgments. The best-selling status of Wouk’s novels evidences wide identification with the difficult and universal quandaries presented, for example, in deference to authority, seeking love or dealing with graft and corruption. Through his direct narrative structures, Wouk’s stories are told in straightforward prose and acclaimed for exceptional perception into the human psyche of people dealing with dilemmas in life, love, and war.
Wouk’s best-known works, though fictionalized accounts, are renowned for their historical accuracy. Wouk’s bestsellers, with their portrayal of human drama elaborated with historical accuracy, have made it ”likely that more Americans have learned about, or remembered, the war through Wouk’s account than from any other single source in the last decade,” claims Michael Mandelbaum in Political Science Quarterly. He has been acknowledged by some critics, also, as a social historian with a strong commitment to established values. A critic describes the outcome of this plotting: ”When the book is done, the rebels emerge as villains and the evils rebelled against as blemishes on the face of a healthy world.”
Works in Critical Context
Wouk’s novels have spanned a broad range of subject matter, from life and mutiny on a World War II minesweeper in The Caine Mutiny, through coming of age in New York City and suburbia in Marjorie Morningstar,to the World War II epic of The Winds of War and War and Remembrance. Wouk continues to be lauded and attract a large readership, while enduring critical attacks for essentially the same reasons. The narratives of Wouk recount action from the protagonist’s point of view, and though less experimental than some modern literature, his very popular novels have been adapted for stage, feature film and television. Beichman, in his analysis of Wouk’s plays and novels, surmises that they exemplify an exceptionally perceptive concern with American society in war and in peace. Situating Wouk in the same literary tradition as Miguel de Cervantes, Honore de Balzac, and Charles Dickens, Beichman highlights the strong plots, moralist outcomes, and active characters that are the stuff of Wouk’s novels. Beichman asserts that Wouk’s work counters the mainstream of contemporary American novelists by its focus on virtue, in contrast to those who have disavowed traditional narrative elements such as invention, coincidences, suspense, and a moral perspective.
The Caine Mutiny
Many critics consider Wouk’s treatment of the military affair in The Caine Mutiny as exceptionally insightful and carefully constructed. Harry Gilroy, for example, writes in the New York Times that Wouk ”has a profound understanding of what Navy men should be, and against some who fell short of the mark he has fired a deadly broadside.” Edmund Fuller points out in his Man in Modern Fiction that the book’s ability ”to view the problem within the inescapable military premise without oversimplifying it” distinguishes The Caine Mutiny from other World War II novels. Discussing the justification of the mutiny in his In My Opinion, Orville Prescott says that it is ”the crux of [the novel, and] Mr. Wouk develops it extremely well, with racy wit and genial humor, with lively pace and much ingenuity of incident and with unexpected subtlety.” Similarly, a reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement concludes: ”So convincingly has Mr. Wouk created his officers, so subtly has he contrived the series of incidents that culminate in the final drama, that, given both the characters and the situations, the climax is perfectly acceptable.”
The Winds of War
Michael Mandelbaum asserts that Wouk’s aim with Winds of War was to create something not purely fictional and that his ”hybrid literary genre” of historical romance ”turns out to be singularly appropriate.” Reviewing The Winds of War in the Midwest Quarterly, Richard R. Bolton writes: ”Critics who have castigated the book for failing in various ways as a novel have seemingly overlooked the author’s description of it as a romance.” If one accepts Wouk’s idea of what The Winds of War is, it will be viewed as a historical romance, with a didactic purpose of dramatizing the his themes of; how the evil emerged and how ”men of good will have been involved with it. Augmenting the personal romantic narrative, the links of the protagonist to the military powers involved in the war lend an in depth military perspective to the novel. Paul Fussel compliments the expertise evident: ”The quality of the military reasoning… is impressive, and so is Wouk’s scholarship .. .in contemporary history.”
- Beichman, Arnold. Herman Wouk: The Novelist as Social Historian. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 2004.
- Fussell, Paul. A Boy Scout Handbook and Other Observations. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.
- Geismar, Maxwell. American Moderns from Rebellion to Conformity. New York: Hill and Wang, 1958.
- Hyman, Stanley Edgar. Standards: A Chronicle of Books for Our Time. New York: Horizon Press, 1966.
- Mazzeno, Laurence W. Herman Wouk. New York: Macmillian, 1994.
- ”Herman Wouk.” Contemporary Novelists. Sixth edition. Detroit: St. James Press, 1996.
- Bolton, Richard R. Midwest Quarterly (July 1975).
- Dreifus, Erika. ”Herman Wouk Honored with Career Award.” The Writer 122.1 (January 2009): 9.
- Fussell, Paul. Review of ”War and Remembrance” The New Republic 179 (October 14, 1978): 32-33.
- King, Florence. ”Shock, Shock Over.” National Review 60.13 (July 2008): 47.
- Osburne, Robert. ”Schwimmer Raises ‘Caine’ in N.Y. Return.” Hollywood Reporter 393.47 (April 11, 2006): 21.
- Herman Wouk’s Spellbinding Ways. Retrieved December 6, 2008, from http://www.dailypress.com/ entertainment/la-et-wouk10-2008sep10,0, 2142009.story. Last updated on October 7, 2008.
- Herman Wouk Features. Retrieved December 6, 2008, from http://www.eilatgordinlevitan.com/ kurenets/k_pages/stories_wouk.html. Last updated on February 7, 2006.
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