NEW YORK — Herman Wouk was a prize-winning, million-selling author never quite in fashion.
He was a religious Jew among secular peers, a respecter of authority in a field of rebels. He didn’t brag like Norman Mailer and was spared the demons driving the madness of Philip Roth’s “Portnoy’s Complaint.”
After a Pulitzer early in his career for “The Caine Mutiny,” he was mostly ignored by awards committees and was often excluded from anthologies of Jewish literature. Gore Vidal praised him, faintly, by observing that Wouk’s “competence is most impressive and his professionalism awe-inspiring in a world of lazy writers and TV-stunned readers.”
But Wouk, who died Friday 10 days shy of his 104th birthday, was a success in ways that resonated with critics and readers, and with himself. He created at least one immortal fictional character, the unstable Captain Queeg of “The Caine Mutiny.” He was praised for the uncanniness of his historical detail in “The Winds of War” and other books. He was among the first modern Jewish writers who appealed to the general public and had an enviably large readership that stayed with him through several long novels, many of which dramatized the conflicts between faith and assimilation.
He was working on a book until the end, said his literary agent Amy Rennert.
Wouk Wrote With a Light Hand
Wouk’s long, unpredictable career included gag writing, fiction and a musical co-written with Jimmy Buffett. His two-part World War II epic, “The Winds of War” and “War and Remembrance,” was adapted by Wouk himself for a 1983, Emmy Award-winning TV miniseries starring Robert Mitchum. “The Winds of War” received some of the highest ratings in history and Wouk’s involvement covered everything from the script to commercial sponsors.
Heads of state read him and quoted from him, but Wouk shied from talk of greatness, telling one reporter he was not a “high stylist.” In “War and Remembrance,” a writer notes in his journal, “I could contribute nothing new; but writing as I do with a light hand, I might charm a few readers into pausing, in their heedless hurry after pleasure and money, for a look at the things that matter.”
From Ernest Hemingway to James Joyce, major authors of the 20th century were assumed either anti-religious or at least highly skeptical. But Wouk was part of a smaller group that included C.S. Lewis, Chaim Potok and Flannery O’Connor, those who openly maintained traditional beliefs. He contended that among writers, anti-conformity was a kind of conformity. “It seems curious,” he wrote in “Aurora Dawn,” his first novel, “that life ‘as it really is,’ according to modern inspiration, contains a surprising amount of fornication, violence, vulgarity, unpleasant individuals, blasphemy, hatred, and ladies’ underclothes.”
“Marjorie Morningstar,” published in 1955, was one of the first million-selling novels about Jewish life, and two novels, “The Hope” and “The Glory,” were set in Israel. One of his most influential works was “This Is My God,” a careful, but firm defense of faith that could be found in countless Jewish households. Into his 90s, he studied the Talmud daily and led a weekly Talmud class. He gave many speeches and sermons and received several prizes, including a lifetime achievement award from the Jewish Book Council. During the many years he lived in Washington, D.C., the Georgetown synagogue he attended was known unofficially as “Herman Wouk’s synagogue.”
In 1995, the Library of Congress marked his 80th birthday with a symposium on his career; historians David McCullough, Robert Caro, Daniel Boorstin and others were present. In 2008, Wouk received the first ever Library of Congress Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Writing of Fiction. In his mid-90s, he completed the comic novel “The Lawgiver,” and at age 100 wrote a memoir. Wouk’s longevity inspired Stephen King to title one story “Herman Wouk is Still Alive.”
Wouk, the son of Russian Jews, was born in New York in 1915. The household was religious — his mother was a rabbi’s daughter — and devoted to books. His father would read to him from Sholem Aleichem, the great Yiddish writer. A traveling salesman sold his family the entire works of Mark Twain, who became Wouk’s favorite writer, no matter how irreverent on matters of faith.
“I found it all very stimulating,” Wouk, in a rare interview, told The Associated Press in 2000. “His work is impregnated with references to the Bible. He may be scathing about it, but they’re there. He’s making jokes about religion, but the Jews are always making jokes about it.”
A top student in high school, Wouk majored in comparative literature and philosophy at Columbia University and edited the college’s humor magazine. After graduation, he followed the path of so many bright, clever New Yorkers in the 1930s: He headed for California, where he worked five years on Fred Allen’s radio show.
Had war not intruded, he might have stuck to comedy sketches. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor he enlisted in the Navy and served as an officer in the Pacific. There, he received the writer’s most precious gift, free time. He read and read, from the Bible to Victorian fiction, and wrote what became his first published novel, the radio satire “Aurora Dawn.”
“I was just having fun. It had never occurred to me write a novel,” he said.
By the time “Aurora Dawn” came out, in 1947, Wouk was married and living in New York. His novel was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection and he would soon publish “City Boy,” a coming-of-age story highly influenced by Twain.
The Book That Birthed a Literary Star
In 1951, Wouk became a major literary star with the release of “The Caine Mutiny,” for which Wouk was compared to other World War II novelists: Mailer, Irwin Shaw, James Jones. But his next book turned to domestic matters. Wouk spoke often of his concern about assimilation and this story told of an aspiring Jewish actress whose real name was Marjorie Morgenstern. Her stage name provided the novel’s title, “Marjorie Morningstar.”
“My agent was absolutely appalled,” Wouk told the AP. “He submitted it to the editor of a women’s magazine and the editor said, ‘Herman Wouk has destroyed himself. He’s a man who writes big, sweeping dramas about men in action. Then he writes about this girl and nothing happens. He should burn this book and forget it.'”
But like “The Caine Mutiny,” the novel sold millions and was made into a movie, starring Natalie Wood. (Wouk eventually bought Wood’s former home in Palm Springs). He was famous enough to appear on the cover of Time magazine, even as some Jews complained his book perpetuated stereotypes and critics complained he was too old-fashioned, too deferential.
Captain Queeg, for example, may be a villain in popular culture, but “The Caine Mutiny” was not “Catch-22.” Wouk was just as hard on the officers who rebelled against Queeg. The “crux” of the story, Wouk wrote in his journal, was that the “mutiny was a mistake” and the crew should have stood by its leader, however flawed. Over the years, Wouk responded to criticism in two ways: He didn’t judge the characters in his stories, but tried to tell the truth; and whether he really challenged authority depended on what you thought needed challenging. Wouk knew that others didn’t share his views. “This Is My God” featured a similar approach to “Mere Christianity” and other works by C.S. Lewis. Wouk preached not to the converted, but to the curious. He anticipated arguments about religion and tried his best to answer them.
“I’m not out front as a figure, and that suits me,” he told the AP. “I love the work and it’s the greatest possible privilege to say, ‘Here are these books that exist because I had to write them.'”
In 1945, Wouk married Betty Sarah Brown, who also served as his agent until her death in 2011. They had three sons — Nathaniel, Joseph, and their eldest, Abraham, who drowned in 1951, a death that left Wouk with “the tears of the scar of a senseless waste.”