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by Bamber Gascoigne

Herman Wouk (1915-2019)


American bestseller writer who dealt in his work with moral dilemmas and the Jewish experience. Nerman Wouk's epic war novels were tremendously popular. Several of them have been filmed, including The Caine Mutiny (1951). Wouk's two-volume historical novel set in World War II, The Winds of War (1971) and War and Remembrance (1978), could be called an American War and Peace, which set individual values, actions, and fates against a panoramic, all-embracing picture of the world.

"Rhoda asked questions about the Jews, as Pug Henry mixed more martinis. Tollever assured her that the newspaper stories were exaggerated. The worst thing had been the so-called Crystal Night when Nazi toughs had smashed department store windows and set fire to some synagogues. Even that the Jews had brought on themselves, by murdering a German embassy official in Paris. As an embassy official himself, Tollever said, he took rather a dim view of that!" (from The Winds of War)

Herman Wouk was born in New York into a family of Jewish immigrants from Russia. He entered Columbia University, New York where he studied philosophy and comparative literature, and edited the college humor magazine, the Jester. After completing a BA degree at Columbia University, he became a radio scriptwriter, working from 1936 as staff writer for the comedian Fred Allen and making soon in the middle of the Depression $400 a week. In 1941, Wouk wrote radio scripts for U.S. Treasury's Defense Bond Campaign, in Washington, D.C. Probably through his work on writing radio scripts, Wouk made friends with the librettist and lyricist Alan Jay Lerner.  After Pearl Harbor, he joined the United States Navy, graduated from midshipman school, Columbia University, and U.S. Naval Academy's communications school. He then served in the Pacific.

This period he credited later as a major part of Wouk's education. "I learned about machinery, I learned how men behaved under pressure, and I learned about Americans." Wouk began his first novel during off-duty hours at sea. His first ship was the destroyer-minesweeper U.S.S. Zane. His last post was second command of the U.S.S. Southard, a ship of the same type. The ship struck a reef in a typhoon. In 1945, Wouk married Betty Sarah Brown, a navy personnel executive; they had three sons. Their first son, Abraham Isaac, died at the age of five in a tragic accident in Cuernavaca, Mexico. In 1954, he established The Abe Wouk Foundation, in memory of Abraham Isaac Wouk. Betty, his first reader, eventually became his literary agent. 

Since 1946 Wouk worked as a full-time writer. He was a visiting professor of English at Yeshiva University, New York, in 1958-58, and scholar-in-residence at Aspen Institute, Colorado, in 1973-74. From 1961 to 1969 he was a Trustee of the College of the Virgin Islands, and in 1969-71 he was a member of the Board of Directors of Washington National Symphony. In 1974-75 he was a member of the Board of Directors of Kennedy Center Productions. Wouk's wife died in 2011.

Aurora Dawn (1947), which Wouk wrote in longhand while he was in the Navy, was selected by the Book-of-the Month Club. Wouk's satire about the New York advertising business was inspired by a wave of post-war experimentation. Kurt Weil's plans to make a musica adaptation of the book were never realized. City Boy (1948) was a partly autobiographical story of a Bronx boy. The Lomokome Papers, a science fiction story which Wouk wrote in the late 1940s, was published in Collier's in 1956 and in a Pocket Books paperback edition in 1968. Wouk's first two books were written for Simon & Schuster.

The Caine Mutiny was awarded the 1952 Pulitzer Prize for fiction; it has been translated at least into seventeen languages, made into a major film, starring Humphrey Bogart, and staged by Charles Laughton at the Plymouth Theatre on Broadway. The play, which opened on January 20, 1954, ran for 415 performances. Its original director was Dick Powell, but he was replaced by Laughton, after disagreements with the actors. Henry Fonda played the naval attorney Lt. Barney Greenwald – "Relaxed, thoughtful, taciturn, quiet of voice and manner, Mr. Fonda makes a heroic character out of unheroics," said Brooks Atkinson in his review (The New York Times, Jan 21, 1954).

Wouk began writing the work during a Naval reserve training cruise abroad the aircraft carrier Saipan. His agent, Harold Matson, had about 150 pages from the book and wanted his client an advance that was too high for Simon & Schuster and Knopf. The contract was signed with Doubleday, where Wouk's manuscript was read with enthusiasm. (The Time of Their Lives: The Golden Age of Great American Book Publishers, Their Editors and Authors by Al Silverman, 2008, p. 187)

The story concerns the events leading up to and following from a mutiny onboard a destroyer-minesweeper, the USS Caine. Willie Keith, the main character, is a rich New Yorker, who comes of age as he witnesses the fall of authority. In the center of the events is the neurotic Captain Queeg, who suffers from acute paranoia, incompetence, and cowardice. Queeg becomes obsessed with petty infractions and even conducts a full-scale investigation to determine who pilfered a quart of strawberries. "There are four ways of doing things on board my ship," he says. "The right way, the wrong way, the navy way, and my way. If they do things my way, we'll get along." However, his way leads to a dead end.

Lieutenant Tom Keefer, the villain of the novel, persuades loyal Lieutenant Steve Maryk to take over command of the ship, which happens during a typhoon. In the court-martial Keefer testifies that he always though Queeg was in full control of his faculties. Maryk's legal defender, Lieutenant Greenwald, does not support the mutiny, yet he still believes Maryk acted according to his best judgment. The unstable Queeg eventually breaks down completely while undergoing interrogation. "Ah, but the strawberries! That's where I had them. They laughed and made jokes, but I provided beyond the shadow of a doubt, and with geometric logic, that a duplicate key to the wardroom icebox did exist. And I'd have produced that key if they hadn't pulled the Caine out of action. I know now they were out to protect some fellow officer." Although the jury acquits Maryk, the verdict is deliberately ambiguous. The deposed Captain Queeg, who had been a hero, but on whose mind too much combat has had an effect, is suddenly seen in the novel's resolution as a tragic figure.

Humphrey Bogart had wanted to play Captain Queeg after reading Wouk's original novel. This untypical role for him is one of his greatest, with the scenes of him giving evidence, ball-bearings in hand, being one of the most memorable moments in the movies. However, Edward Dmytryk's direction is stagy – one never feels that the men are actually on a ship in mid-ocean. None of the feature films based on Wouk's novels were produced from his own adaptation, or, as the director Otto Preminger said: "A novelist writes dialogue to be read. A scriptwriter writes dialogue to be heard." In Europe, The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial has been adapted for television in Belgium, Sweden, the Netherlands, and France. A Chinese-language production of the play, directed by Charton Heston, opened in 1988 in Beijing at the People's Art Theatre.

Marjorie Morningstar (1955) was considered reactionary by some reviewers. The story depicted a beautiful Jewish girl, who rebels against the confining middle-class values of her family. Marjorie has great ambitions for herself as an actress, but she ultimately gives up her illusions and marries a conventional but successful man, accepting social conformity.

When Jack Warner acquired the rights to the bestseller, he wanted Elizabeth Taylor to play the lead. Also Natalia Wood had read the novel, and she said it was a role she was destined to play. She even met Wouk, who first told Warners, that she was not his concept of the heroine. After the screen test Wouk said, "You have your Marjorie Morningstar." Paul Newman turned down the role of Noel Airman, a dramatist, whom Marjorie leaves at the end.

Youngblood Hawke (1962) examined the obsession of a writer who is caught up in the intrigue of the publishing world. Basically a classical Kunstlerroman, the work was partly based on the life of the American writer Thomas Wolfe, but it also gives insight into the political hysteria and the Communist witch hunt of the 1950s. "Now, Tom," says Gus Adam, a lawyer, to the Senator Tom Breckinridge, "you know perfectly well that in the present climate to be named as a communist or ex-communist is to incur substantial character damage at once, and probable financial damage. Maybe former communist deserve that damage. I don't know." This Is My God (1959) introduced the reader to Jewish orthodoxy. "Judaism has always been a strong interest of mine," Wouk wrote. "My two sons speak Hebrew, and are familiar with the scriptures and with rabbinic literature. This is the way we live."

The Winds of War (1971) was a large canvas of the relationship between the actions of individuals and the events leading up to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. No longer satisfied with the way Doubleday payed his royalties and issued the books, Wouk asked his agent to find a new publisher who would take him in as a partner rather than as an author. He entered into an agreement with Little, Brown and Company.

The narrative focused on the various members of the Henry family, famous for its naval heroes. Captain Victor "Pug" Henry, the patriarch, is a military man, scholar, translator, and advisor to Franklin Roosevelt and other statesmen. He was portrayed in the ABC mini-series by Robert Mitchum – Ali McGraw played the role of Natalie Jastrow, Henry's daughter-in-law. Wouk wrote the screenplay for the production. "Discount my partiality, but my report is that so far The Winds of War is looking good," Wouk said in an interview. "The films of The Caine Mutiny and Marjorie Morningstar always seemed to me mere thin skims of the story lines, and I never did see a meager Hollywood caper called Youngblood Hawke, vaguely based on my 800-page novel. So it was that I opted for television, with its much broader time limits, for The Winds of War. Sixteen hours!" (Herman Wouk in The New York Times, June 14, 1981)

Wouk's sweeping attempted to explain the causes and implications of the war was concluded with War and Remembrance (1978). "Life was a colorful painful pageant to her, in which right and wrong were wobbly yardsticks. Values and morals varied with time and place. Sweeping righteous views, like Victor Henry's Christian morality and Rule's militant socialism, tended to cause much hell and to cramp what little happiness there was to be had. So she thought." (from War and Remembrance)

While researching the atom bomb for his work, Wouk met the physicist Richard Feynman. They became friends and spent hours talking at the Aspen Institute. Feynman told him that calculus is "the language God talks," Decades later Wouk returned to their encounter and portayed in the autobiographical The Language God Talks (2010) an imaginary conversation between Feynman, a sceptic and scientist, and himself, an Orthodox Jew. At the age of 97, Wouk published The Lawgiver (2012), a comedy in epistolary form about a writer named Herman Wouk, his wife, a Jewish filmmaker, and other characters.  

By the time of publishing This Is My God (1959), a nonfiction portrait of Jewish life written for a general readership, Wouk adopted Orthodox Judaism and began to spend part of each day at synagogue prayers and at home studying sacred Jewish texts. In his review in Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Jewish Thought, Emanuel Feldman said that "Wouk has the Midas touch: everying he writes is a best seller – even a tract on Judaism." The book remained on the New York Times Best Seller list for several months.

Inside, Outside (1985) is the story of a Jewish presidential advisor, Israel David Goodkind, a tax lawyer. It moves in time from the early 1900s to the 1970s and looks at the importance of religious roots to American Jews. President Nixon, a side character, is portrayed in an ironic light, when he shows some interest in Talmud. "The President has a quick and able mind, though not everybody gives him that, not by a long shot. His face lit up. He shot me a sharp glance and said in his most nearly natural voice, 'And you really understand this stuff?' 'Well, I scratch the surface, Mr. President. I come from a rabbinic family.'" Goodkind also writes Nixon's Watergate speech.

The Hope (1993), a plunge into Israeli life in its early years, began another epic story, which mixed fictional characters with real-life figures. The 1948 war of independence, the 1956 Suez war, and the 1967 Six Day War are seen through the lives of three families. The protagonist is Zev Barak, a soldier who can quote Shakespeare, and whose military career reflects the wars. In the sequel, The Glory (1994), Wouk continued the story from the late 1960s to the bombing of Iraq's nuclear reactor in 1981.

A highly popular writer around the world, Wouk's books have been translated into some 30 languages. Although many reviewers have criticized his works as sentimental, they display narrative skill, satire, and humor, and are meticulously researched. For historical accuracy, his fiction has won admiration from a wide variety of readers. In the cover blurbs on Wouk's World War II novel Henry Kissinger has been quoted saying, "Brilliant. . . An outstanding novel and at the same time a great work of history." Professional scholars in history have remarked that Wouk seldom offers evidence for his facts.

Between 1965 and 1975, Wouk made several trips to do on-the-spot research in Europe, Israel, and Iran. In 1967, he spent three weeks on the U.S.S. Sirago, a fleet submarine cruising around the Virgin Islands. Wouk  received several awards, including the Pulitzer Prize (1952), Columbia University Medal of Excellence (1952) Hamilton medal (1980); American Academy of Achievement Golden Plate award (1986), Washingtonian award (1986), U.S. Navy Memorial Foundation award (1987), Kazetnik award (1990). He also had several honorary degrees from American and Israeli universities. In 2008, the Library of Congress honored Wouk by giving him its first Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Writing of Fiction. Wouk lived in Palm Springs, CA, where he first went have the chance to write in peace and quiet, and eventually settled there permanently. He died on May 17, 2019, in Palm Springs.

For further reading: 'Julie Klam on Marjorie Morningstar by Herman Wouk,' in The Books That Changed My Life: Reflections by 100 Authors, Actors, Musicians, and Other Remarkable People, edited by Bethanne Patrick (2016); 'How This Magazine Wronged Herman Wouk A 65-year Injustice, Rectified' by M.J. Lewis, in Commentary (Feb 2013); 'Herman Wouk Is Still Alive' by S. King, in The Atlantic Monthly (Vol 307, Numb 4, 2011); Herman Wouk: The Novelist as Social Historian by Arnold Beichman (1984/2004); The Historical Novel: A Celebration of the Achievements of Herman Wouk, edited by Barbara A. Paulson (1999); 'The Jew as Patriot: Herman Wouk and American Jewish Identity' by Edward S. Shapiro, in American Jewish History 84:4 (1996); Herman Wouk by Laurence W. Mazzeno (1994) - See also: Leon Uris's Exodus

Selected works:

  • The Man in the Trench Coat, 1941
  • Aurora Dawn, 1947
  • The City Boy, 1948
  • Slattery's Hurricane, 1948 (screenplay)
    - film 1949, prod. Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, dir. André De Toth, starring Richard Widmark, Linda Darnell, Veronica Lake, John Russell
  • The Traitor, 1948 (play)
    - films: TV film 1950, prod. Marc Daniels, dir. Franklin J. Schaffner, adapted by Jack Kirkland, cast: Barbara Ames, Walter Hampden, Lee Tracy; Der Verräter, 1959 (TV drama), dir. Theodor Grädler, prod. Österreichischer Rundfunk (ORF), cast: Erik Frey, Doris Kirchner, Paula Nefzger, Pinkas Braun, Helmi Mareich
  • Modern Primitive, 1951 (play)
  • The Caine Mutiny, 1951 (Pulitzer Prize in 1952)
    - Cainen kapina (suom. Pentti Vasara, 1954)
    - films: 1954, dir. by Edward Dmytryk, starring Humphrey Bogart, José Ferrer, Van Johnson, Fred MacMurray. The film was one of the top five box-office hits of 1954 and received Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Screenplay, Score, Actor (Humphrey Bogart), Supporting Actor (Tom Tully), Editing. "Bogart is not convincing... Dmytryk's direction is defective... The court martial itself, which is exploited so dramatically on the stage, is thrown away in the film... If Hollywood films are to continue to gnaw at the intangibles which support our armed forces... let them, at least, be as well-made and as cinematic as From Here to Eternity." (Henrietta Lehman, Films and Review, June/July, 1954)
  • The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, 1953 (play)
    - films: 1955 (TV play), dir. Franklin J. Schaffner, adapted by Paul Gregory, starring Robert Gist, Frank Lovejoy, Lloyd Nolan; Muiterij op de Caine, 1957 (TV film), prod. N.I.R. (Belgium), dir. Maurits Balfoort; 1958 (TV play), dir. Alvin Rakoff, starring Warren Stanhope, Nigel Stock, William Sylvester, Paul Douglas, Michael Caine; Myteriet på Caine, 1960 (TV play), dir. Hans Abramson, starring Bengt Blomgren, Åke Claesson, Axel Düberg, Lars Ekborg, Erik Strandmark; Muiterij op de Caine, 1968 (TV play), prod. N.T.S. (Netherlands); Ouragan sur le Caine , 1973 (TV play), dir. Georges Folgoas, starring François Darbon, Raymond Loyer, Jean Mercure, Guy Kerner, Jean-Pierre Kérien; 1988 (TV play), dir. Robert Altman, starring Eric Bogosian, Jeff Daniels, Brad Davis, Peter Gallagher, Michael Murphy
  • Marjorie Morningstar, 1955
    - Marjorie: romaani nykypäivien New Yorkista 1-2 (suom. Marja Niiniluoto, 1956)
    - film 1958, prod. Beachwold Productions, dir. by Irving Rapper, screenplay Everett Freeman, starring Natalie Wood, Gene Kelly, Claire Trevor
  • Slattery's Hurricane, 1956 (novel; New York: PermaBooks)
  • Nature's Way, 1957 (play, prod. on Broadway by Alfred de Liagre, Jr.)
  • This is My God: The Jewish Way of Life, 1959 (revised ed. 1973)
  • Youngblood Hawke, 1961
    - Menestyksen hinta 1-2 (suom. M. H. Aaltio, 1965)
    - film 1964, prod. Warner Bros. Pictures, dir. by Delmer Daves, screenplay by Delmer Daves, Herman Wouk, starring James Franciscus, Suzanne Pleshette, Genevieve Page
  • Don't Stop the Carnival, 1965
    - Karnevaalit (suom. Jaakko Lavanne, 1967)
  • The Lomokome Papers, 1968
  • The Winds of War, 1971
    - Sodan tuulet 1-2 (suom. Aarne Valpola, 1983)
    - TV film 1983, produced and directed by Dan Curtis, written by Herman Wouk, starring Jan-Michael Vincent, Robert Mitchum, Ali MacGraw, John Houseman
  • War and Remembrance, 1978
    - Hyvästi huominen (suom. Aarne Valpola, 1979), Maailmanpalo (suom. Aarne Valpola, 1980), Tulipilven takana (suom. Aarne Valpola, 1980), Sodan mainingit (suom. Aarne Valpola, 1981) / Sodan muisto 1-2 (Aarne Valpola, 1991)
    - TV film 1988, prod. ABC Circle Films, dir. Tommy Groszman, starring Robert Mitchum, Jane Seymour, Hart Bochner, Victoria Tennant
  • Inside, Outside, 1985
    - Manhattan (suom. Aarne Valpola ja Riitta Kanerva, 1986)
  • The Hope, 1993
  • The Glory, 1994
  • Don't Stop the Carnival, 1997 (musical dramatization; music and lyrics by Jimmy Buffett)
  • The Will to Live on: The Resurgence of Jewish Heritage, 2000
  • A Hole in Texas, 2004
  • The Language God Talks, 2010
  • The Lawgiver: A Novel, 2012
  • Sailor and Fiddler: Reflections of a 100-Year-Old Author, 2015 

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