By Becky Krystal | Washington Post
Herman Wouk, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the Navy drama “The Caine Mutiny” whose sweeping novels about World War II, the Holocaust and the creation of Israel made him one of the most popular writers of his generation and helped revitalize the genre of historical fiction, died May 17 at his home in Palm Springs, California. He was 103.
His literary agent, Amy Rennert, confirmed the death but did not provide a cause.
Wouk (his last name is pronounced “Woke”) penned a dozen novels, a handful of plays and several nonfiction books over the course of his nearly 60-year career. A meticulous researcher, he specialized in stories of personal conflict set against the backdrop of compelling historical events, including “The Caine Mutiny” (1951), “The Winds of War” (1971) and “War and Remembrance” (1978). The latter two became ABC miniseries in the 1980s starring Robert Mitchum that averaged tens of millions of viewers over the course of their broadcast and were the highest-rated miniseries after Alex Haley’s “Roots.”
In a form that the author would echo in other novels, “The Winds of War” and its sequel, “War and Remembrance,” trace World War II through the experiences of one family. “The Winds of War” follows Navy officer Victor “Pug” Henry and his relatives from the German invasion of Poland to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, where its sequel begins and then proceeds to the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan.
The pair of books established Wouk’s legacy as a master of historical fiction, in which he blended the narrative power of fiction with great understanding and empathy for the human motivations behind wars and other historical events. The Economist magazine called “The Winds of War” “as serious a contribution to the literature of our time as ‘War and Peace’ was to that of the nineteenth century.”
Librarian of Congress James Billington said Wouk helped enliven history in ways that many academic tomes never could and prompted readers to examine the past through engaging fictional characters. “I think he’s been a seminal figure because he’s recrafted the historical novel for a modern audience and not for some niche market,” Billington, who died last year, told The Washington Post in an interview for this obituary.
Wouk, who said he was never a “high stylist,” attracted a mass audience with books that espoused such values as gallantry and leadership under pressure. Leading critics sniffed at his books, which they often said broke no ground in writing style or character development.
The literary essayist Leslie Fiedler once explained Wouk’s critical reputation by comparing him with Nobel laureate Saul Bellow. “Bellow, like most writers critics take seriously, attacked the basic values of middle-class Americans: easy piety, marriage, life in the suburbs,” Fielder said. “Wouk challenges nothing.”
Wouk said he found nonconformity for its own sake an all-too predictable theme in modern literature and had no interest in experimental or temporarily trendy prose styles. “I write a traditional novel, which is rather unfashionable, and I’ve taken a lot of kicking for it,” he once told The Post. “But the strength of my work comes from this intense grounding in the 18th- and 19th-century novelists.”
His very significance, wrote Time magazine in a 1955 cover story, was that “he spearheads a mutiny against the literary stereotypes of rebellion – against three decades of U.S. fiction dominated by skeptical criticism, sexual emancipation, social protest and psychoanalytic sermonizing.”
Wouk began his professional career as a gag writer in the 1930s before moving to the staff of the popular radio comedian Fred Allen. He got that job in part for his notoriety at Columbia University, where his Class of 1934 yearbook named him the wittiest student. He later joked, “It was not a very sparkling class.”
Enlisting in the Navy during World War II proved a transformative experience in his development as a writer.
“My life was broken at the time, as it was for all of our generation, by the coming of the war, and the winds of war swept a Bronx boy halfway around the world, below the equator, and he landed on an old destroyer minesweeper called the USS Zane,” Wouk told a National Press Club audience. “And that, I think, is where my adult education really began, because there, the hard shell of a New York wise guy cracked and fell off. The shallow conceit of a successful gag man faded away. . . . When I came back, there no longer was a question of a gag writing. I wanted to write novels.”
“The Caine Mutiny: A Novel of World War II” in 1951 brought Wouk his first critical and popular success, including the Pulitzer. The book centers on a power struggle aboard the destroyer-minesweeper Caine, culminating in a young lieutenant seizing control of the vessel from the paranoid Capt. Queeg after the crew thinks it faces imminent danger.
The action culminates in a court-martial for the lieutenant. Although the novel raised questions of authority and duty vs. personal freedom, the naval community embraced it. Queeg also became one of the most memorable characters of the day, a man who relieved his stress by obsessively rolling steel bearings in the palm of his hand.
Time magazine called “The Caine Mutiny,” which sold more than 5 million copies worldwide and was translated into 17 languages, the “biggest U.S. bestseller since ‘Gone With the Wind.’ ” A 1954 film adaptation of the novel, starring Humphrey Bogart as Queeg, became a popular hit, earning Bogart an Academy Award nomination.
The stage version of the courtroom scenes from “The Caine Mutiny,” called “The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial,” proved a Broadway success in the 1950s with Henry Fonda and Lloyd Nolan and remained a staple of community theaters, with productions as far away as China.
Wouk became further embedded in the cultural firmament with film adaptations of his other books, including “Marjorie Morningstar,” with Gene Kelly and Natalie Wood.
“Marjorie Morningstar,” published in 1955, underscored another major aspect of Wouk’s life: books whose themes were central to his Orthodox Jewish faith. “Marjorie Morningstar,” about a young Jewish woman who dreams of being an actress and eventually settles into a life as a suburban housewife, explores how Jews struggled to reconcile their faith with American society. It earned the public’s affection, if not the critics’, and was credited with helping broaden interest in Jewish American novels later that decade by Philip Roth and others.
Herman Wouk was born May 27, 1915, in the Bronx, which he once called “that romantic, and much overcriticized borough” of New York. His parents were Jewish immigrants from Russia, and his father worked his way into the presidency of a laundry chain business.
As a child, he told Time, he was the neighborhood fat boy forever being “clobbered” by street toughs. He found comfort in books that his mother bought from a traveling salesman when he was 12. In particular he grew to love the writing of Mark Twain for his ability to make people laugh, even at matters of faith.
The arrival from Russia of his maternal grandfather, an Orthodox Jewish rabbi, would have a decisive influence on Wouk’s beliefs and many of his later works of fiction and nonfiction.
Wouk decided at a young age that he wanted to be a writer. He wrote for the college humor magazine and several student musical comedy revues, one of which prompted a student critic to quip, “All Wouk and no play.”
He graduated in 1934 with majors in philosophy and comparative literature and took a $15-a-week job working for a man he called the “czar of gag writers,” who modernized and cleaned up old jokes and sold them to entertainers such as Eddie Cantor. Within a few years, he joined Fred Allen’s comedy-writing team.
Wouk returned to comedy later in his career, collaborating with singer Jimmy Buffett on a musical based on Wouk’s 1965 novel “Don’t Stop the Carnival,” about a harried New York publicist who flees to the fictitious Caribbean island of Amerigo to run a resort hotel. The show became a crowd favorite when it opened in 1997 in Miami’s Coconut Grove Playhouse.
As war broke out in Europe, Wouk in 1941 worked on radio shows promoting purchases of war bonds before enlisting in the Navy. The experience, eventually as executive officer of the destroyer-minesweeper Southard, helped inspire “The Caine Mutiny.”
Wouk’s first novel, “Aurora Dawn,” was published in 1947. It started as a play he was writing while at sea during the war but evolved into a full-blown story about the life and romances of a radio advertising worker. Though the reviews were mixed, it was selected by the Book-of-the-Month Club.
His next novel, “City Boy” (1948), was about a Jewish youth from the Bronx whom Wouk based in part on himself. Then, in 1949 came the screenplay for the film “Slattery’s Hurricane,” starring Richard Widmark as a man seeking to redeem himself by flying a reconnaissance mission in a hurricane. The book of the same title was published in 1956.
“The Caine Mutiny” proved the sensation that fully established Wouk’s career. His later novels included “Youngblood Hawke” (1962), about an American writer who becomes a victim of his own success, and “The Hope” (1993) and “The Glory” (1994), which documented the struggle for Israeli statehood from the perspective of several fictional families. In 2012, Wouk published his last novel, “The Lawgiver,” which revolves around the making of a screenplay about Moses and includes Wouk himself as a character. In 2016, he published a memoir, “Sailor and Fiddler: Reflections of a 100-Year-Old Author,” and up until a month ago, he was working on another book.
The Library of Congress held events in honor of Wouk on multiple occasions, including naming him, in 2008, the recipient of its first lifetime achievement award for fiction writing. But he acknowledged that he wasn’t much for being in the public spotlight or at large soirees, instead preferring to throw small dinners with his wife of more than 60 years, the former Betty Brown, who went by her Hebrew name, Sarah. She died in 2011, at 90.
Wouk once joked in a speech that historical fiction is “at best a bastard form and highly suspect.” While his dedication to the genre earned him the respect of such scholars as historian David McCullough and Churchill biographer Martin Gilbert, Wouk said he recognized that his most important job was as a storyteller.
“A historical novel, to have any chance of lasting, must meet the highest standards of academic history,” he told an audience in Melbourne, Australia, “and then the novelist has to discard 90 percent of the history in order to tell the story.”
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