How This Magazine Wronged Herman Wouk
To review favorably a work by Herman Wouk, America’s only prominent Orthodox Jewish novelist, is to break with long-standing Commentary precedent. Ever since his early novel City Boy was panned in 1948 as “bad (and therefore untrue) . . . not serious either about pleasure or sorrow,” he has never received a positive notice in these pages. His bestselling The Caine Mutiny (1951) was written off as an inferior naval yarn that contained a romance “as exciting as tapioca with F. Scott Fitzgerald sauce.” Pearl K. Bell found War and Remembrance (1978) extravagantly sentimental and larded with characters who “were not merely trivial but offensively so.”
Perhaps the harshest notice came from Norman Podhoretz, who in one of his first reviews confronted Marjorie Morningstar, the publishing sensation of 1955. While it may have been “the first novel to treat American Jews intimately as Jews without making them seem exotic,” everything else about it was wrong, he wrote, from its “indigestible prose” to its simplistic moral analysis. Wouk’s picture of American Jewish life was a depressingly diminished one, a false choice between bourgeois conformity or Bohemian rebellion (“a feeling that the Jewish personality can only disintegrate and wither away if it ventures beyond the moral and spiritual confines of a Judaic bourgeois style”).
About the Author
Michael J. Lewis, professor of art at Williams College, has been writing for Commentary for two decades.