In 2013, I commissioned and published an apology to a writer who I felt had been mistreated in the pages of COMMENTARY—and by my father, no less!
“How This Magazine Wronged Herman Wouk” was the name of the article by Michael J. Lewis, and the occasion for it was the fact that the then-97-year-old Wouk had just published a new novel called The Lawgiver—a comic epistolary novel, no less, concerning the making of a movie about the life of Moses in which Wouk himself appears as a character. As Lewis wrote, “Wouk adapts the form to the modern world of instant messaging, faxes, and Skype, and pulls it off successfully—a startling achievement by an author who was born two years before the United States entered World War I.”
Wouk, who died Friday just two weeks shy of his 104th birthday, was extraordinary not only for his age, his durability, and the freshness of his ageless mind, but for his career as a popular novelist determined to explore themes of the deepest seriousness with all their moral complexities for a mass-market audience.
It was, I have to say, the very reason his work came in for scornful or dismissive treatment in the pages of COMMENTARY. The New York literary highbrows may have delighted in the frivolities of Hollywood and Tin Pan Alley, but they stood at the gates with buckshot at the ready against the philistine hordes of popular culture when the barbarians sought venture onto the turf of the Great Novel or the Great Play. Wouk’s breakthrough work, The Caine Mutiny, sold millions and was made into a successful movie and a smash-hit play, but in these pages it was found wanting as a seafaring tale next to Herman Melville—which is rather an impossible standard to which to hold a book that deserved and deserves to be measured on its own merits.
And when Wouk was garlanded by the middlebrows of the news magazines and the Book of the Month Club audience with the publication of his most ambitious novel, 1955’s Marjorie Morningstar, which was also an enormous bestseller, this meant war. The book came under withering assault from a 26-year-old whippersnapper named Norman Podhoretz for its “indigestible prose.”
As works of popular fiction, both books are entertainments with a deeper purpose—and they succeed in achieving that purpose, and remain beloved in spite of such criticisms. The Caine Mutiny offers an astonishingly complex portrait of a revolt against the paranoid and problematic Captain Queeg aboard a military vessel during World War II in which Wouk makes us feel deep sympathy for the mutineers—all of whom are far above Queeg in social standing and one of whom is an ambitious writer—until Wouk’s remarkable switcheroo of an ending. The Jewish lawyer defending the mutineers gets them off and then upbraids them drunkenly for their actions:
“See, while I was studying law ‘n old Keefer here was writing his play for the Theatre Guild, and Willie here was on the playing fields of Prinshton, all that time these birds we call regulars…were manning guns. Course they weren’t doing it to save my mom from Hitler, they’re doing it for dough, like everybody else does what they do. Question is, in the last analysis—last analysis—what do you do for dough? Old Yellowstain, for dough, was standing guard on this fat dumb and happy country of ours. Meantime me, I was advancing my little free non-Prussian life for dough. Of course, we figured in those days, only fools go into armed service. Bad pay, no millionaire future, and you can’t call your mind or body your own. Not for sensitive intellectuals. So when all hell broke loose and the Germans started running out of soap and figured, well it’s time to come over and melt down old Mrs. Greenwald–who’s gonna stop them? Not her boy Barney. Can’t stop a Nazi with a lawbook. So I dropped the lawbooks and ran to learn how to fly. Stout fellow. Meantime, and it took a year and a half before I was any good, who was keeping Mama out of the soap dish? Captain Queeg.”
You can see why Norman P. thought his prose indigestible, but that’s not the point. This idea—that perhaps the good working order of a democracy requires men like Queeg who are so readily dismissible by those who are his intellectual and social superiors—was far more profound than any explored in Norman Mailer’s wartime opus The Naked and the Dead, also an enormous success but one far more acceptable in its bleak moral frame than Wouk’s. And it had in it the essential social and moral conservatism that helped lead Wouk back to the Orthodox Judaism of his youth and which made him the most successful Orthodox Jewish cultural figure in American history.
Marjorie Morningstar is many things: A story about Jewish success in America, about the compromises Jews made to become successes in America, the hunger for fame, the ways in which the brilliant and irresponsible seduce the young and impressionable, and the potential costs of sexual adventurism. This last theme is revealed when Marjorie confesses her lack of virginity to her husband on her wedding night and, we are told, never quite achieves the same glow in his eyes she had when he believed her to be as sexually innocent as he. Readers in the 60-plus years since its publication have raged against Marjorie’s husband’s retrogressive unfairness, and Wouk’s by extension. But it was certainly sociologically true to the moment—the late 1930s in the novel’s chronology—and, if you don’t take it literally, a rueful observation about the kinds of disappointments all married people feel when the real doesn’t live up to the ideal. It’s a beautiful book. Not a great novel, but not all novels need to be great.
In the 1970s, Wouk found a new audience with The Winds of War and War and Remembrance—the former a gripping family melodrama but the latter a genuinely bravura writerly performance displaying a lifetime of meticulous study and understanding of the dynamics of World War II on a global scale as well as the horrors of the Holocaust.
Even when his later books didn’t really work as narratives, there were unforgettable elements to them. I think of his two novels about Israel, The Hope and The Glory, which offer an unusually anti-hagiographic portrait of Israel’s founders, especially David Ben-Gurion. The point Wouk is making in these strange but (again) profound books is that the men who are given credit for making Israel happen actually had clay feet and made blunder after blunder—and thus reveal that the restoration of the Jews to Zion must be considered a supernatural event, an act of God.
I really love his funny and rueful book about life in the Caribbean, called Don’t Stop the Carnival, which he made into a musical with Jimmy Buffett when he was in his 80s—but I can’t for the life of me understand why he spent five years writing the often risible Youngblood Hawke, a fictional portrait of the novelist Thomas Wolfe.
Anyway, I’m glad I was in a position to offer an institutional apology to one of the most remarkable men of the past century—and one who made his people proud.
May his survivors be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem. Baruch dayan emet.