Among living American writers, Herman Wouk is probably one of the most widely read around the world,almost as popular in translation in the People’s Republic of China, and in twenty-seven other languages, as he is in his native land. He works slowly. In recent years he has been publishing books six or seven years apart, and each publication has been a major literary event in the United States and abroad. He has also composed plays, films, and religious writings. While earlier novels like The Caine Mutiny and Marjorie Morningstar have become recognized world classics, Herman Wouk is best known today for the linked monumental “War Books,” The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, an epic two-part narrative of World War II, interweaving history with the experiences of two fictional families plunged into the perils and tragedies of the War and the Holocaust.
Wouk is wholly a New York City product. He was born on May 27, 1915, to Russian-Jewish parents who had emigrated from Minsk. He attended public schools in the Bronx and later was graduated from Columbia University in Manhattan. At Columbia he took courses in comparative literature and philosophy. He edited the undergraduate humor magazine, Jester, and wrote varsity musicals, obtaining his B.A. degree at the age of nineteen, in 1934. Wouk’s facility for writing humor led to work in the field of radio comedy. For five years, from 1936 to 1941, he was a staff writer for Fred Allen. In June 1941, Wouk went to Washington as a dollar-a-year man, to write radio scripts for the war-bond selling campaign of the U.S. Treasury.
In December 1941, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, he joined the Navy, and attended midshipman school at Columbia University, and communications school at Annapolis. In February 1943, Wouk reported to the U.S.S. Zane, a World War I four-piper refitted as a destroyer-minesweeper, at anchor in a South Pacific harbor near Guadalcanal. He took part in eight Pacific invasions, earning several battle stars. When the war ended he was the executive officer on the Southard, a similar vessel. Wouk was to relieve the captain when the vessel was lost in a typhoon on Okinawa, in October 1945. A year later, during a Navy Yard overhaul of his ship in San Pedro, he had met a young graduate of the University of Southern California, Betty Sarah Brown, a Navy personnel executive. Less than a week after he returned from the sea at the end of the war, they were married.
In June 1949, Wouk went as a reserve officer on a training cruise aboard the aircraft carrier Saipan, and while on board started writing The Caine Mutiny, a tale set aboard a destroyer-minesweeper like the Zane and Southard. It was published on March 19, 1951, and had a slow start. There was no immediate rush to the bookstores. After a second printing in April orders began to increase, and by September Herman Wouk had his first number one best-seller, displacing James Jones’s famous From Here To Eternity. The Caine Mutiny continued to lead the field for a year, and in May 1952, Wouk was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
In 1954, the same year The Caine Mutiny was being made into the celebrated film starring Humphrey Bogart as Captain Queeg, Wouk turned the novel’s court sequence into a successful play, The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, which starred Henry Fonda as the Jewish lawyer, Barney Greenwald. The play is a perennial favorite, both in the United States and abroad. In 1985, Charlton Heston directed and starred as Queeg in a production which toured England, finishing up at the Queen’s Theatre in London’s West End, and in 1986, Heston remounted the production in Los Angeles and Washington, DC, under the auspices of the Kennedy Center.
After The Caine Mutiny made him an internationally known novelist, Wouk turned from the sea to portray a starry-eyed New York girl who wanted popularity, suitors, and a love affair that ended in marriage. Conventional publishing wisdom then held that novels on Jewish themes could not be popular. Marjorie Morningstar was the first in the great wave of American-Jewish novels that took a central place in the fiction of the 1950s and 1960s. It was the most popular American novel of 1955, and, like all Wouk’s subsequent novels, a major club selection. A successful film of the work starred the late Natalie Wood.
Herman Wouk interrupted his work on Youngblood Hawke, a long complex novel of the literary scene in postwar America, to execute an idea that he had been turning over in his mind for years: in his own words, “a fairly short and clear account of the Jewish faith from a personal viewpoint.” This Is My God, published in 1959, was dedicated to the memory of his grandfather, Mendel Leib Levine, a rabbi from Minsk. It stood high on the best-seller lists for half a year, and has since become a standard book on the subject, of equal interest to Jewish and Christian readers. A labor of love, the copyright was donated by Mr. and Mrs. Wouk to the Abe Wouk Foundation, named in memory of their firstborn son who died accidentally at the age of five.
On publication day of Youngblood Hawke, May 17, 1962, Wouk began work on The Winds of War. He soon realized that he had let himself in for years of research, and probably for two vast novels. By then he was living in the Virgin Islands with his wife and two young sons; he had moved there in 1958, when the distraction s of New York had made working difficult. During the war book research, he gave a couple of hours each day to a new short novel that returned to his comic vein. Don’t Stop the Carnival, published in 1965, is an extravaganza of life on a Caribbean island, which tells some grim truths of politics and race under the surface of fun. A few years ago the novel took on another form when Wouk wrote the libretto of a musical version in collaboration with Jimmy Buffett, the show’s composer and lyricist. Don’t Stop the Carnival had its premiere at the Coconut Grove Theatre in Miami, where enthusiastic audiences caused the original run to be extended by several months.
In 1964 the Wouks returned to the mainland and settled in Washington, DC, where the author began the narrative writing of The Winds of War, and extensive research for War and Remembrance. There he could consult the Library of Congress resources, the National Archives, and important surviving military leaders. Finding life in Washington pleasant, the Wouks bought and renovated and 1815 house in Georgetown as a combined office and residence. The author also travelled for research to England, Germany, the Soviet Union, Iran, Portugal, Italy, France, Poland, and Czechoslovakia, and he spent much time on records in Israel of the destruction of Europe’s Jews. Accompanying him on his travels always was his wife, Betty Sarah, his editor and manuscript assistant throughout his career, and in recent years his literary agent.
The author has earned the Pulitzer Prize and numerous academic honors, including a degree from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. In January 2001, the University of California, San Diego established the Herman Wouk Chair of Modern Jewish Studies. In 2008, he was given the first Library of Congress Lifetime Achievement Award for the Writing of Fiction.
Mr. Wouk is an unusually private person, living a disciplined, secluded existence with his wife of sixty-four years in Palm Springs, California. Writing, scholarship (his avocation is Judaic studies), and the companionship of a close family and a few intimate friends make up the productive life pattern that has made him a world-famous writer.
Full-length critical studies of the author’s work include Herman Wouk, by Laurence W. Mazzeno (Twayne Publishers, 1994). A recent publication of the Library of Congress is The Historical Novel: A Celebration of the Achievements of Herman Wouk, edited by Barbara A. Paulson (1999).