Herman Wouk’s Last Shot
With The Lawgiver, the best-selling novelist takes another stab at the kind of Hollywood fame he’s always coveted
As if to balance some karmic literary account, Philip Roth’s announcement that he has retired from novel-writing came at the same moment that Herman Wouk’s new novel, The Lawgiver, was published. Here, life seemed to say, is the contrast between the highbrow and the middlebrow: Roth breaking his brain in solitude for a lifetime, until a the age of 79 he couldn’t take it any longer; Wouk, at the age of 97, still turning out prose with craftsmanlike regularity, still dreaming of returning to the best-seller list that he dominated for so long.
Here, also, were two models of what it meant to be a Jewish American writer, corresponding to very different Jewish American generations. The Caine Mutiny, Wouk’s stern tale of the making of a Navy man, was the best-selling novel of 1951; Portnoy’s Complaint, Roth’s wild study of the falling apart of a Jewish neurotic, was the best-selling novel of 1969. The hero of The Caine Mutiny is not Jewish—he is Willie Keith, a naïve Princeton boy whose baptism by fire comes when he participates in the mutiny against the incompetent, paranoid Capt. Queeg. But the novel does feature an important Jewish character: Barney Greenwald, the Navy lawyer who defends Keith and his fellow mutineers, finally winning their acquittal.
Most people, vaguely remembering the book or, more likely, the play and movie based on it, think of Queeg as an outright villain, and the mutineers as reluctant heroes. In fact, Wouk gives the last word on the affair to Greenwald, who rounds on the men he has just defended and blames them for their disobedience, while praising the military that they have slandered. In his speech, a paean to discipline and authority, at least one critic has heard the subtext that “the military establishment that fought and defeated Nazi Germany must be affirmed by grateful Jews.” But Wouk himself, a Navy veteran of World War II, has gone further than that: “Possibly because the Navy meant so much in my life, I have always thought that the Jewish place among mankind somewhat resembles the position of Navy men among other Americans,” he writes in This Is My God, his nonfiction primer on Judaism. “They have special commitments and disciplines, odd ways of dress, sharp limits on their freedom. They have, at least in their own minds, compensations of glory, or of vital service performed.”
Wouk, for one, recognized the threat that Roth—his fiction and his style of Jewishness—posed to his own conservatism in both realms. In Inside, Outside, Wouk’s 1985 novel about four generations of an American Jewish family, he included a Roth-like character named Peter Quat, who becomes famous by writing scurrilous novels about Jews with titles like “Onan’s Way.” I don’t know if Roth ever said anything about Wouk—probably he thinks of Wouk’s novels as beneath or beyond criticism, which in some ways they are. You can’t argue with the 3 million copies that The Caine Mutiny sold in the 1950s, nor the tens of millions who gathered around their TV sets to watch the miniseries based on Wouk’s World War II epic The Winds of War.
But then, you don’t really need to argue with them—though many critics have, including Norman Podhoretz, who compared Wouk’s blundering prose style to “a blind man trying to locate an object in an unfamiliar room.” Literary fame has a way of finding its own level: Those who start big usually end up small, while those who start small have at least a chance of ending up big. In the 1950s, if you asked people to name the greatest living American Jewish writer, vast numbers would have picked Wouk; today, no one would, and few even read him. (It makes you wonder which of our currently celebrated Jewish novelists will prove to be the Wouk of our time.) That is why the publication of The Lawgiver has been treated like the manifestation of a revenant, or a Guinness Book of World Records achievement. The New York Times story on Wouk at 97 was in the same spirit as Samuel Johnson’s remark about the dog that walked on its hind legs: “It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.”
Still, even if Roth’s comic vision of Jewishness effectively superseded Wouk’s pious one, it is not certain that this state of affairs will last forever. That Roth’s novels are likely to keep on being read when Wouk’s are forgotten is certain; that American Jews still want to see themselves in Rothian or Woody Allen-esque terms, as hyperarticulate, sex-obsessed, neurotic intellectuals, is doubtful. Indeed, with the rise of a new generation of more pious and tradition-minded Jewish writers—whose emblem might be Jonathan Safran Foer and Nathan Englander’s translation of the Haggadah—it could be said that Wouk’s moment has come again. After all, in This Is My God—a book written ostensibly for the enlightenment of Gentiles, but actually to call assimilated Jews back to the faith—Wouk confidently predicted the rise of modern American Orthodoxy that we are now seeing: “Pietists sometimes despair of American Jewry. I for one am proud to be part of the community, and I think its great days lie ahead.” If Wouk is right, then his own fiction’s treatment of American Jewish life—above all in his classic best-seller Marjorie Morningstar—might have something to tell us about the difficulties of being a Jewish traditionalist engaged with the modern world.
Wouk wrote about Jews and Jewishness many times, including his quasi-documentary treatment of the Holocaust in The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, and his twin historical novels about the state of Israel, The Hope and The Glory. But when it comes to his vision of American Jewish life, Wouk’s most important books are two products of the 1950s: This Is My God and the novel Marjorie Morningstar. Together, they advance a vision of life, and of Jewish life, that is unapologetically conservative, preaching conformity, chastity, and self-abnegation as the keys to happiness. That Wouk could praise these virtues in Marjorie Morningstar, a best-selling novel that is almost uninterruptedly about sex, is not so much a contradiction as a sign of his unusual skill at the old game of using titillation to sell morality.
Between stops on a world tour, Alisa Weilerstein remembers the late Elliott Carter and plays us some Bach