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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

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Herman Wouk, 1955. (Walter Sanders//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)
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Modern Times

Herman Wouk wrote a foundational text for American postwar Modern Orthodoxy, and for the emancipated Jewish literature in its wake

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.

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Victor Olefson says:

Wouk is highly underrated. I just reread ‘The Will to Live On’, sequel to’This Is My God’, and it is a powerful, moving record of a serious Jewish writer.

Boychic says:

Ah the joys or irony. Here is the writer predicting that Wouk’s writing will not last and then reviewing a novel by Wouk written six decades ago. Kirsch is a fine writer but a bit of a snobbish twit without much grace. He should have celebrated Wouk for his sheer creative endurance. One wonders what Kirsch will be writing when, hopefully, he hits the ripe old age of 97.

I was excited to read that Herman Wouk is still writing. Indeed, his books both fiction and non fiction are very good. I read the headline and thought well, Adam Kirsch probably didn’t write that cheap shot so I read through this long winding road of an article that is more a retrospective than a book review. I agree with “boychic” the first comment above. And I would add two points, first, Mr. Kirsch would do well to hire Wouk’s editor. Second, I think these quotes from Kirsch make the point:
1. “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.”

2. “…….today, no one would, and few even read him (Wouk)”

3. “It is still in print and, as Tablet’s Alana Newhouse has written, still commands a hardy following, especially among women readers.”

Beneath criticism, few even read him, still commands a hardy following. And I won’t even go into the comment about American Jews eschewing the neurotic Roth stereotype for Wouk’s Jewish heroic and tragic figures.

Fred Campbell says:

As a goy, I have read many of Wouk’s books. Much of what I “know” of Jewish culture I learned from his writings.

I have deep respect for those who “live” their religion. Much of the respect that I have for for Judaism, as a religion and culture, I gained from Herman.

I also resent supercilious criticism of this man and his works. I am not a “writer” and do not understand the nuances that are used to judge writings such as his. I only know he has entranced me for many hours.

I am happy that he walked the earth and chose to share his insights into this rich culture (and religion). I am a better person because he walked the earth and chose to write.

May our mutual God bless and keep you, Mr. Wouk.

Jim Palmer says:

I’m also slightly bothered by the elitist thread running through this article. Mr. Wouk, though his style might leave a little to be desired, grapples with the same themes that Mr. Roth does–assimilation, alienation, the Jew’s place in the modern world–and while he may come from a different perspective and reach different conclusions, that doesn’t automatically relegate his work to the realms of the disposable.

Before dismissing Mr. Wouk’s work as too “popular” for serious consideration or criticism, he might wish to reflect on the work of one of our leading contemporary Jewish novelists, Michael Chabon, who gleefully shatters the boundaries of genre and the artificial delineations between highbrow/lowbrow and literary/popular. Just because it’s accessible doesn’t mean it sucks.

And, as Mr. Chabon also says, “I write to entertain. Period.”

fred capio says:

I enjoyed the article until I hit the sentence: “…and the main effect of reading Marjorie Morningstar today is to be deeply grateful for feminism and the sexual revolution…” Pure liberal cliche! It is true that feminism and sexual revolution changed the life of many (or maybe even all of us) but it has improved the life of none. Just follow the life of a teenager today and you will find problems much more serious than “a house full of children”

KaKa Khan says:

Touche’ ! Had comments like that been directed at something I had said I would have immediately found the nearest bridge and swan dived into oblivion…. Ouch indeed…

KaKa Khan says:

My first introduction to Herman Wouk was when I read his “The Lomokome Papers” The only science fiction work he ever wrote. A great read..

julis123 says:

To be honest I’ve read several books by the contemporary crop of Jewish writers that you mention and frankly due to their lack of substance I don’t remember much about them. Wouk’s books on the other hand, although not great literature stay with me to this day.

Andrew Marc Caplan says:

I’m actually surprised and rather beguiled by how affectionate Mr Kirsch’s review of Wouk’s new novel is. I don’t think Kirsch needs to apologize for his “highbrow” tastes–anymore than Wouk needs to apologize for having written best sellers–but it seems to me that he has rather enjoyed Wouk’s latest novel, probably more than he expected to!

Guilty pleasures, when all is said and done, still count as pleasures–and this is a lesson that both Kirsch’s review as well as Wouk’s more worldly characters are capable of affirming.

I’m happy that Herman Wouk is still around and writing at 97; for the record, I hope Kirsch will still be at it when he achieves the same age (in, what, 75 or 80 years?!). And while we’re hoping, I wouldn’t mind hitting the same milestone myself, given the available alternatives….

Robert Starkand says:

There is no need to compare Wouk with Roth. One is high brow and one is middle brow. You can bring up Bernard Malamud and Saul Bellow as well. I enjoyed reading Wouk’s books. One lesser known novel by Wouk I read as a boy was “City Boy”, which not coincidentally was about a Jewish boy growing up in Brooklyn. I enjoyed it very much.

bobschwalbaum says:

“The Caine Mutiny” had a profound effect on me.. about a Jew serving as an officer aboard a naval ship.

It inspired me to do likewise.

I truly believe Wouk belongs in that category of vastly underrated novelists.,.. underrated mostly by intellectual snobs.

I read your article on herman wouk and it is interesting to compare him with phillip roth and woody allen for that matter, three artists who not only use their background, culture and religion to infuse their work with meaning, but are stories that anyone can pick up and read, and enjoy, since they can identify themselves in this story. That is the heart of why the jewish bible, their history and development with god, was taken up by all religions in the west, although they went elsewhere with it…Wouk from his early years was known as an orthodox jew, and what a grace it is to have the luxury of such a book from him at this ripe age. At the start in the first few pages he points out and gives a dedication of sorts to book readers, a vanishing breed..and thats unfortunate! Roth’s books for the most part deal with the outside Jew as he encounters the world outside..do Jews see themselves in the inward(having said that I have read all his books, and enjoy him and his books/novels on suffering and the person in society..I just see a difference)where a sWouk I see is showing the laws as they are inscribed as in lawgiver from the penteteuch(sic)..the laws as they are inscribed on our hearts…can a modern liberal match such religosity..or god centered awareness..although Roth certainly is amore polished psychologically astute writer

Natan79 says:

Excellent point. Take Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Everything is illuminated” – all the old scenes are pure garbage cliché showing the author knows nothing about Eastern European Jews, JSF sounds like he saw some musicals with Hasidim and few postcards too. JSF is dirt compared to Herman Wouk, and Adam Kirsch should know better.

brynababy says:

Oh my God, what a beautiful homage- and one I agree with wholeheartedly. I also had the joy of attending an intimate ‘lecture’ by Wouk at the National Library when I was working at a theatre in Washington, DC in 1979! I was transfixed by this handsome, articulate, elegant writer.

One might not know from reading Mark’s most interesting essay that Wouk had a good Jewish education, attended Orthodox synagogues in NY and DC and gave his kids a Jewish Day School education. I have clear memories of him chanting the haftara at New York’s Cong. Kehillath Jeshirun. One of his sons was my classmate at Ramaz.

jbirdme65 says:

Adam, do you dislike Herman Wouk?

CITY BOY sparked my entre to literature – I found myself in his pages as a Jewish kid in the Bronx in the depression years of the 30s

disqus_wefb6Xz2V7 says:

Adam, you were either too rough on Wouk or not honest enough with yourself. Your high-brow-ness felt like a screen against your guilty pleasure in daring to enjoy the “pedestrian” wouk.

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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