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
Marjorie Morningstar was published in 1955, on the heels of The Caine Mutiny, and it continued Wouk’s winning streak: It was the best-selling novel of that year and put Wouk on the cover of Time magazine. It is still in print and, as Tablet’s Alana Newhouse has written, still commands a hardy following, especially among women readers. The power of the novel comes from its deft use of a time-tested romantic plot: the virtuous young woman who loves yet resists a dashing cad. In this case, the lovers are not Southern aristocrats like Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler, but bourgeois Jews from the West Side of Manhattan: Marjorie Morgenstern, a Hunter College student who dreams of the stage, and Noel Airman, a charming songwriter and inveterate womanizer.
Wouk, as critic Laurence Mazzeno has shown in the only book-length study of his work, was opposed on principle to the difficult techniques of literary modernism. (When a character in The Caine Mutiny has a bookshelf filled with Eliot and Joyce, it is a sign that he is a weakling and a villain.) Wouk came to novel-writing from the background of radio comedy—during the Depression, he earned a princely salary writing gags for Fred Allen—and for him, literary success always meant big audiences. His ambition turned to fiction, he has said, when he was almost 30 years old and he happened to read Don Quixote for the first time. The realistic, picaresque novel—Wouk also loved Tom Jones—became the writer’s model, and not just for commercial reasons. Ideologically, he approved of solid characters, intricate plots, and moralistic resolutions.
In the 20th century, serious writers seldom wrote that kind of book—not out of simple perversity, as Wouk has often suggested, but for the good reason that the modern world largely lost the minute class distinctions and harsh sexual codes that drove the plot of the classic novel. Wouk’s stroke of genius was to realize that, in the New York Jewish bourgeoisie of the 1930s, he had found a small, self-contained world in which those kinds of rules still applied. From the moment we meet her as a teenager, Marjorie is destined for a particular segment of the marriage market. Just like Elizabeth Bennet’s, her parents are scheming for her to make a “good” match, with only a small number of likely grooms to choose from: The man has to be Jewish, has to have a good reputation, and ideally will be the heir to a prosperous business. This is a geographically and socially small world, where all the young people go to the same colleges and the same parties, and where a wrong sexual move could ruin a girl’s prospects for life.
The problem is that Marjorie has dreams of a bigger world and a more vivid life, which for her means a life on the stage. By translating her German last name to Morningstar, she creates a stage name that suits the glamorous existence she hopes for. It is also, as Noel Airman points out, less Jewish-sounding: “Those overtones of potato pancakes, Friday-night candles, gefilte fish—that’s what you don’t like,” he taunts. And Wouk portrays Marjorie’s dilemma partly in Jewish terms, as a choice between fidelity to tradition and assimilation to American ways. One of the running themes of the book is Marjorie’s reluctance to eat pork or lobster—a taboo that even most of her Jewish friends find obsolete but that is meant to signal to the reader that our lead character still feels the call of righteousness. Noel, typically, eats treyf with gusto: “They say hunger is the best cook, but they’re wrong. Prohibition is. There isn’t a living Christian who can enjoy ham and eggs the way a renegade Jew like me does.”
At the same time, Wouk insists that the essence of Marjorie’s problem is not just Jewish, but generally American. This is the weakening of traditional rules about sex and chastity, which leaves young girls, so Wouk believes, morally adrift. A certain amount of dating and “necking” is de rigeur, and Marjorie is constantly besieged by suitors; yet if she gives in to their demands and “goes too far,” it is she who will bear the social and psychological stigma. The problem comes into sharp focus when she falls helplessly in love with Noel Airman. Noel is a bohemian, promiscuous and hard-drinking, whose greatest fear is of being tied down by a woman. He, too, is Jewish—he was born Saul Ehrmann—but by changing his name, he took the fatal step away from tradition that Marjorie has yet to make. As “Airman”—a literal translation of the Yiddish word “luftmensch,” meaning a man who lives on air, an insubstantial drifter—he hopes to conquer the world. But his own laziness and moral weakness prevent him from ever achieving success in show business, or any other field.
Noel has a name for girls like Marjorie. They are “Shirleys,” the typical good Jewish matron in training: “The respectable girl, the mother of the next generation, all tricked out to appear gay and girlish and carefree, but with a terrible threatening solid dullness jutting through, like the gray rocks under the spring grass in Central Park. … Shirley is indestructible.” He insists, too, that Shirley is not just a Jewish phenomenon: “Shirley Jones has the same nature as Shirley Cohn and the same milieu, and is in the same jam.”
Inevitably, Noel tries to get Marjorie into bed; just as inevitably, she tries to get him to marry her. It is a dismal kind of struggle, and the main effect of reading Marjorie Morningstar today is to be deeply grateful for feminism and the sexual revolution, which largely freed us from this kind of thing. In the end, both parties end up winning, or losing: Marjorie does sacrifice her virginity to Noel; Noel does ask Marjorie to marry him. But at the crucial moment, she turns him down, deciding instead to marry one Milton Schwartz—a complete nonentity of a character who enters the book at the last minute solely for the purpose of giving Marjorie a respectable bourgeois mate.
Naturally, Wouk punishes Marjorie for not being a virgin at marriage: “He took her as she was, with her deformity, despite it. For that is what it amounted to in his eyes and in hers—a deformity: a deformity that could no longer be helped; a permanent crippling, like a crooked arm,” he writes ludicrously. But Wouk also rewards Marjorie with what is, for him, the best possible fate for a good Jewish girl: a house in the suburbs, full of children. And, of course, “she’s a regular synagogue goer, active in the Jewish organizations of the town; apparently that takes up a lot of her time. … They seem to be rather strictly observant; Marjorie has separate milk and meat dishes in the kitchen, and all that.”
Between stops on a world tour, Alisa Weilerstein remembers the late Elliott Carter and plays us some Bach