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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

Adam Kirsch
November 20, 2012
(Photo: Walter Sanders//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)The Lawgiver
Herman Wouk, 1955.(Photo: Walter Sanders//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)(Photo: Walter Sanders//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)The Lawgiver
(Photo: Walter Sanders//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)The Lawgiver
Herman Wouk, 1955.(Photo: Walter Sanders//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)(Photo: Walter Sanders//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)The Lawgiver

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.

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.”

What is fascinating about this ending is not Wouk’s blunt endorsement of conformity as the highest human destiny, but its total discontinuity with the rest of the novel. “She is dull, dull as she can be, by any technical standard,” observes her old friend Wally Wronken, a playwright, about the grown-up Marjorie. “You couldn’t write a play about her that would run a week, or a novel that would sell a thousand copies. There’s no angle.” And he is right—which is why the novel begins and ends where it does. The only narratable phase of Marjorie’s life is the brief window of sexual freedom between 17 and 25. The rest of life, as in a fairy tale, can only be summarized with a “happily ever after”—but, Wouk makes clear, not too happily. In this way, Wouk can both tease the reader with Marjorie’s nubility and her sexual explorations and reassure the reader that her sexuality will be punished and kept under control by a husband. No wonder the novel was a best-seller.


Probably the most interesting thing about Wouk’s new novel, The Lawgiver, is the contrast it offers with Marjorie Morningstar. Formally, the new book is a return to the 18th-century classics Wouk loves: It is an epistolary novel, like Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa. Wouk has updated the format for the 21st century, displaying a surprising degree of familiarity with the way people communicate now—the “letters” through which we follow the plot include e-mails, text messages, and Skype chat transcripts. That plot has to do with the machinations of various film people who are trying to make a movie about Moses—with the help of Herman Wouk, who is a character in his own book.

Wouk, however, appears mainly in the margins of The Lawgiver. The real protagonist is Margolit Solovei, the hip young writer-director who is hired to make the Moses movie come to life. We see Margo navigate three overlapping sets of challenges. First, there is Hollywood, where deals are made and broken overnight, and no one seems to mean what they say. Second, there is her relationship with Joshua Lewin, a lawyer who was her high-school sweetheart, and whom she is plainly destined to marry. And finally, there is Margo’s guilt toward her ultra-Orthodox family: She is a product of the Bais Yaakov school of Passaic, and her secular career has involved cutting off all relations with her pious father.

With a skilled hand, Wouk prolongs all these difficulties just long enough to leave the reader gratified by their inevitable resolution. Margo ends up making the Moses movie, marrying Joshua, and even reconciling with her father: “In short, Mashie, my daughter, about moving pictures I know nothing, but I see you are doing a Kiddush Hashem, and I have come to tell you this, face to face,” he tells her, in a scene straight out of The Jazz Singer.

Margo, plainly, is a latter-day Marjorie. If their names didn’t make it obvious enough (and they do), one of her boyfriends, indignant at her refusal to sleep with him, dismisses her with, “Good riddance, Marjorie Morningstar!” For this Hollywood prodigy, we are supposed to believe, is still enough of a Bais Yaakov girl to be a virgin in her mid-twenties. This is implausible, but it’s a sign that Wouk is aware of how much society has changed since the 1950s. He realizes that today, only a very religious woman would be as vigilant about chastity as the secular Marjorie was 60 years ago.

At first it may seem that Wouk, too, has softened a bit. He allows Margo and Joshua a night of premarital bliss, after keeping them apart for most of the book on one pretext or another. It is, Margo rhapsodizes, “the bursting of a dam … the dammed-up love of years cascading through a few wild hours, lovemaking, laughing, endearments, more lovemaking—an orgy, I tell you, we didn’t sleep at all.” You can see the fireworks, hear the orchestra swelling. But in the end, it turns out that piety triumphs after all. Before bedding her, Joshua recited a Hebrew formula of betrothal, so that they were Jewishly married before the dam burst. This satisfies Margo’s father and allows Wouk to square the circle once again: Premarital sex can be good, he allows, as long as it is actually marital sex.

In a similar way, the character of Wouk himself is allowed to enjoy both the aura of piety and the fruits of worldliness. In the novel, Wouk is brought in as a script consultant on the Moses project, at the insistence of its main backer, an Australian Hasid. In exchange for his imprimatur, he is offered “a percentage of box office receipts off the top”—and as he goes out of his way to tell us, “Only mega-superstars ask for that and rarely get it.” It is an innocent piece of wish-fulfillment, Wouk’s recapturing of the days when his name was worth a fortune. At the same time, he feels guilty about getting involved with the Moses film at all, since he has long been at work on his own novel about the story, Aaron’s Diary.

There is, one might say, a tug of war in Wouk’s soul between Judaism and Hollywood, art and money. And the fact that the book he produced is The Lawgiver, rather than Aaron’s Diary, suggests that Mammon has once again proved a more tempting fictional subject than God. In Marjorie Morningstar, Noel Airman has a long monologue explaining his life philosophy, which is that people are essentially motivated by the pursuit of “hits”—successes, self-gratifications, ego-fulfillments. This is meant to be a sign of his worldliness and insatiability; but Wouk himself has had enough hits to know how addictive they can be. The Lawgiver is probably his last shot at a hit. But Wouk himself deserves to be remembered, as an example of the strange shapes American Jewishness can assume when it tries to honor both parts of its hybrid identity.


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Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.