Herman Wouk, Whose ‘The Caine Mutiny’ Won Pulitzer, Dies at 103
(Bloomberg) -- Herman Wouk, whose experience aboard U.S. Navy minesweepers in World War II provided the inspiration for his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Caine Mutiny” and two other war-themed epics, has died. He was 103.
Wouk was working on a book until his death on Friday, according to the Associated Press, which cited his literary agent, Amy Rennert. He lived in Palm Springs, California.
Wouk crafted richly detailed and meticulously researched historical fiction, including “The Winds of War” (1971) and “War and Remembrance” (1978). Both novels were turned into Emmy Award-winning U.S. television miniseries. “The Winds of War,” a 16-hour extravaganza that aired on ABC in February 1983, attracted an estimated 140 million viewers, making it one of the most-watched events in television history.
“The Caine Mutiny” (1951) was acclaimed by critics as one of the first works of serious fiction to deal with the human consequences of World War II. It was also a popular success, selling more than 5 million copies in the U.S. and U.K. within four years and spawning a Broadway play and a 1954 film starring Humphrey Bogart as the neurotic Captain Queeg and Fred MacMurray as the manipulative Lieutenant Tom Keefer.
“Wouk is not an angry man,” Time magazine wrote in a 1955 cover story on the author, contrasting him with contemporaries such as Norman Mailer and John Steinbeck. “But there is more than artless optimism or patriotism beneath the surface of his stories. Wouk denies taking stands for or against anything, but the evidence of his books contradicts him. There is an indictment in ‘The Caine Mutiny’ -- not ultimately of Queeg, the maniacal martinet, but of Keefer, the phony intellectual.”
An orthodox Jew whose grandfather was a rabbi, Wouk incorporated themes of Judaism and conservative values into his novels. “Marjorie Morningstar” (1955) is a tale of a beautiful Jewish girl from Manhattan’s Upper West Side who gives up her dream of becoming an actress to marry a conventional man and move to the suburbs.
Some critics found Wouk’s ending of the 565-page novel specious. Was there no choice for Marjorie other than total conformity? The surprising denouement became a subject of book-club discussions for decades.
“Almost everyone loves the Marjorie of the first 556 pages,” Alana Newhouse wrote for Slate in 2005. “This Marjorie evokes the period when girls are still free to dream about their future, before they actually have to start making choices about it.”
“Inside, Outside” (1985), the story of a Jewish presidential adviser, looks at the importance of religious roots to American Jews. “The Hope” (1993) and “The Glory” (1994) were historical novels that explored the creation and early development of the modern state of Israel. Wouk also wrote two non-fiction reflections on Jewish life, “This Is My God” (1959) and “The Will to Live On” (2000).
“I felt there’s a wealth in Jewish tradition, a great inheritance,” Wouk told Time. “I’d be a jerk not to take advantage of it.”
Herman Wouk (pronounced woke) was born May 27, 1915, in the Bronx section of New York, the son of Abraham Isaac and Esther Levine Wouk, Russian Jewish immigrants from Minsk, which is now part of Belarus. His father ran one of the city’s biggest laundries. His mother’s father, Rabbi Mendel Leib Levine, was a devout Orthodox Jew who shaped Wouk’s religious training.
At age 16, Wouk entered Columbia College, where he edited the Spectator newspaper and the Jester humor magazine. He graduated in 1934 at age 19 with a major in comparative literature and philosophy. He was determined to become a writer.
After college, he landed a job as a gag writer for comedians including Fanny Brice before he was hired as a scriptwriter for radio entertainer Fred Allen.
Wouk enlisted in the Navy after the attack on Pearl Harbor, serving on minesweepers in the Pacific Theater.
“I learned about machinery, I learned how men behaved under pressure, and I learned about Americans,” Wouk once said of his Navy experience.
While in the Navy, Wouk met Betty Sarah Brown, whom he married in 1945. They had three sons, one of whom, Abraham, drowned in a swimming pool in 1951. She worked as her husband’s agent and died in 2011.
While at sea, Wouk began what would become his first novel, “Aurora Dawn” (1947), a satire of the advertising business. He later called the book “a compendium of first-novel errors,” though it was chosen as a Book-of-the-Month Club selection, jump-starting his career.
“The Caine Mutiny,” published four years later, resonated with postwar America. The novel, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1952, became the biggest seller since Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone With the Wind” in 1936. Wouk’s play based on his novel, “The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial,” featuring Henry Fonda, packed Broadway theaters. In Edward Dmytryk’s film, Bogart received an Oscar nomination for his performance as the paranoid Queeg who searched the ship for missing strawberries.
In “Youngblood Hawke” (1961), a work based in part on the life of author Thomas Wolfe, Wouk explored the obsession of a writer attempting to write his first novel.
Originally conceived as one book, “The Winds of War” and “War and Remembrance” together totaled more than 1,900 pages.
“The Winds of War” examined the actions of individuals and the events leading up to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Wouk focused on members of the Henry family, famous for its naval heroes. The patriarch, Captain Victor “Pug” Henry, was a military man, scholar, translator and adviser to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and other statesmen.
Henry was portrayed by Robert Mitchum in the miniseries, and Ali McGraw played the role of the Jewish Natalie Jastrow, Henry’s daughter-in-law. The Jastrows figured prominently in the sequel, “War and Remembrance,” as Wouk explored the horrors of the Holocaust in Europe through the family’s eyes.
In 2008, Wouk received the U.S. Library of Congress’s lifetime achievement award for fiction.
Eight years later, at age 97, he returned with “The Lawgiver,” a fictional account of a group of people trying to make a film about Moses. It was his 18th book, and it fulfilled a vow he made more than a half-century earlier.
“I’m going to write novels for the rest of my life,” Wouk told Time when he was 40, “each one better than the last.”
©2019 Bloomberg L.P.