Last reviewed: June 2018
American novelist, playwright, and screenwriter
May 27, 1915
New York, New York
Herman Wouk (wohk) is one of the few twentieth century American novelists who created fiction that is both enjoyable entertainment and serious literature. He was born to Abraham Isaac and Esther Levine Wouk, both Russian Jewish immigrants. His father started his life in the United States as a poor laborer and gradually built a successful chain of laundries. Wouk has incorporated many specific experiences of his youth, such as living in a family constantly beset by business worries, into several of his novels. His grandfather, an Orthodox rabbi, instilled in him a lifelong devotion to Judaism. After attending Townsend Harris Hall in the Bronx from 1927 to 1930, Wouk at the age of nineteen graduated with honors from Columbia University, where he majored in comparative literature and philosophy. While in college he was editor of the college humor magazine, Columbia Jester, and wrote two of the popular annual variety shows. The philosopher Irwin Edman was Wouk’s mentor at Columbia; his conservative humanist outlook was a major influence on Wouk’s thinking. Herman Wouk
In 1935 Wouk took his first professional position, as a radio comedy writer. In 1941 he began writing scripts to promote the sale of United States war bonds, but his radio career ended when he enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1942. In 1943, while serving as deck officer aboard a destroyer/minesweeper, Wouk began writing his first novel, Aurora Dawn, which he completed in May, 1946. Earlier, in December, 1945, he was married to Betty Sarah Brown, who converted to Judaism. The Wouks had three children, Abraham Isaac (who died in 1951 at the age of five), Nathaniel, and Joseph.
Aurora Dawn is a satirical look at the business of radio and advertising, written in the stylized manner of eighteenth century novels such as Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones (1749). It was chosen as a Book-of-the-Month Club selection, but Wouk was more widely acknowledged after the appearance of his second novel, The City Boy, the humorous, poignant story of the fat eleven-year-old Jewish boy Herbie Bookbinder. The City Boy was favorably compared with Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) as a universal tale of maturation. It also foreshadows Wouk’s later concern with the experience of Jews in America.
Wouk next turned to drama with The Traitor, which opened on Broadway in April, 1949. The theme of an atom bomb scientist’s decision to divulge secrets to the enemy seemed to parallel the contemporaneous Klaus Fuchs spy case, and the play was not a great success. In 1951 Wouk published what is generally considered his greatest novel, The Caine Mutiny, which won a Pulitzer Prize. The book was so well-received that Wouk later turned it into a play, The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, and a film of the book was produced in 1954.
Wouk’s novels Marjorie Morningstar and Youngblood Hawke were also made into films. Marjorie Morningstar portrays the attempts of a young Jewish woman in New York to become an actress. As in most of Wouk’s novels, social commentary is gently integrated into a complex plot with endearing characters. Youngblood Hawke is the story of a talented southern novelist, perhaps modeled on Thomas Wolfe, who is destroyed by the stresses of fame. Between Marjorie Morningstar and Youngblood Hawke Wouk produced his third play, Nature’s Way, and wrote This Is My God, an informative discussion of Jewish beliefs, customs, and traditions with interesting biographical highlights.
From 1962 to 1969 Wouk was a member of the board of trustees for the College of the Virgin Islands, an experience that provided much of the background material for his next novel, Don’t Stop the Carnival, a dark comedy that he turned into a musical in 1998. Wouk’s next work, The Lomokome Papers, is a science-fiction fable that was published only in paperback.
The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, an epic two-part novel which Wouk researched for twelve years, is a panorama of the world at war from 1939 to 1945; many consider this work Wouk’s masterpiece. Using multiple points of view, the author weaves military history and human nature into a story that rivals Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1865–1869) for narrative power.
Wouk’s Inside, Outside is a semiautobiographical rebuttal of the work of Jewish writers who in Wouk’s opinion reject their heritage and portray the Jewish American experience as grotesque. Completing the large-scale project that Wouk had begun in 1962 with research for Winds of War are the two novels The Hope and The Glory, which constitute a fictionalized history of Israel between 1948 and 1988. Wouk uses several fictional families interwoven with historical personages and events to chronicle Israel’s second birth and survival. Wouk completed The Glory at the age of seventy-nine and, as he says in the afterword, “turn[ed] with a lightened spirit to fresh beckoning tasks.” With this work he demonstrated that he remained a major presence in American literature. In 2016 Wouk, by then a centenarian, published what he said would be his last book, the memoir Sailor and Fiddler: Reflections of a 100-Year-Old Author.