May 27, 1915, is the birthdate of writer Herman Wouk, which means that Wouk – author of “The Caine Mutiny” and “Marjorie Morningstar,” among more than a dozen other novels – is 100 years old today.
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Wouk may not be a writer whose work is studied at universities, but he has been phenomenally successful among readers. Not a few people in the 1970s and 1980s learned what they knew about the history of World War II from his two mammoth novels on the subject, “The Winds of War” (1971) and “War and Remembrance” (1978), and from the two TV miniseries based on them. He also has been the rare popular novelist who has always been proud and open about his identity as an observant Jew, and is consistent in advocating a morality of patriotism, discipline and chastity.
Herman Wouk is the son of the former Esther Levine and Abraham Isaac Wouk, both of them Minsk-born Jews who arrived in the United States early in the 20th century. At about the time of Herman’s bar mitzvah, his maternal grandfather, a rabbi, arrived from Russia and took charge of his Jewish education – a development that eventually led to a period during which the grandson rejected the traditional life.
Wouk graduated from Townsend Harris High School in the Bronx, then attended Columbia University, where he studied philosophy and literature. In his free time, he edited the college humor magazine, The Jester, and wrote student musicals.
It was at the time of his graduation, in 1934, that Wouk declared, “To hell with that noise [Judaism]. I’m going to be a funnyman.” For two years, he wrote gags for David Freedman’s firm The Joke Factory, before being hired by the comic radio host Fred Allen for a well-paying writer’s job.
By the time the U.S. entered World War II, in 1941, Wouk had been drawn back to Orthodoxy, so that when he enlisted in the Navy, and was sent to sea, it was as a kashrut-observing midshipman.
He served on two destroyer-minesweepers in the Pacific, the U.S.S. Zane and the U.S.S. Southard, and even though both featured pork as a prominent ingredient on the menu, Wouk still would look back on his years in the Navy as “the great experience of my life.”
Toward the end of his service, Wouk met Betty Brown, an Idaho-born, non-Jewish civilian employee in the Navy. The two fell in love. Betty underwent conversion, taking on the additional, traditional Hebrew name of “Sarah,” and they married shortly after his return to the U.S., at the end of 1945.
Betty Sarah Wouk served as her husband’s literary agent until her death, in 2011. The couple had three children, one of whom died in a swimming accident at age five.
Writing at sea
Wouk began writing his first novel while still at sea, and sent some early chapters to his college philosophy professor, Irwin Edman. Edman read part of it out loud to an editor at Simon & Schuster, and Wouk was offered a contract for his first book.
That book was “Aurora Dawn,” which, after publication in 1947, became a main selection of the Book of the Month Club. Five years later, Wouk’s third book, “The Caine Mutiny,” won him the Pulitzer Prize. The novel, about a World War II naval ship whose senior officers depose their mentally unstable skipper – Captain Queeg – and then stand trial for the mutiny, was later adapted for both stage and screen.
Lesser known Wouk books include nonfiction works about his religious faith, “This Is My God” (1959), and much more recently, “The Language God Talks” (2010) – an attempt to reconcile science and religious doctrine.
Wouk’s last novel, the epistolary “The Lawgiver,” also dealt with Judaism, in the form of a story about an ultra-Orthodox-raised woman, Margolit Solovei, who becomes the writer-director of a Hollywood movie about Moses. A writer named Herman Wouk even makes a cameo appearance, when the studio brings him in as a consultant on the film’s biblical protagonist.
Earlier this month, Simon & Schuster announced that in December, it would be publishing Wouk’s memoir – his first – “Sailor and Fiddler: Reflections of a 100-Year-Old Author.”
Happy birthday, Herman Wouk!