Herman Wouk Essay - Wouk, Herman (Vol. 1)

Wouk, Herman (Vol. 1)

Wouk, Herman 1915–

An American novelist, Wouk is the author of The Caine Mutiny, Marjorie Morningstar, and Youngblood Hawke. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

It seems to me that Mr. Wouk has been the victim of an unusual amount of unfair criticism. I think much of this is due to [Caine Mutiny's] considerable contrast to the view of life and behavior reflected in The Naked and the Dead and From Here to Eternity, which have been accepted far too readily as valid or normative views of the behavior and attitudes of man, particularly within the framework of the military experience…. One of the distinguishing characteristics of The Caine Mutiny was its ability to view the problem within the inescapable military premise without oversimplifying it. Mr. Wouk does not relate the central situations of The Caine Mutiny to civilian life at large, and it is not fair of his critics to assume that he has done so, or to attempt to do so themselves.

Edmund Fuller, in his Man in Modern Fiction: Some Minority Opinions on Contemporary American Writing (© 1958 by Edmund Fuller; reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.), Random House, 1958, pp. 135-37.

The novels of Herman Wouk lie in a curious realm between art and entertainment. We have had a tradition of similar works from William Dean Howells to John P. Marquand, but few of these writers have been able to break through the formulas which have brought them popular success. It is more than a matter of money or prestige; it is a question of the writer's whole approach to experience, which wavers uneasily between his own convictions and the opinions which will soothe or delight his audience. These writers always seem to know more than they say, to feel more than they can express, and their typical literary form is irony.

Maxwell Geismar, in his American Moderns: From Rebellion to Conformity (reprinted by permission of Hill and Wang, a division of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1958 by Maxwell Geismar), Hill & Wang, 1958, p. 38.

The struggle of writers like Dreiser, ironically enough, made it possible to write in 1955 the pure bourgeois novel of seduction as originally created by the female Richardsonians. Only one fundamental revision has been made in the mythos of seduction between Charlotte Temple [a novel by Susannah Haswell Rowson, 1791] and Marjorie Morningstar (their very titles indicate their kinship): the newer genteel Sentimentalism will not let the fallen woman die. That Marjorie in losing her virginity has been permanently maimed, incapacitated for the full enjoyment of marriage, Mr. Wouk does not doubt; yet he insists on marrying her off into a bitter-sweet happy ending…. Something of the old mythic power still clings to her, some last trace of the aura of Clarissa, that secular savior, whose piety and sexuality were felt, for all their absurdly conventional dress, as real and terrible….

Who is the Seducer in Wouk's novel, the modern counterpart of the irresistible Lovelace, whose struggle with the immovable Clarissa all Europe once followed through a million words? He is called Noel Airman, which is to say, Luftmensch, the impractical schemer who never touches the ground, though he was born Ehrman, which is to say, man of honor. Denying his Jewish birthright, Wouk apparently means to tell us, by denying his Jewish name, Noel also denies virtue; and we are not surprised to discover that he is not only an actor, pianist, and playwright, but also a valueless bohemian and, especially, Don Giovanni once more!

Airman, like Lovelace before him, is both seducer and freethinker, besides being possessed of a grace alongside of which bourgeois manners and morality seem grubbily and unpleasantly safe and sane. Lovelace, however, was an aristocrat, survivor of the class just then blending (as Richardson shows by the possibility of his wooing Clarissa) into the mercantile bourgeoisie; Airman is not sure where he belongs. He is intended to be a member of a self-appointed aristocracy of culture, a highbrow (miserable imitation of Noel Coward that he actually is): the equivalent to the middlebrow imagination of the Dandy and the poète maudit. And this finally is the true subject of Wouk's book, its underground theme. The bourgeoisie has won its fight against the old nobility, the last item on its agenda having been the Freedom from Seduction. But suddenly, from among its own sons, a new enemy appears to cry that there is no seduction, that all is permitted, that the values for which their fathers fought against the old nobility are lies….

To the fear of the Jewish intellectual as seducer, which troubles the sleep of lower-middlebrow Anglo-Saxon maidens, [Wouk] has finally given genteel literary expression…. Marjorie is the end-product of [the] de-mythicizing process…. Marjorie is, first of all, detached from the melodrama of the encounter with the gentile, allowed to choose only between the Jewish intellectual and the Jewish bourgeois. The effect of putting her into so totally Jewish a context is to make her seem scarcely Jewish at all (though much is made of her difficulties with religion), hardly distinguishable from the Sweetheart of Sigma Chi. In another sense, Wouk's novel represents the entry of the newest shibboleth of sentimental liberalism into the sentimental novel of seduction, the assimilation of anti-anti-Semitism into the kind of book which had already assimilated abolitionism, Christian socialism, woman's rights, temperance, etc., etc.

Marjorie Morningstar is, in this respect, the first fictional celebration of the mid-twentieth-century détente between the Jews and middle-class America…. In the high literature of Europe and, more slowly, in that of the United States, gentile and Jew have joined forces to portray the Jewish character as a figure representing man's fate in the modern, urbanized world. In general, the point of such portrayals is to suggest that we live in an age of rootlessness, alienation, and terror, in which the exiled condition so long thought peculiar to the Jew comes to seem the common human lot. This is neither a cheery nor a reassuring view; and it is therefore incumbent on the lower-middlebrow novelist, Wouk, to suggest a counterview: the contention that the Jew was never (or is, at least, no longer) the rootless dissenter, the stranger which legend has made him, but rather the very paragon of the happy citizen at home, loyal, chaste, thrifty, pious, and moderately successful—in short, not Noel Airman but Marjorie Morningstar, which is to say, Charlotte Temple given a second chance.

Leslie A. Fiedler, in his Love and Death in the American Novel, Stein & Day, revised edition, 1966, pp. 255-58.

It is not merely in subject matter and method that Wouk reminds me of [Upton] Sinclair. There is the same indifference to quality, the same reliance on clichés and broad casual strokes….

I would not make so much of the commonplaces, the awkward phrases, and the cookie-cutter descriptions if they were not symptomatic of a greater weakness: the failures of Wouk's style betray the failures of his imagination. Like Sinclair, he writes journalese, and he never rises far above that level. His characters … are never living human beings. Although he tries to give these men and women some semblance of reality by involving them in more or less complicated love affairs, they remain essentially observers and reporters.

Granville Hicks, in New York Times Book Review (© 1971 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 14, 1971, pp. 4-5.

Herman Wouk is a compelling narrator who uses large canvases and who, without much fuss for style or symbolism, drives his story ahead with an infectious belief in the people he is writing about. In each of his big books there have been unforgettable characters: Captain Queeg and his rebellious subordinate, Willie Keith, in The Caine Mutiny; Marjorie Morningstar in the book she dominates; and … the three who capture our interest in The Winds of War, which is intended to show the irreversible forces closing into the death grip of the Second World War.

Edward Weeks, in Atlantic, December, 1971, p. 133.