Herman Wouk Essay - Wouk, Herman (Vol. 9)

Wouk, Herman (Vol. 9)

Wouk, Herman 1915–

An American novelist and playwright of Russian-Jewish heritage, Wouk was the 1952 recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for The Caine Mutiny. Like much of his work, this novel deals with the complex implications of a moral dilemma and its resolution, a concern which lends a didactic flavor to Wouk's writings. (See also CLC, Vol. 1, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

[Herman Wouk in The Caine Mutiny Court Martial displays] a gift for crisp dialogue unsurpassed by any of our regular writers for the theatre. He has an excellent story to tell, and, in the confrontation of counsel with witnesses, has an exactly appropriate vehicle for his story. We receive each new witness with keen expectancy, follow his replies greedily, laugh over his foibles, applaud at his exit, start over with renewed expectancy at the next arrival, hear with pleasure or indignation what counsel has to say…. The march of exits and entrances, questions and answers, attacks and counterattacks, is admirably theatrical. (p. 192)

But if we like Mr. Wouk so much we should be unfair not to take him as seriously as he takes himself and consider [his] claim … that the play is no mere psychological thriller but a tract for the times telling us to respect authority: mutiny is unjustified even when the argument against a particular commander is a strong one because the important thing is not to save a particular ship but to preserve the authority of commanders; for they win wars while we sit reading Proust. There is a good point here, and there must surely be a good play in it—a play that would show up the sentimentality of our prejudice against commanders and in favor of mutineers. If, however, Mr. Wouk wanted to write such a play, he chose the wrong story and told it in the wrong way, for we spend three quarters of the evening pantingly hoping that Queeg—the commander—will be found insane and the mutineers vindicated. When, in the very last scene, Mr. Wouk explains that this is not the right way to take the story, it is too late. We don't believe him. At best we say that he is preaching at us a notion that ought to have been dramatized. And no amount of shock technique—not even the reiterated image of Jews melted down for soap—can conceal the flaw.

Of course, if you don't take the play seriously, none of this matters: the first part is a thriller, the last scene gives you a moral to take home to the kids. That the two sections are not organically related need disturb no one who is unalterably determined to eat his cake and have it. Others cannot but feel some disappointment at seeing the territory Mr. Wouk opens up to the view but does not touch.

Mr. Wouk's retort to sentimental radicalism is in order. Yet cannot the New Conservatism—for surely his play belongs in this current of opinion—be equally sentimental, equally ambiguous? It is true that on occasion we owe our lives to naval captains. It may also be true that I owe my life at this moment to the Irish cop on the corner. Must I feel more respect for this cop than for my more sedentary neighbor? It is Mr. Wouk, by the way, who says that the book my neighbor is reading is by Proust…. In short, Mr. Wouk carefully stacks the cards. His villain—Keefer—reads highbrow books. His hero—Greenwald—is a Jew. In real life, defense counsel might just as easily have been "Aryan," the villain—like Proust whom he reads—Jewish. But an author who wrote the story this way would certainly be accused of stacking the cards…. (pp. 192-93)

There are also technical criticisms one might make [about the play]. The exposition is not all clear sailing. Without the 300 pages that precede the trial in the book, it is hard to figure who some of the people are, what they have done, why they did it. (p. 193)

[It] is because we are not clear about Queeg and his state of mind on the day of the mutiny that we cannot form an opinion on the main issues of the play. Just how crazy does a captain have to be for Mr. Wouk to approve his removal by a subordinate? The answer seems to be: he has to be plumb crazy, raving, stark, staring mad. Just how crazy was Queeg? It is impossible to figure. And while precisely this impossibility might make a dramatic theme, it would yield a play with a message decidedly Pirandellian; it would not increase our respect for authority. (p. 194)

Eric Bentley, "Captain Bligh's Revenge," in his The Dramatic Event: An American Chronicle (© 1954; reprinted by permission of the publisher, Horizon Press, New York), Horizon, 1954, pp. 191-94.

Is Wouk's prose always Victorian-girlish? No, sometimes it is Swiftian—Tom Swiftian. "A chorus of laughter showed the choice was popular," he writes. Speech mannerisms are the caricatures of boys' books: Hawke [in Youngblood Hawke] is from Kentucky, so that he speaks Amos 'n' Andy ("Mand ef Ah smoke uh see-gaw?"), although Wouk economically turns it off after a few lines and only recurs to it in moments of passion; Hawke's mother speaks quite another dialect, apparently Dogpatch ("get aholt of t'other end of that bed, I cain't get it downstairs myself"); a sophisticated European woman is identifiable by Consonant Mangle ("Vare is ze young genius?"); a crooked Southern businessman shows his hand by saying "binness" for "business" and "sumbitch" for some unidentifiable obscenity. (p. 68)

Is there really nothing good about the book? Nothing. It is the most fraudulent and worthless novel I have read in many years. Peyton Place is more honest. Wouk has announced that the figure of Youngblood Hawke was suggested by Balzac; he resembles Sinclair Lewis in a few details; there is a positive effort, in the first and last chapters of the book, to identify him with Thomas Wolfe. But these are transparent disguises—Hawke is unmistakably Herman Wouk. (p. 70)

Wouk is now a phenomenal merchandising success, sold as a detergent is sold. He can compete with the worst of television because he is the worst of television, without the commercials, a $7.95 Pay-TV. His readers really are the boobs Hawke describes, so "starved for an interesting story" that they will ignore the reviews to read him. They are yahoos who hate culture and the mind, who want to be told that Existentialism means that "you do what you goddam please," that current theatrical fashion is "pseudo-Freudian reconstruction," that young actresses offer themselves "with all the casualness of a housewife opening a can of soup." (p. 71)

Doesn't Wouk stand for anything but venality? Yes. He stands for conventional American patriotism, and the proud conviction that "This country has no toiling masses." He stands for old-fashioned morality…. (p. 72)

Stanley Edgar Hyman, "Some Questions about Herman Wouk," in Standards: A Chronicle of Books for Our Time (© 1966; reprinted by permission of the publisher, Horizon Press, New York), Horizon, 1966, pp. 68-72.

[The] unimpeachable worthiness of Mr. Wouk leads to a final sense of monotony….

The Winds of War is a massive novel and, one realises as one reaches the end, only part of Mr Wouk's projected total design. It might be described as a history of the Second World War as seen through the adventures of an American family and their immediate friends and contacts. The work begins in 1939 and ends just after Pearl Harbor….

It is a tribute to Mr Wouk's method that he can introduce and fix his main characters with deceptive ease and have them all placed in strategic positions ready to suffer as war explodes….

The progress of Hitler's war, politically and militarily is expertly charted and Mr Wouk has invented a German general's post-Nuremberg memoirs of the war, extracts from which showing the German viewpoint are placed at regular intervals in the text. The aim is to give a total picture, detached and fair, and to personalise it withal. It works as a gripping piece, no doubt about it. But there is this strange feeling of monotony—not through the events or the characters: Mr Wouk really gives us the Poland in which the Jewish community lived exactly as that portrayed in Fiddler on the Roof, hysterically excited New York and the Battle of Britain. He coolly produces historical people—like Hitler and Stalin, to exchange a few words to his characters. There is action and family tension. But what the book severely lacks is what I can only call a moral charge, that feeling of commitment that distinguishes Len Deighton's war writing. Ultimately Mr Wouk has used the greatest happening of the 20th century as a useful background for a family saga of no more intrinsic interest than Coronation Street. (p. 66)

Roger Baker, in Books and Bookmen (© copyright Roger Baker 1972; reprinted with permission), February, 1972.

[The Winds of War] is a kind of phenomenon, not only in the realm of popular culture but, I will suggest, also in another realm which stems largely from popular culture—the shaping of a generation's perception of itself and its era. [It] is likely that Wouk is concerned not only with re-creating and interpreting World War II, but, like Tolstoy, with advancing his own moral views of the society and world to which that war gave rise.

Composed in part of things Wouk apparently felt The Caine Mutiny had left unsaid or undeveloped, The Winds of War is in some ways an expansion of or exegesis upon the more restricted and closely drawn scene of the earlier work. It also bears some relationship to certain ideas presented in his 1959 work of non-fiction, This Is My God. Wouk has a vision of what the individual should be and do, and a wish for the kind of society which might be possible if the example of such persons were followed. The Winds of War weaves into its descriptions of what-was much of Wouk's suggestions of what he believes might-have-been and ought-to-be. (pp. 389-90)

Critics who have castigated the book for failing in various ways as a novel have seemingly overlooked the author's description of it as a romance. That form is older, and adheres to rather different standards, than the novel. Much criticism directed at the book's emphasis of incident and plot over deep character development, or its unfashionably detailed descriptions of people's appearances, becomes immaterial if one accepts Wouk's idea of what The Winds of War is—a historical romance, with a didactic purpose. That purpose is to dramatize the author's ideas about his themes—how the "curse" emerged, how we might constructively understand it, and how "men of good will" have been involved with it.

The phrase about men of good will, which also has received little or no critical attention, is the key to the central figure, Captain Victor Henry, U.S.N. (pp. 390-91)

Whether or not he seems real to a particular reader, Henry himself is as vital to the purpose of the book as his presence and movements are to its structure. For the captain is an embodiment of the idea that men of good will have devoted their lives to industrialized armed force. Henry's own specialties within the Navy have been two of the most mechanized engines of destruction—heavy guns and torpedoes. Yet he is a man of sanity and intelligence, loves his family and country (albeit not uncritically), and is generally admired by fellow Navy men and civilians.

Earlier, it was suggested that The Winds of War is in some thematic ways related to The Caine Mutiny. In a peculiar sense, Victor Henry is related to Philip Francis Queeg. Captain Henry can be seen as the fulfillment and justification of Lt. Barney Greenwald's unexpected and much discussed encomium to Regular Navy officers in the post-trial scene of The Caine Mutiny. Greenwald pays his tributes not so much to the Caine's fallen captain as to what-Queeg-could-have-been (and might have become if you bastards had given him a chance)—the selfless and dedicated guardian of a reckless and unappreciative nation's safety.

In Henry, Wouk presents a man who really is what Queeg could only try, pretend, or fail to be, the "compleat" and admirable United States Navy officer. (pp. 391-92)

By the portrayal of Captain Henry, The Winds of War implies in part that it's a shame such talent and virtue should serve the cause of "industrialized armed force." But it also implies that a historical current which can produce and temper such men as Victor Henry and his two promising sons may not be utterly evil, or might not be if all those involved with it were of Henry's fibre…. The traditionalist support of the military career man which Wouk asserted in his earlier work, in the teeth of much of his own evidence, becomes a pervasive theme in The Winds of War. (pp. 392-93)

The fictional re-creation of the world of 1939–41 is the most impressive and absorbing aspect of the book. Comparisons have been suggested to Upton Sinclair's Lanny Budd tales, but Wouk is a better craftsman. He knows what he wants, and his research is thorough. Even critics who disliked the story have praised the depth and value of the historical recreation…. (p. 393)

Wouk's method is to be a good storyteller, of a rather traditional kind. There are no stylistic experiments, no time-manipulation, little interior monologue, and no flights of allegory—none of the features which might have endeared such a book to academics, while sharply restricting its sales.

There is one distinctive narrative device in The Winds of War, one which both serves and indicates its author's purposes. Wouk intersperses the story of the Henry clan with commentaries on World War II from a German point of view, excerpts from World Empire Lost, an imaginary treatise by a fictional German general, Armin VonRoon, which Victor Henry (Rear Admiral USN, ret.) translated after the war. This is not a new idea; Dos Passos and others have done similar things. But it works particularly well in this book. It widens the scope of the story without seeming to be auctorial digression, and presents opinions and interpretations that Henry's mind would not. (pp. 393-94)

Wouk's purpose … is to undo assumptions and provide the reader with some new ones, presumably better…. VonRoon's views and (in places) Henry's "later" comments on them, jolt the reader out of enough preconceptions to make him more receptive to Wouk's own explanations of why things turned out as they did, or (more important) how they might have been made to turn out better. (p. 394)

Wouk's paramount purpose, or an effect of the story itself, whatever the author's intention, is to present a particular vision of history and a certain philosophy about modern society, using the events of 1939–1941 as evidence. It is essentially a conservative vision, and as is often true of such philosophies, it is more acted-out than explicitly presented.

Like many conservative views of the world, it begins with the notion of the fallibility of man. Human cruelty, of which war is the most massive and spectacular manifestation, occurs not because most people are cruel, but because most people are weak or lazy, or too wishful to perceive in time what truly cruel people like the Nazis are about. Once such people gain power, especially power in a modern industrial society, it is impossible and/or too late anyway to resist them or alter their course. One of the most chilling passages of World Empire Lost is General VonRoon's calm analysis of how the energy available for making war has multiplied itself in the last few generations, through the exponential growth of technology and organizational skills…. (pp. 394-95)

Wouk's description of Germany suggests Yeats' vision of a world where "The best lack all conviction/While the worst are full of passionate intensity."… [The] "best" people, lacking firm convictions or the will to act on them, become in their way accessories to "the worst"—and with far less excuse.

Finally, evil men have fueled the demon of industrialized armed force to the point where, perhaps too late, democratic societies see their survival threatened. At that point, Wouk implies, a need which was there all along becomes evident—the need for men who do have convictions, whose life and thought moves in a positive and strong tradition. Such men are students of history, who can see around current and transient things, but without wishfully minimizing them. Men of good will, they also implement their will with action. That action tends to arise from habit and training, or brisk analysis, rather than studious reflection.

Where does a threatened society find these men? From among those men of good will who, with an irony that Wouk suggests in his foreword, devote their lives to industrialized armed force, the professional officer corps. Not all of them are Victor Henrys, but in Wouk's view enough of them were to carry our nation through the most hazardous period of World War II. In the book, Franklin Roosevelt says, handing an intricate intelligence dispatch to Captain Henry, "Pug, you have a feeling for facts, and when you talk I understand you. Those are two uncommon virtues."… (pp. 396-97)

[Giving] those lines, and similar ones in other scenes, to President Roosevelt underscores the author's seriousness on this point. (p. 397)

World War II according-to-Wouk was … a "natural" disaster in the sense that it arose from fallible human nature. Given that fallibility, World War II, and possibly other wars since, probably could not have been avoided. But given also the availability of enough men with the training and virtues of Victor Henry—the truly "best" in Wouk's view, those who do not lack conviction—that war, and possibly others since, could have been ameliorated, at least. It was not ameliorated, because democratic societies, notably ours, have little stomach for the unpleasant facts that are a military professional's daily fare. (p. 398)

With Wouk, as much as for the most avant-garde of writers, the old principle holds that "style-is-morality." Wouk chooses to draw his situations and characters quite explicitly, letting the reader know what and who is to be admired or disliked.

In the fictional characters, where history doesn't limit his portrayal, the quality Wouk seems to admire most is that combination of traits the Romans called gravitas—patience, stamina, responsibility, judgment. Victor Henry is the moral gauge of the story because he exhibits more of this combination of traits than any other major character. (pp. 400-01)

Peter Drucker … described Victor Henry as "the most likeable humorless character since Soames Forsyte." The comparison is not apt in some ways. The captain, while no jester, can enjoy funny things, and even see some humor in his own discomfiture with Rhoda. And Victor Henry does not suffer from Soames's difficulties in relating to other human beings.

In other ways, though, the Henry men are rather like Forsytes. They are usually fairly sure of themselves, and while doubt may trouble them now and then, it never stops them from acting. Drawing on their instincts, habits, and Naval training, they move—and ponder, when they do, later on. Those instincts and habits predispose them to be builders and preservers. This is what their author most admires in them. "Constructive" rather than creative, they build things that are not particularly original, but are for Wouk the cement of civilization—families, homes, churches, firms, and especially, professional reputations. What repels Capt. Henry first about Nazi racism is that it destroys these things, and judges men on factors other than their accomplishments. Only after learning of the Einsatzgruppen's atrocities does he react to Nazi racism with more visceral rage.

The winds of change, fortune, or war may move the Henrys about physically, as the captain reflects toward the end of the story. But their attitudes and moral direction remain constant. (pp. 401-02)

It may seem ironic or tragic that people whose creed is to build and preserve should give their lives to the trade of mass destruction. But perhaps that is more society's fault than theirs. For though the ultimate purpose of armed force involves destruction and killing, the day-to-day life of military men is lived in accord with the proximate rationale of military life—organization, training, maintenance, and the rituals of solidarity and continuity. The attraction of service life for men like Victor Henry lies in that proximate and "constructive" aspect.

Within the military, such men find a fascinating system of ordered machinery, with both human and mechanical "parts," many highly intricate in themselves. The machinery needs constant repair and planning. Often new portions of it must be designed and built. Uniform and tradition reassure each member that he is contributing his appropriate and noted portion of a great edifice sanctioned by Nation and God. For a Victor Henry, the Navy does not swallow individuality; rather it provides him with his chosen means to express it, one he prefers to anything civil society could offer. (p. 402)

[The] true military professional, as Wouk's "winds" image suggests, is a victim of war rather than a promoter of it. He may be doubly so, since society turns the results of his constructively motivated life work to destructive ends. The author does not offer an explicit solution, but clearly believes that blaming the military professional is no answer. His use of retired-Admiral Henry as interpreter and critic of VonRoon's ideas shows he does not lump the two, and regards Henry as a truer example of the career officer.

And in the career officer, Wouk sees the man who still lives by a creed of form and tradition, a way of living which he wishes to see restored and strengthened in today's world. (p. 404)

Although The Winds of War appeared at a time when there was widespread criticism of the American military, its reviewers paid little or no attention to the book as an affirmation of the military's value or virtue. Perhaps its historical element engaged all their attention. Yet that element, with the air of authenticity Wouk has painstakingly created, is what gives the moral affirmation its power. (p. 405)

The one-word Hebrew epigraph of the book is "Remember!" Part of remembering, in Wouk's sense, would be to emulate Victor Henry and to listen, early and attentively, to those men who live in his tradition. If we do not, the author suggests, we will be paralyzed by the same kinds of wishful relativism he puts into the remarks of Leslie Slote. It becomes too easy to look away, to make excuses while the massacres begin, while terrorism becomes pardonable. (p. 406)

Perhaps the seventies are seeing a quest for certainties, or their appearance. Evangelical religion, traditionally a repository of certainties, has enjoyed a certain resurgence. As the aftereffects of Vietnam fade, another traditionally "certain" institution, the armed forces, seem likely to profit from this quest. It is surely an institution that "remembers." But is to remember necessarily to learn? Memory can easily be selective and misleading, as the Nazis proved with their historical doctrines. And as VonRoon illustrates, "remembering" the wrong things, or clinging to them too long, can lead to disaster.

Wouk's reply, consistent with his non-fiction writings, would probably be that if safety lies anywhere, it lies in having men of good will, faith, and authority to be our remembrancers. With his book, he makes a massive and appealing case. If the seventies do turn out to have been a quest, however unsuccessful, for certainties and for a feeling of sure direction, historians may award a share of the praise or blame to Herman Wouk's widely read and convincingly slanted charting of the rising winds of three decades before.

People need to believe that the horrors of that time were not endured in vain. Wouk tells us to construct such a belief, by interpretation and faith, putting troublesome ambiguities aside…. Through determined "remembering," we should then construct a more ordered world, in which man will be able to live "with decency, dignity, and without fear." Such a construction, he believes, will require arms as well as good intentions. As a message for these times, even if, or especially if, only half-understood, Wouk's wish is bound to have an appeal to, and some effect on, our world. (pp. 406-07)

Richard R. Bolton, "'The Winds of War' and Wouk's Wish for the World," in The Midwest Quarterly (copyright, 1975, by The Midwest Quarterly, Kansas State College of Pittsburg), July, 1975, pp. 389-437.