Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The Winds of War invites immediate comparison with Wouk’s most famous novel, The Caine Mutiny, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1952. Critics naturally contrast staid and dependable Victor Henry with the unstable, incompetent Captain Queeg. Yet a more apt comparison is that made by Timothy Foote, between The Winds of War and Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1865-1869). Like War and Peace, and unlike Wouk’s earlier “navy” novel, The Winds of War presents a vast panorama that ultimately spans the globe. Wouk himself acknowledges that he had always intended to write a “big” novel after his own navy career in World War II, and he was tempted to expand The Caine Mutiny before cutting it back to its limited scope.

Wouk’s novels run against the trend of experimental novels and, with their middle-class, patriotic values, are not high in critical esteem. The Winds of War was his first real blockbuster since the 1950’s; he had turned away from fiction to write a personal account, This Is My God (1959, 1973), and his subsequent novels, Youngblood Hawke (1962) and Don’t Stop the Carnival (1965), were on a lesser scale. He had been carrying the idea for The Winds of War for twenty-five years before the novel’s publication. The reading public, always his kindest critic, received The Winds of War with considerable enthusiasm, though it did not become a household word until 1983, when it was made into a highly celebrated television miniseries.

The critics, who almost universally deplored the pedestrian mediocrity of Marjorie Morningstar (1955) and Youngblood Hawke, recognized that in The Winds of War Wouk had demonstrated an astute analysis of military strategy and depth of historical detail. They also noted, however, that the characters were not wholly believable, and Victor Henry was simply too blandly patriotic and, at bottom, unattractive.

The Winds of War set the scene for its sequel, War and Remembrance, which followed in 1978 and, like its predecessor, quickly became a best-seller. Together, these two profound historical romances, as Wouk calls them, represent sixteen years of research and writing; they constitute an enduring contribution to the literature of World War II.