Farewell, Herman Wouk

 

The author of my favorite novels, The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, Herman Wouk died at the age of 103 on May 17, 2019 at his home in Palm Springs, California.

As one of the warriors of the “greatest generation,”  Wouk enlisted in the Navy following the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor and was assigned to the U.S.S. Zane, which was a destroyer-minesweeper in the South Pacific. Wouk’s fondness and admiration of the Navy is reflected in The Winds of War and War and Remembrance. The novels followed the tribulations of the Henry family, with Victor “Pug” Henry as the patriarch. Pug’s sons, Warren and Byron,                                      follow their father’s lead, and serve in the U.S. Navy as well. Pug’s wife, Rhoda, loves being a commander’s wife, and receiving invitations to glamorous parties with global dignitaries, but she is a lonely woman who often feels abandoned by her husband’s long absences while he is on board a ship or a mission abroad without her..

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Of the two novels, Wouk wrote, “The theme of both novels is single. The last words of Victor Henry’s commentary on the Battle of Leyte Gulf give it plainly enough: Either war is finished, or we are.”  Wouk continues, “These two linked novels tend to one conclusion: that war is an old habit of thought, an old frame of mind, an old political technique, that must now pass as human sacrifice and human slavery have passed.”

Although the critics tended to be harsh on reviewing Wouk’s books, long after finishing his novels, I find myself reflecting on the choices the characters made, the events in their lives, and even musing on what happened to the Henry family after the war.. Wouk’s characters are multi-dimensional, and there are many of them. And, the best novels out there are character driven, which is why Wouk was admired greatly by his audience.

  Wouk’s first novel,  Aurora Dawn, was published in 1947and met with moderate success. However, The Caine Mutiny, published in 1951, was his breakout book, and won Wouk  the Pulitzer Prize for Literature. The Caine Mutiny, set during World War II is remembered today for one of the most villainous characters in modern American literature, Captain Queeg. Queeg, the paranoid captain of the destroyer-minesweeper, is confronted by his crew, in a mutiny led by a young lieutenant, Will Keith. The Caine Mutiny was translated into 17 languages, and sold more than 8 million worldwide when it was published, making it the biggest best-seller since Gone with the Wind in 1939. The Caine Mutiny was later adapted for the big screen, with Humphrey Bogart playing Captain Queeg, for which he was nominated for the Academy Award as Best Actor.

Perhaps Wouk’s most beloved novel is Margery Morningstar. Published in 1955, Marjorie Morningstar is a book that inspired many young women, myself included, to be bold and able to chase her dream. Like today’s popular television series, The Marvelous Miss Maisel, Marjorie came from a Jewish family that had traditional plans for her; marriage with a steady Jewish boy, a home, and children. Marjorie’s real name was Morgenstern, but she chose Morningstar as her stage name as she thought it was more glamorous as well as less obviously Jewish.

. Marjorie Morningstar is a coming of age novel, where a young woman falls in love with a man who is wrong for her, attempts an elusive career, and ultimately has to carve out her niche in the world. Although Marjorie was born in 1916, and the novel is set in the 1930’s, it still has allure because of the strength of its characters. When Marjorie Morningstar made it to the movies, the beautiful Natalie Wood played the lead role, with Gene Kelly starring as Marjorie’s paramour, Noel.

. Wouk wrote several works of nonfiction, including This is My God: A Jewish Way of Life and Inside, Outside. His later novels, The Hope and The Glory, two books about Israel’s struggle to survive as a nation reflected his view on  the importance of a Jewish state. Obviously driven by his deep faith in God, Wouk shared his view of religion in these works.

Despite the horrors of war that he experienced first hand, Wouk remained an optimist, “I have faith that the human spirit will prove equal to the long heavy task of ending war. Against the pessimistic mood of our time, I think that the human spirit---for all its dark side that I here portray---is in essence heroic.”

The above quote comes from War and Remembrance, which appeared in print over 40 years ago. Yet, Wouk’s words can be applied to modern times. Despite the darkness that steals the souls of some human beings, the core of humanity is true.

When he died, Wouk was working on his 13th novel. He did not share its subject with anyone, as he refused to do with his other books. Even though the author has left us, we have the legacy of his brilliant books that make history come alive. If you have never explored the work of Herman Wouk, I urge you to do so. You will not be disappointed.