“The Caine Mutiny,” which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1952, formed the basis for Mr. Wouk’s play “The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial,” as well as a 1954 film, in which Humphrey Bogart memorably played the story’s villain, Captain Queeg. “Queeg-like” quickly entered the language as a term for paranoid behavior, and the captain’s compulsive habit of rubbing ball bearings gained a currency that extended far beyond readers of the novel.
“The Winds of War” and its companion volume, “War and Remembrance,” formed the basis for two ABC miniseries telecast over a total of 50 hours. Between the immense popularity of the books and the ubiquity of the miniseries, “it is likely,” the political scientist Michael Mandelbaum once wrote, “that more Americans have learned about, or remembered, [World War II] through Wouk’s account than from any other single source.”
In its teacherly impact, Mr. Wouk’s work had an affinity with that of James Michener, another popular novelist given to books of high moral seriousness and epic scope. Reviewing Mr. Wouk’s novel “Inside, Outside” (1985), Michener saw “two main wellsprings” in its author’s fiction, “a rich Jewish heritage and an interest in history.”
The two strains most obviously combine in “War and Remembrance,” Mr. Wouk’s attempt to come to grips with the Holocaust, but those strains are present throughout his work. An Orthodox Jew who once taught a weekly Talmud class, Mr. Wouk acknowledged that, “If you look hard you can see in my work that bedrock [of religion]. But I’m not a preacher. I’m a novelist.” Mr. Wouk’s most personal book was “This Is My God,” a 1959 account of his religious beliefs.
Four years earlier, he had published “Marjorie Morningstar,” which was made into a popular 1958 film starring Natalie Wood in the title role. In its story of a beautiful young Jewish woman who flirts with rebelliousness and bohemianism before embracing the life of a suburban housewife, the critic Leslie Fiedler famously discerned “the first fictional celebration of the mid-twentieth-century detente between Jews and middle-class America.”
What it means to be a Jew and issues of Jewishness also deeply inform “Inside, Outside,” with its story of an Orthodox lawyer who becomes a White House adviser during the final stages of the Nixon administration, and two novels about the history of Israel, “The Hope” (1993) and “The Glory” (1994), whose titles suggest their celebratory intent.
Mr. Wouk published his last novel, “The Lawgiver,” in 2012. The story of an attempt to make a movie about the life of Moses, it features such up-to-the-minute features as text messages, e-mails, and Skype transcripts. “I may be old,” he deadpanned in a New York Times interview when the book was published, “but I’m still aware of things.”
Herman Wouk (pronounced “woke”) was born on May 27, 1915, in New York City, the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, Abraham Isaac Wouk and Esther (Levine) Wouk. He grew up in the Bronx and was a 1934 graduate of Columbia University.
While an undergradute, he edited the college humor magazine and wrote two of the university’s famed Varsity Shows. This led to Mr. Wouk’s working as a gag writer for radio comedians. “My first literary task,” he once recalled, “was copying old jokes out of tattered comic magazines onto file cards.” He was soon hired by Fred Allen as a scriptwriter on his popular radio show, a position he held from 1936 to 1941.
Mr. Wouk went to work for the US Treasury Department in 1941 on radio shows promoting the sale of savings bonds. Shortly after Pearl Harbor, he enlisted in the United States Naval Reserve. He served on two destroyer-minesweepers in the Pacific, earning four campaign stars and rising to the rank of lieutenant. He later called his wartime service “the great experience of my life.”
Mr. Wouk began writing fiction while on sea duty in 1943. His first novel, “Aurora Dawn” (1947), a send-up of advertising, was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection. His second, “City Boy,” an autobiographical work about an 11-year-old Bronx schoolboy, was sold to the movies. Yet neither could have prepared him for the sensational success of “The Caine Mutiny.” Its tale of a psychotic Navy skipper relieved of command during a typhoon and the resulting mutiny trial was, Mr. Wouk later explained, “an exploration of the limits of power and the instinct for personal freedom which every American has.”
That instinct was very much present in the title character of “Youngblood Hawke” (1962), a novel clearly based on the career of Thomas Wolfe. Its Southern author-hero would seem alien to Mr. Wouk, yet the novelist Anthony Burgess once called the novel “the best book about writers and money since [George Gissing’s 1891 novel] ‘New Grub Street.’ ”
In 1965, Mr. Wouk published “Don’t Stop the Carnival,” the story of a Broadway press agent exchanging the Great White Way for proprietorship of a Caribbean hotel. He later collaborated on a stage version with the singer-songwriter Jimmy Buffett.
Yet even while writing that novel, Mr. Wouk had begun research on what would become “The Winds of War” (1971) and “War and Remembrance” (1978). He spent 16 years working on the project, which he once described as “a panoramic historical romance of the war years.” He first contemplated such a book in 1944 and toyed with the idea of including elements of it in “The Caine Mutiny.”
Using Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” as a model, Mr. Wouk looked at the events of World War II through the eyes of Navy Captain Victor (Pug) Henry and his family. The sweep of his narrative readily lent itself to the new genre of the television miniseries, and Mr. Wouk wrote the adaptations himself. (In addition to “The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial,” Mr. Wouk had previously written three plays and a screenplay.)
In 2008, Mr. Wouk presented the Library of Congress with his journals and was the first recipient of the Library of Congress Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Writing of Fiction.
Early in his career, Mr. Wouk offered a description of the writer’s life as he had experienced it. “Setting aside the years at war, I have had no other aim or occupation than that of writing,” he stated. “It is hard work; and in the good hours when words are flowing it seems there is hardly a pleasanter way to spend one’s time on earth. Never mind the bad hours. There is no life without them.”
Mr. Wouk’s wife, Betty (Brown) Wouk, who represented him after founding the BSW Literary Agency in 1979, died in 2011, after 66 yers of marriage. His brother died in 2005. A son, Abraham, died in a childhood accident. He is survived by two children, Iolanthe Woulff and Joseph Wouk; three grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
Mark Feeney can be reached at [email protected].
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