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A literary lion for over two decades in the late 20th century, novelist, playwright and essayist Herman Wouk's body of work included the Pulitzer Prize-winning Caine Mutiny (1951) as well the sprawling World War II narratives The Winds of War. The mystery of faith, whether experienced by soldiers at war, an aspiring actress, or victims of the Holocaust, was the main focus of Wouk's fiction, which topped the bestseller lists from the late 1950s through the mid-1970s. Wouk would more directly address issues of Judaism, inter-faith relations, and the relationship between science and religion in a series of well-received non-fiction work that began in 1959 with This is My God (1959), which became a seminal work on the subject. Winds of War and its sequel, War and Remembrance (1978), were Wouk's most accomplished books, requiring 13 years of research to tell the multi-layered story of lives during World War II; both would later become Emmy-winning miniseries in the mid-1980s. Wouk continued to write well into his nineties, still mining the key themes of his career with The Hope (1993) and The Lawgiver. His ceaseless curiosity over the relationship between faith and secular life, penned in terms both epic...
A literary lion for over two decades in the late 20th century, novelist, playwright and essayist Herman Wouk's body of work included the Pulitzer Prize-winning Caine Mutiny (1951) as well the sprawling World War II narratives The Winds of War. The mystery of faith, whether experienced by soldiers at war, an aspiring actress, or victims of the Holocaust, was the main focus of Wouk's fiction, which topped the bestseller lists from the late 1950s through the mid-1970s. Wouk would more directly address issues of Judaism, inter-faith relations, and the relationship between science and religion in a series of well-received non-fiction work that began in 1959 with This is My God (1959), which became a seminal work on the subject. Winds of War and its sequel, War and Remembrance (1978), were Wouk's most accomplished books, requiring 13 years of research to tell the multi-layered story of lives during World War II; both would later become Emmy-winning miniseries in the mid-1980s. Wouk continued to write well into his nineties, still mining the key themes of his career with The Hope (1993) and The Lawgiver. His ceaseless curiosity over the relationship between faith and secular life, penned in terms both epic and intimate, made Wouk one of the most accomplished modern writers.
Born in New York City on May 27, 1915, Herman Wouk was raised in the Bronx by his parents, Russian Jews from Minsk. He studied comparative literature and philosophy at Columbia University, where he also edited the undergraduate humor magazine, The Jester, while penning varsity musicals in his spare time. After graduating with a BA at the age of 19 in 1934, his humor writing brought him to the attention of legendary gag writer David Freedman, which began his career in radio comedy. From 1936 to 1941, Wouk was a staff writer for acerbic comic Fred Allen before relocating to Washington, D.C., where he wrote scripts for the United States Treasury's war bond campaign. During this period, Wouk experienced a revival of his Jewish faith, and modeled his daily routine on that of his grandfather, who began each day with a reading of Scripture in Hebrew.
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Wouk signed up for duty with the U.S. Navy. He attended communications school at Annapolis before serving aboard the U.S.S. Zane, a destroyer-minesweeper stationed near Guadalcanal. He would see combat on eight separate missions in the Pacific theater, earning several battle stars along the way. By the war's end, he had worked his way up to executive officer on the Southhard, another destroyer-minesweeper. Wouk was slated to become the vessel's captain shortly before it was lost in a typhoon near Okinawa in late 1945. That same year, he married Navy personnel executive Betty Sarah Brown, with whom he would have three sons, Abraham, Nathanial and Joseph. Brown would serve as Wouk's editor throughout his career before becoming his literary agent.
During his military service, Wouk applied his first-hand knowledge of men at war in the sea to a novel, Aurora Dawn, which he wrote during off-duty hours. He sent the novel to his mentor, Columbia professor Irwin Edman, who brought Wouk's book to the attention of a New York publisher. Aurora Dawn was published in 1947, and was immediately followed by City Boy: The Adventures of Herbie Bookbinder, a Dickensian comedy-drama about a young Jewish boy in the Bronx. The book was a dismal failure upon release, and would not find its audience until Wouk's success in later years. In 1951, it was loosely adapted into a feature film, "The Romantic Age," which transformed Herbie Bookbinder into a young Gentile girl, played by Margaret O'Brien.
While researching his third novel, Wouk wrote a short story called "Slattery's Hurricane," about an ex-Navy pilot-turned-drug smuggler who finds redemption during a hurricane. The story was published in The American Magazine and then submitted to 20th Century Fox, which commissioned Wouk to write a script based on the story. He instead wrote a book, which Fox purchased, and then collaborated on a script that drew considerable fire from the Production Code Administration for elements of adultery and drug addiction. The controversial elements were watered down for the film, which was released in 1949 with Richard Widmark and Veronica Lake. The book itself would remain unpublished until the height of Wouk's popularity in 1956.
Wouk drew directly from his experience aboard minesweepers for his third novel, The Caine Mutiny, which he penned while working as a reserve officer aboard the aircraft carrier Saipan. The novel, a powerful courtroom drama about the character assassination of hard-nosed U.S. Navy Captain Queeg on trial for fostering dissent among his crew, had a slow start upon its release in March of 1951, but by the fall of that year, The Caine Mutiny had risen to the top of the bestseller list. The following year, the book earned Wouk the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. In 1954, Wouk adapted the courtroom scenes from the book into The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, a stage play that found immediate success upon its Broadway debut in January of that year. The original production, directed by Charles Laughton and starring Henry Fonda and Lloyd Nolan, arrived in New York five months before Columbia Pictures' film version, which gave Humphrey Bogart an Oscar nomination as Queeg. In later years, both the play and the film would be regarded as classics, enjoying countless reprisals and remakes.
Now among the most popular novelists in the world, Wouk turned his attention to his roots with Marjorie Morningstar (1955), about a young Jewish woman from the Bronx who dreamed of stardom and romantic happiness. Conventional wisdom in the publishing industry during the 1950s stated that a story with Jewish themes would not reach a broad audience, but the book defied all expectations by becoming the most successful American novel of the year. A film adaptation, starring Natalie Wood as Marjorie, was released in 1958. Wouk and his family were living in the Virgin Islands when he interrupted work on his next novel to complete a long-standing passion project about the Jewish faith called This is My God (1959). Again, it surpassed industry expectations to become one of the definitive books on Christian-Jewish relations. Wouk would dedicate the book's copyright to the Abe Wouk Foundation, which he had named in memory of his first son, Abraham, who had died in an accident at the age of five.
Wouk's fifth novel, Youngblood Hawke, about the rise and fall of a young novelist obsessed with financial gain, was published in 1962, with a film adaptation coming two years later from Warner Bros. Upon its release, he immediately began a new book project, an ambitious story about World War II. To his chagrin, he realized that a book of such epic scope would require years of research. To balance the workload, he devoted a few hours of each day to a lighter comic novel, Don't Stop the Carnival, a comedy about island life with pointed critiques of race and politics. It was published in 1965, shortly after Wouk returned with his family to the mainland to begin the 13 years of meticulous research that would inform two of his most celebrated novels.
Wouk settled with his wife and sons in Washington, D.C., which would grant him access to the Library of Congress, National Archives and surviving American military figures who served during World War II. He also traveled extensively throughout Europe, visiting important battlefields as well as the sites of former concentration camps in Poland and Czechoslovakia. In 1971, Wouk released the sum of his efforts, The Winds of War, which detailed the personal lives and politics of American and European figures, both civilian and military, on the eve of World War II. Seven years later, he released the second part of the story, War and Remembrance (1974), which brought the stories of his protagonists to the end of the war. Wouk would later describe the novel's harrowing passages about the horrors of Auschwitz as "the main tale I have to tell."
Producer Dan Curtis approached Wouk about turning Winds of War into a feature film, but the author expressed his reservations about the project, citing several shoddy prior film adaptations of his work. Curtis suggested that the scope of the novel might be better served by a television miniseries, and granted Wouk unprecedented input into the production, including approval on the type and number of commercials to be aired during its broadcast. Wouk also wrote the screenplay for the massive, 14-hour version of "The Winds of War" (ABC, 1983), which drew massive audience numbers and three Emmys, as well as critical ire over casting, most notably Ali MacGraw as the series' Jewish heroine. Wouk again served as screenwriter for "War and Remembrance" (ABC, 1988), sharing credit with Curtis and Oscar winner Earl W. Wallace. The 12-hour miniseries overcame the pitfalls of its predecessor by significantly reducing the romantic subplots, as well as replacing MacGraw with Jane Seymour, who won an Emmy nomination for her performance. "War and Remembrance" would ultimately net three Emmys, including Best Original Miniseries.
Wouk's written output slowed in the years following Winds of War. He continued to work primarily in epic-scaled fiction like Inside, Outside (1985), about four generations of a Russian Jewish family, and The Hope (1993), a massive retelling of Israel's modern history that was completed in a follow-up volume, The Glory (1994). In 1997, he collaborated with musician Jimmy Buffet on a musical adaptation of Don't Stop the Carnival, which enjoyed a brief theatrical run in Florida. Wouk's celebrated career received several significant tributes during this period, including the establishment of the Herman Wouk Chair of Modern Jewish Studies from the University of Southern California in 2001 and the Library of Congress Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008. His later years were devoted to non-fiction explorations of the Jewish faith in The Will to Live On: The Resurgence of Jewish Heritage (2009) and science and religion in The Language God Talks. Following the death of his wife in 2011, 96-year-old Wouk announced the publication of a new novel, The Lawgiver, in 2012.
By Paul Gaita
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