Herman Wouk, 1915-2019

Remembering a master of middlebrow

Herman Wouk / Getty Images
May 25, 2019

Herman Wouk was a good writer. He could spin a compelling tale, and he could embroider some serious ideas onto that tale. His prose was clean, and his characters recognizable. But he wasn't Proust. Or Tolstoy. Or Saul Bellow. He was just good, producing—with The Caine Mutiny (1951), for example—solid American middlebrow work much better than, say, Sloan Wilson's The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955).

That seems fair, doesn't it? The run of 1950s middlebrow classics was so much better than what would later come to claim their spot in American publishing that we forget those books were, by design and reception, resolutely middlebrow. These were not pulp, like Robert E. Howard’s Tales of Conan. They were not unabashed thrillers, like Ian Fleming's Moonraker or Alistair Maclean's HMS Ulysses. They were not exemplars of genre fiction, like Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley or Rex Stout's Before Midnight. But neither were they Nikos Kazantzakis's The Last Temptation of Christ, Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, or Graham Greene's The Quiet American.

Every one of those books—from Tales of Conan to The Quiet American—first appeared in 1955, the same year Herman Wouk outsold them all with Marjorie Morningstar, his first book after his breakthrough success with his third novel, The Caine Mutiny. And both The Caine Mutiny and Marjorie Morningstar look awfully good compared with, say, such later bestselling claimants of the middlebrow bestseller as Erich Segal's 1970 Love Story. Or Robert James Waller's 1992 The Bridges of Madison County. Or Charles Frazier's 1997 Cold Mountain (a book lavishly praised by the very highbrow critic Alfred Kazin in one of the last reviews he wrote before his death in 1998).

But looking better than Love Story is too faint as praise for what Wouk achieved. He wasn't Proust, but he was a damn sight better than Erich Segal. A writer's death is not the occasion for harsh judgments, and when Herman Wouk died this spring, on May 17, just short of his 105th birthday, he was given the expected outpouring of tributes.

In truth, ever since his 100th birthday, Wouk has received accolades and fond retrospectives. Partly that's because he seemed a survivor, a living symbol of a different era (akin, say, to all the recent praise for the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, on his 100th birthday). And partly the acclaim is because, well, Wouk's books really were good.

Just add it up. From Don't Stop the Carnival (1965) to The Lawgiver (2012), he proved he was underrated as a comic writer (which shouldn't have been a surprise, given that as a very young man, before the Second World War, he was a joke writer for David Freedman and Fred Allen). From This Is My God (1959) to The Will to Live On (2000), he wrote well-received nonfiction about being Jewish. From The Winds of War (1971) to Inside, Outside (1985), he showed he could produce the panoramic doorstoppers beloved by readers in the 1970s and 1980s.

Yes, he wrote some clunkers. Wouk was always bitter that his 1948 novel City Boy fell unread in the shadow of Norman Mailer's triumph that year with The Naked and the Dead, as though readers and book-reviewers had room for only one Jewish author at a time. But the truth is that City Boy just wasn't up to the task. Neither, for that matter, was Youngblood Hawke (1962), Wouk's peculiar attempt to fictionalize the Southern-boy-comes-to-literary-New-York life of Thomas Wolfe.

In general, though, he could be counted on to write a readable book with some serious ideas in it. Or, perhaps better, a readable book with some serious ideas on it, like figures embroidered on a tapestry. In 2013, John Podhoretz commissioned an essay for Commentary by the critic (and highbrow art-historian) Michael J. Lewis, in an effort to undo what he called the "65-year injustice" of Commentary's treatment of the Jewish writer. It was a wonderful essay, getting much right about the man, while walking back the complaint of John's father, Norman Podhoretz, from 1955—in a review that swatted away Marjorie Morningstar, "from its 'indigestible prose' to its simplistic moral analysis."

"That Wouk should pass for a serious writer is perhaps no more an occasion of surprise than the success of a dozen other inconsequential novelists," Norman Podhoretz wrote. But "the people who enjoy Wouk, I would guess, read him earnestly, with a reverence they never feel when confronted by, say, Thomas B. Costain or Sloan Wilson. . . . Marjorie, like The Caine Mutiny, . . . gives its audience a satisfied sense of having grappled with difficult questions."

Nearly everyone who has written in praise of Wouk in recent years has taken for an example of his depth, his idea-fiction, the scene at the end of The Caine Mutiny. The mutineers' Jewish attorney has just won acquittals by setting up Queeg, their despised captain, to look like a neurotic fool on the witness stand. And then, at a bar afterward, the lawyer drunkenly denounces the oh-so-superior young college-boy officers for failing to realize how much they should have supported Queeg. How much they should have understood that it was the old, prewar career-officer mules who kept the Germans from overrunning America and bringing to the New World the Holocaust they had undertaken in Europe.

It's a great scene. A tremendous scene. But Norman Podhoretz was right, all the way back in the 1950s. It's an idea sewn on the story: the picture of a concept, rather than the actual thought. The reversal might have been more plausible—how could we readers not have realized there was an entirely different way of looking at things?—if Wouk had allowed Queeg the least moral complexity.

No doubt, the captain is wonderfully drawn as a character: memorable in every way, beginning with his name. But an author doesn't get to give us a Dickensian type, and then reverse field just to flatter readers that they've just had a deep thought. All they've had is the picture of a thought, a simulacrum of ideas, unearned by the prose.

Which is perfectly fine for a certain kind of fiction. This might almost be the definition, the archetype, of the middlebrow. And with something like Wouk's War and Remembrance (1978), it's almost always more enjoyable to read than books like, say, Graham Greene's The Quiet American. In fact, The Caine Mutiny is better of its middlebrow kind than The Quiet American is of its more highbrow kind. But the point is that they're different types of books, built with different ambitions and aimed at different audiences. And the error we make—the error made by too much of the recent praise for Wouk—comes from confusing the two.

Still, all in all, Herman Wouk was a good writer who wrote good books, a few of which are genuinely memorable middlebrow classics. He wasn't Marcel Proust, but he wasn't Thomas B. Costain either. That seems fair, doesn't it?

Published under: Book reviews