Herman Wouk, the prolific and immensely popular writer who explored the moral fallout of World War II in the Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Caine Mutiny” and other widely read books that gave Americans a raw look at the horrors and consequences of war, has died at his Palm Springs home, where he wrote many of his acclaimed novels.
Wouk, who was honored by the Library of Congress in September 2008 with its first lifetime achievement award for fiction writing, died in his sleep Friday at the age of 103, his literary agent Amy Rennert told the Associated Press. Wouk was working on a book at the time of his death, Rennert said.
As a writer, Wouk considered his most “vaultingly ambitious” work the twin novels “The Winds of War” and “War and Remembrance,” about “the great catastrophe of our time,” World War II. Critics, however, considered “The Caine Mutiny” to be his finest work.
Taut and focused, the book is a riveting exploration of power, personal freedom and responsibility. “Caine” won the 1952 Pulitzer Prize for literature and was on the New York Times' bestseller list for more than two years, selling more than 5 million copies in the U.S. and Britain in the first few years after its publication.
In the novel, Wouk creates one of American literature's most fascinating characters, Philip Francis Queeg, the captain of the U.S. destroyer-minesweeper Caine, who is removed from his command by a lower-ranking officer in the middle of a typhoon.
In one of the book’s most famous scenes, concerning the theft of the captain’s strawberries, Queeg lapses into paranoid incoherence as he is questioned during his court-martial. He pulls a pair of ball bearings from his pocket and obsessively shuffles them in his hand:
“Ah, but the strawberries! That's, that's where I had them. They laughed at me and made jokes, but I proved beyond the shadow of a doubt, and with, with geometric logic, that, that a duplicate key to the wardroom icebox did exist. And I would have produced that key if they hadn't pulled the Caine out of action. I, I know now they were only trying to protect some fellow officer. (He pauses, realizing that he has been ranting.)
“Naturally, I can only cover these things from memory.”
The officer who took over the Caine is legally vindicated in a court-martial for his removal of Queeg. But Wouk doesn't let the character or the crew off that easily. In the midst of the drunken celebration of the victory over Queeg, the officer who has been named captain of the Caine is berated by his own attorney.
“I got you off by phony legal tricks — by making clowns of Queeg and a Freudian psychiatrist — which was like shooting two tuna fish in a barrel,” the inebriated lawyer spits at his client.
Many critics found this turnabout ending an apologia of Queeg and a trick on the reader. But the moral ambiguity also added to the book's complexity and helped ensure its place in important World War II fiction.
In 1954, Wouk turned the court-martial aspect of the novel into a Broadway play with Lloyd Nolan as Queeg and Henry Fonda as Lt. Barney Greenwald, the lawyer who defended the officer who took the command away from his captain. The play ran for a year and was revived on Broadway in 1983 and again in 2006.
“Caine” also was made into a notable film in 1954, directed by Edward Dmytryk and starring Humphrey Bogart as an unforgettable Queeg.
Wouk came to view “Caine,” published in 1951, as an “anecdote” about the war, in which he served as a Navy lieutenant. But it was not, in his view, the “great war book” that he was determined to write.
Twenty years later, he published the first installment of what he thought was that book — “The Winds of War,” which was followed several years later by its sequel, “War and Remembrance.”
The novels, sweeping and epic in their ambition, followed career naval officer Victor “Pug” Henry and his family in the years building up to and during the war. “The Winds of War” takes events up to the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, and America's entry into the war. “War and Remembrance” (1978), which includes a harrowing account of the Holocaust, concludes shortly after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima in 1945, marking the end of the war.
Wouk took great pains to recount real events and actual timelines and to incorporate the major figures of the time in their correct historical circumstances. But partly because the books were labeled — even by Wouk — as “romances,” they were not taken as seriously either as literature or as history, reinforcing his image as a “middlebrow” writer.
In 1973, novelist Gore Vidal reviewed the top 10 bestsellers for the New York Review of Books, including “The Winds of War.” Vidal's complaints were many, but in the end, he wrote that “for all Mr. Wouk's idiocies and idiosyncrasies, his competence is most impressive and his professionalism awe-inspiring in a world of lazy writers and TV-stunned readers.”
“I did not in the least regret reading every word of his book,” Vidal added, “though I suspect he is a writer best read swiftly by the page in order to get the sweep of his narrative while overlooking the infelicities of style and the shallowness of mind.”
Many Americans became familiar with the Henry family during the 1980s when the books provided the basis for a pair of television miniseries that aired five years apart. The two series broke all records in terms of cost of production and length; “The Winds of War” came in at $40 million and ran 18 hours in 1983, and “War and Remembrance” cost $110 million and ran 32 hours in 1988.
ABC reported that “The Winds of War” was watched by more viewers than any other program in television history at that time. Viewership of “War and Remembrance” was not as high, but still tens of millions of viewers watched all or parts of it.
Herman Wouk was born May 27, 1915, in New York City, the child of immigrants from Minsk, Russia. Wouk's father, who had arrived in New York City in 1905, began work as a $3-a-week laundry worker and eventually did so well in the laundry business that the family moved from the Bronx to the Upper West Side.
Wouk graduated with a degree in comparative literature and philosophy from Columbia University, where he also wrote comedy bits on the side.
He launched a career writing for comedy radio shows, once saying that his first job was “copying old jokes out of tattered comic magazines onto file cards.” But before long he was working on scripts with radio comedian Fred Allen. Wouk said that his greatest ambition was to write farces for the Broadway stage.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, he enlisted in the Navy and was assigned to be assistant communications officer on the destroyer-minesweeper Zane and later as second-in-command on another destroyer-minesweeper, the Southard.
“I was the only Jew aboard,” Wouk told the Washington Post in 2000. “I was commanding Americans from all over the country of a sort I had never met, living with them, fighting battles with them, betting my life on them and having them bet their lives on me.”
Out of this experience, he said, he evolved from a writer of gags to a writer.
He often said that he wrote his first novel, “Aurora Dawn,” because he was bored at sea. He was shocked to find that book, a spoof on radio broadcasting, was selected by the Book-of-the-Month Club.
Next he created one of his favorite characters, Herbie Bookbinder, the forlorn yet comic young hero of the somewhat autobiographical “The City Boy.”
Wouk's follow-up to “Caine,” his third book, could hardly have been more startling: “Marjorie Morningstar,” the story of starry-eyed Marjorie Morgenstern, who changes her name and defies the traditions of her Bronx family in pursuit of an acting career and the love of her life, a bohemian songwriter. In the end, she marries a good if unexciting man and becomes a housewife and mother in suburban New York City. The book's conservative conclusion remained a controversy for years among supporters of women's rights.
Published in 1955 with a fanfare that included Wouk on the cover of Time magazine, “Marjorie Morningstar” — one of the first popular novels about Jewish life — was on the bestseller lists for so long that it became somewhat of a publishing phenomenon.
Wouk continued his remarkable output with “Slattery's Hurricane” (1956), “Youngblood Hawke” (1962) and “Don't Stop the Carnival” (1965), a short comic novel set in the Caribbean that, in an odd turn of events 36 years after publication, was turned into a musical play with songs by Jimmy Buffett.
Wouk's other books include “Inside, Outside” (1985), “The Hope” (1993), “The Glory” (1994) and “A Hole in Texas” (2004).
In November 2012, when Wouk was 97, Simon and Schuster published a new novel, “The Lawgiver.”
Wouk rarely granted interviews and never wrote an autobiography, nor were any substantial biographies written about him. The essentials of his life — his work, his family, his faith — were generally known, but little was ever said, for example, about the death of his firstborn son, Abraham, in 1951 at the age of 4. Time magazine said the boy drowned in a swimming pool while the family was on vacation in Mexico, apparently after having slipped out of the house one morning to sail a toy boat his father had given him. His son’s death affected Wouk through his life, a loss he described as a “senseless waste.”
His wife, Betty Sarah, died in 2011. He is survived by his two sons, Nathaniel and Joseph.
Luther is a former Times staff writer.