Herman Wouk

From New World Encyclopedia

Herman Wouk
Herman Wouk (cropped).jpg
Wouk in 1955
Born May 27 1915(1915-05-27)
New York City, U.S.
Died May 17 2019 (aged 103)
Palm Springs, California, U.S.
Occupation Author
Writing period 1941–2019
Notable work(s) The Caine Mutiny
The Winds of War
War and Remembrance
This Is My God
Spouse(s) Betty Sarah Brown
(m. 1945; died 2011)
Children 3
Relative(s) Victor Wouk (brother)
Alan I. Green (nephew)

Herman Wouk (/woʊk/ WOHK; May 27, 1915 – May 17, 2019) was an American author best known for historical fiction. The Caine Mutiny (1951) made Wouk an international success, winning the Pulitzer Prize in fiction. It was made into a major motion picture starring Humphrey Bogart as Captain Queeg that was released in 1954. The film received seven Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Actor.

His other major works include The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, historical novels about World War II, that became very successful television miniseries starring Robert Mitchum as Captain Victor "Pug" Henry. He also authored a number of non-fiction works, including This Is My God, an explanation of Judaism from a Modern Orthodox perspective, written for Jewish and non-Jewish audiences alike.

Early life

Wouk was born in the Bronx, the second of three children born to Esther (née Levine) and Abraham Isaac Wouk, Russian Jewish immigrants from what is today Belarus. His father toiled for many years to raise the family out of poverty before opening a successful laundry service.[1]

When Wouk was 13, his maternal grandfather, Mendel Leib Levine, came from Minsk to live with them and took charge of his grandson's Jewish education. Wouk was frustrated by the amount of time he was expected to study the Talmud, but his father told him, "if I were on my deathbed, and I had breath to say one more thing to you, I would say 'Study the Talmud.'" Eventually Wouk took this advice to heart. After a brief period as a young adult during which he lived a secular life, he returned to religious practice.[2] Judaism would become integral to both his personal life and his career. He would later say that his grandfather and the United States Navy were the two most important influences on his life.[3]

After his childhood and adolescence in the Bronx, he graduated from the original Townsend Harris High School in Manhattan, Townsend Harris Hall Prep School, which was the elite prep school for City College.[4] He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree at the age of 19 from Columbia University in 1934, where he was a member of the Pi Lambda Phi fraternity. He also served as editor of the university's humor magazine, Jester, and wrote two of its annual Varsity Shows.[5] Soon thereafter, he became a radio dramatist, working in David Freedman's "Joke Factory" and later with Fred Allen for five years[6] and then, in 1941, for the United States government, writing radio spots to sell war bonds.[7]


Military career

Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Wouk joined the U.S. Naval Reserve in 1942 and served in the Pacific Theater during World War II, an experience he later characterized as educational: "I learned about machinery, I learned how men behaved under pressure, and I learned about Americans." Wouk served as an officer aboard two destroyer minesweepers (DMS), the USS Zane and USS Southard, becoming executive officer of the latter while holding the rank of lieutenant. He participated in around six invasions and won a number of battle stars.[6] Wouk was in the New Georgia Campaign, the Gilbert and Marshall Islands campaign, the Mariana and Palau Islands campaign, and the Battle of Okinawa.[8] During off-duty hours aboard ship he started writing a novel, Aurora Dawn, which he originally titled Aurora Dawn; or, The True history of Andrew Reale, containing a faithful account of the Great Riot, together with the complete texts of Michael Wilde's oration and Father Stanfield's sermon. Wouk sent a copy of the opening chapters to philosophy professor Irwin Edman, his professor at Columbia,[9] who quoted a few pages verbatim to a New York editor. The result was a publisher's contract sent to Wouk's ship, then off the coast of Okinawa. Aurora Dawn was published in 1947 and became a Book of the Month Club main selection. Wouk finished his tour of duty in 1946.[10]

Writing career

His second novel, City Boy, proved to be a commercial disappointment at the time of its initial publication in 1948.

While writing his next novel, Wouk read each chapter to his wife as it was completed. At one point she remarked that if they did not like this one, he had better take up another line of work (a line he would give to the character of the editor Jeannie Fry in his novel Youngblood Hawke, 1962).

The Caine Mutiny

The novel, The Caine Mutiny (1951), went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. A best-seller, The Caine Mutiny was adapted by the author into a Broadway play called The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial The novel grew out of Wouk's personal experiences aboard two destroyer-minesweepers in the Pacific Theater in World War II. Among its themes, it deals with the moral and ethical decisions made at sea by ship captains and other officers. The mutiny of the title is legalistic, not violent, and takes place during Typhoon Cobra, in December 1944. The court-martial that results provides the dramatic climax to the plot.

Many of the incidents and plot details are autobiographical. Like both Keith and Keefer, Wouk rose through the ship's wardroom of Zane from assistant communications officer to first lieutenant. As executive officer of the Southard, Wouk was recommended to captain the ship home to the United States at the end of the war before it was beached at Okinawa in September 1945, during Typhoon Louise.

The name for the USS Caine came from the story in Genesis of Cain killing his brother Abel, and Cain's resulting banishment, nomadic life, and isolation. While supporting the efforts of the minesweepers and underwater demolition teams, another Clemson-class destroyer, the USS Kane, served in the Marshall Islands and at Saipan in the Marianas at the same time as Wouk's ship Zane. The destroyer Kane may also have been an initial inspiration for the name of Wouk's fictional ship.[11]

In 1954, Columbia Pictures released a film version with Humphrey Bogart portraying Lt. Commander Philip Francis Queeg, captain of the fictional USS Caine.[12]

His first novel after The Caine Mutiny was Marjorie Morningstar (1955), which earned him a Time magazine cover story. Three years later Warner Bros. made it into a movie starring Natalie Wood, Gene Kelly and Claire Trevor. His next novel, a paperback, was Slattery's Hurricane (1956), which he had written in 1948 as the basis for the screenplay for the film of the same name. Wouk's first work of non-fiction was This is My God: The Jewish Way of Life (1959).[10]

In the 1960s, he authored Youngblood Hawke (1962), a drama about the rise and fall of a young writer modeled on the life of Thomas Wolfe, and Don't Stop the Carnival (1965), a comedy about escaping mid-life crisis by moving to the Caribbean (loosely based on Wouk's own experience). Youngblood Hawke was serialized in McCall's magazine from March to July 1962. A movie version starred James Franciscus and Suzanne Pleshette and was released by Warner Brothers in 1964. Don't Stop the Carnival was turned into a short-lived musical by Jimmy Buffett in 1997.[13]

The Winds of War

In the 1970s, Wouk published two monumental novels about World War II, The Winds of War (1971) and its sequel, War and Remembrance (1978). The story arc of The Winds of War begins six months before Germany's invasion of Poland in September 1939 and ends shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, when the United States enters the war. Originally conceived as one volume, Wouk decided to break it into two volumes when he realized it took nearly 1,000 pages just to get to the attack on Pearl Harbor. He described the latter, which included a devastating depiction of the Holocaust, as "the main tale I have to tell." It completes the cycle that began with The Winds of War. The story includes historical occurrences at Midway, Yalta, Guadalcanal, and El Alamein as well as the Allied invasions at Normandy and the Philippines.

One of the more significant themes in War and Remembrance and one that occurs in many of Wouk's works is a rediscovery of a central character's Jewish identity. Biblical scholar Aaron Jastrow and his niece Natalie Henry's experience of the Holocaust and their internment in Theresienstadt Ghetto are the events that trigger their newfound identification with their Judaism. Jastrow had formerly converted to Catholicism.[14] "Jastrow is transformed from a rational professor with only marginal awareness of his Jewishness into a passionate champion of his Jewish integrity" according to one reviewer.[15]

Both were made into successful television miniseries, the first in 1983 and the second in 1988. Although they were made several years apart, both were directed by Dan Curtis and both starred Robert Mitchum as Captain Victor "Pug" Henry, the main character. The novels are historical fiction. Each has three layers: the story told from the viewpoints of Captain Henry and his circle of family and friends, a more or less straightforward historical account of the events of the war, and an analysis by a member of Adolf Hitler's military staff, the insightful fictional General Armin von Roon. Wouk devoted "thirteen years of extraordinary research and long, arduous composition" to these two novels, noted Arnold Beichman. "The seriousness with which Wouk has dealt with the war can be seen in the prodigious amount of research, reading, travel and conferring with experts, the evidence of which may be found in the uncatalogued boxes at Columbia University" that contain the author's papers.[16]

Later Works

Inside, Outside (1985) is the story of four generations of a Russian Jewish family and its travails in Russia, the U.S. and Israel. The Hope (1993) and its sequel, The Glory (1994), are historical novels about the first 33 years of Israel's history. They were followed by The Will to Live On: This is Our Heritage (2000), a whirlwind tour of Jewish history and sacred texts and companion volume to This is My God.

A Hole in Texas (2004) is a novel about the discovery of the Higgs boson, whose existence was proven nine years later, while The Language God Talks: On Science and Religion (2010) is an exploration into the tension between religion and science that originated in a discussion Wouk had with the theoretical physicist Richard Feynman.[17]

The Lawgiver (2012) is an epistolary novel about a contemporary Hollywood writer of a movie script about Moses, with the consulting help of a nonfictional character, Herman Wouk, a "mulish ancient" who gets involved despite the strong misgivings of his wife.[18]

Wouk's memoir, titled Sailor and Fiddler: Reflections of a 100-Year-Old Author, was published in January 2016 to mark his 100th birthday.[19] NPR called it "a lovely coda to the career of a man who made American literature a kinder, smarter, better place." It was his last book.[20]

Daily journal

Wouk kept a personal diary from 1937.[21] On September 10, 2008, Wouk presented the Library of Congress with his journals, which number more than 100 volumes as of 2012,[21] at a ceremony that honored him with the first Library of Congress Lifetime Achievement Award for the Writing of Fiction (now the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction). Wouk often referred to his journals to check dates and facts in his writing, and was hesitant to let the originals out of his personal possession. A solution was negotiated: a scanning service bureau was selected to scan the entire set of volumes into digital formats.

Personal life and death

In late 1944 Wouk met Betty Sarah Brown, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Southern California, who was working as a personnel specialist in the navy while the Zane was undergoing repairs in San Pedro, California. The two quickly fell in love and after his ship went back to sea, Betty, who was born a Protestant and was raised in Grangeville, Idaho, began her study of Judaism and converted on her twenty-fifth birthday. They were married on December 10, 1945.[16]

With the birth of the first of their three children the next year, Wouk became a full-time writer to support his growing family. His first-born son, Abraham Isaac Wouk, was named after Wouk's late father. He drowned in a swimming pool accident in Cuernavaca, Mexico shortly before his fifth birthday. Wouk later dedicated War and Remembrance to him with the Biblical words "בלע המות לנצח – He will destroy death forever" (Isaiah 25:8). Their second and third children were Iolanthe Woulff (born 1950 as Nathaniel Wouk, a Princeton University graduate and an author[22] and Joseph (born 1954, a Columbia graduate, an attorney, a film producer, and a writer who served in the Israeli Navy).[23] He had three grandchildren.[10]

The Wouks lived in New York, Saint Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands (where he wrote Don't Stop the Carnival) and at 3255 N Street N.W.[24] in the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C. (where he researched and wrote The Winds of War and War and Remembrance)[25] before settling in Palm Springs, California. His wife, who served for decades as his literary agent, died in that city on March 17, 2011.[26]

"I wrote nothing that was of the slightest consequence before I met Sarah," Wouk recalled after her death. "I was a gag man for Fred Allen for five years. In his time, he was the greatest of the radio comedians. And jokes work for what they are but they're ephemeral. They just disappear. And that was the kind of thing I did up until the time that I met Sarah and we married. And I would say my literary career and my mature life both began with her."[27]

Wouk died in his sleep in his home in Palm Springs, California, on May 17, 2019, at the age of 103, ten days before his 104th birthday.[28]


  • Columbia University, New York, 1934 (A.B. with general honors)[29]
  • Yeshiva University, New York, 1954 (Hon. L.H.D.)[29]
  • Clark University, Worcester, Massachusetts, 1960 (Hon. D.Lit.)[29]
  • American International College, Springfield, Massachusetts, 1979 (Hon. Litt.D.)[29]
  • Bar-Ilan University, Ramat Gan, Israel, 1990 (Hon. Ph.D.)[29]


In 1995, Wouk was honored on his 80th birthday by the Library of Congress with a symposium on his career. In attendance were David McCullough, Robert Caro, and Daniel Boorstin, among others.[28] Historians, novelists, publishers, and critics who gathered at the for Wouk's 80th birthday described him as an American Tolstoy.[30]

His books have been translated into 27 languages.[31]

The Washington Post called Wouk, who cherished his privacy, "the reclusive dean of American historical novelists".[31]

Awards and honors

  • Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, 1952[32]
  • Columbia University Medal for Excellence, 1952[29]
  • Alexander Hamilton Medal, 1980[33]
  • Golden Plate Award, American Academy of Achievement, 1986[34]
  • United States Navy Memorial Foundation Lone Sailor Award, 1987[35]
  • Bar-Ilan University Guardian of Zion Award, 1998
  • Jewish Book Council Lifetime Literary Achievement Award, 1999[29]
  • Library of Congress Lifetime Achievement Award for the Writing of Fiction (inaugural), 2008[13]

Published works

Wouk in 2014
  • The Man in the Trench Coat (1941, play)
  • Aurora Dawn (1947)[32]
  • City Boy: The Adventures of Herbie Bookbinder (1948)[32]
  • The Traitor (1949 play)[36]
  • The Caine Mutiny (1951)[32]
  • The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial (1953, play)[32]
  • Marjorie Morningstar (1955)[32]
  • Slattery's Hurricane (1956)[32]
  • The "Lomokome" Papers (written in 1949, published in 1956)
  • Nature's Way (1957, play)[36]
  • This is My God: The Jewish Way of Life (1959, revised ed. 1973, revised ed. 1988, non-fiction)[37]
  • Youngblood Hawke (1962)[32]
  • Don't Stop the Carnival (1965)[32]
  • The Winds of War (1971)[32]
  • War and Remembrance (1978)[32]
  • Inside, Outside (1985)[38]
  • The Hope (1993)[32]
  • The Glory (1994)[32]
  • The Will to Live On: This is Our Heritage (2000, non-fiction)[10]
  • A Hole in Texas (2004)[38]
  • The Language God Talks: On Science and Religion (2010, non-fiction)[10]
  • The Lawgiver (2012)[32]
  • Sailor and Fiddler: Reflections of a 100-Year Old Author (2015, non-fiction)[32]


  1. Sean Callery, Victor Wouk: The Father of the Hybrid Car (Los Angeles, CA: Crabtree Publishing Company, 2009, ISBN 978-0778790563), 7. Retrieved November 14, 2023.
  2. Philip Quarles, "Herman Wouk Bucks Literary Trends to Produce Best-Selling Novels," WNYC, January 25, 2013. Retrieved November 14, 2023.
  3. Joel Shatzky and Michael Taub, Contemporary Jewish-American Novelists: A Bio-critical Sourcebook (Boston, MA: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1997, ISBN 0313294624).
  4. "The Original Elite High School in New York City: Townsend Harris Hall – Baruch College Archives and Special Collections," CUNY, June 1, 2020. Retrieved November 14, 2023.
  5. "Herman Wouk Biography," eNotes.com. Retrieved November 14, 2023.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Craig D'Odge, "Herman Wouk Makes His Case," Library of Congress, December 2000. Retrieved November 14, 2023.
  7. Yvonne French, "Herman Wouk Donates Five Historical Novels," Library of Congress, July 10, 1995. Retrieved November 14, 2023.
  8. Wouk was not at the Battle of Lingayen Gulf, though his ship Southard was. Wouk was still serving on the ship Zane during the battle of Lingayen Gulf, according to the more accurate Navy Source. Hillel Italie, "WWII veteran Herman Wouk, a consummate writer until the end, dies at 103," NavyTimes, May 17, 2019. Retrieved November 14, 2023.
  9. Alex Sachare, "Herman Wouk '34 Raises Caine, Again," Columbia College Today, May 2002. Retrieved November 14, 2023.
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 10.3 10.4 Eric Homberger, "Herman Wouk obituary: author of The Caine Mutiny and The Winds of War who championed traditional Jewish values and American patriotism," The Guardian, May 17, 2019. Retrieved November 14, 2023.
  11. J. Rickard, "USS Kane (DD-235/ APD-18)," History of War, August 13, 2019. Retrieved November 14, 2023.
  12. Claire Armistead, "Herman Wouk to publish first memoir aged 100," The Guardian, May 27, 2015. Retrieved November 14, 2023.
  13. 13.0 13.1 "Herman Wouk, author of Caine Mutiny, Winds of War, dead at 103," Fox News, May 17, 2019. Retrieved November 14, 2023.
  14. "War and Remembrance Book Review," Kirkus Reviews, October 7, 2011. Retrieved November 14, 2023.
  15. Robert A. Cohen, "War and Remembrance Deserves a Thoughtful Second Look," St. Louis Jewish Light, June 1989, 7, 14.
  16. 16.0 16.1 Arnold Beichman, Herman Wouk: The Novelist as Social Historian (Piscataway, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1984, ISBN 087855498X).
  17. James E. Person, Jr., "Book Review: The Language God Talks," The Washington Times, June 18, 2010. Retrieved November 14, 2023.
  18. Brooks Barnes, "At 97, He Has a Book (or 2) Left," The New York Times, November 12, 2012. Retrieved November 14, 2023.
  19. Michael Dirda, "At 100, Herman Wouk re-emerges with a memoir, Sailor and Fiddler," The Washington Post, January 6, 2016. Retrieved November 14, 2023.
  20. Michael Schaub, "Sailor And Fiddler Is A Lovely Coda To A Literary Career," NPR, December 29, 2015. Retrieved November 14, 2023.
  21. 21.0 21.1 "Proust Questionnaire," Vanity Fair, October 2012, 272. Retrieved November 14, 2023.
  22. Nicholas Snow, "Transgendered Author/Novelist Iolanthe Woulff," YouTube, July 12, 2009. Retrieved November 14, 2023.
  23. "A Sclerotic Goes to War: Joseph Wouk Reports from the Israel/Iran War," January 3, 2009. Retrieved November 14, 2023.
  24. Kathy Orton, "House of the Week | Federal-era townhouse in Georgetown for $10.5M," The Washington Post, August 15, 2014. Retrieved November 14, 2023.
  25. Jane Howard, "Herman Wouk Surfaces Again," Life, November 26, 1971. Retrieved November 14, 2023.
  26. "Betty Sarah Wouk — Wife and agent of Caine Mutiny author," Los Angeles Times, March 23, 2011.
  27. Scott Simon, The Lawgiver: Telling Moses' Story, Differently," National Public Radio, November 17, 2012. Retrieved November 14, 2023.
  28. 28.0 28.1 Hillel Italie, Caine Mutiny,' Winds of War author Herman Wouk has died," Associated Press, May 17, 2019. Retrieved November 14, 2023.
  29. 29.0 29.1 29.2 29.3 29.4 29.5 29.6 Kassidy Vavra, "Herman Wouk, Pulitzer Prize winning author of Caine Mutiny, Winds of War, has died," Daily News, May 17, 2019. Retrieved November 14, 2023.
  30. Ken Ringle, "Fiction's Truest Voice," The Washington Post, May 16, 1995. Retrieved November 14, 2023.
  31. 31.0 31.1 Bruce Fessier, "Herman Wouk, dean of historical novelists, turns 100," The Desert Sun, May 26, 2015. Retrieved November 14, 2023.
  32. 32.00 32.01 32.02 32.03 32.04 32.05 32.06 32.07 32.08 32.09 32.10 32.11 32.12 32.13 32.14 Becky Krystal, "Herman Wouk, Pulitzer Prize-winning master of sweeping historical fiction, dies at 103," The Washington Post, May 17, 2019. Retrieved November 14, 2023.
  33. "Alexander Hamilton Medal," Columbia University, 1980. Retrieved November 14, 2023.
  34. Roxanne Roberts, "You Have A Dream," The Washington Post, May 4, 2003. Retrieved November 15, 2023.
  35. "Lone Sailor Award Recipients," United States Navy Memorial, 1987. November 15, 2023.
  36. 36.0 36.1 Mike Barnes, "Herman Wouk, Author of 'The Caine Mutiny' and 'The Winds of War,' Dies at 103," The Hollywood Reporter, May 17, 2019. Retrieved November 15, 2023.
  37. Rachel Gordan, "Herman Wouk, the legendary author who brought Judaism into the mainstream," The Times of Israel, May 17, 2019. Retrieved November 15, 2023.
  38. 38.0 38.1 Claudia Luther, "Herman Wouk, revered author of 'The Caine Mutiny' and 'The Winds of War,' dies at 103," Los Angeles Times, May 17, 2019. Retrieved November 15, 2023.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

Further reading

  • Beichman, Arnold. Herman Wouk: The Novelist as Social Historian. London, U.K.: Routledge, 2004 (original 1984), ISBN 978-0765808363
  • Mazzeno, Laurence W. Herman Wouk. Farmington Hills, MI: Twayne Publishers, 1994. ISBN 978-0805739824
  • Paulson, Barbara A. (ed.). The Historical Novel: A Celebration of the Achievements of Herman Wouk. Washington, DC: Library of Congress, 1999. ISBN 978-0844409764

External links

All links retrieved November 22, 2023.


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