by | Mar 14, 2023 | Mystery Minute | 8 comments

He Wrote Big Novels About Complicated Lives

By Z.J. Czupor

From his early days as a gag writer for the most popular radio show of the 1930s, to a stint in the Navy after Pearl Harbor, this internationally bestselling and award-winning author earned fame and fortune for his historical novels of war. But he also wrote science fiction, wrote about his religious beliefs, and ventured into new territory with a serious woman’s novel. Some of his works could easily be classified as riveting thrillers.

And yet, while he was a bestselling author with a popular following, literary critics often spurned him. 

Herman Wouk
Herman Wouk in 1951, age 36. Larry C. Morris / The New York Times

Herman Wouk [pronounced: WOKE] (1915-2019) was born May 27, 1915 in the Bronx to Abraham and Ester (Levine) Wouk. His father was a Russian immigrant who started as a laundry sorter making $3 a week but would become president of an industrial steam-laundry business in New York.

Wouk’s introduction to literature was due to his mother’s purchasing a set of Mark Twain (1835-1910) novels from a door-to-door salesman. He devoured them and said, “Now I knew what literature was, where I wanted to go, what I wanted to do with my life.” 

He graduated from Columbia University with a degree in literature and philosophy. While at Columbia, Wouk wrote a humor column for the campus newspaper and edited a humor magazine. 

In 1936, he joined popular radio comedian Fred Allen (1894-1956) as a staff writer in what was considered “The Golden Age of Radio.” Within a few years, he was earning $500 a week, which during the Depression was considered an impressive salary. 

Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Wouk enlisted in the U.S. Navy, and was assigned to be a radio officer on the USS Zane, a destroyer and minesweeper in the Pacific. He later served as an executive officer on the USS Southard.

While on the USS Zane, Wouk wrote his first novel, Aurora Dawn (1947), a satire on radio admen and a parody of the Victorian literary style. He sent the manuscript to his college professor at Columbia who placed it with the publishing house of Simon & Schuster. Despite mild reviews, his debut sold well and was selected by the Book-of-the-Month Club. 

His follow-up, The City Boy (1948), was a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story highly influenced by Mark Twain.

Herman Wouk Caine Mutiny

While he didn’t pen crime or mystery novels, per se, it was his third and most famous that paved the way for legal thrillers in the twentieth century. The Caine Mutiny (1951) topped best seller lists for two years, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (1952), and led to a film adaptation (1954) and a play. He was 35 at the time and his novel preceded literary courtroom thrillers such as Harper Lee’s (1926-2016) To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) and most recently Delia Owens’s Where the Crawdads Sing (2018). 

The Caine Mutiny examined moral and ethical decision made aboard the USS Caine, a destroyer minesweeper in the Pacific. The plot chronicles the ship’s mismanagement under Captain Queeg, explains Queeg’s being relieved of command during a typhoon, gives an account of the court-martial, and the aftermath of the mutiny for all involved. 

The book sold more than three million copies in the United States alone. The 1954 movie starred Humphrey Bogart as the paranoid Capt. Queeg. Wouk then adapted the courtroom scenes of the novel into a hit Broadway play, “The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial” which opened the same year as the film. 

His two thrillers came in his tenth and eleventh novels: The Hope (1993) and The Glory (1994) about the formation of the State of Israel. While historical in nature, the stories are replete with espionage and political intrigue. 

The Hope featured the 1948 Arab Israeli War, the 1956 Sinai War, and the Six-Day War. The Glory takes readers through the Yom Kippur War, the Entebbe Raid, and the promise of peace.

Like all of Wouk’s novels, The Hope was based on solid historical research, includes historical characters like David Ben Gurion (1886-1973), the primary national founder of the State of Israel and its first prime minister; and Moshe Dayan (1915-1981), who was a soldier and statesman who lost his left eye in action, and led the 1956 invasion of the Sinai Peninsula. 

Wouk sprinkles action with witty dialogue while interweaving his two protagonists lives through love and war. The New York Times Book Review said, “the descriptions of back-channel diplomacy between the United States and Israel are fascinating and convincing.” 

Herman Wouk Marjorie Morningstar

His page turning “woman’s novel,” Marjorie Morningstar (1955), earned him the cover of Time magazine (Sept. 5, 1955) as it was the year’s bestseller with 3.4 million copies sold. The plot follows the life of a middle-class Jewish girl in New York City aspiring to be an actress. 

Author Laura Lippman said, “To me, it’s a unicorn of a book—a so-called women’s novel, written by a man, that takes its heroine very seriously … it is a serious book that finds a big, sprawling story in what seems like a small, narrow life. More novels, even crime novels, should dare to do the same.” 

Marjorie Morningstar inspired the 1958 movie of the same name starring Natalie Wood in the title role with Gene Kelly as her boyfriend.

His next bestseller, Youngblood Hawke (1962), was an 800-page tome based loosely on the ups and downs of author Thomas Wolfe (1900-1938) who died at the age of 38.

In the early 1960s, Wouk moved to the Virgin Islands and wrote Don’t Stop the Carnival (1965), a comedy loosely based on his own experience, in which a middle-aged New York press agent escapes mid-life crisis by moving to the Caribbean and starts anew as a hotel keeper. Wouk turned the novel into a short-lived musical as a collaboration with singer Jimmy Buffet. The play had a brief run in Miami in 1997. 

While in the Virgin Islands, Wouk also began work on an epic about World War II. He moved to Washington, D.C. to conduct research at the National Archives and the Library of Congress, and then traveled the world to interview surviving military leaders.

His extensive research resulted in two major war novels: The Winds of War (1971), about the 1939 Nazi-Soviet pact and the attack on Pearl Harbor, followed by War and Remembrance (1978) which culminated in the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps and the dropping of the atom bomb.

Those two novels totaled nearly 2,000 pages in length in which Wouk contrasted battlefield events with life on the home front. Both were adapted into Emmy Award winning television mini-series on ABC. The first series based on The Winds of War attracted 80 million viewers (more than half of the available television audience in 1983) who tuned in over seven days. The second series, broadcast in 1988 and based on War and Remembrance, ran for more than thirty hours but attracted a smaller audience. Wouk scripted both adaptations.

He had a great literary range and was compared to John Steinbeck (1902-1968) in how he laced fiction and non-fiction, alternating between facts and storytelling switching words of warmth and brightness to darkness and hopelessness in a single line. 

Time Magazine

For example, in War and Remembrance, he wrote:

“But that is the hallmark of this war. No other war has ever been like it. This war rings the world … Men fight as far from home as they can be transported, with courage and endurance that makes one proud of the human race, in horrible contrivances that make one ashamed of the human race.” 

Wouk was a master storyteller of stirring events. He worked five days a week writing in longhand even though he could type. He filled about 100 volumes of journals dating back to 1937. Once when asked how he wrote, Wouk cited William Faulkner (1897-1962) who, when asked the same question, said, “I can write only by instinct. I’m just very fortunate that instinct strikes me every morning at a quarter after nine.” Wouk added, “So for me it’s about the same.”

Despite his awards, bestselling status, and wealth, he had many critics including one who wrote in 1966, “Mr. Wouk’s readers are ‘yahoos who hate culture and the mind.’”

The New York Times called The Winds of War “long and mildly interesting with an indifference to quality and a reliance on clichés.” 

In contrast, Simon & Schuster President Jonathan Karp said, “I think he aimed high and had large ambitions for reaching a lot of readers—and he entertained millions of them.”

His faith was the subject of two bestselling nonfiction titles, This is My God (1959), and in The Language God Talks (2010).

In 2008, he was honored with the first Library of Congress Lifetime Achievement Award for the Writing of Fiction. Wouk donated his diaries, remaining manuscripts, and correspondence to the library.

In 2016, he published his last work, a memoir, Sailor and Fiddler: Reflections of a 100-year-old Author. Wouk admitted he first considered writing it in 1980 but his wife discouraged him saying, “You’re not that interesting a person.” 

Herman Wouk

The memoir covers his life in work and show business and his thoughts on Israel and religion. Wouk said, “With this book I am free: from contracts, from long-deferred to-do books, in short, from producing any new words. I have said my say, done my work.”

His wife, Betty (Brown) Wouk, who represented him as his literary agent and founded the BSW Literary Agency in 1979, died in 2011. They had three sons. Their eldest, Abraham, drowned in a swimming pool in Mexico when he was four.

On May 17, 2019, Herman Wouk was working on a new novel when he died in his sleep at his home in Palm Springs, CA, ten days shy of his 104th birthday.

“I’ve been absolutely dead earnest and I’ve told the story I had in hand as best as I possibly could,” he told an interviewer for the New York Public Library in the 1970s. “I have never sought an audience. It may be that I am not a very involved or a very beautiful or a very anything writer, but I’ve done the level best I can.”

Editor’s Notes:

Commentary, a monthly magazine, never gave Wouk a complimentary review. 

  • His 1948 novel, City Boy, was panned as “bad (and therefore untrue) … not serious either about pleasure or sorrow.” 
  • Marjorie Morningstar was criticized as “indigestible prose.” 
  • The Caine Mutiny, got the harshest treatment as an “inferior naval yarn that contained a romance as exciting as tapioca with F. Scott Fitzgerald sauce.” 

However, in 2013, contributor Michael Lewis reexamined Wouk’s body of work and the magazine’s 65-years of injustice. Lewis wrote: “…the moral seriousness that lies at the heart of the work of Herman Wouk—a seriousness that this magazine, alas, was too blind to see and perhaps (was) a mite too snooty to celebrate.” 

After Natalie Wood starred as Marjorie Morningstar in the film version of his novel, Wouk bought her Palm Springs, California home and lived there with his wife for twenty-eight years.

Founded in 1926, The Book-of-the-Month Club operated as a mail order service offering thirty “great” novels for $2.98. The Club sold forty million copies in its first five years. Within twenty years, the Club had 550,000 subscribers and helped launch such debut authors as Ernest Hemingway, Margaret Mitchell, J.D. Salinger, and Nelson DeMille. Today, the Club is a subscription-based e-commerce service.

While a prolific author, Wouk was no stranger to theater and Broadway. In 1941, he published “The Man in the Trench Coat” a collection of plays, the first of which concerns a protagonist haunted by a ghost. It opened at the Barbizon Plaza Hotel in the fall of 1940. “The Traitor,” a play about a scientist who delivers atomic secrets to the Soviets, opened in March 1949 at the Forty-Eighth Street Theatre. His final Broadway play, “Nature’s Way” opened at the Coronet Theatre in Oct. 1957. The New York Times panned it as a “forgettable comedy.”                        

The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial first appeared on Broadway at the Plymouth Theater on January 20, 1954 and ran for 415 performances. Directed by Charles Laughton, the play starred Henry Fonda, Lloyd Nolan, and James Garner in a non-speaking role as a court martial panelist.

ZJ Czupor


Z.J. Czupor is president of Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and past Vice President of the Rocky Mountain Chapter of Mystery Writers of America (RMMWA). In addition to writing monthly columns for Rogue Women Writers and RMMWA, he is the author of THE BIG WEIRD: Haikus in Times of Pandemic and Chaos

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  1. Karna Small Bodma

    What a terrific summary of the life and work of Herman Wouk. Who doesn’t remember his famous stories that were later “brought to life” by the likes of Humphrey Bogart (films that still resonate with viewers of TCM). I learned so many details reading your great piece here. Thanks for being our “Mystery Minute” blogger!!!

    • ZJ

      Thank you Karna. My pleasure and thanks for reading! He was, indeed a talented writer.

  2. Gayle Lynds

    I have such fond memories of Wouk’s novels, ZJ. I devoured them, eager for the next, as million of other readers. I still love watching The Caine Mutiny movie. Wouk was remarkable, truly a literary giant. You’ve enhanced my pleasure in reading his books with the depth of your research, understanding, and critiques. Thank you so much!

    • ZJ

      Thank you Gayle. I sincerely appreciate your comments. Best, ZJ

  3. Lisa Black

    I’m embarrassed to admit that I saw the movies, didn’t read the books, but I’ve seen The Caine Mutiny—probably one of the best examinations of how righteous , even justified, indignation can wax and wane in the harsh light of a courtroom—and The Winds of War miniseries was an Event when I was in college. *Everyone* watched it!

  4. ZJ

    Hi Lisa, I don’t think you’re alone in fans of his work via the big and small screen. His insights into the complexities of the human condition were amazing.

  5. Jenny Milchman

    Best MM yet! I love that Wouk lived to get that validation from Lewis. And while I generally believe wives about their husbands, in this case I dare say Betty was wrong.

  6. ZJ

    Hi Jenny, LOL! Yes, Betty was wrong, or just being mischievous. Thanks for the kind compliment.

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