No one claimed Herman Wouk was a great prose stylist. One reviewer described his first two books as “wobbly and unimpressive,” and later critics were sometimes even less kind. Norman Podhoretz likened Wouk’s writing to “a blind man trying to locate an object in an unfamiliar room.” But after winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1952 for The Caine Mutiny, Wouk reached a global audience in the millions with books, movies, plays and a pair of TV miniseries produced over an astonishing seven-decade career which came to an end with his death on Friday at the age of 103.
Wouk (pronounced woke) regarded The Caine Mutiny as his “signature work,” and indeed it incorporated what would become his trademarks—serviceable if unspectacular prose, a cast of vividly drawn characters, and intricate plotting that led to a touch of sprawl and a murky moral resolution. The novel’s ringing plausibility springs from its author’s personal experience. Set aboard a U.S. Navy destroyer-minesweeper in the Pacific during World War II—“a pile of junk” modeled on ships Wouk served on—the novel tells the story of a crew that rebels against its psychotic skipper, Philip F. Queeg. Like many of Wouk’s novels, this one contained a novelist, Tom Keefer, a villain in no small part because he reads Joyce, Eliot and other high modernists who Wouk disdained. Wouk was a Don Quixote man.
Herman Wouk was born on May 27, 1915 in the Bronx, where his Jewish parents, Abraham Isaac Wouk and Esther Levine, had settled after emigrating from Russia. Wouk’s maternal grandfather, the Hasidic rabbi Mendel Leib Levin, was such a traditionalist that he refused to learn English. Young Herman, who would become an ardent student of the Talmud, learned English, as well as Hebrew and Yiddish.
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