Herman Wouk was a prize-winning, million-selling author never quite in fashion.
But Wouk, who died Friday 10 days shy of his 104th birthday, was a success in ways that resonated with critics and readers, and with himself. He was praised for the uncanniness of his historical detail. He was among the first modern Jewish writers who appealed to the general public and had an enviably large readership that stayed with him through several long novels, many of which dramatized the conflicts between faith and assimilation.
He was working on a book until the end, said his literary agent Amy Rennert.
Wouk’s long, unpredictable career included gag writing, fiction and a musical. Heads of state read him and quoted from him, but Wouk shied from talk of greatness, telling one reporter he was not a “high stylist.” In [one book], a writer notes in his journal, “I could contribute nothing new; but writing as I do with a light hand, I might charm a few readers into pausing, in their heedless hurry after pleasure and money, for a look at the things that matter.”
Major authors of the 20th century were assumed either anti-religious or at least highly skeptical. But Wouk was part of a smaller group who openly maintained traditional beliefs. He contended that among writers, anti-conformity was a kind of conformity. “It seems curious,” he wrote in his first novel, “that life ‘as it really is,’ according to modern inspiration, contains a surprising amount of … violence, vulgarity, unpleasant individuals, blasphemy, hatred…”
One of his most influential works was “This Is My G-d,” a careful, but firm defense of faith that could be found in countless Jewish households. Into his 90s, he studied the Talmud daily and led a weekly Talmud class. He gave many speeches and sermons and received several prizes, including a lifetime achievement award from the Jewish Book Council. During the many years he lived in Washington, D.C., the Georgetown synagogue he attended was known unofficially as “Herman Wouk’s synagogue.”
In 1995, the Library of Congress marked his 80th birthday with a symposium on his career; historians David McCullough, Robert Caro, Daniel Boorstin and others were present. In 2008, Wouk received the first ever Library of Congress Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Writing of Fiction. In his mid-90s, he completed a comic novel, and at age 100 wrote a memoir. Wouk’s longevity inspired a writer to title one story “Herman Wouk is Still Alive.”
Wouk, the son of Russian Jews, was born in New York in 1915. The household was religious — his mother was a rabbi’s daughter — and devoted to books. A traveling salesman sold his family the entire works of Mark Twain, who became Wouk’s favorite writer.
A top student in high school, Wouk majored in comparative literature and philosophy at Columbia University and edited the college’s humor magazine. After graduation, he followed the path of so many bright, clever New Yorkers in the 1930s: He headed for California, where he worked five years on a radio show.
Had war not intruded, he might have stuck to comedy sketches. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor he enlisted in the Navy and served as an officer in the Pacific. There, he received the writer’s most precious gift, free time. He read and read, from the Bible to Victorian fiction, and wrote what became his first published novel.
“I was just having fun. It had never occurred to me write a novel,” he said.
By the time the novel came out, in 1947, Wouk was married and living in New York. His novel was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection and he would soon publish a coming-of-age story highly influenced by Twain. Wouk spoke often of his concern about assimilation, and this next novel told of an aspiring Jewish actress.
“My agent was absolutely appalled,” Wouk told the AP. “He submitted it to the editor who said, ‘Herman Wouk has destroyed himself. He’s a man who writes big, sweeping dramas about men in action. Then he writes about this girl and nothing happens. He should burn this book and forget it.'” Yet the novel sold millions.
“I’m not out front as a figure, and that suits me,” he told the AP. “I love the work and it’s the greatest possible privilege to say, ‘Here are these books that exist because I had to write them.'”