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Herman Wouk, 'The Jackie Robinson Of Jewish-American Fiction,' Dies At 103

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Originally published on May 17, 2019 6:46 pm

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Herman Wouk has died. Wouk was famous for his sprawling World War II novels, including The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, and for his portrayal of Jewish Americans in the novel Marjorie Morningstar. He died in his sleep Friday at his home in Palm Springs, Calif., at age 103.

Many people might remember Wouk for a certain incident involving strawberries in The Caine Mutiny, which became a film in 1954. After having a breakdown at sea, the tyrannical Captain Queeg accuses his crew of stealing a quart of strawberries and becomes obsessed with finding the culprit.

Humphrey Bogart played Queeg in the film, but he wasn't exactly what Wouk had in mind when he wrote the character. In the book, Wouk described the captain as "a small man" with "strands of sandy hair across an almost bald head." In 2004, the author told NPR, "Now Captain Queeg is Humphrey Bogart. There's nothing you can do about it, and I'm perfectly content with [it.] That was one of the great performances, I think, of his career."

The Caine Mutiny was Wouk's most celebrated book, but he had a substantial career both before and after it. He got his start in writing years earlier, in comedy. For five years starting in 1936, Wouk wrote jokes and sketches for the popular radio host Fred Allen. But after Pearl Harbor, the 26-year-old enlisted in the Navy and served in the Pacific. In his off hours, Wouk began to write Aurora Dawn, a novel that got mixed reviews. His second book, City Boy, did worse. But The Caine Mutiny put him on the map. It won a Pulitzer Prize, it was a bestseller and it became a play and a movie.

Wouk told NPR, "When I finished The Caine Mutiny, I wrote in my work journal ... 'Unless I'm mistaken, this is a good book. But it's not yet the war novel I mean to write.' "

In fact, it was the first in a run of ambitious books that included The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, each about a thousand pages long. And war wasn't Wouk's only subject. He wrote about the publishing world, a fictional Caribbean island and the founding of Israel. And in Marjorie Morningstar, he tapped into his own heritage as a New York-born child of Jewish immigrants to tell the story of a young girl trying to break into show business.

He really was the Jackie Robinson of Jewish-American fiction. - Jonathan Karp, president and publisher of Simon & Schuster

"He really was the Jackie Robinson of Jewish American fiction," says Jonathan Karp, president and publisher of Simon & Schuster and editor of Wouk's last book, Sailor and Fiddler. "He was on the cover of Time magazine for Marjorie Morningstar, and he popularized a lot of themes that other writers — like [Saul] Bellow and [Philip] Roth and [Bernard] Malamud — would deal with in their novels."

Karp says that one of the reasons Wouk appealed to readers for so many years was the variety in his novels. "He really did not want to write the same novel twice. The writers he admired were the greats — they were the Victorian novelists, they were writers like [Thomas] Hardy. He wanted to write big novels about complicated lives and the cultures in which they took place."

Despite his popularity with readers, Wouk didn't always get a good critical response. The New York Times called The Winds of War long and "mildly interesting" with an "indifference to quality" and a "reliance on clichés."

According to Karp, many of the critics missed the point. "One of the reasons why he didn't get the kind of stellar reviews that writers like Saul Bellow got was because he was accessible." And Wouk did express serious ideas in his fiction. In one section of War and Remembrance, he reflects on the Holocaust:

"The accounts I have heard of what the Germans are doing in camps like [Auschwitz] exceed all human experience. Words break down as a means of describing them. ... The Thucydides who will tell this story so that the world can picture, believe, and remember may not be born for centuries. Or if he lives now, I am not he."

But Karp says Wouk was the writer to tell these stories. "I think he aimed high and had large ambitions for reaching a lot of readers — and he entertained millions of them." And with all of his major works still in print, chances are that in the years to come, Herman Wouk will entertain millions more.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Herman Wouk has died. He was famous for sprawling novels about World War II, like "The Winds Of War" and "War And Remembrance." He'll also be remembered for his portrayals of Jewish Americans. Wouk died today, just 10 days shy of his 104th birthday, and he was working on a new book. NPR's Rose Friedman has this appreciation.

ROSE FRIEDMAN, BYLINE: Many people might remember Herman Wouk for a certain incident involving strawberries.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE CAINE MUTINY")

HUMPHREY BOGART: (As Lt. Cmdr. Philip Francis Queeg) Ah, but the strawberries, that's where I had them. They laughed at me and made jokes. But I proved beyond the shadow of a doubt and with geometric logic that a duplicate key to the wardroom icebox did exist.

FRIEDMAN: That's Humphrey Bogart in the 1954 adaptation of Wouk's novel "The Caine Mutiny." Bogart played the tyrannical Captain Queeg, who has a breakdown at sea. He accuses the crew of stealing a quart of strawberries and becomes obsessed with finding the culprit. Bogart wasn't exactly what the author had in mind for Captain Queeg, as he told NPR in 2004.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

HERMAN WOUK: My image of Captain Queeg was not Humphrey Bogart, but now Captain Queeg is Humphrey Bogart. And there's nothing you're going to do about it. And I'm perfectly content with - that was one of the great performances, I think, of his career.

FRIEDMAN: Wouk described Queeg as a small man with strands of sandy hair across an almost bald head - not exactly Humphrey Bogart. "The Caine Mutiny" was his most celebrated book, but Wouk had a substantial career both before and after it. He got his start in writing years earlier in comedy.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "THE FRED ALLEN SHOW")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: The Ford dealers of America present "The Fred Allen Show."

FRIEDMAN: For five years starting in 1936, Wouk wrote jokes and sketches for the popular radio host Fred Allen. But after Pearl Harbor, the 26-year-old enlisted in the Navy and served in the Pacific. In his off-duty hours, he began to write a novel. "Aurora Dawn" got mixed reviews. His second book, "City Boy," did worse. But "The Caine Mutiny" put him on the map. It won a Pulitzer Prize. It was a bestseller and became a play and a movie.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

WOUK: When I finished "The Caine Mutiny," I wrote in my diary - or my work journal, which I keep - I said, unless I'm mistaken, this is a good book but is not yet the war novel I mean to write.

FRIEDMAN: It was the first in a run of ambitious books that included "The Winds Of War" and "War And Remembrance," each about a thousand pages long. But war wasn't Wouk's only subject. He wrote about the publishing world, a fictional Caribbean island, and he tapped into his own heritage. He was born in New York City to Jewish immigrant parents. Out of that upbringing came "Marjorie Morningstar," about a young girl trying to break into show business.

JONATHAN KARP: He really was the Jackie Robinson of Jewish American fiction.

FRIEDMAN: That's Jonathan Karp. He's the president and publisher of Simon & Schuster and editor of Wouk's last book.

KARP: He was on the cover of Time Magazine for his novel "Marjorie Morningstar." And he popularized a lot of themes that other writers like Bellow and Roth and Malamud would deal with in their novels.

FRIEDMAN: Karp says that one of the reasons Wouk appealed to readers for so many years was the variety in his novels.

KARP: He really did not want to write the same novel twice. The writers who he admired were the greats. They were the Victorian novelists. They were writers like Hardy. He wanted to write big novels about complicated lives and the culture in which they took place.

FRIEDMAN: Despite his popularity with readers, Wouk didn't always get a good critical response. The New York Times called "The Winds of War" long, mildly interesting with an indifference to quality and a reliance on cliches. But publisher Jonathan Karp says many of the critics missed the point.

KARP: One of the reasons why he didn't get the kind of stellar reviews that writers like Saul Bellow got was because he was accessible.

FRIEDMAN: But Karp says Wouk did express serious ideas in his fiction. Here's the author reading a section about the Holocaust from his novel "War And Remembrance" at the Library of Congress in 2000.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WOUK: (Reading) The accounts I have heard of what the Germans are doing in camps like Auschwitz exceed all human experience. Words break down as a means of inscribing them. So in writing what I have heard, I put down the plainest possible words that come to mind. The Thucydides who will tell this story so that the world can picture and believe and remember may not be born for centuries. Or if he lives now, I am not he.

FRIEDMAN: But ultimately, publisher Jonathan Karp says Wouk was the writer to tell these stories.

KARP: I think he aimed high. And I think he also had large ambitions for reaching a lot of readers, and he entertained millions of them.

FRIEDMAN: And with all of his major work still in print, chances are in the years to come, Herman Wouk will entertain millions more. Rose Friedman, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.