Sailor and Fiddler:
Reflections of a 100-Year-Old Author
Simon & Schuster
2016, pp. 160, $20.00
A Life Well-Navigated
by Faye Moskowitz
I recently asked undergraduates in my Jewish literature class at George Washington University whether the name Herman Wouk meant anything to any of them. Not a single hand went up; not a single nod of recognition. Caine Mutiny? No response. Winds of War? Nothing. Marjorie Morningstar? Blank faces. Is it because Wouk’s writing has been criticized for being filled with clichés, for creating characters who are flat by today’s standards? Or is it that Wouk managed to write his monumental novels without including a single word of obscenity or the kind of explicit sex so much in vogue currently?
In any case, for the legions of Wouk fans from Miami Beach to Alaska and to those aficionados in the dozens of countries in which his work has been translated, this ignorance among young readers may come as a surprise. Wouk’s famously long novels were treasured by a generation who loved his vividly drawn characters and adventurous narratives. Wouk is best known, perhaps, for The Caine Mutiny (1951), for which he won the Pulitzer Prize. The novel became a play starring Henry Fonda and a movie with Humphrey Bogart, both playing the infamous and complicated Captain Queeg. The movie, The Caine Mutiny, received seven Oscar nominations in 1954 and was the second-highest-grossing film in the United States that year. A previous book, Aurora Dawn, became a Book of the Month Club selection. Marjorie Morningstar (1955) was one of the first popular books in English to portray Jewish family life and earned Wouk a Time magazine cover.
In 1971 Wouk changed course and began to write of World War II and the Holocaust. He published The Winds of War in 1971 and War and Remembrance in 1978. Again, he was an innovator, as writers of the time still seemed reluctant to address the Holocaust and its grim history. The books were both shocking and revelatory to his primarily non-Jewish audience. The TV miniseries of The Winds of War was highly successful and garnered Wouk even more fans and accolades.
In Sailor and Fiddler: Reflections of a 100-Year-Old Author, Wouk explains why there will be no full-blown autobiography other than this slim volume that weighs in at 135 pages. Years ago, Wouk carried home from London to his de facto literary agent wife, Betty Sarah Wouk, the suggestion of British philosopher Isaiah Berlin that Wouk write his autobiography—a practice now, and then, much in vogue. Her reaction? “She was on me like a cougar,” Wouk writes. ‘“Dear,’ she responded, with a cold clear eye for a writer’s dodge, ‘you’re not that interesting a person.’” Like Somerset Maugham, who claimed that his novels were largely his autobiography, the notoriously reclusive Wouk says, “…in my way I have used up my own life, pretty near, in my fiction.”
Still, there are fascinating tidbits to glean from the memoir. Beginning as a gag writer for the famous radio comedian Fred Allen, Wouk was later able to call on Allen’s prominence to release him from the draft and allow him to enter the Navy, an assignment he much preferred. Wouk recounts that the Naval Board was so bemused by his proximity to Allen, that they gave him his Navy commission despite the fact he had been turned down earlier because he had no engineering degree. On his second visit to the naval recruiters, Wouk carried with him a personal letter from Allen, and soon he was on his way to training and the sea.
It was then that he turned to writing fiction. Though Wouk occasionally felt a yearning to write something other than gags, the good life that comedy writing provided him quelled his incipient longings. “Young aspirers to Literature who face the stakes open-eyed, yet roll the dice, have my grandfatherly blessing and a ghostly kiss,” he said. Wouk’s own literary influences are chronicled in Sailor and Fiddler, but he reserves a hallowed spot for his own father, who read Sholem Aleichem to the family on Friday nights. In fact, the closest thing Wouk gets to a true autobiography is Inside, Outside, a novel that he calls “a kaddish for my father.” In addition to Sholem Aleichem, Wouk was influenced by a mélange of writers such as Dumas, Twain, Melville and, surprisingly, Calder Willingham.
Wouk recounts the long days at sea, free from outside distraction, where he was able to allow his nascent literary aspirations to grow. “I remember starting Aurora Dawn, the novel, as sheer fun, taking the mock-heroic voice of Henry Fielding and capering around in it with sophomoric exuberance.” And then a new captain took over Wouk’s ship; intimations of Captain Queeg found their way to Wouk’s journals and consciousness, and a literary career began to stretch out into the future.
Sailor and Fiddler is no ordinary memoir and certainly not an autobiography. Rather, it is a series of vignettes that illuminate his extraordinary writing life. Wouk, ever guarded, manages, however, to take the reader on an exhilarating voyage of many accomplishments with hardly a boast. He never mentions winning a Pulitzer Prize, or that Humphrey Bogart played the lead in the movie version of The Caine Mutiny. Instead readers learn that even at the century mark, long-ago criticism has the power to rankle. And for a writer with a reputation for reclusiveness, Wouk manages to encounter a great many well-known figures, and he does not trash any of them.
Wouk has been a much-celebrated author, and whether his work is now considered “fashionable” or not, he remains an author deserving of his place in American Letters. Unlike the legendary Steve in “Wreck of the Old 97,” the lyrics of the folk song with which he chooses to begin his final book, Wouk can finally let go of the throttle and quietly live out the rest of his days, a coda for kudos well earned.
Readers who love Herman Wouk, be mindful of this story he tells us. “My grandfather used to say that Lord Rothschild had a clock that struck the hour by booming ‘One Hour Nearer Death!’” Mutability pervades this book, no matter the attempt at a lively tone. Just before the launching of The Caine Mutiny, the Wouks moved to Mexico, where they lost their eldest son, Abe, who drowned at the age of five. His son’s devastating death is a narrative thread that, one way or another, subtly weaves its way into all of his subsequent books. Wouk, however, has never directly told the story of this tragedy, stating, “I have not written, nor will I, about this catastrophe, from which we never wholly recovered.” And yet, in this volume’s epilogue, Wouk tells us that every death in every work of his has, in some way, been about Abe. In a moving tribute to his wife, Betty, he writes, “Her lifelong task done, she left me at ninety. I will join her in God’s good time, to rest on the other side of our firstborn son, Abe.” Can we, as readers, do any more than mourn his losses and celebrate his triumphs with him? Long life and peace ahead, Herman Wouk; may you live to 120.
Faye Moskowitz is a professor of English and creative writing at George Washington University in Washington, DC. Her most recent book is And the Bridge is Love.