From his rare centenarian perch, Pulitzer Prize winner and World War II epic novelist Herman Wouk surveys the ups and downs of his long literary life—and the deep faith that has accompanied him throughout—in his delightfully sanguine memoir, Sailor and Fiddler: Reflections of a 100-Year-Old Author.
The book’s title holds the two threads of his work, Wouk notes. “Sailor” refers to the scope of his writing life and the experiences that inspired him, and “Fiddler,” as in Fiddler on the Roof’s Tevye, underscores the proudly Jewish author’s own “spiritual journey.” Wouk’s ability to weave these two strands together creates a unique framework to consider a life lived long and well.
Wouk's experiences as a naval officer in World War II inspired his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Caine Mutiny.
Wouk might as well be inviting the reader to pull up a chair by the fire and have a listen over tea, so companionably chatty is the once-reticent writer. He is a man at peace with his age and his work. The latter, he seems reluctantly ready to admit, may finally be complete—although maybe not. In a 2012 New York Times interview, asked if he planned to stop writing any time soon, he answered, “What am I going to do? Sit around and wait a year?” And here he is once more, content “for the chance to please you through my books.”
The boy from the Bronx grew up loving a hard-working Russian-Jewish immigrant father who enjoyed “convulsing us kids with his drolleries in Yiddish.” The young Wouk also feasted on Twain’s humor, learned from Dumas’ action-packed narratives and took lessons about a writer’s fame from Melville, whose work came to life only 30 years after his death. Wouk then aspired to be “a funny writer, nothing else.” He succeeded, graduating from Columbia College and working as a gag writer for Fred Allen’s popular radio show, among others. Then came Pearl Harbor.
For Wouk, life didn’t get in the way of his writing: It became his writing. Experiences as a naval officer on the destroyer warship USS Zane, with its “crazy captain,” would become The Caine Mutiny (1951), earning him the Pulitzer Prize. Marjorie Morningstar, which landed him on the cover of Time, borrowed his mother’s family name, Morgenstern, Yiddish for Morningstar. Youngblood Hawke, he notes, is the what-if part of his life had he not met and married Betty Sarah, the love of his life as well as his literary agent. What he learned from military figures, historians and fellow veterans would inform The Winds of War (1971). His “main task . . . to bring the Holocaust to life in a frame of global war,” inspired War and Remembrance. Both novels earned Wouk a global audience; mixed, sometimes scathing, reviews; and popular success as the books became landmark television mini-series.
Now the novelist reveals the real-life sources for his fictitious characters, recounting their stories and contributions. He recalls the years spent doing prodigious amounts of research while trying to hold onto his confidence and get the words right (The Winds of War took seven years to finish; War and Remembrance, another seven). His fame has continued to fluctuate, but he still chooses his words carefully, mostly avoiding spite, melancholy or regret.
While The Atlantic recently praised him as “The Great War Novelist America Forgot,” here Wouk has what may well be the final word: “Other things in the literary life may have ceased to matter that much, but I have always loved the work.”
Priscilla Kipp is a writer in Townsend, Massachusetts.