Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Herman Wouk: The Well-Adjusted American Jewish Writer

American Dream

Herman Wouk at his desk in Palm Springs, California (2012): Lynne Neary for NPR writes: “Now, Wouk has written that story. He calls it Sailor and Fiddler — the sailor representing his life as a writer, the fiddler his spiritual side. Growing up in the Bronx, Wouk knew he wanted to be a writer, but Judaism was always important to him as well. He loved Mark Twain and Alexandre Dumas, and he also fondly remembers listening to his father read the stories of Sholem Aleichem on Friday nights.”
Photo Credit; Stephanie Diani; New York Times; 2012
An article, by Adam Kirsch, in Tablet looks at the latest book by Herman Wouk [born in 1915], who is an American Jewish writer; he is also religiously observant and content with his life. There is no evidence of alienation or existential angst, no deep inner agonies present in his work. This makes him a rarity among Jewish writers, notably his endorsement of happiness and contentment.

He has has achieved longevity, both as a writer and as a human being. Wouk turned 100 in May; his latest book, his 17th, Sailor and Fiddler: Reflections of a 100-Year-Old Author, was released in January 2016. It is a slim volume of 138 pages. In “Herman Wouk, the American Jewish Writer Who Wrote Huge Best-Sellers and Wasn’t Especially Neurotic” (January 7, 2016),  Kirsch writes:
Looking back on it, the triumph of American Jewish literature in the 20th century seems like something foreordained. Take a people, Eastern European Jewry, that had always cherished literacy and give them a freedom they had never been granted before, and the result is a creative explosion—Death of a Salesman, The Adventures of Augie March, Portnoy’s Complaint, The Catcher in the Rye (not to mention the Broadway musical, Tin Pan Alley, and Hollywood). Why is it, then, that the American Jewish writers who were most successful, whom we now regard as classics, did not make success their theme? On the contrary, they generally wrote about failure, alienation, neurosis, and guilt—to the point that these subjects came to seem stereotypically Jewish in American culture. If the American Jewish story is, on balance, a very happy one, why are our books so miserable? Where are the well-adjusted Jewish writers?
The answer is that such writers did exist, but the critics who dictate literary posterity had little use for them. Just look at Herman Wouk. Bellow and Roth, for all their popularity, never dominated the best-seller lists for years at a time the way Wouk did with books both explicitly Jewish, like Marjorie Morningstar, and completely non-Jewish, like The Caine Mutiny. Indeed, the sheer number of his readers, over a span of four decades, means that Wouk did more to shape Americans’ image of Jews than any other Jewish writer. In his World War II books The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, and in his Israel books The Hope and The Glory, and above all in his best-selling primer on Judaism, This Is My God, Wouk presented a vision of Judaism at one with itself: proud of tradition, pious toward the past, devoted to Zionism, yet totally open to the American experience and all its rewards.
In his slight but charming new memoir, Sailor and Fiddler: Reflections of a 100-Year-Old Author, Wouk shows that this description of his Judaism was also a description of himself. If ever a man lived the American Dream, it was Wouk. Through the sheer power of his imagination, he became rich, famous, and beloved, while enjoying a loving marriage (just one, unlike many writers of his generation). The only tragedy he records was the accidental death of his first son, who drowned in a swimming pool at the age of 5. Wouk has never written about this experience before and alludes to it in this book in only the most restrained terms. Overall, however, Wouk was so fortunate that, when Isaiah Berlin suggested he write his memoir, his wife—“Betty Sarah Wouk, the beautiful love of my life”—discouraged him with the words, “Dear, you’re not that interesting a person.” Wouk agreed but thought that a memoir by a contented writer might be interesting simply as a contrast: “Biographies of writers were then much in fashion, confessional books by or about Jewish authors all shook up with angst. I was not one of those, and might that not be a piquant novelty?”
Like many millions of others, I read This is My God (1959), first as a teenager and later in middle age, where I posted a few thoughts [see here]. Wouk is on record as saying that his maternal grandfather (Mendel Leib Levine from Minsk, Belarus,) who took charge of his Jewish education, and his military service during the Second World War in the U.S. Navy were the two most important influences in his life. One had an effect at home in his years as a child; the other away from home in his years as an adult. The former strengthened his Jewish identity, his sense of self; the latter directed his sense of purpose onto a wider stream of life, which in Wouk’s case was an openness to American culture and what it both represented and offered.

This in many respects defines modern Orthodoxy; observe the rules of Judaism (Shabbat, kashrut, etc.), but do not deny the reality and significance of the surrounding culture. What Wouk says in so many words is that you can be a doctor, lawyer, professor or writer and follow the traditional laws of Judaism while moving around freely in the great and large secular culture, which does have much to offer. This includes success and happiness, If there was a conflict between the two, it was not great or apparent in Wouk’s case, as it was in Bellow or Roth or, to a lesser extent, Potok. (Malamud belongs in a different category, one closer to my heart.)

If misery begins at home, then so does happiness.

For more, go to [Tablet]

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