Friday, May 4, 2018

Herman Wouk Reflects in ‘Sailor and Fiddler’

Jewish Writers

That Herman Wouk [born in 1915 in New York City] has written a book at the age of 100 is newsworthy; that it did not receive much coverage in the press says much about the news media today, which cares little about good stories or about the accomplishments of our elders. Or, perhaps, the news media has always been this way, only it has now become more pronounced. News, in many ways, has matched the popularity of dystopian fiction. Wouk’s writing is the opposite: humane and real. Prof. Jochnowitz writes: “Sailor and Fiddler is an autobiographical work. To a great extent, it is about the factors that inspired Wouk to write his many books. He tells us about real people he knew who turned into fictional characters in his novels.”

by George Jochnowitz

Herman Wouk wrote a number of successful novels and other books. The Caine Mutiny, finished in 1951, was on the best-seller list for two years and won a Pulitzer Prize. It was turned into an extremely popular movie in 1954. Among Wouk’s other well-known works are his novel Marjorie Morningstar and his reflection on Judaism entitled This Is My God.

One would think that a new book by Wouk would receive lots of attention and get reviews in all major and minor publications. This, somehow, did not happen when Sailor and Fiddler appeared in 2016. Another reason to have expected a great deal of publicity is the fact that the book was completed when Wouk, its author, was 100 years old. That in itself is a big piece of news. Nevertheless, Sailor and Fiddler did not hit the headlines.

Did Wouk know that his latest and probably last book would hardly be noticed? He might have suspected it, since the novels he wrote that were once both widely read and admired have dropped out of the public eye. Wouk tells us about how the works of Herman Melville were forgotten and then rediscovered: “The author of Moby-Dick died in his seventies utterly forgotten everything he wrote long out of print. Not one newspaper obituary noted his passing. Some thirty years after he died . . . the academic field of American literature was swamped by a tsunami of second thoughts about Melville” (p. 8). Wouk is probably expecting a posthumous discovery of the greatness of his books.

Perhaps the right moment has come for The Caine Mutiny to be rediscovered. We are living at a moment when people on both sides of the political spectrum are saying that America’s system of government is basically flawed. Wouk’s novel touches upon the complicated question of how the military—a system of hierarchy and obedience—defends a democratic country against totalitarian enemies. Wouk’s novel is about a stupid and nasty captain who is overthrown in a mutiny. Readers typically sympathize with the sailors who rebelled against Captain Queeg.

But then we are told by the lawyer who defended the sailors that their revolt was wrong, since the United States was battling dangerous nations, one of which was led by Hitler, perhaps the most evil human being who had ever lived. Now that the world is facing threats from ISIS and other murderous and fanatic groups, it might make sense to read about the moral dilemma raised in The Caine Mutiny.

Sailor and Fiddler is an autobiographical work. To a great extent, it is about the factors that inspired Wouk to write his many books. He tells us about real people he knew who turned into fictional characters in his novels. A naval officer named Captain Horrocks (p. 28) who commanded a warship named the Zane was the model for Captain Queeg and the fictional Caine. Wouk’s first employer, David Freedman, who “lived in a quadruplex tower penthouse on Central Park West,” became a character in Wouk’s late book Inside, Outside named Harry Goldhandler (p. 15).

There are many such references in Sailor and Fiddler, some of which are of interest chiefly to people who have read a few of Wouk’s many books. One anecdote, however, struck me as remarkable. Wouk had worked as a writer for the very popular radio comedian Fred Allen, whose weekly comedy show ran until 1949. Allen wrote a letter to the draft board recommending Wouk for a position as a naval officer. Because of Fred Allen’s fame, the letter worked. Wouk entered the United States Naval Reserve (p. 24). Connections matter.

I was surprised to learn that Wouk and his wife Sarah had lived in many different places, including Long Island, Manhattan’s Upper East Side, the Caribbean island St. Thomas, and the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C. He now lives in Palm Springs, California. When he lived in Georgetown, he lived on N Street, where, he informs us, “The little old synagogue at one end of N Street was our kind of shul” (p. 116). He says nothing in Sailor and Fiddler about going to synagogue on St. Thomas.

The word “sailor” in the book’s title reflects Wouk’s time in the Navy, which led him to write The Caine Mutiny. The word “fiddler” simply echoes the title of the musical Fiddler on the Roof, based on stories by Sholem Aleichem about Jewish life in the Russian Empire. Wouk is very committed to his Jewish background and religion. In his late novel Inside, Outside he discusses the issue of the world’s asymmetrical pattern of being critical of Israel but understanding of the Arabs. 

A character in the book, writing about the Yom Kippur War, says, “The Arabs alienated nobody by striking first, that’s self-evident” (p. 104). A Jewish college student, Sandra, is anti-Israel, as so many college students are. She is working on a thesis entitled, “The Israeli Peace Movement: Progressive Counter-currents in a Proto-Fascist State” (p. 99). The title of this fictional thesis shows us that young leftists like Sandra cannot be persuaded that the fact that Israeli peaceniks are free to act proves that Israel is a democratic country.

Do writers often write about their writing experiences? Wouk’s book may be unique in this respect. Read it.

George Jochnowitz was born in New York City, in 1937. He became aware of different regional pronunciations when he was six, and he could consciously switch accents as a child. He got his Ph.D. in linguistics from Columbia University and taught linguistics at the College of Staten Island, CUNY. His area of specialization was Jewish languages, in particular, Judeo-Italian dialects. As part of a faculty-exchange agreement with Hebei University in Baoding, China, he was in China during the Tiananmen Massacre. He can be reached at

Copyright ©2016. George Jochnowitz. All Rights Reserved. This originally appeared in The Algemeiner on September 6, 2016; it can also be found on George JochnowitzIt is republished here with the author’s permission.

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