On May 27, the American novelist Herman Wouk will attain the prodigious age of 100. Over his long career, Wouk has achieved all the wealth and fame a writer could desire, or even imagine. His first great success, The Caine Mutiny (1951), occupied bestseller lists for two consecutive years, sold millions of copies, and inspired a film adaptation that became the second highest-grossing movie of 1954. Wouk’s grand pair of novels, The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, likewise found a global audience, both in print, and then as two television miniseries in the 1980s.
Wouk won a Pulitzer for The Caine Mutiny. From then on, however, critical accolades eluded him. Reviews of the two “War” novels proved mostly dismissive—sometimes even savage. Critics assigned the proudly Jewish Wouk to the category that included Leon Uris and Chaim Potok rather than Saul Bellow and Philip Roth.
Negative critical judgment matters. After the first fizz of publicity, it is critics who in almost all cases determine what will continue to be read. The novelist known as Stendhal described books as tickets in a lottery, of which the prize is to be read in a hundred years. If enduring readership is the ultimate prize for a writer, then Wouk is at present failing. Readers under 40 know Wouk, if they know him at all, as a name on the spine of a paperback shoved into a cottage bookshelf at the end of someone else’s summer vacation—or perhaps as the supplier of the raw material for Humphrey Bogart’s epic performance as Captain Queeg of the USS Caine. What they don’t know is that Herman Wouk has a fair claim to stand among the greatest American war novelists of them all.