How to read Herman Wouk

Herman Wouk died last week at the age of 103, 10 days short of his 104th birthday. So notes William Grimes in his New York Times obit of Wouk.

Grimes’s obit is equivocal about Wouk’s accomplishments as an author, but one must be amazed by his career. One cannot miss this in Grimes’s obit. Wouk lived one of the great American lives.

We nevertheless know him, if at all, entirely by the many books he wrote. When it comes to the books, Grimes observes: “A whipping boy for reviewers who at best grudgingly acknowledged his narrative skill, Mr. Wouk (pronounced woke) enthralled millions of readers in search of a good story, snappy dialogue and stirring events, rendered with a documentarian’s sense of authenticity and detail.” Quoting one of the highbrow critics who brutalized him, however, Grimes adds: “His place in the literary universe was difficult to pinpoint.”

Grimes unfortunately overlooked the startling Commentary essay by Williams College Professor Michael Lewis about Wouk. This Michael Lewis, I should add, is Faison-Pierson-Stoddard Professor of Art History at Williams College, not the popular journalist and author. Professor Lewis sought specifically to address the literary issue that Grimes briefly notes.

Published in early 2013 when Wouk was a spry 97, Professor Lewis’s Commentary essay about Wouk is now more than six years old. The essay is something of a tour de force. It includes several interesting threads, including the effort to rectify Commentary’s treatment — mistreatment, as Lewis argues — of Wouk in the course of his incredibly long career, but that is really the least of it. Professor Lewis’s essay is “How this magazine wronged Herman Wouk.”

Commentary editor John Podhoretz recalls how he commissioned Professor Lewis’s essay in his tribute “Herman Wouk, 1915-2019.” John’s tribute to Wouk now renders justice to Wouk as well on the occasion of his death.

Wouk was the author, of course, of The Caine Mutiny as well as popular multivolume historical novels and many other works of fiction and nonfiction. He was the author, most recently, of Sailor and Fiddler: Reflections of a 100-Year-Old Author.

If you have ever read Wouk, you will enjoy Professor Lewis’s essay. If you have never read Wouk, you will want to after reading it.

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