Byline: Louisa Thomas
Herman Wouk's legacy was assured with 'The Caine Mutiny.' Yet he's still writing, 60 years later.
The Library of Congress's Center for the Book once hosted a conference commemorating the work of Herman Wouk. The occasion was the author's donation of the manuscripts of The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, two sweeping historical novels centered on a Zelig-like naval officer named Pug Henry during World War II. If the two books had been his only achievement, they would have made for an impressive career; Henry Kissinger once called the novels "the war itself." But at the symposium, Robert Caro described the impact of reading Wouk's Pulitzer Prize-winning The Caine Mutiny on the subway as a teenager. William Safire marveled that Wouk's depiction of U.S.-Israeli relations during the early 1970s in his novel The Glory was so eerily accurate that Wouk had understood what most historians had not--not only events, but motivations. Andrew Delbanco, a Columbia professor, mentioned Wouk's rendering of issues of urbanization and assimilation in his novel Marjorie Morningstar. At the end, Wouk stood up and said that he was grateful for such commemoration, but also somewhat troubled to be at what felt like his retirement ceremony. "There is a spectral gold watch floating somewhere here in the air," he said to laughter. He was nearly 80 years old.
That was 15 years ago. Since then, Wouk has published The Will to Live On, a nonfiction book about Jewish heritage; A Hole in Texas, a novel about a scientist embroiled in the search for the Higgs boson particle; and, this month, The Language God Talks, about science and religion. In 2008 the Library of Congress honored him yet again, giving him its first Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Writing of Fiction. It might have waited. He is at work on yet another novel.
Still, Wouk, a month away from his 95th birthday, knows he cannot write forever. He has described The Language God Talks as a "summing up," even if he is toying with the idea of writing a sequel. Earnestly written and very brief, it is an unusual work--partly a quick trip through developments in cosmology, partly an episodic memoir, partly an essay on faith and science. At the end, it portrays an imagined conversation between Wouk and the scientist Richard Feynman: historical fiction about the drama of the believer and the skeptic. In real life, Wouk met Feynman while researching the atom bomb for War and Remembrance. Feynman wasn't interested in fiction; he called calculus "the language God talks." But during a summer at the Aspen Institute, the two men spent hours talking, and Wouk has been thinking about his exchanges with Feynman and other scientists ever since. He even tried to learn calculus.
Feynman was a secular Jew, and yet something about the way he saw the world resonated with the observantly religious novelist. One day Wouk came across an interview in which Feynman said, "It doesn't seem to me that this fantastically marvelous universe -- can merely be a stage so that God can watch human beings struggle for good and evil--which is the view that religion has. The stage is too big for the drama." The huge stage and the human drama: "This is the subject I've been thinking about my whole life," Wouk says.
Born in 1915 in the Bronx, the son of Jewish immigrants from Minsk, Wouk grew up loving Mark Twain and chocolate milkshakes, but he was aware that his family's identity extended beyond America. When Wouk was 13, his grandfather, Rabbi Mendel Leib Levine, arrived from Eastern Europe. Levine had never departed from the Halakha, the Way--he had never seen a movie or heard of Socrates; he would not eat a chicken unless he had witnessed its slaughter. One day Levine sat Wouk down in front of a large book filled with columns of an unfamiliar script. It was the Talmud. "Za rabotu!" commanded Levine--to work.
Wouk did work at it. …