Writer Who Recreated Past, Perfectly

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), February 6, 2005 | Go to article overview

Writer Who Recreated Past, Perfectly


Byline: Martin Sieff, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

A good man has written a good book about a good man who has written many good books. Herman Wouk is not exactly the Rodney Dangerfield of American literature: Over the past half century, he has certainly gotten his share of appreciation and a quite phenomenal and lasting popular success. But it is all too easy to overlook or underestimate him.

Mr.Wouk is certainly not an influential giant pioneering new styles or perceptions of reality like a James Joyce or, for that matter, a Joseph Heller. Even in the American Jewish tradition that has engaged him more than any other, he is certainly not an Isaac Bashevis Singer though it would not at all surprise me if wears better than Saul Bellow. On the contrary, it is Mr. Wouk's disdain for what was intellectually fashionable - clearly and remarkably articulated as early as "The Caine Mutiny" in 1951 - that continues to make him so timeless and remarkably relevant and refreshing.

In this slim but informative and stimulating study first published more than 20 years ago and now updated, Arnold Beichman does a first rate job of giving this so often overlooked literary craftsman and serious historical novelist his due. He has done a marvel of distilling a doctoral thesis' worth of scholarship into an elegantly written little volume. It is a lasting resource for critical students of Mr. Wouk.

The two lasting moral and intellectual influences on Mr. Wouk - either of them unusual for any serious American literary figure over the past century - have been his Orthodox Judaism and the U.S. Navy. To find these two profoundly different traditions sympathetically melded and channeled by a serious and talented writer makes for a unique perception on the world. The weltanshauung that emerges from this confluence, as Mr. Beichman discerns, is deeply conservative, humanely and sensitively so.

What one finds in Mr. Wouk is an earnest, dedicated and honest seriousness that cuts no corners and delivers lasting, satisfying and thoughtful legacies. Characters are shaped by their experiences and interaction with the unexpected surprises of life. Willy Keith in the "The Caine Mutiny" must unwillingly learn that the unattractive and ridiculous little martinet he despised is a better and more valuable man than he is; Marjorie Morningstar discovers that following her youthful heart unwisely will stain her soul with a regret that will quietly last a lifetime.

"The Winds of War" and "War and Remembrance," to which Mr. Beichman wisely devotes much appreciative attention, is that rarest of achievements, a huge historical novel on the conceptual lines of Tolstoy, that actually succeeds.

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