Herman Wouk’s ‘The Lawgiver’ Marks Return to Form

At 97, a Writer Remembers the Past

By Rachel Gordan

Published November 26, 2012, issue of November 30, 2012.
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What kind of author writes himself into his own novel? One with a great deal of hubris, it would seem. But if that writer is a 97-year-old Pulitzer Prize writer, with over 60 years of best-selling books behind him, we might judge him more sympathetically. His story, after all, amounts to literary history. And in the case of Herman Wouk, it is a highly unusual history.

In His Heyday: The author at his peak in 1955.
wikicommons
In His Heyday: The author at his peak in 1955.

Wouk’s life work presents some unusual literary statistics. How many writers have the opportunity to update one of their best-selling novels, 55 years after its original publication? How many have contributed to American literature on the scale of Herman Wouk? Approaching his centenary, Mr. Wouk has been writing for the majority of that time, showing considerable range in style and subject. A strong candidate for the “most widely-read American Jewish novelist,” Wouk won a Pulitzer for “The Caine Mutiny,” appeared on the cover of Time. His books, including “Marjorie Morningstar,” “The Winds of War” and “War and Remembrance,” have been made into movies, Broadway plays and television miniseries.

Highlights of Wouk’s past books are on display in his latest novel, “The Lawgiver.” The story follows the making of a movie about the biblical figure, Moses — a topic that the character of “Herman Wouk” just happens to be trying to tackle in a novel. Although it is a fine place for Wouk beginners to start, “The Lawgiver” offers a trip down memory lane for those familiar with his oeuvre. In particular, Wouk looks back to his 1955 “Marjorie Morningstar.”

“Marjorie,” a novel with a long gestation period, caused Wouk much anxiety, coming as it did after the Pulitzer prize-winning “The Caine Mutiny.” In 1952, Wouk wrote in his journal (portions of which are now housed at Columbia University’s Manuscripts and Archives): “At the moment I’m all muscle bound — rusty, aware of the Mutiny, vague, unsure of where or how to get going. But all this will pass and the cork will come out of the bottle, and Marjorie will let live. She does live. She asks only ink and paper and some honest sitting at the desk.”

Wouk first wrote Marjorie into fictional life in a 1940 one-act play produced by the United Jewish Appeal. “Crisis Over Marjorie,” (recently performed in a reading at the Library of Congress and available for viewing on YouTube) portrayed the same newly middle-class immigrant parents concerned about their pretty daughter’s dates that appeared in Wouk’s 1955 novel. The play turned out to be a milestone in Wouk’s career. In 1952, while in the midst of sketching.

“Marjorie Morningstar,” Wouk wrote in his journal, “Crude and flat though it was, it surely contained a vital spark, to haunt me for 12 years and force itself up again as a novel — though how good a novel I can’t yet say.”


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