After graduating from the public Townsend Harris High School, Wouk entered Columbia University, where he served as editor of its humor magazine. He earned an A.B. from Columbia University in 1934. Soon thereafter, he became a radio scriptwriter, working in David Freedman’s “Joke Factory” and, later, with Fred Allen (1936-1941). In 1941, he wrote radio spots to help the United States government sell war bonds.
Wouk joined the United States Navy after the attack on Pearl Harbor and served for four years in the Pacific Theatre, an experience he found educational. Wouk served as an officer aboard two destroyer minesweepers, the USS Zane and USS Southard. He started writing his first novel, Aurora Dawn, during off-duty hours aboard ship. The novel was published in 1947 and became a Book of the Month Club main selection. His second novel, City Boy, proved to be a commercial disappointment at the time of its initial publication.
In 1952, after nearly giving up literature as a career, Wouk won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his novel, The Caine Mutiny (1951). A best-seller drawing from his wartime experiences, The Caine Mutiny was adapted by the author into a Broadway play and later a film. His novels after The Caine Mutiny include Marjorie Morningstar (1955), Youngblood Hawke (1962), and Don’t Stop the Carnival (1965). In the 1970s, Wouk published his two most ambitious novels, The Winds of War. (1971) and War and Remembrance (1978), which both topped the New York Times bestseller list and became successful television miniseries. He published Inside, Outside (1985) and then set his next two novels, The Hope (1994) and The Glory (1995), in Israel. He also wrote The Will to Live On: This Is Our Heritage (2000).
Following the publication of Marjorie Morningstar, which also was made into a movie, Wouk temporarily put aside his career as a novelist to write a very personal account of his Jewish faith, in the book This Is My God (1959); it too became a best-seller. His later works include the novel which deals with Judaism in private life and in politics,
Wouk hired highly-qualified historians to assist him with the research for his later historical novels, and their details are highly accurate. Many of Wouk’s works have Jewish characters or themes and explore moral dilemmas facing modern men and women.
Wouk also wrote for the stage. His two-act play, The Traitor, was produced on Broadway in 1949 and his two-act comedy, Nature’s Way, opened in 1957.
He appeared on the cover of Time in 1955. The accompanying article said, “He is a devout Orthodox Jew who had achieved worldly success in worldly-wise Manhattan while adhering to dietary prohibitions and traditional rituals which many of his fellow Jews find embarrassing.”
A leading Orthodox layman, Wouk taught English at Yeshiva University. He also served as vice president of the Fifth Avenue Synagogue and endowed several Jewish educational causes in the U.S. and Israel.
Wouk met Betty Sarah Brown while he was in the Navy and married her in 1945 after she converted to Judaism. They had three sons; the oldest, Abraham, died in a 1951 swimming pool accident.
In 1998, Wouk received the Guardian of Zion Award.
Wouk died May 17, 2019, at the age of 103.
R. Gordis, in: Midstream, 6 no. 1 (1960), 82–90; S. Brown, in: Commentary, 13 (1952), 595–9; E. Feldman, in: Tradition, 2 (1959), 333–6; S.J. Kunitz, Twentieth Century Authors, first suppl. (1955), s.v.; Current Biography Yearbook 1952 (1953), 649–50. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: L. Mazzeno, Herman Wouk (1994).
Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.;
Rachel Gordan, “Herman Wouk, legendary author who brought Judaism into the mainstream, dies at 103,” JTA, (May 17, 2019).