Herman Wouk’s 100th Birthday

Celebrate His Birthday by Reading Him

This past May 27th, Herman Wouk celebrated his 100th birthday. Not only that, but Wouk continues to write, publishing his most recent book, The Lawgiver, in 2012. Many probably know him best for two blockbusters, The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, as well as The Caine Mutiny and Marjorie Morningstar. These are just two among dozens he has published since beginning his writing career.

Today and next Saturday, we’ll tell you why you might enjoy two of our favorites by him in reviews we published elsewhere, with the view that the best way to celebrate the author’s birthday is to read him.

Marjorie Morningstar (1955)

We meet Marjorie Morgenstern as a teenage girl in 1933 with a dream, two dreams really, of stardom in the theater and of romance. We leave her as a woman of the mid 1950s, married, with children and a successful husband and, possibly, one of her dreams fulfilled.

Along the way, Herman Wouk introduces us to an extraordinary cast of characters that include Noel Airman, the elusive, rebellious (against common life and religious tradition) passion of Marjorie’s heart; Wally Wronken, for whom Marjorie is a passion; Samson-Aaron, the embarrassing uncle consumed by a passion for life; Mrs. Morgenstern, the demonstrative mother and Mr. Morgenstern, her modestly successful importer father; Marsha Zelenko, her on and off again friend, who marries very well, and her crazy parents; the mysterious Mike Eden, who sells chemicals in Nazi Germany and rescues Jews clandestinely; and various others, among the most notable the sleazy Broadway producer Guy Flamm, who raises Marjorie’s hope of becoming the star, Morningstar, only to dash her dreams with reality.

As always, Wouk excels at setting the many scenes in the book: the period and its upper middle class mores, the rituals of life, the proper behavior of young women and men, especially the social constraints on women, the summer camp, the Bar Mitzvah, the wedding, and the theatrical world. Some may find his pacing leisurely, though thoughtful readers will discern his purpose: painting a detailed portrait of the period between the onset of the Great Depression and the start of World War II. While all the characters are Jewish, the values of the Morgenstern, Ehrmann, and even Zelenko families reflect those of the times.

Readers will find several scenes particularly good, enlightening, and filled with humor, often riotous. Wouk writes comedy very well and you’ll find yourself shaking with laughter reading about the Bar Mitzvah party, the most incredible Seder ever, disrupted by the antics of Neville the Devil, the summer camp South Winds, and the wedding.

In the end, as we all realize from the beginning, Marjorie marries and settles into a comfortable, expected and accepted upper middle class life as the wife of a successful man. Modern readers may wonder how such an intelligent and ambitious young woman could end up a 1950s stereotype. Yet, in this too, Wouk provides an accurate rendering of the period, for countless thousands of women with dreams followed in Marjorie’s footsteps. Then came the 1960s and with it social revolution for American women. c/w

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