Wouk & Remembrance: Library of Congress Again Honors Novelist
Thursday, September 11, 2008
If novelist Herman Wouk lives much longer -- as, God willing, he will -- the Library of Congress may run out of ways to celebrate him.
Thirteen years ago, the library put together a day-long symposium as a tribute to Wouk. Eight years ago, it named him an official living legend. Yesterday, it honored the 93-year-old author of "The Caine Mutiny," "The Winds of War" and "War and Remembrance" as the first recipient of a new award for lifetime achievement in the writing of fiction.
Not bad for a kid from the Bronx who thought his destiny was to be a gag writer and who once collaborated on a musical with the poet laureate of Margaritaville.
Sure enough, Jimmy Buffett showed up at the library's Coolidge Auditorium last night to sing the praises of his old pal -- along with Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, ABC correspondent Martha Raddatz, New York Times columnist William Safire and Librarian of Congress James Billington, who announced that the new award would bear Wouk's name.
"I am not writer enough to express how honored I am to be sharing a stage with Herman Wouk," Raddatz said. She then read a passage from "War and Remembrance" in which two of Wouk's characters face transportation to Auschwitz.
Ginsburg read from the court-martial scene in "The Caine Mutiny." Safire read a comic passage about the making of sauerkraut from Wouk's novel "Inside, Outside." But it was the sockless Buffett -- bounding onstage, he promptly shed his shoes as well -- who offered the evening's most startling change of pace.
"People have asked me for years, 'How the hell did you and Herman Wouk get together?' " Buffett said. Long story short, he'd somehow gotten the idea of turning Wouk's "Don't Stop the Carnival" -- in which a New York PR guy plays out midlife fantasies on a tropical isle -- into a Broadway musical.
So Buffett wrote Wouk a letter. "Who are you?" the author replied. But he eventually signed on, despite the fact that he didn't know what reggae was. "Don't Stop the Carnival" ran for a few weeks in Miami in 1997.
"We never made it to Broadway, but the carnival is still happening," Buffett said. Then he proved it with a medley of songs from their collaboration. Seated onstage, Wouk smiled and mouthed the lyrics.
Wouk was born in 1915, the son of Russian immigrants. He grew up loving Mark Twain, whose collected works his mother acquired from a door-to-door salesman. After graduating from Columbia, he went to work for, among others, radio comedian Fred Allen.
World War II altered his career arc. He joined the Navy, served on a destroyer-minesweeper in the South Pacific and -- changed forever by what he has called "the intensity of the experience" -- turned to serious writing.
"The Caine Mutiny," published in 1951, won him a Pulitzer Prize. Humphrey Bogart played Wouk's paranoid creation, Captain Queeg, in the movie.
But Wouk saw "The Caine Mutiny" as evoking just a small corner of the war. He wanted a bigger canvas, and he found it with 1971's "The Winds of War" and its 1978 sequel, "War and Remembrance" -- massive, carefully researched volumes that mix fictional human narratives with the real history and horror of the combat and the Holocaust.
Among Wouk's other books are "The Hope" and "The Glory" (historical fiction about Israel), "Marjorie Morningstar" (which The Washington Post once called "the ultimate Jewish American princess novel") and a pair of nonfiction works about Judaism.
The Library of Congress already boasts a substantial collection of Wouk's papers, and Billington said last night that the author has just donated 92 volumes of journals dating back to the 1930s. As the tribute neared its end, Wouk read passages from them. Then he quoted the philosopher Isaiah Berlin, who once told him: "You've been a creative artist. And there's nothing better to do with a human life."
"This is a moment," Wouk said, "when I'm inclined to believe it."