A high-powered tribe of historians, novelists, publishers and critics turned out yesterday to honor the reclusive dean of American historical novelists with an emotional tribute to the man they hailed as the country's Tolstoy.
"This is supposed to be a daylong symposium on Herman Wouk," biographer Robert Caro told a luncheon at the Library of Congress. "But the truth is that Herman Wouk is a symposium on the entire 20th century."
Smiling shyly in the audience was the octogenarian author of such books as "The Caine Mutiny," "The Winds of War" and "War and Remembrance," who Caro said was being honored not only for the purpose of his writing and the immense scope of that purpose but for "the majesty of that purpose," which was nothing less than retelling in novel form the global history of World War II.
Technically the occasion for the seminar was Wouk's formal presentation to the library of the papers and manuscripts of his last five novels. But it was also Wouk's 80th birthday, and it deserved, said Librarian of Congress James Billington, something more elaborate.
Thus the luncheon, a later reception and dinner, and, in between, accolades and scholarly analysis from speakers including columnist William Safire, historian David McCullough and Churchill biographer Martin Gilbert. The subject was not just Wouk, but the wobbly symbiosis between history and historical fiction, and the place of the historical novel in contemporary American culture.
"No historian has a higher standard" of factual accuracy than Wouk in his novels, Gilbert told a crowd of about 100 in the Mumford Room of the library's James Madison Building. But as he and several other speakers stressed, the writer's real genius lies not just in the narrative power of his books, but in his empathy with the people and the times of which he writes. The role of imagination in a historian, they said, lies not in making up facts but in a writer's insight into the human motivations that tie facts and events together.
Safire spoke in awe of having read in Wouk's novels of Israel "The Hope" and "The Glory" of diplomatic meetings at which he himself had been present as a staffer in the Nixon White House, and realizing that Wouk alone -- unlike historians of the period -- had correctly understood the motivations of those present. Likewise, Gilbert read a Churchill quotation Wouk dreamed up for "War and Remembrance." It turns out, he said, to be something the British prime minister actually said at the time, though there was no way Wouk could have known that.
Wouk, who has been known to dodge journalists and podiums, took the floor reluctantly, explaining that he had hated history as a youth, had taken no history courses in college and had set forth in the 1930s with the life's ambition to make people laugh.
After working as a joke writer for radio comedian Fred Allen, he said, "history obtruded itself on me" in the form of World War II, and he ended up on a destroyer in the South Pacific, half a world away from anything he had known or imagined. As it did for most of his generation, he said, the war changed everything in his life.
"The Caine Mutiny," he said, grew from his war service as "an exploration of the limits of power and the instinct for personal freedom which every American has." But despite its immense success in the 1950s -- both as a novel and as a play and movie -- "I always told myself this is not a great war book. This is just an anecdote about the war."
Thirty years ago, Wouk said, he realized that if he was ever going to write the great war book he hoped to, he would have to learn history. "The first book I read was Thucydides' story of the Peloponnesian War." Then came Churchill's World War II history, and then "War and Peace" for the fourth time, "not for the entertainment but to see how Tolstoy told the story. And I realized that for all its sweep of history, the true narrative force of the story" was not the clash of the French and Russian generals "but who gets Natasha." And thus, he said, the framework of "The Winds of War" and "War and Remembrance" were born.
The books took him 20 years. Grief, he said, was the driving force behind them: "Grief for the destruction of several million of my people, which could have only happened in war, under the smoke screen of battle . . . and nationalism which no one could pierce with understanding until it was too late."
The genius of the books, McCullough said, is that they not only tell the story of the Holocaust, but tell it within the context of World War II, without which there is no understanding it. These days, he said, "students know all about the Holocaust, but they know nothing about World War II . . . about the times and human beings that caused it to happen.
"How do you convey that?" he asked. "With narrative power . . . with stories, with which almost all of human knowledge has been transmitted from generation to generation since the dawn of time. By putting yourself in the skin of the people you write about," whether you're a writer or a historian "and portraying people as they are -- contradictory, fearful, hopeful . . . but never, never simple." Human beings, he said, need stories like Wouk's and the precious understanding they bring "like we need food. Without them, we will not only never understand history, we will never understand ourselves." CAPTION: Herman Wouk during a break at yesterday's daylong tribute.