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The rabbi's grandson

Appreciating the novels of Herman Wouk

Herman Wouk Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images

The rabbi's grandson
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Novelist Herman Wouk had his 101st birthday on May 27. He once said, “Religion and art both fight, on different fronts, against the dull rust that habit puts on the wonder of things.” He’s been able to retain his sense of wonder all these years.

One day I was on horseback and rode upon a small group of cattle that were licking a spot of bare ground. I had never seen such behavior, and it took me a while to figure out what they were doing. Years before, the ranch owner had put out blocks of salt on that spot, and though we no longer used it as a salt station, salt remained in the soil. The cattle were craving it.

That seems an apt metaphor for my attraction to the novels of Herman Wouk. There was something in his writing that, as an apprentice author, I needed and craved. What he was doing in his novels seemed a perfect match to the literary theories I was struggling to develop on my own.

From 1975 to 1978 I tried to read everything Wouk had written and to study his technique. I read several of his novels in my pickup as I waited for cattle to come to feed. One indication of my respect for his writing: I bought the books so I could underline passages and write notes in the margins. My wages didn’t permit a lot of indulgence in buying hardback novels.

That I saw Herman Wouk as a model and teacher seems odd, because we could hardly have been more different. I was a fifth-generation Texan and product of a Southern Baptist home, a divinity school dropout who was working as a ranch cowboy and trying to write novels in the early morning hours.

Wouk, by contrast, was the quintessential cosmopolitan man: New York–raised; an observant Orthodox Jew; the grandson of a stern, Yiddish-speaking rabbi; educated at Columbia University; a historian, philosopher, Talmudic scholar, meticulous researcher, and reader of almost everything. Not only had he figured out how to write great novels, but he’d found an audience for them, operating in the same New York publishing environment that seemed to have antibodies against everything I was writing. His books sold millions of copies.

What we had in common, I think, was a deeply held belief that a secular worldview will poison art at its roots. Wouk didn’t write “religious books,” but his faith gave shape to all of his writing and coherence to his view of history. He repudiated the nihilism and moral confusion of modern fiction, and that set him apart from almost every novelist of the time.

Wouk told huge stories. His two novels about World War II, The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, sprawled across 2,000 pages and totaled a million words. One measure of his greatness: He dared to make Adolf Hitler and Heinrich Himmler characters—not cardboard monsters, but complex characters in three dimensions. It was a feat that I (and most novelists) would never have attempted.

His Youngblood Hawke was a cautionary tale about a talented young novelist from a small coal mining town in Kentucky. Hawke found the literary success he wanted so badly, but burned his candle too fast and died young. I felt Wouk was making a point that American popular culture has a pattern of devouring its celebrities, then going in search of another snack. Wouk avoided that pattern: His stories enjoyed success in every medium, yet he had the strength of will and moral character to keep his own life in its proper perspective.

In 1976 I wrote Mr. Wouk a three-page letter, thanking him for giving his readers wisdom as well as entertainment, and for serving as my teacher: “Reading Herman Wouk, one is deprived of the comfort of being glib, cheap, and mediocre. Thank you for sharing this insight with a young novelist.”

I owe an enormous debt of gratitude to the rabbi’s grandson, and so do the readers of my Hank the Cowdog books. I consider him one the greatest American authors of the 20th century, our Tolstoy or Dostoevsky. I hope he is being read and studied in college literature classes. Sadly, I doubt that he is.

John R. Erickson John provides commentary and short fiction to WORLD. His Hank the Cowdog series for children has sold more than 8.5 million copies worldwide, and in addition to publishing 74 books, his work has appeared in news outlets such as The Dallas Morning News. John and his wife, Kris, reside near Perryton, Texas.


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