Why All Students Should Read the Works of Herman Wouk
Even for my generation, Wouk’s writing shines light on indisputable truths…
Herman Wouk, one of the greatest American writers of the twentieth century, passed away yesterday at the age of 103. As a writer of historical fiction and non-fiction, Wouk separated himself from modern writers in the depth of his topics, the sheer breadth and latitude of his research and works. Because of this, his death marks the end of a chapter in American literature.
An analysis of Wouk’s writing shows a parallel to that of John Steinbeck, the famed author of The Grapes of Wrath. Like Steinbeck, Herman Wouk often created a weaving blend of fiction and non-fiction, alternating between chapters of purely fact to chapters of storytelling. His writing is vivid and harsh, the dialogue between characters authentic. The words can switch from warm and bright to dark and hopeless in a single line, disclosing a powerful balance between good and evil.
One example, from Wouk’s World War II book War and Remembrance:
But that is the hallmark of this war. No other war has ever been like it. This war rings the world…. Men fight as far from home as they can be transported, with courage and endurance that makes one proud of the human race, in horrible contrivances that make one ashamed of the human race.
Do you see that balance, that tug between right and wrong? To be proud of the human race suddenly shifts into shame. Wouk, with his masterful abilities to show the alternate sides of every situation, does this constantly throughout his works. His writing encompasses the humane and inhuman, showing the capabilities, both good and bad, of human nature.
For students, these lessons are especially important. History textbooks and class lectures can tell us the how of past events — how did World War II start, how were millions of lives lost. But it rarely tells us the why — why did so many Germans put their trust in Hitler, why did humans act in such a brutal manner? And Wouk, in nearly all his books, confronts that issue of why.
There are important historical lessons in Wouk’s books, and there are also important reminders. The writing reminds us of our own unfortunate capabilities; none of Wouk’s characters, in any of his books, are free from error. Even the heroes make mistakes, sometimes to the detriment of others. But Wouk provides reminders of redemption and a new hope — a hope in the future of mankind, a hope that humans can overcome the burdens of the past.
As the author penned at the end of War and Remembrance:
In the glare, the great and terrible light of this happening, God seems to signal that the story of the rest of us need not end, and that the new light can prove a troubled dawn.
For the rest of us, perhaps. Not for the dead, not for the more than fifty million real dead in the world’s worst catastrophe; victors and vanquished, combatants and civilians, people of so many nations, men, women, and children, all cut down. For them there can be no earthly dawn. Yet though their bones lie in the darkness of the grave, they will not have died in vain, if their remembrance can lead us from the long, long time of war to the time for peace.
Wouk was recognised for his writing during his lifetime, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1952 for The Caine Mutiny. He was respected by my parent’s generation, and even the generation of my grandparents. But it’s doubtful that, unless something changes, he will be recognised by my generation.
Perhaps, with Wouk’s death, it’s time to honor the author and begin reading his works. There are lessons to learn, reminders to remember. And I shudder to think of the consequences if we forget.