Given that today is the first day of Hanukkah, I wanted to highlight a Jewish writer for this week’s TBT. I thought about who I should write about for a while, tossing ideas around in my head and wondering where in history I would like to hone in on. After a great internal debate, I decided; why not go for the author who was described as the “Jackie Robinson of Jewish American Fiction”? Therefore, we will be having a little discussion on Herman Wouk (pronounced “woke”) and his 1955 novel, Marjorie Morningstar.
Wouk was referred to as the “Jackie Robinson of Jewish American Fiction” by Jonathan Karp, president and publisher of Simon & Schuster and editor of Wouk’s final book, Sailor and Fiddler. He also went on to say “He was on the cover of Time magazine for Marjorie Morningstar, and he popularized a lot of themes that other writers – like Bellow and Roth and Malamud – would deal with in their novels.”
Karp would also come to Wouk’s defense, as Wouk did not have the greatest of reputations with the critics, despite his popularity amongst readers. My personal favorite review of his work is from 1966, when Stanley Edgar Hyman wrote “He can compete with the worst of television because he is the worst of television, without the commercials.” Hyman, apparently really had it out for Wouk and anybody who enjoyed his work, because he also described Wouk’s readers as “yahoos who hate culture and the mind.”
Of course, we have to appreciate these reviews in a comedic sense, because I know many of you might be questioning my decision to discuss an author with such intensely negative reviews. Sometimes, though, you need to listen to readers more than critics. Marjorie Morningstar, for instance, spent at least 37 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, with a good chunk of this in the number one spot as well. It was also adapted into a movie, starring Natalie Wood and Gene Kelly.
Despite its mixed reviews amongst its Jewish audience upon its publication, Marjorie Morningstar has since won the hearts of many members of the Jewish community. It has has also been featured in various scholarly sources, including The Rise of American Jewish Literature and Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Jewish Thought, because of the way in which Marjorie Morningstar (and much of Wouk’s work as a whole) portrays how a more traditional mode of life can still be satisfying in modern times.
Marjorie Morningstar tells the story of a young girl named Marjorie Morgenstern who leaves her home and her family to pursue her dreams as an actress. She changes her name to Marjorie Morningstar and joins a summer-stock company. However, it is her affair with the director of the company, Noel Airman, and their beautiful yet toxic love that mainly characterizes the novel. Marjorie is only able to experiment and learn more about herself due to the fact she has created a separation from her heritage, although she comes to miss and value it; realizing it is her heritage that makes up the core of her identity.
This is sympathy for middle-class virtues is why others have referred to Wouk as a “Sinclair Lewis in reverse.” Marjorie Morningstar was described as “the first Jewish novel that was popular and successful, not merely to a Jewish audience but to a general one.” Additionally, Wouk added a personal touch to this novel, as he able to incorporate his own experience as a child born in New York to Jewish immigrant parents. Wouk said on Marjorie Morningstar at the time of its publication, “My novel is a story of young love, a picture of the manners and attitudes of courtship in the United States nowadays.”
Before I let you go, though, I would like to end this week’s TBT in a different way than I normally do. Instead, I will leave you with my favorite quote of Herman Wouk’s:
“This life is slow suicide, unless you read.”
So let’s celebrate Wouk today by doing some reading, whether that entails Marjorie Morningstar or any other book you would like to pick up.