Forging a Judicious Spectator: The Legacy and Influence of Herman Wouk

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Jeffrey Kobrin

Herman Wouk’s existence as a literary figure and an Orthodox Jew defies the odds. That an unapologetic and unabashed shomer mitzvot[1] could repeatedly climb to the top of the best-seller lists in an era when Modern Orthodox Judaism was not really seen nor heard  is in itself remarkable.  But this is not the place for Wouk’s biography or bibliography. What I will explore briefly is Wouk’s influence on one emerging reader and future teacher of readers of English and Tanakh: me. 

George Steiner writes, “A great poem, a classic novel, press in upon us; they assail and occupy the strong places of our consciousness. They exercise upon our imagination and desires, upon our ambitions and most covert dreams, a strange, bruising mastery.”[2] Wouk’s books have long been part of my experience of such mastery, and while they may not have bruised me, they have certainly left their birthmark upon me. I have been influenced, buoyed, and altered by the impressions that Wouk’s books have made upon how I think, feel, and make decisions of a moral nature.

Wouk’s sharp eye for historic and situational detail, his wry sense of humor, and his understanding of the human psyche and the human condition made a deep and lasting impression on me.  Literature in general has given me insights into moral issues of right and wrong, just and unjust, fair and unfair. Reading often made me identify with the characters in stories I read, a process which in turn often made me evaluate their decisions—and made me think about whether I would have made the same.

Educator Sheridan Blau notes that many readers and teachers today, despite all the turns and developments of the past century plus of educational theory, still follow the tradition of F. R. Leavis and Matthew Arnold: i.e., that of seeing “literary education as a source of psychological and moral wisdom and a humanizing bulwark against the crass materialism, ethical obtuseness, and intellectual crudity of contemporary commercial and political discourse.”[3] In my own experience as a reader, student, and teacher, I have found that the literature classroom has the potential to provide such wisdom and to serve as such a bulwark.

In the nineteenth century, Matthew Arnold believed that “morals” and religious values were growing “tiresome” to his Victorian contemporaries. The Church no longer served its educative purpose; literature, however, could take up the baton. He writes (1865) that “poetry is at bottom a criticism of life; that the greatness of a poet lies in his powerful and beautiful application of ideas to life,—to the question: How to live.”[4] Arnold’s view of the morally educative function of literature held great sway over the nascent curriculum of English in the Victorian Age. English Education historian Arnold Applebee writes that Arnold thought that an education based on literary texts “…could be the source of a new principle of authority to replace the eroding bonds of class and of religion.”[5]

Martha C. Nussbaum (1995), perhaps the most influential of contemporary theorists in the Arnoldian tradition, defends “the literary imagination precisely because it seems… an essential ingredient of an ethical stance that asks us to concern ourselves with the good of other people whose lives are distant from our own.”[6] She writes of the power of literature to create a “judicious spectator,” i.e., a reader whose vicarious experience of reading about those in need brings him or her to not only feel sympathy for the text’s fictional characters, but to go “beyond empathy” to a place where he or she is able to evaluate a character’s situation and decisions with healthy detachment. A “judicious” reader ought to assess “the meaning of those sufferings and their implications for the lives involved.”[7] When Wouk tells of his efforts in working on what he calls “the Main Task”[8] – the writing of The Winds of War and War and Remembrance – his desire was to show “an honest effort to make the vanished horror live for all the world that was not there.”[9]

Nussbaum describes a system of education wherein students learn a “relation to the world, mediated by correct facts and respectful curiosity.”[10] In my own reading of and transactions with texts, I see myself in the character’s shoes. When I read Wouk’s The City Boy as a twelve-year old boy, I was Herbie Bookbinder. The novel is the coming-of-age tale of Herbie, an iceman’s son growing up in the Bronx of 1919. Herbie’s school and summer camp escapades are Wouk’s paean to his own beloved Mark Twain, “the American Sholom Aleichem.”[11] I connected with Herbie on a visceral level.

Later in life, when teaching, I tried to have students transact similarly by bringing in real-world applications of values discussed in the texts we read and by applying those values. Students wrote, for example, of physical and emotional journeys they had taken after we read a number of works of travels such as The Canterbury Tales and The Remains of the Day. The texts to which I have most deeply connected and from which I have grown morally are those about which I both think and feel something. As a teacher, I have hoped to foster similar depth of thought and feeling in my students.

The reader who feels a degree of empathy—not merely sympathy—for the characters and situations that he or she encounters in books makes for a better citizen, explains Nussbaum.  She further explains that an “empathetic perspectival experience” can teach a young reader that aggression to another can be harmful.  “Empathy is not morality,” Nussbaum adds, “but it can supply crucial ingredients of morality.”[12] I vividly recall a number of moments, first as a reader and then as a teacher, in which I experienced—or sought to help others experience—vicarious moments, moments that would lead to empathy. 

As I grew older, I became more ambitious in the selection of novels that I selected on my own. At age twelve, I found a dog-eared copy of Herman Wouk’s 1948 novel The City Boy among my father’s many paperbacks. Its picaresque narrative made me laugh and connect with its protagonist Herbie Bookbinder in his quest to impress his beloved, Lucille Glass. Like Herbie, I was bookish, intellectual and unathletic. By this age I already had tasted unrequited love from my own fifth-grade crush, and could vicariously feel Herbie’s pain of rejection by his beloved as I read. 

Through reading of Herbie’s exploits and thinking his thoughts, fearing his fears, and desiring his desires, I became him while I was reading. I wanted to impress Lucille as much as Herbie did and felt heartbroken when “my” love was unrequited. Nussbaum explains that a novel “gets its readers involved with the characters, caring about their projects, their hopes and fears.” This leads readers to realize “that the story is in certain ways their own story, showing possibilities for human life and choice that are in certain respects their own to seize, though their concrete circumstances may differ greatly.”[13] My twelve-year-old Orthodox Jewish self connected with Herbie’s more assimilated self; I felt our differences outweighed by our commonalities.

Herbie and his family are far less Orthodox in practice than Wouk himself had been growing up as a Bronx boy in the 1920’s. I wondered about this authorial decision in his 1948 novel when I was a twelve-year old reader. Wouk explained years later (in a book which I also read only years later) that he “treat[s] of Jewish matters in [his] books and plays like other authors, not to persuade, but to delineate.”[14]  Reading and loving The City Boy made me want to tackle—and enjoy—more works by this author (I had already realized that one book I enjoyed by a specific author would often lead to more enjoyable books by the same author. It was like finding an untapped diamond mine). 

That my parents knew Wouk socially made him seem more fascinating and accessible. A real best-selling author was someone just like me! He kept kosher and kept Shabbat!  He had davened in my shul! Lore even had it that my own childhood Rabbi, Leo Jung, had been instrumental in working with Wouk on his classic This Is My God.

I felt a kinship to Wouk—and that I enjoyed his prose immensely didn’t hurt. I thus undertook to read Wouk’s 1971 novel The Winds of War and 1978’s War and Remembrance. I took on both of these books in succession in seventh grade. Wouk’s love of story seemed to match my own, a connection that was later articulated for me by critic Wayne Booth, who notes that the connection exists not so much between reader and book as much as between readers and writers. Booth calls writers the reader’s “friends,” explaining that they “demonstrate their friendship not only in the range and depth and intensity of the relationship they offer, not only in the promise they fulfill of being useful… but finally in the irresistible invitation they extend to live during these moments [of reading] a richer and fuller life than I could manage on my own.”[15]

Booth adds that the idealized author is a far superior moral being to the “disorganized, flawed creature”[16] who is the actual writer. It is this idealized version of the writer who can—and does—successfully influence the reader. I would eventually read everything and anything by Wouk that I could find. Wouk’s works were among the first volumes of “adult” literature that I read, and they engaged me in ways that the teen and children’s literature in which I was steeped could not. Years later, when I actually connected with Wouk himself, I only strengthened my feelings of connection and identification with the author as a person.

I felt a deep empathy for Natalie and Aaron Jastrow, two of Wouk’s fictional characters from The Winds of War and War and Remembrance who travel from the safety of the United States to war-torn Eastern Europe in the midst of the Holocaust. Wouk’s weaving of fictional characters into historical reality further engaged me on the emotional level. Nussbaum desires for readers to attain “the faculties of thought and imagination that make us human and make our relationships rich human relationships, rather than relationships of mere use and manipulation.”[17] Since Wouk placed his characters in realistic historical settings, it was that much easier for me to see them as real people and feel their pain. My own Jewish heritage and identity added to my feelings of connection.

In a 1994 letter that I wrote to Wouk, I spoke of my admiration for his work. I praised his “combination of humor, eloquence, fear of Heaven and style.”  I asked Wouk, one of my literary idols, to provide “any advice or stories or jokes…or anything you deem relevant and appropriate” to someone planning to teach both Judaic Studies and English literature. I was concerned that I would be spreading myself too thin.

Wouk thrillingly replied to me, encouraging me to “[g]o for it,” writing that my “worry about falling between two stools is groundless, providing you give the challenge in both fields your all.” I found Wouk’s advice extremely encouraging, and often thought of it during my years in the classroom. I reconnected with Wouk again in the summer of 2017, when I felt that I could not pass up the chance to reconnect with one of my literary role models, who was still alive and alert (at age 102, no less). I wrote to him, summarizing my graduate work, and said, in part that 

One of the formative authors of my life is, well, Herman Wouk… Your characters and your books have become my friends. As part of my research, as part of my own development as a reader and teacher, and purely to express my [appreciation], I wonder if you would be willing to meet with me at your convenience to discuss any and all of these ideas.

Wouk, terse but prompt, answered the same day. (The response time itself, not to mention the Courier font that he used, gave me extreme pleasure.) He wrote, in part:

Good letter. I’m not up to interviews, but within limits I can answer queries…

That my literary “friend” was once again willing to dialogue with me brought back many of my feelings of admiration for his books, his characters, and their tone and style. Indeed, that Herman Wouk had even written me the two words, “Good letter,” made me swell with pride. I immediately drafted a follow-up question, asking him if when writing he had “specific educational or moral intent for [his] readers in creating specific books.”[18] I asked him:

Did or do you want your reader to come away from War and Remembrance [(1978)] or even Inside, Outside [(1985)] or The Lawgiver [(2012)] with specific moral insights or ethical sense? … I’m talking about a moral or ethical authorial intent. 

I’d love to read whatever you are willing to share on the topic.

Wouk responded:

My answer to your question is “Of course!” Mark Twain once said, to this effect, “All I ever do is preach.”

Discerning the teachings is a teacher’s job, like yours, while I go on with current work.

I had two reactions to this response, which, incidentally, I found delightful. First, I found Wouk’s words to be a validation of my own critical approach to literature: every reader ought to be reading in order to grow in his or her moral sensitivity (a term which for me rides piggy-back on Nussbaum’s “empathy”). And if every reader ought to be reading that way, was it not fitting that a writer (whether Twain, Wouk, or others) write in order to make a moral point (“to preach”)? 

Wouk writes as much in his magnificent The Will to Live On.[19] He says that “where my fiction deals with moral or religious questions, I leave the resolutions to the reader.”[20] My second reaction was to mull over the challenge I felt as an educator: how could I bring a student to the emotional and intellectual point where contact with a favorite author would give them the feeling I had, of feeling like a star-struck teen seeing the Beatles at Shea Stadium, screaming (perhaps not literally) with disbelief and delight? My own experience as a reader is not unique; the mass numbers of books sold by Wouk prove that it is not—or at least his power to connect to readers, to become their “friends” in the Boothian sense, is not limited to me.

Blau writes of the “intentional fallacy,” explaining that “a writer’s intention—contrary to commonplace ideas about meaning—is not reliable as a source of authority in determining the meaning of a text.”[21] In essence, it does not matter what Wouk’s stated or unstated intention was in writing his works; what matters is what transaction I or any other reader makes when reading. This point notwithstanding, Wouk’s succinct distinction between the author and the teacher resonates for me. While he goes on with “current work,” my role is to “discern the teachings.” But how to get my students to the same level of “judicious spectatorship” at which I found myself has never been simple.

As a teacher, I felt that novels, as opposed to other forms of literature, were the ideal vehicle to inculcate empathy. Their lengthier narratives, which allow for a deepening of character and situation, gave me as a reader (and, I thought, gave my students) more opportunities to connect emotionally and intellectually with the stories.

Indeed, Nussbaum notes that the novel may well be one of the most succinct ways of conveying and inculcating empathy.[22] She writes that a novel’s storytelling “gets its readers involved with the characters, caring about their projects, their hopes and fears, participating in their attempts to unravel the mysteries and perplexities of their lives.”[23] Nussbaum adds that, for readers, “the story is in certain ways their own story, showing possibilities for human life and choice that are in certain respects their own to seize, though their concrete circumstances may differ greatly.”[24]

I sought constantly to show my students that the story was “in certain ways their own story” through discussion questions and writing prompts. I was sometimes successful, and saw students making connections between the text we studied and their own lives beyond the classroom. Sometimes, however, no connection seemed to be made. It may well be that connections occurred that I did not see or that seeds were planted for connections made weeks, months or years later.

It’s an ongoing challenge: Blau makes a critical distinction between students and teachers. The latter have “a fairly sophisticated capacity to recognize and talk about the condition of our understanding.” He explains that teachers who are sophisticated readers typically “know the difference between what [they] do and don’t understand and to what degree [they] do or don’t understand. [They] are, in other words, metacognitively aware.”[25] My students were not able to articulate their transactions at whatever level they were occurring. Despite these developmental differences, I still wanted students to begin to articulate their own sets of values, to begin becoming metacognitive.

When writing to Herman Wouk, one of the texts I cited was by Sir Philip Sidney, who notes that although “the philosopher teacheth… he teacheth those who are already taught. But the poet is the food for the tenderest stomachs: the poet is indeed the right popular philosopher”[26]. My intellectual stomach is unquestionably tender today thanks to my voracious reader’s appetite: Sidney is talking to—and about—me.

Wayne Booth notes that “all works do teach or at least try to.”[27] I don’t know if I saw literature as a vehicle for conveying ethics as an emergent reader; that really only developed for me when I began teaching. But the seeds were sown in the love that I felt for the power of story as a child. As an educator, I firmly believe that such an awareness is teachable at age-appropriate levels; a student’s experience of reading would be much more powerful with that awareness. I myself possessed it to a degree as an adult, but only because I had brought it to my own attention. I did not want to rely on the possibility of students discovering this for themselves. I wanted more of a sure thing.

When I finally and ecstatically began teaching both Judaic Studies and English literature, I thought that each of these curricula would inspire my students, albeit in diverse ways. But after starting to teach, I soon felt that the classroom give-and-take in my Judaic courses, which had overtly moralist agendas, had appreciably fewer meaningful discussions of issues of moral decision-making than did my English classes. In my Judaic Studies classes, I taught Bible, halakha, and classical Jewish philosophy. Students seemed to simply take notes, ask clarifying questions, take tests, and move on.  There was little evidence of internalization of the overt values that we studied.

Indeed, the impact of what we studied seemed negligible: the regard in which they held the traditional texts that we studied—or in which, at least, they acted as if they held these texts—seemed to place these texts in virtual museum-like, alarmed glass cases. The texts were sacrosanct and therefore the transactions, the empathy-creation, were at a minimum.

English classes, however, had fewer issues of untouchability: students reacted strongly, whether verbally or in writing, to the choices made by Jane Eyre or Atticus Finch; indeed, they did so far more than they did to the choices made by Moses or Queen Esther. My teaching methodology and enthusiasm, to my mind, were constants, as they did not vary significantly from one course to the other. The curriculum, therefore, must have been the critical variable. If my goal was not merely to teach texts for skills and content, but rather to teach ideas and thoughtful, reflective decision-making, my English classes were the better places to foment such learning.

T. S. Eliot cites Ben Jonson’s description of literature as “the absolute mistress of manners, and nearest of kin to virtue.”[28] This resonated: moments of literature serving as the catalyst to a discussion of manners or virtue occurred far more often in English class than in Bible class.

Booth and Nussbaum enable me to better understand the way I am as a reader and the way I want my students to become readers as well. But Wouk does the heavy lifting: the compassion that I felt for his characters was the empathy of the “judicious spectator” that I had developed as a reader (and, later, a teacher) of text. Wouk proudly proclaims himself as “a humanist to the bone,” carefully noting that Webster’s Dictionary still allows one who believes in the “dignity and worth of man and his capacity for self-realization through reason” to still drive “a Merkava tank of religious commitment” alongside his or her optimistic humanism.[29] For the past thirty-eight years, my own humanism, along with my moral sensibility and sensitivity, has been fostered by that of Wouk. 

Yehi zichro baruch.

[1] In his memoir and final book Sailor and Fiddler: Reflections of a 100-Year-Old Author (New York: Simon and Schuster 2016), Wouk notes that when the 1950’s Jewish secular literati learned of his family’s kashrut, it was clear that the Wouks “were weird mavericks, no question” (p. 54).

[2] Language and Silence: Essays on Language, Literature and the Inhuman. New Haven: Yale University Press 1970, p. 10.

[3] The Literature Workshop: Teaching Texts and Their Readers. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann 2003, p. 201, note 1.

[4] Essays in Criticism, First and Second Series. New York: A. L. Burt Company 1865, p. 353.

[5] Tradition and Reform in the Teaching of English: A History. Urbana: NCTE 1974, p. 23.

[6] Poetic Justice: The Literary Imagination and Public Life. Boston: Beacon Press 1995, p. xvi.

[7] Poetic Justice, p. 90.

[8] See Fiddler, p. 47.

[9] War and Remembrance (New York: Little, Brown 1978), p. 1127; also cited in The Will to Live On (2000), p. 83.

[10] Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010, p. 81.

[11] See Fiddler, p. 9.

[12] Ibid., p. 37.

[13] Ibid., p. 31.

[14] The Will to Live On, p. 5

[15] The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction. Berkeley: University of California Press 1988, p. 223.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Not for Profit, p. 6.

[18] I added that I was “thinking less about the overtly didactic works like This is My God (1959) or The Will to Live On (2000) and more about [his] historical fiction.” 

[19] The Will to Live On, New York: Harper Collins 2000.

[20] P. 4.

[21]The Literature Workshop, p. 107.

[22] In his Textual Knowledge: Teaching the Bible in Theory and in Practice (New York: Jewish Theological Seminary 2003), Barry Holtz adds that “Nussbaum provides a particularly appropriate lens to look at the goals of teaching Bible” as well, as the Bible’s goals of “ethical criticism” are very clear (118). 

[23] Poetic Justice, p. 31

[24] Ibid.

[25] The Literature Workshop, p. 41.

[26] Alexander, G., ed.  Sidney’s ‘The Defence of Poesy’ and selected Renaissance Literary Criticism. London: Penguin Books 2004, p. 18.

[27] The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction. Berkeley: University of California Press 1988, p. 152.

[28] The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism: Studies in the Relation of Criticism to Poetry in England.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press 1964, p. 46.

[29] The Will to Live On, pp. 86-87.

Jeffrey Kobrin is the Rosh HaYeshiva / Head of School of the North Shore Hebrew Academy in Great Neck, NY. He has a BA from Columbia College, an MA from Columbia University, semikha from Rabbi Zalman Nechemia Goldberg and RIETS, and a PhD from Teachers College at Columbia University. He has published articles in such journals as Ten Daat, The Torah U-Madda Journal, and the Atid Journal. He lives in Riverdale, N.Y. with his wife, Michelle Greenberg-Kobrin and their four daughters.