By GUY LAMOLINARA
A Library program featuring Martha Raddatz of ABC News, William Safire, a columnist for The New York Times, and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg might not cause much of a stir in the Washington world of media and politics.
But expand the venue with sockless singer-songwriter Jimmy Buffett, whose concerts have been selling out for more than two decades, and interest piques: What could these four have in common?
Each came to the Library on Sept. 10 to help celebrate the life and literary achievements of 93-year-old Herman Wouk, whom the Library was honoring with the first Library of Congress Lifetime Achievement Award for the Writing of Fiction.
Ginsburg read her favorite court-martial scene from Wouk’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Caine Mutiny” (1951). Raddatz read movingly from his epic novel about World War II and the Holocaust, “War and Remembrance” (1978). Safire, who wrote speeches for Richard Nixon, read from “Inside Outside” (1985), Wouk’s funny novel about a White House speechwriter. Buffett sang a medley of songs from the musical inspired by Wouk’s story of island escapism, “Don’t Stop the Carnival” (1965). Buffett had persuaded Wouk to collaborate with him on the musical in 1997.
The Library’s award recognizes Wouk for his body of work that encompasses these titles and includes his first short play, “The Man in the Trench Coat” (1941); “Marjorie Morningstar” (1955); his nonfiction work “This Is My God: The Jewish Way of Life” (1959); “Youngblood Hawke” (1962); his first historical World War II novel, “The Winds of War” (1971); and “A Hole in Texas” (2004).
“Recognizing his monumental contribution to American letters,” the Library’s new award will be named for Wouk, Librarian of Congress James H. Billington announced.
The Library previously honored Wouk with a Living Legend medal in 2000 and in 1995 held a symposium called “The Historical Novel: A Celebration of the Achievements of Herman Wouk.”
The Librarian also announced that the Manuscript Division of the Library will become the “premiere repository of Herman Wouk’s work,” including 92 personal journals, the manuscripts of five recent books, correspondence, tapes, posters and photographs. In 1995 Wouk gave the Library the manuscripts of five of his novels, including “The Winds of War” and “War and Remembrance.”
“We at the Library feel privileged to have become the custodians of what will surely be one of the most used collections in our Manuscript Division,” Billington said. Alice Birney, the Manuscript Division’s literary specialist, administered the gift and will oversee the collection.
The Librarian noted that Wouk had chosen the Library not only as a repository for his work but also as a research center. “I am proud to say that Herman Wouk has researched many of his works here at the Library. This includes ‘The Winds of War’ and ‘War and Remembrance’ as well as ‘A Hole in Texas,’ which he partially sets in the Library of Congress Science and Business Reading Room.”
Alluding to a passage in which a famous writer thanks a science reference librarian for saving “me a week of digging,” Billington said that librarian was none other than “the Library’s magnificent Constance Carter, who is with us tonight and is among the many dedicated Library staff who generously share their expertise and the Library’s extraordinary collections with all who come here.”
The Center for the Book sponsored the Coolidge Auditorium event. Emcee John Cole, the center’s director, introduced the Librarian, who welcomed congressional members and their guests and Wouk’s family members and friends. He thanked the Marshall Coyne Foundation, Sol Price and Joseph C. Glickman “for making this event possible.”
“Tonight we honor one of the world’s great writers, a treasure whose works epitomize the best of American literature,” Billington began as Wouk sat listening offstage. “Herman Wouk plumbs the deepest parts of the soul to bring us novels and other works that help us better understand human nature: its strengths as well as its weaknesses. … When you open Herman Wouk’s novels, you open a door into a world in which characters come to life against a sweeping background of epic events.”
The encomiums continued as Billington quoted “no less a writer than David McCullough, [who] has said that because of ‘The Winds of War’ and ‘War and Remembrance’ ‘future generations will come to know—and will feel—the human reality of World War II in a way not otherwise possible.’”
“You might never guess that Herman began his career writing comedy,” Billington said. “Herman was so good at writing comedy that the person he believed to be the best comic writer in radio, Fred Allen, hired him to write for his show.” Wouk worked for Allen from 1936 to 1941.
After Wouk had won a Pulitzer for “The Caine Mutiny” and his rewritten court-martial scene had become a Broadway hit, he was invited to appear on “What’s My Line,” a quiz show with panelists Fred Allen, columnist Dorothy Kilgallen, publisher Bennett Cerf, actress Arlene Francis and host John Daly. A film clip from that show entertained the Library audience.
After the Librarian’s introduction, Wouk appeared on stage to a standing ovation and settled into a chair to listen to the readings that followed.
“I am not writer enough to express how honored I am to share the stage with Herman Wouk. So I will just read,” said Raddatz, an Emmy Award-winning journalist who has been ABC News’ chief White House correspondent since 2005. Previously, she was ABC’s senior national security correspondent and has traveled more than a dozen times to Iraq to report on the conflict. Her 2007 book, “The Long Road Home: A Story of War and Family,” was critically acclaimed, and she discussed it at last year’s National Book Festival. She read the final diary entry of a character in “War and Remembrance.” Although he is about to die, the fictitious Jewish author says of his captors, “Earth, cover not their blood.”
Known for his syndicated columns that appeared in the New York Times for more than 30 years and his Times magazine column “On Language,” Safire read “The Sauerkraut Crisis” from “Inside Outside,” about a product so foul-smelling that it provoked a visit from the New York City Health Department and the proffer from one of the neighbors: “My husband still has his gas mask from the war, dollink, if you need it.”
Then it was Buffett’s turn. Cole introduced him not only as a singer-songwriter known for such hits as “Margaritaville,” but also as “a best-selling author, businessman, restaurateur, philanthropist and creator of a very special musical, which brings him here tonight: ‘Don’t Stop the Carnival,’ based on Herman’s novel of the same name.”
Not wearing the “Washington uniform” of a business suit, Buffett took the stage in jeans, untucked white shirt, a sports jacket and loafers, which he removed to perform bare-footed as he does in every concert.
“We—Herman and I, Herman and me, or I?” he said looking at Safire the grammarian as the audience laughed. “We have been written about as an odd couple. … People have asked, ‘How in the hell did you and Herman get together?’”
While he was on a boat, Buffett read Wouk’s book about a successful Broadway publicist who escapes the pressures of life to run an old hotel on the fictional island of Amerigo “and loved the characters.” A friend told him, “You ought to do a musical and you ought to do ‘Don’t Stop the Carnival.’”
“I thought Herman Wouk was dead,” Buffett recalled. “That proved not to be true.” The two exchanged letters and finally met in California, where Wouk resides. Before Wouk agreed to the collaboration, according to Buffett, “I had to read the book about 650 times, according to my professor over here, in order to write for character… .
“We wrote this together. We were boys at heart,” Buffett said, and proceeded to play a “very simple 13-minute-and-11-second” odyssey about the island of Amerigo.
The rarity of being able to see a musical superstar perform in the intimacy of the Coolidge Auditorium was not lost on the enthusiastic audience, which comprised young and old, “parrotheads” (Buffett’s loyal followers) as well as those who had never heard Buffett’s music before. Wouk was delighted, and Buffett gave him a big hug before leaving the stage as Billington rose to applaud.
On a more somber note, Justice Ginsburg then gave a measured, careful reading of the court-martial scene from “The Caine Mutiny,” in which the erratic, paranoid Philip Francis Queeg, captain of the fictional Navy ship DMS Caine, unravels on the witness stand under a lawyer’s skilled probing. “The court-martial is perhaps the most famous scene in ‘The Caine Mutiny,’” she explained, and is a favorite among trial lawyers for its realism.
As part of the evening’s events, Wouk received two framed letters, one from Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Joint Committee on the Library, who said, “I am delighted that the Library is honoring you as an American literary legend. As the first recipient of this prize, you have certainly raised the bar high for your fellow writers who will follow you.”
The other letter presented to Wouk came from the Librarian of Congress, on behalf of the Library. Billington wrote: “I can think of no more fitting a place for you to receive this award than at the Library of Congress, repository of the works of the greatest writers. Your achievements in American letters of the 20th and early 21st centuries are without peer, and subsequent recipients of this award will follow in good stead through your extraordinary example.”
Billington also presented Wouk with a high resolution facsimile of four leaves of the Washington Haggadah (1478), the Library’s most important Hebrew illuminated manuscript. [The Haggadah is a liturgical work that is recited in the home at the festive evening meal of Passover, to recount the story to each generation about the Jewish liberation from slavery in Egypt, as described in the book of Exodus in the Torah].
Visibly moved, Wouk said, “The philosopher and historian Isaiah Berlin, the wisest man of the 20th century, once said to me: ‘You have been a creative artist and there is nothing better to do in a human life. This is a moment when I am inclined to believe it.”
The audience then got to hear the celebrated author read from the personal journals he is donating to the Library. Listeners got a glimpse of the lonely and continually self-doubting writer’s world, especially while waiting to learn if a manuscript has been accepted for publication: “1949. A year and a couple of months to write [“The Caine Mutiny”]. Is it good? … The best I could do. I have no feelings whatever that I have achieved greatness. … Ten days have gone by. With some small effort of will, I did not call.” When the publisher does call, he is concerned about the length, but describes several scenes as “terrific.”
“Three years later,” Wouk continued. “’Court-Martial’ [referring to the play based on the novel] is a favorite of the hour on Broadway. The hot ticket.” Wouk remembered “the long weary hours” he spent writing it.
“Success is like a diploma,” he wrote. “You can frame it but it yellows and wrinkles soon under the glass. … Success does mean a lovely coat for my wife and the furniture all paid for.”
“1971. Big jump. In the end we all go over the black falls. … I have survived many rapids by now. … I have always righted myself and kept going down the long river. I should be pretty good by now. I hear a considerable roar from the rapids ahead. … I trust I will go through it upright … but take some bad scrapes. …”
In the end, Wouk seemed to be writing and reading his own epitaph: “He devoted his energy to a celebration of the American character with a powerful Jewish signature.”
A webcast of this event is available on the Library’s Web site.
A Life in Letters
Born in New York on May 17, 1915, to Russian-Jewish parents who had emigrated from Minsk, Herman Wouk attended public schools in the Bronx and Columbia University, where he edited the humor magazine, wrote college musicals and obtained his B.A. degree. He wrote for Fred Allen from 1936 to 1941 and joined the Navy after Pearl Harbor. He took part in eight Pacific invasions, earning several battle stars. During the long months at sea, he began to write. His first novel, “Aurora Dawn,” came out in 1947 and it was an immediate success. It was followed by “City Boy” (1948), a semi-autobiographical story of a Bronx boy.
He won the Pulitzer Prize for one of his most popular works, “The Caine Mutiny” (1951), which was adapted into a play starring Henry Fonda and a film starring Humphrey Bogart, with both actors playing the role of the erratic Captain Queeg. The novel draws on Wouk’s experiences in the Navy during World War II.
In 1964 Wouk settled his family in Washington to facilitate access to the historical resources provided by the Library of Congress, the National Archives and important surviving military leaders. Known for their richly detailed plots and historical accuracy, his epic novels about World War II and the Holocaust, “The Winds of War” (1971) and “War and Remembrance” (1978), were made into award-winning television miniseries in 1983 and 1989.
For the subject of his most recent novel, “A Hole in Texas” (2004), Wouk turned to the aborted Superconducting Super Collider project, which left 14 miles of tunneling behind in the Dallas-Fort Worth area when the particle-accelerator project was canceled in 1993. A new novel is scheduled for publication in 2009.
Library of Congress Awards
Named for Herman Wouk, the new Library of Congress Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Writing of Fiction joins other Library awards that recognize lifetime achievement. The John W. Kluge Prize rewards lifetime achievement in the study of humanity with focus on disciplines such as history, philosophy, politics, anthropology, sociology, religion, criticism in the arts and humanities, and linguistics. The Gershwin Prize for Popular Song celebrates the work of an artist whose career reflects lifetime achievement in promoting song as a vehicle of musical expression and cultural understanding.
For more information about Library of Congress awards, go to www.loc.gov/about/awardshonors/.
Guy Lamolinara is the communications officer of the Center for the Book.