The celebrated writer Herman Wouk died on Friday, just ten days before his 104th birthday. Between 1947 and 2012 he wrote sixteen novels, in addition to plays and non-fiction books; his last work, a memoir, appeared in 2015. A devout and learned Jew, Wouk often dealt in his books with the themes of Judaism, the American Jewish experience, and the state of Israel. In a 2010 piece from Jewish Ideas Daily, Margot Lurie revisits one of his most popular novels, Marjorie Morningstar, derided at the time of its publication for its flat writing and middlebrow qualities:
Born Marjorie Morgenstern in 1916 (a year after the birth of her creator), our heroine appears to us first as an undergraduate at Hunter College in New York, dreaming of becoming an actress and striving to rid herself of every mitzvah and mannerism that constituted her identity. She Anglicizes her Semitic surname, dabbles in sex, and engages in the years-long pursuit of a dilettantish stage director—all without success. In the end, never having seen her stage name on a marquee, she settles for settling down with a steady husband, children, and a return to religious observance. . . .
The book is conservative, it is said, not just because the Bronx striver ends up as Mrs. Milton Schwartz of the suburbs but because Wouk is intent on showing that having been Noel Airman’s girl in Greenwich Village wasn’t really so great to begin with. As lobster is a let-down, so is sex, so is liberation. . . .
True, but not the whole truth. Wouk asserts that Marjorie’s best joys reside in tame, kosher amusements: watching a sunset, dancing, reading scripts. But it’s as if he can’t bear to prove the point. If forbidden food and forbidden sex and trashy theater are rigged and unfair and no damn fun, why does his heroine keep coming back for more and more of them? By choosing Morality over Marjorie while indulging Marjorie over Morality, Wouk creates a character, call her a puritanical sybarite, much more intriguing than he may have intended.
And there’s something else. Marjorie is not the only striver in the book—her ambitions are set against a backdrop of aspiring immigrant life. (Among its other faults, the 1958 movie adaptation of the novel dispenses with all of this.) Marjorie’s orphaned father became, at fifteen, “a fleck of foam on the great wave of immigration from Eastern Europe,” working himself up in the millinery business. At Marjorie’s age, her mother was a Yiddish-speaking immigrant in a Brooklyn sweatshop. Her Falstaffian uncle worked as a night watchman and a dish washer. “But a nickel, Modgerie, a nickel I alvays had, to buy you a Hershey bar ven I came to this house.”
In This Is My God, [his reflection on Judaism], Wouk writes that “even the enemies of the Jews have long recognized the stability of the Jewish family.” Marjorie’s parents fought hard for that stability, and were able to give their children better educations and material provisions than they had enjoyed: good, safe, assimilated, working-class lives that became middle-class lives. Marjorie’s children in turn will have led upper-middle-class lives. Much can be said about what was gained and what was lost along the way, for the boys and the girls alike; but by whose perspective is this a tragedy?
So spare a thought for plucky, unlucky Marjorie.