1952 Pulitzer Prize Review: The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk

“War is a business in which a lot of people watch a few people get killed
and are damn glad it wasn’t them.”

Herman Wouk’s Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece The Caine Mutiny examines situations that inspire men to commit grave revolutionary acts –like the act of mutiny. Often compared to 1932’s Mutiny on the Bounty, The Caine Mutiny is a truly wonderful novel. Thus far in my quest to read the Pulitzer Prize-winners, I have been stuck in a string of novels offering mostly plotless portraits of struggling rural farmers, and so it was a delight for me to shift into a bit more levity with 1951’s The Caine Mutiny, a rare bestseller on top of being a Pulitzer Prize-winner. The tone is light, playful, almost satirical a la Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, even though the subject matter is austere and sobering. In reality there have been several mutinous incidents in the U.S. Navy, but the only true mutiny to ever occur took place aboard the USS Somers in 1842 (likely the basis for Melville’s Billy Budd) which resulted in the hanging of three men. The Caine Mutiny is directly based on Herman Wouk’s personal experiences aboard a destroyer/minesweeper during World War II.

Our protagonist is a clumsy “everyman” named Willis Seward “Willie” Keith who stumbles his way through life. He is raised into a wealthy New York Jewish family, a Princeton man, and he plays piano in the evenings at a nightclub before enlisting as a midshipman in the Navy in the hopes of avoiding the draft. From here there are essentially two concurrent plots in the novel: Willie’s fledgling Naval career during the outbreak of World War II, and his ambiguous relationship with Marie “May Wynn” Minotti, a working-class Italian girl whose Catholic parents own a fruit store in the Bronx (Willie’s mother is skeptical of May and her lower class upbringing). She is described as a red-head with a beautiful figure but she is somewhat shy, playful, and aloof.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Wille is assigned as communications officer aboard the U.S.S. Caine (named after a World War I hero), a dilapidated minesweeper stationed in Hawaii. After initially missing his ship, he is finally reconnected with his aging vessel. In an overwhelming experience, Willie describes his first impressions of The Caine: “It was a place of noise, dirt, bad smells, and thuglike strangers” (74). The Caine is a mostly lawless ship filled with nude shipmen strutting about under a gruff and somewhat detached leader, Captain De Vriess (De Vriess is quickly disappointed with Willie’s many flubs and mistakes). Next, we meet a colorful band of rising officers alongside Willie, a literary friend named Thomas Keefer who always seems to be writing a novel, composing a sonnet, or otherwise reading Joyce, Melville, Proust, or Dostoevsky. We also meet Steve Maryk, a man committed to his Naval duty.

Occasionally, in reading through the Pulitzer Prize-winners I have been struck by small, otherwise forgettable scenes. In The Caine Mutiny, I was attached to a particularly charming scene of Willie and May as they spend about two days of leave together in Yosemite and he fumblingly proposes marriage to her. It is an otherwise ordinary, forgettable moment in the novel but I was nevertheless struck by this little interlude. There was also a fascinating little sub-plot involving Keith and his father, who longs to develop a closer relationship with his son but who dies shortly after Keith departs for the Navy.

At any rate back aboard The Caine, Captain De Vriess is replaced by Captain Queeg, a strict disciplinarian who quickly reveals himself to be petty and paranoid. He begins doling out extreme punishments for minor offenses like untucked shirts, and he restricts shore leave while sneaking contraband alcohol aboard for himself. He regulates the ship’s water usage in a calloused and wanton fashion. When Queeg is made to look foolish early in his tenure (a tow line is mistakenly cut due to his misdirections), Queeg forever blames a poor Idahoan shipman named Stilwell, forbidding him from leaving the ship even for shore leave in California, and despite the fact that Stilwell is desperate to investigate certain rumors that his wife has been unfaithful. Queeg resentfully declares: “The boor, the big stupid egotistic boor… The sadist, the Prussian, the moron” (109). However, Maryk takes pity on Stilwell’s request to travel home when he claims his mother has fallen ill, but when the whole ruse is revealed to be a farce Queeg orders a court-martial during which he attempts to rig the outcome –but the officers involved ignore Queeg and decide to merely restrict Stilwell to “six liberties,” a meaningless punishment since Stilwell is already prevented from leaving the ship. Tension grows between the captain and his officers as Queeg grows increasingly isolated, though he assigned Willie as “morale officer.” As they drift closer to battle, Queeg becomes fanatically obsessed that someone fabricated a fake key to the mess-room one night when a bucket of strawberries goes missing. Keefer speculates that Queeg is paranoid and delusional (he dubs him with the epithet “Yellow-Stain”), while Maryk starts keeping a secret log of Queeg’s activities as Captain. Then a typhoon strikes in the Pacific. Queeg freezes up and delivers suicidal orders under pressure and this is the last straw. Maryk relieves an impotent Queeg from his position in a dramatic show-down on deck.

The following passage is the moment the mutiny takes place as Queeg and Maryk shout contradictory instructions to the helmsman:
“‘We’re not in trouble,’ said Queeg. ‘Come left to 180.’
‘Steady as you go!’ Maryk said at the same instant. The helmsman looked around from one officer to the other, his eyes popping in panic. ‘Do as I say!’ shouted the executive officer. He turned to the OOD. ‘Willie, note the time.’ He strode to the captain’s side and saluted. ‘Captan, I’m sorry, sir, you’re a sick man. I am temporarily relieving you of this ship, under Article 184 of Navy Regulations'”

Everyone aboard is shocked, especially because Maryk had always been such a dutiful officer. In perhaps the best scene in the novel, an intense court-martial is ordered which begins to show cracks in their defense as though Willie and Maryk will pay the ultimate price for the mutiny, however when a fidgety, irritable Queeg takes the stand the defense allows the whole room to witness his extreme paranoia and mental breakdown (while he nervously rolls a pair of marbles in one hand) as his string of mistakes and bad decisions are all blamed on the Caine’s officers –this is the court-martial we never got to see with Captain Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty, yet the scene should be placed on par with other classic American literary courtroom dramas such as To Kill A Mockingbird. After some deliberation by the jury, Maryk (and Willie by proxy) are fully acquitted of all wrongdoing.

In the end, Keefer becomes the new Captain of the Caine with Willie as exec. During a notorious battle at Okinawa, a Japanese kamikaze pilot crashes into the Caine nearly destroying it. Hoards of crewmen and even Captain Keefer abandon ship, but Willie remains behind issuing orders which ultimately save the ship (after the war Willie says the two people he finds himself musing about the most are Queeg and the unknown kamikaze pilot who gave his life to destroy the Caine). For his heroic efforts Willie is issued the Bronze Star and he is briefly appointed Captain of the Caine as he leads it home for decommissioning. Willie’s journey has gone from being an error-prone and indecisive junior officer to heroic Captain of the ship. Now a changed man, he returns home to become a college professor. He goes in search of May to hopefully marry her, and in the end we are led to believe they will remain together.

In a way, The Caine Mutiny democratizes and scrutinizes the idea of good leadership by offering a seemingly wayward protagonist, a meager fallible midshipman, who grows in confidence to become an award-winning captain. It forces us to remove certain judgments about people we may know when neither the decorated ranking leader (Queeg) nor the highly intelligent writer (Keefer) can match the courage and respectability of a once errant communications officer.

Herman Wouk dedicated The Caine Mutiny to his wife. It has continued to have a cultural effect in the many years that have elapsed since its publication, including as the inspiration for actor Michael Caine’s stage name (his real name was Maurice Micklewhite). The Caine Mutiny has been adapted for film and stage numerous times, though perhaps most famously in the 1954 film starring Humphrey Bogart as Captain Queeg (for which he received his third and final Academy Award nomination for Best Actor —feel free to read my review of the film here).

Below are a handful of quotes that struck me as I read the novel:

“Willie opened the envelope with a thrust of his forefinger and yanked out the sheaf of papers. His eye darted to the third paragraph. The words seemed to rise up at him with a sound of trumpets: Report to Receiving Station, San Francisco, for transportation to DMS 22–U.S.S. CAINE” (52-53).

“Willie still considered himself a mistreated hero; he still smarted under the insult of his orders to the Caine. After triumphing over the handicap of forty-eight demerits and rising to the top five percent of the school, he had been sent to sweep mines on an obsolete World War I ship! it was mortifying…” (58).

“Honolulu was full of easy pleasures. The climate was soft, the sun brilliant, the moon beautiful, the air perfumed by ever-blooming flowers” (68).

“‘There’s a handful of brilliant boys that go into the Navy with the long purpose of becoming the nation’s admirals , and they succeed invariably because there’s no competition. For the rest of the Navy is a third-rate career for third-rate people, offering a sort of skimpy security in return for twenty or thirty years of a polite penal servitude. What self-respecting American of even average gifts, let alone superior ones, will enter such a life?” (105 -Keefer speaking to Willie, to which Willie eventually responds “Heresy, heresy…”).

“It was a lovely morning, bright and fragrant. The harbor was blue, and the surrounding hills of Oahu a soft yellow-green, flecked here and there by the fat shadows of puffy clouds which drifted over the north mountains, evaporating on the fair-weather side of the island. without shedding rain. Willie was full of fresh eggs and coffee. The lively zest that comes over a ship’s company upon getting underway -no matter where bound- infected him” (153).

“War is a business in which a lot of people watch a few people get killed and are damn glad it wasn’t them” (263).

“Willie began to develop a deep, dull hate for Queeg. It was nothing like the boyish pique he had felt against Captain de Vriess. It was like the hate of a husband for a sick wife, a mature, solid hate, caused by an unbreakable tie to a loathsome person, and as existing not as a self-justification, but for the rotten gleam of pleasure it gave off in the continuing gloom” (298).

About the 1952 Pulitzer Prize Decision
The 1952 Pulitzer Jury was composed of two members who would return again the following year: Roy W. Cowden, an English professor at the University of Michigan, and Eric P. Kelly,  a Dartmouth English professor and author of children’s books.

Who Is Herman Wouk?
Herman Wouk (1915-2019) grew up in the Bronx. As the second child born into a poor family of Jewish immigrants, he attended Columbia University before finding work as a gag writer for several radio programs during the Golden Age of Radio –shows like “The Joke Factory” and The Fred Allen Show.

Mr. Wouk joined the Navy at the start of World War II where he served on a minesweeper called the Zane (the future inspiration for the Caine). While in the Navy he met Betty Sarah Brown, a personnel specialist. After the war they married and she became his literary agent for many decades. He began writing and publishing a variety of plays and novels. After the success of his third novel The Caine Mutiny (1951) (winner of the Pulitzer) Mr. Wouk found himself in the rare clutch of national celebrity. He published a series of additional World War II novels, some of which were turned into popular miniseries programs, such as The Winds of War (1971) and War and Remembrance (1978).

Mr. Wouk lived a long and storied life, initially residing in New York City before moving to the Georgetown area of Washington DC, and finally settling down in Palm Springs, CA. In 1995, Mr. Wouk was dubbed the “American Tolstoy” at a celebration in his honor at the Library of Congress. At a 2008 ceremony honoring his lifetime achievements, Mr. Wouk presented the Library of Congress with his personal diary which he had maintained since 1937. In honor of his 100th birthday Mr. Wouk published a memoir, Sailor and Fiddler: Reflections of a 100-Year-Old Author (2015). Mr. Wouk died in his sleep at his home in Palm Springs on May 17, 2019 at the age of 103, ten days before his 104th birthday.

Wouk, Herman. The Caine Mutiny. Back Bay Books (Little Brown and Company, Hachette Book Group, originally Doubleday). New York, November 2003 (1951). Paperback edition.

Click here to return to my survey of the Pulitzer Prize Winners.

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