The creative process often involves taking chances. Sometimes after a period of success (or lack thereof), an artist will attempt to rekindle the creative flame by taking a risk and departing from the worn path of their creative comfort zone. A musician might try composing in a different key; an oil painter might try utilizing watercolor; a writer might explore new genres and/or new thematic concepts. Sometimes the departure proves successful and beneficial to his career, and sometimes it instigates its downward spiral. Sometimes the departure makes only a small splash, passing relatively unnoticed through time.
In mid-career, having experienced the whirlwind of fame as a result of the success of his critically acclaimed novel, The Caine Mutiny (1952), Herman Wouk wrote Youngblood Hawke. Coined as Wouk's "try out" novel, his "daring breakthrough," the novel was greatly anticipated by both critics and the reading public, and finally published in 1962. As Wouk biographer Arnold Beichman notes, Youngblood Hawke "represented a tremendous leap from relatively simpler and undemanding novel structures to a vastly more complicated and more ambitious development of plot and character" (Beichman 59). In many respects, Youngblood Hawke (also the name of the novel's main character) is the black sheep of Wouk's literary career. It is one of Wouk's longest novels, second only to his epic wartime novels Winds of War and War and Remembrance. It is Wouk's fifth novel and in many ways it symbolizes the great "risk" of his career.
Youngblood Hawke was a firecracker success that enjoyed bestseller status but little critical acclaim. It is a novel that neither elevated nor threatened his career as a writer, a splash that passed relatively unnoticed through time. But even without having made a big splash as a work of timeless literature, even without having attained a status in immortal literary canons, Youngblood Hawke is not without merit. It is a book that, above all else, presents a striking insight into the life of bestselling author (Mazzeno 67). Considering the novel's subject alone, Youngblood Hawke serves as an elaborate illustration of the processes surrounding the creation and marketing of bestselling novels. It follows the path of individuals who are intensely involved in the process of writing, editing, promoting, and marketing bestsellers. The novel also illustrates the nature of the interaction between writers and critics. As Hawke observes, "The literary life resembled politics? at bottom it was a contest of gifted men for popular favor and perhaps for a name in history; and? every bid for high place, such as he [Hawke] was making, had to call forth strong counterattacks" (Wouk 444). The novel intimates the great significance of critical reaction to the financial and artistic success of a book. It also details the complex path that a piece of fiction takes as it cascades through the commercial worlds of film and theater. Perhaps most significantly, it gives great attention to the significant role that financial concerns play in the life of a writer.
Youngblood Hawke could be described as a Kunstleroman with a tragic twist, a Portrait of the Artist that ends with the artist's untimely death (Mazzeno 68). Like Stephen Dedalus, Arthur "Youngblood" Hawke is introduced to the reader as an infant in the early stages of his artistic career. He is a bright-eyed twenty-seven year old writer from Hovey, Kentucky with promising writing skill but with measured naivete about the business of publishing. Hawke, like Wouk himself, is admired by both critics and his massive audience for his lengthy narratives and his attention to detail. Also like Wouk, Hawke is engaged in writing serious literature. In the novel, what distinguishes Hawke from his contemporaries is his ability to write serious literature with the mass appeal of bestselling fiction. The novel chronicles the entirety of Hawke's career: the promising critical reception of his first novel (entitled Alms for Oblivion), the whirlwind success of his second (Chain of Command), the mixed reviews of his subsequent works, and his many learning experiences in between as he attempts to build his life and reputation in the sometimes unforgiving literary world.
Though Youngblood Hawke was a failure as a work of serious literature, the novel did very well in sales, and was a bestseller in the year it was released. The success that the novel experienced in sales could be attributed to the versatility of its narrative, to its ability to appeal to both "low-brow" and "high-brow" readers. Wouk's prose, though considered by many to be tediously detailed and long-winded, is without poetic embellishment. His writing style is simple and direct, and therefore the text could be understood easily by readers of all backgrounds. Like Loos's Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Youngblood Hawke could be interpreted on two different levels; it could be enjoyed simply as entertainment, or it could be more carefully scrutinized as a form of social commentary. Superficially, Youngblood Hawke is simply an entertaining story with a complex plot that details the experiences of a strong, admirable, handsome protagonist, a classic American hero. Interwoven in Hawke's artistic development and his struggle with the business world are two complicated love affairs that, if nothing else, lend themselves to make the story more dramatic, and therefore more entertaining. Hawke himself is the stereotypical, American hero ? a man who is master of his craft, a passionate and well-respected writer, a man's man whose sexual appetite is as large as is his six-foot-four frame. Hawke's only real flaws are his strong work ethic (so intense that it leaves him bed-ridden with exhaustion) and his propensity to spend money frivolously (faster than he can earn it).
The novel could potentially be enjoyed by high-brow readers for the commentary that underlies the entertainment. Underlying the story of Hawke's writing career is a scathing criticism and commentary on the business mentalities that govern the publishing industry, that sap the writers of their creative energies, and in effect, defame the art. The evils of money and business matters are embodied in characters like Hawke's Hollywood agent, Ferdie Lax, his single-minded publisher, Jay Prince, and his high school acquaintance and business advisor, Scott "Scotty" Hoag. The novel, also like Joyce's Portrait, juxtaposes the creative, art world with the crass, manipulative business world that controls it. Obviously, Wouk meant to use Hawke's story, and ultimately, the tragic nature of its outcome, as a vehicle to voice his own complaints about the publishing industry (Mazzeno).
Wouk illustrates the story of Hawke's artistic development on the volatile ground where the art and business worlds collide. Throughout the course of his career (and the book), Hawke is engaged in two primary activities ? writing his novels and attempting to establish his financial security. Wouk goes to great lengths to illustrate how financial matters endanger art and stifle the functioning of the creative mind. Hawke is constantly trying to eliminate his debts, to reap capital gain from a variety of construction projects, and to establish a complex portfolio of investments that will alleviate any need to worry about his future financial well-being. Hawke's ultimate goal, a goal that can only be achieved after he has attained financial security, is to make a lasting contribution to the literary world, to compose a fifteen volume Comedy that comments on the state of American culture in the 20th century.
In his attempts to establish financial security, Hawke seeks legal advice from his lawyer (and college friend) Gus Adam, and he invests in a number of construction projects under the direction of his high school friend, Scott Hoag. At one point, Hawke even tries to launch his own publishing company so that he can publish his own books and thereby circumnavigate some of the tax expense. But in the course of the novel, Hawke's dream is never realized. It is not realized for a number reasons, but mainly because of his many financial troubles that prevent him from attaining the peace of mind and the financial freedom that he needs to create his masterpiece. His many investments prove to create much more trouble than anticipated, and as a result, the quality of Hawke's writing suffers and his career is jeopardized. Hawke learns valuable lessons from his financial troubles; he learns that even old friends can be deceptive and that he will never free himself from the evils of money.
Wouk's commentary is most obvious in the parts of the novel when Hawke is in the most dire financial circumstances and is forced to sacrifice his art to preserve his financial stability. On many occasions, Hawke is forced to sell the rights to his novels to movie producers (Jock Maas) and pretentious broadway stars (Georges Feydel) in order to stay afloat. Even when the dramatizations and cinematic interpretations of his stories will surely be mediocre, he still feels compelled to sell because of his financial dilemma. At the low point of Hawke's financial troubles, towards the end of the book, Hawke goes so far as to offer to sell the rights to his promising epic Boone County for a mere $25,000, an astoundingly low price for a story that is potentially worth many times that amount. Ultimately, it is this defamation of his art, combined with the failure of his financial projects and his ruthlessly intense work ethic that instigate his mental instability and his subsequent death. Wouk's statement is obvious - that blood-sucking business moguls are a real threat to good writers, good writing, and timeless art.
Whatever commentary Wouk makes on the business world that grips the lives of writers, the novel's merit lies in the accuracy of its depiction of the publishing industry (Beichman 61). It illustrates in great detail how a story, a bestselling novel, echoes through the other spheres of the entertainment industry. In the course of the novel, we observe a bestselling author in action, writing his great novels; we observe how a writer communicates with his editors; we see how a novelist responds to the critical responses; we observe how a writer interacts with the critics and how the critical response affects the attitudes of potential buyers. Ultimately, we see how a bestselling novel unfolds in the creative mind and how it develops in the business world that adopts it. The novel profoundly intimates the inner working, the plumbing, of the entertainment industry.
Among the other bestselling novels of 1962, J.D. Salinger's Franny and Zooey, it seems, is the only one to have achieved some lasting significance, a place in contemporary literary canons. In stark contrast to Youngblood Hawke, Franny and Zooey is a novel without an intense story line. Where Youngblood Hawke boasts a complex plot structure, Franny and Zooey is predominantly a character study. While Youngblood Hawke progresses steadily and chronologically through Hawke's life, Franny and Zooey isolates two specific points in time and leaves huge gaps in what would be a chronological progression. Wouk's primary focus is his story and his comment on the publishing industry; Salinger's primary focus is his characters.
The many differences in the two novels, considering also their relative success as works of serious literature, speak to the lasting potential of bestsellers. What determines a bestseller's potential for immortality, it seems, is whether or not the work makes a lasting contribution to literature. That contribution usually manifests itself in more profound literary achievements, in prose that might be considered to be avante garde at the date of publication. In any case, an immortal piece of literature must exemplify some degree of originality. That being said, purely entertaining novels have more work cut out for them because it is more difficult to be a ground breaking writer of pure entertainment. Youngblood Hawke's failure as a serious work of literature (Mazzeno 66) could be a result of its absence of any significant contribution. Perhaps most significantly, what Youngblood Hawke's fate does imply is that a book's status as a bestseller does not, by any means, guarantee lasting significance.
Beichman, Arnold. Herman Wouk: The Novelist as Social Historian. New Brunswick,
New Jersey: Transaction, Inc., 1984.
Mazzeno, Laurence W. Herman Wouk. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1994.
Wouk, Herman. Youngblood Hawke. New York: Doubleday, 1962.
The New York Times Book Review
http://www.bookmagazine.com/archive/issue10/emargolin.shtml (website running as of 12/02/02)
http://www.businessknowhow.com/Writers/criticscorner/ccwillive.htm (website running as of 12/02/02)
Biography Resource Center (Web)
Hackett, 80 Years of Bestsellers
http://www.lib.virginia.edu/speccol/exhibits/rave_reviews/beyond_other.html (website running as of 12/02/02)