The novel “Inside, Outside” was written by Herman Wouk and published by Little, Brown, and Company in 1985. The book gained vast recognition as it appeared on the bestseller’s list, and topped charts. Author Herman Wouk has produced a multitude of bestsellers, many before the publication of this novel. His previous works before 1985 generated much discussion and were very popular, hitting the top 10 list. The definition and background this novel provides ultimately allows readers to hone in on Wouk’s personal life and the relationship he shares with his Jewish identity, along with the struggle to balance this with his American identity within his writing. While there was much initial mixed reception, the messages and personal touch that shine through Wouk’s words allow the reader to feel engaged to someone that is probably very different from them – a young Jewish man trying to find his place in the world. Many critics did not seem pleased with the quality of Wouk’s work, reflecting the idea that its popularity may have been due to hype from his previous success, and the fact that there was not much in the media after its initial release. Wouk uses a humorous persona to dive into the struggles of a modern Jew and his American identity. The issues he faces regarding the “inside” (his Jewish identity) vs. the “outside” (the world around him) draw on the contemporary issue of assimilation and the reality that Wouk himself had to face.
Wouk’s previous novels “Winds of War” and “The Caine Mutiny” were both huge successes. After these novels topped the charts, there was high anticipation for what Wouk would create next. Thus came “Inside, Outside”, and it is safe to say that critics were far from amused. The novel did not seem to match the style of his previous noteworthy titles. Wouk seemed to stray away from his typical style and add more of a comedic effect that seemed very forced at times. Many readers in the past loved his touch of comedy, and believed he was masterful at using it. However, in the past, Wouk seemed to incorporate this special touch of humor effortlessly, while still staying true to his literature. His previous novels were “absorbing on two levels as a historical novel at its best ought to be. It is engrossing fiction – complex but logical –with fascinating characters and palm – sweating action” (Beacham). Most of the criticisms focus on the sole aspect that the story of main character David Gookind “may be less fiction than loosely camouflaged Wouk autobiography packaged for the mass market” (Pinatrich). It was obvious that people believed his feeble attempt at another bestselling title were just masked by his overall desire to write somewhat of an autobiography – to have a chance to tell his story. While this was an amazing feat to tackle, it proved to shove the book out of the bestsellers list and out of the wide attention grip it once had. Compared to the success of previous titles, it was clear that readers had high anticipation and expectations for this novel that were not met. It did not have the sparkle- “’Inside, Outside’ fails because it is boring. Wouk has written all this stuff before” (Pintarich). Its popularity was most likely due to the buzz from previous novels and advertising, and mostly false expectations. It seems as if some people were confused or put off at Wouk’s attempts, however, those who spent the time and effort with the novel got something quite extraordinary out of the story! What “Inside, Outside” added to Wouk’s experience as a writer was something worth all of the criticism. People may have had the wrong expectations because of the previous novels’ wide success: “Wouk promises literature but only gives his readers thin entertainment” (Pintarich). After the bad reviews sunk in, the novel was not as popular. However, the messages it provides give us much insight into Wouk’s experience navigating life as a Jewish American writer.
While this novel outlines many hardships young Jewish immigrants may face, it also continuously plays into the idea of assimilation in relation to internal conflicts. By illustrating the struggles of a young Jewish boy trying to find his place in the world, this novel was repeatedly compared to “Marjorie Morningstar” also written by Wouk years earlier, for its hints at a satirical approach to religion. The novel “is remarkably predictable in its story of a male Marjorie Morningstar who gradually discovers that it’s best to give up art and pretense and embrace the traditional ways of Jewish culture” (Lehman-Haupt). It was also argued that all in all, the comparisons between the two novels illustrate the importance of these conflicts across Wouk’s writing. On the flip side, “Inside, Outside” could even be viewed as exclusionary to Jewish readers, making them feel more isolated: “We Jews are just as low and dirty and laughable as all the Hebe jokes have made us out” (Lehman –Haupt). There was a sort of political controversy over what Wouk was trying to get out with all the “Jewish” jokes and dialogue. Did this work for or against the Jewish audience? Regardless of his intentions, the internal struggle protagonist Israel Goodkind faces is a reflection of Wouk’s own hardships. He is taking action “by making the history, culture and religion of immigrant American Jews readily accessible to readers of all backgrounds” (Mosher). A comical text like this allows readers to overlook some of the dire messages and focus in on the experience. Spreading his own experience in turn spreads knowledge, making the ideas that may not be as widely known available.
The central themes in this novel are exactly what the title reflects: the “inside” vs. the “outside”. Wouk identifies the inside as a place where a person can be comfortable within their Jewish identity, and the outside as the way the world interacts and influences this (also where anti-Semitism runs rampant). Wouk continuously emphasizes his own neglect of his “inside” as he struggled with the norms of American culture. The shame that he felt by ignoring his own identity made it hard to find balance between the two worlds at times, and Goodkind eventually realized what he was doing. For example, the lighthearted story of his Bobbeh’s famous sauerkraut. A delicatessen she prepares inside their home, drives their neighbors to make fun of and criticize them. Such a simple narrative harps on a much deeper issue – the struggle that many endure when trying to get others to understand a culture much different from their own, and how easy it is to feel shameful of something that is not the norm. When referring to Goodkind’s Bobbeh and her attachment to making sauerkraut, a man exclaims: “’She’s-a-mistake’” (Wouk). The dismissal of something so small moved his grandmother to cry – reflecting he historical controversy of accepting Jews in American territory. This ties into the pain that many immigrants face when trying their best to assimilate in a new culture. Adding emphasis on how easy it was for Goodkind to ignore where he came from, and feel the shame from outsiders’ jokes, the narrative continuously dwells on the dialogue that he struggles with when he is younger. This illustrates what he must have felt about embracing and being open about his identity, all the while trying to be “American” at the same time, given others’ criticisms. We can see the struggle with Jewish identity as each relationship develops and Goodkind explains a multitude of childhood experiences. For example: when Goodkind has his bar mitzvah he is ecstatic because he is having an article written in the paper about him. Only to his own horror does he realize the article exaggerates some of his accomplishments, and makes him look like a fool. This causes him to be rejected from an elite social group at school, and he turns into a laughing stock: “I faced it in silence, and let them joke and laugh themselves out. I didn’t say anything. I just stood there and took it” (Wouk 193). His easy retreat into letting the American boys have their way is a striking situation that can be used to illustrate the growth that Israel exemplifies as he matures into a balance between the two identities. How easy it was to let the outside have control! As the story progresses we can examine how the balance between the two realms comes to be. This reflects the internal dialogue that Wouk struggled with when he was younger, and throughout the story we can see the how he matures, and in turn uses the lessons he learned to become the man he was destined to be: a writer!
In addition to the childhood stories, the social and political controversies that underlie this tale are numerous. On one hand, you have the reference of the exploitation of the president with the Watergate scandal. Goodkind works for the scheming president and finds a friend in him, a very interesting occurrence. There is not much that Goodkind delves into about their relationship. So, I believe their friendship was meant to deflect from the political undertones and focus on the central idea: the experience of growing up as a Jewish immigrant in the Bronx and the struggle to incorporate an entirely new culture. The way that the story mirrors Wouk’s real life is quite obvious: While Wouk grew up as a young Jew in the Bronx, Goodkind does too. Goodkind’s involvement in the war reflect Wouk’s actual experiences as well. Many other aspects of the protagonist also embody Wouk’s life, such as when he decides to be a comedic writer. It is widely known that Wouk worked for comedian Fred Allen for some time. The most obvious aspect of Wouk’s life that is reflected is the saturation and pressure surrounding a Jewish lifestyle. At one point in his life, Wouk claimed “to hell with that noise” (concerning the Talmud, or Jewish Bible), illustrating the idea behind Goodkind’s journey with his own Jewish identity (bibliography.com). There is ambivalence behind his own religious roots and the use of comedy in his career as a writer, and this is exemplified through the stories he tells. This also reflects the push and pull between Goodkind’s Jewish and American identity. We can see the conflict that exists in reality. Different realms of Judaism are also emphasized, such as that of the Zionist influence of his father, which obviously had a huge impact on Wouk as a writer in his real life. Due to these examples, it is evident that Goodkind is the literary parallel to Wouk. Because we have his background on these pages, we can understand the hardships Wouk faced and how they may have shaped him as an author. The final line of the novel: “’Call me Israel’” (Wouk 644) reflects Wouk’s entire motive and says much about his personal identification with Goodkind, tying up the long journey that was his childhood. This is also an allusion to the famous story of “Moby Dick”, as Ishmael was the rejected son of Abraham and Israel or Jacob was Abraham’s grandson. This brings together all of Wouk’s insight about American writing, Judaism, and the introduction to Zionism and allows the character development to come full circle. These three realms combine and we are able to relate to Wouk on a level where he is in touch with his many roots- in a place where the “inside” and the “outside” aren’t at competition. Goodkind comes to terms with his place in America as a Jewish man, and in turn we can hopefully assume that Wouk has as well. We can use this assumption to examine other works, and how his childhood may have been an influence.
The clash between history and cultural practices and social norms allow “Inside, Outside” to be completely relatable. It is not easy balancing life when you are a minority trying to navigate a new culture and way of life. The tale of Israel Goodkind ultimately opens up a dialogue that gives acknowledgment to the uneasiness that many immigrants must face internally and hopefully promotes a more understanding environment. The humorous small details that Wouk weaves into this larger narrative allow his novel to function as a voice for the Jewish people by shedding light on personal conflicts. The lightheartedness of childhood stories filter in to the bigger picture of internal dialogue. This message could be worth all the backlash the book initially received, providing insight into an author’s life that allow us to appreciate and understand his Jewish perspective. It is only necessary that Wouk had a chance to give us a glimpse of his personal life – whether the critics thought so or not. This novel adds more of a voice about the role of his Jewish identity and the balance Wouk has not only had to find in writing, but in America as well.