Herman Wouk's third novel, "The Caine Mutiny" depicts the transformation of a young sailor, Willie Keith, into the commander of the U.S.S. Caine, taking over for a paranoid Captain Queeg and his eventual court-martial. But the novel tells more than just one man's coming-of-age; like Herman Melville's Captain Ahab in Moby Dick, Wouk questions man's sanity through the paranoid Queeg and also asks what man's responsibility is to each other. If the fast-paced adventures in the South Pacific were not enough, the author weaves a tale of romance between Keith and a night club singer.
In a gripping novel about life aboard an old US Navy minesweeper, the U.S.S Caine, a tough-nut veteran, Captain Queeg takes command and immediately sets about tightening up the ship's bored and relaxed crew with their shirt tails hanging out and faces unshaven. Edward Weeks of Atlantic Monthly felt that "It has the time sense, the enormous boredom, the sense of being hopelessly isolated and cut off from home, which every veteran remembers; it has the scope and the skill to reveal how men are tested, exposed, and developed under the long routine of war; finally, it has the slow-fused but inevitably accumulating tension of the Mutiny which gives both form and explosive climax to the story." Queeg's officers begin to question his ability to command after he makes some dubious mistakes and blames other people for them, refusing to admit he was wrong. The officers take exception and their resentment increases when they are ordered to tear the ship apart to look for an ethereal icebox key after some strawberries are found missing. Queeg is certain that someone had to have a key! We are left to wonder if he really is a bit nutty or maybe he is just trying to run a very tight ship in every possible way. (Although missing strawberries seem a bit excessive!)
Things come to a head when in a brutal typhoon, the ship is in danger of foundering and Queeg is barking orders to steer one way while his Executive Officer (XO), Keith (Wouk was an XO as well) believes they should steer the other way, thinking it the safer option. Queeg freezes in the tension of the moment and does not seem to know what to do. In that instant the Keith assumes command, backed up by the officer on deck. They sail the ship into safety but a trial ensues once back in port and the two officers are charged with mutiny, punishable by death.The court-martial finale ruthlessly strips down the main characters. After which they suddenly seem very small and wonder if what they did was right and maybe they were to blame for the captain's paranoia.
Wouk wrote his novel based on his own experiences aboard the destroyer-minesweeper Zane and the minesweeper U.S.S. Southard. After acquiring Harold Matson, "one of the best agents in the business," according to John Tebbell in his book "History of Book Publishing in the U.S.," Wouk was turned down by two publishers. They were apparently turned off by Matson asking for a rather large $20,000 advance, the mild success of Wouk's first two books, and were convinced that the public wanted to forget the war rather than read about it. Fortunately for Wouk, Lee Barker at Doubleday accepted the book although he would later say, "I thought it was a gamble. But I thought that it would be a major book club selection and that it would sell around 50,000 copies. I was wrong on both counts."
Published by Doubleday on March 17, 1951, The Caine Mutiny was generally warmly received by critics and the public. Most reviewers pointed to Wouk's stylistic improvement over his two previous works. W.K. Harrison wrote in the Library Journal that "superb writing and deft characterization make this the most exciting sea story since "Mutiny on the Bounty," and E.L. Acken of the New York Herald Tribune Book review called it "a provocative book, full of authentic people and atmosphere." However, it was not an overnight success. According to the New York Times Book Review, the book sales were "ordinary " for the first three months before catching fire over the Summer. In a Book Review interview, Wouk said, ""The Caine Mutiny" didn't hit the top of the bestsellers list for a good many months after publication. By that time the advertising push and the influence of the favorable reviews had lost their steam. The publishers tell me it was unique for a book to push on up there after so long a time. Naturally, it's very pleasing to me. Word-of-mouth comment by readers must have done it."
After being turned down by several book clubs, Reader's Digest Condensed Books chose it and it slowly began to sell. Doubleday was so desperate to sell the book after its large investment that they began to offer bookstores free copies if they purchased a certain number of copies. But a peculiar endorsement out west perhaps ignited the "spontaneous combustion," as the New York Times Book review described it. "The Caine Mutiny" first became a bestseller in San Francisco, when the city's best known bookseller, Peter Elder, Jr., of Elder's, took out a full page advertisement in The San Francisco Chronicle to give his personal recommendation and "offered a refund to any customer who bought the book and didn't like it." Wouk's theory that the public's excitement for the book drove its sales seems true. It would go on to sell 236,000 copies in 1951 and another 189,000 in 1952. "The Caine Mutiny" remained on the bestseller list for over two and a half years, also receiving the Pulitzer prize for literature. By 1975, it had sold over two million copies and is still in-print today.
The fact remains that to explain the popularity of "The Caine Mutiny," one needs to examine some of the other books on the bestseller lists of 1951 and 1952. People were very interested in stories set against the backdrop of their time and specifically World War II. Just seven years after the end of World War II, four of the top ten fiction bestsellers were war books. "From Here To Eternity", an army novel by James Jones topped the list along with "The Caine Mutiny" in second and Nicholas Monsarrat's "The Cruel Sea" and John P. Marquand's "Melville Goodwin, U.S.A." in sixth and seventh respectively. "From Here to Eternity" is a similar novel in that it depicted an army unit in conflict, in their case, just before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Just as Wouk wrote several other "war" books, Jones' novel was the first in a trilogy. The most glaring difference between the two book is that "From Here to Eternity" caused an uproar because of its vulgarity and Wouk's was praised for his soldiers' tasteful dialogue and behavior.
But "The Caine Mutiny[?s]" popularity outstretched the desire for people to read books about the war as it became the only repeat bestseller and only book about the war, still in second place, the following year in 1952. "The Silver Chalice" by
Thomas B. Costain headed the list. Reading books set in World War II as a trend was over, but "the Caine Mutiny " would stay on the best seller list for over 130 weeks. One reason may be because it was noted for its realistic portrayal and detail of naval life in addition to its compelling characters and intriguing and adventurous storyline. Overall, reviewers praised Wouk's third effort and recommended it to read. Many readers found it refreshing and skillfully done that Wouk was able to so effectively nail down Naval life, dialogue and the experience with such vivid clarity without using obscenities. America in the 50's was still very sensitive to four-letter words and profanity. Although the typical wartime soldier cussed, people did not necessarily want to have to read it or especially have their children read it. Kelsey Guilfoil of the Chicago Sunday Tribune praised "The Caine Mutiny" for being "a real story, not a drab and wearisome account of the extracurricular activities of the service man-wenching and drinking and malicious scuttlebutt talk."
Nash Burger from The New York Times Book Review noted that, "The Caine Mutiny" got up there [bestseller list] too, without the lurid incidents and the flood of four-letter words that have marked some war novels." Apparently, Americans grew tired of the gruff, foul-mouthed and poorly behaved image of the U.S. soldier and embraced Wouk's officer's tough dilemmas that caused them to think instead of swear. Wouk said that not using profanity was "a problem I met on page one and faced up to. Sure there are a lot of four-letter words used in and out of the Navy. But I think you can report conversations realistically without going overboard on the obscenity. It's just a matter of taste. Many writers, Twain, Conrad, even Hemingway, for example, have set down convincingly the dialogue of characters who you know must have used four-letter words constantly, but the words are not recorded. Their talk is real, though."
In addition to these factors, the real U.S. Navy was very proud of Wouk's depiction in "the Caine Mutiny." Wouk said, "I've had letters from admirals, letters from people in War College, letters from ordinary sailors. All say the book is a fair picture of the Navy. Nobody has bawled me out. I just wrote about the Navy as I knew it." Not only did the Navy not "bawl" him out, but the Navy sent Wouk a letter of congratulations upon receiving the Pulitzer Prize. "Congratulations from the Navy and from this office in particular on a high honor well-earned," signed Rear Admiral R.F. Hickey, Secretary of the Navy. The Navy's endorsement of his work must have aided his book's popularity within the army and for so many children who looked upon those soldiers as heroes.
After the novel fell off the bestseller list, the release and success of "The Caine Mutiny" feature film in 1954, directed by Stanley Kramer and starring Humphrey Bogart undoubtedly boosted its popularity ad kept its sales and readership high. The movie received seven Academy Award Nominations, including Best Picture, Actor (Bogart), Supporting Actor (Tom Tully) and Screenplay (written by Wouk).
Wouk also adapted his book into a play, "The Caine Mutiny Court-martial" which debuted on Broadway and has appeared all over the country in playhouses and repertoires. The play version still plays frequently as it remains a favorite of Acting troupes and helps keep people interested in the book. Its adaptation into a TV movie aired in 1988, starring Jeff Daniels and Peter Gallagher. The fact that it is still being produced and watched proves its timelessness. Not just a book for the 50s, Wouk's ability to raise broader questions about mankind keep it fresh. Only recently, 1n 1995, a movie, "Crimson Tide" adapted Wouk's mutiny-at-sea theme in a modern context, but reusing many of "The Caine Mutiny[?s]" moral responsibility themes.
Lee Rogow of "The Saturday Review of Literature" seemed to capture the novel's shortcomings as a poor love story and its power as a great sea depiction and conflict "As a novel of how the ninety-day-wonder found his manhood and his girl "The Caine Mutiny" misses by a long sea mile, But as a modern sea adventure it is absolutely first-rank reading." Wouk did not help (and probably hurt) the promotions of his books as he remained a private and guarded citizen, only occasionally granting interviews. He never sought the limelight or attention that goes with being "one of the most successful novelists of the next thirty years [50s,60s,70s]," but rather avoided the national media stage. The Associated Press reported on May 24, 1951 that "He chose to dodge his publication date in March by taking his family to Mexico for two weeks?It wasn't until his return that he was told, by his mother who met him at the station there, that the daily reviewers were praising it with no reservations." Nash Burger, of the New York Times Book Review described Wouk as "a youngish, amiable, easy-talking fellow?looking more like the undergraduate editor of the Columbia Jester (which he once was) than a former writer for the Fred Allen Show or naval officer in World War II or?author of the current bestseller "The Caine Mutiny."" Several years later, the same publication wrote "and what about Mr. Wouk? He's in relative hiding. He's been working hard and has a new novel nearly finished?"
The success story that is "The Caine Mutiny" occurred because of the harmony of Wouk's masterpiece which did not need a public author, the right readers at the right time to enjoy it and appreciate its dilemmas, and an effective use of other mediums to carry on its tradition into the present, nearly fifty years later to make it a timeless classic.