The Caine Mutiny (1951) by Herman Wouk

The Caine Mutiny was published in 1951, only six years after the end of WWII. It was a best-seller on and off for three years and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1952. During the war Herman Wouk served on a ship similar to the Caine.

I caught the movie on TV as a kid late one night when I probably should have been in bed. As a book, it’s been on my TBR list for a long time and I put it on my Classics Club list in the hopes of finally getting around to it.

While I love seafaring stories and usually enjoy WWII fiction, I was hesitant to pick it up all these years because there were court room scenes. I don’t often enjoy court room scenes, which, in my mind, tend read like this: He said this, she said that, guilty or innocent, the end.

That was so not the case with this novel. I was riveted by the court room scenes and those immediately following the verdict had me cheering in my chair.

From the publisher:  The novel that inspired the now-classic film The Caine Mutiny and the hit Broadway play The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, Herman Wouk’s boldly dramatic, brilliantly entertaining novel of life-and mutiny-on a Navy warship in the Pacific theater was immediately embraced, upon its original publication in 1951, as one of the first serious works of American fiction to grapple with the moral complexities and the human consequences of World War II. In the intervening half century, The Caine Mutiny has become a perennial favorite of readers young and old, has sold millions of copies throughout the world, and has achieved the status of a modern classic.

The story begins with Willie Keith’s mom dropping him off for officer’s training with the US Navy. Keith is a soft, spoiled Princeton graduate who has been playing piano gigs at night clubs. He joins the Navy only after receiving his draft notice from the US Army. He thinks he’d rather float on a boat for the duration than be Army meat. There’s a girl in the background that mom and dad don’t know about.

Willie makes it through training by the skin of his teeth and manages to keep the girl hidden from his parents as he ships off for his first assignment. He arrives in Hawaii but misses his ship which just pulled out. He makes no effort to catch up with his ship and instead enjoys months of easy duty, playing piano at evenings parties for an Admiral.

When Willie finally makes it to his ship it’s a rusty old tin can with a captain–de Vriess–that seems anything but professional to our young hero. Willie proves himself to be a self-centered, slow study, and is happy to hear a new captain will soon be taking over because his problems cannot possibly be of his own making.

Enter Captain Queeg and his steel balls.
[If you have no desire to read this book, at least watch the movie with Bogart. It’s nowhere near as good as the book, but still a good movie.]

Like all good novels that have had steady readership for a few decades, there’s so much that can be discussed about The Caine Mutiny: Military culture, life aboard ship, the books and writers mentioned throughout, class issues, race issues, homophobia (there’s a glaring instance of it during Queeg’s trial), morality, citizen soldiers vs military professionals, readers vs non-readers to name a few.

Ebook and my 1951 Sears Readers Club edition

There’s some weird male nudity going on in the book. I asked my cousin, Dave, who served in the Navy in the 1970s, about the nudity he experienced aboard ship and he said it was relegated to the shower room. He read the novel and agreed the nudity was a bit odd.

I bring this up because probing the representations of male nudity would be a fun essay to write. I didn’t detect any homoeroticism around the nudity, rather it seems to convey a variety of feelings and attitudes, from urgency to a lack of respect to it simply being too damn hot to wear clothes. There’s also heavy-handed comparison of an all-hands strip-search of the sailors to a “German rape of their personal rights,” but its an action that’s ordered by Captain Queeg “and the fact that they [the sailors] were submitting so tamely was an indication of the way the Queeg regime had weakened the crew’s spirit.”

Of course the male nudity signifies an absence of women. As is often the case with war novels from this time period (or most time periods), there aren’t many women characters, but the two in this novel play important roles in Willie’s maturation:

Willie’s mom: Willie is a young man, still very much a boy at the beginning of the novel. Mom and the life she represents is what Willie is rebelling against. In an effort to grow up and make his own life, he’s pushing against her to figure out what he wants to do both professionally and personally. It’s interesting to note that Willie’s father also uses his wife, Willie’s mother, as an excuse for the choices he’s made in his own life. Once the captains of the Caine enter the picture, Willie pushes against them. It’s what adolescents do, right? There’s much to be explored about healthy adulthood and leadership vs adolescence and developmentally stunted adults. In the end, Mom says something that opens Willie’s eyes to how his own assumptions shaped his behavior. Go Mom.

Back of dust jacket, Sears Readers Club edition

Willie’s girlfriend, May: This is a classic tale of lovers from opposite sides of the tracks. He’s a wealthy Princeton graduate WASP from the suburbs, she’s the Catholic daughter of Italian immigrants who live above their shop in the city. She sings in night clubs, is a good looker, and has a hot body. Willie talks a lot about literature and she ends up going to college and reading lots of Dickens. “You talked me into wanting to read,” she tells him. Eventually, however, May gets tired of being yanked around by an immature guy. It is in part her decision to disconnect from Willie that eventually helps him grow up and start to figure out what he wants to do with his life after the war.

Other women: WAVES get slammed, but its more of a reflection on the slammer than the slammee (as is almost always the case). One of the guys who chose a safe, soft position in the Navy writes in a letter to Willie, “I could have a harem of Waves, if I cared for big behinds and hairy legs, but I guess I am a little fussy.” First of all, wishful thinking, sailor. Second, this is an example of a man who tries to bolster his weakened or guilty ego with imagined sexual prowess. Third and historically, I know woman Marines were often called BAMs–Broad Assed Marines. Some old timers insist this was a term of affection, but I find that doubtful and it’s certainly not a polite moniker.

There’s the general attitude that whatever a man’s position in the military, he could be a hero, whereas a woman has no chance:

“If the OOD should drop dead or fall over the side it was conceivable that he, Ensign Keith, might take the conn, sink a submarine, and win great glory. It was not likely–but it was possible, whereas it was not possible, for example, that his mother might do it.” 

This military performance anxiety makes some men despise women in the military and it compels writers like Hemingway bash a writer like Cather for daring to be a woman who writes about war. [Personally, I think he was just bitter that she wrote a novel that veterans of WWI adored, One of Ours. It won the Pulitzer in 1923.]

And I thought the following reflection a fascinating understanding of the psychology of veterans, human memory, and patriotism. It made me think of how the boys who served in WWII came to be called The Greatest Generation:

“He was on his way to fight in battles as great as any in the histories. But these would appear to him mere welters of nasty, complicated, tiresome activity. Only in after years, reading books describing the scenes in which he had been engaged, would he begin to think of his battles as Battles. Only then, when the heat of youth was gone, would he come to warm himself with the fanned-up glow of the memory that he, too, Willie Keith, had fought on Saint Crispin’s Day.”

I enjoyed reading this novel and will no doubt re-read it someday because although I found myself cheering at the lawyer’s post-verdict tongue lashing that he gives the officers of the Caine, I’m not so sure I completely agree with him anymore.

The Caine Mutiny
Herman Wouk
Doubleday, 1951
Source: used hardcover and ebook I purchased

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