Herman Wouk was born in the Bronx on May 27, 1915. His parents, Abraham Isaac and Esther Levine, were Jewish Russian immigrants who had both fled the city of Minsk and then met in America. Wouk had two siblings: an older brother, Victor, and an older sister, Irene. Wouk's was a very traditional Orthodox Jewish family, which instilled in Wouk the values of the Scriptures and Talmud. Wouk's education began at Townsend Harris High School, an elite program for students with high IQs, followed by a semester at Yeshiva High School, and then Columbia College. The two most influential men that Wouk encountered in his schoolings were his maternal grandfather, Rabbi Mendel Leib Levine, who taught Wouk the Torah, and his Columbia philosophy professor, Irwin Edman. The radical theories that Edman introduced to Wouk caused Wouk to largely ignore his orthodox beliefs before returning to them in 1940.

Wouk's literary career had its beginnings at Columbia. There, he composed two varsity shows, edited the college humor magazine, the Jester, and regularly contributed a humor column to Columbia's daily paper, the Columbia Spectator. Wouk graduated college and entered a tough job market, taking a position as a joke writer for the famous radio comedian David Freedman. After becoming bored with Freedman's formulaic jokes, Wouk moved on to write scripts for Fred Allen. After thirteen years in the radio business, a pursuit that had been earning Wouk $500 per week, Pearl Harbor inspired him to enroll in midshipman school at Columbia. Wouk had applied to the school earlier, but his engineering knowledge had not qualified him for acceptance under peacetime guidelines.

The wartime navy was "the great experience of [Wouk's] life," as Wouk puts it. He was cast out of the world of typewriters and one-line gags into a world of embattled people and machines of war. Many of the incidences of Wouk's career show up in the career of his fictional character Willie Keith. Wouk served on a dilapidated World War I minesweeper called the Zane, and was later transferred to another minesweeper called the Southard. At the end of the war, Wouk was an executive officer of the Southard, with a recommendation to relieve the captain, but the ship was swamped in a typhoon before he could take over. On a shore break in San Francisco in 1944, Wouk met his future wife, Betty Brown, a USC Phi Beta Kappa who was serving as a personnel officer with the Navy during the war years.

Wouk did not write very much while at sea, but he did read a lot. At the age of twenty-nine, Wouk discovered Miguel Cervantes, author of Don Quijote, a writer who Wouk called "the key" to understanding his career. While in the military, Wouk wrote the first few chapters of his first novel, Aurora Dawn. He sent those chapters to Professor Edman at Columbia, who convinced a Simon & Schuster executive to publish the book upon its completion. The novel was published in 1946 and became a Book-of-the-Month Club selection. Aurora Dawn created a name for Herman Wouk. The author's next novel, City Boy, did not meet with the immediate success of Aurora Dawn, but did become a Book-of-the-Month Club selection in 1973, twenty-five years after its initial publication.

The Caine Mutiny was completed and published in March of 1951. Wouk describes the purpose of the novel in a work journal as "to concretize the hatred of normal young Americans for military life which is mistakenly transferred to the regular military men who symbolize it." Like City Boy, The Caine Mutiny did not meet with immediate success, but by September of 1951, it was the nation's best-selling novel, a position it would hold on to for more than a year. Though criticism of the book was varied, and questions of its literary merit abounded, in May of 1952 the novel won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Since then, The Caine Mutiny has sold more than three million copies, been translated into seventeen languages, and been converted into a successful play and movie. Since The Caine Mutiny, Wouk has released a wide cannon of novels, and experimented with play and scriptwriting. Some regard The Caine Mutiny as Wouk's best work.