Bellow, Saul (10 June 1915 - 5 April 2005)
Saul Bellow (10 June 1915 - 5 April 2005)
Keith M. Opdahl
This entry was expanded by Opdahl from his Bellow entry in DLB 28: Twentieth-Century American-Jewish Fiction Writers. See also the Bellow entries in DLB 2: American Novelists Since World War II; DLB 299: Holocaust Novelists; and DLB Yearbook: 1982.
BOOKS: Dangling Man (New York: Vanguard, 1944; London: Lehmann, 1946);
The Victim (New York: Vanguard, 1947; London: Lehmann, 1948);
The Adventures of Augie March (New York: Viking, 1953; London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1954);
Seize the Day (New York: Viking, 1956; London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1957);
Henderson the Rain King (New York: Viking, 1959; London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1959);
Herzog (New York: Viking, 1964; London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1965);
The Last Analysis: A Play (New York: Viking, 1965; London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966);
Mosby’s Memoirs and Other Stories (New York: Viking, 1968; London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1969);
Mr. Sammler’s Planet (New York: Viking, 1970; London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1970);
The Portable Saul Bellow, edited by Edith Tarcov (New York: Viking, 1974; Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1977);
Humboldt’s Gift (New York: Viking, 1975; London: Secker & Warburg, 1975);
To Jerusalem and Back: A Personal Account (New York: Viking, 1976; London: Secker & Warburg, 1976);
The Dean’s December (New York: Harper & Row, 1982; London: Secker & Warburg, 1982);
Him with His Foot in His Mouth and Other Stories (New York: Harper & Row, 1984; London: Secker & Warburg, 1984);
More Die of Heartbreak (New York: Morrow, 1987; London: Alison, 1987);
A Theft (New York: Penguin, 1989; London: Alison [Secker & Warburg], 1989);
The Bellarosa Connection (New York: Penguin, 1989; London: Penguin, 1989);
Something to Remember Me By: Three Tales (New York: Viking, 1991; London: Secker & Warburg, 1992);
It All Adds Up: From the Dim Past to the Uncertain Future (New York: Viking, 1994; London: Secker & Warburg, 1994);
The Actual (New York: Viking, 1997; London: Viking, 1997);
Ravelstein (New York: Viking, 2000; London: Viking, 2000);
Collected Stories (New York: Viking, 2001; London: Viking, 2001);
Bellow Novels 1944-1953 (New York: Library of America, 2003)—comprises The Dangling Man, The Victim, and The Adventures of Augie March.
PLAY PRODUCTIONS: The Last Analysis, New York, Belasco Theater, 1 October 1964;
Under the Weather, London, 7 June 1966; Spoleto, Italy, Festival of Two Worlds, 14 July 1966; New York, Cort Theatre, 27 October 1966—comprised A Wen, Orange Soifflé, and Out from Under.
OTHER: Isaac Bashevis Singer, “Gimpel the Fool,” translated by Bellow, Partisan Review, 20 (May-June 1953): 300-313;
“Distractions of a Fiction Writer,” in The Living Novel, edited by Granville Hicks (New York: Macmillan, 1957), pp. 1-20;
Noble Savage, edited by Bellow, Keith Botsford, and Aaron Asher, 5 volumes (New York: Meridian, 1960-1962);
Great Jewish Short Stories, edited by Bellow (New York: Dell, 1963);
“Literature,” in The Great Ideas Today, edited by Mortimer Adler and Robert M. Hutchins (Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1963), pp. 135-179;
“Zetland: By A Character Witness,” in Modern Occasions, edited by Philip Rahv (Port Washington, N.Y: Kennikat Press, 1974), pp. 9-30;
Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind, foreword by Bellow (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987).
SELECTED PERIODICAL PUBLICATIONS-UNCOLLECTED:
“Two Morning Monologues,” Partisan Review, 8 (May-June 1941): 230-236;
“A Sermon by Dr. Pep,” Partisan Review, 16 (May-June 1949): 455-462;
“The Trip to Galena,” Partisan Review, 17 (November-December 1950): 769-794;
“Address by Gooley MacDowell to the Hasbeens Club of Chicago,” Hudson Review, 4 (Summer 1951): 222-227;
A Wen, Esquire, 63 (January 1965): 72-74ff.;
Orange Soufflé, Esquire, 64 (October 1965): 130-136.
“The Jewish Writer and the English Literary Tradition,” Commentary, 8 (October 1949): 366-367;
“Dreiser and the Triumph of Art,” Commentary, 11 (May 1951): 502-503;
“Man Underground,” Commentary, 13 (June 1952): 608-610;
“Laughter in the Ghetto,” Saturday Review of Literature, 36 (30 May 1953): 15;
“Hemingway and the Image of Man” [review of Philip Young, Ernest Hemingway], Partisan Review, 20 (1953): 338-342;
“How I Wrote Augie March’s Story,” New York Times Book Review, 31 January 1954, pp. 3, 17;
“Deep Readers of the World, Beware!” New York Times Book Review, 15 February 1959, pp. 1, 34;
“Where Do We Go From Here: The Future of Fiction,” Michigan Quarterly Review, 1 (Winter 1962): 27-33;
“Memoirs of a Bootlegger’s Son,” Granta, 41 (1992): 9-35;
“The Next Chapter,” National Rreview, 52, no. 1 (24 January 2000): 34.
As an American winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1976, Saul Bellow inherited the mantle of Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner; but he never became a culture hero like those two nor a cult figure like Jorge Luis Borges or Gabriel García Márquez. When in 1979 The New York Times Book Review asked twenty leading intellectuals which books since 1945 would count among the hundred most important books in Western civilization, Bellow was not mentioned. However, when Philip Roth was asked who are “the great inventors of narrative detail and masters of narrative voice and perspective,” he replied, “James, Conrad, Dostoevski and Bellow.” In 1994 some of Britain’s leading writers and critics told The Sunday Times that Bellow was “the greatest living novelist writing in English.”
Bellow enjoyed the kind of reputation that is won by solid and accomplished work. He was a private person, and in his public appearances he was sometimes distant or moody. But as a writer he caught and articulated the sometimes hidden feelings of the modern era. Bellow showed what alienation actually is on a winter afternoon, or precisely how American culture crushes a mediocre man.
Bellow was born Solomon Bellow in Lachine, Quebec, on 10 June 1915, two years after his parents, Abraham and Liza Gordin Bellow, had emigrated from St. Petersburg, Russia (where their surname had been spelled “Belo,” from byelo, Russian for white). His father was a daring and not always successful businessman who in Russia had imported Egyptian onions (Bellow describes him in an unpublished manuscript excerpted in “Memoirs of a Bootlegger’s Son”  as a “sharpie circa 1905”) and in the New World attempted several often unconventional businesses. Solomon (“Solly”) was their youngest child, with a sister and two brothers.
The Bellowses lived in a slum on St. Dominique Street “between a market and a hospital,” Bellow has said; “I was generally preoccupied with what went on in it and watched from the stairs and windows.” His father, who blamed himself for the family’s poverty, worried that Solly would see too much; and the boy did witness violence and sexuality, saying later that the raw reality of St. Dominique Street made all else in his life seem strange and foreign. “Little since then has worked upon me with such force,” Bellow wrote, and he returned to the scene in some of his novels. He lived amid the color and spirituality of an earlier era: Lachine was “a medieval ghetto... my childhood was in ancient times which was true of all orthodox Jews.” By the age of four he knew the Book of Genesis in Hebrew.
Lachine was also a multilingual environment, and young Bellow learned Yiddish, French, and English, as well as Hebrew. Taken ill with peritonitis, he spent six months in the Royal Hospital (in the tuberculosis ward) with nothing to do but read. But by the time his family had moved to Humboldt Park in Chicago, when he was nine, he was healthy enough for sports as well as his many intellectual projects. Humboldt Park was a neighborhood of immigrants, filled with the cultural and intellectual activity of sidewalk orators, branch libraries, and mission houses. By the time he attended Tuley High School, Bellow had such friends as Isaac Rosenfeld, future newspaper columnist Sydney J. Harris, and David Peltz, who remembers that “Solly Bellows was the most precocious of the lot—a good runner on the track team, a fair swimmer, middling tennis player, but a remarkable writer even then.”
Bellow’s family continued to have financial problems. His mother died when he was fifteen, and when he was seventeen he and Harris ran away to New York for a few weeks to peddle their first novels, unsuccessfully. From 1933 to 1935 his father managed to find the money for Bellow to attend the University of Chicago, where he felt the dense cultural atmosphere to be suffocating. He left when a fatal accident involving his father’s coal truck ruined what was left of the family finances. He was nevertheless able to transfer to Northwestern, where he founded a socialists’ club and graduated in 1937 with honors in sociology and anthropology. He wished to study literature but was advised that anti-Semitism would thwart his career, and so he accepted a scholarship to study anthropology at the University of Wisconsin, where his professor told him he wrote anthropology like a good novelist. In Chicago on New Year’s Eve 1937, Bellow married Anita Goshkin, a social worker, and abandoned his graduate work. “In my innocence,” he said, “I had decided to become a writer.”
It was a bold decision at that time, and such boldness has characterized Bellow’s work ever since. His greatest strength as a novelist is his style, which is fluid and rich, picking up the rhythms and energy of Yiddish and the plain speech and sharply observed detail of the Midwest. His style is precise and implies an integrity that has at times gotten Bellow into trouble. In an era of experimentalism Bellow was a realist, claiming that “the development of realism in the nineteenth century is still the major event of modern literature.” When alienation was popular, Bellow celebrated accommodation. He reacted to the popularity of the Jewish novel by turning to a WASP protagonist (in Henderson the Rain King, 1959), and he met America’s new youth culture head-on with the creation of a seventy-year-old protagonist (in Mr. Sammler’s Planet, 1970). Yet, in most of these ventures he was successful, largely because of his fertile imagination and clarity of mind.
Bellow’s greatest difficulty as a writer lies in plot. He has confessed this difficulty, and many critics believe his novels to be formless. If Bellow’s characters are colorful and his situations telling, he characteristically gives too much: too many ideas, too many characters, and too many memorable details for readers to discern a simple story or central focus. But Bellow is not as formless as he seems, since his point is often the subtle insight of the realist, so easily lost among his comic characters and rich descriptions, and he himself is a diligent craftsman, working through draft after draft. But the fact remains that his art is one of clearing and solidifying an abundance of materials, and when he has finished with the process, the reader is invited to do the same.
Indeed, this density of life is one of Bellow’s central themes. So too is the malice or nastiness of his protagonist and those around him. Another theme is the experience of transcendence and the fact that the issues that confront people are ultimately metaphysical or religious, an element that provides one of the keys to Bellow’s style: the sense of a special meaning or significance just out of reach adds another dimension to his precisely detailed physical world. A society that can invent the inner life but give it no nourishment, a universe that requires one to twist oneself to survive within its force, a protagonist seeking most of all to cure himself of some unknown malady—all of these are typical Bellow themes.
Bellow has insisted that he is not that exotic creature, the Jew who writes in English, but an American writer—a Western writer who happens to be Jewish. “I did not go to the public library to read the Talmud,” Bellow says of his Chicago days, “but the novels and poems of Sherwood Anderson, Theodore Dreiser, Edgar Lee Masters, and Vachel Lindsay.” Bellow nevertheless is singled out by Allen Guttmann in The Jewish Writer in America (1971) as portraying the full range of American Jewish experience. Bellow’s comedy, intellectualism, moral preoccupation and alienation, his concern with the family and with rough Eastern European immigrants, his obsession with the past and with the dangers of an alien world, his emphasis on purity, his sense, as Alfred Kazin says, “of the unreality of this world as opposed to God’s”—all of these elements bespeak his deep Jewish concern.
Certainly the fact that he was Jewish added a special tension to his decision to be a writer, for he entered a world dominated by WASPs from New England. He worked for the Work Projects Administration doing biographical sketches of Midwestern writers and then taught at Pestalozzi-Froebel Teacher’s College in Chicago. He went to Mexico in 1940, writing the neverpublished novel “Acatla,” and lived, he says, a bohemian life. But these years were not all gaiety: “I sat on a bridge table in a back bedroom of the apartment while all rational, serious, dutiful people were at their jobs or trying to find jobs, writing something.” After lunch with his mother-in-law, in whose apartment he lived, he would walk the city streets. “If I had been a dog I would have howled,” he has written. He managed in 1941 to place a short story in the Partisan Review,“Two Morning Monologues,” about a young man waiting for the draft; the next year he placed another, “The Mexican General,” about the assassination of Leon Trotsky, which happened on the day before Bellow was to meet with him. And in 1943 Partisan Review published part of his novel in progress.
Perhaps the most memorable quality of this first novel, published in 1944 as Dangling Man, is the tone of voice: modeled after that of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Die Aufzeichnungen des Maltes Laurids Brigge (1910; translated as The Journal of My Other Self, 1930), the voice is frank and honest, compensating for its self-pity by the depth and precision of its observation. Taking on Hemingway, the protagonist Joseph jibes at the hard-boiled: “If you have difficulties, grapple with them silently, goes one of their commandments. To hell with that! I intend to talk about mine, and if I had as many mouths as Siva has arms and kept them going all the time, I still could not do myself justice.”
Like Bellow himself, Joseph has been kept dangling by his draft board, bound in the red tape surrounding his Canadian birth. His ostensibly formless journal is actually shaped by his increasing lack of self-control, as he records first the failure of his attempts to write or to prepare himself for the army, and then his disappointment with his friends, his wife, his in-laws, and his mistress. Wanting to forge a self that would be “a member of the Army, but not a part of it,” he must watch himself become overwhelmed by a hundred trivial details, as his self-control leaves him and the nasty temper he has remarked in others comes to dominate. When he strikes his landlord and realizes that his sense of the strangeness and impermanence of the world has grown, he gives up, crying “Long live regimentation.”
One anonymous critic for Time (8 May 1944) thought Joseph was a “stinker,” but other reviewers gave the book a remarkably affirmative judgment. Edmund Wilson, Peter DeVries, Diana Trilling, and Delmore Schwartz all felt this first novel worthy of their attention. Wilson, in The New Yorker (1 April 1944), called it “one of the most honest pieces of testimony on the psychology of a whole generation,” and George Mayberry proclaimed the creation of a complex character like Joseph “an event that is rare and wonderful in modern American writing.” Subsequent critics have found the book narrow and Bellow’s attitude toward Joseph uncertain. To some, Joseph at the end rejoins society; to others, he is totally defeated, surrendering his individuality. Bellow’s novel is a lively and even memorable work, with many striking figures, even if the author himself has confessed that he cannot bear to reread it.
Bellow’s own dangling was ended by the army for medical reasons, and in 1943 he began to work for Mortimer Adler’s “Great Books” project for the Encyclopaedia Britannica, reading some 60 of the 443 works indexed. He joined the merchant marine, which stationed him in New York, and then worked for the Maritime Commission onshore. After the war Bellow decided to stay in New York, enjoying the intellectual life of Greenwich Village and the pleasures of fatherhood with the birth of his son Gregory. He reviewed books, edited, wrote reports for Penguin Books, and spent two days as movie reviewer for Time, until Whittaker Chambers reportedly picked a quarrel and fired him on the spot—an event he included in his next novel, The Victim (1947).
Joseph in Dangling Man had complained that upon awakening, when he read the newspaper and acknowledged the world, he went “in the body from nakedness to clothing and in the mind from relative purity to pollution.” To Joseph the world is a war that can kill him. In The Victim this impurity pursues the protagonist Asa Leventhal as Kirby Allbee comes one hot summer night to accuse the solitary and anxious Leventhal of causing his ruin. Leventhal had quarreled with Allbee’s boss, prompting Allbee’s loss of his job, he claims, and thus his drinking and the loss of his wife. Bellow explores the intense and ambivalent relation between the two men, as Allbee presses deeper and deeper into Leventhal’s life, taking money, a bed in his apartment, liberties with his mail, and finally a whore in Leventhal’s own bed—an impurity that is still not the final one, since Allbee slips into the apartment late at night to attempt suicide in Leventhal’s kitchen.
Was Leventhal responsible? A parallel plot suggests he was not, for he mistakenly assumes the blame for a death for which he had no responsibility. Both Leventhal and Allbee are victims of an oppressively dense world and of their inability to discern a clear order in it. Each argues for a version of reality that the other cannot accept. Allbee cannot bear the notion of an impersonal universe in which he might be harmed for no reason at all. He must find a scapegoat—a Jew. To Leventhal, on the other hand, such a “human” universe is ominous, frightening, a world in which he could be ruined overnight. Allbee appears inexplicably, emerging from a crowd in a park as an embodiment of the city streets, which Leventhal, like his immigrant forebears, considers full of impurity and danger: “He really did not know what went on about him,” Leventhal thinks, “what strange things, savage things.”
The Victim is a remarkable advance over Dangling Man, for though it is dense and claustrophic, it is also rich and full of honest life. It raised some eyebrows, coming as it did only two years after the Nazi death camps had been opened: was this the time to show that the psychology of Jew and bigot can be similar? To Theodore Ross in the Chicago Jewish Forum, Allbee and Leventhal are too much alike. Bellow had insisted on paying the Jew the same respect he would pay all human beings, neither more nor less, and in the Gentile Allbee he captured the unconscious subtleties of Jewish self-hatred, making him a messenger from not just a destructive world but Leventhal’s own psyche. Leven-thal’s alienation is that of modern man, moreover; for by showing Jew and Gentile to be alike, Bellow shows that all people are Jews.
The Victim brought Bellow a Guggenheim Fellowship for 1948, freeing him from teaching at the University of Minnesota, where he had been in 1946 and 1947. In France on his fellowship he began “The Crab and the Butterfly,” a third novel in the same serious vein as his first two, but found he needed some relief. He took to writing a “memoir” of Chicago—which in France had become exotic to him, he says—and by 1949 had turned to it almost exclusively. “Augie was my favorite fantasy,” he has said of the Chicago book. “Every time I was depressed while writing the grim one I’d treat myself to a fantasy holiday.” He wrote The Adventures of Augie March (1953) while on the move—in trains and cafés in Paris and Rome; in Minneapolis, where he returned to teach in 1949; in a cold-water flat in New York, where he lectured at New York University; at Princeton, where he was a Creative Writing Fellow; and even in the editorial offices at Viking Press. At some point he felt such revulsion with the “grim” work he had begun that he dumped some one hundred thousand words down an incinerator. (One chapter survived and was published as “Trip to Galena.”)
Thus, The Adventures of Augie March begins as the opposite of Bellow’s serious concerns, shifting to the first person from the third person of The Victim and from Leventhal’s fears of the streets to Augie’s celebration of them. Bellow had known someone like Augie: “He came of just such a family as I described. I hadn’t seen him in 25 years, so the novel was a speculative biography.” What was especially speculative was Bellow’s definition of the young man as an enthusiast who is swept up by the people he loves, sometimes in a sexual swoon and at other times as an admiring disciple. Can a young man in a harsh world of force survive without weapons other than affection and tolerance and a lack of calculation? The answer lies in the adults who surround Augie and are as large and threatening as they would appear to a child. They exist with a Balzacian vigor and importance that testifies to human worth as they act upon their environment, but they also overwhelm the passive young Augie, who becomes another Bellow hero oppressed by the world.
Augie manages to survive at first. Augie’s childhood is dominated by Grandma Lausch, whose world is every bit as dramatic and cynical as the czar’s court, and whom Bellow describes as the equal of the great politicians of the world. The crippled Einhorn, for whom Augie works as a male nurse, is great too, even if his kingdom is a West Side neighborhood. Augie also serves the North Shore matron Mrs. Renling (until she wishes to adopt him) and acts as an aide-de-camp to his ambitious brother Simon, who marries into a wealthy family. In each case, Augie observes not only that “it wasn’t so necessary to lie,” as he says in the first chapter, rejecting Machiavellian cynicism, but also that these egotists finally do themselves in. Only Augie, larky, impetuous, sensual, accepting—the opposite of Bellow’s usual protagonist and thus a true fantasy for Bellow-only Augie, it seems, is escaping a harsh and destructive world.
Yet, Augie does not escape, either, and readers can measure the progress of the novel by noting his responses. In the first chapter Augie is beaten up by neighborhood punks (including Augie’s good friend) for being a Jew: “But I never had any special grief from it,” Augie says, “or brooded, being by and large too larky and boisterous to take it to heart.” By the middle of the novel, when Augie is beaten up in a labor strike, he flees, full of rage and terror. He goes to Mexico with his lover Thea, another Machiavellian who plans to hunt iguanas with a trained eagle, and suffers a concussion that makes him spend depressing weeks on the mend. When he cheats on Thea, she tells him he is not a man of love at all, but isolate or indifferent, a fact that Einhorn had earlier described as Augie’s “opposition.” The book ultimately becomes the memoir of a rather scarred and saddened middle-aged man who defines himself as one singing in the middle of a desolate and frozen farm field.
Reviewers in 1953 praised the novel for its energy and acceptance and stylistic fireworks. Even though The Adventures of Augie March won a National Book Award in 1954, Bellow himself had reservations, commenting that “I got stuck in a Sherwood Anderson ingenue vein: here are all these people and isn’t life wonderful! By the last third of the book I wasn’t feeling that way anymore.” The novel is notable for the warm tone of its voice and the precision of its details. Bellow had grown up on the naturalistic work of Dreiser, John Dos Pas-sos, and James T. Farrell, and he transforms it here into something less mechanical, less deterministic or external, focusing more on the perception and history and feeling of the inner protagonist—who finds a triumph, finally, in consciousness if not in love.
Bellow taught at Bard College in 1953 and 1954 and at the University of Minnesota the next year. He won a second Guggenheim Fellowship, which permitted him to spend 1955 in Nevada and California, and then, having terminated his troubled marriage, he was free to marry Sondra Tschacbasov and settle down-after almost two decades of moving about—in Dutchess County, New York, near Tivoli. During this period he also wrote the short works that make up his next book, Seize the Day (1956): “Looking for Mr. Green” (1951), “A Father to Be” (1955), “The Gonzaga Manuscripts” (1956), the title novella, and a one-act play, The Wrecker (1954). The novella Seize the Day reflects a pattern of variety in Bellow’s work, as each novel seems to contrast in tone with its predecessor. While The Adventures of Augie March sprawls and attacks the world with energy, Seize the Day is tight and sets an elegiac tone.
The story recounts a day in the life of a failing middle-aged American, Tommy Wilhelm, who has made a series of poor decisions that land him jobless in his early forties at the once-grand, now-shabby Hotel Ansonia on the Upper West Side of New York, where his father lives in retirement. Tommy wants his father’s help—and is denied. He wants his substitute father’s help too, and this father, the sometime psychologist Tamkin, is the character Bellow finds most interesting in the tale, for “like most phony phonies, he is always somewhere near the truth.... But Tamkin’s truths aren’t really true.” As he treats patients over the phone and spouts existential clichés, Tamkin promises to cure all of Tommy’s troubles. He will make him strong, teaching him to “seize the day”—the very vagueness of which is Bellow’s point—and he will make him financially comfortable, too, using Tommy’s money to speculate on the grain market. Bellow begins the novella with Tommy emerging from his room, assuming a bold front. The first three sections cover Tommy’s past and his breakfast with his father, and the second three his relations with Tamkin. In the last, climactic section, Tommy’s disgusted father disowns him and Tamkin, having lost Tommy’s savings, disappears.
Tommy’s defeat makes many readers uncomfortable, and several reviewers termed Seize the Day an interim work, filling the time after The Adventures of Augie March. Since 1956 its reputation has grown steadily, however, until, as Kazin puts it, “none of his work is so widely and genuinely admired as this short novel.” Herbert Gold called Seize the Day“one of the central stories of our day.” Tommy is at once the ultimate antihero and a worthwhile man, and likable, with “a large, shaky, patient dignity.” He is cheerful and without malice. He cares for his loved ones. More important, he is intelligently aware, undergoing his experience with depth and sensitivity.
The finest accomplishment of the story is the climactic scene. Tommy at one moment is on the New York streets, desperately looking for Tamkin and feeling the pressure of the crowd, “the inexhaustible current of millions of every race and kind pouring out, pressing round, of every age, of every genius, possessors of every secret,” and at the next inside a funeral parlor, where it is suddenly “dark and cool” and where “men in formal clothes and black homburgs strode softly back and forth on the cork floor, up and down the center aisle.” In a few moments he stands before the corpse of a man he has never known, and begins to cry. He sobs at first for the man, “another human creature,” he thinks, but soon he cries for himself and for all his troubles. “Soon he was past words, past reason, coherence,” Bellow writes; “The source of all tears had suddenly sprung open within him, black, deep.” The other guests envy the dead man for having inspired such mourning, but Tommy does not stop. His grief becomes a strangely triumphant moment, as the flowers and lights and music fuse within him, pouring “into him where he had hidden himself in the center of a crowd by the great and happy oblivion of tears. He heard it and sank deeper than sorrow, through torn sobs and cries toward the consummation of his heart’s ultimate need.”
Critics disagree about Bellow’s final meaning-puzzled, as Brendan Gill put it in The New Yorker (5 January 1957), by the sense that Tommy is “sobbing his heart out over his plight and yet feeling rather better than usual”—but almost all readers sense the authority of the scene. As Kazin says of the whole novella, “It has a quite remarkable intensity of effect without ever seeming to force one.” The circumstance of Tommy finding his way to a stranger’s funeral crystallizes Tommy’s situation and needs. For he needs a father and has been denied, seeking help from people “dead” to him. He has sought all day to hide his failure, to put up a front, and here he is publicly reduced to truthfulness. Bellow himself has said that he wanted to dramatize the way New Yorkers fulfill intimate emotional needs through strangers, and so Tommy turns from his psychologist (the professional stranger) to an unfamiliar corpse—and finally finds fulfillment. Since Tommy has had mystical promptings that his suffering somehow has a transcendent purpose, Bellow’s point is also that Tommy sinks to a truer, more spiritual level of being accessible only when he is stripped of worldly pretensions.
Henderson the Rain King did not receive strong praise when it was published in 1959, but it did not diminish Bellow’s reputation either. Bellow wrote it in Tivoli, New York, in 1957 (the year his second son, Adam, was born) and in 1958 at the University of Minnesota (an anchor for Bellow in these years and the place where he was friends with John Berryman), and then the next year in Europe on a two-year Ford Foundation grant. This book about a WASP millionaire’s trip to a dream-like Africa illustrates the fertility and variety in Bellow’s imagination and his desire, as he said later, to develop “a fiction that can accommodate the full tumult, the zaniness and crazed quality of modern experience.”
Henderson is a gigantic man in body and emotion, six feet four inches tall, with “an enormous head, rugged, with hair like Persian lambs’ fur. Suspicious eyes, usually narrowed. Blustering way. A great nose.” He is heir to a fortune, a hard drinker, a bully, a fighter, and a man fleeing death. He is nasty to his wives and torments the neighbors. His rages finally scare the family cook to death, making him seek salvation in Africa, where, he says, “the world which I thought so mighty an oppressor has removed its wrath from me.” Henderson (whose initials are the same as Hemingway’s) is the militant, insecure American who attempts to prove his manhood by killing. He is also the intelligent and sensitive man who suffers from his knowledge of human limitation. Confessing that he is most like the character Henderson, “the absurd Secker of high qualities,” Bellow comments that “what Henderson is really seeking is a remedy to the anxiety over death. What he can’t endure is this continuing anxiety... which he is foolhardy enough to resist.”
Although the novel has many realistic touches, it is essentially a fantasy, a trip deep within the Africa of Henderson’s mind. He discovers first the Arnewi, a tribe that reacts to its environment with a soft, worshiping attitude, and then (after he has harmed the gentle Arnewi irremediably by blowing up their water supply) the Wariri, a fierce and manipulative tribe that beats its gods and threatens to kill its king. Part of Bellow’s point is Henderson’s desire to serve a community even though it involves often bizarre and dangerous conditions, as in the case of the marvelously relaxed Wariri king Dahfu, who has studied the works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, William James, and Wilhelm Reich and who will be unceremoniously strangled if he fails to satisfy any one of his forty wives. To make the anxious Henderson equally serene, Dahfu takes him into a lion’s den, where he teaches him to emulate the lion. Dahfu’s tribe believes that he is not completely king until he captures the soul of his dead father in a live lion. Although educated in the Western empirical tradition, which would scoff at such a view, Dahfu accepts these conditions and is killed by a lion as a result. When Henderson then feels himself cured or freed from the world’s wrath, he stumbles in explaining the cause, for he claims it was not the lion’s cruel indifference that freed him but the love of the Arnewi—a statement that grows more out of Bellow’s desire than the events of the novel. Critics complained about the murky ending.
Bellow is bolder than he had been in his previous work (he dates his maturity as a writer from Henderson the Rain King), for he openly makes a connection between the force of the universe and a human or spiritual principle. But he once again sought variety, turning next to a realistic work. He spent much of 1959 in Europe and the next year at his country home in Dutchess County. With Keith Botsford and Aaron Asher he edited the periodical Noble Savage. He taught at the University of Puerto Rico and then, after his second divorce, settled down to his third marriage, with Susan Glassman, whom he wed in December 1961. With a new child on the way (Daniel, born in 1963) and a desire to return to his roots, Bellow left New York for Chicago, where he accepted a permanent position at the University of Chicago on the Committee on Social Thought.
In Chicago, Bellow sought greater freedom to work, a desire that bore fruit in 1964 with the publication of Herzog and the production of The Last Analysis (published in 1965). The play was a lighthearted episodic farce Bellow hoped would survive because of its entertaining qualities. The novel was more serious, embodying the theory he had announced in 1961 that a novelist must be permitted to deal with ideas. The play flopped, but the novel was a best-seller for six months. “I received two or three thousand letters from people pouring out their souls to me, saying ’This is my life, this is what it’s been like for me,’” Bellow said after the publication of Herzog.“And then I understood that for some reason these themes were visited upon me, that I didn’t always pick them, they picked me.” Since the novel covered events similar to those of Bellow’s life, portraying an intellectual professor devastated after being betrayed by his wife and friends, some of the interest in the novel was that of a roman à clef. But most of the people who bought it were not in on the gossip; the novel articulated their own anger, their own frustration—precisely that frame of mind that characterized the late 1960s as tempers flared over the issues of free speech, racial injustice, and war. As early as 1960, Bellow anticipated the mood of the coming decade.
The story consists of Moses Herzog’s memories as he putters alone about his country home in western Massachusetts. Herzog remembers himself in New York, where he had stayed a few days after teaching a course, and then in Chicago, where he had lurked outside his estranged wife’s apartment before suffering a minor auto accident and a brief incarceration, from which the police freed him to go home. If the geography is simple, however, the story is not. Since Herzog writes letters to many people and remembers all kinds of earlier events, the novel seems disorganized. Critics divide largely into those who forgive this disorganization (since it reflects Herzog’s mind) and those who do not. And once again the protagonist feels somewhat better at the end of the novel, but the reader is not certain why. Yet, the truth is that the book, which Bellow rewrote at least thirteen times, is indeed well formed. Herzog decides early in the story to shift from an emotional “personal” life, such as the one in which his wife, Madeleine, abused him, to a more rational, civil, moderate one—he will shift, as he says in a letter to President Eisenhower, from Leo Tolstoy to Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Much of the novel flows from this decision. He flies to Chicago contemplating the murder of his former wife and her lover in order to protect his daughter Junie, reportedly locked crying in a car outside Madeleine’s apartment; but he decides once more (as the novel catches the realistic zigzags of a man trying on a new mode) that he is being extreme and indulging in personal “drama.”
Each of the nine sections of the novel dramatizes Bellow’s theme. After he is caught the next day with the gun in his pocket, Herzog finds himself standing before a police sergeant, next to Madeleine, who in pure hatred seeks to have him imprisoned: “Her voice went up sharply, and as she spoke, Herzog saw the sergeant take a new look at her, as if he were beginning to make out her haughty peculiarities at last.” When the sergeant lets him go, Herzog receives a symbolic justice. The friends and relatives and even doctors who had witnessed his divorce had all failed him, but the civil authority had not. And having gotten justice, he feels better. One of the problems with the novel, however, is that he feels an ecstatic joy that goes far beyond fair treatment.
Herzog is notable for the controversy it caused. Bellow’s second National Book Award winner, it was both praised and criticized. Kazin, who provided a dust-jacket blurb, called it Bellow’s most brilliant novel; Gill in The New Yorker termed it “faultless.” Other critics worried that Herzog pondered only himself, making the novel solipsistic. The key question is whether Herzog succeeds in making a character of himself as he looks back. Does Herzog get out of his own mind? His ability to see himself from the outside and with precise detail suggests that he does. Bellow’s theme at any rate is something like solipsism, as Herzog is imprisoned in the “private” life.
However one evaluates the structure of the novel, Herzog is most notable for its style, which represents Bellow at his best. Since Herzog does a great deal of observing, the center of the novel is its descriptions. The prose is charged, full of the specifics and precisely defined impressions that create the feel of mid-1960s American life. Because Herzog is deflected from his course not by any insight or charged drama but by the sight of kindly Gersbach giving little Junie a bath, Herzog is a defense of the realistic mode, holding that the significant levels of life are often the common, whether in the home or outside in society—a view Herzog himself embraces (rejecting the fashionable existentialism) and then in his life dramatizes.
The Last Analysis, performed in fall 1964, was the culmination of Bellow’s long interest in the theater. He had collaborated on a dramatization of Seize the Day (performed at the avant-garde workshop Theatre of Ideas, with Mike Nichols as Tommy) and had included a one-act play, The Wrecker, among the pieces in the collection Seize the Day. Bellow also seems to have been motivated financially, for his novels had not made him much money, and Herzog did not initially look like a best-seller. Zero Mostel was scheduled to play the lead in “Humanitis,” as The Last Analysis was originally titled, and Bellow thought the play would be easy to write. He saw the theater as a form of freedom, since the stage required a more direct, less subtle approach.
By 1964, though, Bellow complained that he was writing himself into his grave. Mostel backed out, to be replaced by Sam Levene, and Bellow found playwriting more demanding than he had imagined. He persevered, however, presenting the story of a comedian who has slipped in his career because of his seriousness and who now, in his New York warehouse studio, seeks to combine laughter and home-style psychoanalysis. The protagonist, Bummidge, seeks a cure for “humanitis,” and his technique, he says, is to act out “the main events of my life, dragging repressed material into the open by sheer force of drama.” The Broadway version flopped after twenty-eight performances, receiving poor reviews.
Bellow’s second effort in the theater did no better. For the production Under the Weather (1966), Bellow combined three one-act plays, two of which have been published: A Wen, a comedy about a scientist who has found the experience of winning the Nobel Prize less intense than the glimpse of a birthmark on a woman’s thigh (a glimpse he seeks to duplicate, in middle age, with the same surprised lady); and Orange Soitffleacute, a somewhat darker comedy about a Polish whore who wants to move in with her elderly and wealthy WASP customer. Under the Weather was produced in London, Spoleto, and New York, but failed to catch on.
Bellow continued to teach in Chicago in the years following Herzog, although he took time out in 1967, the year in which he and Glassman divorced, to cover the Six-Day War for Newsday and in 1968 to receive the Croix de Chevalier des Arts et Lettres from France. He had begun the novel that became Humboldt’s Gift (1975), but upon hearing an anecdote about an old man witnessing a pickpocket at work, shifted to the manuscript that became Mr. Sammler’s Planet. He also found time to write two short stories, “The Old System” (1967) and “Mosbys Memoirs” (1968), to which he added “Leaving the Yellow House” (1957) and several previously published tales for Mosby’s Memoirs and Other Stories (1968), a more or less “made” book designed to keep Bellow’s name before the public and perhaps to capitalize on the success of Herzog.
The best story of the group is “The Old System,” in which a well-known scientist, Samuel Braun (transparently Bellow himself), embodies a characteristic Bellow posture in the late 1960s and 1970s: the middle-aged man remembering his Jewish relatives, losing himself in a colorful and exotic past. The characters are mysterious to Braun, who loves them. He ponders their reality, their evolution, the strangeness of their being. They are in one sense crude and grasping immigrants from Eastern Europe who would embarrass a third-generation Jew. But they are also vital and proud. They seem to Braun to be more intensely alive, or at least more passionate, than his modern colleagues.
Mr. Sammler’s Planet was well but somewhat absentmindedly received, as though the reviews praised Bellow by rote; a few years later the novel was attacked by radical young critics for political reasons, in part because Bellow had declared his independence from the liberal establishment in 1965 by attending the White House dinner that Robert Lowell, protesting the Vietnam War, had boycotted. In this novel, as in Herzog, Bellow seemed to test both his readers and his own powers, having chosen—in a decade obsessed with American youth—to write about an elderly man. Artur Sammler is an old Polish Jew who, having lived in London in the 1930s where he knew many of the Blooms-bury group, and having survived Nazi atrocities, has the civilized tastes of the intellectual English and the wisdom of the survivor. Around him he finds a host of modern young nieces, nephews, and acquaintances who reject all limits on their desire. They know no sexual bounds, no moral imperatives, no common civility. Sammler alone in New York quietly pursues something like duty. When his crazed daughter Shula steals a manuscript to help her father with his study of H. G. Wells, he doggedly seeks to return the manuscript. When his friend and benefactor Elya Gruner lies mortally ill in a hospital, Sammler alone pays homage.
The plot consists largely of the young interfering with these two tasks and is typified in the running story of Sammler’s encounters with a black pickpocket, whose crimes he has witnessed on a bus and who follows Sammler to his apartment foyer to threaten the old man by exposing himself. Sammler mentions the incident to his opportunistic friend Feffer, and later (in too much of a coincidence) stumbles upon the pickpocket wrestling with Feffer, who has taken pictures of the crime. When Sammler asks his former son-in-law, Eisen, to intervene, Eisen hits to kill. In contrast to such madness, Sammler at the end praises his friend Gruner, who (although sometimes an abortionist for the mob) had known how to be kind and to do his duty. Gruner had met “the terms of his contract,” Sammler concludes, “the terms of which, in his inmost heart, each man knows.”
Mr. Sammler’s Planet is full of the precise detail, honest feeling, and lively ideas that are Bellow’s strengths. The character of Sammler, who has survived the Holocaust, having woken from a pile of corpses to kill fascists in his escape, is an excellent point of view from which to examine and judge American culture. Bellow captures better than anyone the feel of American society in the late 1960s, with its blend of social rebellion, sexuality, racial unrest, and personal aggrandizement. What mars the novel, finally, is Sammler’s basic feeling of revulsion toward the world, both in its social form, which is cheap and distracting—Gruner’s daughter worries about her sex life as her father dies—and in terms of all matter. Sammler has no use for the natural physical world, or what he calls “creatureliness.... Its low tricks, its doggish hind-sniffing charm.” Sammler yearns to be “a soul released from Nature, from impressions, and from everyday life.”
Mr. Sammler’s Planet won a National Book Award in 1971. While continuing to teach at the University of Chicago (where he had become chairman of the Committee on Social Thought) and coping with the public and bitter dissolution of his third marriage, Bellow worked on two novels, segments of which were published in 1974. One of these was Humboldt’s Gift, which became his seventh novel, won Bellow a Pulitzer Prize, and immediately preceded his 1976 Nobel Prize in Literature.
Many reviewers praised the book, and Newsweek did a cover story on “America’s leading writer,” but other critics were disappointed. “The book is not very real,” Kazin confessed, in The New York Review of Books (3 December 1970), although large pieces of it were. Part of the trouble seemed to be the combination of the realistic and manic: Bellow attempted to work grotesque gangsters into a finely detailed world, and some critics felt it did not work.
The story is told from the point of view of Charles Citrine, a well-known dramatist who reminisces about his friendship with Humboldt, a poet who combines qualities of Berryman, with whom Bellow had been close friends at Minnesota, and Schwartz, whom Bellow had known in New York. Bellow began working on the novel in 1966, shortly after Schwartz died. Much of the story consists of Citrine’s trying to hang onto his memories of Humboldt and do a little philosophical meditation while being harrassed by gangsters, lawyers, bimbos, and creeps—some funny and some not. All of them are typified by Cantabile, to whom Citrine owes money and who has Citrine’s car smashed in by baseball bats and later forces the playwright to watch him defecate. A former wife is suing Citrine, and a mistress—the sensual Renata—is attempting to lead him to the altar. But during all these events, Citrine moves inward in memory and meditation.
What is interesting thematically in Humboldt’s Gift is the equation within Citrine’s inner life of his meditation of spirit and his memories of his friend. Both of these exist in saving opposition to the world, although Humboldt’s actual gift combines the vulgar and the sublime, for it consists first of a movie scenario on which they had collaborated and which proceeds to earn Citrine a small fortune, and then of a scribbled sentence at the end of a farewell letter: “We are not natural beings but supernatural beings.”
The chief critical issue with the novel, aside from Bellow’s struggle to mesh his transcendental philosophy with commercial America, is its uneven quality: this novel includes writing as good as any that Bellow has done and also some of the worst that he has done. Bellow at his worst sounds like an amateur playwright providing background information as he moves his characters on and offstage. The later parts of the novel fall off, becoming talky and cranky, as though (as reportedly is the case) Bellow had taken to dictating his novel to a stenographer, or as though his troubled personal life had taken its toll. The best early parts of the book were written not too long after Herzog, while the later parts, developing some of the disenchantment with the real world Bellow expressed in Mr. Sammler’s Planet, came after 1969.
Bellow’s 1976 book, the journalistic To Jerusalem and Back: A Personal Account, was published after Bellow had accompanied his new wife, Alexandra Ionescu Tulcea, professor of mathematics at Northwestern University, to Israel. The author asked himself, what could a practitioner of the humanities add to the politics and propaganda and terror of the Israeli-Arab conflict? Could he penetrate the confusion and make some kind of contribution to solving Israel’s troubles? The book describes Bellow’s travels, his interviews with Israeli and American leaders, and his dinner conversations with the powerful and the humble, and then—and not least important—documents his reading and research into the problem.
Bellow’s writing is lucid and detailed, and not without humor, as a Hasidim, for example, is offended by Bellow’s eating habits and offers to send him money each month if he will return to orthodoxy. But the rational and well-meaning Bellow ultimately is forced to conclude that the situation is even more dangerous than he had supposed, for he finds that nations (and their leaders) do not act consistently with even their own self-interests. If only they recognized their goals and sought them ruthlessly, Bellow suggests, the struggle would have some order. But both Arab and Jew act irrationally, creating a volatile mix.
Shortly after returning to Chicago in the fall of 1976, Bellow learned that he had won the Nobel Prize in Literature. His acceptance speech, delivered in Sweden on 12 December 1976, provided valuable insight into his fiction. Successful art, Bellow told the king and queen of Sweden, offers “true impressions”—a phrase Bellow borrowed from Marcel Proust to describe intuitions of a spiritual reality. Such glimpses give humans their sense of meaning, of goodness, of value. They move people to believe that “the good we hang onto so tenaciously ... is no illusion.” They offer refuge from the distractions and impurity of the world—they are the stillness achieved by Tommy Wilhelm, the joy experienced by Eugene Henderson, the reason art is essential even in an age of science. The “true impression” is personal, buried within the individual and expressed only within the language of art. It is a hint, a glimpse, a feeling—Bellow is careful not to claim too much—discovered by the person within the work.
In these remarks Bellow reveals the true subject of his fiction, which is not society, much as those readers who value Bellow’s social observation might have expected. His Nobel address did not stress his Jewish identity either, in spite of the many readers who view him as the quintessential Jewish American writer. In what must be the penultimate explanation of his work to the world, Bellow says his subject is the private experience of the individual. That experience takes place in America and belongs to a Jew, true enough. But it also involves sensations that lie deeper than social or ethnic identity. Before 1976 the Bellow protagonist experienced a level of physical sensation so intense that it itself became the story. The antagonist in the Bellow novel is the “world” with all its sensation and distraction. The world is impure, unclean, oppressive. Bellow embodies it in a person (Allbee of The Victim) or an animal (the lion in Henderson the Rain King). He gives the sensory world a geography (in the streets of New York) or a psychology (Herzog’s masochism) or an image (Joseph’s dream in Dangling Man). Whatever form the world might take, however, the intensity of sensation that makes it oppressive also hints at a spiritual level of reality.
But by the 1970s, Bellow’s fiction had changed. Herzog’s shift from the private to the public describes the evolution of Bellow’s art, even though it took some time to become apparent. After Humbolt’s Gift, the intensity of the oppressive world diminished as Bellow viewed it more and more in social or historic terms. Bellow moved from the meaning of matter to questions of social policy, from the hidden psychology of his protagonist to the dynamics of a dinner party. He shifted from an early lyricism to something more external and prosaic and in doing so became a different kind of writer.
After the Nobel ceremony, Bellow and his wife lived in an apartment overlooking the lake on the north side of Chicago, close to her job at Northwestern University. To meet his classes at the University of Chicago, Bellow drove down the Outer Drive. At this time he also wrote The Dean’s December (1982), which is nothing less than an indictment of American society—on all levels. The blacks in American cities are in truth doomed, Bellow says; the whites show only a cruel indifference. Public officials are guilty of hypocrisy, and those unofficial public figures who have the opportunity to study the problem—journalists and experts and professors—are guilty of jargon and cant. “Many American writers cross the bar in their 60’s and 70’s,” Bellow has said, “and become Grand Old Men, gurus or bones of the Robert Frost variety. This is how society eases us out.” Bellow’s concern for America is deep, but his tone is anything but grandfatherly.
The novelist delivers his views in a book that seems at first to be typical Bellow: an intelligent but fumbling protagonist has the leisure to reflect upon a shocking event in the past, providing not only the drama of a mind in action but also a fascinating exercise in perspective. Albert Corde, a dean of students at a Chicago college, has accompanied his sensible astronomer wife, Minna, to Bucharest, where her mother lies ill in a hospital. Petty Communist officials make it difficult for Minna to visit the dying woman, who is also a Communist official now fallen from grace, and finally permit Minna only one visit—she must choose the time. Corde’s wife must suffer the thought of her mother dying alone.
As Minna hurries about the city seeking help, Corde passes the time in a chilly apartment remembering the problems he has left behind in Chicago. He had published a set of articles in Harper’s on the black underclass of the city and had insisted upon the prosecution of two blacks for the murder of a white student. In both instances he has taken a controversial stand in a way administrators dare not do. He has alienated whites by reminding them of the millions of people they have abandoned. He has alienated the blacks by insisting that however victimized they may be, they must be responsible for their actions. The blacks are “startled souls,” Bellow told an interviewer; “They cannot be reasoned with or talked to about anything.”
To the liberal, Corde sounds suspiciously racist. To the conservative, he stirs up muddy waters. And to his provost, Corde has violated academic decorum: how dare he, as an officer of the university, wade into a messy social issue? To everyone else Corde is an aesthete, arguing that the problem is one of perception, since people have learned to evade the truth, shutting off experience. Like the nineteenth-century realistic novelists, to whom Bellow has confessed a debt, Corde believes that facing the truth can be a rare (and perhaps heroic) accomplishment. His articles (like the novel itself) are meant “to recover the world that is buried under the debris of false description or nonexperience.”
Bellow provides several different sources of narrative interest. As readers await the outcome of Minna’s struggle to visit her mother, they also await the outcome of the trial in Chicago (Had the white student sought kinky sex? Had he asked for trouble?) and the effect of Corde’s articles on his career. His job hangs by a thread. The novel moves from Romania to Chicago, sometimes in Corde’s memory and at other times in his articles or letters sent from America. In the two cities, the style of administrators, the ways of death, and the kinds of parties (a Romanian tea and a high-rise celebration of a dog’s birthday), the novel sets contrasts that reveal and dramatize each society. The communist society is cold and harsh, as dreary administrators parcel out pain. The capitalistic society is hot and chaotic, as the slums grow out of control. In both countries good people struggle to be decent. Romanian women support one another, remembering the old European culture, while black heroes such as Rufus Ridpath, a prison warden, and Toby Winthrop, the founder of a drug rehabilitation center, struggle to stop the people from brutalizing themselves and one another. Corde’s articles in Harper’s (which Bellow excerpts in the novel) provide riveting accounts of the underclass and the officials who work with it.
Yet, much as one appreciates Bellow’s style and ideas, the novel is a disappointment to read—or so many critics felt, as they wrote their mixed reviews. Those who called the book a success confessed that it was a near thing. Everything depends on the protagonist, said Robert Towers in The New York Times Book Review, concluding that Corde does work as a character:”Sentence by sentence, page by page, Saul Bellow is simply the best writer that we have.“Other reviewers objected that Corde does not have the independent existence of Bellow’s other protagonists—he is clearly a spokesman for Bellow. Many critics gave Bellow high marks for struggling with this difficult but crucial subject, while some readers, most notably David Evanier in the National Review, were put off by Bellow’s subject, which they felt was stale. Others complained that the book is too grim (Christopher Leh-mann-Haupt wrote in The New York “Times that reaching the ending was”like not hitting one’s head against the wall anymore“) or too talky or too full of scolding. Those who praised it were exhilarated:”He gives Corde’s thoughts such palpable immediacy, such convincing shifts in tone,“wrote Dean Flower in the Hudson Review,”that sometimes one can only revel in Bellow’s gifts.”
Him with His Foot in His Mouth and Other Stories (1984) turns from the public realm to the private or personal one. It is essentially Bellow’s third book of stories, following Seize the Day and Mosby’s Memoirs, and, like those volumes, is a loose collection of short stories made significant by Bellow’s style. Although he returns to many of his old themes (which now appear to be obsessive), he manages to make them fresh or immediate.
The title story is a letter of apology from Professor Shawmut to Miss Rose, a librarian Shawmut had insulted thirty-five years previously. Shawmut, now old and sick, has not done well, he confesses to his ancient victim. His impetuous tongue has insulted many people. But he too has been a victim, having innocently trusted a strong-willed, amoral character—his brother, who cheated him. Thus, Bellow once again portrays an innocent or gentle character in conflict with a robust Machiavellian. In “What Kind of Day Did You Have?,” the weakest of the five stories, an attractive young matron is used by a famous and powerful art critic; in “Zetland: By a Character Witness” (originally published in 1974 as part of a novel in progress), the title character marries in defiance of his angry, brooding father. In the best story of the volume, “A Silver Dish,” Woody Selbst remembers his father stealing from the Christian woman who had befriended Woody, a crime that costs Woody his place in the seminary and a career as a Christian minister—a fact his Jewish father foresaw. And in the last story, Ijah Metzger is surrounded by equally willful and amoral “Cousins,” all of whom want something from him.
Although the collection was a best-seller and much praised by reviewers, it embodies Bellow’s new characteristic weakness: the dialogue in “What Kind of Day Did You Have?” is wooden and the events somewhat contrived. But the volume features Bellow’s strengths as well. One who wishes to know what it is like to ride a Chicago trolley need only read “A Silver Dish.” As John Updike wrote in The New Yorker (22 February 1982) of The Dean’s December, Bellow “is not just a very good writer, he is one of the rare writers who when we read them feel to be taking mimesis a layer or two deeper than it has gone before. His lavish, rippling notations of persons, furniture, habiliments, and vistas awaken us to what is truly there.”
Bellow’s interest in the transcendent may be found in these stories (one character believes that “The Divine Spirit... has withdrawn in our time from the outer, visible world”). But perhaps the most notable point about this volume is Bellow’s concern with emotion. More than anything else, these stories are studies of human feeling, exploring the danger of emotion as well as its strength. Shawmut’s love of his brother causes him to give the businessman all his money; Woody’s love of his father makes him trusting; and Ijah’s deep feeling for his cousins (or at least their parents) makes him a soft touch. Again and again Bellow portrays characters bound by their emotions and vulnerable before people who do not feel. “Pop never had these groveling emotions,” Woody thinks; “There was his whole superiority. Pop had no such feelings.”
Bellow believes that such emotion is also salvation, however. The emotional characters are sustained by their love, rising above petty concerns. They learn to control their feelings, when that is appropriate, and also to trust them. Ijah in “Cousins” reads the work of philosopher Martin Heidegger on emotion and perception. Even hate, Ijah notes, “increases lucidity, it opens a man up; it makes him reach out and concentrates his being so that he is able to grasp himself.” To another character (in the title story), “redemption from mere nature is the work of feeling and of the awakened eye of the Spirit.”
Bellow and Tulcea divorced in 1986, the year before Bellow published More Die of Heartbreak, his weakest novel. The story centers on the relationship between the narrator, Kenneth Trachtenberg, an assistant professor of Russian literature, and his uncle, the famous botanist Benn Crader, who combines high-minded thought with a comic failure with women. Crader has married Matilda Layamon, a beautiful woman twenty years his junior, who proves to be more interested in money than her husband. After a complicated and farcical plot involving a real-estate swindle, Crader escapes to the Antarctic.
To summarize the events of the story, however, is to give the wrong impression, since the book consists largely of rumination. Although most reviewers paid Bellow the respect he was due as a distinguished writer, it was clear they disliked the novel. “The characters are lost in a fog of discourse,” as James Atlas put it in Saul Bellow:A Biography (2000). They are also full of anger and misogyny.
In truth, Bellow by 1986 was confronted as a writer by a great many difficulties. He faced so many obstacles, in fact, that only his habit of writing every morning, no matter what else was going on in his life, enabled him to stay productive. Once Bellow had won the Nobel Prize, he became an even more public figure, asked to give speeches all over the country. He did so reluctantly, though many of the invitations involved honors that he could not easily turn down. Whether it was a conference on his novels in Haifa, Israel, or a literary prize (such as the National Medal of Arts in 1988), or a library named after him in his hometown of Lachine, Bellow found himself playing a highly public and distracting role.
His notoriety hurt in another way. When a judge sentenced him to ten days in jail in a 1977 legal dispute with his third wife (a sentence overturned by an Illinois appeals court), it made all the papers-and so did his increasingly conservative views. Bellow resented the loss of the economically just, culturally serious society envisioned by intellectuals in the early 1960s. He also rejected the relativism of French Deconstruction, championing a humanism that appeared old-fashioned. In contrast to the ethos of the time, Bellow believed in the universality of certain values and the greatness of certain masterpieces. He insisted on high culture as a value in itself, equal to any political cause; and he believed in the efficacy of language and the human mind. All of these views made him appear elitist, misogynistic, and-when he asked, “Who is the Tolstoi of the Zulus?”—racist. No one remembered his plea in The Dean’s December for racial justice.
Bellow’s advancing years also affected his work. He had always written out of his own experience, even when he used events that happened to others, but that experience now belonged to an aging male ruminating on his past. The rumination might be witty and full of observation; it might offer a rare seriousness and originality; but it still lacked the immediacy of a dramatized event. Instead of using dialogue and analysis to support his plot, Bellow now used his plots as an excuse for the protagonist’s rumination. As the years passed, Bellow also lost the stamina to continue producing daring and different works, choosing to write novellas instead of novels, for example, and moving from a lyrical to a more rambling, discursive—and so less demanding—mode.
In 1989 Bellow married Janis Freedman, a graduate student in the Committee on Social Thought, achieving the marital happiness that had so far eluded him. He also wrote two novellas, A Theft and The Bellarosa Connection. When Viking Press felt they were too short to publish in hardcover (and when magazines claimed they were too long for a periodical), Bellow arranged to publish them as Penguin paperbacks. In A Theft, a female narrator, Clara Velde, dotes on an older male, the powerful Washington lawyer Ithiel Regler. Bellow had used a female point of view before, in some of his stories, but critics now complained that Clara sounded too much like the author himself. Nor did they much care for the plot, in which an emerald ring stolen by the boyfriend of an au pair is eventually returned. The story is not so much dramatized as explained.
In The Bellarosa Connection, published seven months later, Bellow used an unnamed, elderly Jewish American narrator to recount the experience of Harry Fonstein, who had been saved from the Holocaust by the generosity of Broadway producer Billy Rose. When after the war Harry sought to thank Rose personally, the celebrity refused to meet with him. Harry’s wife, Sorella, contrives to blackmail Rose into accepting the thanks of her husband, but when she changes her mind, claiming that Rose is not worth the effort, the story collapses. Some years later the narrator attempts to contact the Fonsteins, only to discover that they are dead.
A third novella, The Actual, published in 1997, is considered better written that the earlier two. (Its opening sentence, for example—“It’s easy enough to see what people think they’re doing”—is much smoother and more engaging than that of A Theft:“Clara Velde, to begin with what was conspicuous about her, had short blond hair, fashionably cut, growing upon a head unusually big”). In The Actual, Bellow tells the story of the love of Harry Trellman for his schooltime crush, Amy Wustrin. The couple is brought together by the elderly Sigmund Adletsky, and Harry proposes to Amy while they arrange the reburial of Amy’s first husband, Jay.
Bellow had turned to the novella because he found it comfortable, but critics complained that these fictions were relatively minor. The reviewers used phrases such as “interim report” and “a novelist’s sketchbook,” often worrying that the central action of the story—so clearly based on some anecdote—was thin.
In 1991 Bellow published another collection of short fiction (including “Zetland: By a Character Witness” and The Bellarosa Connection). In the title story, “Something to Remember Me By,” the aging Louie tells his son about a shameful incident in his youth. While his mother was dying of cancer, Louie had taken up with a prostitute, who had stolen his money and clothes. Louie earned carfare by taking care of a drunken Gentile (when he could have been consoling his mother), and when he reached home, he was gratified to receive a beating from his father, since it meant his mother was still alive. This story won praise from reviewers.
Bellow and his wife moved from Chicago to Boston in 1993 and spent increasing amounts of time in Vermont, enjoying the house they had built there. Bellow also worked on the novel he had promised to write about his close friend Allan Bloom, conservative professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago, who died in 1992.
In 1999 Janis gave birth to Bellow’s fourth child—a daughter, Naomi Rose—and in 2000 Bellow published Ravelstein, his homage to Bloom. This full-length novel recounts Bloom’s success in the classroom and with his surprise best-seller, The Closing of the American Mind (1987), as well as the fact that he was homosexual and his death may have been AIDS-related, which had been a secret before the book appeared. When people objected to Bellow’s revelation, he found himself once again embroiled in a public controversy.
Raveltein is remarkable for its vivid writing. Although Bellow had aged and had almost died from toxic seafood (as he recounts in the novel), he had not lost his eye for detail. The novel is discursive, with little plot and lots of conversation, as the two aging men discuss subjects ranging from Judaism to the nature of love, and yet Bellow offers dramatic scenes more compelling than those found in the novellas. He depicts Ravelstein’s bald head and dominant manner, his love of gossip and expensive trinkets, his table manners, and his theory of eros. Readers are shown his apartment, where most of the novel takes place, with its exquisite carpets and first-class CD player, and told the story of his best-selling polemic, which made him rich and famous. Ravelstein is one of Bellow’s “reality instructors,” tutoring his innocent friend Chick (Bellow’s alter ego, himself a successful writer) in the ways of the world.
Though it is clear that Chick, the narrator, loves Ravelstein, the reader finds it hard to share that affection. Bellow gives him a vivid presence, but he does not make him likable or convince readers that he is brilliant. When Ravelstein ruins a $4,000 sport coat shortly after buying it, the reader cringes at such waste. When neighbors in Ravelstein’s apartment complain about his loud music, he refuses to turn it down (though he later soundproofs his apartment). Ravelstein is careless with money, honest with friends, and generous with his time. But he is also snobbish, gossipy, egotistical, and selfish. Both he and Chick seem to be overly impressed with wealth and luxury. Bloom had asked for an accurate portrait, nothing held back, which is what Bellow provides.
Ravehtein was well received by reviewers and soon found its way onto The New York Times best-seller list. The fact that Bellow at eighty-five had published such an accomplished book pleased almost everyone, especially since Bellow’s other publications during this period were collections of previously published work: It All Adds Up: From the Dim Past to the Uncertain Future (1994), a collection of Bellow’s essays; Collected Stories (2001); and Bellow Novels 1944-1953 (2003), the Library of America edition of Bellow’s first three novels.
Saul Bellow died on 5 April 2005 at home in Brookline, Massachusetts, at the age of eighty-nine. In a tribute article for Slate magazine (8 April 2005), several novelists and critics offered their thoughts on Bellow’s work and influence. Philip Gourevitch said that Bellow “was, consciously, and in every sense, an original.” Norman Rush pointed out, “What Saul Bellow achieved in his art he achieved without tricks: no magic realism, typographical jiggering, no inanimate objects as narrators. His expansive, detailed, widely allusive, radically traditional mode of attack is pure.” Clive James commented, “Bellow could do every tone of the American voice, and somewhere underneath his range of mimicry he had the basic tone, the deep rhythm of the American demotic that could bring even his most directly expository prose to poetic life.” In another article for Slate (6 April 2005), Christopher Hitchens wrote: “despite the ethnic emphasis of much of his work, Bellow will always attract readers by the scope and universality and humor of his themes.”
Gordon Lloyd Harper, “Saul Bellow: An Interview,” in Writers at Work: The “Paris Review” Interviews, third series (New York: Viking, 1967), pp. 175-196;
Joseph Epstein, “A Talk with Saul Bellow,” New York Times Book Review, 5 December 1976, pp. 3, 92-93;
Gloria Cronin and Ben Siegal, eds., Conversations with Saul Bellow (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1994).
B. A. Sokoloff and Mark Posner, Saul Bellow: A Comprehensive Bibliography (Folcroft, Pa.: Folcroft Library Editions, 1972);
Marianne Nault, Saul Bellow: His Works and His Critics (New York: Garland, 1977);
Robert G. Noreen, Saul Bellow: A Reference Guide (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1978).
James Atlas, Saul Bellow: A Biography (New York: Random House, 2000).
Gerhard Bach, ed., The Critical Response to Saul Bellow (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1995);
Malcolm Bradbury, Saul Bellow (New York: Methuen, 1982);
Jean Braham, A Sort of Columbus: The American Voyages of Saul Bellow’s Fiction (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1984);
John J. Clayton, Saul Bellow: In Defense of Man (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1968);
Sarah Blacher Cohen, Saul Bellow’s Enigmatic Laughter (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1974);
Robert Detweiler, Saul Bellow: A Critical Essay (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1967);
Robert R. Dutton, Saul Bellow (New York: Twayne, 1982);
Daniel Fuchs, Saul Bellow: Vision and Revision (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1984);
David D. Galloway, The Absurd Hero in American Fiction: Updike, Styron, Bellow, Salinger (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1966; revised, 1970);
Michael K. Glenday, Saul Bellow and the Decline of Humanism (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990);
Lelia Goldman, Saul Bellow’s Moral Vision: A Critical Study of Jewish Experience (New York: Irvington, 1983);
Eugene Hollahan, ed., Saul Bellow and the Struggle at the Center, Georgia State Library Studies, 12 (New York: AMS, 1996);
Peter Hyland, Saul Bellow (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992);
Alfred Kazin, “My Friend Saul Bellow,” Atlantic Monthly (January 1965);
Robert Kiernan, Saul Bellow (New York: Continuum, 1990);
Claude Levy, Les Romans de Saul Bellow: Tactiques Narrative et Strategies Oedipiennes, Etudes Anglo-Americaines, 5 (Paris: Klincksieck, 1983);
Irving Malin, Saul Bellow’s Fiction (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1969);
Malin, ed., Saul Bellow and the Critics (New York: New York University Press, 1967);
D. T. Max, “With Friends Like Saul Bellow,” New York Times Magazine (16 April 2000)<http://partners.nytimes.com/library/magazine/home/20000416mag-ravel-stein.html>;
Judie Newman, Saul Bellow and History (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1984);
Keith M. Opdahl, The Novels of Saul Bellow: An Introduction (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1967);
Ellen Pifer, Saul Bellow Against the Grain (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1990);
M. Gilber Porter, Whence the Power? The Artistry and Humanity of Saul Bellow (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1974);
Eusebio Rodriques, Quest for the Human: An Exploration of Saul Bellow’s Fiction (Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1981);
Earl Rovit, Saul Bellow (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1967);
Rovit, ed., Saul Bellow: A Collection of Critical Essays (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1975);
Saul Bellow Journal (1981- );
Brigitte Scheer-Schaetzler, Saul Bellow (New York: Ungar, 1972);
Edmond Schraepen, Saul Bellow and His Work (Brussels: Vrije Universitet Brussel, 1978);
Tony Tanner, Saul Bellow (Edinburgh & London: Oliver& Boyd, 1965; New York: Barnes & Noble, 1965);
Stanley Trachtenberg, ed., Critical Essays on Saul Bellow (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1979);
Harriet Wasserman, Handsome Is: Adventures with Saul Bellow (New York: Fromm, 1997);
Jonathan Wilson, Herzog: The Limit of Ideas, Twayne’s Masterworks Series, 46 (Boston: Twayne, 1990);
Wilson, On Bellow’s Planet: Readings From the Dark Side (Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1985).
Except for that for Mr. Sammler’s Planet, which is at the New York Public Library, Saul Bellow’s manuscripts are at Regenstein Library of the University of Chicago. This extensive collection includes manuscripts from most of the novels, many different working drafts, letters, and memorabilia. Several manuscripts of Seize the Day are at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas at Austin.