Humboldt's Gift (1975), by Saul Bellow, is the eighth novel published by the celebrated and prolific Jewish-American author. Humboldt's Gift won the Pulitzer Prize in 1976 and contributed to Bellow's winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in the same year. This novel takes place in Chicago, like many of Bellow's works, and is widely recognized as a roman à clef—a fictional story about real events—concerning Bellow's friend, Delmore Schwartz, a Jewish-American poet who lived and died in New York City. Humboldt's infamous life of brilliant success and crashing failure closely parallels that of Schwartz. His name appears to be a reference to Alexander von Humboldt, a famous nineteenth-century Prussian naturalist and explorer.
At its heart, Humboldt's Gift is less about Humboldt and more about the narrator, Charlie Citrine, who is a dear friend to Humboldt and strongly contrasts with the poet's personality. Charlie drifts through life, lost in his own thoughts, which are often philosophical and high-minded. He is an accidental success and now preyed upon by any who wish to use him or his money in the twilight of his literary career. Humboldt's Gift is a novel about transformation: bereft of his fortune, Charlie finally finds the strength of spirit—which Humboldt said he had—to stand up to his users and do exactly what he wants to with his life.
Saul Bellow was born Solomon Bellows in Lachine, Quebec (a suburb of Montreal), the youngest of four children. His original birth certificate was lost in a fire, but his birthday is generally recognized as June 10, 1915. His parents, Abraham and Liza, emigrated from Russia to Canada not long before Bellow was born. Just like Charlie in Humboldt's Gift, Bellow suffered from tuberculosis at age eight and stayed at a hospital for many months. In 1924, his family moved from their impoverished neighborhood in Quebec to a tenement in Chicago. Eight years later, at age seventeen, Bellow was devastated by the death of his mother, to whom he was close. He started college in 1933 at the University of Chicago, later transferring to Northwestern University. He graduated with honors in 1937 with a bachelor's degree in sociology and anthropology. Bellow started graduate work at the University of Wisconsin, but over Christmas vacation, he married Anita Goshkin and abandoned his studies. He really wanted to be a writer instead of an anthropologist. Bellow took a number of editorial and teaching jobs until the outbreak of World War II. He served in the Merchant Marine from 1944 to 1945 after being rejected by the Army due to a hernia.
Bellow wrote his first novel, Dangling Man (1944), while he was waiting to be drafted into military service for World War II. His second novel, The Victim, was published three years later. Most of Bellow's books are connected to or based in Chicago, where his roots run deep. Bellow received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1948 and spent two years traveling around Europe. There he began work on one of his most famous novels, The Adventures of Augie March (1953), which won him the National Book Award in 1954. Humboldt's Gift won Bellow the Pulitzer Prize in 1976. He also won the National Book Award for Herzog (1964) and Mr. Sammler's Planet (1970). Bellow was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1976 "for the human understanding and subtle analysis of contemporary culture that are combined in his work," as described on his Nobel diploma. He received the National Medal for the Arts in 1988.
Bellow was a prominent Jewish-American postwar writer, but he considered himself an American writer who happened to be Jewish. He moved to Boston in 1993 to get away from the houses of his dead friends in Chicago. He taught at New York University, Bard College, Princeton University, the University of Minnesota, the University of Chicago, and Boston University. Bellow was married five times and had three sons and one daughter. Until his death, Bellow remained an active presence in contemporary literature and politics. He died on April 5, 2005, at age eighty-nine, at his home in Brookline, Massachusetts.
Humboldt's Gift begins with an introduction to Von Humboldt Fleisher, who published a popular avant-garde poetry book in the 1930s. Charlie Citrine, fresh out of college and in love with literature, is so moved by this work that he relocates to New York City in 1938 and becomes friends with Humboldt. Humboldt is a famous talker and manic depressive. In the 1940s, Humboldt marries Kathleen, and they move from Greenwich Village to rural New Jersey. Charlie spends a weekend with Humboldt and Kathleen in September 1952 when Humboldt's mania is in full swing. Humboldt's success is dissipating just as Charlie hits it big with a Broadway play a couple years later. They are estranged, and Humboldt pickets his show, arguing that real intellectuals do not make money.
Humboldt dies of a heart attack at a hotel in the early 1960s. Charlie reads his friend's obituary in the paper and is deeply moved. Humboldt is one of the few people Charlie loves, and he dreams of him often. In the present day, ten years later, Charlie's life is not going well. He has a beautiful girlfriend and is physically fit, but his ex-wife and the IRS are taking all of his money, and he is mentally unchallenged. But it is all about to change, thanks to Humboldt.
Charlie leaves for an appointment and finds his Mercedes-Benz 280 SL smashed up. He is stunned. He knows Rinaldo Cantabile did it because he has been harassing Charlie with late night phone calls. Charlie lost to Cantabile in a poker game but stopped the check he paid him with when he found out that Cantabile was cheating. Charlie asks his doorman, Roland, to flag down a cop and returns to his apartment. Charlie is overwhelmed by the mess this has made of his day. He thinks on his past success; most of his money is gone, the money that came between him and Humboldt. The cops show up and seem amused by Charlie's smashed up car. They also hint that it is mob-related, but Charlie plays dumb.
Around noon, Cantabile calls Charlie, and they set a time and place to meet for Charlie to pay him back in cash. Charlie manages to drive his wrecked car to the bank and from there calls to make an appointment with the dealership. Charlie leaves a message for George, asking him to stay away from the Russian Bath today. He is worried Cantabile will go after George for telling Charlie to stop the check. George set up the poker game to give Charlie a chance to hang out with "real people." Cantabile and his brother Emil crashed the party and openly cheated; everyone noticed, except Charlie. Charlie thinks about asking his gentleman hoodlum friend, Vito Langobardi, at the Downtown Club what he thinks of Cantabile. But at the last minute, Charlie changes his mind because he does not want Vito to think less of him for mixing business and pleasure.
Charlie takes a taxi to the Russian Bath. Inside, Mickey, who runs the concession, assures Charlie that George has already paid his weekly visit. Cantabile pulls up in a white Thunderbird, and Charlie tries to pay him but Cantabile has other plans. They get into the Thunderbird. As Cantabile is driving, Charlie remembers visiting his birth home in Appleton, Wisconsin. Charlie knocked on the door but no one answered so he peeked into the bedroom where he was born. He saw an old fat woman in her underwear. Her husband accosted Charlie, who managed to talk his way out of a beating.
Cantabile takes Charlie to the Playboy Club. They sit at a table with Mike Schneiderman, a gossip columnist, and Bill Latkin, who owes Cantabile a favor. Charlie is supposed to pay Cantabile back publicly, but he fumbles the cue, angering Cantabile. Their next stop is a jewelry dealer's apartment in the Hancock Building. Charlie successfully pays Cantabile this time. They go to a construction site, and Cantabile flies all but two of the fifties from a girder high off the ground. They have dinner at a steakhouse, and Cantabile asks Charlie to help his wife Lucy with her doctoral thesis on Humboldt. Charlie refuses.
- Humboldt's Gift was adapted as an unabridged audio book in 1992 by Blackstone Audiobooks. It is read by Christopher Hurt. As of 2007, it was available on cassette or as an audio file download from online book retailers.
Charlie takes the next morning off to recuperate. His latest big work is a series of essays on boredom. He is also increasingly fascinated with Dr. Rudolph Steiner's anthroposophy philosophy. Charlie takes out all of his Humboldt papers and lies down on his green sofa to think. He now knows that Humboldt was sane at the end of his life and regrets that he ran away that day on 46th Street. He recalls how the Times published a two-page obituary for Humboldt. Humboldt lived like Americans expect their poets to live: his great work was followed by personal decay and decline. Americans see poets as essentially useless; however, Humboldt would have been pleased to see his prominence temporarily renewed with such a long obituary.
In November 1952, Humboldt is depressed that Stevenson lost the presidential election. He reveals a scheme to get himself a chair in modern literature at Princeton. Humboldt needs this stability because he is off-balance and cannot write poetry. Charlie agrees to help, and at Humboldt's insistence, they form a blood-brother pact by exchanging blank checks.
Charlie makes the pitch to Professor Ricketts for Humboldt to be given a chair. Ricketts agrees wholeheartedly but says that there is no money. Defeated, Charlie reports this answer to Humboldt. Humboldt is inexplicably elated and leaves immediately for New York City. He visits Wilmoore Longstaff, head of the very rich Belisha Foundation. Longstaff likes Humboldt's plan and promises him the money. Humboldt's chair lasts a few months before the trustees of the Belisha Foundation reject Longstaff's budget. Ricketts offers to find money to keep Humboldt on staff, but Humboldt resigns.
A month later, in March, Humboldt tries to run Kathleen down on a back road in New Jersey. They had all been at a party, and Humboldt became insanely jealous and beat up Kathleen and tossed her into the car. At a stoplight, Kathleen jumped out and then had to leap into a ditch to avoid being run over by her husband. No one yet knew, except Humboldt and Ricketts, that Humboldt was losing his chair.
In May, Humboldt and Kathleen visit Charlie at the cottage where he is rewriting his play, Von Trenck, for production. Humboldt warns Charlie not be taken in by the glamour and money. He is extraordinarily paranoid about Kathleen and will not let her out of his sight. Kathleen soon disappears from a restaurant, and Humboldt goes crazy. Just before Labor Day, Humboldt is hauled off to Bellevue Hospital for psychiatric treatment. He accuses Charlie of breaking his blood oath. Meanwhile, Von Trenck is a Broadway hit. Just before Christmas, Demmie and her father die in a plane crash in Colombia, and Charlie spends months looking for her body. Humboldt cashes his blood-brother check, while Charlie is gone and grieving.
In the present day, Cantabile shows up at Charlie's apartment with a woman named Polly Palomino. Cantabile and Polly check out Charlie's apartment and ask about a movie he and Humboldt wrote at Princeton. While they are in the bathroom shaving, Cantabile offers Charlie help with his money and divorce problems, but Charlie is appalled at his suggestions of threats and kidnapping. Polly privately warns Charlie that Cantabile's investments are failing.
Renata picks up Charlie in an old yellow Pontiac. While she drives, Charlie remembers Doris Scheldt, a woman he dated while Renata was mad at him. Though he is attracted to Renata, Charlie knows that she is a gold-digger and her mother is a schemer. His friend George encourages him to settle down with Renata. She lets him off at the county courthouse building for his meeting.
Charlie remembers how he and Renata met in this building while serving jury duty. Charlie's friend and Renata's divorce lawyer, Alec Szathmar, set them up. On their first date, at a hotel bar, Charlie runs into Naomi Lutz and her father, Doc Lutz. Charlie is sentimental with Naomi, but she says, with affection, that he was too cerebral for her. Renata drinks too much and passes out.
At the courthouse, Charlie meets his legal team, Tomchek and Srole. Charlie insists that he will not give in to Denise anymore. He goes to an empty courtroom to work on his meditation. After a while, Denise appears. They are "dear enemies." She thinks she can fix Charlie and so asks him to marry her again, for the children's sake. Charlie is astonished. Denise gives him an opened letter from Kathleen.
Tomchek, Srole, and Charlie meet Judge Urbanovich in his chambers. Urbanovich says to Charlie, "Now you've had a taste of marriage, the family, middle-class institutions, and you want to drop out. But we can't allow you to dabble like that." The judge threatens to put a bond on Charlie's money. When the meeting is over, Charlie wishes he could take a vow of poverty. But Renata would leave him. Charlie escapes to the bathroom to read Kathleen's letter.
Kathleen writes to tell Charlie about the death of her second husband, Frank Tigler. She also tells him that the executor of Humboldt's estate is looking for him because Humboldt left him a gift. Charlie meets Pierre Thaxter outside the Art Institute, and they are accosted by Cantabile who forces Charlie into his car. Thaxter goes along for fun. They go to see Stronson who has been caught defrauding the Mafia. Cantabile threatens Stronson's life. An undercover cop arrests Cantabile and Charlie, but Stronson's receptionist, who happens to be Naomi's daughter Maggie, gets Charlie's charges dropped.
Before leaving town, Charlie visits his anthroposophist mentor, Dr. Scheldt, and they talk about the Exousiai, spirits of form in Jewish mysticism. He takes his daughters to see Rip Van Winkle, which he finds very moving. Lish gives her father a note from her mother—Denise has been threatened. Charlie hopes Cantabile gets killed in prison. Lastly, Charlie visits Naomi. They reminisce and catch up. Naomi asks Charlie to help her son, who has no good male role models.
Renata and Charlie stop over in New York City to pick up Humboldt's gift. Renata thinks that this is a prank. But Charlie declares his affection for Humboldt and the poetry he wrote; he comments, "Some say that failure is the only real success in America." They stay at the elegant Plaza Hotel, but Renata can only complain—about their room, about being unmarried, about Humboldt's gift. Charlie arranges to meet Huggins, the executor, at a gallery opening. Huggins tells Charlie that Humboldt's uncle Waldemar has all the papers and that Waldemar is cranky, but Charlie understands that he is just holding out for a visit.
Charlie makes Renata go with him to Coney Island. She is sore at him for a lot of reasons, mostly for not marrying her. At the retirement home, Charlie is unexpectedly reunited with Menasha Klinger, his family's boarder from the 1920s. Waldemar is glad to have visitors. He is hoping Humboldt's papers are valuable so that he can afford to rebury Humboldt properly and rent a flat. Charlie's gift from Humboldt constitutes a personal letter and two sealed envelopes.
Humboldt's letter is sane and affectionate. In the letter, Humboldt declares: "For you are, at one and the same time, no good at all and a darling man." He says that he wronged Charlie when he cashed the blood-brother check. His gift is a copyrighted screenplay treatment for a movie about a character loosely based on Charlie's personality. He has also included a copyrighted version of their Princeton idea. Humboldt believes these are worth a lot of money.
Over lunch, Renata picks on Charlie for being sentimental. She still thinks Humboldt's gift is a joke. He is thrilled that Humboldt still cared for him. The waiter brings Charlie a telephone. Szathmar is calling to warn Charlie that Urbanovich is impounding Charlie's money and that Julius is going to have open-heart surgery soon. Charlie tells Renata that he has to go to Texas. He gives her one thousand dollars to keep her happy in Milan for a week. They go to meet Thaxter in the hotel lobby. Thaxter and Charlie talk about their projects and agree to meet in Madrid. Renata goes to see a movie, and Thaxter leaves for a party.
Kathleen visits Charlie in the hotel lobby. They discuss the movie treatments that Humboldt has left each of them and realize that they have the same treatment, the one written by Humboldt. Charlie wonders to himself if Humboldt did this to bring them together. Kathleen has already been paid an option for first movie scenario, and she wants to split the money with Charlie.
In Houston, Charlie sees that Julius does not look well and eats too much. He is a very successful real estate investor. Julius is appalled that Charlie does not have any money hidden away. Julius takes Charlie on an excursion to look at some new property he is planning to buy and develop. When they return, Julius says goodbye until after the surgery. He tells Charlie to marry his wife, Hortense, if he dies. After the surgery, Hortense calls to tell Charlie that Julius is fine. Charlie goes to visit him, and Julius asks Charlie to buy him a seascape while in Europe, which is his way of offering money to help his brother. Charlie tells Julius he will be working on his own projects again soon. Hortense and Julius agree to take care of Charlie.
Charlie is troubled by what Renata might be up to in Milan. They agree to meet in Madrid. When Charlie arrives at the Ritz Hotel, he is very eager to reunite with Renata. She is not there. Señora and Roger arrive unannounced to stay with him, while Renata is nowhere to be found. Charlie spends Christmas caring for Roger, who has the flu. After a few days, Señora leaves without warning, and Roger remains in his care. Unable to afford the hotel any longer, Charlie moves with Roger to a pensión and pretends to be a widower. Renata has disappeared from Milan, and Charlie is heartbroken by her silent rejection.
Charlie and Roger settle into life at the pensión where they get a lot of help and sympathy because they are pretending to grieve. A Danish woman named Rebecca takes a liking to Charlie and tries to convince him to sleep with her. Renata writes to officially tell Charlie that she and Flonzaley married in Milan and are now on their honeymoon. Her letter is both affectionate and scathing. No word is given as to how long he is expected to watch her son.
Charlie sends a letter to Kathleen, hoping she will remember her promise to give him his share of the movie option she sold. His finances in Chicago have worsened to the point that debtors are coming after him. He writes to George asking for help. While he waits, Charlie spends a lot of time alone in his room experimenting with his ability to communicate with the dead, especially his parents, Demmie, and Humboldt. He hopes that Renata will change her mind and return to him, but she only sends postcards to her son. Kathleen replies that she will be stopping in Madrid on her way to Almería. George writes to Charlie from Africa in mid-February. He has not received Charlie's letter yet. George says the Africa trip was miserable. He took Naomi's son, Louie, who whined the whole time. Also, the beryllium deal fell through because there is no mine.
Cantabile shows up at the pensión. He tells Charlie about a current movie hit, Caldofreddo, which seems to be made from the idea that Charlie and Humboldt wrote at Princeton. Cantabile wants Charlie to sue the producers. Charlie refuses until Cantabile reminds him of Uncle Waldemar. Charlie and Cantabile go to see Caldofreddo in Paris, and Charlie affirms that it his and Humboldt's movie idea. Charlie presents his evidence to lawyers the next morning. Charlie offers them an option on the second movie scenario. Cantabile wants in on this deal too, but Charlie refuses him.
Charlie learns that Thaxter was kidnapped in Buenos Aires. He writes to Carl Stewart, Thaxter's editor, stating that he will pay to free his friend. Back in Madrid, the Señora finally picks up Roger.
Kathleen arrives in Madrid. She is on her way to Almería to shoot a historical film. Stewart writes back, informing Charlie that Thaxter is not in danger. Kathleen urges Charlie to choose what he really wants to do now that he does not have any pressing worries. He says that he wants to spend time at the Goetheanum, a center for anthroposophical study in Switzerland. The Caldofreddo settlement is eighty thousand dollars plus five thousand dollars to read the other movie treatment. Charlie turns down a lucrative script-writing job to pursue a different life.
In April, Charlie, Waldemar, and Menasha attend the reburial of Humboldt and his mother at Valhalla Cemetery. Waldemar and Menasha now live in a flat on the Upper West Side because of the Caldofreddo settlement. On their way back to the limousine, Menasha spies an early flower, and he asks Charlie what kind it is. Charlie does not know but thinks it must be a crocus.
Barbash is the American lawyer hired by Cantabile to represent Charlie in the nuisance settlement against the producers of Caldofreddo.
Rinaldo Cantabile is a hoodlum with minor Mafia connections who enters Charlie's life after a fateful game of poker at George Swiebel's house. Cantabile chases Charlie down for stopping a check on him and then, seeing a potential cash cow, sticks close to Charlie, trying to help him in his own rough way. Cantabile is married to a well-to-do woman named Lucy who is attending Harvard's Radcliffe College and writing a doctoral thesis on Humboldt. Cantabile hopes to get privileged information from Charlie for his wife, but Charlie refuses to help.
Part of Cantabile's motivation to be tough is the result of an incident fifty years before when his uncle Moochy killed a young man and embarrassed the Cantabile family to the rest of the Mafia. Since then his family has been a laughing stock and mistrusted by other mobsters. Cantabile shows some forethought when he tries to convince the undercover cop at Stronson's office that Charlie has nothing to do with the threats being made on Stronson's life. But Cantabile's efforts are all, in the end, for his own benefit.
Cantabile's energy turns to mania toward the end of the novel when he sniffs out the potential earnings to be had off Charlie. He realizes Charlie's old movie scenario has been made into a smash hit film and, in his own argumentative and abusive fashion, helps Charlie settle the matter and get the failing writer some much needed money. But money is Cantabile's primary objective at all times, and he is angry when Charlie refuses to let him in on the second movie deal. Cantabile's greed is blind: greed for greed's sake. He is obsessed with money, much like Renata, Thaxter, and Denise.
Charlie Citrine loves literature and has made it his life. He struggles throughout the novel to escape the mess his life has become. He believes he has failed as a writer and dwells on the success and failure of his dear friend Humboldt as he meditates upon anthroposophy and seeks deeper meaning from his life. Charlie's golden age is in his youth when he befriends Humboldt and falls in love with sweet and supportive Demmie Vonghel. All at once, dreamy Charlie's support network is yanked away: he and Humboldt are estranged over a misunderstanding, and Demmie dies in a plane crash. Left on his own, Charlie loses his direction, his motivating force as a writer to do something that will make a difference to the world. Charlie makes a lot of money off his Broadway hit, Von Trenck, which attracts all sorts of people who do not have his best interests in mind. He marries Denise and lets her direct his work. For the next twenty years, Charlie is surrounded by vultures (Denise, Renata, Thaxter, Cantabile) who are attracted to his status and money. Approaching sixty years of age, Charlie withdraws even further from reality into his thoughts (on boredom, on anthroposophy) as his career and life slide slowly toward failure. But Humboldt writes to him, "You are lazy, disgraceful, tougher than you think but not yet a dead loss." Humboldt's gift to Charlie is not just the money-making movie scenario but also his passion to do something significant for the world. Charlie's sense of failure does not stem from an inability to make money from his writing (none seems to doubt that) but from his failure to make a difference for the betterment of humankind.
Denise Citrine is Charlie's ex-wife. She and Charlie have two daughters, Lish and Mary. Denise and Charlie met on the set of his play, Von Trenck, when she was living with the star actor. Denise is intelligent, politically savvy, intense, status-conscious, greedy, manipulative, and beautiful, with large violet eyes. She burdens Charlie with her endless divorce suit. He keeps giving her what she wants, and she renews the suit to ask for more. She despises his girlfriend, Renata, and everything connected with her.
Hortense Citrine, Julius's wife, is loud, short, and attractive, with blue eyes and chub lips. Charlie finds her gruffness off-putting, but Julius convinces him that she is actually very sensitive and affectionate.
Julius Citrine is Charlie's older brother; his family nickname is Ulick. He is a successful real estate developer in Texas, living just as richly as his brother only on a grander scale. Julius is married to Hortense and has two sons. He is Charlie's polar opposite: practical, unsentimental, and ambitious. At age sixty-five, he has open heart surgery probably because his poor eating habits have led to heart disease.
Ten-year-old Lish Citrine is Charlie's older daughter.
Eight-year-old Mary Citrine is Charlie's younger daughter. She shares his taste for literature and language.
Von Humboldt Fleisher
Von Humboldt Fleisher, called Humboldt, is a poet modeled after Delmore Schwartz, one of Bellow's friends. Like the real-life figure, Humboldt is a legendary talker, a social creature, and a schemer. Born to an immigrant family in New York City, he eschews a life of labor for the love of poetry. Humboldt makes a name for himself when his book of avant-garde poems is published in the 1930s.
Humboldt does not live life quietly. Although he does not produce any other significant work, he stays active and inquisitive. His relationships with women are awkward, even adolescent. Humboldt abuses pills and alcohol and suffers from manic depression and paranoia. He is obsessed with money, litigation, and power. He loves deeply, and even when that love is betrayed, he does not cast the person out of his heart. In this subtle way, he and Charlie are much alike. This affection is what moves him to secure a legacy for Charlie, Kathleen, and, by extension, his uncle Waldemar.
Harold Flonzaley owns a chain of funeral parlors and is very wealthy. Renata hooks up with him when she is angry with Charlie. In the end, Flonzaley and Renata get married in Milan.
Maître Furet is the French lawyer hired by Cantabile to represent Charlie in their nuisance settlement against the producers of Caldofreddo.
Orlando Huggins is a radical bohemian who manages to be savvy about money and also avant-garde. He is the executor of Humboldt's estate.
Ben Islovsky is a geologist at Chicago's Field Museum. He identifies George's ore as beryllium and is invited to join George and Charlie in beryllium speculation in Africa.
Menasha Klinger lived with Charlie's family as a boarder when Charlie was a child in the 1920s. An amateur physicist, Klinger worked at Western Electric as a punch-press operator. His true love is opera, and as a young man, he takes voice lessons. He is a poor but ardent singer. Menasha Klinger is from Ypsilanti, Michigan, and he marries his high school sweetheart, a fat girl who cries all the time.
Gaylord Koffritz is Renata's ex-husband and Roger's father. Like Renata's new husband, Koffritz is in the funerary business.
Renata Koffritz, Charlie's girlfriend, is young, beautiful, and amply proportioned. Renata wants to marry a rich man, and she thinks her future husband will be Charlie for much of the book. She was raised by a single mother, the Señora, and feels strongly about having her father, Signor Biferno, acknowledge her. Renata was once married to Koffritz, but they divorced. They have a child together, Roger.
Renata is often selfish and impatient. She tries to bully Charlie into doing the things that she thinks are most important, and she complains a lot when she does not get what she wants, such as a better room at the Plaza hotel. Although Renata never knows about Charlie's financial problems, she gets tired of waiting for him to marry her, so she runs off with and marries Flonzaley while she is in Milan, waiting for Charlie to finish his business in Houston.
Roger Koffritz, son of Renata and Gaylord Koffritz, is a sweet, quiet child who stays with Charlie for a few months in Madrid while his mother is traveling with her new husband.
Vito Langobardi is a gentleman hoodlum with whom Charlie often plays racket ball at the Downtown Club.
Doc Lutz, a podiatrist, is the father of Charlie's childhood sweetheart, Naomi.
Magnasco is a critic whom Humboldt imagines is having an affair with his wife, Kathleen. Magnasco complains to the police when Humboldt persists in harassing him.
Polly Palomino is Cantabile's mistress and Lucy's old college roommate. She is very pale with red hair, and she does not wear a bra. Although she goes along with Cantabile's schemes, she makes an effort to warn Charlie away from the Stronson affair.
Professor Ricketts is Humboldt's and Charlie's colleague at Princeton.
Scaccia is a sleazy private investigator who fleeces Humboldt for most of his Guggenheim grant by lying and saying that Kathleen is still in New York City.
Charlie dates Doris Scheldt while he and Renata are fighting. Doris is sweet but has hang-ups about sex. She makes a needlepoint pillow for Charlie. Doris's father is a practicing anthroposophist, and even after Charlie breaks off with the daughter, he continues to consult with the father.
Dr. Scheldt is an academic and a specialist in anthroposophy. Charlie consults with Dr. Scheldt on a regular basis as he attempts to gain a deeper understanding of this spiritual science.
Señora is Renata's mother. She is a single mother and unsure which of two men may be her daughter's father. She teaches Spanish at a secretarial school, but Charlie is fairly certain that she is actually Hungarian. Señora is a schemer, and Charlie does not like her in the least. When Renata decides that Signor Biferno must be her father, Señora files a paternity suit, despite the fact that her daughter is a grown woman. Without asking, she makes Charlie pay for everything while they are staying in Madrid.
Billy Srole is Charlie's lawyer's associate. He is pale and chubby with long hair.
Carl Stewart is Thaxter's editor in New York City.
Charlie's doorman, Roland Stiles, is an elderly black man who is ceaselessly entertained by Charlie's life. Renata pays Stiles occasionally to watch Roger, so she and Charlie can be alone.
Stronson is in a lot of trouble with both the government and the hoodlums for defrauding the Mafia. Before the end of the book, he tries to run away to Costa Rica but gets caught and sent to jail.
Alec Szathmar is a lawyer and Charlie's childhood friend. He helps Charlie out with legal advice as well as setting him up with women because Szathmar is a matchmaker at heart. Szathmar has white hair and gloomy eyes. He is very sexual, but his health is poor. He had a heart attack a few years earlier, and Charlie worries that he is not taking care of himself.
Pierre Thaxter is a man who talks big but acts little. He is rumored to be a CIA agent, which may explain why he travels so much and continues to stay a step ahead of his creditors. Charlie has loaned Thaxter a great deal of money in an effort to produce a literary journal called The Ark. Thaxter has nine children. He is kidnapped while working in Buenos Aires but concern for his well-being lags as he publishes from captivity several Op-Ed pieces in the New York Times.
Theo is a cousin of Ezekiel Kamuttu and acts as George's guide while he is in Nairobi. Theo and George get along well, but Theo is driven to extreme rage when Louie Wolper, George's traveling companion, translates English cuss words into Swahili.
Frank Tigler is Kathleen's second husband. He and Kathleen were married for twelve years. He runs a derelict dude ranch in Nevada and is an abrasive and unpleasant person. He is shot in a hunting accident and dies.
Kathleen Fleisher Tigler
Kathleen Fleisher Tigler and Humboldt marry in the 1940s. She is a beautiful, fleshy, mild-mannered woman who lets Humboldt lead in their relationship. Despite her easy-going nature, Humboldt becomes paranoid and suspects that Kathleen is carrying on secret affairs with other men. When his paranoia gets so bad that he will not let her out of his sight, she decides she must leave him. Kathleen slips away while they are eating at a restaurant. She runs to Nevada where she files for divorce and eventually meets Frank Tigler, whom she is married to for twelve years. After Frank dies, Kathleen goes into the movie business. Humboldt has left Kathleen the same gift he left Charlie. At the end of the novel, Kathleen is shooting a historical film in Spain, and Charlie gets a job from her as an extra. Charlie and Kathleen enjoy talking to each other as a substitute for the conversations they used to have with Humboldt.
Forrest Tomchek is Charlie's divorce lawyer. He is very expensive but seemingly ineffective despite the fact that Szathmar promised he was the best in the city.
Urbanovich is a Croatian American lawyer who gives Charlie a hard time over his divorce suit.
Miss Rebecca Volsted
Rebecca Volsted is a gimpy blonde who works at the Danish Embassy and lives at the pensión. She is in her fifties and tries to convince Charlie to sleep with her.
Anna Dempster Vonghel
Anna Dempster Vonghel, called Demmie, was Charlie's girlfriend when he was a young man. She comes from a large, tight-knit family. She is tall and blonde with knock-knees that rub together slightly. Demmie is simultaneously elegant and country-rough. She wants to marry Charlie, but he is intimidated by her parents who are very religious. Demmie, like Humboldt, self-medicates with different pills and has trouble sleeping. She dies with her father in a plane crash over Colombia, leaving Charlie heartbroken.
Waldemar Wald is Humboldt's uncle and has the same wide-set grey eyes. He is an only son and was doted on by the women in his family, so that he never learned to take care of himself and instead became a lay-about and a gambler. Humboldt eventually becomes one of his caretakers as well. After Humboldt dies, Waldemar is left in a shoddy nursing home. He needs Charlie to find value in Humboldt's papers so that he can afford to rebury his nephew and move into his own flat.
Louie Wolper, Naomi's son, is on the cusp of adulthood. He has recently kicked a drug habit but still engages in infantile behavior, underlined clearly by his unceasing request for milk while in Nairobi.
Maggie Wolper, Naomi's daughter and Stronson's receptionist, is a beautiful twenty-five-year-old woman, and her tears over Charlie's near imprisonment speak to a more sentimental sensibility than her mother has.
Naomi Lutz Wolper
Naomi Lutz Wolper is Charlie's childhood sweetheart. As teenagers, they loved deeply but when Charlie went to college, Naomi realized that she wanted a man with both feet planted firmly on earth. She also wanted charge accounts to Field's and Sak's. Her husband eventually left, but Naomi is satisfied with her life. She has a boyfriend, enjoys watching sports, and drinking beer. She works as a crossing guard for a school.
Money, Success, and Happiness
Money is a significant entity in Humboldt's Gift. At the time this story is told, Charlie has been a successful writer and rich from his successes, but his wealth is drying up due to poor financial management and exploitations he has suffered by friends, family, and strangers. Numb and unhappy, Charlie is at a loss for how to transform his life. He trusts everyone so much that other people have repeatedly made off with his money and property.
By contrast, in the first part of the book, Charlie reflects on an earlier period in his life, when he was poor and happy. At that time, he was filled with ideas, energy, literature, conversation, rhetoric, and the love of beautiful Demmie Vongel. But just as Charlie's Von Trenck is becoming a wildly successful Broadway show, his friendship with Humboldt crumbles, and his girlfriend dies in a plane wreck. Over and again, Bellow's commentary, via the character of Humboldt, is that money and success are not tied to happiness and may, in fact, be the antithesis of happiness.
Thaxter, for example, obsessively wastes other people's money, and although he seems jolly, he is a fair-weather friend. Renata is also fair-weather, concerned only with marrying a rich man. Although she never learns of Charlie's destitute finances, she grows impatient with him and quickly marries someone else. Denise, Charlie's ex-wife, got everything in their divorce—the house, the children, and a lot of his money. But it is not enough because, as Urbanovich and others point out, Charlie has an excellent potential for making more money so long as he does some work. By way of his money, Charlie has attracted a pack of jackals, none of whom has Charlie's interests in mind. He can only be rid of them by giving up his money.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Saul Bellow set a lot of his fiction in the city of Chicago, where he himself grew up. Research the history of this vibrant city, focusing on arts, literature, music, or drama and write a paper on what you learn.
- Charlie takes his daughters to see a performance of "Rip Van Winkle," adapted from the short story by Washington Irving, which was first published in 1819. Read this story and write an essay about why "Rip Van Winkle" is significant within the novel Humboldt's Gift.
- Write a short story about Charlie Citrine that takes place after the end of Humboldt's Gift. Is he happier? Does he ever find someone to love again? Does his gift from Humboldt continue to affect his life? Is he still writing or is he doing something completely different?
- The Mafia, through Rinaldo Cantabile, plays an important role in Bellow's novel. What presence does the Mafia have in contemporary culture (in the news, entertainment, politics, business, etc.)? Does the Mafia contribute to society or do it harm? Defend your position in a poem.
- Humboldt's Gift is a semi-autobiographical novel. Not only is Humboldt based on Delmore Schwartz, but Charlie is based on Bellow himself. How many correlations between the novel's plot and Bellow's real life can you find? Work together as a class to come up with a list.
- Read a short story by Delmore Schwartz. Did you like the story? Does his writing style evoke the character of Humboldt? In what way? Write a one-page response to the story that you read, connecting it to Bellow's novel.
- In Humboldt's Gift, Charlie and Thaxter want to start a journal of literature and ideas named The Ark. It fails to get going in part because of the expenses involved with printing. With the explosive popularity of the Internet in the 1990s, online literary journals became more prevalent. Find a literary journal that is exclusively online or has web-only content. Read through the current issue and then write a review about what makes this journal unique, what you liked and did not like, and why.
- Write a poem inspired by the novel—its characters, events, or themes. For extra credit, write it in an avant-garde style, like Humboldt composed his poems.
Humboldt's message is lost on Charlie until the end of the book. Charlie comes into a great deal of money via Humboldt's legacy but focuses instead on finally leading the life that interests him rather than pursuing greater riches. Money is blinding to creativity, which is partly why Humboldt is so angry with Charlie and his flashy success with the play. Charlie was not being true to his artistry; he was just being popular.
Insanity and Artistry
It is a long-held assumption in Western culture that artists are eccentric and passionate because their creativity and talent stems from their abandonment of societal norms. Sometimes this behavior adds up to unconventionality, but popular perception of artists emphasizes their destructive traits, such as alcoholism, drug abuse, and mental illness. This theme is explored in Humboldt's Gift, in which the eponymous Humboldt struggles with manic depression, paranoia, and drug and alcohol abuse. The picture Bellow paints for the reader shows a troubled man whose afflictions derail his ability to be creative and produce new work. The one big success of Humboldt's lifetime is his first book, Harlequin Ballads, which he wrote as a young man. Later, he is distracted by his wife, schemes for various jobs, and suffers from substance abuse and mental and financial problems. As a result, Humboldt produces no work of significance until late in his life and even those works are not recognized until ten years after his death. There are, of course, many creative individuals who do not have destructive lifestyles. Charlie appears to have no vices, and he is quite capable of producing creative work when he applies himself. His eccentricity, if any, is his distracted air—he lives inside his thoughts so much and is so often disconnected from real-world concerns that many people call him a snob.
The greatest friendship in Humboldt's Gift is between Charlie and Humboldt. Like Humboldt's manic depression, the friendship of these two men goes through extreme highs and lows, and together they talk about subjects that few people have the patience to discuss with Charlie, when he is older. Despite the estrangement that develops between Humboldt and Charlie, their affection for each other persists, as seen in Charlie's dreams about Humboldt and in Humboldt's posthumous gift to Charlie.
Amidst the tumult of girlfriends, marriages, and divorce, it is Charlie's true friends who help hold him together and get through the rough parts. His real friends are George, Szathmar, Kathleen, Humboldt, and Demmie. But no one Charlie has met since he and Humboldt were estranged has proven to be a real friend to Charlie. On the contrary, Cantabile, Thaxter, Renata, and Denise, among others, have taken far more than they are willing to give, both financially and emotionally, to support this person they supposedly care about. In his novel, Bellow underlines the significance of friendship beyond material possessions. Friendship is not measured solely by a show of affection but also by how one's friends weather the good and the bad experiences.
Materialism is obsession about money and/or possessions. Charlie seeks over the course of the novel to free himself from materialistic concerns. In the courthouse, he declares to his lawyers that he wants to take a vow of poverty, and by the end of the book, having earned enough money to devote himself to studying anthroposophy, he turns down a lucrative scriptwriting offer. Before his Broadway hit, Von Trenck, Charlie's means are modest—he borrows money from his girlfriend to buy a bus ticket to New York City, and fourteen years later, when he and Humboldt exchange blood-brother checks, Charlie has only eight dollars in his bank account. A year later, Von Trenck is a success, and Charlie is bankrolling more money than he ever dreamed of having. With that money comes its baggage. Charlie marries Denise and is swallowed up with her elite ideas of who his friends should be, how his house should be decorated, and what assignments he should take. Even after they are divorced, Denise continues to harangue Charlie for more money. He also falls in with people, such as Thaxter, Renata, and Cantabile, whose lives revolve around money. Thaxter borrows heavily and abandons his debts. Renata wants to marry into wealth. Cantabile is a thug who wants to have control over Charlie and an ability to tap into his income.
Charlie is most concerned with his meditation. He sees how Americans are consumed with materialism and ignore their inner lives. He hopes through his meditations to come up with a way to help people—no small feat since first one must convince people that there is a problem. Charlie has the most difficulty with communication. Many of his friends and family find Charlie's meditations ridiculous, boring, and circuitous. Humboldt's Gift may thus be seen as Bellow's wake up call to Americans about the evils of materialism.
Spirituality is a sense of connection to something greater than oneself. Spirituality differs from religion, although they can and often do overlap. Charlie is concerned about spirituality because of the distinct lack of it that he sees in the world. His meditation is his deepest concern throughout the book. He is fixated on anthroposophy, a spiritual science created by Dr. Rudolph Steiner in the nineteenth century. Charlie attempts to understand spiritual phenomena (such as communication with the dead) with his methodical meditations on aspects of anthroposophy. His spirituality, instead of connecting him to something greater, distances him from those who are nearby.
Point of View
Humboldt's Gift is told in first-person point of view, which means the reader sees the events of the novel through the eyes of one character who speaks in his own voice. Charlie spends a lot of time thinking about abstract concepts, which is weakly communicated in the first person. The benefit of first-person point of view is that the close proximity between reader and narrator makes the story more directly engaging. When Charlie is stood up by Renata in Madrid and left to care for her son, Roger, while she honeymoons with her new husband, the reader feels his heartbreak more keenly because of the immediacy between reader and narrator.
Foil characters are delineated in part by the contrast they pose to one another. An author uses this literary device to highlight by contrast characteristics of the juxtaposed characters. This juxtaposition helps the reader to see something about the character via the contrast. In Humboldt's Gift, the protagonist, Charlie, is contrasted with Humboldt; they are foil characters. In some ways their friendship is both unlikely and makes perfect sense because they are very different in their personalities, mannerisms, and, occasionally, tastes. Bellow shows that Charlie's passive nature makes him an easy fit in many unlikely relationships, such as with his ex-wife Denise; his hoodlum shadow Cantabile; his fair-weather girlfriend Renata; and his irresponsible friend Thaxter. By the end of the novel, as the full extent of Humboldt's character is revealed—his thoughtfulness and affection for those he truly loved—it is apparent that he was a true friend to Charlie.
The juxtaposition of the women in Charlie's love life is particularly interesting. Naomi and Demmie were Charlie's first loves and both were sweet young women. By contrast, Denise and Renata are concerned with status and money and ultimately ill-suited to Charlie. Just as the two halves of Charlie's life are in stark contrast—happiness and fulfillment turned to discontent and frustration—so are the women from those periods in his life in contrast.
Conflict is an aspect of the plot in which struggle occurs between two forces, such as character versus character or character versus nature. The end of the story often provides a resolution of conflict. A novel, because of its length and variety of characters, is often comprised of various kinds of conflict. In Humboldt's Gift, the primary conflict is character versus society, in which Charlie struggles to free himself from the bonds of money, bad people, and material goods, all of which he is grown to despise. Wealth has not brought him any happiness and continues to drag him deeper into a meaningless existence. At the end of the novel, Charlie has given up his wealthy lifestyle to focus on the study of anthroposophy and to search for a solution to what ails society. Character versus character also recurs in this novel on a more minor level. Charlie struggles with Tomchek, Srole, Denise, Cantabile, Renata, Thaxter, and the Señora. On a more abstract level is the conflict between materialism and spirituality represented by Charlie's efforts against the agents of materialism, such as Renata and Cantabile.
Feminism is a political and social theory that argues for equality of men and women with an understanding that women have not historically been given equal opportunities and that these shortcomings must be acknowledged and repaired. First-wave feminism includes nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century feminist activity leading up to extending the franchise to women, which occurred in Great Britain in 1918 and in the United States in 1920. Second-wave feminism lasted from approximately 1960 through 1989. Radical feminism took hold in Western nations in the 1970s. Radical feminists take an extreme viewpoint, which some criticize as being misandrist, or man-hating. In the 1970s, two significant milestones in the mainstream feminist movement were achieved. Passed in 1972, Title IX Education Acts forbade discrimination in education for women. In the 1973 case of Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court legalized abortion. The Equal Rights Amendment was a big cause in the 1970s for many groups, including feminists, but despite its popularity, it failed to achieve ratification in 1982. Third-wave feminism began in the mid-1980s, alongside second-wave feminism, with a different theoretical approach. Third-wave feminists emphasize a close examination of gender and how gender is defined, among other applicable interpretations. The women in Bellow's novel do not overtly represent ideals of feminism, but Denise and Renata, as single mothers, are less marginalized by society because of advances made by feminists. Renata's flagrant sexuality is also more acceptable because of the social effects of some feminist thought.
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1970s: Divorce rates are on the rise worldwide with approximately 50 percent of marriages in the United States ending in divorce by 1975.
Today: Approximately 41 percent of marriages in the United States end in divorce, a rate that has gradually been decreasing since the late 1970s. At the same time, marriage rates have also been declining.
- 1970s: Congress passes the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act to give federal investigators and prosecutors the power to defuse organized criminal activity.
Today: Identity theft, online extortion, and human trafficking are common transgressions for organized crime. Organized criminal activity that utilizes the Internet is difficult for the police to trace but advances in security technology are closing the gap in protection.
- 1970s: The cold war between communist and democratic world powers eases. Economic concerns and an arms race stalemate (acknowledged mutually assured destruction) drive the United States, the Soviet Union, and other nations to improve trade relations and thaw tensions.
Today: Well over a decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the cold war, regime change and economic hardship in former communist countries significantly redraw the map of Europe and Asia. China, Laos, Vietnam, and North Korea remain under communist rule.
- 1970s: A decade after the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962), world nuclear powers, such as the Soviet Union and the United States, sign arms control agreements to limit arsenals and ban nuclear weapons. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, signed by one hundred and eighty-eight sovereign nations, is enacted in 1970.
Today: The U.S. invasion of Iraq is justified by a concern that Iraq is stockpiling weapons of mass destruction. As of 2007, the stockpile is not discovered. Meanwhile, Iran conducts nuclear research in keeping with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to which some countries, particularly the United States and the United Kingdom, object on the grounds that they believe the research is for weapons and not for power plants.
The Vietnam War was a long, violent, and controversial clash between North and South Vietnam from 1945 to 1975. The United States was heavily involved in Vietnam's struggles from 1965 through 1973 as part of U.S. participation in the cold war between communist and democratic nations. The United States allied with the anti-communist government of South Vietnam and joined forces with it to overcome communist (and U.S.S.R.-backed) North Vietnam. But this was a conflict unlike any the United States had ever fought because the Viet Cong (North Vietnam soldiers) engaged in guerilla warfare, a style of combat that relies on ambush and sabotage and is very difficult for opposing forces trained in traditional battlefield engagement to counter. South Vietnam and its allies sustained heavy casualties because they were unprepared for guerilla warfare. Back in the United States, people protested U.S. military action in South East Asia, and these demonstrations, which sometimes turned violent, led to accusations that protestors were unpatriotic, lazy, and self-indulgent. When U.S. forces pulled out of Vietnam in 1973, over seventy thousand American soldiers had died or were missing in the line of duty. Civilian casualties across South East Asia numbered more than ten million.
Realism in Literature
Post-World War II literature is marked by a trend toward realism in the United States. Bellow was a realist author although already established in his career and style by the 1970s. The turbulent politics of the 1960s influenced a development in the realism literary movement toward more experimental forms (such as blending fact and fiction or atypical narrative techniques) as well as content that focused on minority groups and their concerns. Significant experimental novels of the 1970s include Chimera (1972) by John Barth, Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula by the Black Tarantula (1973), by Kathy Acker; Gravity's Rainbow (1973), by Thomas Pynchon; and Breakfast of Champions (1973) by Kurt Vonnegut. Important African-American fiction and poetry from the 1970s include I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1970), by Maya Angelou; Mumbo-Jumbo (1972), by Ishmael Reed; Roots (1976), by Alex Haley; and Song of Solomon (1977), by Toni Morrison. Minority literature became even more mainstream in the early 1980s.
In the United States, the New Hollywood period lasted from approximately 1967 until 1980. Young directors in the 1970s, such as Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, Roman Polanski, and Martin Scorsese, made a huge impact on the American film industry, developing the current blockbuster movie model, which was the foundation of the film industry at the turn of the twenty-first century. Early blockbuster movies include Star Wars Episode IV and Jaws. Counterculture subjects and unusual techniques, often borrowed from foreign films, were also popular with young American audiences, giving rise to the independent film industry. Independent films are generally produced on a small budget and outside direct control of a major studio.
Humboldt's Gift is filled with references to literature and philosophy and, on the whole, focuses more on thinking than on action. Although Humboldt's Gift took the Pulitzer Prize in 1976, critics have given it mixed reviews. Anatole Broyard, writing for the New York Times, gives a tepid review:
While the random contents of Saul Bellow's mind make better reading than most novels, they do not make for a good novel in this case because they are not integrated into the action, such as it is.
Richard Gilman, in a more favorable New York Times review, compliments Bellow's examination of American views on art and culture: "Its length is a function not so much of copious incident as of slow accretion of recognitions, a painstaking working-out of a plan of escape." Gilman identifies the central theme as misdirected intelligence. John Leonard also gives a favorable review of both the book and the author in the New York Times. He describes Humboldt's Gift as "a fierce, energetic comedy about postwar Jewish intellectuals trying to come to terms with American popular culture." Louis Simpson puts it succinctly in his article on Delmore Schwartz and Humboldt's Gift for the New York Times: "The interest of Humboldt's Gift does not lie in the plot, it is in Bellow's ideas." As other critics have pointed out, the plot is weak in comparison to the characters and the ideas.
Ullmann is a freelance writer and editor. In the following essay, she investigates accusations from Charlie's friends and acquaintances that Charlie is a snob.
Saul Bellow's Pulitzer Prize-winning Humboldt's Gift is a novel of much thought and little action, a lot like its main character, Charlie Citrine. Charlie spends a great deal of time inside his own head, exploring anthroposophy, thinking about the blight of boredom in contemporary culture, worrying about his girlfriend, worrying about money, trying to communicate with the dead, and reminiscing about the past. As the novel progresses and his reality worsens, Charlie withdraws all the more from society. Despite the reader's proximity to the narrator through the first-person point of view, most knowledge of Charlie's character actually comes from what other people say about him, often right to his face. What many people say is that Charlie is a snob.
Charlie does not seem to be a snob from the first-person perspective, where the reader is as lost in Charlie's thoughts as Charlie is. He does not treat others with obvious superiority. In his private mind, he only finds fault with people who do not mean him well, such as Denise, Cantabile, and Urbanovich, and that can hardly be considered a sign of a superior attitude.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- In Dreams Begin Responsibilities, published in 1938, is Delmore Schwartz's seminal book of short stories and poetry.
- The Adventures of Augie March (1953) is Saul Bellow's most famous work. It is a bildungsroman (a novel about growing up) about a young man in Chicago during the Great Depression.
- William Faulkner's Absalom! Absalom! was published in 1936. It follows the life of a poor man who becomes rich with a huge plantation but loses his sons and fails to establish his dynasty in the fashion he envisioned.
- American Pastoral (1997) is a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Philip Roth, one of Bellow's protégés. This book is about a man trying to live the American dream and how that dream is shattered and then re-envisioned.
- The Sun Also Rises (1926), by Ernest Hemingway, is a roman à clef, like Humboldt's Gift. It follows the exploits of a group of American expatriates in Europe during the 1920s, mirroring Hemingway's own life and friends at that time.
- Best American Essays of the Century (2001), edited by Robert Atwan and Joyce Carol Oates, is a collection of important essays from North America's twentieth century by such authors as Mark Twain, Stephen Jay Gould, and Maya Angelou.
- Moby-Dick (1851), by Herman Melville, is a famous novel about a ship captain who is obsessed with hunting down an elusive white whale. Bellow is often considered the Melville of the twentieth century.
- The Closing of the American Mind (1987), by Allan Bloom, is a critique of the American university educational system by an accomplished philosopher and close friend of Bellow.
- Gimpel, the Fool (1957), by Isaac Bashevis Singer, is a collection of short stories about an individual's search for guidance in life. It is Singer's first book to be translated into English. The title story was translated by Bellow.
When Charlie fumbles his cue to repay Cantabile at the Playboy Club and inadvertently offends Mike Schneiderman, Cantabile says, "You have contempt. You're arrogant, Citrine. You despise us." Although Charlie's actions are unintentional, Cantabile is not wrong. Throughout Humboldt's Gift, Charlie condemns people who have invested too heavily in the American dream. His worst reproach is reserved for lawyers, as if they are the grease that keeps the whole ugly machine running. Even Naomi, Charlie's childhood sweetheart, is not spared. Although he is excessively sentimental about her, Charlie sees Naomi's transformation into a common American as something Naomi gives up—never mind that she is probably the most content person in the whole novel. Charlie pities Cantabile's earnest desire to be a successful hoodlum; of course, when Charlie tells Cantabile that he likes to sit in his room and think for hours, Cantabile comments, "A hell of an egotistical thing to do." Schneiderman and his gossip column mean nothing to Charlie, although he pretends to care in order to satisfy those around him, those who are living in reality. Denise calls Charlie a snob when she senses his disdain for the intelligentsia with whom she surrounds herself—and Charlie does not disagree. Although he has always disdained Denise's friends, he has never bothered to expend any energy in explaining himself. Renata writes to him, "I admit you're smart…. You should be as tolerant toward undertakers as I am toward intellectuals." His singular pursuit of some undefined truth seems to provide the dividing line between those whom Charlie deems worthy and those who are not.
At their kindest, Charlie's friends and associates tie his snobbishness to a dreamy, detached attitude that goes along with his long and tangled thought processes. To some degree, he is forgiven his distracted air because he is a writer, but the less Charlie publishes, the fewer people consider his rambling thoughts to be useful to his work. Charlie's lifelong friend George says to him, "This abstract stuff is poison to a guy like you…. You're too exclusive, you're going to dry out!" Renata and Naomi do not consider Charlie to be a snob as much as intolerably boring and long-winded. Their focus is on the material world; spiritual matters are worthless and overly romantic. Downright hostile, Renata and Naomi are unsupportive of Charlie's mental aerobics, which may belie Bellow's own experience and prejudice against women (he was married five times). Kathleen and Demmie are exceptions. Kathleen, who was once married to Humboldt, misses the poet's ecstatic, intellectual conversations, even if she does not participate in them herself. Readers do not know Demmie's opinion explicitly, but in all of Charlie's remembrances, she is the model of a supportive partner. Kathleen and Demmie, of course, were never expected to participate in intellectual conversation because Charlie and Humboldt had each other to talk to.
Charlie also spends a great deal of time reminiscing. He fondly remembers Humboldt and with sadness recalls his dear, dead Demmie. He also touches ever so lightly, as if to a wound, his childhood: the tuberculosis sanatorium, his birth house in Wisconsin, playing in the streets of Chicago, and working for Doc Lutz. Charlie is as sentimental as he is intellectual; the one may temper the other, but both still leave him removed from reality.
Charlie was most successful in the real world when he was young and well-matched to the devoted Demmie, who took care of him, loved him as he was, and encouraged his artistry. As Charlie gets older and experiences a series of failures, such as his marriage, his journal of ideas The Ark, and the loss of his fortune, he starts to fumble and fail much as Humboldt did, only more quietly. Humboldt went down in a blaze of insanity; Charlie is fizzling slowly and irrevocably.
Humboldt, who knows Charlie's soul best, even calls him a snob:
You're too lordly yourself to take offense. You're an even bigger snob than Sewell. I think you may be psychologically one of those Axel types that only cares about inner inspiration, no connection with the actual world…. You leave it to poor bastards like me to think about matters like money and status and success and failure and social problems and politics. You don't give a damn for such things.
What Humboldt and others consider snobbery on Charlie's part may be more accurately described as self-involvement. Having taken Humboldt's advice that success is not about the money, Charlie is in a spiral of failure, having been unable to make a difference to the world through his work. As he searches for an answer, lost in his thoughts, Charlie does not place himself above others so much as completely ignore the fact that he needs to function in reality just like everyone else. Later in life, he does not have anyone to engage his mind as Humboldt once did, and it wears away at Charlie like overworked gears being stripped of their usefulness. Charlie hungers for mental stimulation, for conversations like he used to have with Humboldt and sometimes has with Thaxter or Dr. Scheldt. He is drawn to anthroposophy because he is looking for a cure: he believes all original ideas have been used up, and culturally, people are entering an era of boredom. "[Y]ou don't spend years trying to dope your way out the human condition. To me that's boring," Renata tells Charlie. Perhaps, it is only Charlie who is bored, having fallen into the rut of an existence lacking in stimulation. People comment to him that anthroposophy is bogus, but Charlie is undaunted and does not mind being labeled eccentric. He is gradually breaking free of his material bonds, selling his Persian rugs, losing his Mercedes, and losing most of his money to Denise. Humboldt, who understands Charlie's pursuit, accuses him, "You're always mooning in your private mind about some kind of cosmic destiny." Charlie hopes to someday reach a conclusion that will help humankind recover from its boredom of ideas.
Stuttering, Huggins asks Charlie: "[W]hat were you re-re-reserving yourself for? You had the star attitude, but where was the twi-twi-twink." Charlie's biggest problem is his failure to connect with people. He admits to Huggins that he once considered himself intellectually superior to most people but that he has given that up. If he is to be believed, he still has not given up the practice of solitude that has turned to obliviousness. Charlie seems not to hear Renata's pleas to marry, even with the threat of Flonzaley always on the horizon. He repeatedly pours his sentimental nostalgia on Naomi even though she hates it. Naomi is clear with Charlie why they did not work out, but her words do not seem to penetrate his fog of thought. While they are married, he allows Denise to push him around and make him work on the assignments she thinks are worthwhile even if he is disinterested. Despite their great affection for each other as childhood chums, Charlie and Szathmar often seem on the verge of a fight. Charlie fails to connect partly because whenever he is in an unpleasant or boring situation, he withdraws into himself to think: the bathroom stall with Cantabile, in Cantabile's car, in Renata's car, waiting in the courthouse, on the airplane with Renata, at the Ritz in Madrid, at the pensión. Renata writes to Charlie in her farewell letter, "You always said that the way life happened to you was so different that you weren't in a position to judge the desires of other people. It's really true that you don't know people from inside or understand what they want … and you never may know."
Charlie's growth as a person over the course of the novel is double-edged. He regains control of his life but takes the not-wholly-unexpected option of pursuing a life of pure intellect at the Anthroposophy Institute in Switzerland. Near the end of the novel, he is fixated on communicating with the dead, which necessitates that he ignore all the vibrant, fully alive individuals around him, from the lovely Renata to the eager Rebecca Volsted to even his own daughters. His self-involvement holds no malice, but his grand plan to do something beneficial for society by way of deep thought may be unrealistic. By the conclusion of Humboldt's Gift, Charlie has grown up but not out.
Source: Carol Ullmann, Critical Essay on Humboldt's Gift, in Novels for Students, Thomson Gale, 2008.
In the following essay, Siegel explores Bellow's comment on the precariousness of the artist in America and the obsession, guilt, and metaphysical experimentation of his protagonist prompted by the death of a friend.
Easily the novelist most successful in capturing contemporary life's realistic and grotesque aspects has been Saul Bellow. Now past sixty, he has for more than three decades proved himself this country's most profoundly serious and exuberantly comic observer. If many writers today resort to "impressionistic journalism and innovative fantasy," he retains a "Tolstoyan appetite" for serious ideas. Indeed, ideas are Bellow's primary material, and usually they entangle themselves in his characters' perceptions and emotions. Despite his intellectual concerns, however, Bellow is basically a storyteller, and one who remains in the major tradition of conscious realism, with its intense characterizations and detailed, textured descriptions of its heroes' every physical and mental action.
He has been described as having emerged from an "ancient Jewish tradition of alarm wedded to responsibility." His social concepts and interpretations bear this out. His fiction derives much of its strength from his grasp of the cultural implications of his characters' behavior and emotions. His central Jewish loners and lamenters are perceptive, critical, overextended urban beings; they tend to separate themselves from families and friends while they strain to bring order and coherence to their private lives. For these bedeviled seekers, the pressures and constraints come as often from without as from within. Most suffer not only from minds tormented by personal fears but also from an unfeeling society's frequent indignities. As a result, their lives often become desperate battles against not merely their own capricious, self-serving appetites but also against the wants and wishes of family members and intimates, friends and strangers.
Yet despite their antic involvements, his characters reassert Bellow's unflagging humanism. Every individual, he insists, should adhere to a human measure or mean. Even his least cerebral heroes seek to convert America's social chaos into coherent traditional notions about character, morality, and fate. Some critics have accused Bellow—especially with Mr. Sammler's Planet—of souring in his humanism, liberalism, and social expectations. "There can be little doubt," notes Malcolm Bradbury, that the "high ironies" of recent Bellow fiction "betoken a sceptical withdrawal from … contemporary consciousness … and a cold eye … [toward] the contemporary circus." Bradbury is only half-right. For if Bellow does view present social and moral disorders with a skeptical or "cold eye," he has hardly withdrawn from current happenings or ceased to care about those affected by them. Moses Herzog and Artur Sammler, for example, express concern not only for the cultural drift evident at every turn but for their own urges toward detachment or withdrawal as well.
Bellow is even more deeply involved with contemporary life in Humboldt's Gift. Here narrator Charlie Citrine is nagged by guilt at having immersed himself in personal pursuits. He has closed his eyes, he laments, and "slept" through momentous historical events. Citrine's troubled ruminations enable Bellow to explore again, directly and unequivocally, American morals and expediencies—this time as they operate in the 1970s. He does not fit, admittedly, current definitions of the "experimental" novelist. He retains instead specific and basic literary commitments to realism; in short, his plot structures derive from story and character, and his people exist in a tumultuous but recognizable world. Yet Bellow is hardly a static thinker or writer. In each novel he not only records meticulously his evolving responses to setting and culture, but he also ventures beyond his previous imaginative perimeters to make playful use of shifting narrative styles and forms. His realism often shades into romanticism and the absurd, into social comedy and black humor, into psychology and the picaresque, into philosophy and satire. These elements enrich The Adventures of Augie March, Henderson the Rain King, Herzog, Mr. Sammler's Planet, and now Humboldt's Gift. In these novels Bellow reaffirms that the comic view offers the most valid means of grasping an American scene by turns tragic or absurd, or both. But laughter alone, he makes clear, is never enough. In Humboldt's Gift, therefore, as in his earlier novels, he mixes historical speculation and "metaphysics" with his vivid pathos and "mental farce."
Here his turbulent world overflows as usual with things and noises and human needs. If he evokes again his fierce love of Chicago, he leavens his nostalgia with recollections of life among such New York literati as Philip Rahv, Sidney Hook, and Lionel Abel—and especially of his troubled friendship with the poet Delmore Schwartz. Moving along the periphery of that life are such political or social figures as Adlai Stevenson, the brothers Kennedy, Jacob Javits, and Harry Houdini. Others, like Dwight Macdonald, Richard Blackmur, and Carlos Baker, are thinly disguised, but play more central roles. These people, appearing in real and imagined events and places, present two familiar interlocking Bellovian themes. The first theme details the dangers posed to the artist in America by worldly success, with its inevitable attachments of money and fame, sex and excitement, and, often now, crime. Bellow has emphasized repeatedly in his fiction the gap between America's professed ideals and practiced compromises, between its high aspirations and low opportunism. The artist or writer's function, as he sees it, is not merely to expose but to help mend the rift between these divided value areas.
Centering on a live writer and a dead poet, Bellow tries to define the artist's role in a society lured away by its massive material substance from its cravings for mind and beauty. In a culture so fragmented the artist too often meets professional failure, if not personal disaster. For despite his early dreams and plans, he—no less than businessmen and lawyers—generally ensnares himself in a typical American compromise, as Charlie Citrine puts it, of "crookedness with self-respect or duplicity with honor." This moral confusion, Bellow suggests, is caused primarily by the artist's refusal to confront "the main question … the death question." In other words, the artist, like his fellow Americans, frequently fails to consider the moral or ethical—much less the spiritual—aspects of his goals and behavior. As so often in the past, Bellow is following (albeit more cynically) Walt Whitman, here the Whitman of Democratic Vistas and of "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking."
Saul Bellow embraces moral, ethical, and spiritual problems. His second theme is vintage Bellow: the comic pathos of a vain intellectual's efforts to age with style and dignity. Bellow writes of the deeply felt loss of dead kin and friends, focusing primarily on that sharpest of human anxieties, the fear of death. Probing this and related areas, he fashions a long, loose, funny/sad narrative of a crucial five months, in 1973-74, in the life of an embattled writer. During that December-to-April span, Charlie Citrine seeks higher significance in his life and possible ways for his soul to transcend or defeat death. Bellow shapes his hero's untiring monologue not into chapters but into unnumbered segments brimming with social details and philosophic speculations, narrative flashbacks and quick transitions. Charlie Citrine is the picture of the successful American man of letters. He is a cultural historian and biographer who has won Pulitzer Prizes for books on Woodrow Wilson and Harry Hopkins. He has rejected academic rewards to garner fame and money for a hit Broadway play. Top magazines have commissioned him to write articles on the Kennedys and other national leaders, and the French government has made him a Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor. Clearly, his is a life to admire in a success-loving age. Yet if he is so successful, why is he so blocked, Charlie wonders, in his joy and work? Why is he so accomplished in several worlds and at ease in none?
A major reason is his character. History may intrigue Charlie and literature and art fascinate him, but daily life baffles him. Indeed, unhappy events have in recent years been shattering his lengthy "slumber" of money, fame, and middle-class comforts. At fifty-six, he is losing his looks, his hair, and his paddle ball game. He owes his publishers $70,000 for advances on books he will never write. His ex-wife and a battery of lawyers, judges, and tax experts are stripping him of funds. So is his old friend Pierre Thaxter, a flamboyant literary con artist with a scheme for launching an intellectual quarterly. In short, despite his subtle, perceptive intelligence, Charlie is an easy mark for crooks and cranks and greedy friends.
Material problems are not his only worry. Of late, Charlie has been experiencing pangs of guilt and responsibility. He feels he should help alleviate the modern day's spiritual and cultural shortcomings—as if they were his personal obligation. He is also haunted by recollections of his close friend and mentor, the poet Von Humboldt Fleisher. Now seven years dead, Humboldt had been the big, blond, new bard whose thin volume of early lyrics, Harlequin Ballads, had helped shape the literary landscape of the 1930s and 40s. But his book's title suggests the clownish aspects of Humboldt's character and fate. Charlie had read Humboldt's first poems while still a University of Wisconsin graduate student. Charlie is a native of Appleton, Wisconsin, the home of Harry Houdini, "the great Jewish escape artist." The magician's feats are repeatedly evoked and prove to be a paradigm of Charlie's dreams of escaping middle-class life and pressures. For Moses Herzog, the wily bankrobber Willie Sutton had served a similar emblematic role. Houdini and Sutton appeal to Bellow and his heroes as sly illusionists who evade nature and society's laws.
Yet Von Humboldt Fleisher had been the direct agent of Charlie's escape efforts. Eager to enter New York's heady world of high intellect, Charlie had fled the Midwest. He had found his idol in Greenwich Village enjoying, he later recalls, "the days of his youth, covered in rainbows, uttering inspired words, affectionate, intelligent." A generous if disoriented patron and guide, Humboldt had launched Charlie's academic and literary career and filled him with manic, improbable dreams. Exhilarated by life, art, thought, Humboldt was an irrepressible creative force, "a hectic nonstop monologuist and improvisator" and an unending source of wit and wisdom and paradox. If he warned Charlie, for example, to view the dangerous and beautiful rich only as they are mirrored in the "shield of art", he hungered also for wealth and fame. He lusted to be artist and oracle, culture czar and celebrity, and a living link between art and science.
His desires filled Humboldt with "high-minded low cunning" and turned him into a scheming mix of sage, publicist, and tavern prophet. A masterful wheeler-dealer in literary politics, he garnered fellowships and faculty appointments, consultancies and grants. Combining talent and drive, he fashioned himself into one of the exemplary literary successes of the 1930s and 40s and won acceptance as a major American poet. What he wanted for himself, he wanted—or thought he wanted—for others. Convinced that culture was on the rise in America, and that the imminent presidency of Adlai Stevenson would make all things possible, he dreamed of transforming the nation, through its art and wealth, into a new Athens. In such a state, American social forces would be reconciled with Platonic concepts of truth and beauty.
Humboldt could not sustain his "youthful dazzle," and subsequent disappointments and the opposing tensions of poetry and politics exacted a cruel toll. Expending his creative juices on the grant-and-fellowship game, writing little and orating long into the night fueled by gin and barbiturates, Humboldt began to crack. Slipping steadily into paranoia, detecting acts of betrayal everywhere, he lashed out repeatedly at his wife and friends. His special target was Charlie. As the latter's career rose and his own sank, Humboldt turned on his old chum in envy and depression. While Charlie, his writing in demand (and propelled by an ambitious wife), visited at the White House and shared helicopters with the Kennedys, Humboldt was in and out of institutions, feeding his rancor and resentment at his pal for not impeding his fall. Once, from Bellevue, Humboldt phoned Charlie at the Belasco Theater. "Charlie, you know where I am, don't you?" he yelled. "All right, Charlie, this isn't literature. This is life." He even filled in and cashed for over $6700 a blank check Charlie had signed years before at his urging as a friendship bond. The greatest shock for Charlie, however, came years later when he spotted Humboldt—broken, dirty, forlorn—on a New York street corner, a shambling, mumbling derelict. Confused and embarrased, Charlie hid and then rushed back to his own bustling world. Two months later, he read that Humboldt had dropped dead in a Times Square flophouse.
Now Humboldt is much on Charlie's mind. Haunted by his bad conscience, Charlie mourns his friend's accomplishments and follies and lonely death. He dwells obsessively on his last glimpse of the poet, appraising him less as an individual than as a "cause" or "mistreated talent" meriting "posthumous justice." Humboldt had tried "to drape the world in radiance," Charlie decides, "but he didn't have enough material"; and he died essentially of "unwritten poems." Even worse, Humboldt had lain unidentified and unclaimed for three days. The morgue, Charlie muses sardonically, harbored "no readers of modern poetry." Yet Humboldt had died, Charlie observes, as a poet in America is expected to die. He had gratified the public's conviction of the superiority of the practical over the ideal, the material over the aesthetic. Charlie tries, however, to see his friend's death in more positive terms; he wonders, therefore, if Humboldt had not made a "Houdini escape" from the world's madness and distractions. Had he also not embodied, in his personal and professional turmoils, the confusing talents, visions, and drives of a nation committed historically to opportunity and success?
For these and other reasons, Charlie regrets not having been more tolerant and understanding of Humboldt. He wishes now to redeem his friend's reputation and even in some way to carry out his ideas. He would also like to discover why so charged and talented a figure produced so little. By unraveling that riddle he hopes to find answers to his own creative and social dilemmas. For Charlie is as much a victim of his emotional needs and success drives as Humboldt. He is another of Bellow's versatile but aging Jewish intellectual innocents, marked by their "talent for absurdity." Caught up in this era of urban violence and public assassinations, uneasy family life and moral cynicism, he finds his vast knowledge of dusty volumes and esoteric authors of little practical value. "I knew everything I was supposed to know," he complains at one point, "and nothing I really needed to know." His lack of devious, pragmatic strategies leaves him desperately protecting his dignity and principles from a familiar Bellow array of greedy, dissatisfied women, voracious lawyers, and societal demands, diversions, and clutter. These pressures move Charlie to take cynical measure of his country and countrymen. The American had overcome his land's "emptiness," he observes, but "the emptiness had given him a few good licks in return."
Chicago offers ample evidence. The city is Charlie's testing ground. He had grown up there and been drawn back to it. He is, he admits sardonically, "a lover of beauty who insists on living in Chicago." Why? Well, New York may have better talk, he reasons, but in "raw Chicago" one can best "examine the human spirit under industrialism." He is also intrigued by the phenomenon of boredom, and this element pervades his city in a pure, near-mystical state. New York, on the other hand, dilutes its boredom with culture. So anything significantly revealing of the boring human condition, Charlie is convinced, will more likely befall him in his hometown. Ironically, Bellow presents a vibrant, pulsating Chicago that offers quite a stimulating microcosm of the USA. He fashions the city into a living metaphor for the violent, mad, real world that differs so sharply from Humboldt's ideal, aesthetic one. Here Charlie confronts his turbulent muddle of lawyers and alimony hearings, past and present girlfriends and vengeful ex-wife, petty gangsters and greedy friends.
Here also, as so often in Bellow, criminality takes comic forms. Amid his confusions Charlie entangles himself with Rinaldo Cantabile, a small-time Mafia operator, and the plot acquires overtones of black humor. If New York's intellectual ferment had spawned a Von Humboldt Fleisher, Chicago's material turmoils have thrown off the opportunistic Cantabile. "One of the new mental rabble of the wised-up world,", as Charlie describes him, this petty racketeer lives totally in the here and now; he is always "one thousand percent" with the action. Meeting and cheating Charlie in a poker game, Cantabile is furious when his victim stops payment on a check written to cover game losses. In revenge, he clubs Charlie's Mercedes Benz into a shapeless wreck. When Charlie does offer the money, he is ritualistically humiliated and insulted. To make matters worse, Cantabile not only tries to replace Humboldt as Charlie's mentor and guide, but he has a Ph.D.-candidate wife who is writing her dissertation on the poet and wants Charlie's help.
Cantabile, like Humboldt and Charlie Citrine himself, proves one of Bellow's great comic figures. He is literally Charlie's "nemesis,"—a satanic spirit fated to shatter Charlie's slumber of success and smugness and to compel him to move away from "dead center" and confront his true self. He also personifies the tightening bonds between an upwardly mobile middle class and a shady world of confidence men and mobsters. Charlie's friends view this new social comradeship with indifference. They nourish, like most Americans, a steadily higher gratification threshold and an intense need to escape boredom. One major result of such attitudes is a morally and intellectually uncertain age in which "culture and corruption" are symbiotically entwined. The effects of this turbulent partnership are strongly visible. "What a tremendous force," Charlie observes, "the desire to be interesting has in the democratic USA."
Charlie is fighting hard to shake off both his own boredom and the incessant demands of others. Like Tommy Wilhelm and Moses Herzog before him, however, he is enmeshed in a web of domestic court battles. Denise, his ex-wife, bitter at his having rejected her, has separated him from their two young daughters; now she, her lawyers, and a cooperative judge are determined to teach Charlie some hard, practical lessons by draining him of money, energy, and time. His own lawyers, accountants, and friends prove equally insatiable "reality instructors." Yet, as his name suggests, Charlie Citrine, with ironic, slightly soured, self-deprecatory humor, is wryly amused at his repeated victimizing by these frenetic business toughs, literary con men, and divorce court hustlers who envy his fame and covet his money. For the money, he decides, is the world's money. A capitalist society, for its own darkly comic motives, has granted him temporary loan of huge sums and now is taking its own back. He views his mounting losses, therefore, with bemused detachment, even seeing virtue in the process.
Time and disappointment, however, are having their effect. At fifty-six, Charlie is nearing exhaustion. Yet, exhausted or not, he remains a dedicated womanizer who fights aging by frantic devotion to yoga postures, paddle ball, and body exercises. His current mistress, the young and voluptuous Renata Koffritz, demands marriage, money, respectability. But if she pressures Charlie to marry her, Renata fears his unreliability and imminent loss of wealth. She takes the precaution, therefore, of sleeping periodically with the wealthy undertaker Harold Flonzaley. So blocked and confused are Charlie's relationships here and elsewhere that he is repeatedly tempted to lie down and go to sleep.
Yet he fears already having slept through the high moments of his era and his life. The novel's latter half is suffused with "sleep" images that suggest both Charlie's "bemused worldliness" and his hunger for a higher awareness or consciousness. For if Humboldt had succumbed to high-voltage graspings for fame and success, Charlie has been given to lethargy and self-absorption. While those about him, especially the relentless Cantabile, scheme to destroy his peaceful slumber, Charlie himself now resolves to concentrate his "whole attention" on his time's "great and terrible matters,"—those same matters that for decades he had filtered out by turning inward. But he must ponder first Humboldt's blunted career and life. Charlie is not certain how much sympathy either Humboldt or he merits. They both had enjoyed, after all, the best America had to offer: fame, money, audiences, women. If they had gone sour, where lay the fault? Had they misdirected or misapplied their intellectual and creative gifts? Or does fault lie with this country, so rich in diversity and distraction that it ignores or downgrades its creative talents and rewards mediocrity? Whatever the root cause of its dulled aesthetic sensibilities, American society has to answer for its blatant adoration of material success.
Bellow's central figures are never mere passive, blameless victims. The novelist makes clear that the artist in America bears at least partial blame for his failures. Many problems derive from every artist's acute sense of self or of being special. "Remember," observes Humboldt in a letter he bequeathes Charlie, "we are not natural beings but supernatural beings." But for most sensitized, creative individuals to view themselves as "supernatural beings" in a tough-grained technological world is not easy. For many artists it proves even crushing. If they feel at one with the heavens, they draw their materials from life. If given to Platonic speculations about truth and beauty, they hunger for acclaim, luxuries, acceptance. If they strive desperately for purity, achievement, art, they become speculators in mind and profit, sinking almost inevitably to performance, caricature, compromise. Delineating these cultural paradoxes, Bellow resists (more in his fiction than in essays or lectures) easy formulations or explanations. Assigning blame is, to him, not only facile but beside the point.
He expresses serious reservations, however, about the aims or motives of the modern artist—at least as exemplified by Von Humboldt Fleisher and Charlie Citrine. Bellow's doubts are hardly new. He has stated them in his recent Nobel Prize address and on many previous occasions. He had criticized in a 1963 Library of Congress lecture those American writers who smugly mix affluence and radical chic. Such middle-class writers "are taught," he charged, "that they can have it both ways. In fact they are taught to expect to enjoy everything that life can offer. They can live dangerously while managing somehow to remain safe. They can be both bureaucrats and bohemians … [or] conservative and radical. They are not taught to care genuinely for any man or any cause." For this reason Bellow expects the reader to take Charlie Citrine seriously. Charlie does come to care about those close to him and about the artist's place and function in American life.
Despite his faults, the artist hardly bears sole responsibility for his marginal status. Who—if not his American history, culture, and countrymen—has taught him to want the wrong things? Contemporary America for Bellow is a politically expedient, science-and-technology-oriented community uncertain about how to employ—much less celebrate—its artists. Filling them with false values, this society then stirs their anxieties and insecurities. "I don't think we know where we are or where we're going," Bellow has told interviewers. "I see politics—ultimately—as a buzzing preoccupation that swallows up art and the life of the spirit." Charlie Citrine shares these uncertainties. Can a poem, Charlie asks himself, transport you from New York to Chicago? Can a novel plot a condominium or an epic "compute a space shot"? In Bellow's America, therefore, writers generally are frustrated and ineffectual, and often they entrap themselves in social roles and institutions whose managers treat them as irresponsible, ungrateful children.
Writers who seek acceptance compound their problems: they appeal to readers or audiences who value all artists' public images over their creative acts, their personal lives over their paintings or novels, their scandals over their music or poems. Is it even possible, then, Bellow and Citrine seem to ask, for the artist or writer in this country to express his true philosophical, religious, or even aesthetic convictions? Yet what worries Bellow and Citrine had fascinated Von Humboldt Fleisher. The collective disappointments of other artists were of little account to Humboldt. For him, as for Walt Whitman, America was promises, opportunities, excitement. America had been his world, and "the world," Humboldt insisted, "had money, science, war, politics, anxiety, sickness, perplexity. It had all the voltage. Once you had picked up the high-voltage wire and were someone, a known name, you couldn't release yourself from the electrical current. You were transfixed."
Where a Walt Whitman or Von Humboldt Fleisher saw opportunities, Saul Bellow and Charlie Citrine see pitfalls, indifference, neglect. "The history of literature in America," Bellow has stated, "is the history of certain demonic solitaries who somehow brought it off in a society that felt no need for them." Charlie Citrine voices similar sentiments. "Poets have to dream," he points out, "and dreaming in America is no cinch." Humboldt, having grown desperate, "behaved like an eccentric and a comic subject." Many poets, declares Charlie (picking up the theme of Bellow's 1971 essay "Culture Now"), have become publicists or promoters, campus politicians or public clowns. Thus, for Charlie, Humboldt's fate raises many questions. Was the poet's deepening disenchantment, his sense of being nothing more than his society's superfluous, comic victim, what drove him to destruction? Were his strivings for power and money less mercenary yearnings than symptoms of his growing fears and frustrations? Or was he little more than a "pathetic wool-gatherer" whose "comeuppance" was not only "inevitable" but "somehow correct"? Does Humboldt's fate prove emblematic, in other words, of the artist's dark destiny in American life?
Whatever its prime cause, his friend's pitiful end saddens and frightens Charlie. He is pained especially by Humboldt's strong contribution to his own failure. He is keenly aware that the poet's self-indulgence and lack of discipline rendered him a "farcical" rather than a tragic martyr. Humboldt fed in his life and in his death the popular conceptions that poets are kindred spirits to those "drunkards and misfits and psychopaths" who cannot confront the American reality and for whom "the USA is too tough, too big, too much, too rugged." Humboldt, by chasing "ruin and death," performed in the manner expected of him. Americans derive pleasure from such sad happenings, Charlie sighs, because the poet's failure validates their cynicism.
To make matters worse, Humboldt's pitiful finish, alone and muttering in abject poverty, suggests to Charlie the social and moral confusion not merely of "demonic solitaries" but also of prudent, decorous intellectuals like himself. Has not he acted even less commendably than his erratic, disorderly comrade? Did he not reject Humboldt's physical presence on a public street? Is not his own carefully calibrated success a denial of his friend's failed but somehow valiant life, with its heedless, dramatic mistakes and misfortunes? Not even Humboldt's pathetic hunger for success and fame mitigates Charlie's guilt. Haunted by the dead poet's voice, communing with his own "significant dead," trying to withstand his living debtors, and unable to write, Charlie abandons an ambitious essay on boredom for "interior monologues" on life and death, rebirth and immortality.
Ironically, Charlie Citrine (like Saul Bellow) has been a tough-minded realist committed firmly to a cause-and-effect balance between man's past and present and between his inner and outer worlds. Now, painfully aware of an aging body and diminishing lifespan, he refuses to believe that the extraordinary human soul "can be wiped out forever." Charlie disagrees, therefore, with those thinkers and theorists who, having lost their own "imaginative souls," dismiss any possibility that man's consciousness can survive death's oblivion. "If there is one historical assignment for us," he argues, "it is to break with false categories" and to accept an "inner being" separate from physical nature's finalities.
Such metaphysical faith or acceptance, however, requires the individual to confront "the big blank of death." Charlie turns for help to the writings of Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925). One of this century's "Scientists of the Invisible," Steiner had moved from German philosophy to an occultist doctrine he called anthroposophy. Rejecting conventional scientific or even theosophical views, he developed a theory of "spiritual science" that involved the study of the human spirit by "scientific" inquiry. Steiner argued for the transmigration of souls, and he advocated self-discipline of mind and body to achieve cognition of the spiritual world. For guidance through the Steinerian maze, Charlie consults a Chicago anthroposophist, Dr. Scheldt. Their conversations dwell on the soul's connections to "a greater, an all-embracing life outside" the physical one—as well as on the plight of the dead, who surround the living but are "shut out" by modern man's "metaphysical denial" of them.
His spiritualistic musings do not prevent Charlie from enjoying the pleasures of the flesh. Several reviewers have dismissed Charlie's interest in anthroposophy, therefore, as a "highly egoistic" one centering on Steiner's ideas of "transcendence and immortality of the self." Yet Charlie makes clear—as had Walt Whitman—that what is true of him is true of all men. Some readers also have seen in Scheldt a counterpart to Artur Sammler's friend Dr. Govinda Lal. That Indian scientist, too, advocated "extraterrestrial reality." The rationalistic Sammler, however, rejected such fanciful views for life on a troubled earth. Charlie Citrine, on the other hand, driven by "frenzied longings" for existential possibilities beyond this sphere, embraces Steiner's occultist concepts (with their strong Wordsworthian overtones) of the soul's cycle of sleep and wakefulness.
These cogitations are interrupted by more mundane problems. A domestic relations judge rules that Charlie must give his ex-wife most of his money and orders him to post a $200,000 bond. Despite this heavy penalty, Charlie takes off on a European trip, with Renata scheduled to join him in Spain. He makes two stops. He goes first to New York to pick up Humboldt's legacy to him, which consists of a long conciliatory letter, a movie scenario they had collaborated on, and a Humboldt original film treatment. Charlie then heads for Texas, to Corpus Christi (an ironic reference, perhaps, to his physical-spiritual meanderings). He wants to see his older brother Julius through a serious operation. Julius Citrine merits a novel of his own. A heavy-eating, fast-moving real-estate tycoon, he has the dash and drive of a Eugene Henderson or Von Humboldt Fleisher. A maker and loser of fortunes, he wheels and deals on the very eve of open-heart surgery. Charlie, despite his interest in occultist metaphysics, retains the traditional Jew's respect for family, the past, and conventional burial rites. Julius does not. His views on death and burial reflect both his restlessness and his ease with the American here and now. "I'm having myself cremated," he tells Charlie. "I need action. I'd rather go into the atmosphere. Look for me in the weather reports."
Julius proves a born survivor, however, and Charlie heads for Madrid. There he learns that Renata, having saddled him with her mother and son, has eloped to Italy with her undertaker. Though crushed, Charlie realizes that losing Renata was inevitable. Does not Death (here mortician Flonzaley) always ensnare Beauty? Still he mourns his loss of sexual pleasure and especially those gifts of youth—excitement, stimulation, pride—that Renata had provided to soften the advancing years. Finally alone in Madrid, and nearly broke, Charlie resumes his meditations. He hopes to reorganize his life and to reconcile his mystical readings with his rationalistic "head culture." His growing sense of the tight interplay between man's inner and outer worlds, of the soul's power to escape into the supersensible, convinces him that the respected Western thinkers of the last three centuries offer little guidance. Most bothersome is the seeming exhaustion of modernist ideas of art and the poetic imagination so cherished by Humboldt and himself. These ideas, centering on art's ultimate value, have emphasized metaphor, language, and style as the basic purveyors of truth, beauty, and immortality. Such concepts, Charlie now feels, have lost validity in this America of horrendous distractions and temptations. As a result, the sensitive individual finds it difficult to sustain an ethical imaginative life amid the materialistic erosions of science and art.
Charlie also finds it difficult to age and die—much less fail—with dignity in a society cherishing youth, money, and sex. His attempts to establish rapport with the accepted representatives of modern intellect and high culture have left him few solid, conventional beliefs, and his future efforts to reconcile mind and spirit will not be easy. He can expect little help, he realizes, from a "learned world" that disdains anthroposophy. Undaunted, he rejects all rationalist denials of communication between physical and spiritual worlds, as well as all arguments against the continuing life of the soul. Charlie is convinced that it is modern man's failure to interpret the cosmos, to read its subtle, suggestive signs, that has turned the world turbulent. "Real life," he insists, derives from the singular "relationship between here and there." But how, he wonders, is he to get there from his tangled here?
Despite his doubts and uncertainties, Charlie determines to leap beyond tangible human facts and passions. "I meant to make a strange jump," he declares, "and plunge into the truth. I had had it with most contemporary ways of philosophizing. Once and for all I was going to find out whether there was anything behind the incessant hints of immortality that kept dropping on me…. I had the strange hunch that nature itself was not out there … but that everything external corresponded vividly with something internal, … and that nature was my own unconscious being." Charlie is attracted, therefore, to Steiner's "explanations" of the interplay of each person's outer setting and inner self—to those ideas, in other words, expanding man's awareness of self and cosmos. His readings convince Charlie that the individual's "external world" often blends with the internal to become indiscernible to him. He and it are one. "The outer world is now the inner," he states. "Clairvoyant, you are in the space you formerly beheld. From this new circumference you look back to the center, and at the center is your own self. That self, your self, is now the external world."
Reviewers have expressed surprise at Saul Bellow's visionary turn. This "worldly Chicagoan," they point out, hitherto has been immersed in social realities. How seriously, some ask, does Bellow expect his readers to take Charlie Citrine's "dubious quasi-mysticism"? The more incredulous reviewers have looked for quibbles or qualifications, ironic jokes or subtle satire. But his public comments emphasize that Bellow is strongly taken with Steiner's ideas on the immortal spirit and on the possibilities of the living communicating with the dead; Charlie Citrine, he makes clear, speaks for him as well as for himself. "Rudolf Steiner had a great vision," Bellow states flatly, and he "was a powerful poet as well as philosopher and scientist." He discovered Steiner's anthroposophy, he adds, through the work of British writer Owen Barfield. Both Steiner and Barfield not only exemplify "the importance of the poetic imagination," but they also have convinced him "that there were forms of understanding, discredited now, which had long been the agreed basis of human knowledge." We believe "we can know the world scientifically," Bellow declares, "but actually our ignorance is terrifying."
Bellow's confidence in the occult is reminiscent of Yiddish novelist Isaac Bashevis Singer and his stated acceptance of demons and spirits. Like Singer (and, for that matter, Harry Houdini), Bellow does disparage most occultist practitioners, as well as the "many cantankerous erroneous silly and delusive objects actions and phenomena [that] are in the [physical] foreground." Both novelists are, however, intrigued by the great unknown—by death, rather than by miracles, tricks, or wonder workers. Bellow, despite his basic realism, has often displayed a mystical turn of mind. A careful review of his fiction reveals not only a persistent determination "to break with false categories" but also repeated references to the "illusory" nature of a "successful" life in America. From the dangling Joseph to Artur Sammler, his protagonists are "seeker[s] after cosmic understanding," spiritual pilgrims convinced life can offer them more than meets the eye. Both Moses Herzog and Artur Sammler, for instance, though tough-minded rationalists committed to confronting "the phony with the real thing," are readers of such mystics as William Blake, Meister Eckhart, John Tauler, and Jacob Boehme; they, too, attempt to satisfy yearnings toward a higher, intuitive awareness. Augie March's earthy friend William Einhorn, it will be recalled, subscribed in the 1930s to the Rudolf Steiner Foundation publications. Charlie Citrine speaks for all Bellovian heroes, therefore, when he reasons that "this could not be it." One earthly turn is not enough. "We had all been here before," he insists, "and would presently be here again." Though obstructed repeatedly by greedy and unscrupulous "reality instructors," Bellow's stubborn questers are merely slowed, not deterred, in their search for higher knowledge or illumination.
Yet how does Saul Bellow treat the occult here? What precisely does Charlie Citrine's anthroposophy do for him? Clearly, he does enjoy some positive results. If nothing else, Charlie's theosophical readings and reflections calm him; they lift his mind and attention from immediate tribulations to more permanent questions of matter and spirit. Equally clear, however, is Bellow's flexible, even ambiguous, attitude toward "the great beyond." For if Von Humboldt Fleisher indeed "speaks" to Charlie from beyond the grave, he does so in a surprisingly clearheaded, practical fashion. It is the dead poet who rescues the live but floundering historian from his financial problems. He has bequeathed Charlie a film treatment that is a fable of the latter's own life—the tale of an artist destroyed by the pursuit of success. Humboldt has also left him a legally protected but seemingly worthless movie scenario on cannibalism and survival in the Arctic the two of them had concocted years earlier as a joke. Charlie puts it aside, but Rinaldo Cantabile, ever the hyperactive operator, arrives with news that this plot outline has been plagiarized and developed into a currently popular film. The ensuing settlement eases Charlie's financial pressures and provides him a modest security. If no longer wealthy, Charlie is in a position—thanks to Humboldt's gift—to contemplate serenely both past errors and future possibilities; he can look to a life without ambitious struggles or self-loathing, or even boredom.
Through their scenario, therefore, and his own film idea (which also proves lucrative), Humboldt has repaid Charlie money taken in life. More significantly, by "communicating" with Charlie, he has, like Harry Houdini, "defied all forms of restraint and confinement, including the grave," and given substance to Charlie's speculations about an existence beyond this sphere. In this limited sense at least, Rudolf Steiner's claims of a possible dimension transcending the here-and-now exhibit some merit. Yet Charlie's occult speculations are merely that; they are provisional meditations or possibilities to challenge his mind and imagination. They do not carry the novel's thematic burden, and their validity or nonvalidity alters neither Charlie Citrine's nor Von Humboldt Fleisher's character, or the relationship of the two men to each other or to their society. At most, Charlie views anthroposophy as a possible aid in perceiving internal or external truths. If he reveals a mystical bent, Charlie Citrine is otherwise a familiar Bellovian figure whose successes and failures, betrayals and humiliations are clearly "separable from his spiritual pilgrimage."
In fact, he resembles strongly a number of recent literary figures. Solvent again, and seeing himself at a late station in life, Charlie decides to lie fallow for a time and to concentrate on his search for a higher selfhood. Thus he proves to be another "underground man" awaiting the proper moment for a return to an active life. Further, if Charlie is more mystically inclined than either Herzog or Sammler, he shares their conclusions on man's moral contract; like them, he believes the individual, when confronted by death, should respond with dignity and style. Indeed, he has himself long been "dying to do something good," and so he now returns temporarily to America to square accounts with the living and dead. Despite his spiritualism (or perhaps because of it), he views the traditional ritual of Jewish burial as a symbolic act giving order and meaning to the most disorderly life. With his share of the film profits, therefore, he has Humboldt's body exhumed from a large public cemetery for a family reburial. He retrieves also from an old-age home Humboldt's uncle, Waldemar Wald, and a longtime mutual friend, Menasha Klinger, and he helps the two old men set up their own apartment.
The novel's final scene finds Charlie, accompanied by the old men, witnessing the transfer of the coffins of Humboldt and his mother from the public cemetery (Deathsville, New Jersey) to the Fleisher family plot. Here, as in scenes closing his other novels, Bellow brings his narrative concerns into sharp focus. For as Charlie Citrine watches the bulldozing crane tearing the soil and whirring noisily among the dead, his thoughts epitomize Bellow's views on the continuing confrontation of death and life, society and individual, collective technology and solitary artist. "The machine in every square inch of metal," thinks Charlie, had resulted from the "collaboration of engineers and other artificers." Any system derived from the discoveries of numerous great minds has to overwhelm and dominate anything produced by the working of any single mind, "which of itself can do little." The crane raises, then lowers Humboldt's coffin, and Charlie adds: "Thus, the condensation of collective intelligences and combined ingenuities, its cables silently spinning, dealt with the individual poet."
Bellow's narrative endings have come in for much debate. He closed Seize the Day also with a "burial scene"—a strongly promising or optimistic one. He is given to taking leave of his heroes amid nature's invigorating currents: Augie March philosophizing his way through Normandy's frozen terrain, Moses Herzog meditating in his old Massachusetts country house among freshly picked summer flowers, Eugene Henderson running in circles through the Newfoundland snow bearing a young orphan. Each scene suggests a future better than the past. Is there reason, therefore, to doubt a positive intent in his present conclusion?
Certainly here, as elsewhere, Bellow does not rule out redemption. Yet if many readers are confident that better days lie ahead for Charlie Citrine, both Bellow and Charlie now seem less certain and more ambiguous about his future, in this life or the next. Charlie looks into Humboldt's grave, for instance, to see the poet's coffin placed within a concrete casing. "So the coffin was enclosed," he muses, "and the soil did not come directly upon it. But then how did one get out? One didn't, didn't, didn't! You stayed, you stayed!" Bellow may be paying homage to James Joyce, whom he admires, for Charlie here echoes the Irish novelist's meditative Jewish hero, Leopold Bloom. "Once you are dead," sighs Bloom, gazing at the gravestones surrounding Paddy Dignam's burial plot, "you are dead." Charlie finishes his narrative with a wry joke and a graveyard pun that underscores his doubts—and most likely would have pleased Joyce. Menasha Klinger points out a sight unexpected in a New Jersey cemetery even in April: spring flowers. "What do you suppose they're called, Charlie?" Menasha asks. "Search me," Charlie replies. "I'm a city boy myself. They must be crocuses."
Most reviewers have accepted Charlie's response, along with others of the scene's implications, as purposeful signs of rebirth. Admittedly, these blooming flowers—the new season's first pastoral signs of renewal—seem indeed a gift from the dead; they seem to provide more evidence that Von Humboldt Fleisher's true gift is his ability to touch and affect the living even after death. Yet a close attention to Charlie's mocking urban tone and ironic play on words suggests he is certain not that the flowers are crocuses but only that all of us croak. The need to listen intently for Bellow's mood and meaning has resulted in reviewers and critics differing more sharply in their interpretations and evaluations of Humboldt's Gift than of any previous Bellow novel. They can not agree, for example, whether Saul Bellow here extends his familiar themes and ideas or departs sharply from them.
Most critics and readers should agree, however, that no modern novelist moves as effectively or authoritatively as does Bellow between "allusive metaphysical speculation and racy low-mimetic narrative." Nor do many writers fictionalize with as cutting a comic wit the "competing urges" of flesh and spirit, "money-making and truth-seeking." For that matter, few writers today will risk the critical mockery stirred by hints of man's redemptive possibilities—or by challenges to intellectual fashions of cynicism and predictions of crisis and doom. More to the point, Saul Bellow and Charlie Citrine present the reader with comic yet moving insights into those crucial issues confronting every sensitive individual between his cradle and grave. If their impressions and conclusions fail to convince totally, they can hardly be faulted for failing where no one has succeeded. Certainly they render the human journey more open and challenging than before.
Source: Ben Siegel, "Artists and Opportunists in Saul Bellow's Humboldt's Gift," in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 19, No. 2, 1978, pp. 143-64.
Sarah Blacher Cohen
In the following essay, Cohen considers the ardor of Bellow's guilt-ridden protagonist and his response to the intense feelings that torment him.
In Saul Bellow's recent novel, Humboldt's Gift, the protagonist, Charlie Citrine, and Von Humboldt Fleisher, the dead poet he mourns, have been readily identified by some readers as Bellow himself and Delmore Schwartz. Bellow denies these simple identifications, claiming that "Von Humboldt Fleisher is a composite" and that it "never was true that a character in a novel must be true to a historical person. There is a difference between a portrait and a picture. A picture allows more freedom." Thus Bellow denies that Humboldt's Gift is autobiography and that he is Charlie Citrine: "When the character of Charlie needed some quality I happen to have, I gave it to him from myself. It was only charity and enabled him to do his job in the book." Despite these disclaimers, however, Bellow has bequeathed an unduly generous portion of his emotional, intellectual, and physical self to Citrine. He even has him awarded the same public honors—the Pulitzer Prize and the Croix de Chevalier des Arts et Lettres—while having Citrine's dearest friend, the poet Von Humboldt Fleisher, meet with the same tragic fate as three of Bellow's closest writer friends. As Bellow's fame escalated, Isaac Rosenfeld died at 38 of a heart attack in a seedy Chicago hotel, his talent waning and unappreciated. Delmore Schwartz at 53 suffered a fatal coronary in a Manhattan flophouse, poetically and emotionally bankrupt. John Berryman jumped off a University of Minnesota bridge, "praying," in Bellow's words, "to the ruined drunken poet's God." Undoubtedly, these destroyed men are the partial models for the doomed Von Humboldt Fleisher. Their sorry ends must have diminished the happiness Bellow received from his mounting acclaim and made him suffer guilt over his good fortune in light of their misfortune. Since Bellow has Citrine comically undermine his success because of Humboldt's decline, it would seem that one of the principal traits Bellow has taken from himself and given to Citrine is his own survival guilt over certain defeated friends and his mocking attitude toward his own fame.
This same deprecation of success figures prominently in the works of other Jewish-American writers. Prosperity and recognition are outwardly the goals of their characters, but inwardly they are reluctant to give up their imposed identity as victims, to abandon the historically designated role of schlemiel. If they manage to become successful, like Abrahan Cahan's David Levinsky, they turn into sad millionaires, readily sacrificing their lonely affluence for the poverty and solidarity of the shtetl. Like Malamud's heroes, they feel more at home in tomb-like grocery stores, decrepit tenements, and squalid jail cells. Like Wallant's Sol Nazerman, they prefer to reconstruct pawnshops into their own private concentration camps. Wedded to suffering and accustomed to its pain, they are not likely to divorce themselves from it.
Bellow's earlier protagonists do not find success a compatible bedfellow either. It is not so much that they dislike the plush surroundings, but that they imagine they are interlopers, taking someone else's reservations. No matter how long they reside there, they never feel they have the proper credentials. Even when their rightful occupancy is without question, they cannot enjoy themselves because of the destitute who have no shelter and the dissatisfied who covet their privileged position. In Dangling Man, Joseph, the young intellectual, cannot endure being a civilian while so many innocent men have been killed in the war. To compensate for not being a casualty on the front lines, he becomes a psychological casualty in his own room. In The Victim, Asa Leventhal, editor of a minor trade journal, feels unworthy even of this minimal good fortune, since so many were outcast, ruined, effaced. He thus allows Allbee, an anti-Semitic derelict who blames him for his job loss, to invade his premises, absorb his thoughts, and almost destroy him. Eugene Henderson is also one of those "people who feel they occupy the place that belongs to another by rights." Outliving a favored brother, he considers himself the unentitled heir of the family estate. Similarly, in Africa Henderson helplessly witnesses the death of King Dahfu, his Reichian therapist and lion coach. To atone for not sharing his fate, Henderson resolves to carry on Dahfu's good works and become Dr. Leo Henderson in America. Moses Herzog regards himself an unfit heir as well, since he has spent his father's hard-earned patrimony not on promised land, but on dilapidated property in the Massachusetts wilderness. Only in recollecting the priceless values of his Napoleon Street childhood does Herzog compensate for his prodigality. Artur Sammler is, of course, Bellow's most obvious survivor, who has come through the worst ordeal: the Holocaust. Crawling out of a mass grave where his wife has been murdered, he is the "old Jew whom they had hacked at, shot at, but missed killing somehow." Sammler also outlives his nephew, physician Elya Gruner, his benefactor in America. In a final eulogy for Gruner, Sammler contrasts his own selfish character with Gruner's unselfish one. He mourns the loss of Gruner and the loss of his own humanity.
In all of these Bellow novels, the most grievous crime his protagonists believe themselves to have committed is to have survived and, in varying degrees, prospered. In Humboldt's Gift the crime is the same, but the confession of the precise wrongs is more elaborate, the self-condemnation more harsh, and the desire for atonement more earnest. Also, the self-professed criminal frequently resorts to a more self-ironic humor to cope with his transgression and remorse. This prevalent self-irony may have something to do with Roger Shattuck's explanation as well: "the more closely Bellow projects himself into Citrine, the more mocking his voice seems to become." It's as if Bellow must employ his own form of comic censure to chasten himself for his sins of commission and omission.
In his own life Bellow has confessed to being delinquent toward cherished friends now dead. In a foreward to a posthumous collection of Isaac Rosenfeld's essays, he acknowledged: "I love [Isaac], but we were rivals, and I was peculiarly touchy, vulnerable, hard to deal with—at times, as I can see now, insufferable, and not always a constant friend." Bellow felt he was not always loyal to his friend Delmore Schwartz either. A few weeks before Schwartz's death, he admitted to seeing him on the street but ran away from him because he could not face Schwartz in his extreme destitution. After Schwartz's death, Bellow began a memoir, he claims, so that "Delmore would not be spürlos, versenkt [sunk without a trace]," which after eight years of reworking became Humboldt's Gift. According to Schwartz's biographer, James Atlas, the novel came into being because "Bellow, tormented by the dead, was compelled to resurrect an image of Delmore Schwartz."
It is impossible to know the full extent of Bellow's torment or to understand Bellow's complexity of motivation for the genesis of the novel. Since I cannot get into Bellow's head to analyze the intricate dynamics of his survival guilt, I shall examine his imaginative transformation of it in Humboldt's Gift, or what he has termed the fictional working out of his "private obsessions."
Professionally, Charlie Citrine is one of Bellow's most fortunate heroes. A celebrated historian, biographer, and playwright, his talents are appreciated in the major centers of influence: Washington, Broadway, and the academy. He is wealthy enough to indulge himself in the pleasures of the affluent: a Mercedes-Benz, a magical Persian carpet, numerous trysts, and an expensive divorce. As he says, it was his turn "to be famous and to make money, to get heavy mail, to be recognized by influential people, to be dined at Sardis and propositioned in padded booths by women who sprayed themselves with musk …" But Charlie cannot enjoy his renown because Von Humboldt Fleisher, his former mentor, died impoverished and in obscurity. Though Citrine was not in danger of death himself, he suffers from what Robert Lifton terms "survivor priority," the sense of being given preferential treatment to go on living while the next person's life is, for no good reason, terminated prematurely. Citrine also resembles those Holocaust and Hiroshima survivors whose "unconscious sense of an organic social balance makes them feel that their survival was purchased at the cost of another's." Especially in the concentration camps where the practice of selection intensified the competition for survival, survivors felt they were responsible for the deaths of those chosen to be annihilated in their place. Indeed, the literary market place is by no means the concentration camp, but to the desperate artist struggling to make or preserve his reputation, the competition for survival seems almost as fierce. He may view the person who does triumph as somehow destroying his opportunities, of usurping his place. Humboldt, for example, accuses Citrine of gaining recognition at his expense, of not reimbursing him for providing the inspiration for Citrine's highly acclaimed Broadway play, Von Trenck. Humboldt also blames Citrine for his own decline on the "cultural Dow Jones" when in fact his alcoholism, insomnia, and paranoia have destroyed his native talent.
Yet Citrine believes that his meteoric rise has in some way been responsible for Humboldt's steady descent. Citrine sees himself as a latter-day Joseph selected to wear the artistic coat of many colors and Humboldt as one of the other brothers chosen to wear the shroud of death. Citrine feels uneasy about appearing in such a splendid coat, but at the same time he doesn't want to wear Humboldt's shroud. In this respect, Citrine is like the Holocaust survivor who, Lifton claims, is "torn by a fundamental ambivalence: he embraces the dead, pays homage to them, and joins in various rituals to perpetuate his relationship to them; but he also pushes them away, considers them tainted and unclean, dangerous and threatening." Even during the final stages of Humboldt's deterioration, when he is dead in life, Citrine hides from him. He fears that Humboldt's failure and approaching mortality are infectious and that he must quarantine himself from him. Just as Herzog avoids greeting the abject poet, Nachman, his boyhood friend from Napoleon Street, so Citrine crouches behind parked cars to avoid meeting Humboldt in Manhattan. Citrine cannot confront his old friend whose face was now "dead gray" and whose "head looked as if the gypsy moth had … tented in his hair." So Citrine rushes back to Chicago, repelled by Humboldt and himself. To mask his horror and shame, Citrine flippantly bids Humboldt a silent farewell: "Oh kid, goodbye, I'll see you in the next world." But when he reads Humboldt's obituary two months later and sees his "disastrous newspaper face staring at [him] from death's territory," he is overwhelmed with grief and doesn't want to let go of Humboldt. Indeed a good part of the novel is a protracted elegy, with Citrine weeping for Humboldt and cursing materialistic America for driving the brilliant poet to ruin. But if Humboldt's Gift is elegaic, it is a comic elegy. Bellow criticized reviewers for treating the novel "with a seriousness which was completely out of place. They didn't seem to realize that this is a funny book. As they were pursuing high seriousness, they fell into low seriousness." They failed to grasp that the "root of the light is in the heavy and the source of all humor is in the grave."
Citrine is one of Bellow's graveyard school of comics. To perpetuate his connection with the dead poet, Citrine stresses Humboldt's antic qualities as a way of resurrecting him, of making him more vivid. In Citrine's thoughts, Humboldt appears as Borscht Belt tummler and academic lecturer whose "spiel took in … Goethe in Italy, Lenin's dead brother, Wild Bill Hickok's costumes, the New York Giants, Ring Lardner on grand opera, Swinburne on flagellation, and John D. Rockefeller on religion." Citrine also remembers Humboldt's Pagliacci routines where he stars in what Delmore Schwartz had called the "vaudeville of humiliation," the ridiculing of his faulty artistic talents and his fumbling attempts to gain recognition. Citrine calls attention to the Bergsonian comic battle of Humboldt's gross body warring with his refined sensibilities so that for Citrine Humboldt resembles the "caricature," the "stupid clown of the spirit's motive" of Schwartz's poem, "The Heavy Bear." By focusing on the risible dimensions of Humboldt, Citrine makes him amusingly eccentric rather than pathetic. Thus he does not have to feel guilty for abandoning such a funny fellow whose suffering he can dismiss as zany histrionics. After all, the recriminations of a clown need not be taken seriously, nor are his threats of vengeance menacing. Even his death does not seem real. Transforming Humboldt into an indestructible comic archetype, Citrine can look forward to his reappearance in the next act.
Along with comically inflating Humboldt's idiosyncrasies, Citrine, as guilty survivor, comically deflates his own achievements. He ridicules his fame, agreeing with Humboldt that the "Pulitzer Prize is for the birds, for the pullets … a dummy newspaper … award given by crooks and illiterates." Or Citrine likens his green Legion of Honor medal from France to the one "they give to pig-breeders." He jests about being a physical culture freak and would-be sexual superman. Contrasting his physical fitness with Humboldt's decaying remains, he wryly states: "Strengthened in illusion and idiocy by these proud medical reports, I embraced a busty Renata on this Posturepedic mattress," while Humboldt's bones had probably "crumbled in Potter's Field." Like Herzog, Citrine punctures his intellectual ambitions. Of his plans to write the definitive study on boredom, he claims he can't finish the work, because he gets "overcome by the material, like a miner with gas fumes." His project, which he mock-earnestly calls "a very personal overview of the Intellectual Comedy of the modern mind," he assigns to his more capable young daughter to complete. Like Herzog, Citrine makes light of his humanitarian aspirations, his sense of mission. He refers to himself as a letter which has been "stamped … posted and … waiting … to be delivered at an important address." Citrine castigates himself for his psychic numbness, a common defense of many survivors. Like Henderson, Citrine wants "to burst the spirit's sleep," but as he playfully remarks, "I have snoozed through many a crisis while millions died." In all areas Citrine comically undercuts his stature to make himself equal in size to the diminished Humboldt. It is as if the hyperbolic recounting of his flaws is the price he must pay to remain alive. A life foolishly lived, he imagines, would not incur the jealousy of the dead Humboldt. Thus dwelling on the fatuity of his earthly pursuits gives Citrine permission in effect to go on in his bungling mortal state.
Like many of Bellow's protagonists, Citrine is comically obsessed with death, both dreading and anticipating it. Schopenhauer called death "the muse of philosophy," and for Citrine it, too, is the catalyst of most of his philosophizing. He shares Henderson's view that the "greatest problem of all" is how "to encounter death." However, Citrine does not flee to a mythic Africa to grapple with the problem. He does not sob incoherently, like Tommy Wilhelm, before the corpse of a stranger, or, like Herzog, ruefully accept the limitations of his mortality. Rather, Citrine immerses himself in Rudolph Steiner's anthroposophy in search of an alternative to the finality of death. Since Citrine and Bellow are both well beyond the middle of the journey, Humboldt's Gift insists more vehemently than any previous Bellow novel that there is another destination: "the soul's journey past the gates of death." Also, because Citrine has wronged Humboldt in this world, he believes in the existence of an after world where he can make amends to Humboldt and give him the respect due him. Thus, Citrine often mentally vacates his soporific state for Steiner's realm of the supersensible. Indeed, Citrine, less geocentric than any of Bellow's other heroes, is more intoxicated with Steiner's visionary after-life than with the distracting spectacles of this earth. But he is not always sure that Steiner's heady brew is the draft that refreshes. He is intrigued with its doctrine of transcendence and the immortality of the self, yet reels from its theosophical ingredients. As an intellectual, suspicious of the occult, he mocks himself for swallowing it; yet it seems to quench his spiritual thirst.
Though Citrine is a biographer who earns his livelihood from writing about the dead, he is more interested in profiting spiritually than monetarily from his relationship to them. To obtain their otherworldly knowledge, he creates connections with the deceased which they would not permit when alive or which he was not capable of sustaining during face to face confrontations. Like Henderson, who frantically plays the violin to make contact with his dead parents, Citrine reads Steiner's texts aloud to the departed as a way of communicating with them. As for the dead he values most, he attempts, like the distraught Holocaust survivor, to "incorporate within himself an image of the dead, and then to think, feel, and act as he imagines they did or would. He feels impelled, in other words, to place himself in the position of the person … maximally wronged." For Citrine that person is Humboldt. Citrine feels so loyal to the dead that he starts leading their lives and acquiring their characteristics. Thus, in the course of the novel Citrine becomes "absurd in the manner of Von Humboldt Fleisher." During his lifetime Humboldt relished being the solitary, misunderstood poet, but he wanted money/and acclaim as well. Similarly, Citrine, caught up in his mysticism, seems unconcerned about worldly possessions, yet he becomes highly distraught over the wreckage of his Mercedes-Benz. Humboldt blamed America for exploiting his talent, mass-producing his insights. Citrine, in turn, accuses Rinaldo Cantabile, Mafia thug and culture huckster, of capitalizing on his intellect: trying to book him as a high-brow act at Mr. Kelly's and wheedling information from him for his wife's Ph.D. thesis. Humboldt thought his friend Citrine was conspiring to ruin him just as Citrine believes his lawyer friend is profiting from his pain. Humboldt sapped his poetic energies chasing women just as Citrine's womanizing drains his intellectual powers. Humboldt went to psychiatrists to entertain them with his lurid confessions: Citrine visits a psychiatrist to be entertained by his lurid analyses. Humboldt performed encyclopedic arias before culture-deaf audiences, and Citrine lectures on spiritualism to uninterested materialists. Like Humboldt, Citrine knows "everything [he] was supposed to know and nothing [he] really needed to know." Clearly, Citrine has become Humboldt's comic double, the not-so secret sharer of his folly. Internalizing the manic Humboldt within him, Citrine does not feel so bereft. He finds comfort in imitating his idiocy.
Though Citrine is addicted to the past and ill-equipped to live in the present, Humboldt's gift rather than his presence enables Citrine to live in the here and now. Humboldt's two film scenarios provide Citrine with enough money to take up the contemplative life in Europe. But a tidy sum for retirement from crass America is the least benefit he derives from Humboldt. The film scenarios characterize Citrine's relationship to Humboldt and provide Citrine with Humboldt's opinion of him. One scenario concerns a fastidious author who exploits human relationships for his art and is then successful, though unfulfilled. The other, already made into a popular movie, concerns an old man who in his youth resorted to cannibalism to survive a doomed North Pole expedition. When he is forced to confess his misdeeds, the townspeople forgive him. The old sinner is likened to Oedipus at Colonus, who in old age acquired "magical properties" and at the time of death had "the power to curse and bless." Obviously, Citrine is meant to be that exploitative, unfulfilled author. He is also the old cannibal whom Humboldt with the passage of time can forgive, thereby enabling Citrine to bless rather than curse his lot. In a farewell letter, Humboldt tells Citrine that he is redeemable in this world and the next, even though he still labors "in the fields of ridicule." But the message from Humboldt which most heartens Citrine is that "we are not natural beings but supernatural beings." With such assurances, Citrine's terror of non-being is diminished. He no longer strains against the grave as did the great death-defier, Harry Houdini, his fellow escape artist. Humboldt gives Citrine faith to believe that "so extraordinary a thing as a human soul" cannot be destroyed forever. Humboldt also absolves Citrine of his guilt so that he no longer has to berate himself for injuring or neglecting the dying. Citrine can now transform his destructive self-blame into a constructive concern for others. Or, as Robert Lifton has shown, negative survival guilt can lead to an "energizing or animating guilt" and ultimately to a redefinition of survival guilt as the "anxiety of responsibility." Thus Citrine comes to realize that "he had responsibility not only to fulfill his own destiny, but to carry on for certain failed friends like Von Humboldt Fleisher." "The dead and the living still formed one community."
Like Bellow's other keepers of the covenant, Citrine meets his obligations. He tries to retrieve the body of his lover killed in a South American plane crash. He postpones a pleasure junket to help his brother cope with fears of death the day before his open-heart surgery. Citrine shares with Humboldt's near-dead uncle the money from his legacy and moves him and an old family friend from an old age home to a comfortable apartment. More significantly, he disinters Humboldt and his mother from one of those crowded necropolitan developments and reburies them in ample graves of their own. The funeral service he performs is his formal way of seeking true forgiveness from Humboldt, since Jewish law prescribes that the only way to obtain genuine atonement is to visit the grave of the wronged person and there ask his pardon. The funeral service also functions, as all such ceremonies do, to "speed the dead on their ‘journey’ to another plane of existence" and to "‘incorporate the deceased into the world of the dead.’" Indeed for Citrine the ceremony confirms that the dead are really dead, that dust has returned to dust. But it also keeps the buried Humboldt alive for Citrine and holds out the hope for immortality. Although "Humboldt's flowers were aborted in the bulb" during his lifetime, Citrine's discovery of crocuses at his grave suggests that his spirit is flowering elsewhere.
The novel's end is in keeping with the conventions of the pastoral elegy: "expression of grief at the loss of a friend," "praise of the dead," "a statement of belief in … immortality," and the presence of flowers as symbols of renewal. The heart of the novel, Citrine's copious reminiscences of Humboldt, is also a form of reparation and restoration. Like the Holocaust survivors who are compelled to act as witnesses for those slain, Citrine feels obliged to tell the ruined Humboldt's tale, to redress personal and public wrongs against him. By recapturing his unique essence, Citrine is able to give Humboldt a kind of permanence. If it is true that art is a "recreation of a once loved and once whole, but now lost and ruined object," then Bellow, through Citrine, is able to give Humboldt an eternal life in his work. The title of the novel, then, has a double meaning. It refers to Humboldt's gift to Citrine, but it also represents Citrine's gift to Humboldt. And if we rely on the psychoanalytic wisdom of aesthetician Hanna Segal, the book could represent Bellow's gift to himself. "Writing a book," claims Segal, can be for the author like "the work of mourning in that gradually the external objects are given up, they are re-instated in the ego, and recreated in the book." Thus, Bellow is able to resurrect his dead friends through his literary revival of them. Since they are a part of his internal world and have become immortalized through him, he is encouraged to believe in his own immortality.
But Bellow does not make this meaning apparent. His animal ridens leads him rather into the more circuitous route of comedy. He has Citrine caught up in what has become a typical humorous situation—the frenetic evasion of death. Like Bellow's other protagonists, Citrine desperately clings to childhood, frantically seeks refuge in sex, and anxiously theorizes about death to circumvent it. He travels great distances to hide from death or races and connives to meet up with it. He zealously shuns the dead Humboldt or communes exclusively with him. He feels unworthy of living, yet would not exchange places with the dead. He wants to escape the ennui of this life, yet dreads an eternity of boredom.
While Citrine plays hide-and-seek with death, he is immersed in the circus of this life. He accompanies Mafia freaks in pursuit of thrilling low life. He chases voluptuous younger women who abandon him on romantic merry-go-rounds. He loses out to cannibal divorce lawyers who strip him of his possessions. He harbors madman vendettas against his exploiters. Yet Citrine doesn't end up as a side-show grotesque. Though he is another of Bellow's "higher-thought clowns," he finally recognizes the folly of his escapist actions and wayward beliefs. Aware of how precious his limited time on earth is, he resolves to be an "entity," an autonomous individual who listens to the voice of his own soul, and not an "identity," a self which is socially determined. By choosing his authentic self over the presentation self, he intends to stop being a creature of "foolishness, intricacy, wasted subtlety." He also refuses to allow a world which is hostile to or oblivious of poetry to shape his values or restrict his tastes. Thus, like Tolstoy, Citrine advocates that we put an end to the "false and unnecessary comedy of history and begin simply to live." This emphasis upon life rather than death does not rule out a divine comedy, since Citrine vows to "listen in secret to the sound of the truth that God puts into us."
Source: Sarah Blacher Cohen, "Comedy and Guilt in Humboldt's Gift," in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 25, No. 1, Spring 1979, pp. 47-57.
Bellow, Saul, Humboldt's Gift, Penguin Books, 1996.
Broyard, Anatole, "Books of the Times: Lion or the Anthroposophist?" in New York Times, August 14, 1975, p. 29.
Gilman, Richard, "Saul Bellow's New, Open, Spacious Novel about Art, Society, and a Bizarre Poet," in New York Times, August 17, 1975, p. 209.
Leonard, John, "A Handsome Gift," in New York Times, September 7, 1975, p. 268.
Nobel Foundation, "The Nobel Prize in Literature 1976," in Nobelprize.org, 1976, http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1976/index.html (accessed September 14, 2006).
Simpson, Louis, "The Ghost of Delmore Schwartz," in New York Times, December 7, 1975, p. 308.
Atlas, James, Delmore Schwartz: The Life of an American Poet, Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1977.
This biography covers Schwartz's life and death, focusing on his writing career. Atlas's fluid writing style makes this biography read like a novel.
Cronin, Gloria L., and Ben Siegel, eds., Conversations with Saul Bellow, University Press of Mississippi, 1994.
Cronin and Siegel have collected interviews with Bellow from 1953 through 1994. Some biographical information is included.
Phillips, Robert, ed., Delmore Schwartz and James Laughlin: Selected Letters, Norton, 1993.
This book collects correspondence between American poet Delmore Schwartz and his publisher, James Laughlin of New Directions, from the time of Schwartz's fame until mental illness incapacitated him. The two were good friends and shared a love of poetry.
Pifer, Ellen, Saul Bellow against the Grain, Penn Studies in Contemporary American Fiction, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991.
Pifer argues that Bellow was a radical writer. In this book, she examines ten of his novels within this new framework of assessment.
Steiner, Rudolph, Knowledge of the Higher Worlds and Its Attainment, translated by George Metaxa, Anthroposophic Press, 1947, http://wn.rsarchive.org/Books/GA010/English/GA010_index.html (accessed October 11, 2006).
Steiner's major text on anthroposophy presents meditation exercises for the attainment of higher consciousness. It is available free on the Internet courtesy of the Rudolph Steiner Archive.