A Silver Dish
A Silver Dish
A Silver Dish
Saul Bellow's story "A Silver Dish" illustrates the skill of one of the greatest American authors of the twentieth century. The story spans a period from the middle of the Great Depression to the mid-1980s, showing the changes that time renders in both society and in one man's life. The main character, Woody Selbst, is one of Bellow's finest creations. A lonesome, successful businessman, Woody reminisces about the circumstances under which his father, a con man and thief, caused him to lose his scholarship to a seminary school, an act that redirected his entire life.
Bellow, the 1976 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, fills this long tale with acutely observed details and characters who are so unusual that they feel like they could only come from real life. Woven throughout the story are meditations about religion, death, and responsibility that one expects in Bellow's fiction. Long for a short story, "A Silver Dish" holds as much insight, humor, and wisdom as one may hope to find in a novel.
This story was first published in the New Yorker in 1978 and was subsequently published in Bellow's 1984 collection Him with His Foot in His Mouth, which as of 2006 is in print.
Saul Bellow is considered one of the greatest writers America has ever produced, having won every major writing award available, including the Nobel Prize for Literature. He was born on June 10, 1915, in Lachine, Quebec, Canada. His parents, who had recently emigrated from Russia, moved the family to Chicago in 1924. After high school, Bellow attended the University of Chicago for two years then graduated with honors from Northwestern University in 1937, taking degrees in sociology and anthropology. He went on to do some post-graduate work at the University of Wisconsin, but soon returned to Chicago, which is the city that he has been most closely associated with throughout his long lifetime.
For most of Bellow's life, he was a teacher. His first position was at Pestalozzi-Froebel Teachers College in Chicago, from 1938 to 1942. During World War II, he served with the Merchant Marines. With money from a Guggenheim fellowship, he traveled in Europe after the war. After a stint as an editor at Encyclopedia Britannica's "Great Books" program from 1943–1946, he took positions at University of Minnesota (1946–1949; 1954–1959), and then the University of Chicago, where he became the Grunier Distinguished Professor in the university's acclaimed Committee on Social Thought, in 1962. Bellow's affiliation with the committee lasted for more than three decades, until 1993. He then went to Boston University and became a professor of English, a position that he held until his death in 2005.
Bellow was productive and his writings won high critical acclaim. After the publication of his first novel, Dangling Man, in 1944, he produced ten novels and a few collections of plays, short stories, and novellas. His essays are also widely regarded, particularly "The Old System," a report on Israel's Seven-Day War that he wrote in 1967 for Newsweek. In addition, he was a frequent magazine contributor and an editor of dozens of volumes of fiction. His works are celebrated around the world: a partial list of his awards includes the National Book Award (Bellow is the only person to win it three times, for The Adventures of Augie March in 1953, Herzog in 1964, and Mr. Sammler's Planet in 1970); the National Institute of Arts and Letters Award; the French Croix de Chevalier des Arts et Lettres; and, of course, the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1976. He was also a controversial figure: in 1970 he was booed off the stage at a reading in San Francisco by protestors who objected to his conservative views, and, after the publication of To Jerusalem and Back, about a trip to the Holy Land in 1976, critics characterized him as an opponent of Israel. Saul Bellow died at 89 on April 5, 2005, at Brookline, Massachusetts. He had had five wives, three sons, and with his fifth wife, one daughter, born when he was 84.
Saul Bellow begins "A Silver Dish" by focusing on Woody Selbst, the protagonist, at age sixty. He is a successful businessman, the owner of a tile distribution company, living alone in an apartment on the top floor of his company warehouse. It is Sunday morning, and the bells are ringing in churches all around the South Chicago neighborhood where he lives. Woody reflects on the death of his father, Morris "Pop" Selbst, earlier in the week. He thinks of other people in his life: his mother, whose conversion to Catholicism hastened her husband's abandonment; his two weak-willed sisters, who are in their fifties and still living with their mother; his wife, from whom he has been separated for fifteen years, and Helen, his mistress; and Halina, the woman for whom his father left the family when Woody was fourteen and with whom his father lived for over forty years. He has a particular time of the week allotted for each of them. Sunday has always been his day to spend with Pop.
The church bells and thoughts of his father lead Woody to recall an incident that happened during the Great Depression, when Woody was seventeen. He was attending a seminary, with his tuition paid for by a rich patron, Mrs. Skoglund, a friend of his aunt and uncle. They all took an interest in him because he was Jewish and had converted to Christianity. One day, his father came to him and said that Halina had stolen money from her husband so that he, Morris, could pay a bookie and that he had to put the money back or the husband would beat Halina and possibly kill her. He wanted Woody to take him to Mrs. Skoglund's house, so that he could ask the wealthy woman for a loan. Woody knew that Mrs. Skoglund did not approve of Selbst and that there was a danger that she might quit paying his tuition if she thought that his father had too much influence on him, but out of loyalty to his father he agreed.
They traveled by trolley car from the south side of Chicago to the affluent suburb of Evanston, north of the city, during a blinding blizzard. At the Skoglund mansion, Woody talked their way in the door past the suspicious housekeeper, Hjordis, who opposed the idea of showing them any kindness at all. Mrs. Skoglund came to meet them and took them into a parlor where Woody introduced his father and then stepped back, quietly allowing Pop to make his case. Morris explained that he was a hard-working man who had gotten himself into financial trouble, making the case that he would be able to help children if she would just give him a break.
When Mrs. Skoglund and Hjordis left the room to pray to God about the best course of action, Pop went to a cabinet, pried open its lock with his penknife, and, to Woody's dismay, removed a silver dish. He explained that it was just in case Mrs. Skoglund did not give him the fifty dollars he needed; he would put it back if the money did appear. Woody tried to take the dish from his father, which resulted in their rolling on the floor, wrestling with each other. They broke their hold and stood up just before Mrs. Skoglund returned.
Having prayed about it, she decided to give Morris a check for the money. Woody accompanied her to her office as she wrote it and gave it to him, asking him to pray with her for his father's soul. Once they left the house, Woody asked Pop if he had returned the silver dish to its proper place, and he said that of course he had. Because of the snow, they spent the night at the Evanston YMCA, and in the morning Pop went straight to Mrs. Skoglund's bank and cashed the check.
A few days later, the dish was discovered missing. Woody denied knowing anything about it but was forced to leave the seminary. When he confronted his father about it, Pop gave him the ticket from the pawn shop when he had hocked it and invited him to redeem it.
In his apartment, Woody now remembers his father's final days. In particular, he remembers being in the hospital room when Pop tried to pull the intravenous needles out of his arms. To stop him, Woody had taken off his shoes and climbed into the bed beside him, holding his arms, denying him what he wanted for once. Prevented from removing the tubes with his hand, Pop had just shut his metabolism down, letting the heat seep out of his body until he was dead.
- Bellow was interviewed by Matteo Bellinelli on the video Saul Bellow (1994), released by Films for the Humanities & Sciences.
- An audio interview, On Art, Literature, and American Life, is available from Encyclopedia Americana/CBS News Audio Resource Library.
- A four-cassette video collection produced by Boston University, called Conversations with Saul Bellow: Novelist, Author of Short Stories and Plays, was released in 1987.
Halina Bujak is a Catholic woman who has worked in Morris Selbst's dry cleaning shop. When Woody is fourteen, Morris leaves his family to live with Halina, and Morris and Halina live as husband and wife for over forty years, although Halina remains married to someone else. Of all members of his extended family whom Woody sends to Disney World, Halina enjoys it most, particularly the Hall of Presidents.
The son of Halina, Morris Selbst's longtime companion, Mitosh is only mentioned once in the story. He plays the organ at the Stadium for basketball and hockey games.
Helen is the mistress of Woody Selbst, his "wife de facto." In his tight schedule, Woody schedules Friday nights for being with Helen.
Mrs. Skoglund's housekeeper, Hjordis, is a tough, suspicious old maid, unwilling to accept the good in anyone, reluctant to allow Morris Selbst into the house, even in terrible weather. When leaving the Skoglund house, Woody requests that Hjordis phone the local YMCA, where her cousin works, to get a room for Morris and himself: she does so, but reluctantly, feeling that she is being taken advantage of by people she does not like.
Aunt Rebecca Kovner
Woody's aunt, Rebecca Kovner, is the sister of his mother. She is married to the Reverend Doctor Kovner, and together they work to convert people to Christianity, including Woody, his mother, and his sisters. When he is at the seminary, Woody works under Aunt Rebecca at a soup kitchen shelter for the poor, and he pilfers food he does not need, just for spite.
Reverend Doctor Kovner
The brother-in-law of Woody's mother, Reverend Doctor Kovner is actively involved in converting people to Christianity. He despises Morris Selbst, and the feeling is mutual. Morris accuses Kovner of converting Jewish women by making them fall in love with him.
Woody's mother, who is never mentioned by name, is converted to Christianity by her sister, Aunt Rebecca Kovner, and her sister's husband. She is a self-important woman whose stern piousness drives her husband, Morris, to leave her. During the next fifty years, up to the time of this story, she lives with her two daughters. Woody accuses his mother of spoiling her daughters, making them fat and crazy, and being out of touch with the real world.
See Morris Selbst
Woody's sister, Joanna Selbst, is depressed and mentally unstable.
Living on the streets of Liverpool, England, from the age of twelve, Morris Selbst comes to the United States at age sixteen, sneaking into the country by jumping a ship in Brooklyn; he never establishes an official identity in the country. He spends his life pursuing illegal and semi-legal means of support. In his forties, he leaves his wife and three children to live with one of his employees, Halina, with whom he remains for more than forty years until his death. Morris, or "Pop," as Woody often refers to him, is a gambler, cheat, and thief, who feels entirely justified in being the way he is. When he comes to Woody and asks for his help on the behalf of his mistress, Halina, Woody suspects that his plea is bogus, as it in fact turns out to be. When Pop takes the silver dish, he promises to put it back if Mrs. Skoglund gives him the money he asks for; when she gives him the money, he steals the dish anyway and then lectures Woody about how religious people are really taking advantage of him and deserve what they get.
Woody's sister, Paula Selbst, is cheerful but mentally unstable.
This story focuses on the life of Woody Selbst, who is now a sixty-year-old tile contractor in Chicago. Woody is the center of his extended family and the means of support for many people around him. He lives alone but has a girlfriend, Helen, whom he sees every Friday night. Every Friday he also shops for groceries for his wife, from whom he has been separated for fifteen years. He goes on Saturdays to visit his mother and his two sisters, who are in their fifties and still live at home with their mother. He has supplemented the income of his father, who has recently died, and his father's mistress, Halina.
Woody lives alone in an apartment atop his company's warehouse. He travels internationally by himself once a year. He is generally law-abiding and dependable, but he also has a criminal streak: in the previous year, for instance, he smuggles hashish in from Kampala, just for the excitement of doing so (the hashish is used to stuff the Thanksgiving turkey). He does not like to keep entirely within the limits of the law, considering it a matter of self-respect to do otherwise.
When he is in his teens during the Great Depression, Woody, by birth a Jew, converts to Catholicism and attends a seminary, which is paid for by a benefactress, Mrs. Skoglund. He takes his father to Mrs. Skoglund's house one day, and his father steals a silver dish from a curio cabinet; as a result of this theft, Woody is forced to leave school and go to work.
Mrs. Aase Skoglund
An old widow who has cooked for the wealthy Skoglund family and married their son, Aase Skoglund uses the money that she inherits to promote Christian charitable projects, such as paying Woody Selbst's tuition at a seminary. She is deeply religious, praying to God when she has a decision to make. She is charitable enough to give money to Morris Selbst, a man of whom she disapproves. She accepts no excuses when she finds out that Woody and his father have stolen from her.
Woody Selbst loves his father much like an indulgent father might love his irresponsible, yet self-serving son. Woody loses the opportunity to have his education paid for because of the selfish actions of his father. Because he loves his father, he gives him his savings when the old man wants to hire a taxi and leave the family. Because he loves his father, he takes him to the house of his patron, Mrs. Skoglund. Having gone that far against his better judgment, Woody distances himself from his father after the older man steals the silver dish. The brief wrestling bout on the living room floor is caused by the son trying to keep the father from misbehaving. Acting out of love rather than anger, Woody tries to restrict his father, just as later he climbs into the dying man's bed to prevent him from disconnecting his tubes.
The narrative states explicitly that Morris Selbst loved his son, too, listing him second only to Halina, his mistress, in the older man's life. Though Morris tries to take advantage of Woody, in his own mind, Morris wants to spare Woody the indignities of having to associate with people who only pretend to care for him.
Snobs and Snobbery
Pop Selbst justifies his behavior by characterizing the people who have converted Woody and his mother to Christianity—Mrs. Skoglund, the Reverend Doctor Kovland, and Aunt Rebecca Kovland—as snobs, who look down upon him because of his humble background and, perhaps, because of anti-Semitic feelings. Whether he is right, or is just using their disapproving attitude to excuse his own criminal behavior, it is nonetheless clear that Woody agrees with him. Woody characterizes his mother as waiting, like a queen, for her husband to return to her, even forty years after he left the family, but refusing their daughters to have anything to do with him: "The Empress of India speaking," Bellow writes, to show Woody's disdain for his mother's pretentious ways.
As a grown man, Woody still battles snobbery. His opponents are not religious, though: in the late twentieth century, religion is not the powerful force it once was. Woody smuggles hashish in from foreign lands and grows marijuana in the field in the back of his warehouse, not because he feels the need for such things, but in effect to snub authority. Though he is a respected and responsible member of his community, he retains the attitude that his father had, challenging, with his very respectability, the people who might look down on him.
Though the story does not show how he was able to do so, it is quite clear about the fact that Woody has been able to derive some moral advantage from what might have been a crippling humiliation. His father's actions at the house of Mrs. Skoglund resulted in his losing his scholarship and being thrown out of school. Such a traumatic event might have driven him to follow Pop into a life of crime, but, instead of becoming irresponsible, Woody grows up to be a man with a weighty conscience. He does not abandon his family, the way his father once did, but he works to support them all. An example of this is the way he shops every week for his wife, even though they have not lived together for fifteen years. Even more notable is the fact that Woody pays for vacations to Disney World for all members of his extended family (though he cannot, of course, send his mother and his father's mistress, his own wife and his mistress together). Though Woody engages in some petty crimes as a matter of self-esteem, his life is generally focused on his responsibility toward others. He does not allow himself to feel that he deserves better.
Since most of this story takes place in retrospect when Woody Selbst is a young man, it may be difficult for readers to bear in mind that he is sixty years old, well past the prime of life. Throughout the story he is overshadowed by his father. As a young man, his struggle to establish an independent identity fails, as his father ruins his chance to become a scholar and is responsible for his being thrown out of school. According to Morris Selbst, seminary did not offer Woody a true calling anyway. In adulthood, Woody has taken financial responsibilities of his family for years, but upon his father's death he awakens to a new awareness of the limits of life. Noting, at his father's hospital, the general decrepitude of his mother and his father's mistress, he muses, "everybody had lived by the body, but the body was giving out."
Although, in his adult life, Woody is involved in the lives of people as diverse as his ex-wife, his grown sisters, his father's mistress and his own mistress, he still is alone, spending Sunday morning, the time that he has devoted to his father, alone in his apartment, listening to the mournful sounds of church bells. The root of this solitude can be plainly seen in his youth, when he was divided between his two parents when they separated. While it was easy for his sisters to sympathize with their mother, Woody only partially followed his mother's path: he converted to Christianity, but also rebelled, stealing bacon from Aunt Rebecca Kovner as a way of asserting his independence. Still, he grew up with too much conscience to follow directly in his father's larcenous footsteps. In keeping himself free of the restraints that any particular lifestyle would impose, he has also detached, to such a great extent that Helen, the woman whom he thinks of as being like a wife to him, is mentioned just once in the story and forgotten.
Topics For Further Study
- Woody is divided between the religions of his father and mother, who are, respectively, Jewish and Christian. Explain the central event of "A Silver Dish" to a rabbi or minister and record the advice that they would give to a young person who witnesses a parent committing a crime.
- Many YMCAs, including the one in Evanston, Illinois, that is mentioned in the story, have rooms to rent. Contact one near you and find out their policies: who rents their rooms, how much they charge, and what reservation policies are followed.
- Woody and his father have a bond that Morris does not have with his daughters, nor Woody with his mother. Research Sigmund Freud's theory of the "Oedipal Complex," and explain its possible relevance to the relationship between Woody and each of his parents.
- The music of the 1930s was generally about hope for a better future. Listen to the lyrics of a few songs from the Depression and describe which character would approve of it more, "Pop" Selbst or Mrs. Skoglund. Explain your reasons.
- Bellow explains that Woody is responsible for his sisters, who live with their mother. What social services could they apply for after their mother's death, so that they would be able to live independently?
Bellow makes the character of Morris Selbst enough of a likeable rouge that readers can easily see why his son would be willing to forgive his crimes and try to help him improve. Morris may be considered a hero of the work because he is a sympathetic main character: certainly, he is something of a hero to his son, Woody. But he has many personal qualities that are less than heroic in the traditional sense. He is vain, petty, dishonest, greedy, and crude, to name just a few of his unattractive characteristics. Because he subverts the standard expectations of a hero, Morris functions as an antihero, making readers question their own expectations of what a hero is and does.
Traditional fiction often provides a protagonist with a foil, a character who is the opposite of the main character and whose traits contrast with the protagonist at every turn. The foil underscores the protagonist by striking a sharp contrast to him. In other words, the contrast between the two makes both more clear as it underscores the protagonist's nature.
Woody is a foil for Morris. Woody cares for his extended family, while Morris abandons his for a new life with his mistress. Woody accepts financial support to go to seminary, but he hesitates at the thought of his father borrowing money from his benefactor. When the two visit the Skoglund mansion their contrasting personalities are dramatized by their fight, which includes their wrestling with each other on the floor. This contrast played out this way makes each personality clearer to readers.
The French word denouement means "unraveling." In literature, it generally refers to the part of a story that follows the climax, when the tense situations are settled and loose ends are wrapped up. The main part of "A Silver Dish" revolves around the object of the title. The story's climax may be seen as the fight that takes place between Woody and Morris, to keep him from stealing the dish; or it might be Woody's dismissal from the seminary and his steadfast decision not to blame his father; or maybe the old man's confession, later, that he took the dish, and his explanation that it was probably good for Woody that he did. Regardless of what one interprets as the story's climax, the last scene, in which Woody climbs into his father's hospital bed and holds him until he dies, is certainly the story's denouement. It is not integral to the main action of the story, but it is appropriate to the story because it dramatizes the love Woody feels for his father and the opposition he poses to his father's wishes. This final image conveys the son's love and the son's desire to prevent his father from a certain action.
The Great Depression
At the center of this story is Bellow's description of the night when Woody and his father, who are both poor, travel from the south side of Chicago to the affluent suburb of Evanston to the north. The contrast between the two worlds is made clear to readers, as the contrast between the rich and the poor was very clear during the Great Depression.
Like most large social phenomena, the Depression was the result of many events occurring simultaneously, such as the destruction of Europe during World War I finally taking effect and poor financial planning by the United States, which, after the war ended in 1918, failed to anticipate its rise to global financial dominance. America was a rich country throughout the 1920s, but some of that wealth was only on paper: the wealth that showed in bankbooks and stock transactions was not backed up by enough production of tangible goods. An important event that heralded the Depression was the New York Stock Market crash on October 29, 1929. Stock prices tumbled, causing other stockholders to sell their holdings at discount prices to cover their losses. People lost their savings when banks were forced out of business by large depositors pulling out. From 1929 to 1933, the U.S. gross national product fell by nearly half, from $103 billion to $55 billion. Unemployment, which usually stays under 5 percent, reached 30 percent at the height of the Depression in 1933, which is when Franklin D. Roosevelt became president and initiated new economic policies. Roosevelt's New Deal consisted of a variety of plans that gave work to many people.
Globalization in the 1980s
In this story, Bellow describes his protagonist, Woody Selbst, as a world traveler, experiencing exotic lands such as Kampala, the White Nile, and Japan, and important cities such as Istanbul, Jerusalem, and Delphi. While such international travel was of course possible then, it was by no means as common as it is in the early 2000s.
Several factors made world travel more attainable for the common person in the last two decades of the twentieth century. For one thing, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which had been in existence since the end of World War II, became more involved in regulating commerce between countries. Previously, the IMF had been charged with tending to the interactions between a few developed countries, but in 1982 it was shaken from its slumber by an international debt crisis. With a strong regulatory body directing financial traffic between countries, international involvement increased.
Also, communications improved after the 1980s. The fax machine, which allowed a copy of a document to be transferred across phone wires, had its origins in a device that was copyrighted in 1862, but it did not become a practical tool for business offices until the late 1980s. Just as the fax machine was revolutionizing international information sharing, the Internet boom transformed business throughout the 1990s: within a matter of years, companies that had relied on verbal communications or couriers could exchange information accurately and immediately.
As businesses spread their scope throughout the world, so did individuals. The Internet and cable television brought a steady flow of information about other cultures, removing some of the fear and mystery of other lands. Tourism became a streamlined industry, so that agents in different countries could offer amenities that they knew their foreign customers wanted. Airlines became increasingly efficient at moving passengers, bringing fares down to levels that could be reached by middle-class Americans. Since the 1980s, international travel has become much more practical and desirable for millions of vacationers who once could only dream of going abroad.
Compare & Contrast
- 1930s: An immigrant like Morris Selbst, who comes into the country by jumping off a ship before it docks, can live his entire lifetime without his presence documented by the government.
Today: Government records are cross-referenced by computer. It would be virtually impossible for a man to own a business without several government agencies knowing of his existence.
- 1930s: The World's Fair in Chicago, dubbed the "Century of Progress," draws attendance of more than 22 million people.
Today: The ease of international travel and the knowledge of the world via the Internet make world fairs unnecessary. The last world's fair of note, Expo '98 in Lisbon, Portugal, drew 11 million people.
- 1930s: Gambling means placing bets with a bookmaker with underground connections.
Today: Most states have casinos, lottery, and legalized horse betting. Financing bets is more often done with a credit card than with a bookie.
- 1930s: A car is a luxury: there is one car for every three people in the United States. In cities, the main mode of transportation is the streetcar.
Today: There is an average of one car for every person over the age of sixteen. Urban areas try to discourage car ownership and to encourage the use of public transportation to cut down on traffic congestion and pollution.
- 1930s: Banks are going out of business, so people like Bujak in the story keep their cash hidden in their homes.
Today: Cash is becoming obsolete: businesses encourage transactions with credit or debit cards.
By the time "A Silver Dish" was published in Saul Bellow's 1984 collection Him with His Foot in His Mouth, Bellow's reputation as one of the great American authors was already established. He had won most of the major awards available to writers, including the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1984. Still, even with a devout following of fans and scholars waiting for each new work, this collection was greeted with particular enthusiasm. Bellow's reputation was built by the novels that he published after the 1940s, but few readers had ever encountered his short fiction. With his reputation established, Bellow expanded the scope of his novels, inserting longer and longer passages of philosophical musings within the stories. As Sanford Pinsker explained it in his review of Him with His Foot in His Mouth for Studies in Short Fiction, "Saul Bellow's last novel, The Dean's December, confirmed what fans and critics alike had long suspected—namely, that the delicate balance between texture and talkiness was tilting, unhappily, toward the latter." Bellow's characters "had too much of the non-fictional essay pressing on their chests." Pinsker was pleased to report that the short story form focused Bellow's skills onto story-telling: "the sheer discipline that the short story requires has served Bellow well at this time, this place in his distinguished career."
The collection was received positively all around. D. Keith Mano started his review in the National Review by calling the book "a spirit-wrestler." Writing in a style that reflects Bellow's own, Mano notes, "In five stories Bellow, our best manuscript illuminator, has thrown off more stylistic improvisation and bright elegance, more body English, than ten normal-good penmen could." Janet Wiehe echoed his sentiments in the Library Journal, concluding as follows: "An impressive collection: Bellow's lush, intellectual fiction vigorously confronts ideas and connects individual experience to a broad scheme of life and art and thought." By the end of the decade, the book was still influential, remembered by Time magazines as one of the best books of the 1980s.
By the early 2000s, critical attention that focused intensely on Bellows two decades before had dimmed. Before his death in 2005, he published short fiction so infrequently that readers look back on this collection as a particularly cherished event. "A Silver Dish." the one of his most frequently anthologized stories, is included in Bellow's 2002 Collected Stories. It is also included in Best Short Stories of the Century, edited by John Updike.
Kelly is an instructor of literature and creative writing at College of Lake County and Oakton Community College in Des Plaines, Illinois. In this essay, Kelly examines Bellow's use of symbolism.
In a 1959 essay published in the New York Times called "The Search for Symbols, a Writer Warns, Misses All the Fun and Facts of the Story," Saul Bellow takes literary critics to task for reading too deeply, asserting that close scrutiny can in fact be a threat to fiction. He presents a hypothetical situation: a professor, asked why, in The Iliad, Achilles drags the body of Hector around the perimeter of Troy, answers that it is because doing so fits a pattern of circles, from shields to chariot wheels, that run throughout the story. To support his thesis the imaginary professor points to the fact that Plato, who was himself an ancient Greek but had no other relation to the author of The Iliad, favored geometric patterns, particularly the circle. Bellow submits to readers that the real answer is the simple one: Achilles circled the walls of Troy with Hector's carcass because he was angry. He says that the deep readers, who spin off symbolic importance from every little object mentioned in a work, are those who prefer meaning to feeling. Bellow's point is well taken: the search for symbolism certainly does distract a reader from nakedly experiencing a work of fiction. Still, the nature of literature is that, unlike life, the objects and events one encounters are certain to have some meaning greater than themselves, so it is more than a little disingenuous to blame the readers who want to explore possible meanings.
By the time he published the story "A Silver Dish," almost a quarter of a century later, Bellow seemed to have warmed to the idea of the responsible use of symbolism. How much of this is because he developed a more secure artist's hand over the year and how much is attributable to the fact that the short story form itself calls out for the compression that symbolism can allow is hard to say. The fact remains that "A Silver Dish" requires readers to have an appreciation of the symbolic if they are going to make meaning from it.
To start with, the title is symbolic. Titles are always symbolic, if we take "symbolism" to mean using one idea to represent another. A title is expected to mean much more than it says. In this particular case, three words are used to carry the same approximate meaning as thirty pages of text.
A well-formed title is transparent, at least until the other options of what it could have been are considered. "A Silver Dish" could have been called "The Bells" or "A Theft" or "A Death in the Family," but any one of these would steer the story's reader into a different direction. Something as simple as the use of "a" instead of "the," for instance, raises the tone of the story from the particular to the mythical. Describing the dish as "silver" in the story is just good, concrete, descriptive writing, but mentioning it in the title tells readers that there is something special about its being silver: as it turns out, the item in question is silver plated, a counterfeit, a sham. And the fact that the title is no more specific about the item than calling it a "dish" shows that Bellow is intentionally being general, when he could have referred to it properly as a plate, platter, or tray, just as easily as he identifies the cabinet it is stolen from as an "étagère." These choices are used to signify something to the reader. Where writers disagree with critics is in determining just how much this signifying can be considered symbolism.
There are certain elements in "A Silver Dish" that are clearly symbolic, even though Bellow seemed to think that he could mute their symbolism by making the story's protagonist, Woody Selbst, aware of them. The first and most obvious of these is the buffalo calf that Woody has seen dragged underwater in Uganda. Watching the parent buffalos in their bafflement about the disappearance of their child taught Woody something about mourning. How do readers know this? For one thing, the event makes no sense being in the story if its significance is not felt; for another, Bellow introduces this episode as an "experience that was especially relevant to mourning." Similarly, the bells that chime around Woody's apartment on a Sunday morning certainly have sensual impact—thinking of church bells ringing will put readers into the state of mind that Woody is in that first Sunday without his father—but they also symbolize the larger concept of organized religion, which Bellow acknowledges when he uses the line, "he had some connection with bells and churches" to take readers into Woody's past, when he was studying for the seminary.
There are, it should be said, many things in the story that point readers toward a larger significance but do not reach a level of dual meaning that would make one categorize them as symbols. Woody's one-time job pulling a rickshaw at the 1933 World's Fair is mentioned several times, and so it might seem that there is an implied connection between his life and the Chinese character that he plays for cash: this job does show him to be the hard worker that he proves to be later in life, but that is just consistent characterization, not symbolism. Riverview Park is described in more detail than most things along the streetcar route—Bellow mentions the Bobs, the Chute, and the Tilt-a-Whirl—but nothing else in the story implies that this amusement park is supposed to represent life (although if that were Bellow's point then his comment about "the fun machinery put together by mechanics and electricians" would make more sense). The blizzard that Woody and his father travel through might be considered symbolic of the freezing of their relationship that is to come, but the story works well enough without giving it any extra significance. Just considering the blinding snowstorm as the sort of extreme weather that writers often use for setting, to make a story all that more gripping, explains it without over explaining it. It would be easy to make too much of minute details like these and blow their significance out of proportion. This is just the sort of thing that Bellow's 1959 essay warned against.
On the other hand, there are aspects to "A Silver Dish" that are so striking that it would be off the mark to make too little of their symbolic significance. Woody and his father wrestling on the floor of Mrs. Skoglund's front room is one. Physical competition between a father and son almost always implies the Freudian concept of the Oedipal complex, in which the son tries to overcome the father, taking his sexual power from him and winning his sexual identity. Freudian interpretation is the one area that most often makes readers and writers feel that critics are going too far in the search for symbols, stretching the given facts to fit a predetermined meaning, and it was at its height when Bellow's essay was published. Still, when Bellow has a father and son grappling for what is stuffed down the front of the older man's underwear, it is difficult to avoid seeing how well the Freudian interpretation fits.
What Do I Read Next?
- Bellow's essay "In the Days of Mr. Roosevelt," originally written for Esquire magazine, is his non-fiction account of what life was like in Chicago during the Great Depression. It is reprinted in It All Adds Up: From the Dim Past to the Uncertain Future, a collection of his essays published by the same year as this story.
- Bellow wrote the afterward for an edition of Con Man (1942), an autobiography of legendary Chicago swindler J. R. "The Yellow Kid" Weil.
- Philip Roth, one of the great American novelists, wrote an appreciation of Bellow's long career in "Rereading Saul Bellow," published in Roth's collection Shop Talk: A Writer and His Colleagues and Their Work (2001).
- Unlike most literary biographies, Harriet Wasserman's memoir of Bellow, Handsome Is (1997), is steeped with personal and intimate observations about its subject and his life. Wasserman was Bellow's friend and agent, and her book brings readers close to his life.
One other act in "A Silver Dish," which echoes the wrestling bout in the way that it brings the two main characters together physically again, comes when Woody takes off his shoes and crawls into the bed of his dying father to hold the old man's arms. This action is clearly meant to indicate more than just the effort to keep the father from pulling out his intravenous tubes. It shows a comfort and intimacy that the father and son never shared when the old man was vibrant; it shows Woody climbing closer to death, wrestling it to save his father's life; it shows Woody, now sixty years old, coming to recognize his own approaching mortality. There are many interpretations that work, but the one thing that cannot be said about such a striking, prominent gesture is that it is meant to stand only for itself.
From one perspective, everything in a work of fiction must mean something beyond itself: it would be quite naïve to ask readers to please not question why the author chose to include one element or another in story. On the other hand, it is easy to see what Bellow was getting at when he criticized those readers who take a work to be a package full of symbols, rather than an organic entity unto itself. A reader who insists on torturing the slimmest connections out of each object and gesture and calling it a symbol will miss out on the fun of reading. But symbols exist, and they always will, even when the author is not aware that they occur; it is a fact that writers just have to live with.
Source: David Kelly, Critical Essay on "A Silver Dish," in Short Stories for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006.
In the following essay review, Romano reflects on Bellow's conservative reputation and how the pieces in It All Adds Up do not warrant that assessment, but lack imagination nonetheless.
Show me the Saul Bellow of the Sentences and I start to lose track of Papuans and Zulus, Proust and Tolstoy, Hutus and Tutsis. Even here in his casual nonfiction, this Canadian-Jewish-Chicago-American from pre-hyphenated days, the outsider whose '50s bolts of fusion diction knocked out the power of the WASP literary establishment, turns the mere period into a master's signature.
Edmund Wilson was "challenged by Marxism or modernism in the same way that I have seen the descendants of Orthodox Jews challenged by oysters." Khrushchev "seems to be a man of candor, just as Russia seems to be a union of socialist republics." Mayor Richard Daley's neglect of artists was preferable "to the sort of interest that Stalin took in poetry."
Watching a detective movie set in Southern California, Bellow spots "a sort of dandruff of existentialism on the shoulders of the actors." The important actors in his life get their instant of brilliant focus, whether it's his Depression-era algebra teacher, her white hair "piled in a cumulus formation," or John Berryman, "meteor-bearded like John Brown," or the "lifelong manger dogs" who accompanied him to J.F.K.'s White House Nachtmusik for artists.
Recalling his jumbled adolescent mind, "like the barrel of books at Walgreens," or announcing his one-step program for trained sensibility—"take certain masterpieces into yourself as if they were communion wafers"—Bellow hints that his attitude toward his cartwheeling metaphoric gift parallels that of mourned philosopher-friend Allan Bloom toward money: "that it was something to be thrown away, scattered from the rear platform of luxury trains."
No matter. It's the Saul Bellow of the Sentiments, not Sentences, that we've been hearing most about for a quarter century. Ever since Mr. Sammler's Planet (1970) supposedly blueprinted the assault of Bellow—onetime Trotskyist and Peace Now supporter, founder of a socialist club at Northwestern University—upon radicals, blacks and the "ugly, alarm-laden streets" of New York City, he's been the left's august literary golem, a clay figure written into its script of the literary right, constructed mainly to be destroyed. On this view, Artur Sammler's European-forged vision of Manhattan's urine-soaked phone booths, of darkskinned predators, simply wrapped a brown-paper cover over Saul Bellow's first travel guide, Let's Go (Far Away From) New York. In subsequent years, so the story goes, Albert Corde rammed it home to the "underclass" in The Dean's December, then the mob took over duties in Humboldt's Gift.
Yet Bellow's reflections outside of his fiction over this period suggest a much different story. As editors Gloria Cronin and Ben Siegel document in their forthcoming anthology, Conversations With Saul Bellow (University Press of Mississippi, December), Bellow's direct condemnation of alleged foes has always borne a more aesthetic cast than the broadsides of his characters. When confronted by Robert Penn Warren's Yale students about Sammler's put-down of student revolutionaries, Bellow's response addressed hypocrisy, not student policy: "The trouble with the destroyers is that they're always just as phony as what they've come to destroy. Maybe civilization is dying, but it still exists, and meanwhile we have our choice: we can either rain more blows on it, or try to redeem it." Feebly reformist, perhaps, but not Artur Sammler's idea of a crackdown.
And before the publication of The Dean's December, Bellow objected in a New York Times interview to Richard Poirier's charge that he'd been pushing "cultural conservatism" since Herzog. "People who stick labels on you are in the gumming business," remarked Bellow.
Evasion, some might say. Still, Bellow's resistance to picking up the mantle of conservative ideologue, the constancy of his harumph over the years to being cast as a politicized intellectual, deserves re-examination from the left. This spring's Bellow Gum-for-All-the combination of Brent Staple's nasty version of him in his memoir, Parallel Time [see Jill Nelson, "Hiding in Plain Sight," April 25], and Alfred Kazin's revival of Bellow's supposed challenge to multiculturalists in 1988 (asking to be shown the Tolstoy of the Zulus and Proust of the Papuans)—makes one wonder about the fairness of the demonizing. So do the contents of It All Adds Up.
Bellow's pigeonholing at this point is a cultural reflex, like praising David Letterman or bashing tabloid TV. In Parallel Time, Staples's memoir of growing up in Chester, Pennsylvania, then moving from his troubled neighborhood to the University of Chicago and beyond, the New York Times editor includes a long chapter that details his obsession with Bellow—a mix of intense admiration and resentment—during graduate school. He too once swooned before the Bellow of the Sentences.
"Bellow's people leaped more vividly from the page than any I'd encountered," Staples recalls. Still, Staples hated the horror movies of blacks in Bellow's novels, like the pickpocket in Mr. Sammler's Planet who exposes himself to the old man. Staples also bristled at Rinaldo, the small-time Mafioso in Humboldt's Gift who dismisses blacks as "crazy buffaloes" and "pork chops."
So while Staples envied and tried to emulate Bellow's ability to "kidnap people onto the page," he also began to "stalk" the writer (as the Times described it in promoting the excerpt). "What would I do when I caught him?" Staples wrote. "Perhaps I'd lift him bodily and pin him against a wall. Perhaps I'd corner him on the stairs and take up questions about 'pork chops' and 'crazy buffaloes' and barbarous black pickpockets. I wanted to trophy his fear."
Bellow responded—without mentioning Staples—in a Times Op-Ed piece in March. He objected to how critics try to convict him "of contempt for multiculturalism and defamation of the third world," to paint him as "an elitist, a chauvinist, a reactionary and a racist—in a word, a monster." He thought it pathetic that "no writer can take it for granted that the views of his characters will not be attributed to him personally." Then, presumably addressing Kazin's revival of the 1988 remark, he denied the widespread interpretation of it as a put-down, attributing the view to a "misunderstanding" by the interviewer of a point about preliterate and literate societies.
Staples retorted that Bellow's oblique criticism of him was "so small." The New Republic quickly pounced on Staples, accusing him of perpetrating stereotypes of "black pimps and black prostitutes" that made Bellow's characters look "quaint." Conventional political lines neatly laid down, Bellow's sticker remained firmly affixed.
All that makes Bellow's choices for his nonfiction collection a peculiar sampler from a fifty-year career. He tells us in his preface that he rejected the option of reprinting "all the trifles" he wrote to support himself, so the collection "is not a reliquary but a gathering of some of the more readable essays." But does readable mean nonideological, non-biting? Absent are some of Bellow's contentious interviews from the 1970s and '80s (several will be included in the Mississippi book) and the highly readable "Culture Now: Some Animadversions, Some Laughs," from the first issue of Modern Occasions in 1971. In it, Bellow skewered his old hangout, the Partisan Review, for its steep decline, comparing a piece by former colleague William Phillips on Susan Sontag to "scuba diving at Coney Island in urinous brine and scraps of old paper, orange rinds and soaked hot dog buns."
Omitted here, one presumes, with cause. For the Saul Bellow of It All Adds Up, the 79-year-old Bellow of the recent Times Op-Ed, is plainly petitioning us to recognize the paramount fact of his career since the '40s: He is an artist—not an intellectual (except by default), not a professional polemicist, not a philosopher. The crisp, exquisitely detailed ancient travel pieces here on Illinois, Spain, Vermont and Tuscany, the lovely dated commentaries on F.D.R. and Khrushchev, the over-lapping reflections on the essences of American literary culture (as opposed to its current street fights)—all telegraph a desire to wave his writer's card until someone pays attention.
So does the intimation of his pragmatism. "The bitterness of my dissatisfaction in rereading some of these pieces," Bellow writes, "is due to basic revisions, radical changes in my point of view. I can see now where I went wrong…. I failed to understand the things I wrote, the books I read, the lessons I was taught, but I find that I am a most persistent self-educator, that I long for correction." His goal, he says, honoring William James rather than Henry for a change, is "to enter an era of improved errors."
Mysteriously, he doesn't specify. Over 300-plus pages, we find ourselves frequently guessing at what he now rejects or accepts. Yet the tone of selfreproach surfaces often. As does the subliminal postcard: How can a mindchanger be an ideologue?
As far back as 1956, in remembering his friend Isaac Rosenfeld, he admits to having been, as a young man, "peculiarly touchy, vulnerable, hard to deal with at times, as I can see now, insufferable." In his 1977 Jefferson Lectures, he describes himself as "aware of shameful shortcoming," and "eager for accurate diagnosis and grateful for correction and cure. The easiest way to get my attention is to approach me from the side of reform." In his 1991 Bostonia interviews, he concedes his much-noted early lack of humility: "I made a point of speaking down to people (the nobs) who believed that I should look up to them."
Closer to the present, in a 1993 meditation for The National Interest, Bellow tells us, "Politics as a vocation I take seriously. But it's not my vocation. And on the whole, writers are not much good at it." Do we take him at his word? His real aim, if we're to believe the weightier pieces here (the Jefferson and Nobel lectures), is "aesthetic bliss," sought through morally responsible art. It's much the same line as that of Charlie Citrine in Humboldt's Gift, who turns to Steinerian anthroposophy as aestheticism with a moral backbone, no worse than Santayana's enjoyment of Christianity's comforting beauty.
Indeed, it's much the same line he has taken in interviews for decades. One of his oldest friends, Samuel Freifeld, told an interviewer in 1963 that Bellow's commitment as a writer had always been the realist's task—"to bear witness to life"—but always, Bellow would add, through imagination, not stenography. Asked back in 1975 what the place of abstract argument should be in fiction, Bellow pointed his interviewer to T.S. Eliot's essay on Shakespeare, in which Eliot considers whether Shakespeare is a Senecan stoic or a follower of Montaigne. "He puts it there very clearly," Bellow said, "that you do not examine a playwright, a poet or a novelist as a thinker. The point is not that he creates a body of intellectual work, but that he creates something else, employing whatever he needs for the purpose."
Why, then, is the left's skepticism toward Saul Bellow, artiste, so sharp and automatic? Isn't he the senior successor of the young wannabe who, according to Kazin in New York Jew, "carried around with him a sense of destiny as a novelist that excited everyone around him"? Wasn't he the figure praised wildly by Leslie Fiedler and Elizabeth Hardwick, the Jewish-American novelist with the moxie to punch his way into the mainstream American literary tradition, permitting others—perhaps everyone from Toni Morrison to Sandra Cisneros to Amy Tan—to follow?
When The New York Times Book Review asked six American critics in the early '60s to name the writer most likely to replace Hemingway and Faulkner as a great of American literature, Bellow was the name most mentioned. More than thirty years later, this spring, the London Sunday Times asked thirty of Britain's leading authors and critics to name the greatest living novelist writing in English, from any country. Again Bellow was the writer most frequently named. Is it so remarkable that the man himself—who disdains such polls—insists on himself as an artist rather than an in-the-wings Crossfire substitute?
The only way to understand the odd choices of It All Adds Up, the scant ideological patina, is to see them as Bellow's willful—poignant?—stab at reminding a hyperpoliticized culture of his day job. To do so, he returns us to memoir, to Chicago, to his passages. "In my eyes, my parents were Russians," he recalls in a 1993 piece, and the European bent of his work—particularly the challenge of writing Sammler as a European like his parents—becomes more understandable.
Reading It All Adds Up, the cliche of "sound bite" becomes an ambiguous phrase, for one realizes that in a world of unsound thoughts, the sound bite, as supplied by Saul Bellow, supplants the extinct aphorism (too stilted for modern use). Bellow knocks out a remarkable number: "One must respect respect itself"; "One is more foreign in France than in other countries"; "We take foreigners to be incomplete Americans."
To reaccept Bellow as artist, to remove the "Enemy of the People" sign from round his neck, is not to excuse the stark lacuna in his nonpareil attention span. Like his novels, his pieces here—from the farewells to five male friends, to the overviews of places he has known—confirm how little women seem to have mattered to his artistic vision. An edgy reference here to Mary McCarthy as our "tiger lady," a mention there of Virginia Woolf—but almost all the rest, quotation or influence, are the same old male greats: Dostoyevsky, Proust, James, Dreiser, Forster, Conrad, Lawrence, Joyce. What a waste.
Similarly, a lack of the imagination he vaunts so regularly—what others call racism or elitism—limits his outreach to America's rainbow, its future. When he writes, in the Jefferson Lectures, that the country people who came to Chicago from Kentucky or Alabama, replacing earlier immigrants, "brought with them no such urban skills and customs as the immigrants had," you cringe at the presumption. When he observes, apropos of "underclass" Chicago in the same work, that the young men and women dragged before a judge are "unreachable, incomprehensible," one is bemused. Can America's most brilliantly equipped detector of personality really be stymied? Then he notes, "Among schoolchildren, you look in vain for resemblances to the past. The schools are now almost entirely black and Puerto Rican."
It can't be that his imagination is so stunted, that all resemblance is lost. Perhaps ego is the answer. For Bellow, who recycles favorite memories and quotes (the awful smell of the Seine, recamier sofas, the wisdom of Samuel Butler) like the hackiest of barroom bards, may well be so fastened to his time, to his people, that he finds it impossible to accept that others will live different lives, will crisscross his experience in different narratives. "I suspect," he remarks at one point, "that if you went to the Lake Country now to find tranquility, you might have to dig for it like an archaeologist." No, but it might help to be 18, and there for the first time.
No sensible critic would study the motorboating of George Bush, the cardoor slams of Jack Nicholson, to understand their main accomplishments better. For some, the nonfiction of a novelist falls into just such an oddball category: unrelated phenomena. Not so. Apart from the serendipitous moments that any retrieval of old material provides—in this case, references to Arafat threatening to chop off Sadat's hands for dealing with Israel, or a portrait of Boutros-Ghali in his days as Egyptian foreign minister—the occasionals of a master provide telling clues. In It All Adds Up, we sense that the Nobel Prize-winning arranger knows how he wants the score to sound, and it is without the bullhorns of the past, without the rebukes of the present.
Source: Carlin Romano, "His Mouth, His Foot," in Nation, Vol. 259, No. 5, August 8-15, 1994, pp. 168-70.
In the following review, Pinsker gives the assessment that Bellow's latest work "focuses our attention … on Bellow's humanity, his humor, his style."
Saul Bellow's last novel, The Dean's December (1982), confirmed what fans and critics alike had long suspected—namely, that the delicate balance between texture and talkiness was tilting, unhappily, toward the latter. In short, Bellow's characters had too much of the non-fictional essay pressing on their fictional chests. The result tended to choke off what is most representative, and what is best, about Bellow's work.
This latest collection of five shorter pieces—ranging from a sketch/fragment ("Zetland: By a Character Witness") to "What Kind of Day Did You Have?", a novella, forces our attention, once again, on Bellow's humanity, his humor, his style:
I'm a common man [Pop declares, as he puts the touch on a would-be benefactress], but I'm a hard worker and a fellow you can trust. Woody was startled when Pop used the word "trust." It was as if from all four corners a Sousa band blew a blast to warn the entire world: "Crook! This is a crook!"
Him With His Foot In His Mouth is heavy with memory, with portraits of the intellectual as a young man (Zetland, for example, is Isaac Rosenfeld in thin disguise; Harold Rosenberg figures prominently as the driving force behind the Victor Wulpy of "What Kind of Day Did You Have?") or the tugs toward family and "potato love" that Bellow's protagonists can never quite resist:
I remembered Riva as a full-figured, dark-haired, plump, straight-legged woman. Now all the geometry of her figure had changed. She had come down in the knees like the jack of a car, to a diamond posture. She still made an effort to move with speed, as if she were dancing after the Riva she had once been.
And of course, the collection is anchored in the bang-and-blab of the Chicago pavements. The result is that gritty, quotidian texture, that deliberate roughening of syntax we immediately recognized as vintage Bellow: "I am a more disinterested Ginsberg admirer than Eddie is [the protagonist of "Him With His Foot In His Mouth" declares, as he rationalizes away an ex-colleague's accusations]. Eddie, so to speak, comes to the table with a croupier's rake. He works for the house. He skims from poetry."
Bellow's most congenial turf is the novel, with its large canvas and wide range. But the sheer discipline that the short story requires has served Bellow well at this time, this place in his distinguished career. The collection's title story ends with Professor Shawmut "ready to listen to words of ultimate seriousness." Had this wish been uttered in a Bellow novel, I'm afraid it would likely have been followed by more preachiness, more tub-thumping, more "talk" than would be good either for fiction or for us.
Source: Sanford Pinsker, Review of Him with His Foot in His Mouth, in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 21, No. 4, Fall 1984, p. 404.
Keith M. Opdahl
In the following essay, Opdahl discusses Bellow's writing career.
A sober evaluation of his work leaves no doubt that Saul Bellow is one of the important writers in American literature. As one of two living American Nobel Prize-winners in literature, he inherits the mantle of Hemingway and Faulkner, even though he himself has not become a culture hero. Nor has he, like Borges or Márquez, become a cult figure; when in 1979 the New York Times Book Review asked twenty leading intellectuals which books since 1945 would count among the hundred important books in Western civilization, Bellow was not mentioned. He is mentioned elsewhere, however, and with the highest praise possible. Who are "the great inventors of narrative detail and masters of narrative voice and perspective" according to Philip Roth? "James, Conrad, Dostoevski and Bellow."
Bellow has in fact always enjoyed the kind of reputation that is won by solid and accomplished work. He is a private person, and in his public appearances he is sometimes distant or moody, without those manufactured public outlines (sportsman, Southern gentleman) that give easy popular identification. But he is also our preeminent public spokesman, the writer who catches and articulates the sometimes hidden feelings of our era. Bellow puts flesh on those abstract and cliché-ridden bones, showing what alienation actually is on a winter afternoon, say, or precisely how our culture crushes a mediocre man. Does America mean opportunity? Bellow's fiction takes a larky young man about the country, exploring exactly what opportunities await him. Is life a mixture of the sublime and the vulgar? Bellow in his last novel before winning the Nobel Prize shows just what that mix can look like.
Bellow was born in Lachine, Quebec, just two years after his parents, Abraham and Liza Gordon Bellows, had emigrated from St. Petersburg, Russia. His father was a daring and not always successful businessman who in Russia had imported Egyptian onions (Bellow describes him as a "sharpie circa 1905"), and in the New World attempted several often unconventional businesses. A family portrait in 1922 shows the father to be a stocky, erect man with the touchy look one would expect from Bellow's fictionalized accounts of him. Bellow's mother in the same picture is handsome, with large gentle eyes and a broad forehead. Bellow himself—the seven-year-old Solomon Bellows—is alert and knowing, the baby among two sisters and a brother, staring down the camera with something of his father's insouciance.
The Bellows lived in a slum on St. Dominique Street "between a market and a hospital," Bellow has said. "I was generally preoccupied with what went on in it and watched from the stairs and windows." His father, who blamed himself for the family's poverty, worried that Solly would see too much; and the boy did see violence and sexuality, saying later that the raw reality of Dominique Street made all else in his life seem strange and foreign. "Little since then has worked upon me with such force," Bellow has written, as he has returned to the scene in Dangling Man and Herzog. He lived amid the color and spirituality of an earlier era, for Lachine was "a medieval ghetto …; my childhood was in ancient times which was true of all orthodox Jews." By the age of four he knew the book of Genesis in Hebrew. "You never got to distinguish between that and the outer world."
Lachine was also a verbal environment, teaching young Bellow Hebrew, Yiddish, French, and English. He spent a year in the Royal Hospital (in the TB ward, he says, though he didn't have TB) with nothing to do but read. But by the time his family had moved to Humboldt Park in Chicago, when he was nine, he was healthy enough for sports as well as his many intellectual projects. Humboldt Park was a neighborhood of immigrants, filled with the cultural and intellectual activity of sidewalk orators, branch libraries, and mission houses that would provide a debating club a meeting room. By the time he attended Tuley High School, Bellow had such pals as Isaac Rosenfeld, Sydney J. Harris, who would become the newspaper columnist, Oscar Tarkov, and David Peltz, his good friend to this day, who remembers that "Solly Bellows was the most precocious of the lot—a good runner on the track team, a fair swimmer, middling tennis player, but a remarkable writer even then." The boys were leftist in politics, and at one time crazy about surrealism.
But at home all was not well, for the father—by all accounts an impetuous, pretentious man—continued to have financial problems, and a fatal accident involving his uninsured coal truck made the family labor for years to pay off the debt. Bellow's mother died when he was fifteen, and when he was seventeen he and Sydney Harris ran away to New York for a few weeks to peddle (unsuccessfully) their first novels.
If Chicago had been a shock to the young Canadian, he had persevered. He attended the University of Chicago, where he felt the dense cultural atmosphere to be suffocating, and transferred to Northwestern, where he founded a socialists' club and graduated in 1937 with honors in sociology and anthropology. He reportedly wished to study literature, but was advised that anti-Semitism would thwart his career, and so he accepted a scholarship to study anthropology at the University of Wisconsin, where his professor told him he wrote anthropology like a good novelist. In Chicago on New Year's Eve, 1937, Bellow married Anita Goshkin, a social worker, and abandoned his graduate work. "In my innocence," he has said, "I had decided to become a writer."
It was a bold decision at that time, and such boldness has characterized Bellow's work ever since. His greatest strength as a novelist is his style, which is fluid and rich, picking up the rhythms and energy of Yiddish and the plain speech (and sharply observed detail) of the Middle West. His style is precise and lucid and gives off an air of absolute integrity—an integrity that has at times gotten Bellow into trouble, for as a writer he is as stiffnecked as his father looks. Again and again over his career, Bellow has followed his imagination wherever it may lead. In an era of experimentalism he has been a realist, claiming that "the development of realism in the nineteenth century is still the major event of modern literature." During the 1940s, in a time of deep social concern, Bellow dramatized a sense of the transcendent. When alienation was popular, Bellow celebrated accommodation. He reacted to the popularity of the Jewish novel by turning to a WASP protagonist (in Henderson the Rain King), and he met America's new youth culture head-on with the creation of a seventy-year-old protagonist (in Mr. Sammler's Planet). And yet in most of these ventures he was successful, largely because of his fertile imagination and clarity of mind.
Bellow's largest difficulty as a writer lies in plot. He has confessed this difficulty, and many critics believe his novels to be formless. If Bellow's characters are colorful and his situations telling, he characteristically gives too much, too many ideas for us to know the central one and too many characters, too many memorable details, for us to discern a simple story. No doubt Bellow is not as formless as he seems, since his point is often the subtle insight of the realist, so easily lost among his comic characters and rich descriptions, and he himself is the most diligent of craftsmen, working through draft after draft. But the fact remains that his art is one of clearing and solidifying an abundance of materials, and when he has finished with the process the reader too has a way to go.
And indeed, one of Bellow's central themes is precisely this density of life. So too is the malice or nastiness of his protagonist and those around him. Another theme is the experience of transcendence and the fact that the issues that confront us are ultimately metaphysical or religious, an element that provides one of the keys to Bellow's style, as the sense of a special meaning or significance just out of reach adds another dimension to his precisely detailed physical world. A society that can invent the inner life but give it no nourishment, a universe that requires the self to twist himself to survive within its force, a protagonist seeking most of all to cure himself of some unknown malady—all of these are typical Bellow themes.
And so too is the theme of his Jewishness, but in a special and rather independent way. Although Bellow's mother wished him to become a Talmudic scholar like many others in her family, Bellow himself has insisted that he is not that exotic creature, the Jew who writes in English, but an American writer—a Western writer who happens to be Jewish. "I did not go to the public library to read the Talmud," Bellow says of his Chicago days, "but the novels and poems of Sherwood Anderson, Theodore Dreiser, Edgar Lee Masters, and Vachel Lindsay." Bellow nevertheless is singled out by Alan Guttmann in The Jewish Writer in America (1971) as portraying the full range of American Jewish experience, and Bellow's comedy, intellectualism, moral preoccupation and alienation, his concern with the family and with rough Eastern European immigrants, his obsession with the past and with the dangers of an alien world, his emphasis on purity, his sense, as Alfred Kazin says, "of the unreality of this world as opposed to God's"—all of these elements bespeak his deep Jewish concern.
And indeed, the fact that he is Jewish added a special tension to his decision to be a writer, for he would enter a world dominated not only by WASPS but by WASPS from New England. He worked for the Work Projects Administration doing biographical sketches of Midwestern writers and then taught at the Pestalozzi-Froebel Teacher's College. He went to Mexico in 1940, writing the never-published novel "Acatla," and lived, he says, a bohemian life. But these years were not all gaiety: "I sat at a bridge table in a back bedroom of the apartment while all rational, serious, dutiful people were at their jobs or trying to find jobs, writing something." After lunch with his mother-in-law, in whose apartment he lived, he would walk the city streets. "If I had been a dog I would have howled," he has written. He managed in 1941 to place a short story about a young man waiting for the draft in the Partisan Review; the next year another, about the Trotsky assassinations, appeared. And in 1943 Partisan Review published part of his new novel in progress.
Perhaps the most memorable quality of this first novel, published in 1944 as Dangling Man, is the tone of voice: modeled after that of Rilke's Journal of My Other Self, the voice is frank and honest, compensating for its self-pity by the depth and precision of its observation. Taking on Ernest Hemingway, the most famous writer just then, the protagonist Joseph jibs at the hard-boiled: "If you have difficulties, grapple with them silently, goes one of their commandments. To hell with that! I intend to talk about mine, and if I had as many mouths as Siva has arms and kept them going all the time, I still could not do myself justice."
Like Bellow himself, Joseph has been kept dangling by his draft board, bound in the red tape surrounding his Canadian birth. His ostensibly formless journal is actually shaped by his increasing lack of self-control, as he records the failure of his attempts to write or prepare himself spiritually for the army, and then his disappointment with his friends and his wife, his in-laws and his mistress. Wanting to forge a self that would be "a member of the Army, but not a part of it," he must watch himself become overwhelmed by a hundred trivial details, as his self-control leaves him and the nasty bad temper he has remarked in others comes to dominate. When he strikes his landlord and realizes that his sense of the strangeness and impermanence of the world has grown, he, like Dostoevski's Underground Man, throws in the towel, crying "Long live regimentation."
One critic thought Joseph was a "stinker," but other reviewers gave the book a remarkably affirmative judgment. Even the names of the reviewers tell us a great deal, for Edmund Wilson, Peter DeVries, Diana Trilling, and Delmore Schwartz all felt this first novel worthy of their attention. Edmund Wilson called it "one of the most honest pieces of testimony on the psychology of a whole generation," and George Mayberry proclaimed the creation of a complex character like Joseph "an event that is rare and wonderful in modern American writing." Subsequent critics have found the book narrow and Bellow's attitude toward Joseph uncertain. To some, Joseph at the end rejoins society and thus is not ironic; to others, he is totally defeated, surrendering his individuality, a reading the echo from Dostoevski's "Notes from Underground" would support. Bellow's novel is a lively and even memorable work, with many striking figures, even if the author himself has confessed that he cannot bear to reread it.
Bellow's own dangling was ended by the army for medical reasons, and in 1943 he began to work for Mortimer Adler's "Great Books" project for the Encyclopaedia Britannica, reading he says some 60 of the 443 works indexed. He joined the merchant marine, which stationed him in New York, and then worked for the Maritime Commission onshore. After the war, Bellow decided to stay in New York, tasting, he has said, the intellectual life of the Village and enjoying the pleasures of fatherhood with the birth of his son Gregory. He reviewed books, edited, wrote reports for the founder of Penguin books, and in a clash that served him well, spent two days as movie reviewer for Time, until Whitaker Chambers reportedly picked a quarrel and fired him on the spot—an event he would include in his next novel, The Victim (1947).
Joseph in Dangling Man had complained that upon awaking he went "in the body from nakedness to clothing and in the mind from relative purity to pollution" when he read the newspaper and admitted the world. To Joseph the world is a war that can kill him, but it is also the physical universe itself. In The Victim this impurity pursues the protagonist Asa Leventhal as Kirby Allbee comes one hot summer night to accuse the solitary and anxious Leventhal of causing his ruin. Leventhal had quarreled with Allbee's boss, prompting Allbee's loss of his job, he claims, and thus his drinking and the loss of his wife. Following Dostoevski's The Eternal Husband, Bellow explores the intense and ambivalent relation between the two men, as Allbee presses deeper and deeper into Leventhal's life, taking money, a bed in his apartment, liberties with his mail, and finally a whore in Leventhal's own bed—an impurity that is still not the final one, since Allbee slips into the apartment late at night to attempt suicide in Leventhal's kitchen.
Was Asa Leventhal responsible? A parallel plot suggests he was not, for he mistakenly assumes the blame in a death for which he had no responsibility at all. Both Leventhal and Allbee are victims of an oppressively dense world—one of the finest creations in the novel, as Bellow catches the summer heat of New York—and of their inability to discern a clear order in it. Each argues for a version of reality that the other cannot accept. Allbee cannot bear the notion of an impersonal universe in which he might be harmed for no reason at all. He must find an agent—a Jew. To Leventhal, on the other hand, such a "human" universe is ominous, frightening, a world in which he could be ruined overnight. Allbee appears inexplicably, emerging from a crowd in a park as an embodiment of the city streets which Leventhal, like his immigrant forebears, considers full of impurity and danger: "He really did not know what went on about him," Leventhal thinks, "what strange things, savage things."
The Victim is a remarkable advance over Dangling Man, for though it is dense and claustrophobic it is also rich and full of an absolutely honest life. It raised some eyebrows, coming as it did only two years after the death camps had been opened, for to critics such as Theodore Ross in the Chicago Jewish Forum Allbee and Leventhal are too much alike. Was this the time to show that the psychology of Jew and bigot can be similar? Bellow had insisted on paying the Jew the same tribute he would pay all human beings, neither more nor less, and in Allbee he captured the unconscious subtleties of Jewish self-hatred, making him a messenger from not just a destructive world but Leventhal's own psyche. Leventhal's alienation is that of modern man, moreover, for by showing Jew and Gentile to be alike Bellow shows that at this time we are all Jews.
Although The Victim was not praised as much as it deserves (critics now judge it to be one of Bellow's best works), it was sufficiently recognized to win Bellow a Guggenheim Fellowship for 1948, freeing him from teaching at the University of Minnesota, where he had been in 1946 and 1947. In France on his fellowship he began a third novel in the same serious vein as his first two, but found he needed a relief. He took to writing a "memoir" of Chicago—which in France had become exotic to him, he says—and by 1949 had turned to it almost exclusively. "Augie was my favorite fantasy," he has said of the Chicago book. "Every time I was depressed while writing the grim one I'd treat myself to a fantasy holiday." He wrote The Adventures of Augie March (1953) while on the move, in trains and in cafés in Paris and Rome, in Minneapolis where he returned to teach in 1949, in a cold-water flat in New York where he lectured at New York University, at Princeton where he was a Creative Writing Fellow, and even in the editorial offices at Viking Press. At some point he felt such revulsion with the "grim" work he had begun that he slid some 100,000 words down an incinerator.
Thus The Adventures of Augie March begins as the opposite of Bellow's serious concerns, best defined perhaps in terms of Asa Leventhal's fear of the streets. Bellow had known a lad like Augie: "He came of just such a family as I described. I hadn't seen him in 25 years, so the novel was a speculative biography." And what was particularly speculative was Bellow's definition of the young man as an enthusiast who is swept up by the people he loves, sometimes in a sexual swoon and at others as an admiring disciple. Can a young man in a harsh world of force survive without weapons other than affection and tolerance and a lack of calculation? The answer lies in the adults who surround Augie and are as large and threatening as they would appear to a child. They exist with a Balzacian vigor and importance that testifies to human worth as they act upon their environment, but they also overwhelm the passive young Augie, who becomes another Bellow hero oppressed by the world.
At first he manages to survive, and Bellow's point is clear. Augie's childhood is dominated by the wonderful Grandma Lausch, whose world is every bit as dramatic and cynical as the czar's court, and whom Bellow describes as the equal of the great politicians of the world. And so too is the crippled Einhorn, even if his kingdom is a West Side neighborhood and his courtier (and male nurse) the young Augie. Augie serves the North Shore matron Mrs. Renling (until he is taken as her gigolo and she wishes to adopt him) and acts as an aide-de-camp to his ambitious brother Simon, who marries into a wealthy family. In each case, Augie observes not only that "it wasn't so necessary to lie," as he says in the first chapter, rejecting Machiavellian cynicism, but also that these egotists finally do themselves in. Grandma Lausch's children treat her with the same impersonality she had tried to teach Augie. Simon is tormented by his position, and Einhorn outsmarts himself. Only Augie, larky, impetuous, sensual, accepting—the very opposite really of Bellow's usual protagonist and thus a true fantasy for Bellow—only Augie it seems is escaping a harsh and destructive world.
And yet Augie doesn't escape either. Bellow's insistence that these Chicago-neighborhood characters are of the same caliber as mythic and historic greats can work both ways. His references and allusions enrich and elevate the story, but they also darken it, reminding us of the terror at the heart of our myths and legends. Or to put it another way, Augie's style is Whitmanian in the way it picks up everything, relishing its energetic catalogues; but at the same time and in much the same way as Whitman, it contains a belying strain, a shrillness. Augie March is the Jew accepting all of America, Norman Podhoretz has said, and accepted in return, except for his "quality of willed and empty affirmation."
For the truth is that Augie is hit again and again, and we can measure the novel's progress by noting Augie's responses. In the first chapter Augie is beaten up by neighborhood punks (including Augie's good friend) for being a Jew: "But I never had any special grief from it," Augie says, "or brooded, being by and large too larky and boisterous to take it to heart." By the middle of the novel, when Augie is beaten up in a labor strike, he flees full of rage and terror. He goes to Mexico with his lover Thea, another Machiavellian who plans to hunt iguanas with a trained eagle, and suffers a concussion that makes him spend depressing weeks on the mend. When he cheats on Thea, she tells him he is not a man of love at all, but isolate or indifferent, a fact that Einhorn had earlier described as Augie's "opposition." "Me, love's servant?," Augie wails. "I wasn't at all!"
Bellow's fantasy has simply turned into his old nightmare, and the book becomes the memoir of a rather scarred and saddened middle-aged man who defines himself as one singing in the middle of a desolate and frozen farm field. Like the novel after which it was modeled, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Adventures of Augie March is unable to sustain its original serenity.
Reviewers in 1953 took Bellow's intention for the deed, however, praising the novel for its energy and acceptance and stylistic fireworks. Even though it won a National Book Award in 1954, Bellow himself today has reservations, commenting that "I got stuck in a Sherwood Anderson ingenue vein: here are all these people and isn't life wonderful! By the last third of the book I wasn't feeling that way any more." The novel had emancipated Bellow from grim labor, at any rate, but what seems notable today is not so much the sweep and energy of the work, particularly in the large numbers of characters, as the warm tone of its voice and the precision of its details. Augie promises to tell the truth, to close in on his experience, which makes the book not so much a picaresque novel skating on the surface of life as a deeper, closer investigation of what a life over a period of years actually is. Bellow had grown up on the naturalistic work of Dreiser, Dos Passos, and Farrell, and he retains their sense of a cruel world of force, but he transforms it here into something less mechanical, less deterministic or external, focusing more on the perception and history and feeling of the inner protagonist—who finds a triumph finally in consciousness if not in love.
Bellow taught at Bard College in 1953–1954 and at the University of Minnesota the next year. He won a second Guggenheim Fellowship which permitted him to spend 1955 in Nevada and California, and then, having terminated his troubled marriage, he was free to marry Alexandra Tschacbasov and settle down—after almost two decades of moving about—in Dutchess County, New York, near Tivoli. It was during these same five years that he wrote the short works that would make up his next book, Seize the Day (1956): "Looking for Mr. Green" (1951), "A Father to Be" (1955), "The Gonzaga Manuscripts" (1956), the title novella, and a one-act play, The Wrecker (1954). The novella "Seize the Day" reflects the important fact that Bellow's novels are usually written over a period of years and thus do not belong to the year or even the decade in which they see publication. A friend of Bellow's reports seeing The Victim in two different versions by 1945, which means its composition may well have overlapped that of Dangling Man. When an interviewer grouped "Seize the Day" with Bellow's work in the 1940s, Bellow didn't argue with him, saying only that he had written it over a period of years. The fact remains, however, that the novella reflects a pattern of variety in Bellow's work, as each novel seems to contrast in tone with its predecessor. The Adventures of Augie March sprawls and attacks the world with energy; it made Bellow well known in the world of letters. "Seize the Day" is tight and sets an elegiac tone; it may well be the work that insures Bellow's position in the world of important writers.
The story recounts a day in the life of a failing middle-aged American, Tommy Wilhelm, who has made a series of poor decisions that land him job-less in his early forties at the Hotel Ansonia, where his father lives in retirement. Tommy wants his father's help—and is denied. He wants his substitute father's help too, and this father, the sometime psychologist Tamkin, is the character Bellow now finds most interesting in the tale, for "like most phony phonies, he is always somewhere near the truth…. But Tamkin's truths aren't really true." As he treats patients over the phone and spouts existential clichés, Tamkin promises to cure all of Tommy's troubles. He will make him strong, teaching him to "seize the day"—the very vagueness of which is Bellow's point—and he will make him financially comfortable, too, using his money to speculate on the grain market. Bellow begins the novella with Tommy emerging from his room, assuming a bold front. He gives over the first three sections to Tommy's past and his breakfast with his father, and the second three to his relations with Tamkin. In the last, climactic section, Tommy's disgusted father disowns him and Dr. Tamkin, having lost Tommy's last remaining savings, disappears.
Tommy's defeat makes many readers uncomfortable, and several reviewers termed "Seize the Day" an interim work, filling the time after The Adventures of Augie March. Since 1956 the novella's reputation has grown steadily, however, until, as Alfred Kazin puts it, "none of his works is so widely and genuinely admired as this short novel." The reason lies in the calm and solidity of Bellow's art. The tone is almost Olympian in its treatment of Tommy's sloppy sentimentality, and Tommy himself is a significant creation. He is at once the ultimate antihero (Herbert Gold called "Seize the Day" "one of the central stories of our day") and yet a worthwhile man, and likable, with "a large, shaky, patient dignity." He is cheerful and without malice. He cares for his loved ones. More important, he is intelligently aware, undergoing his experience with depth and sensitivity.
But the finest accomplishment of the story, and certainly one of the remarkable conclusions in American literature, is the novella's climactic scene. Tommy at one moment is on the New York streets, desperately looking for Tamkin and feeling the pressure of the crowd, "the inexhaustible current of millions of every race and kind pouring out, pressing round, of every age, of every genius, possessors of every secret," and at the next inside a funeral parlor, where it is suddenly "dark and cool," and where "men in formal clothes and black homburgs strode softly back and forth on the cork floor, up and down the center aisle."
In a few moments he stands before the corpse, a man he had never known, and begins to cry. He sobs at first for the man, "another human creature," he thinks, but soon he cries for himself and for all his troubles. "Soon he was past words, past reason, coherence," Bellow writes. "The source of all tears had suddenly sprung open within him, black, deep." The other guests envy the dead man, to have such mourning, but Tommy does not stop. His grief becomes a definitive and strangely triumphant moment, as the flowers and lights and music fuse within him, pouring "into him where he had hidden himself in the center of a crowd by the great and happy oblivion of tears. He heard it and sank deeper than sorrow, through torn sobs and cries toward the consummation of his heart's ultimate need."
In the first version of this concluding paragraph, as originally published in the Partisan Review, Bellow included "and by the way that can be found only through the midst of sorrow," implying what the prose rhythms suggest, which is that the humiliating moment is some kind of victory. Critics disagree about Bellow's final meaning, puzzled, as Brendan Gill puts it, by the sense that Tommy is "sobbing his heart out over his plight and yet feeling rather better than usual," but almost all readers sense the authority of the scene. As Alfred Kazin says of the whole novella, "It has a quite remarkable intensity of effect without ever seeming to force one."
More specifically, the circumstance of Tommy finding his way to a stranger's funeral crystallizes Tommy's situation and needs. For he needs a father and has been denied, seeking help from people "dead" to him. He has sought all day to hide his failure, to put up a front, and here he is publicly reduced to truthfulness. Bellow himself has said that he wanted to dramatize the way New Yorkers fulfill intimate emotional needs through strangers, and so Tommy turns from his psychologist (the professional stranger) to an alien corpse—where he finally finds fulfillment. The scene gathers together other themes as well, for Tommy all day has been sinking in his tears and here drowns; he had rejected his Jewish heritage, anglicizing his name, and here grieves before the Star of David; Tommy has been a masochist too, seeking pain in a classic case of Reichian pathology, as Eusebio Rodríquez has shown, and here he finally lets go, dissolving his destructive rigidity to permit a healthy venting of emotion. Since Tommy has had mystical promptings that his suffering somehow has a transcendent purpose, Bellow's point is also that Tommy sinks to a truer, more spiritual level of being accessible only when he is stripped of worldly pretensions.
Henderson the Rain King (1959) did not receive effusive praise when it was published, but it did not diminish Bellow's reputation either. Bellow wrote it in 1957 in Tivoli, New York, the period during which his second son, Adam, was born, and in 1958 at the University of Minnesota (an anchor for Bellow in these years and the place where he was friends with John Berryman), and then the next year in Europe, having won a two-year Ford Foundation grant.
This book about a WASP millionaire's trip to a dreamlike Africa illustrates the fertility and variety in Bellow's imagination and his desire, as he said later, to develop "a fiction that can accommodate the full tumult, the zaniness and crazed quality of modern experience." Henderson is a gigantic man in body and emotion, six foot four inches tall with "an enormous head, rugged, with hair like Persian lambs' fur. Suspicious eyes, usually narrowed. Blustering way. A great nose." He is an heir to a fortune, a hard drinker, a bully, a fighter, a man fleeing death. When the comedy of Henderson's brawling is done, his character remains formed in malice. He is nasty to his wives, torments the neighbors, breaks glass on tourist beaches. His rages finally scare the family cook to death, making him seek a salvation in Africa where, he says, "the world which I thought so mighty an oppressor has removed its wrath from me." Henderson (whose initials and taste in guns are the same as Hemingway's) is the militant, insecure American who attempts to prove his manhood by killing. He is also the intelligent and sensitive man who suffers from his knowledge of human limitation. Confessing that he is most like the character Henderson, "the absurd seeker of high qualities," Bellow comments that "what Henderson is really seeking is a remedy to the anxiety over death. What he can't endure is this continuing anxiety … which he is foolhardy enough to resist."
In Africa Henderson encounters a harsh desert environment with a fierce white light—in essence, the inhuman physical universe. Although the novel has many realistic touches, it is essentially a fantasy, a trip deep within the Africa of Henderson's mind. For in this wasteland, reminiscent of the sheer raw power of the naturalistic world, Henderson discovers first a tribe which reacts to its environment with a soft, worshiping attitude, loving its cows and its dimpled and smiling old queen, and then (after he has harmed the gentle Arnewi irremediably by blowing up their water supply) a fierce and willful and manipulative tribe that beats its gods and threatens to kill its king. Part of Bellow's point is Henderson's desire to serve a community even though it involves often bizarre and dangerous conditions, as in the case of the marvelously relaxed Wariri King Dahfu, who studies Emerson, William James, and Wilhelm Reich and who will be unceremoniously strangled if he fails to satisfy any one of his forty wives. To make the anxious Henderson equally serene, Dahfu takes him into a lion's den, where he teaches him to emulate the lion. Dahfu's tribe believes that he is not completely king until he captures the soul of his dead father … in a live lion. Although educated in the Western empirical tradition, which would scoff at such a view, Dahfu accepts these conditions, and is killed in the attempt.
When Henderson then feels himself cured or freed from the world's wrath, he stumbles in explaining the cause, for he claims it was not the lion's cruel indifference that freed him but the love of the Arnewi—a statement that grows more out of Bellow's desire than the novel's events. The truth seems to be that Bellow's imagination drives (as in The Victim and "Seize the Day") to a final scene of violence or death which once experienced leaves the protagonist relieved and joyful. Bellow's burden as the maker of plots is to justify not just the death but the joy. And when he fails to do so, as in Henderson the Rain King, critics complain about a murky ending.
Henderson the Rain King is an amusing novel and a good introduction to Bellow's work. Henderson is a truly comic character, and Dahfu's theories are good intellectual fun. Bellow is bolder than he had been in his previous work (it is from Henderson the Rain King that he dates his maturity as a writer), for he here openly makes a connection between the force of the universe, particularized in the sun, say, or in an octopus's eye, and a human or spiritual principle. But Bellow once again sought variety, turning in the hectic next five years to a realistic work. He spent much of 1959 in Europe and the next year at his country home in Dutchess County. With Keith Botsford and Aaron Asher he edited the periodical the Noble Savage, which published writers such as Ralph Ellison, Thomas Pynchon, Josephine Herbst, and John Hawkes. He taught at the University of Puerto Rico and then settled down to his third marriage, with Susan Glassman, whom he wed in December 1961. Much sought after as a leading novelist, he taught a course in 1962 on "The Modern Novel and its Heroes" at the University of Chicago. The next year, with a new child on the way (Daniel, born in 1963) and a desire to return to his roots, Bellow left New York for Chicago, where he accepted a permanent position at the University of Chicago on the Committee on Social Thought.
In Chicago Bellow sought a greater freedom to work, a desire which bore fruit the next year with the publication of Herzog and the production of The Last Analysis. The play was a lighthearted episodic farce Bellow hoped would survive because of its entertaining qualities. The novel was more serious, embodying the theory he had announced in 1961 that a novelist must be permitted to deal with ideas. The play flopped, and the novel was a best-seller for six months. "I received two or three thousand letters from people pouring out their souls to me, saying 'This is my life, this is what it's been like for me,'" Bellow said after the publication of Herzog. "And then I understood that for some reason these themes were visited upon me, that I didn't always pick them, they picked me." Since the novel covered events similar to those of Bellow's life, portraying an intellectual professor devastated by the betrayal of wife and friends, some of the interest in the novel was that of a roman à clef. But most of the people who bought it were not in on the gossip; the novel articulated their own anger, their own frustration—precisely that frame of mind that characterized the late 1960s as tempers flared (and letters flew) over the issues of free speech, racial injustice, and war. Writing as early as 1960, Bellow anticipated the mood of the coming decade.
The story consists of Moses Herzog's memories as he putters alone about his country home—technically the place at which the action takes place, since everything that follows is a memory in Herzog's mind. Herzog remembers himself in New York, where he had stayed a few days after teaching a course, and then in Chicago, where he had lurked outside his estranged wife's apartment before suffering a minor auto accident, and a brief incarceration, from which the police freed him to go back to his country home in western Massachusetts.
If the geography is simple, however, the story is not. Since Herzog writes letters to all kinds of people and remembers all kinds of earlier events, the novel seems disorganized. Critics divide largely into those who forgive this disorganization (since it reflects Herzog's mind) and those who do not. And once again the protagonist at the end feels somewhat better, but the reader is not certain why. And yet the truth is that the book, which Bellow rewrote at least thirteen times, is indeed well formed. Moses Herzog had decided early in the story to shift from an emotional, "personal" life, such as the one in which his wife Madeleine abused him, to a more rational, civil, moderate one—he will shift, as he says in a letter to Eisenhower, from Tolstoy to Hegel. And much of the novel flows from this decision: he leaves Martha's Vineyard in part two because to him it represents the emotional or personal life since he had come there seeking comfort from a friend. He reviews his intimate family and friends in part three because they too sought salvation in the personal. He carps about Ramona (who gives him gourmet dinners and what she thinks is gourmet sex) because she would cure him by means of the "personal life." Resolved to do something, he awaits his lawyer in a courtroom that portrays the horrors of the personal or sexual life and shows how the impersonal machinery of the court may give true justice.
In part six he flies to Chicago, contemplating murder of his ex-wife and her lover in order to protect his daughter Junie, reportedly locked crying in an auto outside Madeleine's apartment, but he decides once more (as the novel catches the realistic zigzags of a man trying on a new mode) that he is being extreme and indulging in personal "drama."
Thus each of the novel's sections (there are nine in all) dramatizes Bellow's theme. After he is caught the next day with the gun in his pocket, Herzog finds himself standing before a police sergeant, next to Madeleine, who in pure hatred seeks to have him imprisoned. "Her voice went up sharply, and as she spoke, Herzog saw the sergeant take a new look at her, as if he were beginning to make out her haughty peculiarities at last…. 'One of those was for me, wasn't it!' she says of the bullets. 'You think so? I wonder where you get such ideas? And who was the other one for?' He was quite cool as he said this, his tone was level. He was doing all he could to bring out the hidden Madeleine, the Madeleine he knew."
When the sergeant lets him go, Herzog receives a symbolic justice. The friends and relatives and even doctors who had witnessed his divorce had all failed him, but the civil authority had not. And having gotten justice he feels better. One of the problems with the novel, however, is that he feels an ecstatic joy that goes far beyond fair treatment. The truth seems to be that this novel too must be viewed as not so much a thematic statement as an experience. Herzog in Chicago undergoes a purgation, first in the pondered murder and then in being jailed. Madeleine's lover Gersbach, whom Herzog had stalked with a gun in his pocket, becomes the parallel to Allbee, Dahfu, Tommy's dead stranger—and so too, in the cell that means ruin and death, does Herzog himself.
Herzog is notable for the controversy it caused. Bellow's second National Book Award-winner, it was praised and highly criticized. Alfred Kazin called it Bellow's "most brilliant" novel while Brendan Gill termed it "faultless." Other critics worried that Herzog pondered only himself, making the novel solipsistic. The key question is whether or not Herzog succeeds in making a character of himself as he looks back. Does Herzog get out of his own mind? His ability to see himself from the outside and with precise detail suggests that he might. Bellow's theme at any rate is something very much like solipsism, as Herzog is imprisoned in the "private" life.
But however one evaluates the structure of the book, Herzog is perhaps most notable for the style, which represents Bellow at his very best. Herzog's double remove permits Bellow to dote on detail, to slow the action when necessary to make the scenes live. And since Herzog does a great deal of observing, the novel finds its center in its descriptions. The prose is charged, rich, full of the specifics and precisely defined impressions that create the feel of mid-1960s American life. Herzog's pain seems to intensify his perception, but in many ways the novel is almost a culmination of the realistic movement, defining just that moment before the ripeness turned. Because Herzog is deflected from his course not by any insight or charged drama but by the sight of kindly Gersbach giving little Junie a bath, Herzog is a defense of the realistic mode, holding that the significant levels of life are often the common, whether in the home or outside in society—a view Herzog himself embraces (rejecting the fashionable existentialism) and then in his life dramatizes.
But once again Bellow was not content to work in a single key. Herzog joins The Victim and the novella "Seize the Day" to define Bellow's realistic work (a mode which more than one critic feels to be Bellow's best), but Bellow in 1964 also wrote a wilder, more fantastic piece in the play The Last Analysis, which he saw performed in fall 1964 and which climaxed a long interest in the theater. One of his early essays had been about the season's Broadway plays, and in 1952 he had seen The Victim as adapted for the stage by Leonard Lesley. He had collaborated on a dramatization of "Seize the Day" and had included a one-act play, The Wrecker, among the pieces in the collection Seize the Day. Bellow also seems to have been motivated financially, for his novels had not made him a great deal of money, and his coming book—about a professor who writes letters to famous intellectuals—did not promise to be a best-seller. Zero Mostel would play the lead in "Humanitis," as The Last Analysis was originally entitled, and the play, Bellow thought, would be easy to write. He saw the theater as a form of freedom, since the footlights required a more direct, less subtle approach. He would supply the skeleton, as it were, and string some vaudeville-like bits together on it—a play with energy and emotion and sprawl not too unlike some of the work in the Yiddish theater.
By 1964, though, Bellow complained that he was writing himself into his grave. Mostel backed out, to be replaced by Sam Levene, and Bellow found playwriting more demanding than he had imagined. He persevered, however, presenting a comedian who has slipped in his career because of his seriousness and who now, in his New York warehouse studio, seeks to combine laughter and home-style psychoanalysis. The protagonist, Bum-midge, seeks a cure for "humanitis," and his technique, he says, is to act out "the main events of my life, dragging repressed material into the open by sheer force of drama." In the first act he struggles to get enough money to go on closed-circuit television before a gathering of psychoanalysts and talks about his performance with his associates and relatives—his agent Winkleman, his mistress Pamela, his sexy but platonic secretary Imogen, his sister, his wife, his son—many of whom resent the money he is squandering. He rehearses his method, and then in the second and final act gives his lecture-demonstration, taking himself through the birth trauma, conflicts with his father, sexual adolescence, marriage, and then death, the experience of the last triggering an ecstatic state in which he disposes of all those who had obstructed him and determines to proceed with an institute to advance his new therapy.
So goes the published version of the play, which Bellow tells us is a substantial rewrite of the original, much tightened and simplified—abandoning the vaudevillian looseness for form and stressing the mental comedy of Bummy's method. The Broadway version flopped after twenty-eight performances, receiving poor reviews even though journalists such as John Simon tried gallantly to save it, arguing that it was the most substantial piece of comic drama produced that season. And such, at least in Bellow's rewrite, it seems to be. Bellow plays with ideas, providing a protagonist who seeks to discover what is wrong with himself by exploring the past. Bellow finds a way to visualize the internal. He combines a comedy of ideas—having fun not only with Freud but also with the intellectual's search for health—and a physical stage comedy, reminiscent of vaudeville.
Bellow's second effort in the theater did no better. For the production Under the Weather, Bellow combined three one-act plays, two of which have been published: A Wen, a delightful comedy about a scientist who has found the experience of winning the Nobel Prize less intense than the glimpse of a birthmark on a woman's thigh (a glimpse he seeks to duplicate, in middle age, with the same surprised lady) and a somewhat darker comedy, Orange Soufflé, about a Polish whore who wants to move in with her elderly and wealthy WASP customer. Under the Weather was produced in London, Spoleto, and New York, but failed to catch on.
In the novel Herzog Bellow attempted something like the comedy of serious thought, while in the play The Last Analysis he presented a clown reaching for serious ideas. Both works define a mode that would dominate Bellow's fiction for the next eighteen years, and that is the reliving of the past. The Adventures of Augie March, of course, was a memoir, and Henderson attempts to reach the dead parents for whom he yearns. In The Last Analysis and Herzog, however, Bellow discovered a new center, as the protagonist relives his memories. The result was not only the creation of a special richness and color, always contrasting past and present, but a special style, one with the leisure to look and replay and sort and arrange and explore the past. "I think of myself as horribly deprived of people whom I loved and who are dead," Bellow confessed recently. "These memories serve to resurrect feelings which, at the time, I didn't want to have…. Now I realize how much emotion was invested in them, and I bring them back."
This mode is expressed in the best story in Bellow's next published work, Mosby's Memoirs and Other Stories (1968), a more or less "made" book designed to keep Bellow's name before the public and perhaps to capitalize on the great success of Herzog. Bellow continued to teach in Chicago in the years following Herzog, although he took time out in 1967 to cover the Six-Day War for Newsday and in 1968 to receive the Croix de Chevalier des Arts et Lettres from France. He had begun the novel that was to become Humboldt's Gift, but upon hearing an anecdote about an old man witnessing a pickpocket at work, shifted to the manuscript that would become Mr. Sammler's Planet. He had also found time to write two short stories, "Mosby's Memoirs" (1968) and "The Old System" (1967), to which he added "Leaving the Yellow House" (1957) and several tales already published in Seize the Day.
The best story of the group is "The Old System," in which the well-known scientist Samuel Braun, transparently Bellow himself, indulges in what became a characteristic Bellow posture in the late 1960s and 1970s: the middle-aged man remembering his Jewish relatives, losing himself in a colorful and exotic past. The characters are mysterious to Braun, who loves them. He ponders their reality, their evolution, the strangeness of their being. They are in one sense crude and grasping immigrants from Eastern Europe who would embarrass a third-generation Jew. But they are also vital and proud and fierce. They seem to Braun to be more intensely alive, or at least more passionate, than his modern colleagues. And indeed they are, for the remarkable story begins when Braun's fierce and fat cousin Tina, having reneged on a business deal with her brother Isaac, misses out on the fortune Isaac proceeds to make. The disappointment makes her claim Isaac cheated her, and she refuses to see him even though Isaac, as an old-fashioned believer in family, is scandalized. He spends years trying to see her, but it is only on her deathbed that she sends Isaac a message: he may visit if he pays her $20,000. To Braun remembering all this, the issue is why he is so moved now, why the event seems so precious to him. As he looks at the stars which make the episode and all else seem insignificant, he still glories in the magnificence of Tina's will and of her capriciousness—as she refuses the money when it is offered—and of her sassing the fate that gave her a fat body and the death that will soon come. He glories too in the integrity of Isaac and the old system to which he clung.
And thus it seems ironic that Bellow's next novel be marred by a lack of caring. Mr. Sammler's Planet (1970) was well but somewhat absentmindedly received, as though the reviewers praised Bellow by rote; a few years later it was attacked by radical young critics for political reasons, in part because Bellow had declared his independence from the liberal establishment in 1965 by attending the White House dinner that Robert Lowell, protesting Vietnam, had boycotted.
A stubborn and difficult writer, Bellow had written about an elderly man in a decade obsessed with American youth. In this novel, as in Herzog, Bellow seemed to test both his readers and his own powers. Artur Sammler is an old Polish Jew who, having lived in London in the 1930s, where he knew many of the Bloomsbury group, and having survived Nazi atrocities, has the civilized tastes of the intellectual English and the wisdom of the survivor. Around him he finds a host of modern young nieces, nephews, and acquaintances who reject all limits on their desire. They know no sexual bounds, no moral imperatives, no common civility. Sammler alone in New York quietly pursues something like duty. When his crazed daughter Shula steals a manuscript to help her father with his study of H. G. Wells, he doggedly seeks to return the manuscript. When his friend and benefactor Elya Gruner lies mortally ill in a hospital, Sammler alone among even the man's children pays homage to the dying.
The plot, which Bellow seems to have formed with a Wellsian casualness, consists largely of the young interfering with these two tasks and is typified in the running story of Sammler's relations with the black pickpocket, whose crimes he has witnessed on a bus and who follows Sammler to his apartment foyer to threaten the old man by exposing himself. Sammler mentions the incident to his opportunistic friend Feffer, only to discover later (in too much of a coincidence) the black struggling with Feffer because he had taken pictures of the crime. And when Sammler asks his ex-son-in-law to intervene, the younger man hits to kill. In contrast to such madness, Sammler at the end praises his friend Elya Gruner, who (though sometimes an abortionist for the mob) had known how to be kind. And to do his duty. Moderation, limits, rationality—all we have, Sammler suggests, is simple human decency. Gruner had met "the terms of his contract," Sammler concludes, "The terms which, in his inmost heart, each man knows. As I know mine. As all know. For that is the truth of it—that we all know, God, that we know, that we know, we know, we know."
Mr. Sammler's Planet is vintage Bellow, full of the precise detail and lively ideas and honest feeling that provide Bellow his strengths. If it is true, as several critics have charged, that Mr. Sammler is too right and the city too wrong, it may well be that this is the best novel the reader could hope for, written as it was so close in time to the controversial period it takes as its subject. And certainly the character of Sammler, who has survived the Holocaust, waking from a pile of corpses to kill fascists in his escape, is an excellent point of view from which to examine and judge American culture. Bellow captures better than anyone the feel of American society in the late 1960s, with its blend of social rebellion, sexuality, racial unrest, and personal aggrandizement.
Those who criticize the book have a point, too, however, although it is not a political one. Sammler's rational conservatism is totally responsible, whether we agree with it or not, for it is the result of a calm choice. "Without limits you have monstrosity, always," he says. "Within limits? Well, within limits monsters also appear. But not inevitably." What does mar the novel, finally, is Sammler's basic feeling of revulsion toward the world, both in its social form, which is cheap and distracting—Gruner's daughter worries about her sex life as her father dies—and in terms of all matter. Like Yeats sailing to Byzantium, Mr. Sammler has no use for the natural physical world, or what he calls "creatureliness…. Its low tricks, its doggish hind-sniffing charm." Sammler yearns to be "a soul released from Nature, from impressions, and from everyday life."
Herzog had balanced precariously between a sense of the world's beauty and its ugliness. In Mr. Sammler's Planet the balance is tipped, and the result is not only a book that turns sour but also one that tolerates a certain contrivance of plot, as though corny or mechanical events were a true parallel to a corny or mechanical world. Sammler on the move, fending off the crazed youth, is unconvincing. Sammler alone with his thoughts and memories, in what is now Bellow's most typical mode, is mellow and believable.
Mr. Sammler's Planet won a National Book Award in 1971. While continuing to teach at the University of Chicago (where he had become chairman of the Committee on Social Thought) and coping with the public and bitter dissolution of his third marriage, Bellow worked on two novels, segments of which were published in 1974. One of these was Humboldt's Gift, which in 1975 became his seventh novel and which nominally won him the 1976 Nobel Prize.
Many reviewers praised the book, and Newsweek did a cover story on America's leading writer, but other critics were disappointed. "The book is not very real," Alfred Kazin confessed, although large pieces of it were. Part of the trouble seemed to be the combination of the realistic and the manic: Bellow attempted to work grotesque gangsters into a finely detailed world, and it did not work. And then the plot creaked, even though Bellow had been true to his vision once again, for if the world of affairs is contrived and vulgar, what kind of plot must a realist provide? Bellow had defined his basic intention in this novel in 1963, discussing "Literature" for Encyclopaedia Britannica: few modern novelists, he noted, dramatize a spiritual experience. If they feel they are important, writers "ought to show us the actualities of a religious life." Humboldt's Gift is a fascinating book because it does precisely that.
The story is told from the point of view of Charles Citrine, a well-known dramatist who reminisces about his friendship with Humboldt, a poet who combines qualities of John Berryman, with whom Bellow had been close friends at Minnesota, and Delmore Schwartz, whom Bellow had known in New York. It was in fact shortly after Schwartz died in 1966 that Bellow began the novel, much of which consists of Citrine trying to hang on to his memories of Humboldt and do a little anthroposophical meditation while being harassed by gangsters, lawyers, bimbos, and creeps—some funny and some not. All of them are typified by Cantabile, to whom Citrine owes money and who has Citrine's car smashed in by baseball bats and later forces the playwright to watch him defecate. An ex-wife is suing Citrine, and a mistress—the sensual Renata, an uninhibited woman who makes one think of a witty and tough Ramona—is attempting to lead him to the altar. But during all these events, Citrine moves inward in memory and meditation, seeking the images that Rudolf Steiner had promised would give spiritual salvation.
What is interesting thematically in Humboldt's Gift is the equation within Citrine's inner life of his meditation of spirit and his memories of his friend. Both of these exist in saving opposition to the world, although Humboldt's actual gift combines the sublime and the vulgar, for it consists first of a movie scenario on which they had collaborated and which proceeds to earn Citrine a small fortune, and then of a scribbled sentence at the end of a farewell letter: "We are not natural beings but supernatural beings."
The chief critical issue in the novel, aside from Bellow's struggle to mesh his transcendental philosophy with commercial America, is how Bellow in the same book can write both brilliantly and ineptly. Bellow moves from passages such as
She threw a very good pass—a hard, accurate spiral. Her voice trailed as she ran barelegged and made the catch on her breast. The ball in flight wagged like a duck's tail. It flew under the maples over the clothesline.
to passages such as this:
I met Kathleen at a cafe and showed her the clippings. There was more in the same vein. I said, 'Thraxter has a terrible weakness for making major statements. I think I might just ask for the three guns to be applied to the back of my head and the triggers pulled rather than sit through those seminars.'
"Don't be too hard on him. The man is saving his life," she said.
"Also it's a fascinating thing, really. Where does he make the ransom pitch?"
Bellow at his worst sounds like an amateur playwright providing background information as he moves his characters on- and offstage. Thus the later parts of the novel fall off, becoming talky and cranky, as though (as reportedly is the case) Bellow took to talking his novel to a stenographer, like the later Henry James, or as though his troubled personal life had taken its toll. The truly fine early parts of the book were written not too long after Herzog, while the later parts, developing some of the disenchantment with the real world Bellow expressed in Mr. Sammler's Planet, came since 1969.
Critics have not really done justice to the fact that good writing seems to exist in a delicate balance or tension that the reader can sometimes see come and go. One thinks of Mark Twain, and then, perhaps, the Bellow of Humboldt's Gift, for this novel contains writing as good as any that Bellow has done and also the very worst that he has done. Perhaps Bellow said what he had to say in Herzog and now marks time. Certainly Mr. Sammler's Planet is very much like a brilliant piece of journalism, providing a highly intelligent man pondering our civil disruption.
And yet Bellow has always surprised his readers, and the wise Bellovians would expect to be surprised again. Bellow's 1976 book is the journalistic To Jerusalem and Back; A Personal Account, published after Bellow had accompanied his new wife, Alexandra, professor of mathematics at Northwestern University, to Israel. There he had adopted a fascinating premise: what could a practitioner of the humanities add to the politics and propaganda and terror of the Israeli-Arab conflict? Could he penetrate the confusion to find some kind of order? Bellow had contemplated a book on Chicago and had served as a journalist during the Six-Day War. Could he now make some kind of contribution to solving Israel's troubles? The book describes Bellow's travels, his interviews with Israeli and American leaders, and his dinner conversations with the powerful and the humble, and then—and not least important—his reading and research into the problem.
Bellow's writing is lucid and detailed, and not without humor, as an Hasidim, for example, is offended by Bellow's eating habits and offers to send him money each month if he will return to orthodoxy. But at the end the rational and well-meaning Bellow is forced to conclude that the situation is even more dangerous than he had supposed, for he finds that nations (and their leaders) do not act consistently with even their own self-interest. If only they recognized their goals and sought them ruthlessly, Bellow suggests, the struggle would have some order. But both Arab and Jew act irrationally, creating a dangerous and unpredictable mix. That bystanders such as Jean-Paul Sartre or the United States will make use of the conflict for their own purposes—again inconsistently and irrationally defined—only makes the issue worse.
Bellow's most recent novel examines another situation out of control and represents again the humanist's look at an important human issue. In The Dean's December (1982), Bellow contrasts communism and capitalism or, more accurately, the human failure of both systems. In this novel, Albert Corde, a dean of students at a Chicago college, has accompanied his sensible astronomer wife, Minna, to Bucharest, where her mother lies ill in a hospital. There petty communist officials make it difficult for Minna to visit the dying woman, a communist official now fallen from favor, and finally permit her only one visit—she must choose the time. Corde's wife must suffer the ordeal of her mother dying alone, without her daughter at the bedside.
As Minna hurries about the city seeking help, Corde passes the time in a chilly apartment remembering the problems he left back in Chicago. He had published a set of articles on the black underclass of the city and had insisted upon the prosecution of two blacks in the murder of a white student. His articles had upset liberals, who mistook his bleak honesty for racism, and so too had his insistence that the murderers be prosecuted. Corde could lose his job as dean, since it was injudicious of him to confront a problem as intractable as the Chicago ghetto, and certainly the acquittal of the black defendants in the murder case would mean that his insistence upon prosecution had been an error. While Minna struggles with a communist bureaucracy, Corde struggles with an American one. But because Corde is isolated in the Rumanian apartment, the chief drama in this novel is in meditation: Corde thinks about his problems, as the story passes back and forth between the present and the past, between action and analysis, between suspense and a reflection that Henry James might have found delightful.
But of course, the issues are not a delight. Bellow places his protagonist six thousand miles from Chicago to obtain distance from America's mammoth and emotional social problems. Corde's articles (recently published in Harper's, he says) are in fact leftovers from Bellow's abandoned book about Chicago and include a fine description of dialysis at the Cook County Hospital as well as several interviews, one with the public defender in a troubling case. A middle-class housewife had been abducted and raped and had sought refuge in private homes only to be turned back into the arms of her captor, who then murdered her. The public defender blandly tells Corde that the white woman had acquiesced; she had been sitting alone in the abductor's car. She had been dazed, Bellow suggests, and her black murderer had been dazed too: people suffer and commit atrocities like sleepwalkers. But the point of Corde's meditation is justice: the blacks must be held responsible for their crimes, Corde believes, and so too must the whites who are callous about human suffering. Corde is especially scornful toward the "media intellectuals," or those journalists and academics who have studied the lower class and have come up with nothing but jargon.
Corde's position as a journalist and an academic is thus very much to the point. Modern problems are so large that citizens must rely upon information supplied to them. But those charged with the responsibility of supplying such information have failed: "The language of discourse had shut out experience all together." Corde wrote his articles, we understand, "to recover the world that is buried under the debris of false description or non-experience."
And does Bellow himself "recover the world?" Because the specialists have failed in terms of language and perspective, Bellow provides a rationale for the participation of the humanist in public issues. But in doing so he makes an ambitious claim for his own novel. Does he succeed? Several reviewers found The Dean's December to be a considerable achievement. Bellow compares not just capitalism and communism, or a world in which "people have to be human without freedom" and one in which "they succeed in not being human with it," but the intersection in each society of the State and the person. Bellow in Rumania permits us to look at the State through the eyes of personal need, as in Minna's story, and then in Chicago to glimpse the individual—the suffering black—through the eyes of the State or the public officials who administer it. In both Rumania and America, the society parcels out pain to the individual. Ironically, in this intersecting set of contrasts and similarities, the communist state works in terms of the individual, singling out Minna's mother, while the capitalistic society works in terms of the larger group, creating a community (a commune) of deprivation and despair.
And yet the novel is flawed too, by what increasingly seems to be Bellow's carelessness. Bellow's style can flash to life at any moment, but it can also go dead. The plot concerning Minna's mother seems true and right; the murder trial in Chicago is contrived and wooden, full of desperate characters who are not so much shown as discussed. Bellow's description of Bucharest is so fine that John Updike proclaimed Bellow "one of the rare writers who when we read them feel to be taking mimesis a layer or two deeper than it has gone before." But Bellow's dialogue is formal, "talky," full of information that should be shown. Bellow forgets to ground his dialogue in a human relationship that will anchor it and make it part of the story and instead attempts to reveal events by having people talk about them.
Thus the reviewers had mixed feelings about The Dean's December, treating Bellow with respect but acknowledging the book's deep flaws. Those who praised the novel did so on the grounds of Bellow's style and the immediacy of his descriptions. Those who criticized it (for reasons other than political ones) tended to refer to what has come to typify Bellow's later work, the juxtaposition in the same book of two different tones, two kinds of experience, or two levels of imagination. Bellow presents in his last three novels both a quiet, realistic level of experience, usually surrounding his protagonist's personal life, and then a manic one, full of energy and color and involving the external world or an eccentric who represents that world. What seems to have happened is that history has thrown Bellow a curve: as the public realm has become progressively more complex and uncontrollable, Bellow has had greater trouble uniting his two modes. The manic tone that Bellow once used as comic relief is now a form of verisimilitude, true to the public life, and the result in the novel is a series of jolts as we move from one tone to the other, from what Bellow controls to what he simply describes. And yet Bellow himself feels this disunity, for he carefully positions his protagonist to cope with it, giving him the leisure to think and a vantage point far enough away from the chaos—in terms of his years, say, or his sojourn in far-off Rumania—to gain perspective on it.
But whatever his difficulties, Bellow continues to write fascinating fiction, struggling to close the gap between private and public experience. He himself has continued to live in Chicago, writing and teaching, and seems to have achieved his own orderly life, with the end of a public lawsuit by his third wife. Will his work last? Even as fads come and go, even as Ph.D.'s study Bellow's difficulty with plot and others study Bellow's great success in style, even as the world whirls about him, Bellow's novels give evidence of lasting. Perhaps the most accurate testimony to Bellow's strength is given by his friend Richard Stern, when he asks, "How many American writers have published first-rate imaginative books over a thirty year period? Perhaps three, Henry James, Faulkner and now Bellow."
Source: Keith M. Opdahl, "Saul Bellow," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 28, Twentieth-Century American-Jewish Fiction Writers, edited by Daniel Walden, Gale Research, 1984, pp. 8-25.
Bellow, Saul, "The Search for Symbols, a Writer Warns, Misses All the Fun and Fact of the Story," in the New York Times, February 15, 1959.
Mano, D. Keith, "In Suspense," in National Review, Vol. 36, Issue 15, August 10, 1984, p. 48.
Pinsker, Sanford, Review of Him with His Foot in His Mouth, in Studies on Short Fiction, Vol. 21, Issue 4, Fall 1984, pp. 404-05.
Wiehe, Janet, Review of Him with His Foot in His Mouth, in Library Review, Vol. 106, Issue 11, June 15, 1984, p. 1251.
Atlas, James, Bellow: A Biography, Random House, 2000.
This is a major literary biography, ten years in the making, by an important analyst of the literary scene.
Glaysher, Frederick, "A Poet Looks at Saul Bellow's Soul," in Saul Bellow and the Struggle at the Center, edited by Eugene Houlahan, AMS Press, 1996, pp. 43-55.
Since the split between spiritual traditions of Christianity and Judaism is so much a part of the life of this story's protagonist, readers may enjoy Glaysher's examination of matters usually deemed too spiritual for literary criticism.
Kiernan, Robert F., Saul Bellow, Continuum Publishing, 1989.
Kiernan is one of the few critics to devote several pages to this specific short story.
Porter, Gilbert, Whence the Power? The Artistry and Humanity of Saul Bellow, University of Missouri Press, 1974.
When this book was published, Bellow had already been an important figure in American literature for two decades. Porter analyzes the early novels and ends with a summary chapter about "Bellow's Vision."