An American author of fiction, essays, and drama, Saul Bellow (born 1915) reached the first rank of contemporary fiction with his picaresque novel The Adventures of Augie March.
Saul Bellow, born of Russian immigrant parents in Lachine, Quebec, on July 10, 1915, grew up in Montreal, where he learned Hebrew, Yiddish, and French as well as English. When he was nine his family moved to Chicago, and to this city Bellow remained deeply devoted. After two years at the University of Chicago, Bellow transferred to Northwestern University and obtained a bachelor of science degree in 1937. Four months after enrolling as a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, he fled formal education forever.
During the next decade Bellow held a variety of jobs— with the WPA Writers Project, the editorial department of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the Pestalozzi-Froebel Teachers College, and the Merchant Marine. More importantly, he published two novels, both with autobiographical overtones. Dangling Man (1944), in the form of a journal, concerns a young Chicagoan waiting to be drafted into military service. The Victim (1947), a more ambitious work, describes the frustrations of a New Yorker seeking to discover and preserve his own identity against the background of domestic and religious (Gentile versus Jewish) conflicts. Neither novel was heralded as exceptional by contemporary critics.
After World War II Bellow joined the University of Minnesota English Department, spent a year in Paris and Rome as a Guggenheim fellow, and taught briefly at New York University, Princeton University, and Bard College. Above all, however, he concentrated on writing fiction. With the publication of The Adventures of Augie March (1953), Bellow won his first National Book Award. A lengthy, free-form liberating story of a young Chicago Jew growing up absurd, Augie March combines comic zest and a narrative virtuosity rare in any decade. Bellow followed it in 1956 with Seize the Day, which is a collection of three short stories, a one-act play, and the novella that gives the title to the volume—a tautly written description of one day in the life of a middle-aged New Yorker facing a major domestic crisis. Some critics feel that Bellow never surpassed this novella.
Devotees of Henderson the Rain King (1959) enjoyed Bellow's return to a more free-flowing manner in describing an American millionaire's search to understand the human condition in his flight from a tangled marital arrangement and his adventures in Africa. His next novel, Herzog (1964), won him a second National Book Award and an international reputation. Doubtlessly based on personal sources, it portrays Moses Herzog, a middle-aged university professor, and his battles with his faithless wife Madeline, his friend Valentine Gersbach, and his own alienated self. Through a series of unposted letters, many of them highly comic, Herzog finally resolves his struggles, not in marital reconciliation but in rational acceptance and self-control.
In 1962 Bellow became a professor at the University of Chicago, a post which allowed him to continue writing fiction and plays. The Last Analysis had a brief run on Broadway in 1964. Six short stories, collected in Mosby's Memoirs and Other Stories (1968), and his sixth novel, Mr. Sammler's Planet (1969), elevated Bellow's reputation to the point where one critic wrote that if Bellow was not the most important American novelist, then whoever was had better announce himself quickly. Some critics called him the successor of Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner.
Humboldt's Gift (1975) added the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize for Literature to Bellow's list of awards and led Frank McConnell to observe that his books "form a consistent, carefully nurtured oeuvre not often encountered in the works of American writers." In her glowing review of his short story collection, Him with His Foot in His Mouth and Other Stories (1984), Cynthia Ozick declared: "these five ravishing stories honor and augment his genius."
Bellow's later novels have not received the same unequivocal praise. The Dean's December (1982) and More Die of Heartbreak (1987) retained his distinctive style but some believed the cynicism of the characters signaled a lessening of Bellow's own trademark humanism.
Since 1987, Bellow has released a number of novellas: A Theft (1989), The Bellarosa Connection (1989), Something to Remember Me By (1991), and The Actual (1997). These works have met with similarly mixed reviews.
Despite the recent coolness towards his work, Bellow's place in American literature seems secure, most notably for his ability to combine social commentary with sharply drawn characters. His best fiction has been compared to the Russian masters, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.
Robert Penn Warren's review of Augie March in The New Republic in 1953 seems to sum up subsequent reaction to his work: "It is, in a way, a tribute, though a backhanded one, to point out the faults of Saul Bellow's novel, for the faults merely make the virtues more impressive."
Full-length studies of Saul Bellow include Keith Michael Opdahl, The Novels of Saul Bellow: An Introduction (1967); John Jacob Clayton, Saul Bellow: In Defense of Man (1968); and Irving Malin, Saul Bellow's Fiction (1969). Useful introductory essays are Tony Tanner, Saul Bellow (1965); Earl Rovit, Saul Bellow (1967); and Robert Detweiler, Saul Bellow: A Critical Essay (1967). Irving Malin edited a collection of 12 essays, Saul Bellow and the Critics (1967). Another essay collection, edited by Harold Bloom, is Saul Bellow (1986). □
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An American author of fiction, essays, and drama, Saul Bellow became famous in 1953 with his novel The Adventures of Augie March. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1976.
Saul Bellow was born of Russian immigrant parents in Lachine, Quebec, Canada, on July 10, 1915. He learned to speak Hebrew, Yiddish, and French as well as English. When he was nine his family moved to Chicago, Illinois, and to this city Bellow remained deeply devoted. He was raised in a strict Jewish household, and his mother, who died when he was fifteen, wanted him to become a rabbi (a Jewish master or teacher). After her death he drifted away from religious study and began to read a wide variety of books. He quickly decided he wanted to be a writer.
After two years at the University of Chicago, Bellow transferred to Northwestern University and obtained a bachelor's degree in anthropology (the study of the origins and behavior of human beings) in 1937. He had wanted to study English literature but was warned that many universities would not hire Jewish professors to teach the subject. Four months after enrolling as a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, he quit school forever.
During the next decade Bellow held a variety of writing jobs—with the Works Progress Administration (WPA) Writers' Project, the editorial department of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the Pestalozzi-Froebel Teachers College, and the Merchant Marine. His first story was published in 1941, and he published two novels. Dangling Man (1944), in the form of a journal, concerns a young Chicagoan waiting to be drafted into military service. The Victim (1947), a more ambitious work, describes a New Yorker struggling with domestic and religious conflicts. Both novels received mixed reviews.
After World War II (1939–45) Bellow joined the University of Minnesota English Department, spent a year in Paris, France, and Rome, Italy, and taught briefly at New York University, Princeton University, and Bard College. Above all, however, he concentrated on writing fiction. With the publication of The Adventures of Augie March (1953), Bellow won his first National Book Award. Bellow followed it in 1956 with Seize the Day, a collection of three short stories, a one-act play, and a novella (a short novel or long short story). The novella, the title of which is also the title of the volume, is about one day in the life of a middle-aged New Yorker facing a major domestic crisis. Some critics feel that this collection was Bellow's finest work.
In Henderson the Rain King (1959) Bellow described an American millionaire's flight from a tangled marriage and his adventures in Africa. His next novel, Herzog (1964), won him a second National Book Award and international fame. It portrays Moses Herzog, a middle-aged university professor, and his battles with his faithless wife, his friend, and himself. Through a series of unmailed letters, many of them highly comic, Herzog finally resolves his struggles by achieving self-control.
In 1962 Bellow became a professor at the University of Chicago, a post that allowed him to continue writing fiction and plays. The Last Analysis had a brief run on Broadway in 1964. Six short stories, collected in Mosby's Memoirs and Other Stories (1968), and his sixth novel, Mr. Sammler's Planet (1969), elevated Bellow's reputation. Humboldt's Gift (1975) added the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize for Literature to Bellow's list of awards.
Bellow's later novels did not receive the same praise. The Dean's December (1982) and More Die of Heartbreak (1987) retained his style, but some disliked the bitter tone that had never shown up in previous Bellow works. After 1987 Bellow released a number of novellas that met with similarly mixed reviews. Despite the coolness toward his later work, Bellow's best fiction has been compared to the Russian masters, Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910) and Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821–1881). Robert Penn Warren's review of Augie March in The New Republic in 1953 sums up reaction to his work: "It is, in a way, a tribute … to point out the faults of Saul Bellow's novel, for the faults merely make the virtues more impressive."
In 1995 Bellow nearly died after eating poisonous fish in the Caribbean. After a long, slow recovery, he wrote Ravelstein, a novel, which was released in 2000. Also in the year 2000 he was recognized with a lifetime achievement award from the New Yorker, and he became a father for the fourth time, at age eighty-four, when his fifth wife gave birth to a daughter.
For More Information
Atlas, James. Bellow: A Biography. New York: Random House, 2000.
Hyland, Peter. Saul Bellow. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992.
Miller, Ruth. Saul Bellow: A Biography of the Imagination. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1991.
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Saul Bellow, 1915–2005, American novelist, b. Lachine, Que., as Solomon Bellow, grad. Northwestern Univ., 1937. Born of Russian-Jewish parents, he grew up in the slums of Montreal and Chicago. His fiction features uniquely telling characterizations and is frequently darkly comic. His novels typically deal with large philosophical issues: the search for meaning, the conflicts between moral anomie and the quest for a personal ethic, and the tensions between the imaginative individual and a sometimes indifferent, sometimes entangling world. One of the most distinguished novelists of the mid-20th cent., he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1976. His novels include Dangling Man (1944), The Adventures of Augie March (1953; National Book Award), Seize the Day (1956), Henderson the Rain King (1959), Herzog (1964; National Book Award), Mr. Sammler's Planet (1970; National Book Award), Humboldt's Gift (1975; Pulitzer Prize), The Dean's December (1982), and Ravelstein (2000). He also published four books of stories, Mosby's Memoirs (1968), Him with His Foot in His Mouth (1984), Something to Remember Me By (1991), and Collected Stories (2001); a novella, The Actual (1997); a memoir, To Jerusalem and Back (1976); a play, The Last Analysis (1964); and two collections of his essays, journalism, and speeches, It All Adds Up (1994) and, posthumously, There Is Simply Too Much to Think About (2015). Bellow taught at several universities, including Northwestern , Chicago, and Boston.
See G. L. Cronin and B. Siegel, ed., Conversations with Saul Bellow (1994); B. Taylor, ed., Letters (2010); G. Bellow, Saul Bellow's Heart: A Son's Memoir (2013); biographies by J. Atlas (2000) and Z. Leader (2015); studies by I. Malin (1969), M. Harris (1980), D. Fuchs (1984), P. Hyland (1992), G. Bach, ed. (1995), G. Bach and G. L. Cronin, ed. (2000), and M. A. Quayum (2004); bibliography by G. L. Cronin and B. H. Hall (2d ed. 1990).
"Bellow, Saul." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 17, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/bellow-saul
"Bellow, Saul." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved February 17, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/bellow-saul
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Nationality: American. Born: Lachine, Quebec, Canada, 10 June 1915; grew up in Montreal; moved with his family to Chicago, 1924. Education: Tuley High School, Chicago, graduated 1933; University of Chicago, 1933-35; Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, 1935-37, B.S. (honors) in sociology and anthropology 1937; did graduate work in anthropology at University of Wisconsin, Madison, 1937. Military Service: Served in the United States Merchant Marine, 1944-45. Family: Married 1) Anita Goshkin in 1937 (divorced), one son; 2) Alexandra Tschacbasov in 1956 (divorced), one son; 3) Susan Glassman in 1961 (divorced), one son; 4) Alexandra Ionescu Tulcea in 1975 (divorced 1986); 5) Janis Freedman in 1989, one daughter. Career: Teacher, Pestalozzi-Froebel Teachers College, Chicago, 1938-42; member of the editorial department, "Great Books" Project, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Chicago, 1943-44; freelance editor and reviewer, New York, 1945-46; instructor, 1946, and assistant professor of English, 1948-49, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis; visiting lecturer, New York University, 1950-52; Creative Writing Fellow, Princeton University, New Jersey, 1952-53; member of the English faculty, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, 1953-54; associate professor of English, University of Minnesota, 1954-59; visiting professor of English, University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras, 1961; Romanes Lecturer, 1990. Since 1962 professor and chairman, 1970-76, Committee on Social Thought, University of Chicago; now Gruiner Distinguished Services Professor. Co-editor, The Noble Savage, New York, then Cleveland, 1960-62. Fellow, Academy for Policy Study, 1966; fellow, Branford College, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut. Awards: Guggenheim fellowship, 1948, 1955; American Academy grant, 1952, and gold medal, 1977; National Book award, 1954, 1965, 1971; Ford grant, 1959, 1960; Friends of Literature award, 1960; James L. Dow award, 1964; International Literary prize, 1965; Jewish Heritage award, 1968; Formentor prize, 1970; Nobel Prize for Literature, 1976; Pulitzer prize, 1976; Neil Gunn International fellowship, 1977; Brandeis University Creative Arts award, 1978; Malaparte award (Italy), 1984; Scanno award (Italy), 1988; National Book award, for lifetime achievement, 1990; Lifetime Cultural Achivement Award (YIVO Institute for Jewish Research), 1996. D. Litt.: Northwestern University, 1962; Bard College, 1963; Litt.D.: New York University, 1970; Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1972; Yale University, 1972; McGill University, Montreal, 1973; Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts, 1973; Hebrew Union College, Cincinnati, 1976; Trinity College, Dublin, 1976. Chevalier, 1968, and Commander, 1985, Order of Arts and Letters (France); Commander, Legion of Honor (France), 1983. Member: American Academy, 1970. Agent: Harriett Wasserman Literary Agency, 137 East 36th Street, New York, New York 10016. Address: Committee on Social Thought, University of Chicago, 1126 East 59th Street, Chicago, Illinois 60637, U.S.A.
Dangling Man. New York, Vanguard Press, 1944; London, Lehmann, 1946.
The Victim. New York, Vanguard Press, 1947; London, Lehmann, 1948.
The Adventures of Augie March. New York, Viking Press, 1953;London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1954; with an introduction by Martin Amis. New York, Knopf, 1995.
Henderson the Rain King. New York, Viking Press, and London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1959.
Herzog. New York, Viking Press, 1964; London, Weidenfeld andNicolson, 1965.
Mr. Sammler's Planet. New York, Viking Press, and London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1970; with an introduction by Stanley Crouch. New York, Penguin Books, 1996.
Humboldt's Gift. New York, Viking Press, and London, Secker andWarburg, 1975.
The Dean's December. New York, Harper, and London, Secker andWarburg, 1982.
More Die of Heartbreak. New York, Morrow, and London, AlisonPress, 1987.
The Actual. New York, Viking, 1997.
Ravelstein. New York, Viking, 2000.
Seize the Day, with Three Short Stories and a One-Act Play (includesThe Wrecker ). New York, Viking Press, 1956; London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1957; published as Seize the Day, with an introduction by Cynthia Ozick, New York, Penguin Books, 1996.
Mosby's Memoirs and Other Stories. New York, Viking Press, 1968;London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1969.
Him with His Foot in His Mouth and Other Stories. New York, Harper, and London, Secker and Warburg, 1984.
A Theft. New York and London, Penguin, 1989.
The Bellarosa Connection. New York and London, Penguin, 1989.
Something to Remember Me By: Three Tales. New York, Viking, andLondon, Penguin, 1991.
The American Short Story: A Collection of the Best Known and Most Memorable Short Stories by the Great American Authors (contributor), edited by Thomas K. Parkes. New York, Galahad, 1994.
Uncollected Short Stories
"The Mexican General," in Partisan Reader, edited by WilliamPhillips and Philip Rahv. New York, Dial Press, 1946.
"Dora," in Harper's Bazaar (New York), November 1949.
"A Sermon by Dr. Pep," in The Best American Short Stories 1950, edited by Martha Foley. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1950.
"The Trip to Galena," in Partisan Review (New York), November-December 1950.
"Address by Gooley MacDowell to the Hasbeens Club of Chicago," in Nelson Algren's Book of Lonesome Monsters, edited by Nelson Algren. New York, Lancer, 1962; London, Panther, 1964.
"The Old System," in Playboy (Chicago), January 1968.
"Burdens of a Lone Survivor," in Esquire (New York), December1974.
The Wrecker (televised 1964). Included in Seize the Day, 1956.
Scenes from Humanitas: A Farce, in Partisan Review (New Brunswick, New Jersey), Summer 1962.
The Last Analysis (produced New York 1964; Derby, 1967). NewYork, Viking Press, 1965; London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1966.
Under the Weather (includes Out from Under, A Wen, and Orange Soufflé, produced Edinburgh and New York, 1966; as The Bellow Plays, produced London, 1966). A Wen published in Esquire (New York), January 1965; in Traverse Plays, edited by Jim Haynes, London, Penguin, 1966; Orange Soufflé published in Traverse Plays, 1966; in Best Short Plays of the World Theatre 1968-1973, edited by Stanley Richards, New York, Crown, 1973.
The Wrecker, 1964.
Dessins, by Jesse Reichek; text by Bellow and Christian Zervos. Paris, Editions Cahiers d'Art, 1960.
Recent American Fiction: A Lecture. Washington, D.C., Library ofCongress, 1963.
Like You're Nobody: The Letters of Louis Gallo to Saul Bellow, 1961-62, Plus Oedipus-Schmoedipus, The Story That Started It All. New York, Dimensions Press, 1966.
Technology and the Frontiers of Knowledge, with others. New York, Doubleday, 1973.
The Portable Saul Bellow, edited by Gabriel Josipovici. New York, Viking Press, 1974; London, Penguin, 1977.
To Jerusalem and Back: A Personal Account. New York, VikingPress, and London, Secker and Warburg, 1976.
Nobel Lecture. Stockholm, United States Information Service, 1977.
Conversations with Saul Bellow, edited by Gloria L. Cronin and BenSiegel. Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 1994.
It All Adds Up: From the Dim Past to the Certain Future. New York, Viking, 1994.
The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison (preface), edited by John F. Callahan. New York, Modern Library, 1995.
Foreword, Sixty Years of Great Fiction from Partisan Review, edited by William Phillips. Boston, Partisan Review Press, 1997.
Foreword, Clean Hands: Clair Patterson's Crusade against Environmental Lead Contamination, edited by Cliff I. Davidson. Commack, New York, Nova Science Publishers, 1998.
Editor, Great Jewish Short Stories. New York, Dell, 1963; London, Vallentine Mitchell, 1971.*
Saul Bellow: A Comprehensive Bibliography by B.A. Sokoloff and Mark E. Posner, Norwood, Pennsylvania, Norwood Editions, 1973; Saul Bellow, His Works and His Critics: An Annotated International Bibliography by Marianne Nault, New York, Garland, 1977; Saul Bellow: A Bibliography of Secondary Sources by F. Lercangée, Brussels, Center for American Studies, 1977; Saul Bellow: A Reference Guide by Robert G. Noreen, Boston, Hall, 1978; Saul Bellow: An Annotated Bibliography by Gloria L. Cronin, New York, Garland, 2nd edition, 1987.
Regenstein Library, University of Chicago; University of Texas, Austin.
Critical Studies (selection):
Saul Bellow by Tony Tanner, Edinburgh, Oliver and Boyd, 1965, New York, Barnes and Noble, 1967;
Saul Bellow by Earl Rovit, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1967, and Saul Bellow: A Collection of Critical Essays edited by Rovit, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, Prentice Hall, 1975; Saul Bellow: A Critical Essay by Robert Detweiler, Grand Rapids, Michigan, Eerdmans, 1967; The Novels of Saul Bellow by Keith Michael Opdahl, University Park, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1967; Saul Bellow and the Critics edited by Irving Malin, New York, New York University Press, and London, University of London Press, 1967, and Saul Bellow's Fiction by Malin, Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press, 1969; Saul Bellow: In Defense of Man by John Jacob Clayton, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1968, revised edition, 1979; Saul Bellow by Robert R. Dutton, New York, Twayne, 1971, revised edition, 1982; Saul Bellow by Brigitte Scheer-Schäzler, New York, Ungar, 1973; Saul Bellow's Enigmatic Laughter by Sarah Blacher Cohen, Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1974; Whence the Power? The Artistry and Humanity of Saul Bellow by M. Gilbert Porter, Columbia, University of Missouri Press, 1974; Saul Bellow: The Problem of Affirmation by Chirantan Kulshrestha, New Delhi and London, Arnold-Heinemann, 1978, Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey, Humanities Press, 1979; Critical Essays on Saul Bellow edited by Stanley Trachtenberg, Boston, Hall, 1979; Quest for the Human: An Exploration of Saul Bellow's Fiction by Eusebio L. Rodrigues, Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, Bucknell University Press, 1981; Saul Bellow by Malcolm Bradbury, London, Methuen, 1983; Saul Bellow's Moral Vision: A Critical Study of the Jewish Experience by L.H. Goldman, New York, Irvington, 1983; Saul Bellow: Vision and Revision by Daniel Fuchs, Durham, North Carolina, Duke University Press, 1984; Saul Bellow and History by Judie Newman, New York, St. Martin's Press, and London, Macmillan, 1984; A Sort of Columbus: The American Voyages of Saul Bellow's Fiction by Jeanne Braham, Athens, University of Georgia Press, 1984; On Bellow's Planet: Readings from the Dark Side, Rutherford, New Jersey, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1985, and Herzog: The Limits of Ideas, London, Maxwell Macmillan, 1990, both by Jonathan Wilson; Saul Bellow by Robert F. Kiernan, New York, Crossroad Continuum, 1988; Saul Bellow and the Decline of Humanism by Michael K. Glenday, London, Macmillan, 1990; Saul Bellow: Against the Grain by Ellen Pifer, University Park, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1990; Saul Bellow: A Biography of the Imagination by Ruth Miller, New York, St. Martin's Press, 1991; Saul Bellow at Seventy-Five: A Collection of Critical Essays edited by Gerhard Bach, Tubingen, Narr, 1991; Saul Bellow by Peter Hyland, New York, St. Martin's Press, 1992; Saul Bellow: A Mosaic compiled by Aharoni et al., New York, Lang, 1992; Character and Narration in the Short Fiction of Saul Bellow by Marianne M. Friedrich, New York, Lang, 1993; Saul Bellow: The Feminine Mystique by Tarlochan Singh Anand, Jalandhar, India, ABS, 1993; Quest for Salvation in Saul Bellow's Novels by Kyung-Ae Kim, Frankfurt am Main, Lang, 1994; Saul Bellow and the Struggle at the Center edited by Eugene Hollahan, New York, AMS Press, 1994; The Critical Response to Saul Bellow, edited by Gerhard Bach. Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1995; Handsome Is: Adventures with Saul Bellow: A Memoir by Harriett Wasserman. New York, Fromm International, 1997; Prophets of Recognition: Ideology and the Individual in Novels by Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, Saul Bellow, and Eudora Welty by Julia Eichelberger, Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1999; Small Planets: Saul Bellow and the Art of Short Fiction, edited by Gerhard Bach and Gloria L. Cronin, East Lansing, Michigan State University Press, 2000; A Room of His Own: In Search of the Feminine in the Novels of Saul Bellow by Gloria L. Cronin, Syracuse, New York, Syracuse University Press, 2000.* * *
Saul Bellow is widely recognized as America's preeminent living novelist. His fiction, which is as intellectually demanding as it is imaginatively appealing, steadfastly affirms the value of the human soul while simultaneously recognizing the claims of community and the demoralizing inauthenticity of daily life. Refusing to give in to the pessimism and despair that threaten to overwhelm American experience, Bellow offers a persistently optimistic, though often tentative and ambiguous, alternative to postmodern alienation. In their struggle to understand their past and reorder their present, his protagonists chart a course of possibility for all who would live meaningfully in urban American society.
Reflecting the stylistic influence of Flaubert, Bellow's first two novels, Dangling Man and The Victim, are brief and disciplined works, darker in mood and less intellectually complex than the later fiction but featuring protagonists who anticipate later Bellovian heroes both in their introspection and in their resistance to urban apathy. The first novel to display Bellow's characteristic expansiveness and optimism, The Adventures of Augie March presents a dazzling panorama of comically eccentric characters in a picaresque tale narrated by the irrepressible title character, who defends human possibility by embracing the hope that "There may gods turn up anywhere." Subsequent novels vary in tone from the intensity of Seize the Day to the exuberance of Henderson the Rain King to the ironic ambiguity of Herzog, but all explore the nature of human freedom and the tensions between the individual's need for self and society. Augie March, Tommy Wilhelm, Eugene Henderson, and Moses Herzog all yearn to redeem themselves by finding the beauty in life. By creating these highly individualistic characters and the milieu in which they move, Bellow reveals the flashes of the extraordinary in the ordinary that make such redemption possible and rejects the attitude that everyday life must be trivial and ignoble.
This redemption of the self paradoxically requires the surrender of the self. Nowhere is this fact more vividly portrayed than in Henderson the Rain King. Driven in the beginning by a relentless inner voice that repeats, "I want! I want!," Henderson's egoistic absorption in his material success ironically alienates him from himself. Fleeing civilization to seek fundamental truths in the wilderness of Africa, he discovers the loving relationship that humans need with nature and with each other and symbolically surrenders his self by accepting responsibility for a lion cub and an orphan child.
In their quest to find the love that gives meaning to life, Bellow's protagonists must also come to terms with death. The message Bellow conveys in almost all of his novels is that one must know death to know the meaning of life and what it means to be human. Henderson overcomes his fear of death when he is buried and symbolically resurrected in the African king Dahfu's experiment. Similarly, in Seize the Day, Tommy Wilhelm confronts death in a symbolic drowning. Charlie Citrine in Humboldt's Gift echoes Whitman in viewing death as the essential question, recognizing that it is only through death that the soul can complete the cycle of life by liberating itself from the body. Bellow's meditations on death darken in Mr. Sammler's Planet and The Dean's December. While the title character in Mr. Sammler's Planet awaits the death of the person he most values in the world, Bellow contemplates the approaching death of Western culture at the hands of those who have abandoned humanistic values. The Dean's December presents an apocalyptic vision of urban decay in a Chicago totally lacking the comic touches that soften Charlie Citrone's portrait of this same city as a "moronic inferno" in Humboldt's Gift. With More Die of Heartbreak and the recent novellas, however, Bellow returns to his more characteristic blend of pathos and farce in contemplating the relationship between life and death. In the recent Ravelstein, Bellow once again charts this essential confrontation when Chick recounts not only his best friend's death from AIDS but also his own near-death experience from food poisoning. Through this foreground, in a fictionalized memoir to his own friend Allan Bloom, Bellow reveals the resilient love and tenderness that offer the modern world its saving grace.
Because Bellow refuses to devalue human potential in even his bleakest scenarios, his novels often come under attack for their affirmative endings. Augie hails himself as a new Columbus, the rediscoverer of America; Henderson, while triumphantly returning home with his new charges, dances with glee, "leaping, leaping, pounding, and tingling over the pure white lining of the grey Arctic silence." Herzog inexplicably evades his fate, emerging from the flux of his tortured mind to reclaim his sanity and his confidence in the future. Yet, the victories of Bellow's heroes are not unqualified, but rather as ambiguous and tenuous as is the human condition itself. As a new Columbus, Augie speaks from exile in Europe; in holding the orphan child, Henderson recalls the pain of his separation from his own father; by renouncing his self-pity and his murderous rage at his ex-wife Madeleine, Herzog reduces but does not expiate his guilt. Nonetheless, these characters earn whatever spiritual victory they reap through their pain and their refusal to succumb to doubt and cynicism. Through their perseverance in seeking the truth of human existence, they ultimately renew themselves by transcending to an intuitive spiritual awareness that is no less real because it must be taken on faith.
In all of Bellow's works, an appreciation of the cultural context in which his protagonists struggle is essential to understanding these characters and their search for renewal. Bellow's vision centers almost exclusively on Jewish male experience in contemporary urban America. Proud of their heritage, his heroes are usually second-generation Jewish immigrants who seek to discover how they can live meaningfully in their American present while honoring their ties to the past. Much of their ability to maintain their belief in humanity despite their knowledge of the world can be attributed to the affirmative nature of the Jewish culture. Bellovian heroes live in a WASP society in which they are only partially assimilated. However, as Jews have done historically, they maintain their concern for morality and community despite their cultural displacement.
Though in some ways separated from American society, Bellow's protagonists also strongly connect their identity with America. Augie begins his adventures by claiming, "I am an American, Chicago born—Chicago, that somber city." Almost all of Bellow's novels take place in an American city, most often Chicago or New York. Through his depiction of urban reality, Bellow anchors his novels in the actual world, and he uses the city as his central metaphor for contemporary materialism. Although recognizing the importance of history and memory, Bellow's novels maintain a constant engagement with the present moment. His characters move in the real world, confronting sensuous images of urban chaos and clutter that often threaten to overwhelm them. Looking down on the Hudson River, Tommy Wilhelm sees "tugs with matted beards of cordage" and "the red bones of new apartments rising on the bluffs." Sammler denounces contemporary New Yorkers for the "free ways of barbarism" that they practice beneath the guise of "civilized order, property rights [and] refined technological organization." In Humboldt's Gift, which is replete with images of cannibalism and vampirism, Charlie Citrone sees Von Trenck, the source of his material success, as "the blood-scent that attracted the sharks of Chicago." Acknowledging the influence of the city on his fiction, Bellow himself has remarked, "I don't know how I could possibly separate my knowledge of life such as it is, from the city. I could no more tell you how deeply it's gotten into my bones than the lady who paints radium dials in the clock factory can tell you." However, although the city serves to identify the deterministic social pressures that threaten to destroy civilization, Bellow's heroes refuse to become its victims and instead draw on its latent resources of vitality to reassert their uniquely American belief in individual freedom, as well as their faith in the possibility of community.
Except for Clara Velde in A Theft, the protagonists in Bellow's novels and novellas are all male. The Bellovian hero typically seeks erotic pleasure, emotional security, and egoistic confirmation from the women in his life. In marriage, his relationships with women are conflicted, and he often retreats from his role as husband to a sensuous but selfish and demanding wife who paradoxically represents both his yearning for happiness and society's pressure to relinquish the freedom so essential to his self-realization. In contrast to the complex shadings that delineate his male characters, Bellow's females are often interchangeable and serve roles of little dramatic import. However, although the author has come under increasing criticism for his superficial treatment of women, his depiction of women and male-female relationships serves to reinforce the psychological crisis that each protagonist must negotiate to achieve peace and fulfillment.
Stylistically, Bellow's fiction reflects some of the same tensions that his protagonists seek to balance. His concern with social and personal destruction has been traced to European writers such as Flaubert, Dostoevsky, Kafka, Sartre, and Camus. But Bellow's fiction also has many ties to the American literary tradition. His neotranscendentalism, his identification with America, and the loose form of his most acclaimed novels link him most obviously to Emerson and Whitman. An intensely intellectual writer who peppers his novels with allusions, Bellow draws on many cultural traditions in his analysis of both the sources of American experience and its present manifestations. His fiction fully documents the decline of Western civilization without conceding its demise, and the ambiguity and tenuousness of even his most positive endings balance sadness and comic skepticism with the steadfast faith that the artist can effect coherence and order out of the chaos of modern experience. For his achievement in confronting the modern existential dilemma with compassion and humor, Bellow's place in twentieth-century American literary history seems assured.
"Bellow, Saul." Contemporary Novelists. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 17, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/bellow-saul
"Bellow, Saul." Contemporary Novelists. . Retrieved February 17, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/bellow-saul
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"Bellow, Saul." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 17, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/bellow-saul
"Bellow, Saul." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved February 17, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/bellow-saul