Reprinted with permission from American Jewish Fiction: A JPS Guide (Jewish Publication Society).
In 1948, Saul Bellow found himself in Paris and deeply depressed; after World War II, what thinking person wouldn’t be? A Guggenheim grant paid for his trip based on the strength of his first couple of novels, but while there he had a revelation about that early work: “The restraint of the first two books had driven me mad,” he recalled half a century later. “I hadn’t become a writer to tread the straight and narrow.”
And with that, off he went: “I am an American, Chicago born–Chicago, that somber city–and go at things as I have taught myself, freestyle, and will make the record in my own way.” So begins The Adventures of Augie March, with Bellow’s personal Declaration of Independence: independence from literary tradition, from propriety, from tidy prose. A capacious world of its own, the novel tracks the title character, a young Jewish American man for whom nothing is off-limits, in his picaresque exploits.
Born into a struggling, colorful family in the slums of Chicago, he tries his hand at a number of jobs, some legal and some less so. He earns the affections of a wealthy girl, but she dumps him when she hears that he has assisted another woman in getting an abortion–not wanting to hear the truth, that he was helping out only a friend.
To this disappointment and the troubles brought on by the Great Depression, Augie responds by taking off for foreign parts: in Mexico, he and a lover train an eagle to catch snakes, and if that doesn’t sound odd enough, he ends up, after a boat he is on is torpedoed, stranded somewhere in the Atlantic in a life raft with a megalomaniac.
Linking together all of these vagarious events, and many more, is the novel’s inimitable, gorgeous prose, wild and allusive and yet precise, with a lavishness of diction and sentence structure rarely equaled, if often imitated. Augie’s Jewishness informs his adventures–he drops Yiddishisms often and refers to Jewish culture unselfconsciously–but does not limit their scope. The question of what exactly Judaism means to Augie is worth considering; but there is no doubt about what Augie meant for American Jews.
The book signaled the emergence of Jewish American writers as a force to be reckoned with when it won the National Book Award of 1954. And, as the Nobel committee noted in 1976 when it awarded Bellow the world’s most prestigious prize for literature, it was Augie that began the phase of the great author’s career that included his most significant works. So long and dazzling that it can, at times, grow tiresome, Augie is worth working for: a masterpiece of brilliant verbal acrobatics that elevates the street-smart, rootless Jew into the paradigm of the modern American.
Further reading: Reading through all of Bellow’s novels and stories isn’t a bad way to spend one’s time. James Atlas’s long biography (2000) is thorough and compelling, and the large pile of critical studies, appreciations, and biographical sketches of Bellow and his oeuvre has continued to grow in the wake of the author’s death in 2005.