The most successful Jewish American writer may be the most ambivalent as well.
If the mid-20th century was a high-point for Jewish American writing, then Saul Bellow (1915-2005) was the movement’s chief intellectual, its battered heart, and its conscience. Over a fifty-year career that took him from Trotskyism to neoconservatism, from realism to his own brand of near-tragic comedy, Bellow embodied the triumph of Jewish American letters.
Bellow’s parents were both born in Russia, and emigrated to Canada. His father attempted to make a living as a bootlegger, first in Montreal and then in Chicago, where Bellow spent much of his youth after moving there at the age of nine. Chicago was in Bellow’s bones—both the hardscrabble Jewish immigrant neighborhoods of his early years, and the glittering lakefront and downtown districts where the ambitious and the well-connected thrived. Bellow attended the University of Chicago and Northwestern, and after completing his schooling, worked as a writer for President Franklin Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration’s Writer’s Project, which sought to put writers to work on projects like murals and travel guides.
The Miracle of Augie Marsh
Bellow wrote two little-read novels, Dangling Man (1944) and The Victim (1947), before the publication of The Adventures of Augie March in 1953 catapulted him to literary success. Augie March was loose where its predecessors were compact, a picaresque novel of shambling American ambition. The postwar era was one in which Jewish writers presented their experience as universal--or at least universally American--and Augie March marked much the same evolution, from Augie’s impoverished Chicago childhood to his experiences as a sporting-goods salesman, research assistant, merchant marine, and all-around lover to a variety of mismatched women.
“Augie March often resembles a surrealist catalogue of apprenticeships,” observes Martin Amis in an essay on the book, and the ceaseless motion of Augie, all drift and escape and energy, is placed in contrast with the pathos of Augie’s tragic relations, and his stunted relationships with women. “I am an American, Chicago-born,” the book begins, in one of the most famous openings in American literature. Augie identifies as an American, not a Jew—another indication of Bellow’s universalist impulses. Throughout the novel, Bellow’s warmth and zest shine through in the precision of his language and the scope of his vision, which many reviewers compared to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. “The Great American novel was a chimera,” says Amis. “Miraculously, however, and uncovenantedly, Saul Bellow brought the animal home.”