Saul Bellow

The most successful Jewish American writer may be the most ambivalent as well.

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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.

saul bellowThe 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.”

Staying on Top

Augie March was followed by the acclaimed works Seize the Day (1956) and Herzog (1964) and the African fantasia Henderson the Rain King (1959), which was the basis for Joni Mitchell's song "Both Sides, Now." A sense of defeat and decay, of promises unkept, lingers over Seize and Herzog, which differ nonetheless in their tone and execution. Seize the Day is a brief tragedy of a failed son, and his charged encounters with his father and a fatherly quack investor. Herzog, perhaps Bellow’s most finely etched work, offers another one of the author’s dyspeptic, brilliant whiners, his comments on society, this time directed through a series of unsent letters to everyone from Eisenhower and Nietzsche to his second wife. Novelist Jeffrey Eugenides said of the book, “Herzog's life resembles the way we live now, where we're forever sending off e-mail and texts, fielding cell phone calls: where we're no longer any one place but everywhere — and nowhere — at once. Our life in shards, randomly returning.”

Bellow’s eminence was assured after the success of Augie March and Herzog, and he became a fellow at the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought. Surrounded by notable conservatives at the foremost American academic institution for conservative thought, Bellow took on some of the bent of his new associates in his fiction.

His Dark, Later Work

In later novels like Mr. Sammler’s Planet (1970) and The Dean’s December (1982), gloomy predictions of the oncoming end of society are tied to ponderings of the Communist menace (much of The Dean’s December is set in Communist-era Romania) and the lurking American underclass. The fear of the other was cast in dramatically stark (some might say biased) terms: in Mr. Sammler’s Planet, when an African-American pickpocket menaces Holocaust survivor Artur Sammler by silently revealing his manhood. The symbolism of the underclass flaunting its virility, and its aggression, is only too obvious.

“As a well-educated man who has smelled the molten breath and felt the bloody teeth of European fascism,” Stanley Crouch noted in an essay on Bellow’s book, “Mr. Sammler is obsessed with understanding what makes or breaks a society, what causes a civilization to embrace ruthlessness as the best way to realize its ambitions and handle its fears.”

Sammler, wandering the streets of Manhattan, putting out his delinquent family’s fires and remarking on the downward progress of the city he has come to love, is perpetually drawn to note the similarities between New York in the age of street crime and the Holocaust, in which his wife was murdered. “In contraction from life, when naked, he already felt himself dead. But somehow he had failed, unlike the others, to be connected. Comparing the event, as mentally he sometimes did, to a telephone circuit: death had not picked up the receiver to answer his ring. Sometimes, when he walked on Broadway today, and heard a phone ringing in a shop when doors were open, he tried to find, to intuit, the syllable one would hear from death.”

In 1976, Bellow was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, coming on the heels of the National Book Award (which he won three times) and the Pulitzer Prize.

Bellow’s last novel, Ravelstein (2000), was a thinly-veiled biographical portrait of one of his U. of Chicago colleagues, Allan Bloom, best known for his book The Closing of the American Mind. Eventually, the phone rang for Bellow, and he picked up; he died in April 2005 at the age of 89, a giant of American letters and a paragon of American Jewish writers.

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Saul Austerlitz

Saul Austerlitz is a writer and film critic in New York.