What is the role of the intellectual in Saul Bellow's Humboldt's Gift?

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belarafon | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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Saul Bellow wrote Humboldt's Gift in 1975 as a loose adaptation of his own experiences in the literary world. The novel later won the Pulitzer Prize.

In the book, which is almost entirely about the world of writing, the idea of an intellectual is more of a higher, abstract ideal than a reality. While main character Charlie and poet Humboldt both aspire to literary excellence, they have different methods of doing so, and Humboldt in particular is prone to deep depression, during which he lashes out at Charlie for succeeding:

Humboldt's success lasted about ten years. In the late Forties he started to sink. In the early Fifties I myself became famous. I even made a pile of money. Ah, money, the money! Humboldt held the money against me... "What kind of writer or intellectual makes that kind of dough? ...we used to be close friends," Humboldt accurately said. "But there's something perverse with that guy... he's afraid to be found out."
(Bellow, Humboldt's Gift, Google Books)

Even though he claims that he is intellectually outraged at Charlie's mainstream success, Humboldt is deeply jealous; his ideal of intellectualism is not as altruistic as he believes. Interestingly, the "Gift" of the title is not a major work of intellectual genius, but a screenplay and the copyright to an idea that Charlie and Humboldt worked on; Humboldt is not trying to leave a legacy of intellectualism, but instead to secure a financial future for Charlie. The intellectual, therefore, is not a reality but an ideal, to which they both aspire.


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