*Chicago. Gritty midwestern city in which the Canadian-born Saul Bellow grew up. Chicago figures prominently in his writings; indeed, Bellow’s great strength is his portrayal of the density and fabric of modern urban life in America. The city is associated with the Jewish American social and cultural experience to which Bellow is drawn. Such major urban centers as Chicago, with its grinding poverty, street crime, youth gangs, and widespread racism—all the ills of modern society—are also focal points of cultural and intellectual life and thus are treated somewhat ambivalently in Bellow’s fiction.
American intellectuals come to love and despise the modern urban civilization upon which their existences are ultimately based. Cities are places to which intellectuals are invariably drawn but from which they must also inevitably escape. Ever since the rise of modern urban centers, there has been a labeling of cities as sources of social alienation in which people no longer know their neighbors, a contrast to the idealized romantic notion of rural communities.
Chicago is, in part, representative of the domain of actuality or “real life” in the modern world with which the vain and emotionally confused professor of literature, Moses E. Herzog, is continually confronted and with which he must come to terms. As an intellectual and idealist who has written on the social and political aspects of European Romanticism, he prefers to view what is often a rather harsh and brutal reality in terms of abstracted notions and philosophical ideas. In the cities he meets the urban people—like the crude and mocking lawyer Sandor Himmelstein or the pompous professor Valentine Gersbach, the supposed friend who steals away Herzog’s wife, Madeleine Pontritter—who take it upon themselves to be his “teachers” and to introduce him to a nihilistic vision of reality that he instinctively abhors.
Herzog’s reaction to this spiritual malaise and philosophical nihilism, especially the loss of humanistic moral values in favor of mute and indifferent facts, is an expression of Bellow’s own response to the alienation of human beings and the negativity of the...
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