Study Guide

Humboldt's Gift

by Saul Bellow

Humboldt's Gift Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

By the 1970’s, Charles Citrine, a respected author in his mid-fifties, has won two Pulitzer Prizes, one for a book on Woodrow Wilson, twenty-eighth president of the United States, and one for a Broadway play, Von Trenck. Charlie’s former wife, Denise, is demanding higher support payments, and his twenty-nine-year-old girlfriend, Renata Koffritz, wants him to marry her.

During a poker game, Charlie loses $450 to Rinaldo Cantabile, which he pays by giving the gangster a check. Charlie’s friend George Swiebel says that he saw Cantabile cheat, however, and at George’s insistence, Charlie stops payment on the check. Insulted, Cantabile batters Charlie’s Mercedes-Benz with a baseball bat and forces Charlie to pay the debt in front of several people. Then Cantabile takes Charlie to the upper floors of an unfinished skyscraper and drops all the money except two $50 bills, which he uses to buy dinner. At dinner, Cantabile asks Charlie to help his wife with a doctoral dissertation on Charlie’s dead friend, the poet Von Humboldt Fleisher, but Charlie refuses.

The next day, Charlie meditates while waiting to take part in a court hearing about his payments to Denise. Cantabile arrives, and Charlie tells him about a movie scenario he and Humboldt had written in 1952. In court, the judge, upon learning that Charlie has plans to go to Europe, threatens him with bond and then sets a payment sum of $200,000 for Denise. Denise gives Charlie a letter from Kathleen, Humboldt’s former wife, in which she informs him that Humboldt left him something. Charlie is surprised because he and Humboldt had been estranged and because he did not think that Humboldt, who died destitute, had anything to leave.

That afternoon, Charlie meets his friend Pierre Thaxter, with whom he is hoping to publish a journal. Cantabile finds Charlie and Thaxter, forces them into his car, and takes them to the office of a businessman who has been caught cheating the Mafia. Pretending that Charlie is a Mafia gunman, Cantabile threatens the man. A police detective subsequently arrests Charlie and Cantabile but lets Thaxter go. Instead of trying to get Charlie released from jail, Thaxter goes to the movies. Charlie is released when the secretary of the threatened man talks her employer into dropping the charges against Charlie.

Several days later, instead of going directly to Milan, as planned, Charlie and Renata fly to New York to find out about Charlie’s legacy from Humboldt. They go to Coney Island, where Waldemar Wald, Humboldt’s uncle, lives in a nursing home. There, Waldemar gives Charlie a large envelope containing a letter that Humboldt wrote to Charlie shortly before his death. Although Humboldt had been suffering from bipolar disorder and paranoia for years, according to the letter he had regained his sanity shortly before his death. The envelope also contains a movie scenario that Humboldt had written and a copy of the 1952 scenario he cowrote with Charlie. Humboldt had sealed and registered the envelope containing the 1952 scenario and mailed it to himself in 1960, thus establishing copyright to it. Humboldt’s letter says that another copy of the 1952 scenario exists but that its location is unknown. Charlie considers the legacy worthless, but he is moved that Humboldt thought of him just before his death.

In New York, Thaxter tells Charlie that his publisher will pay Charlie’s expenses in...

(The entire section is 1403 words.)

Humboldt's Gift Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Humboldt’s Gift is a kind of gothic novel in the sense that its protagonist is haunted by a ghost. The ghost is both a living man and the spirit or ideals that the man, an older writer named Von Humboldt Fleisher, represents.

Humboldt is a writer whose talent—or genius—has been corrupted by the American vision of success. The protagonist is modeled closely on Bellow’s recollections of a friend, poet Delmore Schwartz, who in the late 1930’s produced a first book of poetry that was hailed as a work of promising genius but who died with the promise unfulfilled. Humboldt has also produced a first volume of poems, Harlequin Ballads, but has since lived off his early reputation. Humboldt had “made it big,” as the narrator remarks, but had produced nothing since. Instead, he had lived the good life, which included fast cars, women, and other trappings of materialistic success.

Yet Humboldt was aware of his entrapment by the overpowering world of things. Sensing his own surrender to materialism, he had taken to playing the role of the great Romantic nonconformist. The paradox of Humboldt’s condition was that, as a poet, he was an example of unfulfillment and failure, but as a man and public figure he represented the idea of poetry as a spiritual, revivifying force capable of saving a sick society.

It is this paradox that haunts the narrator, Charlie Citrine. He too is a writer, but unlike Humboldt, his idol, he has not produced any significant work—he has written histories, biographies, and political...

(The entire section is 640 words.)

Humboldt's Gift Summary

Chapters 1–3
Humboldt’s Gift begins with an introduction to Von Humboldt Fleisher, who published a popular...

(The entire section is 2966 words.)