Humboldt’s Gift (1975), by Saul Bellow, is the eighth novel published by the celebrated and prolific Jewish-American author. Humboldt’s Gift won the Pulitzer Prize in 1976 and contributed to Bellow’s winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in the same year. This novel takes place in Chicago, like many of Bellow’s works, and is widely recognized as a roman à clef—a fictional story about real events—concerning Bellow’s friend, Delmore Schwartz, a Jewish-American poet who lived and died in New York City. Humboldt’s infamous life of brilliant success and crashing failure closely parallels that of Schwartz. His name appears to be a reference to Alexander von Humboldt, a famous nineteenth-century Prussian naturalist and explorer.
At its heart, Humboldt’s Gift is less about Humboldt and more about the narrator, Charlie Citrine, who is a dear friend to Humboldt and strongly contrasts with the poet’s personality. Charlie drifts through life, lost in his own thoughts, which are often philosophical and high-minded. He is an accidental success and now preyed upon by any who wish to use him or his money in the twilight of his literary career. Humboldt’s Gift is a novel about transformation: bereft of his fortune, Charlie finally finds the strength of spirit—which Humboldt said he had—to stand up to his users and do exactly what he wants to with his life.