Saul Bellow, Vision and Revision
According to the annual Modern Language Association Bibliography, forty-nine critical and/or scholarly articles and books about Saul Bellow’s work were published in 1980, forty-two in 1981, forty more in 1982, and sixty-three the following year—all in addition to numerous sketches, profiles, and articles that appeared in newspapers and magazines during the same four-year period. Clearly Bellow has become, in fact has long been (even before receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1976) a literary institution as well as (among academic critics) a literary industry. Just as clearly, much of the critical commentary is superfluous, either reductive or redundant, sometimes both. Daniel Fuchs’s Saul Bellow, Vision and Revision is distinguished from the bulk of these studies both by its appeal to serious readers outside the academic world and by its analysis of Bellow’s manuscripts: Fuchs was granted sole permission to quote from the Bellow materials housed at the University of Chicago, where the great majority of Bellow’s manuscripts are held, and at the Humanities Research Center of the University of Texas.
Fuchs’s first two chapters deal with Bellow’s “vision,” while the remaining nine (as well as a brief epilogue on The Dean’s December) involve critical studies of individual works. Although the “vision” chapters break no substantively new ground, they do provide a convenient, at times incisive, summary of Bellow’s philosophy and his aesthetic. Fuchs rightly sees Bellow as an “essentialist” who rejects not only existentialism but also the modernist aesthetic that has been linked to it. Although Fuchs calls Bellow “the postmodernist par excellence,” what he actually means is that Bellow is the major antimodernist of his age, a liberal humanist who detests the aesthetic detachment of Gustave Flaubert and James Joyce, the “stylized misery” of the existentialists, and the determinism of Sigmund Freud and others to deny the autonomy and the worth of the individual that Bellow chooses to affirm. Linking Bellow to the great nineteenth century Russian novelists, Fyodor Dostoevski and Leo Tolstoy, and to such twentieth century social theorists as Raymond Aron and Edward Shils, Fuchs claims that “The central thrust of Bellow’s fiction is to deny nihilism, immoralism, and the aesthetic view.” Bellow wants to prove that there is more to human life than modernism allows; to do this he does not write didactic thesis novels but instead novels based on his characters’ groping efforts to discover their essential humanity. Their gropings, Fuchs insists, parallel the author’s own as he writes and revises his work. “The main reason for rewriting,” Bellow has said, “is not to achieve a smooth surface [the Flaubertian ideal], but to discover the inner truth of your characters.”
It is fitting, therefore, that a study of Bellow’s vision be coupled with the study of his revisions, of the composition process through which Bellow’s novels have come to fruition. The reader learns, for example, that although there is little difference between early and late versions of Seize the Day, the few changes that there are are significant, the several versions of the novel’s opening and closing scenes, in particular. Fuchs also explains the way in which Bellow slowed the pace of Henderson the Rain King and eventually created that novel’s distinctive narrative voice—less realistic and more lyrical than it first had been. Examining the more than four thousand manuscript pages for Henderson the Rain King (there are six thousand each for Herzog and Humboldt’s Gift), Fuchs comes upon an important source, the writings of neurophysiologist Paul Schilder, who is mentioned by name in a draft but not in the published version. In revising his characters, Bellow did more than merely flesh them out; he often altered them to a...
(The entire section is 1605 words.)