Bellow, Saul (Vol. 15)
Bellow, Saul 1915–
Bellow, a Canadian-born Jewish-American novelist, short story writer, essayist, playwright, editor, and translator, is regarded by many to be the most important spokesman of the post-war generation. The realization of selfhood in a time when the concept of individualism is degenerating has been the task of nearly all of his protagonists, of whom several—Herzog, Henderson, Augie March, Mr. Sammler—have come to stand for tooth-and-nail optimism in the face of chaos and despair. Henderson's famous cry "I want! I want!" expresses the primal knowledge of Bellow men, those who will survive, who will not surrender. Chester E. Eisinger provides an excellent summary: Bellow "knows that man is less than what the Golden Age promised us, but he refuses to believe that man is nothing. He is something, Bellow says, and saying it he performs an act of faith." A recipient of three National Book Awards, he won both the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1976. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 6, 8, 10, 13, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
Most of Saul Bellow's novels employ polarities that structure the dramatic development of each work. The central character becomes conscious of these polarities after he encounters various antagonists who either illustrate one of these dimensions or force the hero to acknowledge them as part of himself. On the one hand, there are the characters who challenge and perhaps even repudiate the definition of self that the hero has formulated. On the other hand, there are the "reality instructors" who may present alternative philosophical perspectives, but ironically their very life style seems to call these options into question. In some works the same individual is the vehicle for repudiation and redemption, but in most works different characters perform these roles.
Bellow has never been circumspect about the themes he explores and the justifications he seeks. From Dangling Man to Mr. Sammler's Planet, the Bellow hero has been faced with the challenge of reconciling the views he has of himself with those that others have of him. The major narrative structure is controlled by the hero who must decide whether to conform to the pattern of existence that surrounds him, or to explore new possibilities. He may ultimately not discover what he seeks, but the search itself is of prime significance. In Dangling Man, The Victim, The Adventures of Augie March, and Seize the Day only ambiguous resolutions are attained. In...
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M. A. Klug
Saul Bellow has been something of a resident alien among recent American novelists. While his work is soaked in American experience, it does not appear to develop out of the tradition of any of his immediate predecessors in American fiction. He has said some kind words about Dreiser, but he is not a direct descendant of Dreiser or of any of the other naturalists. His work does not emerge out of the generation of Fitzgerald and Hemingway, nor does it spring from the social realism that Bellow grew up with in the thirties. Critics, trying to locate Bellow in a literary context, usually link him with French or Russian novelists or with a Jewish tradition that is not specifically American. While Bellow has certainly been more cosmopolitan than most American novelists, he has not simply turned away from the American tradition. From the beginning of his career, he has consciously tried to avoid what he sees as the extremes of the modern American tradition and at the same time to contain those extremes as the central conflict within his own work. (p. 462)
On the surface [the] cosmic gloom and the simultaneous obsessions with self-perfection and power [characteristic of naturalist and realist fiction] may seem paradoxical…. [The] extreme pessimism on the dark side of Calvinism has always co-existed with an American version of the romantic quest for self-perfection. It is just these polar extremes which have held Bellow's attention throughout...
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Alvin H. Rosenfeld
Bellow has been, right from the start, as much concerned with the invisible worlds opened up by thought and feeling, intuition and intimation, as he has been our busy chronicler of the mundane….
The culture criticism is there sure enough, a spirited reading of the times for all of us to accept or quarrel with, but the fundamental engagement of thought is, in the first place, self-directed, and we, the readers, are let in on it only as it were afterwards. For while the novel of ideas, as Bellow has been developing it, exists to inform and entertain and communicate with us all, its primary aim is heuristic, designed as it is to enable the author to think himself through to clarity about certain preoccupying notions….
As [Bellow's] career advances into more open explorations of the spiritual side of things,… [his] beliefs—or movements in the direction of belief—are becoming more pronounced, let out from under the cover of spoofing and ironic humor that have served to keep them somewhat disguised or restrained, and the author a bit too remote from his own metaphysical hunches. (p. 47)
Dangling Man (1944), Bellow's first novel, was, among other things, a meditation on the dilemmas of freedom and fate. "How should a good man live; what ought he to do?"—these are the questions that nag at Joseph, the book's central character, and complicate his life. (p. 48)
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We can probably learn more about a writer from his difficulties than from his triumphs. His struggles reveal his intention and the obstacles that he must overcome to realize it. Most critics, I think, would agree that Saul Bellow's greatest difficulty lies in his plots….
Bellow has two modes: intense, closely textured, moral; and light, energetic, open. The Victim, Seize the Day, and, yes, Herzog represent the former while Augie March, Sammler, and Humboldt represent the latter…. Bellow fears the dangers of constriction, of polishing the life out of a work. (p. 15)
[What] are the obstacles to plot that Bellow must face? What are the elements of style, theme, or vision that cause him difficulty? (p. 16)
Bellow's most obvious obstacle to plot lies in the fact that he is a realist—perhaps the reason that he wants a plot in the first place…. Plot in Bellow's work is hard won, wrested from a confusing density and multiplicity of people, ideas, events, and sensation. It's so hard won that we might well claim that the struggle is the plot, as all the protagonists seek to move from the overwhelming richness of experience to some kind of peace and clarity….
Bellow loves energetic, driven characters who have a size and vitality that make them hard to control—so hard to control that the protagonist finds himself bullied by them, shoved about, as...
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Bruce J. Borrus
It should not be surprising that Saul Bellow, our novelist most concerned with the relation between ideas and life, worries about the place of the intellectual in contemporary America, a society that prizes its achievers while it patronizes and occasionally pities its thinkers. What is surprising is that Bellow, at least partially, agrees with the practical American's criticism: if the life of the mind has value, and it surely does for Bellow, its value does not lie in solving the problems of day-to-day living…. Bellow's intellectual heroes are acutely aware of the reasons for their alienation from the rest of society, but they are unable to think their way through to an accommodation with it. Thinking leads only to more thinking—not to action. (pp. 29-30)
Although Bellow's protagonists are unable to accomplish anything that significantly reshapes their world, a number of them do manage to save themselves from Humboldt's fate by coming to an accommodation with the world as it is. Often, this accommodation requires a new sense of self and of the protagonist's relation to the human community. Except for Joseph, who frees himself from despair by joining the Army, Bellow's heroes lift themselves out of their malaise by discovering within themselves an essential force for life. (p. 31)
Although sumptuously fitted out with wealth and education for a successful voyage through life, Henderson sails with everything but a...
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