Bellow, Saul (Vol. 200)
Saul Bellow 1915-
Canadian-born American novelist, short story writer, editor, critic, playwright, lecturer, and memoirist.
The following entry presents an overview of Bellow's career through 2003. For further information on his life and works, see CLC Volumes 1, 2, 3, 6, 8, 10, 13, 15, 25, 33, 34, 63, 79, and 190.
Bellow is regarded as one of the most celebrated authors of the twentieth century. His fiction typically addresses the meaning of human existence in an increasingly impersonal and mechanistic world. Writing in a humorous, anecdotal style, Bellow often depicts introspective individuals sorting out a conflict between Old World and New World values while coping with personal anxieties and aspirations. The Adventures of Augie March (1953), Herzog (1964), and Mr. Sammler's Planet (1970) each won the National Book Award. Bellow won a Pulitzer Prize in 1976 for Humboldt's Gift (1975) and has been widely recognized as a highly original contemporary stylist.
The son of Russian-born parents, Bellow was born June 10, 1915, in Lachine, Quebec. He developed an interest in literature while confined to a hospital for a year during his childhood. At seventeen, Bellow and his friend, the future newspaper columnist Sydney J. Harris, ran away to New York City, where they unsuccessfully attempted to sell their first novels. After briefly studying at the University of Chicago, Bellow graduated from Northwestern University in 1937 with honors in sociology and anthropology. He briefly undertook graduate study in anthropology at the University of Wisconsin. During World War II, Bellow attempted to join the Canadian Army but was turned down for medical reasons; this experience provided the basis for his first published novel, Dangling Man (1944). In 1943 Bellow worked on Mortimer Adler's “Great Books” project for the Encyclopedia Britannica. Bellow then returned to New York, where he briefly earned a living as a freelancer before accepting a teaching position at the University of Minnesota in 1946. In 1963 Bellow accepted a permanent position with the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. He served as a war correspondent for Newsday during the 1967 Arab-Israeli conflict, and he has taught at New York University, Princeton, and the University of Minnesota. He continues to write fiction and essays and has received numerous awards for his work.
Bellow's novels are characterized by the “Bellow hero”—a term referring to the typical Bellow protagonist who is a Jewish, male, intellectual urbanite struggling to find meaning in a materialistic and chaotic world. In developing his characters Bellow emphasizes dialogue and interior monologue, and his prose style features sudden flashes of wit and philosophical epigrams. With The Adventures of Augie March Bellow established himself as a leading American novelist. The book is a picaresque narrative chronicling the adventures of a compelling and sympathetic protagonist, Augie March, from his childhood in Chicago to his adult years in Mexico and Europe. In Henderson the Rain King (1959) Bellow relates the voyage of an arrogant millionaire who travels to Africa to confront his anomie and fear of death. With Herzog Bellow fuses the formal realism of his early works with the vitality of his picaresque novels of the 1950s. Herzog is an animated but tormented Jewish intellectual who has difficulty maintaining human relationships, especially with women.
Mr. Sammler's Planet has often been identified as Bellow's most pessimistic novel. Mr. Sammler, an elderly man, has experienced the promises and horrors of twentieth-century life. He offers an extensive critique of modern values and speculates on the future after observing a pickpocket on a bus. Although many critics disagreed whether Mr. Sammler succeeds as a perceptive commentator who ruminates on contemporary existence, Bellow's portrayal of this character has generally been commended. Humboldt's Gift centers on the conflict between materialistic values and the claims of art and high culture. The protagonist, Charles Citrine, is a successful writer who questions the worth of artistic values in modern American society after suffering exhaustive encounters with divorce lawyers, criminals, artists, and other representative figures from contemporary urban life. He also recalls his friendship with the flamboyant artist Humboldt Fleischer, a composite of several American writers who despaired in their inability to reconcile their artistic ideals with the indifference and materialism of American society. Citrine finally concludes that he can maintain artistic order by dealing with the complexities of life through ironic comic detachment.
In The Dean's December (1982) Bellow directly attacks negative social forces that challenge human dignity. Set in depressed areas of Chicago and Bucharest, Romania, this novel focuses on Albert Corde, a respected journalist who returns to academic life to revive his love of high culture. Corde rebukes politicians, liberal intellectuals, journalists, and bureaucrats in both democratic and communist nations for failing to maintain humanistic values. In More Die of Heartbreak (1987) Benn Crader is a botanist who becomes engaged to the wealthy daughter of an avaricious surgeon seeking to use him to undermine Benn's Uncle Vilitzer, a corrupt political boss. Ravelstein (2000) is regarded as a fictionalized account of Bellow's close friendship with the prominent conservative critic Allan Bloom, who died in 1992. Ravelstein is an eccentric, brilliant, private man; when he realizes that he is dying, he asks Chick, the narrator, to write his biography and Chick agrees.
Bellow has also written several works of short fiction. The novella Seize the Day (1956) focuses on Tommy Wilhelm, a middle-aged man who yearns for wealth and fame but has failed in both his business and human relationships. However, by coming to terms with his mortality—a prominent theme in Bellow's fiction—Wilhelm gains a better understanding of himself and an appreciation of others. In the short fiction collected in Mosby's Memoirs and Other Stories (1968) and Him with His Foot in His Mouth and Other Stories (1984), Bellow depicts sensitive everyday characters and intellectuals who struggle to maintain their dignity and reaffirm faith. In The Actual (1997) Harry Trellman becomes an intellectual consultant for the aging tycoon Sigmund Adletsky. When Amy Wustrin, Harry's true love, suddenly becomes a widow, Sigmund brings Harry and Amy together. In 2001 a selection of Bellow's short stories, Collected Stories, was published. Another wide-ranging collection of Bellow's essays, It All Adds up: From the Dim Past to the Uncertain Future, was published in 1994. These selected essays, travel pieces, lectures, literary appreciations, and autobiographical recollections reflect Bellow's diverse interests.
There have been many assessments of Bellow's fiction and reviewers note that he is one of the most scrutinized writers in contemporary American literature. Scholars have traced his development from an initially formal, realistic style to a more lively, discursive manner. His cultural and social commentary has also been a topic of critical discussion, and Bellow has been praised for producing insightful and compelling fiction that explores such issues as mortality, memory, family relationships, and friendship. Critics have also examined how his work addresses the gap between private and public experience, the effects of materialism and technological progress, and the role of the artist in society. Herzog received praise for its exploration of various Western intellectual traditions, its poignant evocation of events, and its colorful minor characters. Reviewers have applauded Bellow's resiliency and adaptability, his philosophical musings, and his longevity, noting that his career stretches over more than fifty years. More Die of Heartbreak has been praised as a witty and compassionate meditation on friendship and mortality. Humboldt's Gift has been hailed as a compelling work that treats spiritual matters within the context of a commercial world. Other reviewers have panned this novel, faulting passages they deemed unrealistic. Several critics have asserted that the beliefs of protagonist Citrine reflect those of Bellow himself. Most reviewers have described Bellow as an artist who affirms Judeo-Christian religious and social values in his work. He has been analyzed as a Jewish writer, and the theme of Jewish assimilation into American society has been a recurring theme in his fictional works. Ethan Goffman wrote: “By exploring Sammler's personal history as embedded in a larger Jewish history, [Mr. Sammler's Planet] gradually unveils a counternarrative of terror inflicted upon marginalized peoples culminating in a moment of identification between Jew and black.” Despite debate over Mr. Sammler's validity as a social commentator, critics generally agree that Sammler is one of Bellow's most fully realized protagonists. Some commentators have alleged that Bellow's novels lack convincing plots, while others have viewed Bellow's treatment of women and people of color as inadequate at best. Another major topic of debate has centered on the autobiographical aspects of Bellow's fiction, with some critics bemoaning the similarities between the lives of Bellow's protagonists and the author's own. Overall, critics have favorably assessed Bellow's literary achievement and have celebrated his works as a valuable contribution to American literature.
Dangling Man (novel) 1944
The Victim (novel) 1947
The Adventures of Augie March (novel) 1953
Seize the Day (novella) 1956
Henderson the Rain King (novel) 1959
Recent American Fiction: A Lecture (lectures) 1963
Herzog (novel) 1964
The Last Analysis (play) 1964
*Under the Weather (plays) 1966; also produced as The Bellow Plays
Mosby's Memoirs and Other Stories (short stories) 1968
Mr. Sammler's Planet (novel) 1970
The Portable Bellow (short stories, novels, and drama) 1974
Humboldt's Gift (novel) 1975
To Jerusalem and Back: A Personal Account (memoirs) 1976
The Dean's December (novel) 1982
Him with His Foot in His Mouth and Other Stories (short stories) 1984
More Die of Heartbreak (novel) 1987
The Bellarosa Connection (novella) 1989
A Theft (novella) 1989
Something to Remember Me By (novellas) 1991
It All Adds up: From the Dim Past to the Uncertain Future (essays and criticism) 1994
The Actual (novella) 1997
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SOURCE: Brown, John L. Review of It All Adds Up, by Saul Bellow. World Literature Today 69, no. 1 (winter 1995): 148-49.
[In the following review, Brown asserts that the essays in It All Adds Up “reveal the richness and the variety, and occasionally the contradictions and the discursiveness, of the outstanding novelist of his brilliant generation.”]
Does it all add up? Not really. For this collection [It All Adds Up: From the Dim Past to the Uncertain Future], as Bellow himself implies, is just too scattered and heterogeneous. Its thirty-one essays (all previously published in periodicals such as Life, Holiday, and Esquire or given as lectures) span his entire career. The earliest, “Spanish Letter,” dates from 1948, four years after his first novel, Dangling Man. The last ones, “Writers, Intellectuals, and Politics” and an homage to William Arrowsmith, appeared in 1993. Closely linked with Bellow's fiction, they reveal the richness and the variety, and occasionally the contradictions and the discursiveness, of the outstanding novelist of his brilliant generation.
The introduction, “Mozart: An Overture,” presents motifs that will constantly resurface. Bellow feels a deep empathy with the composer, for “with beings such as Mozart, we are forced to speculate about transcendence.” And “transcendence,” especially the...
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SOURCE: Pinsker, Sanford. “Saul Bellow: ‘What, in All of This, Speaks for Man?’” Georgia Review 49, no. 1 (spring 1995): 89-95.
[In the following essay, Pinsker elucidates the central concerns of Bellow's fiction, contending his novels and short stories matter “not only for those who care about the state of American fiction but also for those worried about the spiritual condition of America itself.”]
An artist, Saul Bellow once remarked, is a person obliged to see, and then to note what has been observed with a certain style. Bellow's greatness as an American writer rests on the clarity of his vision and the lively, thickly textured paragraphs his vision produces. In an age when the American novel often seems to have fallen on thin times, Bellow is a notable exception, not only because fiction remains for him what it always was—namely, “a sort of latter-day lean-to, a hovel in which the spirit takes shelter”—but also because he is one of the few contemporary writers unembarrassed to use the word soul or to talk about the need for spiritual exercises in a shoddy cultural moment. These preoccupations speak to his Jewishness much more than do his urban Jewish characters or nostalgic reminiscences of an immigrant Jewish childhood, for there is a strongly religious component to Bellow's intimations of higher spheres and the ways that they touch on the dailiness of daily life....
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SOURCE: Cross, Richard K. “Clearing the Mind of Cant.” Modern Age 37, no. 3 (spring 1995): 251-54.
[In the following favorable review, Cross surveys the range of essays in It All Adds Up.]
Now in his eightieth year, Saul Bellow is our best living novelist, the principal heir among the writers who emerged after World War II to the great figures of the Hemingway-Fitzgerald-Faulkner generation. From the mid-1950s through the mid-1970s, years that saw the appearance of Seize the Day, Henderson the Rain King, Herzog, and Humboldt's Gift, no other novelist residing on these shores (Nabokov was living in Montreux for much of that time) could touch Bellow. Not much attention has been paid to his work apart from the fiction, although from the 1940s onward a steady stream of autobiographical reflections, evocations of place, and social criticism, as well as essays and lectures on the state of our culture, has issued from his pen. It All Adds Up is the first collection of these occasional writings. Greatly as the pieces differ from one another in form, matter, and the audience for which they were originally intended, the book does not impress one as a gathering of fugitives.
Bellow notes in his preface the many alterations of outlook he has experienced in the course of a long writing life, not least during his sixties and seventies—“enlightening...
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SOURCE: Ranta, Jerrald. “Time in Bellow's Seize the Day.” Essays in Literature 23, no. 2 (fall 1995): 300-15.
[In the following essay, Ranta addresses the roles of Gregorian and Jewish calendar time in the novella Seize the Day.]
The ongoing critical study of time and history in Saul Bellow's works has largely neglected Seize the Day, as can be seen in Judie Newman's major study of history in Bellow's works, which mentions Seize the Day only briefly.1 Accordingly, this study will examine selected time-referents in the novella, and because time-referents can also be cultural-referents, the discussion also addresses the roles of both Gregorian and Jewish time in the story. Though temporal concerns in Seize the Day itself have not been studied, there is no lack of criticism that can shed light on the problem. Of greatest use are Bellow's own essays and interviews, several of which are quoted below. Newman's “Conclusion” is also useful for the focus it brings to the subject; this study assumes the validity of and subsumes in its method several of her conclusions: that Bellow's “novels display an extremely precise attention to the specificity of history” (185); that “even quite minor temporal notations … are of major functional importance” (186); that “time is … both the formal backbone to Bellow's novels and the thematic centre” (186); and that...
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SOURCE: Goffman, Ethan. “Between Guilt and Affluence: The Jewish Gaze and the Black Thief in Mr. Sammler's Planet.” Contemporary Literature 38, no. 4 (winter 1997): 705-25.
[In the following essay, Goffman explores the significance of the black thief in Mr. Sammler's Planet, maintaining that the thief “is a compact, dramatic version of a recurring Euro-American mythologization: blackness as the primitive, the carnal, the return of the repressed.”]
Representations of blackness as dangerous, primitive, and highly sexualized, deeply implanted in European and American society, inescapably infiltrate Jewish American literature. Perhaps the most concentrated such image appears in the form of the black thief in Saul Bellow's Mr. Sammler's Planet (1970), a work lumped by Mariann Russell together with Bernard Malamud's The Tenants and John Updike's Rabbit Redux as reducing blacks to “a convenient metaphor for the disturbing elements in white society and … in the last analysis, not an image of black culture, but a mirror image of the prevailing white culture” (93). Have Jews, themselves so long the objects of dehumanizing stereotypes, assimilated to the point where the Jewish gaze is indistinguishable from dominant American society? In Mr. Sammler's Planet, with its depiction of a black pickpocket and the violence he inflicts upon a Jewish observer, it...
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SOURCE: Tuttleton, James W. “An Expert Noticer.” New Criterion 15, no. 10 (June 1997): 80-2.
[In the following review, Tuttleton traces Bellow's literary development and contends that The Actual “is about a great many things that are not as simple as they at first seem.”]
Saul Bellow's most recent publication, The Actual, brings his literary production—in a publishing career now spanning more than half a century—to some eighteen volumes of prose fiction, criticism, travel writing, and reminiscence. In his longevity, at least, he has rivaled William Dean Howells, and it may turn out that Bellow will have done best, for our time, what Howells did well for nineteenth-century America—that is, to have provided a reasonably realistic and representative portrait of the moral and social tendencies of his time. Hippolyte Taine called Howells “a precious painter and a sovereign witness,” and a like tribute may be voiced in respect to Bellow. In any case, both men in old age earned the “distinction” of being called “the Dean of American Letters.” In Bellow's case, its literal relevance may lie in his having poured himself, so fully, into The Dean's December (1982).
Bellow most likely will be remembered for his comic, freewheeling novels: Adventures of Augie March (1953)—which won the National Book Award; Henderson the Rain King (1959);...
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SOURCE: Wood, James. “Essences Rising.” New Republic 216, no. 24 (16 June 1997): 41-5.
[In the following favorable review, Wood calls The Actual a slight book, but maintains that it possesses “its own nervous perfection.”]
This novella is a ricochet from a talent that has already hit many targets: it has an interrupted energy. The Actual is slight, without the obvious weight of Bellow's major work. Yet it has its own nervous perfection. Like all his work, it is about our wrestle for the essential amid the piles of our emotional slack. Like several of his stories, it has at its buried center a portrait of a sharp, canny, limited old man, accustomed to power—the type of old commander whose abrasions and self-satisfactions enrage and delight Bellow. The Actual tells us that love is what matters; in this, too, the novella hangs from the branches of Bellow's more complicated work, offering in miniature the fruit of his deepest concerns.
The old man is Sigmund Adletsky, a very rich Chicago businessman, now in his 90s. He has dinner one evening with Harry Trellman, the narrator of the story, and summons him to his corporate palace. Harry is as vigilant as any of Bellow's narrators—a cognitive scout, riddled with sense-impressions. He cannot help noticing everything, and prides himself on this. At Adletsky's office, for instance, he reports on changed business...
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SOURCE: Kazin, Alfred. “Struggles of a Prophet.” New York Review of Books (26 June 1997): 17-18.
[In the following positive review, Kazin delineates the central thematic concerns in The Actual.]
Saul Bellow will be eighty-two this summer. Not long ago, he told Playboy, he had been near death after partaking in the Caribbean of a fish that turned out to be toxic. But here he is [in The Actual], sharp as ever when he writes about low doings in Chicago and then adds his now customary outrage at the piggishness and mediocrity of American democracy.
Forty-four years ago Bellow's breezy young character Augie March noted, “I quit thinking long ago that all old people came to rest from the things they were out for in their younger years.” Augie was right. In the Bellow world the protagonist is never at rest, and never seems much older than Bellow was in 1944, in Dangling Man, when he began the struggle to establish his own world of thought. This has always been the struggle to reach a higher plane of existence, and it has kept him contending with and curtly opposing people he considers necessarily inferior. These he has bitterly to seek out in order to observe the smallest details of their being, thus enabling him to stand “free” and be true to himself.
The Chicago Jews in his new novella The Actual are now far better off and more highly...
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SOURCE: Hensher, Philip. “Riches in a Little Room.” Spectator (9 August 1997): 28-9.
[In the following review, Hensher deems The Actual a brief and amusing novella.]
A curious sort of volume, this; readable from end to end in not much more than half an hour, a novella [The Actual] which is probably a half or a third as long as some of Chekhov's short stories, it nevertheless contains levels of feeling and implication which seem to belong to a much longer and more spacious book. Its leisurely manner, its casual way with its characters and themes suggest a novel with plenty of time to waste, and the brevity of the book comes as an abrupt surprise. It is, perhaps, slightly reminiscent of another short book, written late in its author's career, about the super-rich, Graham Greene's Doctor Fischer of Geneva; but where that was a neat, black fable, this is a real novel in miniature, with loose ends and richly detailed characters. It is exactly like Bellow's long novels, with their unclassical proportions and appealing lumpiness, but all in 20,000 words. It would be hard to know what to add to The Actual, and, after having read it twice, harder to know what to take away.
Naturally, it's all, as Baldrick would say, a cunning plan; to build up your characters and your plot through careful irrelevancies and casual memories, to let a trivial conversation drift on...
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SOURCE: Miller, Karl. “Jay Wustrin's Remains.” Times Literary Supplement (22 August 1997): 23.
[In the following review, Miller discusses the characters in The Actual as typical Bellovian characters and views Bellow as a lyrical and romantic author.]
A very astute, very old Jewish trillionaire is counselled here [in The Actual] by an astute Jew, no longer young, no longer poor, who has resumed relations with a first, never forgotten love. For Harry Trellman, a businessman, an importer, Amy Wustrin is “the actual”. “Other women were apparitions” for this narrator. “She, and only she, was no apparition.” This is the centre of things in Saul Bellow's latest work of fiction. Not that there are all that many things for it to be the centre of. It is a short book—no different in kind from one of his long stories—and an oblique one. Are we to suppose, romantically, that only the first love matters? But its scenes from Chicago life are all of them worth hearing about.
Amy and Harry dated at high school, then drifted apart. She married Harry's friend Jay, a lawyer and pretender, one of those hustlers, gangsters and confidence men who stand close to the narrator or hero of Bellow's tales of mystery and imagination. He is a seducer of women, the sad emblem of an age of emancipation, according to the narrator, whose views on the subject are in line with those of Mr...
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SOURCE: LaHood, Marvin J. Review of The Actual, by Saul Bellow. World Literature Today 72, no. 1 (winter 1998): 132.
[In the following review, LaHood offers a laudatory assessment of The Actual.]
Saul Bellow can write. He has a Nobel Prize (1976) to show for it. He is also the only novelist to win three National Book Awards—for The Adventures of Augie March (1953), Herzog (1964), and Mr. Sammler's Planet (1970). Add to these laurels a Pulitzer Prize for Humboldt's Gift (1975) and the National Book Foundation Medal for distinguished contribution to American letters (1990), and he is probably America's most decorated author. Would such a revered and honored author risk all on a novella? The answer is yes.
The Actual is hardly a risk, however. It is pure Bellow. It is the brilliant first-person narrative of Harry Trellman, a Chicago intellectual, who has been in love with Amy Wustrin, his high-school sweetheart, for forty years, but has never claimed her for his own. It takes an aged billionaire, Sigmund Adletsky, to get them together at the end. Trellman is a memorable Bellow protagonist, mainly because his novella-long self-analysis is so trenchant. Of his friends and acquaintances he says: “These were all commonplace persons. I would never have let them think so, but it's time to admit that I looked down on them. They were lacking in higher...
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SOURCE: Kuzma, Faye. “The Demonic Hegemonic: Exploitative Voices in Saul Bellow's More Die of Heartbreak.” Critique 39, no. 4 (summer 1998): 306-23.
[In the following essay, Kuzma views More Die of Heartbreak as a text shaped by nihilism and the discourse of fashionable cynicism.]
Saul Bellow's novel More Die of Heartbreak opens with the observation of its narrator Kenneth Trachtenberg that his maternal uncle Benn Crader is obsessed with a cartoon by Charles Addams, author of Monster Rally. The cartoon depicts a couple in a cemetery. The man, Gomez, asks: “Are you unhappy darling?” and the woman, a witch named Morticia, replies: “Oh yes, yes! Completely.” That her unhappiness could motivate such an affirmation is incongruous—as if to say the couple is content with being miserable or that they are monsters to one another and happy with what they have made of themselves. For Benn Crader, the cartoon epitomizes modern life.
The cartoon image of the two lovers standing in a graveyard subverts the romantic notion of love as transcendent with a comic cynicism that considers unhappiness to be the only certain result of male-female relationships. That same cynicism generates Ken Trachtenberg's description of a couple as “A pair of psychopaths under one quilt” (238), likening love to a pathological disorder. Defining human emotion in terms of...
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SOURCE: Corner, Martin. “The Novel and Public Truth: Saul Bellow's The Dean's December.” Studies in American Fiction 28, no. 1 (spring 2000): 113-28.
[In the following essay, Corner traces Bellow's progression from examining “individual consciousness to public truth” in The Dean's December.]
Can the novel, at the end of the twentieth century, still speak public truth? This is a question that has haunted Saul Bellow's fiction since Joseph, in Dangling Man, could find no connection between his private experience and the historic realities of war. But it is more than an issue for a single writer. The conscious problem of our culture since Bellow's first fiction appeared in the 1940s has been the survival of the individual before the dominating public realities of political and economic power, and this is a problem that Bellow, in his first novel, forcefully identified. For the novel as a literary form, however, the problem has been the inversion of that. For fiction, the secure ground has been private experience; more and more the novel has withdrawn into the particularities of individual consciousness, has surrendered the larger issues to politics, history, and cultural theory. Though Bellow's fiction recognizes the novel's historic investment in individual experience—his own work is centered on a succession of powerful individualities, such as Henderson, Herzog, and Sammler—it...
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SOURCE: Fitzgerald, Penelope. “When I Am Old and Gay and Full of Sleep.” Spectator (15 April 2000): 43-4.
[In the following review, Fitzgerald proclaims Ravelstein a novel about friendship.]
Old age, on the whole, is not a time to be recommended, but very old novelists are allowed to write about what they like and at the age of 85 Saul Bellow [in Ravelstein] is interested in illnesses and their recent treatment and patients who are ‘blindly recovery-bent, who have the deep and special greed of the sick when they have decided not to die’. If they have things left to do, that will be a way of keeping themselves alive.
His Mid-Western narrator is Chick, Old Chick, an unassuming scribbler with Bellow's own familiar, puzzled, confiding, deeply beguiling voice, talking half to us, half to himself. He has undertaken to write a memoir of his younger friend, Professor Abe Ravelstein, a scholarly but grossly successful teacher and writer. Unlike Chick, Ravelstein is a human being on a giant scale. Even his hands tremble, ‘not with weakness but with a tremendous eager energy that shook him when it was discharged’. All his life he had wanted—in fact, needed—the best of everything: Vuitton luggage, Cuban cigars, solid gold Mont Blanc pens, Lalique wine-glasses. Naturally this had got him into financial trouble. Chick had suggested that he might try a book based on his...
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SOURCE: Yardley, Jonathan. “Bellow's Gift.” Washington Post Book World 30, no. 15 (9-15 April 2000): 1-2.
[In the following review, Yardley contends that Ravelstein is less of a novel than a portrait of Bellow's friendship with the writer Allan Bloom.]
It is by now common knowledge in literary and publishing circles that Saul Bellow's new book [Ravelstein], though it has the form of a novel, is in fact a memoir of his intellectual sparring partner and intimate friend Allan Bloom, who died several years ago at the age of 62. Bloom, who achieved notoriety and wealth late in life with the publication of The Closing of the American Mind, was in some respects an unlikely object of Bellow's most heartfelt affections. Yet theirs was a rich friendship, out of which—and as a memorial to which—Bellow has fashioned a rich, loving and affecting book, his first full-length novel since More Die of Heartbreak (1987).
Bloom appears here as Abe Ravelstein: scholar, lecturer, provocateur, mentor, bon vivant. Younger “by twenty years” than Chick, the narrator, he knows that an early death awaits him (he is HIV-positive) and has asked Chick to write his biography: “Ravelstein's legacy to me was a subject—he thought he was giving me a subject, perhaps the best one I ever had, perhaps the best one I ever had, perhaps the only really important one.” He does not...
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SOURCE: Levi, Jonathan. “Tabletalk.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (23 April 2000): 16.
[In the following review, Levi discusses the insights and revelations found in Ravelstein.]
Ever since the publication of the Inferno, in which Dante betrayed his beloved teacher Brunetto Latini to an unsuspecting public by casting him among the Sodomites, outing your dead friends (especially those with tenure) has become a literary genre unto itself.
Saul Bellow (whose current colleagues include Dante translator Robert Pinsky) is the latest practitioner with the appearance of his twelfth novel. Ravelstein, a roman-à-clef about his friendship with the late Allan Bloom (a former colleague), who wrote the bestselling, conservative masterwork The Closing of the American Mind, before joining Ser Brunetto in the afterlife.
And yet the drama of Ravelstein is no more of the tabloid variety than is Canto XV of the Inferno. The schadenfreude certain bored insiders might feel at revelations about a Bloom, whose unenlightened ideas they can now deride as hypocrisy, is tepid at best. The most dramatic revelations are of the poet, the fiction-making memoirist himself. Bellow's Ravelstein is a Frankenstein monster created, as is all great literature, from pieces of the dead. And its power originates in its creator and his complex...
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SOURCE: Hitchens, Christopher. “The Egg-Head's Egger-On.” London Review of Books (27 April 2000): 21-3.
[In the following review, Hitchens provides a thematic analysis of Ravelstein and calls the book “a novelistic and realistic memoir” of the late author Allan Bloom.]
Novelists can be lucky in their editors, in their friends, in their mentors and even in their pupils. Sometimes they are generous or sentimental enough to fictionalise the relationship. In Keep the Aspidistra Flying, George Orwell gave his friendless, dowdy and self-pitying protagonist Comstock one true pal: the editor and patron Ravelston, proprietor of the small yet reliable magazine Antichrist. This Ravelston—some composite of Sir Richard Rees and John Middleton Murry—was a hedonistic yet guilt-ridden dilettante, good in a pinch, and soft on poets, but too easily embarrassed by brute exigence. Saul Bellow—who has already shown a vulnerability to exigent poets in his wonderful Humboldt's Gift—now presents us with Ravelstein, a hedonistic kvetch [in Ravelstein] who manifests patience towards none. As is known to all but the meanest citizens of the republic of letters, the novel is an obelisk for the late Allan Bloom, author of the 1987 shocker The Closing of the American Mind. This book, which was a late product or blooming of the University of Chicago Committee on Social Thought,...
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SOURCE: Menand, Louis. “Bloom's Gift.” New York Review of Books (25 May 2000): 17-18.
[In the following review, Menand argues that Ravelstein is a novel not only about friendship and mortality, but also focuses on the male heterosexual ego.]
Saul Bellow and Allan Bloom were friends. They taught together at the University of Chicago, and Bellow wrote the foreword to Bloom's phenomenal best seller, The Closing of the American Mind, which came out in 1987. In spite of its popularity, The Closing of the American Mind was a quirky book. Many writers tried to imitate its success as a diatribe against American higher education, but very few tried to repeat its argument. For in many ways the book was a kind of personal fantasy—a contrarian reading of a handful of old philosophy texts offered as the explanation for the “relativism” of today's professors and the soullessness of today's youth, a condition whose supreme expression, in Bloom's view, was rock music: “a muddy stream where only monsters can swim.”1
Just why The Closing of the American Mind caught fire will always be a bit of a mystery—it must have come as a surprise to readers who got that far to learn that much of what was wrong with American culture could be traced to certain theoretical deformations in the later work of Martin Heidegger—but the book's success may have had...
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SOURCE: Leonard, John. “A Closing of the American Kind.” Nation 270, no. 21 (29 May 2000): 25-30.
[In the following review, Leonard contends that it is the differences—not only the friendship—between Saul Bellow and Allan Bloom that animate Ravelstein.]
You will recall that when Augie March went to Mexico, he hooked up with an eagle, which he called Caligula. (He also ran into Leon Trotsky, navigating “by the great stars.” In this, Augie was luckier than his creator, Saul Bellow, who had an appointment in 1940 to see Trotsky on the very morning of his murder and ended up in Coyoacán looking at a corpse: “A cone of bloody bandages was on his head. His cheeks, his nose, his beard, his throat, were streaked with blood and with dried iridescent trickles of iodine.” But already I digress.) Suppose that instead of an eagle, Augie had grabbed a parrot, like a bag of Magical Realist feathers, and sneaked it back to Chicago. This might explain the marvel that knocks three times at the stained-glass window of Ravelstein.
(1) Abe Ravelstein, a political philosopher just out of intensive care and feeling shaky, is escorted by his friend Chick, a much-married older novelist, from the University of Chicago campus back to his apartment, stopping at every other corner to catch his breath. They happen, remarkably, on a flock of parrots in a clump of trees with red berries. Though...
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SOURCE: Feldman, Adam. “Soulmate in Bloom.” Gay & Lesbian Review 7, no. 4 (fall 2000): 46-7.
[In the following favorable review of Ravelstein, Feldman examines Bellow's friendship with Allan Bloom, asserting that evidence presented in the novel could potentially lead readers to conclude “that Bloom was the love of Bellow's life.”]
In his last book, Love and Friendship, Allan Bloom (better known for his best-selling opus, The Closing of the American Mind) wrote this about “intimate friendship”:
Although this overwhelming experience seems akin to the love affairs that are so frequent and so attractive in the various literary genres, it does not lend itself to literary depiction. … The eros of souls for one another, experienced by two human beings who can share insights into the nature of man and of all other things, is much less palpable, and hence less believable, than the eros of bodies.
Bloom knew the difficulties involved in writing about deep, nonsexual attachments. Those difficulties are front and center in Saul Bellow's Ravelstein, which offers a loose, memoir-like account of the author's relationship with Bloom himself, the philosophy professor who rose to national prominence in 1987 with his curmudgeonly bestseller. The Closing of the American Mind (to which Bellow wrote...
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SOURCE: Phillips, Adam. “Bellow and Ravelstein.” Raritan 20, no. 2 (fall 2000): 1-10.
[In the following review, Phillips asserts that Ravelstein is not a biography, but rather “a fiction about biography.”]
In Diana Trilling's memoir The Beginning of the Journey she tells a story about Saul Bellow to illustrate the effect that Lionel Trilling had on people. Lionel, she writes,
always retained a certain air of unassailability. There were people whom this seemed to disturb. In middle life, he lectured at the University of Chicago, and Saul Bellow, who taught there and with whom he had become pleasantly acquainted in the early fifties when Bellow was writing The Adventures of Augie March, invited him to have a drink after his talk. For their drinking place Bellow chose a bar in a desperate quarter of the city; it was the gathering place of drunks and deadbeats, a refuge of people who had been irreparably damaged by life. What other explanation of Bellow's choice could there be than the wish to test Lionel's ability to handle himself in such surroundings?
We may know what she means, we may be able to imagine what this bar was like, but her assuming our complicity in this description is, as it were, part of the problem. And it is a problem that Saul Bellow has been unusually alert to in his fiction. It...
(The entire section is 3510 words.)
SOURCE: Jacobs, Rita D. Review of Ravelstein, by Saul Bellow. World Literature Today 74, no. 4 (autumn 2000): 813.
[In the following review, Jacobs maintains that Ravelstein “is a minor exercise, albeit with an occasional flourish of mastery.”]
The art of the novel often involves transporting the reader into a hitherto unknown world, no matter how familiar the terrain may seem. And even when the novel closely mirrors reality, as graceful a novelist as Saul Bellow has usually been able to transport readers beyond the known. In fact, although there have long been attempts to identify characters in Bellow's novels with “real” people such as Delmore Schwartz and the lesser-known Jack Ludwig, Bellow has most often risen above the clichés of the roman à clef. But in some cases it is just too difficult to resist the autobiographical, both for the writer and the reader. In the case of Ravelstein it is very hard work indeed to keep the biographical information about Bellow's own life and that of his academic colleague and friend Allan Bloom out of one's mind.
The eponymous Ravelstein is a Rabelaisian academic: larger than life, judgmental yet generous, seemingly gluttonous yet with quirkily refined, if huge, appetites. His much milder anointed biographer, and the self-effacing first-person narrator, Chick, is an intellectual and emotional touchstone of sorts for...
(The entire section is 550 words.)
SOURCE: Webb, Igor. “The Demands of a Soul.” Partisan Review 68, no. 2 (spring 2001): 324-28.
[In the following essay, Webb investigates Bellow's invoking of John Maynard Keynes in Ravelstein.]
Ravelstein is a celebrated professor [in Ravelstein] of political philosophy—a character based, so it has been said everywhere, on Allan Bloom, author of The Closing of the American Mind. I'd better say right away that I know precious little about Saul Bellow's personal life, that I've never met Allan Bloom, and that anyway I do not have the stomach to believe that you can simply translate any life into fiction. The connections and disconnections between Bloom and Bellow and the connections and disconnections between Bloom and Ravelstein may have a certain interest—but not for Virginia Woolf's common reader, with whom I'm happy to identify: we want to read the book, and expect the road into its thickets to be mapped by the book itself.
Okay: so, Ravelstein is a celebrated political philosopher. He is dying of AIDS, and wants to secure his legacy. To this end he asks his friend, an aging writer called Chick—the narrator of the novel—to write his biography. That's the rhetorical premise of the book, which turns out, however, to be a kind of Chinese box of motives and meanings.
For one thing, Ravelstein has a precise idea of what the book of his life...
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SOURCE: Tandon, Bharat. “Boswell on Gatsby.” Times Literary Supplement (21 April 2001): 21.
[In the following unfavorable review, Tandon asserts that Ravelstein does not live up to its potential and that the book fails to captivate readers.]
When is a choice not a choice? This is a question which Saul Bellow's fiction has pursued with dedication and ferocity for over half a century. As early as Dangling Man (1944), his perception of the ironies of enforced leisure in a time of military purposefulness—“the derangement of days, the levelling of occasions”—made that novel so much more than the demotic Chicago Camus it could easily have been. And in later works, many with titles which now sound like landmarks in post-war American fiction, he has continued to explore the range of what constitutes human choice, always aware that one cannot avoid being enmeshed with the wills and desires of others, but that there are better or worse ways of dealing with the fact. As Stella says to the protagonist of The Adventures of Augie March, “you and I are the kind of people other people are always trying to fit into their schemes. So suppose we didn't play along, then what?” In this respect, Ravelstein feels like familiar Bellow territory—perhaps rather over-familiar. A meditation on biography and autobiography, the novel allows Bellow to focus on the question of what is most...
(The entire section is 1985 words.)
SOURCE: Hendry, Diana. “The Crowded Wilderness Within.” Spectator 287, no. 9044 (8 December 2001): 57-8.
[In the following review, Hendry traces Bellow's favorite themes in the tales of Collected Stories.]
With Bellow nearing 90, there has to be ‘A Collected’, though personally I'd prefer three slim paperbacks. Apart from the frivolous thought that this volume [Collected Stories] is too heavy to take on the train and requires strong knees in bed, Bellow is such a brilliant writer that small helpings are sufficient. A feast like this has you reaching for the metaphorical Rennies.
It's to do with the fact that Bellow gives the reader meat for the mind rather than space for the imagination. It's also to do with the particular quality of his prose, aptly defined by P. J. Kavanagh. Writing in the TLS about Bellow's last novel, Ravelstein, Kavanagh described Bellow as the one who ‘manages to cram in all that concerns him most—which also concerns us’. It's the cramming in that makes you want to come up for air every now and again. The Collected Stories is for the library shelf, possibly everyone's.
I'm not sure why the publishers have added the afterword (originally the foreword to Something to Remember Me By) in which Bellow echoes Chekhov's ‘mania for shortness’. At the end of 400-plus pages? However there's an enjoyable...
(The entire section is 833 words.)
SOURCE: Amidon, Stephen. “Seize the Day.” New Statesman (10 December 2001): 49-50.
[In the following review, Amidon identifies the unifying themes of the works in Collected Stories as the role of memory and the process of Jewish assimilation into American society.]
There seems to be a bit of mischief going on in the title of Saul Bellow's new book [Collected Stories]. It is not, you will notice, The Collected Stories—there are a number of novellas and short stories missing from this otherwise generous book, ranging from such classics as Seize the Day to the less well-known “A Father-to-Be” and “The Gonzaga Manuscripts”. Why, then, “collected”? Why not “selected”? Could it be that the author is giving us a sly thematic nudge here, using a literary commonplace to indicate a unifying concern?
My guess is yes. Collection here means recollection. For Bellow's vibrant and unforgettable characters are in fact collectors of stories, just as others might hoard butterflies, Picassos or grievances. They are on the lookout for memories, gathering them in, jealously bringing them out for a guest to examine, occasionally bestowing them as gifts on those they love. In the aptly titled “Something to Remember Me By”, for instance, an elderly man recounts a sad and funny Depression-era story of lost innocence as a form of inheritance for his only...
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SOURCE: Cronin, Gloria L. “Those Dreadful Mothers.” In A Room of His Own: In Search of the Feminine in the Novels of Saul Bellow, pp. 37-49. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2001.
[In the following essay, Cronin asserts that there is a feminine presence in Bellow's novels.]
If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate: the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is worth any number of old ladies.
—William Faulkner, Lion in the Garden
The androcentric text, by its very nature, is rarely able to see the feminine. In Bellow's middle to later novels in particular, however, even his most narcissistic monologists experience a melancholic absence, a place of emptiness, or an abyss that draws them to seek that missing element of the feminine which is symbolized in the Bellow text as the soul, the anima, the spirit of being, poetry, genuine feeling, the transcendental, or a literal woman.
Yet for all their yearning, these protagonists both seek and evade literal women who, as they are represented to us, quickly become only the women of androcentric representation. The maternal, mother matter, or maternal ground of the male protagonists' masculine physical and spiritual existence is erased or hidden from view, its only trace a nostalgically constructed sense of absence or lack in the Bellow text, a lack...
(The entire section is 5536 words.)
SOURCE: Dickstein, Morris. “Spectacles of Personality.” Times Literary Supplement (18 January 2002): 29.
[In the following favorable reviews, Dickstein provides a thematic and stylistic analysis of the works in Collected Stories.]
Just as we have had an American E. M. Forster who, as first interpreted by Lionel Trilling, was more timeless and universal, less grounded in his social origins than the British version, there now seems to be a British Saul Bellow who bears small resemblance to the American original. While critics at home have concentrated on Bellow's material—the offbeat Jewish characters, the Roman candle of deep thoughts, the often bitter jeremiads against modern culture—his British admirers, led by the reverential Martin Amis, have drawn attention to the sheer spin of his inventive sentences. By extracting Bellow from his own polemics and from the ethnic ghetto of Jewish-American writing, they offer a challenging if partial view of work that American readers had long taken for granted. Bellow's Collected Stories, with a charming anecdotal preface by his wife, Janis Bellow, and an incisive introduction by James Wood, gives subtle support to the United Kingdom version of his career. Though Bellow is not well known for his short fiction, these stories, selected to highlight his later work, feel more disciplined, more written than his longer books. While Mrs Bellow's...
(The entire section is 1922 words.)
SOURCE: Brown, John L. Review of Collected Stories, by Saul Bellow. World Literature Today 76, no. 2 (spring 2002): 149-50.
[In the following mixed review, Brown outlines what he sees as strengths and weaknesses of the works in Collected Stories.]
The collection [Collected Stories] contains thirteen stories originally published in various magazines (The New Yorker, Partisan Review) between 1951 and 1992. The volume title's reference to “stories” is somewhat misleading, since several selections such as “Him with His Foot in His Mouth” (1985) are more the length of nouvelles than of short stories. One critic comments ironically that “Bellow is such a brilliant writer that small helpings are insufficient.” The adjective collected is also misleading, since the volume at hand is the third compendium of Bellow stories, having been preceded by Mosby's Memoirs and Other Stories (1968) and Him with His Foot in His Mouth and Other Stories (1984). Moreover, two of the texts in the present collection, “Leaving the Yellow House” and “Looking for Mr. Green,” had already appeared in Mosby's Memoirs and in Him with His Foot in His Mouth, which also includes “What Kind of a Day Did You Have?,” “Cousins,” “A Silver Dish,” and “Zetland by a Character Witness.” In 1991 Viking brought out three more “tales”:...
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SOURCE: Nichols, David K. “On Bellow's Ravelstein.” Perspectives on Political Science 32, no. 1 (winter 2003): 14-21.
[In the following essay, Nichols deems Ravelstein a book about ideas, contending that “the biggest mistake that reviewers make is their failure to appreciate both the political and intellectual weight” of the novel.]
Saul Bellow has written Ravelstein as a tribute to Allan Bloom, who died in 1992, a teacher and philosopher most famous for his 1987 critique of education in The Closing of the American Mind. However, the inevitable speculation about the correspondence between Bloom the man and Ravelstein the character, or between Chick the narrator and Bellow the author, ironically may have distracted the audience from the text. Bellow has given us and given Bloom a story, and it is a story that deserves to be taken seriously. Chick begins: “Odd that mankind's benefactors should be amusing people. In America at least this is often the case. Anyone who wants to govern the country has to entertain it” (1).1 Chick clearly refers to his entertaining friend Ravelstein, whose story he is about to tell, but he may also be referring to himself as a novelist, who seeks to entertain, and if not govern at least enlighten his readers.
The biggest mistake that reviewers make is their failure to appreciate both the political and...
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SOURCE: Davis, Michael. “Unraveling Ravelstein: Saul Bellow's Comic Tragedy.” Perspectives on Political Science 32, no. 1 (winter 2003): 26-31.
[In the following essay, Davis discusses Ravelstein as a comic tragedy.]
Ravelstein begins with the word “odd”; it introduces a reflection on the amusing character of the benefactors of mankind. If this beginning is, as advertised, a “clever or wicked footnote” (2), its clever wickedness surely must consist in making us think of Abe Ravelstein as an exemplar of this oddity.1 A page later the narrator of the novel, Chick, says of the man he is memorializing, “Ravelstein was one of those large men—large, not stout” (3). This proves to be Ravelstein's leitmotif. “He was very tall” (4) (especially compared to his father who was a “fat neurotic little man” ). Ravelstein, a “tall pin- or chalk-striped dude with his bald head” (19) was “as big as any of [Michael Jackson's] body guards” (28). “This large Jewish man from Dayton” (94) was “a much larger and graver person” than Rameau's nephew (35). “Ravelstein's extended body was very large, he was nearly six and a half feet tall and his gown, which reached to the ankles of ordinary patients, ended just above his knees” (178). So, Ravelstein is larger than life—and larger than Chick.
Ravelstein was a...
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SOURCE: Valiunas, Algis. “Bellow's Progress.” Commentary 116, no. 2 (September 2003): 51-5.
[In the following essay, Valiunas traces Bellow's development as an author through his first three novels—Dangling Man, The Victim, and The Adventures of Augie March—placing Augie March within the context of mid-twentieth-century American culture.]
On the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of The Adventures of Augie March, the Library of America has made Saul Bellow the first living novelist to be admitted to its literary pantheon. The anniversary volume includes not only that breakthrough 1953 work but the two lesser known novels that preceded it, Dangling Man (1944) and The Victim (1947). It thus offers a fitting occasion to ask how he got here from there.
Bellow has not exactly disowned his two earliest novels, but he has made it clear that they were apprentice efforts, and that only with Augie March did he begin to command the voice for which he is renowned. The difference between the first two and the third stems in part from his evolving attitude toward his own Jewishness. In his 2000 biography of the novelist, James Atlas records that during his senior year at Northwestern University, Bellow had sought career guidance from the English-department chairman, and was told to forget about trying to make a profession in the field:...
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Aharoni, Ada. “Is Saul Bellow's Fiction Radical?” Studies in American Jewish Literature 14 (1995): 72-9.
Considers the radical aspect of Bellow's fiction.
Allen, Brooke. “The Adventures of Saul Bellow.” Hudson Review 54, no. 1 (spring 2001): 77-87.
Provides an overview of Bellow's life and work.
Borklund, Elmer. “How It Adds Up for Saul Bellow.” Sewanee Review 105, no. 3 (summer 1997): 436-39.
Surveys critical reaction to Bellow's oeuvre.
Corner, Martin. “Moving Outwards: Consciousness, Discourse and Attention in Saul Bellow's Fiction.” Studies in the Novel 32, no. 3 (fall 2000): 369-85.
Argues that the main characters of Bellow's fiction journey from the “separateness of individual life to the morally sustaining connectedness of a shared humanity.”
Cronin, Gloria L. A Room of His Own: In Search of the Feminine in the Novels of Saul Bellow. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2001, 193 p.
Full-length study of the feminine presence in Bellow's novels.
Orwin, Clifford. “Philosophy, Eros, Judaism.” Perspectives on Political Science 32, no. 1 (winter 2003): 11-13.
Explicates the role of Judaism in Ravelstein....
(The entire section is 366 words.)