Discussion Topics (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
What qualities characterize the typical Bellovian hero?
What qualities characterize the Bellovian antagonist or villain?
Discuss the role of the thinker in Saul Bellow’s novels.
Discuss the treatment of the “loser” or the “failure” in Bellow’s novels.
What is Bellow’s attitude toward modern culture?
Other Literary Forms (Critical Survey of Short Fiction, Second Revised Edition)
Achievements (Critical Survey of Short Fiction, Second Revised Edition)
Few would deny Saul Bellow’s place in contemporary American literature. Any assessment of his contributions would have to account for his realistic yet inventive style, the rich Jewish heritage upon which he draws, the centrality of Chicago in his fictional world, the role of the intellectual, and a fundamental wit, rare in contemporary American fiction. In 1976, Bellow’s achievement was internationally recognized when he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize in Literature. He also won the 1988 National Medal of Arts and four National Book Awards—for The Adventures of Augie March in 1954, for Herzog in 1965, for Mr. Sammler’s Planet (1970) in 1971, and for The Bellarosa Connection (1989) in 1990. In 1997, The Actual (1997) won the National Jewish Book Award, given by the Jewish Book Council.
Other literary forms (Critical Survey of Long Fiction, Fourth Edition)
In addition to his many novels, Saul Bellow published short stories, plays, and a variety of nonfiction. His stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Commentary, Partisan Review, Hudson Review, Esquire, and other periodicals, and his collections of short stories include Mosby’s Memoirs, and Other Stories (1968) and Him with His Foot in His Mouth, and Other Stories (1984). His full-length play The Last Analysis was produced for a short run on Broadway in 1964, and three one-act plays, Orange Soufflé, A Wen, and Out from Under, were staged in 1966 in the United States and Europe. Another one-act play, The Wrecker, was published, though not staged, in 1954. Throughout his career, Bellow wrote numerous articles on a variety of topics. In 1976, he published an account of his trip to Israel, To Jerusalem and Back: A Personal Account.
Achievements (Critical Survey of Long Fiction, Fourth Edition)
Often described as one of America’s most important novelists, Saul Bellow earned enormous critical praise and a wide readership as well. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1976. His popularity is, perhaps, surprising, because his novels do not contain the usual ingredients one expects to find in best-selling fiction—suspense, heroic figures, and graphic sex and violence. In fact, his novels are difficult ones that wrestle with perplexing questions, sometimes drawing from esoteric sources such as the anthroposophy of Rudolf Steiner and the psychology of Wilhelm Reich. One of America’s most erudite novelists, Bellow often alluded to the work of philosophers, psychologists, poets, anthropologists, and other writers in his fiction. He once stated that modern novelists should not be afraid to introduce complex ideas into their work. He found nothing admirable about the anti-intellectualism of many modern writers and believed that most of them failed to confront the important moral and philosophical problems of the modern age. Opposed to the glib pessimism and the “complaint” of the dominant tradition of modern literature, Bellow struggled for affirmation at a time when many writers viewed such a possibility as merely an object of ridicule.
In contrast to many other American writers, who produced their best work when they were young and then wrote mediocre or poor fiction as they grew older, Bellow is known for the consistent high quality of his work. Moreover, his fiction reveals an immense versatility. In his work, one finds highly structured Flaubertian form as well as picaresquenarrative, naturalistic realism as well as romance.
Bellow earned a reputation as a master of narrative voice and perspective, a great comic writer (perhaps the best in America since Mark Twain), and a fine craftsman whose remarkable control of the language allowed him to move easily from the highly formal to the colloquial. Most important, his novels illuminate the dark areas of the psyche and possess immense emotional power. Bellow once complained that many contemporary authors and critics are obsessed with symbolism and hidden meanings. A literary work becomes an abstraction for them, and they contrive to evade the emotional power inherent in literature. Bellow’s novels do not suffer from abstraction; they deal concretely with passion, death, love, and other fundamental concerns, evoking the whole range of human emotions for his readers.
Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
American Studies International 35 (February, 1997). A special issue on Bellow, in which a number of distinguished contributors discuss the importance of Bellow’s work as a symbol of the civilization of the United States. The issue contains tributes, critiques, and analyses of Bellow’s thought and art.
Atlas, James. Bellow: A Biography. New York: Random House, 2000. Full and accessible biography was written with the cooperation of its subject. Includes bibliography and index.
Bach, Gerhard, ed. The Critical Response to Saul Bellow. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1995. Substantial collection presents two to five reviews and essays on each of Bellow’s novels. Includes an informative editor’s introduction, a chronology, and an interview with Bellow.
Bellow, Saul. “Moving Quickly: An Interview with Saul Bellow.” Salmagundi (Spring/Summer, 1995): 32-53. In this special section, Bellow discusses the relationship between authors and characters, John Updike, intellectuals, gender differences, Sigmund Freud, and kitsch versus avant-garde art.
Bigler, Walter. Figures of Madness in Saul Bellow’s Longer Fiction. New York: Peter Lang, 1998. Examines the psychological makeup of Bellow’s characters. Includes bibliographical references.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Saul Bellow. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. Omnibus of reviews and essays on Bellow’s work gives a good sense of the early critical responses. Includes commentary by writers such as Robert Penn Warren, Malcolm Bradbury, Tony Tanner, Richard Chase, and Cynthia Ozick.
Boyers, Robert. “Captains of Intellect.” Salmagundi (Spring/Summer, 1995): 100-108. Part of a special section on Bellow. A discussion of characters in stories from the collection...
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