The Adventures of Augie March Saul Bellow
Canadian-born American novelist, short story writer, editor, critic, playwright, lecturer, and memoirist.
The following entry presents criticism on Bellow's novel The Adventures of Augie March (1953) through 2003. For further information on his life and complete works, see CLC, Volumes 1, 2, 3, 6, 8, 10, 13, 15, 25, 33, 34, 63, and 79.
A marked departure from the author's earlier, more modernist novels, The Adventures of Augie March has become one of Bellow's most recognized and enduring works. Utilizing the structure of picaresque narratives, the novel chronicles the journeys of Augie March, a charismatic and entrepreneurial young man, coming of age during America's Depression and World War II eras. Bellow portrays Augie as a romantic hero, whose comic misadventures offer both nostalgic and biting commentary on restrictive social mores and the American immigrant experience. Narrated in an idiomatic Chicago-American accent, the novel emphasizes the metaphysical inertia of the protagonist as Augie passively experiences a range of emotional situations, including grief, loss, and betrayal. In 1999, when the Modern Library compiled their list of the 100 best novels of the twentieth century, The Adventures of Augie March was ranked as 81.
Plot and Major Characters
The Adventures of Augie March revolves around the remarkable life of Augie March, a Jewish American born to a poor family in the slums of Chicago, Illinois, during the Prohibition era. Augie's father abandoned his family, leaving his wife to work long hours as a seamstress in order to raise her three sons—Georgie, Simon, and Augie. Due to his mother's absence, Augie's childhood is dominated by the controlling personality of Grandma Lausch, an elderly widow living with the March family. Augie's brother, Simon, is both ambitious and intelligent with a knack for business, while his other brother, Georgie, was born mentally challenged and is eventually placed in an institution. From an early age, Augie works a variety of odd jobs, at first partnering with Simon, who seems to succeed at anything he attempts. Augie later secures a position as an assistant to William Einhorn, a crippled and circumspect real-estate broker and businessman. After leaving Einhorn's employment, Augie begins working for the Renling family, who own a successful sporting-goods store. Mr. Renling sees a great deal of potential in Augie and offers to pay for his education and legally adopt him into the Renling family—an offer that Augie eventually refuses. During this period, Simon, now a wealthy and married businessman, suggests that Augie marry his sister-in-law, Lucy. Augie attempts to court the decidedly conventional Lucy but comes to feel stifled by their relationship and decides to head off on his own to find his fortune. With the advent of the Great Depression, Augie struggles to make a living, accepting a string of low-class and transient jobs, including selling bathroom paint, grooming dogs, stealing books, and smuggling immigrants across the Canadian border. Growing tired with his lifestyle, Augie agrees to travel to Mexico with a wealthy acquaintance, Thea Fenchel, who wants to train eagles to hunt giant lizards. Once in Mexico, the couple begins a passionate affair, but after their venture fails and Augie gets injured, Thea leaves him for another man. Augie soon meets Stella, a beautiful woman whom Augie saves from the wrath of her former lover. Stella and Augie return to the United States together and are quickly married. The attractive Stella becomes a motion picture star and travels to Europe to work on a film. Augie follows his wife, but his ship is torpedoed while crossing the Atlantic, and he finds himself stranded in a small lifeboat. After being rescued, Augie joins Stella in Paris, where their marriage dissolves due to Stella's flirtatious nature and Augie's general indifference. The novel concludes with Augie working as a middleman for a wily Parisian black marketer named Mintouchian, still trying to obtain the sense of personal independence he referenced in the novel's opening lines—“I am an American, Chicago born—Chicago, that somber city—and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent. But a man's character is his fate, says Heraclitus, and in the end there isn't any way to disguise the nature of the knocks by acoustical work on the door or gloving the knuckles.”
Literary scholars have frequently interpreted The Adventures of Augie March as a parable for American optimism. The novel has also been characterized as a modern bildungsroman, chronicling Augie's progression from youthful optimist to defeated, experienced pessimist. Augie's coming of age is often viewed to parallel the development of the American consciousness from the opulent 1920s through the post-war era of the 1940s. Most commentators have noted Bellow's use of the picaresque format for the novel—labeling Augie as an archetypal picaro character—though some have argued that the recurring theme of moral awareness differentiates the novel from traditional picaresque texts. Augie March has also been examined within the tradition of Jewish American literature, with academics noting that the novel was one of the first major American novels with a Jewish protagonist. A taboo subject for many authors at the time, Bellow utilizes Augie's Judaism to comment on the American immigrant experience and the dangers of assimilation. Critics have discussed the strong metaphysical themes in Augie March, exploring Augie's quest of self-creation and yearning for a “worthwhile fate.” Some have asserted that Augie's wanderlust and penchant for nonconformity are iconic characteristics in developing young male protagonists, which can be found in such similar works as Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and J. D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye. Additionally, Augie March has been viewed as a reinterpretation of the American Adamic myth, which Bellow has recontextualized using twentieth-century values and events.
Reflecting a wide range of literary and cultural influences, The Adventures of Augie March helped to establish Bellow as a promising young American writer and was awarded the National Book Award in 1954. Several critics have considered the novel as a turning point in Bellow's literary career, tracing his stylistic development from his first two novels, The Dangling Man (1944) and The Victim (1947). Augie March has been characterized by critics as a distinctly “American” novel, embodying a literary style and thematic preoccupations that reflect the sensibilities of the American people during the first half of the twentieth century. Scholars have applauded the exuberance of Bellow's prose style in Augie March, particularly his idiomatic mix of literary English and American slang. Additionally, critics have commended the wealth of observational and character detail in the novel, noting Bellow's skill with rendering sharp and accurate of portrayals of people and places—most notably, the Chicago neighborhoods where Augie spent his childhood. However, some have argued that, despite the novel's attention to detail, Bellow's characters read as one-dimensional caricatures. Others have faulted the novel's lack of plot structure, with various reviewers debating whether this reflects Augie's questing, spiritual nature or Bellow's inability to construct a formal narrative. Due to the novel's emphasis on picaresque and bildungsroman elements, the novel has often been compared to the works of Salinger, Twain, and Ralph Ellison. In 2003 a variety of commentators offered critical reevaluations of Augie March on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of its initial publication. Leonard Kriegel has stated that Augie March, “[i]n its language as well as in the protagonist Bellow created, it remains one of the truly memorable achievements in American fiction.”