The Adventures of Augie March

by Saul Bellow

Start Free Trial

Charles J. Rolo (review date October 1953)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Rolo, Charles J. “A Rolling Stone.” Atlantic Monthly 192, no. 4 (October 1953): 86-7.

[In the following review, Rolo argues that The Adventures of Augie March presents the “archetypal” story of “the American as a rolling stone” but notes that the novel's protagonist lacks emotional depth.]

Saul Bellow, who is now publishing his third novel, The Adventures of Augie March, has taken a fruitful hint from Cervantes's great parody of a classic Spanish type. His hero-narrator—in whom there is a “laughing creature” forever rising up—unfolds to us a slightly kidding but essentially serious version of an archetypal American saga: the saga of the American as a rolling stone, an irrepressible explorer who doesn't quite know who he is and is always trying “to become what I am”; who keeps seeking the fullest experience of life. The self-educated Augie tells his story in a freshly personal style which intermixes slang and literary English, and which has a quality rare in contemporary American fiction—a great variety of tone: grimness and exuberance, touches of clowning and touches of the fantastic; a current of comedy and intimations of the tragic.

Augie March comes of a poor Jewish family in Chicago. His father has vanished, and the ruling influence of his childhood is Grandma Lausch, who has known plushier days in Odessa. This picturesque old matriarch is one of a dozen or more sharply individual characterizations in Mr. Bellow's spacious novel, whose settings range from the slums to the abodes and playgrounds of the rich.

By the time he is a high-school junior and the Depression has set in, Augie has sampled half a dozen jobs; has once been fired for stealing; and has dabbled in more serious crime. A lucky break turns him into a salesman of expensive sporting goods on the millionaire circuit in Evanston. His wealthy employers take him into their home; polish him up generally; and acquaint him with the life of luxury. But when they want to adopt him and arrange his future, Augie moves on. And when his hardheaded, successful brother has found a rich wife for him and staked him to a job, Augie moves on again.

He moves from job to job, from girl to girl. He has a consuming and bizarre love affair with a glamorous millionairess who takes him to Mexico to help her train eagles, and who eventually leaves him down and out. When we see the last of him—though he is now married to a lovely and erratic siren—he is still the adventurer, chasing after big deals in Europe on behalf of an Armenian tycoon.

With its variousness, its vitality, its strong sense that life is worth living, Mr. Bellow's novel is a notable achievement, and it should be one of the year's outstanding successes. I cannot suppress a slight regret that a novelist with as large a talent as Mr. Bellow's has not tried to take us more deeply inside his hero. His story, at times, comes perilously close to being a catalogue of actions. It certainly tells us all about Augie March; but I do not even begin to know and understand him in the way the reader knows and understands, say, Stendhal's Julien Sorel.

Introduction

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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...

(This entire section contains 1240 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

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.”

Major Themes

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.

Critical Reception

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.”

T. E. Cassidy (review date 2 October 1953)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Cassidy, T. E. “From Chicago.” Commonweal 58, no. 26 (2 October 1953): 636.

[In the following review, Cassidy characterizes The Adventures of Augie March as a series of narrative vignettes and contends that “there is no real power here and no tremendous insight that Bellow certainly was striving to achieve.”]

Augie March lives quite a life [in The Adventures of Augie March]. Up from the depths of poverty to the heights of success, back down, back up, and all in most peculiar fashion. Jobs, journeys, jolts—and women, women, women. Crime and college, labor unions and athletic clubs, Chicago and Mexico, slums and society, thievery and high honor: these form the panorama for Augie. And that's the book. It's a chronicle of an age and a case history of assorted human beings, most of whom are engaged, in one way or another, in using their fellow-men and helping or hurting their families and friends. A good many of these people are psychopathic; at best they have interesting eccentricities, and at worst they are criminals. And they are colorful, sometimes, and boring at other times. Augie himself never quite arrives anywhere and unless he is tormenting himself, he never is quite happy.

Saul Bellow has some fine things in this book. The characterization is complete to the point of exhaustion. The dialogue, when it's on-the-spot exchange, is sharp. When his people wander and meander in the realm of philosophy, garden variety or formal, they are windy and repetitious, and sound like cheap imitations of Proustians. The liberal-radical overtones of some sections are overdone and do not ring with authenticity. For Augie to break off his organizing activity for a quick but grand passion with one of the organizees, and then to flee to the arms of a wealthy nymphomaniac, is almost comic opera, twentieth century style.

But the best and the weirdest episode is the sojourn in Mexico with the latter lady. The two train an eagle to catch lizards, and the eagle is a flop. The society that surrounds them is full of nuts and cranks, and the eagle will catch anything and everything in the animal kingdom, except a mongoose. The Mexican stay is full of riot and rot, and at times is supremely funny.

The portraits of old families and their ties and splits are in great style. Indeed, several of them could be simply extracted and presented as very thorough national and racial profiles. These are the portraits that make the book, because as a novel there is no depth and no great theme. All the events are loosely tied, and people run in and out of the various stages of Augie's strange progress through life and the world. The one constant thread is the great but bumpy love between Augie and his money-worshipping brother, Simon. But there is no real power here and no tremendous insight that Bellow certainly was striving to achieve. I suppose the scene with Augie in a lifeboat with a maniac, off the Canary Islands, is as typical of the work as any. It's that kind of a book.

Principal Works

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Dangling Man (novel) 1944

The Victim (novel) 1947

The Adventures of Augie March (novel) 1953

Seize the Day (novel) 1956

Henderson the Rain King (novel) 1959

Great Jewish Short Stories [editor and author of the introduction] (short stories) 1963

Recent American Fiction: A Lecture (lectures) 1963

Herzog (novel) 1964

The Last Analysis (play) 1964

*Under the Weather (plays) 1966

Mosby's Memoirs and Other Stories (short stories) 1968

Mr. Sammler's Planet (novel) 1970

Humboldt's Gift (novel) 1975

To Jerusalem and Back: A Personal Account (memoir) 1976

The Dean's December (novel) 1981

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 (novel) 1997

Ravelstein (novel) 2000

Collected Stories (short stories) 2001

*Originally first performed in London in June 1966, Under the Weather is comprised of three one-act plays—A Wen,Orange Soufflé, and Out from Under.Under the Weather has also been published under the title The Bellow Plays.

Robert Penn Warren (review date 2 November 1953)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Warren, Robert Penn. “The Man with No Commitments.” New Republic 129, no. 14 (2 November 1953): 22-3.

[In the following review, Warren traces Bellow's development as a writer and maintains that The Adventures of Augie March is a “rich, various, fascinating, and important book, and from now on any discussion of fiction in America in our time will have to take account of it.”]

The Adventures of Augie March is the third of Saul Bellow's novels, and by far the best one. It is, in my opinion a rich, various, fascinating, and important book, and from now on any discussion of fiction in America in our time will have to take account of it. To praise this novel should not, however, be to speak in derogation of the two earlier ones, The Dangling Man and The Victim. Both of these novels clearly indicated Saul Bellow's talent, his sense of character, structure, and style. Though The Dangling Man did lack narrative drive, it was constantly interesting in other departments, in flashes of characterization, in social and psychological comment. In The Victim, however, Bellow developed a high degree of narrative power and suspense in dealing with materials that in less skillful hands would have invited an analytic and static treatment. These were not merely books of promise. They represented—especially The Victim—a solid achievement, a truly distinguished achievement, and should have been enough to win the author a public far larger than became his. They did win the attention of critics and of a hard core of discriminating readers, but they were not popular.

The Dangling Man and The Victim were finely wrought novels of what we may, for lack of a more accurate term, call the Flaubert-James tradition. Especially The Victim depended much on intensification of effect by tightness of structure, by limitations on time, by rigid economy in structure of scene, by placement and juxtaposition of scenes, by the unsaid and withheld, by a muting of action, by a scrupulous reserved style. The novel proved that the author had a masterful control of the method, not merely fictional good manners, the meticulous good breeding which we ordinarily damn by the praise “intelligent.”

It would be interesting to know what led Saul Bellow to turn suddenly from a method in which he was expert and in which, certainly, he would have scored triumphs. It would be easy to say that it had been from the beginning a mistake for him to cultivate this method, to say that he was a victim of the critical self-consciousness of the novel in our time, to say that in his youthful innocence he had fallen among the thieves of promise, the theorizers. Or it would be easy to say that the method of the earlier books did not accommodate his real self, his deepest inspiration and that as soon as he liberated himself from the restriction of the method he discovered his own best talent.

These things would be easy to say but hard to prove. It would be equally easy to say that the long self-discipline in the more obviously rigorous method had made it possible for Bellow now to score a triumph in the apparent formlessness of the autobiographical-picaresque novel, and to remember, as a parallel, that almost all the really good writers of free verse had cultivated an ear by practice in formal metrics. I should, as a matter of fact, be inclined to say that The Adventures of Augie March may be the profit on the investment of The Dangling Man and The Victim, and to add that in a novel of the present type we can't live merely in the hand-to-mouth way of incidental interests in scene and character, that if such a novel is to be fully effective the sense of improvisation must be a dramatic illusion, the last sophistication of the writer, and that the improvisation is really a pseudo-improvisation, and that the random scene or casual character that imitates the accidental quality of life must really have a relevance, and that the discovery, usually belated, of this relevance is the characteristic excitement of the genre. That is, in this genre the relevance is deeper and more obscure, and there is, in the finest examples of the genre, a greater tension between the random life force of the materials and the shaping intuition of the writer.

It is the final distinction, I think, of The Adventures of Augie March that we do feel this tension, and that it is a meaningful fact. It is meaningful because it dramatizes the very central notion of the novel. The hero Augie March is a very special kind of adventurer, a kind of latter-day example of the Emersonian ideal Yankee who could do a little of this and a little of that, a Chicago pragmatist happily experimenting in all departments of life, work, pleasure, thought, a hero who is the very antithesis of one of the most famous heroes of our time, the Hemingway hero, in that his only code is codelessness and his relish for experience is instinctive and not programmatic. This character is, of course, the character made for the random shocks and aimless corners of experience, but he is not merely irresponsible. If he wants freedom from commitment, he also wants wisdom, and in the end utters a philosophy, the philosophy embodied by the French serving maid Jacqueline, big-legged and red-nosed and ugly, standing in a snowy field in Normandy, hugging still her irrepressibly romantic dream of going to Mexico.

But is this comic and heroic philosophy quite enough, even for Augie? Augie himself, I hazard, scarcely thinks so. He is still a seeker, a hoper, but a seeker and hoper aware of the comedy of seeking and hoping. He is, in fact, a comic inversion of the modern stoic, and the comedy lies in the tautology of his wisdom—our best hope is hope. For there is a deep and undercutting irony in the wisdom and hope, and a sadness even in Augie's high-heartedness, as we leave him standing with Jacqueline in the winter field on the road toward Dunkerque and Ostend. But to return to the proposition with which this discussion opened: if Augie plunges into the aimless ruck of experience, in the end we see that Saul Bellow has led him through experience toward philosophy. That is, the aimless ruck had a shape, after all, and the shape is not that of Augie's life but of Saul Bellow's mind. Without that shape, and the shaping mind, we would have only the limited interest in the random incidents.

The interest in the individual incidents is, however, great. In The Victim the interest in any one episode was primarily an interest in the overall pattern, but here most incidents, and incidental characters, appeal first because of their intrinsic qualities, and, as we have said, our awareness of their place in the overall pattern dawns late on us. In incident after incident, there is brilliant narrative pacing, expert atmospheric effect, a fine sense of structure of the individual scene. In other words, the lessons learned in writing the earlier books are here applied in another context.

As for characterization, we find the same local fascination. The mother, the grandmother, the feeble-minded brother, the brother drunk on success, the whole Einhorn family, Thea, the Greek girl—they are fully realized, they compel our faithful attention and, in the end, our sympathy. As a creator of character, Saul Bellow is in the great tradition of the English and American novel, he has the fine old relish of character for character's sake, and the sort of tolerance which Santayana commented on in Dickens by saying that it was the naturalistic understanding that is the nearest thing to Christian charity.

It is, in a way, a tribute, though a back-handed one, to point out the faults of Saul Bellow's novel, for the faults merely make the virtues more impressive. The novel is uneven. Toward the last third the inspiration seems to flag now and then. Several episodes are not carried off with the characteristic elan, and do not, for me at least, take their place in the thematic pattern. For instance, the Trotsky episode or the whole Stella affair, especially in the earlier stages. And a few of the characters are stereotypes, for example, Stella again. In fact, it is hard to see how she got into the book at all except by auctorial fiat, and I am completely baffled to know what the author thought he was doing with her, a sort of vagrant from some literary province lying north- northeast of the Cosmopolitan Magazine. Furthermore, several critics have already said that the character of Augie himself is somewhat shadowy. This, I think, is true, and I think I know the reason: it is hard to give substance to a character who has no commitments, and by definition Augie is the man with no commitments. This fact is a consequence of Bellow's basic conception, but wouldn't the very conception have been stronger if Augie had been given the capacity for deeper commitments, for more joy and sorrow? He might, at least, have tried the adventurer's experiment in those things? That is, the character tends now to be static, and the lesson that Augie has learned in the end is not much different from the intuition with which he started out. He has merely learned to phrase it. There is one important reservation which, however, I should make in my criticism of Augie. His very style is a powerful device of characterization. It does give us a temper, a texture of mind, a perspective of feeling, and it is, by and large, carried off with a grand air. Which leads me to the last observation that the chief release Saul Bellow has found in this book may be the release of a style, for he has found, when he is at his best, humor and eloquence to add to his former virtues.

W. M. Frohock (essay date winter 1968)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Frohock, W. M. “Saul Bellow and His Penitent Picaro.” Southwest Review 53, no. 1 (winter 1968): 36-44.

[In the following essay, Frohock challenges the traditional idea of The Adventures of Augie March as a picaresque novel, perceiving Augie March to be more of a penitent than a picaro lead character.]

In one way, Saul Bellow's novels are very much alike: the stories focus on the special predicament of a single individual, the importance of the other characters is relatively small in comparison, and such glimpses as one gets from them of a surrounding society or of the world at large are relatively incidental. The hero's essential discomfort comes from the trouble he has in coping with life itself, the overwhelming job of just living: the central figure in Dangling Man (1944) is unhappily suspended while he waits for the draft to come and get him; The Victim (1947) has a man tortured by his personal guilts who sounds somewhat as if he had wandered in from a novel by Dostoevski; The Adventures of Augie March (1953) and Henderson the Rain King (1959) exploit heroes trapped in the quirks of their own personalities; Moses, in Herzog (1964), gets so entangled in who he is that he has to be rescued from the slough. All have trouble dealing with women who, on the whole, do not sound very hard to deal with, and each in his own special way has a talent for saying and doing the wrong thing.

Enough of us recognize ourselves, apparently, in these confessions to give Bellow a reputation for superior achievement. Over the last decade and a half it has become something of a critical cliché that he is the most accomplished of current American novelists. Doubtless he deserves the distinction, at least so long as we refuse to count among our compatriots such part-time residents as Vladimir Nabokov. Once Nabokov has been excluded, Bellow wins almost by default, at least in the field of novelists of his own generation, emergent shortly after World War II and arriving in commanding positions during the early fifties. The two most likely to challenge him in public esteem, J. D. Salinger and Ralph Ellison, have written much less than he and are even in danger of being forgotten.

Still, it is somewhat ironic that we should be telling Bellow that he is the best in the business at the present writing, and saying almost in the same breath that we like him best for books written fifteen or twenty years ago. And this we do almost invariably: Dangling Man and The Adventures of Augie March are the common favorites, with, it would seem, the preference, as between these two, falling quite regularly on the second.

There may be a perfectly simple historical reason why Herzog and Henderson should not please us as deeply as do the earlier books. The climate was different when the earlier ones appeared. We had just caught on that we had been living through The Age of Anxiety. From the Existentialists we had picked up the idea that Angst is a standard part of the human condition. We had become aware of books like Fear and Trembling, and had come to think of Notes from Underground as speaking especially to, and of, us. Kafka had convinced us that we had a broad streak of insect in us all. But twenty years have accustomed us to living with our neuroses, and today no one protests much when someone like Norman O. Brown defines, and even glorifies, the human as the one animal capable of being “sick.” The change in atmosphere perhaps explains why the common reaction to Herzog and Henderson is one of amused indifference, when not of vague annoyance, at having to listen to so much talk about so little. These books may be a little out of date.

But such a reason should not be enough to explain the disposition of truly responsible criticism, since anyone pretending to critical responsibility should be able to see through himself well enough to make allowances for the pressure exerted by the mood of a given moment. If recent intellectual history is an adequate explanation of what has happened, critics as such should go out of business. If I am not ready to do so, it is because I think that there is another aspect of Bellow's present status with the literate public to be looked into.

Herzog and Henderson reflect Bellow's growing suspicion of literary form as such. Whereas Dangling Man is tightly organized on the revered model of the diary-novel, with the narrator telling his story installment by installment and not knowing what the outcome will be, and whereas Augie March adopts and adapts the equally established picaresque form, it would be hard to affirm that the novels Bellow has published more recently follow any recognizable model at all. The novelist himself has made it clear that the change was intentional.

Now Bellow is anything but a frivolous type. Between novels he has served on college faculties and frequented various think-tanks. His occasional pronouncements on literary subjects reveal acute awareness of the issues involved, and make it quite clear that if he cared to take the time he could be as successful a critic as he is a novelist. In him—and several others of his generation—we have what has been said from time to time not to flourish in America, a Man-of-Letters, and the exact opposite of the once popular stereotype who holds himself to be, as Faulkner once put it, “just a writer, not a literary gent.” And in consequence one has to take seriously, and with respect, his reaction against our contemporary overconcern with technique and form.

Yet, unless I am mistaking mere coincidence for a matter of cause and effect, the record seems to show that his decision was wrong. In either case the facts are the same: Augie March is the latest of Bellow's novels to show a marked concern for form, and it is also the last in which a hero does not ultimately submerge under the incessant flow of his own gabbiness.

For the weakness of the kind of confession novel we so often get today is that the hero-narrator behaves as if he had mistaken his reader for either a psychiatrist or a priest. He expects something more than an interested hearing of his story, some kind of relief, some sort of absolution. The difference between Augie March on the one hand and Herzog and Henderson on the other is that while Henderson gets out of breath from beating his own breast, and Herzog is terribly wound up in the knowledge that there is something he should accuse himself of if he can only find out what it is, Augie is aware of himself as a storyteller with certain obligations toward his audience. Augie talks; the others blurt.

Accordingly, the reader of the latest novels finds himself increasingly tempted to masquerade as psychiatrist. “Herzog, do you want to know why it is you can't stop writing all those letters? Of course you don't, but here are a few suggestions you may want to think over some time. You can even figure out for yourself why you slapped your brakes on so hard in Chicago.” “Henderson, put down that nasty kitten a minute and we'll figure out the real reason for your running off to Africa.” It is even somewhat frustrating to know that Herzog and Henderson will never stop to listen, because their hope of therapy is in their own words, not in ours.

Catholic seminarians learn before they are ordained about a type of penitent who just loves to confess, to paint himself several shades blacker than he is, and, unless cautioned, to fish up any amount of circumstantial detail. (Aldous Huxley has a female in one of his novels who feels defeated because a priest interrupted her confession just as it was getting interesting, with a gentle “No details, please.”) What else is a Herzog?

Some wit has asked what you call it when you have what the trade calls guilt-feelings and know jolly well that you deserve to have them. A less sophisticated age than ours might talk about unquiet conscience: you know you have been a louse and feel compelled to do something about it. But what can you do? In one way or another, the answer has to be that you talk.

And if you are just talking about yourself, everything you feel a need to say is relevant. You just babble along. A recent reviewer has referred to Bellow as “an old gossip.” This is a case of guilt by association: it isn't Bellow who gossips, but those characters of his. Anyone who confesses is very likely to confess not only for himself but for everyone whose life happens to touch his. (But for Jean-Jacques Rousseau's melodious yawp, for example, Madame de Warens would have gone on the records simply as a kindly, hospitable, and sanctified lady with a penchant for aiding the youthful poor.) Hence the feeling one gets of listening to gossip; it is inseparable from the logorrhea that afflicts the confessing characters.

Obviously it is not the choice of first-person narration, in itself, that releases this gabbiness. Herzog is actually in the third person, but oh those letters! Certain first-person narrators, like Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises, are downright inarticulate in comparison. But the difference between Barnes and the later heroes of Saul Bellow is an absence of compulsion. The voice in The Sun Also Rises is more like the sound of written discourse than like what in Henderson becomes an endless dramatic monologue. Henderson, in other words, is a bore talking about his favorite subject—himself—but Barnes is politely telling a story that would interest him even if he had not been a participant in it.

That this is also the case of Augie March explains in a very considerable degree the superiority of his Adventures to Henderson, and is owing, I think, to Bellow's awareness of the demands of the picaresque form. And this last, of course, despite the fact that a picaresque novel with a Jew for a hero has to be seen to be imagined.

For it is very hard to remember any kind of novel having a Jewish character at or near the center of the action that does not overflow with moral concern. Even Budd Schulberg's Sammy, whose claim on being the most complete stinker in modern fiction is strong, is condemned, intentionally, by everything his author makes him do and say. The picaro, on the other hand, is invariably marked by a kind of moral indifference to his own doings—an arrested development of moral sense—that is his most constant, if least winning, characteristic. From Lazarillo de Tormes down to Gil Blas he is eminently indifferent to the matter of right and wrong, and monumentally incapable of self-examination. Consequently the concept of a Jewish picaro is hard to accept.

Actually, there is very little in The Adventures of Augie March to make the idea more acceptable. A picaresque novel is the pseudo-autobiography of a character who in childhood is pushed out of his home by the poverty of his parents, takes to the road in order to keep himself alive, falls into knavery and crime because such a life promises to feed him, and as a result meets with a variety of adventures. Not even in such respects is Augie a complete picaro. It is true that his mother is poor, but not so poor that he has to leave home early: welfare agencies are there to be tapped, the family eats, and while Augie falls into criminal ways his elder brother, subjected to all the same conditions, does not. Possibly such differences as these, as well as Augie's inability to avoid getting more education than the old picaros could ever find, are merely the result of putting the new picaro in a modern urban, and democratic, culture. But at the same time it must be admitted that the culture of Chicago is not responsible for Augie's discovery, which begins early in the story, that he has taken to picaresque ways because of a defect in himself. He is the kind of guy who falls in unresistingly with what other people want, or, as he put it himself at one point, is “too easy to recruit.”

In other words, he has the moral sensitivity that the old picaros always lack, and The Adventures of Augie March becomes, among other things, a modern novel of self-recognition. In a way, Augie's attitude toward the criminal parts of his career is authentic. Like the Spanish picaros, he wouldn't insist on stealing if another way of making a living were as convenient; he isn't a determinedly vindictive enemy of society; and he has the picaro's characteristic indifference to disguising the nature of his behavior. He doesn't dispute the going values of the culture he lives in or try to transmute them into something else: theft is a crime, and for a crime you get put in jail: he doesn't question the rightness of the system, but does refuse to let the thought bother him unnecessarily. Yet at the same time it is true that he says at one point, “He was largely willing to be honest but not over strapped by conscience.” And one also finds him saying, “On the other hand I lacked a true sense of being a criminal, the sense that I was on the wrong side of the universal wide line with the worse or weaker side of humanity, carrying brow-marks or mutilated thumbs and split ears and noses.” Despite his conformity to the traditional pattern in some respects, such remarks remove him decisively from the ranks of the orthodox.

The old picaros simply did not say such things, or take such a tone. Either of these statements would be reasonably applicable to characters like Lazarillo or Marcos de Obregon. But it is entirely impossible to imagine their saying such things either about themselves or about someone else, simply because to them the idea would not seem relevant to anything. And the fact of its relevance for Augie March, as much as his discovery of his own moral defect, puts his story in a completely different moral climate.

This presence of moral awareness is accountable for the immense human richness of Bellow's novel as contrasted with those of the picaresque tradition. The old picaro, once he is off on his journeying, does indeed meet all sorts and conditions of men. They are social or professional types: thieves, scamps, and rascals like himself, servants, soldiers, lawyers, priests, judges, doctors—the whole gamut. So, in his way, does Augie March meet a wide variety. But of the numerous dispositions one can take toward one's fellow men the old picaro is largely limited to one: they are adversaries whom he must trick before they can trick him, beat before he is beaten, and whom it would be folly to trust. Seen from this one angle they tend to become the rapidly sketched, stereotyped representatives of large groups rather than individuals. In contrast, Augie's interest in the people around him, although it invariably includes the practical and prudential, normally transcends these: he is curious about the people he meets, and often without reference to whatever effect they may have on his own life. Such curiosity is contagious and infects readers. Augie's affection for the human race is catching.

So too is his awareness of the situations in which people live and work. For example:

… In Woolworth's cellar we unpacked crockery from barrels so enormous that you could walk into them; we scooped out stale straw and threw it in the furnace. Or we loaded paper into the giant press and baled it. It was foul down there from the spoiled food and mustard cans, old candy, and the straw and paper. For lunch we went upstairs. Simon refused to take sandwiches from home; he said we needed a hot meal when we were working. For twenty-five cents we got two hotdogs, a mug of root beer, and pie, the dogs in cotton-quality rolls, dripping with the same mustard that made the air bad below. But it was the figure you cut as an employee, on an employee's footing with the girls, in workclothes, and being of that tin-tough, creaking, jazzy bazaar of hardware, glassware, chocolate, chickenfeed, drygoods, oilcloth and song hits—that was the big thing; and even being the Atlases of it, under the floor, hearing how the floor bore up under the ambling weight of hundreds, with the fanning, breathing movie organ next door and the rumble descending from the trolleys on Chicago Avenue—the bloody-rinded Saturday gloom of wind-borne ash, and blackened forms of five-story buildings rising up to a blind Northern dimness from the Christmas blaze of shops.

I take it that the unmediated, experiential realness of such a passage needs no comment. What is relevant here is that such intense and almost uncomfortable closeness to the phenomena of life is not characteristic of the Spanish picaresque, since the old picaros do not linger so long over the brute-stuff of existence, but take it more or less for granted. Ultimately, of course, such closeness is a moral matter, and testifies to a most unpicaresque concern for people and for the quality of their lives. The same concern is reflected in Bellow's style.

In telling his own story, the old picaro was, of course, limited by his lack of education. For him to use a style of any noteworthy elevation would immediately put him out of character. (The unknown author of the Lazarillo, aware of both Aristotle and the limitations of his central character, apologizes gracefully and elaborately for the style his subject imposes upon him.) Hence a tone of extreme matter-of-factness relieved not by occasional mounting into a higher emotional register but by an almost constant play of wryly ironic, often satirical humor.

Here, once more, Bellow takes what he wants and leaves the rest. The fundamental tone of his novel is as matter-of-fact as that of any of the Spaniards. But Augie's hit-or-miss and at the same time extensive education permits a somewhat wider range of variations, especially when he falls into one of his occasional moments of despair, and, as well, a freer and at the same time more specific use of descriptive language—witness the last sentence of the passage quoted above. In this Bellow takes certain liberties with the Spanish model, but on the whole remains remarkably faithful to it.

What one misses is the humor. Unless I am being completely imperceptive, there is next to none in The Adventures of Augie March. Augie's similarity to the picaresque hero does not include any capacity for enjoying his own trickery, or for seeing the joke in his own misfortunes. He has much more of the morose masochism of the schlamazel—the type who, when the schlemiel spills the soup, is always sitting where it will land in his lap. And accordingly irony is absent.

The old Spanish model worked on the assumption that his particular experience of life would have been impossible if the world were what the affluent say it is. The church, for example, gives him a set of principles he would not be displeased to live by—if he could only do so and go on living. Likewise there would be nothing really wrong with living within the law—if he could afford it. This disparity between what is said to be, and what in fact is, strikes the picaro as eternally funny. Augie March is possibly too aware of his own deficiency, too ready to take the moral responsibility for what happens to him, for him to enjoy the humor of his situation. Hence, he has more in common with Herzog and Henderson than with any picaro whomsoever. Whatever else may be said about picaros, such characters are completely at home in their own skins, and live at peace with their own personalities as Augie does not. He takes part in a robbery, lives by stealing textbooks, helps a girl get an abortion, baby-sits his lady friend's American eagle, helps another girl run away from her husband, simply because he is Augie March; as he sees it, a man's character is his fate, and his own fate has nothing to recommend it.

When he puts together the notes that make up his story, he has been through World War II and he and Stella are in France, where she is working in movies and he operates in the black market as agent for their friend Mintouchian, having once more been “recruited.” By the time he reaches this point his idea of the nature of his weakness is complete. I am more and more inclined to read The Adventures a little as if it were one of those novels like Absalom, Absalom!, in which the narrator grasps the meaning of his story only as he is telling it. If this is the right reading, we are miles away not only from the picaresque in its pure state—since the picaro has no trouble understanding himself—but even from such corrupted picaresque stories as Moll Flanders and Grimmelshausen's Simplicissimus.

The narrators of this last pair are reformed characters. They have been through the mill, and now know that what they did was wrong. The cautionary tone is recurrent: their kind of conduct is something the reader should avoid. They now avoid it themselves, being older and wiser, and also better, people. But Augie is only older and wiser.

Augie's unassuaged discomfort is what makes this novel so typical of its time, in the sense that The Invisible Man and Catcher in the Rye are also typical. But whereas Ellison's and Salinger's heroes are preternaturally innocent, pre-Adamic characters who are tortured by a world where innocence is out of place, Augie is the prisoner of his knowledge of his own un-innocence. Holden Caulfield is driven underground by his having to live with other men; Augie's trouble comes from his having to live with himself.

So, in the last analysis, The Adventures is not a picaresque novel, but a confession that adopts a picaresque structure. Augie is not a picaro so much as a penitent—one of those penitents who are making European criticism ask repeatedly whether American fiction has not “gone Russian.” But the obligations imposed on the narrator by the structure he is made to appropriate, the structural decorum he is forced to observe, keep him from becoming what penitents so often are, neurotic blabbermouths. This makes the great difference. Henderson and Herzog are good novels, and the fate of merely good novels is to be forgotten; but The Adventures of Augie March, perhaps by accident but I think by design, is one of the three or four memorable ones we have had in the last two decades. And the design includes the fortunate conjunction of structure and material—or call it, baldly, of form and content—that Bellow has chosen not to try to achieve again.

Further Reading

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

CRITICISM

Pearce, Richard. “Looking Back at Augie March.” In The Critical Response to Saul Bellow, edited by Gerhard Bach, pp. 62-7. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1995.

Originally published in 1987, Pearce assesses the literary achievement of The Adventures of Augie March, arguing that the novel successfully Americanizes its Jewish protagonist.

Podhoretz, Norman. “The Language of Life.” In Critical Essays on Saul Bellow, edited by Stanley Trachtenberg, pp. 14-18. Boston, Mass.: G. K. Hall & Co., 1979.

Originally published in 1953, Podhoretz discusses the exuberance and detachment of the narrative voice in The Adventures of Augie March and regards Bellow's novel as “an impressive tour de force.

Scheer-Schäzler, Brigitte. “Bitterness in His Chosen Thing.” In Saul Bellow, pp. 32-58. New York, N.Y.: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1972.

Scheer-Schäzler elucidates the major thematic characteristics of The Adventures of Augie March.

Symons, Julian Gustave. “Broadening the Mind.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 2731 (4 June 1954): 357.

Symons argues that, despite some faults, The Adventures of Augie March is “the work of a considerable talent working on a major scale.”

Additional coverage of Bellow's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: American Writers; American Writers: The Classics, Vol. 2; American Writers Retrospective Supplement, Vol. 2; Authors in the News, Vol. 2; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 1; Bestsellers, Vol. 89:3; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, 1941-1968; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8R; Contemporary Authors Bibliographical Series, Vol. 1; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 29, 53, 95; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 6, 8, 10, 13, 15, 25, 33, 34, 63, 79; Contemporary Novelists, Ed. 7; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 2, 28; Dictionary of Literary Biography Documentary Series, Vol. 3; Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, 1982; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors, Novelists, and Popular Fiction and Genre Authors; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Novels for Students, Vols. 4, 14; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; Short Stories for Students, Vol. 12; Short Story Criticism, Vol. 14; Twayne's United States Authors; and World Literature Criticism.

Jeffrey Meyers (essay date March 1977)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Meyers, Jeffrey. “Brueghel and Augie March.American Literature 49, no. 1 (March 1977): 113-19.

[In the following essay, Meyers explicates the symbolic role that Pieter Brueghel's painting The Misanthrope plays in The Adventures of Augie March.]

In chapter ten of The Adventures of Augie March (1953) Augie describes Padilla's technique of stealing books and remembers

an old, singular, beautiful Netherlands picture I once saw in an Italian gallery, of a wise old man walking in empty fields, pensive, while a thief behind cuts the string of his purse. The old man, in black, thinking probably of God's city, nevertheless has a foolish length of nose and is much too satisfied with his dream. But the peculiarity of the thief is that he is enclosed in a glass ball, and on the glass ball there is a surmounting cross, and it looks like the emperor's symbol of rule. Meaning that it is earthly power that steals while the ridiculous wise are in a dream about this world and the next, and perhaps missing this one, they will have nothing, neither this nor the next, so there is a sharp pain of satire in this amusing thing, and even the painted field does not have too much charm; it is a flat place.1

Pieter Brueghel's The Misanthrope (1568) is more significant in the novel than this brief paragraph suggests, for like Augie's various jobs it is a “Rosetta stone, so to speak,” of his life. Brueghel's painting forms a symbolic center of meaning in the complex and variegated book and expresses some of its dominant themes: the earthly pilgrimage, the relation of character to fate, the pessimism about human misery, the conflict between acceptance and rejection of the world, and the idealistic longing for rustic simplicity. An understanding of why Bellow was attracted to this painting and how he used it in Augie March will clarify the themes and illuminate the meaning of the novel.

Bellow's aesthetic analogy, like his allusion to Henri Rousseau's The Sleeping Gypsy of 1897 (p. 520), emphasizes the inherent relationship of literature and painting, extends the potentialities of fiction to include the representational characteristics of the visual arts and concentrates the themes of his episodic novel into an immediate image. By reproducing the painting visually, by describing it verbally, by interpreting it iconographically, by looking at it with the same attention as Bellow did, we can attempt to see what he saw and to make an ideal correspondence between his visual image while writing and the one in our minds while reading.2

A number of important writers have been attracted to and influenced by Brueghel. Joshua Reynolds's discussion of The Massacre of the Innocents emphasizes Brueghel's modernity and aptly compares his originality and profundity to the poetry of Donne: “This painter was totally ignorant of all the mechanical art of making a picture; but there is here a great quantity of thinking, a representation of variety of distress, enough for twenty modern pictures. In this respect he is like Donne, as distinguished from the modern versifiers, who carry no weight of thought.”3 Goethe also found in Brueghel's paintings “the serious character of the sixteenth century,”4 the age of Luther and the Reformation. And Baudelaire, whose “Les Aveugles” (1861) was inspired by The Parable of the Blind, was fascinated by the fantastic, hallucinatory and diabolic qualities of Brueghel's art, which seemed to reflect his own preoccupations:

In the fantastic pictures of Brueghel the Droll the full power of hallucination is revealed to us. But what artist could produce such monstrously paradoxical works if he had not been driven from the outset by some unknown force? … How could a human intelligence contain so many marvels and devilries? How could it beget and describe so many terrifying extravagances? … I challenge anyone to explain the diabolic and diverting farrago of Brueghel the Droll otherwise than by a kind of special, Satanic grace.5

The sophisticated connoisseur Aldous Huxley, who believed that Brueghel's greatness was not fully recognized, praised his technique, content, intellect, honesty, perception, and philosophy: “He is highly competent aesthetically; he has plenty to say; his mind is curious, interesting and powerful; and he has no false pretensions, is entirely honest. … He was the first landscape painter of his century, the acutest student of manners, and the wonderfully skillful pictorial expounder or suggester of a view of life.”6 Brueghel's paintings have had a significant influence on modern poetry and have directly inspired Auden's “Musée des Beaux Arts” (1940), Williams's Pictures from Brueghel (1962), Nemerov's “Hope” and “Brueghel: The Triumph of Time,” and Joseph Langland's “The Fall of Icarus: Brueghel” and “Hunters in the Snow: Brueghel” (1963). Fritz Grossmann's summary of the richly contradictory characteristics of Brueghel, whose reputation has reached its zenith in the twentieth century, suggests the attractive ambiguity of both the man and the artist:

The man has been thought to have been a peasant and a townsman, an orthodox Catholic and a Libertine, a humanist, a laughing and a pessimist philosopher; the artist appeared as a follower of Bosch and a continuator of the Flemish tradition, the last of the Primitives, a Mannerist in contact with Italian art, an illustrator, a genre painter, a landscape artist, a realist, a painter consciously transforming reality and adapting it to his formal ideal.7

The Misanthrope, in the Naples Gallerie Nazionali di Capodimonte, is a literary painting that tells a story and has an inscription that clarifies the meaning of the allegory. Brueghel's painting, like Bellow's novel, is a masterpiece of naturalistic observation; and is both realistic and symbolical, dramatic and reflective. In the painting a wide-eyed, round-faced, crouching barefoot thief, dressed in ragged lilac clothing and enclosed in a glass orb surmounted by a cross, which symbolizes the Christian world, stares brazenly out of the picture with an idiotic expression as he cuts the bright red purse that hangs by a cord from the waist of the Misanthrope. The tall, gloomy wanderer, whose upright cone-shaped figure contrasts with the crouching round thief, wears a long deep-blue cape and tasseled monkish cowl that covers his eyes. He has a long nose, tightly closed thin lips, reddish face and pointed silver beard. He walks with his hands clasped before him, lost in meditation, and is unaware of the three sharp caltrops which are dangerously strewn in his path. In the background of the flat Flemish landscape, with its farmhouse and windmill, a faithful shepherd tends his peaceful flock. He represents the ideal of a bucolic life, and the contrast of man's folly and nature's purity.

The same enclosed thief appears in Brueghel's Netherlandish Proverbs (1559) and illustrates the maxim: “You have to stoop low to get along in the world.” And the Flemish inscription at the bottom of the tondo painting explains the Misanthrope's gloom: “Because the world is so faithless I wear mourning.” The cutpurse disturbs the quiet of the landscape, mars the meditations of the Misanthrope and expresses Brueghel's pessimistic view of mankind. This pessimism was probably intensified by contemporary political events, for in 1568, the year of the painting, the Spanish Duke of Alba, a religious fanatic and ruthless absolutist who was determined to crush the attempt of the Netherlands to gain religious toleration and political self-government, arrived in Brussels with 20,000 soldiers to begin his brutal regency.

The paradoxical quality of Brueghel's art, noted by Baudelaire, is manifest in this painting, for the Misanthrope has renounced the sinful world but has not renounced the world's sin. His bulging purse reveals that he has not freed himself from hypocrisy and avarice, and he is threatened with the punishment of spikey crosses. He is enclosed by the circular painting as the thief is by the circular orb and cannot escape the robbery of the perfidious world.

Bellow offers an interpretation as well as a description of the satiric and amusing painting. Though the old man is thinking of St. Augustine's City of God, he is both foolish and self-satisfied. Like Padilla, a gifted crook who takes pride in his technique, the cutpurse (who symbolizes earthly power) steals while the ridiculous wise man dreams about the next world, misses this one and gets nothing in either world. This singular, beautiful picture raises for Augie, who drifts aimlessly and passively through his picaresque peregrinations, the central question of the novel: what to do with his life.

Like the cutpurse, Augie is a thief who robs a department store and a leather goods shop and is caught stealing books. But like Padilla, Augie is not a real crook, “not interested in it, so nobody can make a fate of it for me”; and he rejects the acquiescence in worldly corruption and the multifarious swindles of Simon, Einhorn, and Mintouchian. These men, like his other mentors—Grandma Lausch, Mrs. Renling, Mimi Villars, Lucy Magnus, Thea Fenchel, and Basteshaw—all want to force him “to stoop low in order to get along in the world” and to exchange his tattered rags for elegant clothes (Augie experiences sartorial transformations first with Mrs. Renling, then with Simon and finally with Thea). But Augie, as Einhorn truly observes, has “opposition,” and he tries to tell Thea that “I had looked all my life for the right thing to do, for a fate good enough, that I have opposed people in what they wanted to make of me, but now that I was in love with her I understood much better what I myself wanted” (p. 333).

But when Thea, like Simon and Lucy, is “faithless,” Augie, “eternally looking for a way out” and pondering whether he was “a man of hope or foolishness,” retreats from the world into himself and continues the “circlings” of his earthly pilgrimage—oblivious of the spikey dangers that await him. For he cannot escape torpedoes at sea, Basteshaw's murderous mania, Mintouchian's corruption, or Stella's betrayal. His character is indeed his fate; for he is born to be victimized and is unable to set his “feet on a path of life and stop looking over the field.” Augie is confused by his “bewilderment of choices,” yearns for both the active and the contemplative life, and can neither accept nor renounce the world. The pessimistic figure of the mourning Misanthrope reflects Augie's compromised idealism and represents the “rock-depth of heavy trouble, where, I guess, the greater part of human beings have always spent most of their silent time” (p. 98).8

The peaceful shepherd in the background of the paintings, safely removed from the corruption of the world and harmoniously integrated with the natural landscape, symbolizes a way of life that Augie longs for but can never achieve. His dream is to marry a loving wife, get “a piece of property and settle down on it” and do a little farming and beekeeping. But Bellow's ironic tone suggests that the pastoral ideal of “March's farm and academy,” “this private green place like one of those Walden or Innisfree wattle jobs under the kind sun” is not possible for the “Chicago born” Augie, as it (briefly) was for Thoreau and Yeats.9

Brueghel's painting portrays three distinct ways of dealing with the hostile world: joining in its corruption, making a partial renunciation, and retreating to a bucolic ideal. Augie ponders all three alternatives without committing himself to any of them, and like the “ridiculous wise” old man has neither worldly wealth nor spiritual purity. Though Augie is battered by rough forces and disappointed in life, he remains a “laughing creature, forever rising up” and resists the pessimism of Brueghel's Misanthrope.

Notes

  1. Saul Bellow, The Adventures of Augie March (New York, 1971), p. 200.

  2. See my book Painting and the Novel (New York, 1975).

  3. Sir Joshua Reynolds, “Journey to Flanders and Holland in the Year 1781,” in Works. ed. Edmund Malone, 3rd ed. (London, 1801), II, 408. Johnson's discussion of the Metaphysical poets in his “Life of Cowley” (1779) probably drew Reynolds's attention to John Donne.

  4. J. W. von Goethe, “Landschaftliche Malerei” (1832), in Werke, XII (Hamburg, 1953), 219.

  5. Charles Baudelaire, “Some Foreign Caricaturists” (1857), The Mirror of Art, trans. and ed. Jonathan Mayne (New York, 1956), pp. 189-190.

  6. Aldous Huxley, “Brueghel” (1927), On Art and Artists (New York, 1962), pp. 207, 209.

  7. Fritz Grossmann, Pieter Brueghel: Complete Edition of the Paintings, 3rd ed. (New York, 1973), p. 50.

  8. This idea is similar to Thoreau's assertion in the first chapter of Walden: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”

  9. The urban hero of West's Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) also fails in his desperate attempt to escape to a country idyll.

Steven M. Gerson (essay date spring 1979)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Gerson, Steven M. “The New American Adam in The Adventures of Augie March.Modern Fiction Studies 25, no. 1 (spring 1979): 117-28.

[In the following essay, Gerson traces the transformation of Augie March in The Adventures of Augie March from an early American Adamic figure as defined by R. W. B. Lewis to a modern American Adam whose personality and outlook has been influenced by twentieth-century events.]

In the epilogue of The American Adam, R. W. B. Lewis contends that Saul Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March is written in the tradition of the earlier American Adamic myth. According to Lewis, Augie March, the protagonist in Bellow's novel, is similar to the nineteenth-century Adams evident in Cooper, Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman because Augie is as youthful, innocent, optimistic, and adventurous as are the earlier Adams.1

Throughout much of Bellow's novel, Augie is similar to an early American Adam who seeks to make of America an earthly paradise, and Lewis's mention of Augie as such an Adam is justified. However, as Augie matures and experiences heartbreak in love, the dissolution of family ties, the stock market crash, labor conflicts between the AFL and the CIO, and World War II, he loses much of his youthful Adamic resilience and optimism. In fact, he becomes pessimistic, defeated, and broken, traits anathema to early American Adamism.

Nonetheless, inasmuch as Augie seeks paradise, he is still Adamic. But rather than envisioning paradise as the fulfillment of the American dream, Augie envisions paradise as an escape from modern American dilemmas. Thus, in The Adventures of Augie March, Bellow deviates from Lewis's traditional concept of the American Adam applicable to the nineteenth century and creates a distinctly new and different character—a modern American Adam whose personality has been shaped by twentieth-century horrors. An analysis of The Adventures of Augie March will reveal Augie's transformation from an early American Adam as defined by Lewis to a modern American Adam.

Lewis defines the early American Adam “as a figure of heroic innocence and vast potentialities, poised at the start of a new history.” He also states that the image of the American Adam “had about it always an air of adventurousness, a sense of promise and possibility.”2 Lewis assumes that Augie fulfills these characteristics of the old American Adam, inasmuch as Augie “takes on as much of the world as is available to him, without ever fully submitting to any of the world's determining categories.” He “struggles tirelessly … to realize the full potentialities of the classic figure … [of] ‘the simple genuine self against the whole world.’”3

The fact that Augie represents the Old American Adam is evinced clearly in the first sentence of the novel. Augie, the omniscient narrator, asserts, “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.”4 Immediately Bellow develops a character who is adventurous, optimistic, self-reliant, and “poised at the start of a new history.”

Moreover, in this first picture of Augie, he is similar to the Adamic figure in Whitman's poem, “As Adam early in the morning,”5 who is the consummate example of the innocent and adventurous American excited at the prospects of beginning life. Augie recalls a sermon preached by a “Reverend Beecher telling his congregation, ‘Ye are Gods, you are crystalline, your faces are radiant!’” (AM [The Adventures of Augie March], p. 83). Though Augie is “not an optimist of that degree,” he says, “I was and have always been ready to venture as far as possible” (AM, p. 83). As an idealistic youth, Augie is optimistic about his future and approaches all prospective experiences with an unflagging adventurousness.

The only qualification to his enthusiasm is that he questions how his desires can be fulfilled in Chicago, “that somber city.” As an Adamic figure, Augie regrets the fact that Chicago, with its “deep city vexation” and “deep city aims,” disallows the “nature-painted times, like the pastoral of Sicilian shepherd lovers” (AM, p. 92). He regrets that the city and the “crowd” yield “results with … difficulty,” for what he desires is “happiness,” “the misery-antidote” which he fails to discern in Chicago (AM, pp. 92-93). Augie “longed very much” for excitement, and he sees himself as an innocent youth untouched by the “vice and shortcomings” of the city or “the weariness of maturity” (AM, p. 92). Therefore, because Chicago fails to accommodate his idealistic desires, Augie yearns for the “Early scenes of life … beginning with Eden” (AM, p. 92).

Despite the squalor of his surroundings and the vexations of the city, Augie maintains an optimistic view and is unbeaten by life. As he says, he “lacked the true sense of being a criminal, the sense that [he] was on the wrong side of the universal wide line with the worse or weaker part of humankind” (AM, p. 48). It simply “wasn't in [his] nature to fatigue [himself] with worry” (AM, p. 11).

Augie is able to avoid a sense of defeat primarily because he is consistently “too larky and boisterous” (AM, p. 11). Throughout the novel, he is usually able to overlook the faults in others, absorb his difficulties, and see his “crimes more tolerantly” (AM, p. 32). In fact, he is usually so affable and optimistic in the face of trouble that one character says to Augie, “‘A train could hit you and you'd think it was just swell and get up with smiles, like knee-deep in June’” (AM, p. 297).

Possibly because Augie reveals this adventurousness, optimism, and cheerful immunity to traumas, characteristic traits of the early American Adam, he is constantly challenged by “Reality instructors” who seek to deflate his affability. In Herzog, Bellow has his protagonist, Moses Herzog, confronted by cynical characters whom he calls “Reality instructors” because they seek “to teach” and “to punish” Moses with “lessons of the Real.6 Bellow further states that these instructors hope to teach Herzog to “suffer and hate” and attempt to drag him “down in the mire of post-Renaissance, post-humanistic, post-Cartesian dissolution, next door to the Void” (H [Herzog], p. 93). Though the term “Reality instructors” primarily is related to Herzog, it also applies to the cynics in The Adventures of Augie March.7

The first such instructor Augie encounters is Grandma Lausch, a boarder in the March home, who, though “not a relation at all,” appropriates command of the house (AM, p. 3). Augie describes her as a Machiavelli (AM, p. 2) who enjoys making the Marches “take a long swig of her mixture of reality” (AM, p. 55). Primarily, her “mixture of reality” is “one more animadversion on the trustful, loving, and simple surrounded by the cunning-hearted and tough, a fighting nature of birds and worms, and a desperate mankind without feelings” (AM, p. 9). She preaches cynicism and ruthlessness as the only means of survival, while debunking Augie's type of optimism and innocence. Throughout Augie's youth, she commands his home by advocating her ideals: scheming, devising, intrigue (AM, p. 3).

When Augie is older and leaves the house to work, he escapes Grandma Lausch's cynical dogmatism, but encounters another Machiavellian instructor, William Einhorn. Augie states that if he had truly been Einhorn's disciple instead of an innocent optimist, he would have approached any important decision by asking himself, “‘What would Caesar suffer in this case? What would Machiavelli advise or Ulysses do? What would Einhorn think?’” (AM, p. 65).

Initially, Einhorn is not a Machiavellian cynic advising deceit and cunning. Augie admits that “Einhorn had a teaching turn similar to Grandma Lausch's, both believing they could show what could be done with the world, where it gave or resisted, where you could be confident and run or where you could only feel your way and were forced to blunder” (AM, p. 73). But Einhorn's instructions, at first, enforce Augie's inherent optimism. Einhorn, a semi-corrupt entrepreneur who revels in the American system of free enterprise, compares the businessman to “the conqueror, the poet and philosopher” and assumes that business offers “a world of possibilities” (AM, pp. 72-73). By working for Einhorn as an all-purpose secretary, Augie flourishes under the atmosphere of hope and accomplishment pervading Einhorn's home and offices. Einhorn preaches optimistically about “the machine age and the kind of advantage that had to be taken of it,” and Augie gladly receives the lectures “from the learned signor” (AM, p. 78).

However, Einhorn's optimism is shattered by the stock market crash, in which he “was among the first to be wiped out” (AM, p. 117). After this debacle, Einhorn becomes like Grandma Lausch, a reality instructor overcome by cynicism and hoping to teach Augie of the “Void.” Augie states that Einhorn now

intended that, as there were no more effective prescriptions in old ways, as we were in dreamed-out or finished visions, that therefore, in the naked form of the human jelly, one should choose or seize with force; one should make strength from disadvantages and make progress by having enemies, being wrathful or terrible.

(AM, p. 204)

Having lost his wealth and position due to the crash, Einhorn also loses his sense of hope in the “possibilities” of America and preaches a version of cunning and deceit even more sinister than Grandma Lausch's.

After Einhorn, Augie is forced to endure the cynical instructions of Mrs. Renling, an influential and wealthy woman, who seeks to adopt him and his brother Simon. Renling, whose vocation seems to be to “coach” and “instruct” (AM, p. 146), constantly pesters Augie with what he calls “damnation chats” (AM, p. 153). Like the previous reality instructors, she seeks to demean Augie's persistent “splendor of morning” attitude by calling “out her whole force of rights, apocalypse death riders, church-porch devils who grabbed naked sinners from behind to lug them down to punishment, her infanticides, plagues, and incests” (AM, p. 153). Augie, however, manages to ignore her pessimistic instructions and maintain his optimism, just as he manages to ignore his brother's reality instructions. Though Simon tells Augie to make himself “hard,” Augie avoids Simon's cynical outlook, in which he “didn't fundamentally believe” (AM, p. 267).

Augie's final reality instructor is Mimi Villars. Like the other instructors, she berates Augie about how he “wasn't mad enough about abominations or aware enough of them, didn't know many graves were underneath [his] feet, was lacking in disgust, wasn't hard enough against horrors or wrathful about swindles” (AM, p. 233). She, too, tries to teach him her cynical viewpoint and tries to drag him down into the mire of nihilism. Augie, however, rejects her instructions. Though she asserts that “most people suffer,” Augie can only tell her “about how pleasant [his] life has been” (AM, pp. 284-285). He maintains an optimistic concept of life; he is unable to believe that “all was so poured in concrete and that there weren't occasions for happiness” (AM, p. 285).

Despite the instructions by Grandma Lausch, Einhorn, Mrs. Renling, Simon, and Mimi, all of whom attempt to destroy Augie's youthful and innocent views, Augie continues to illustrate traits of the early American Adam. He is adventurous, optimistic, and unbeaten by his experiences. He is self-reliant and chooses to approach life with his rosy attitude rather than be determined by the cynical instructions of his associates. Eventually Einhorn realizes that Augie is defiant and says, “‘But wait. All of a sudden I catch on to something about you. You've got opposition in you’” (AM, p. 129). Augie agrees: “I did have opposition in me, and great desire to offer resistance and to say ‘No!’” (AM, p. 129). He states, “No, I didn't want to be what [Einhorn] called determined” and “wouldn't become what other people wanted to make of me” (AM, p. 130). Primarily, Augie resists being beaten or tormented or made cynical; he chooses to maintain a youthful optimism even in the face of tribulation.

At one point in the novel, Augie clarifies his position further. He believes that there are two ways of approaching life. One can accept the “reality” of every day occurrences and thus submit to drudgery and the commonplace, or one can rise above normalcy and seek a more “triumphant” life. That Augie assumes life can be divided into only these two categories hints at his naiveté. That he chooses to ignore what he considers normalcy and yearns for adventure accentuates his role as the youthful optimist. He says,

I had no eye, ear, or interest for anything else—that is, for usual, second-order, oatmeal, mere-phenomenal, snarled-shoelace-carfare-laundry-ticket plainness, unspecified dismalness, unknown captivities; the life of despair-harness, or the life of organization-habits which is meant to supplant accidents with calm abiding. Well, now, who can really expect the daily facts to go, toil or prisons to go, oatmeal and laundry tickets and all the rest, and insist that all moments be raised to the greatest importance, demand that everyone breathe the pointy, star-furnished air at its highest difficulty, abolish all brick, vaultlike rooms, all dreariness, and live like prophets or gods? Why, everybody knows this triumphant life can only be periodic. So there's a schism about it, some saying only this triumphant life is real and others that only the daily facts are. For me there was no debate, and I made speed into the former.

(AM, p. 216)

What Augie does is describe a dichotomy between “reality” and fantasy; he ironically states that no one can really believe in the “periodic” triumphant life, but that one should surely accept “the daily facts” propounded by reality instructors such as Lausch, Einhorn, Renling, Simon, and Villars; then he asserts that he does choose triumph over reality, adventure over normalcy, and optimism over the “despair-harness.”

An interesting scene in the novel which further reveals that Augie is like the early American Adam, living innocently before the fall, occurs when Augie first encounters Thea Fenchel, an Eve-like temptress. Augie has gone to a resort with Mrs. Renling where he sees and falls in love with Esther Fenchel, Thea's sister. Esther pays little attention to Augie, but Thea is attracted to him. One evening, Augie goes into an orchard to brood over Esther, and in the garden he hears

someone light coming near, a woman stepping under the tree into the dusty rut worn beside the swing by the feet of kids. It was Esther's sister Thea, come to talk to me, the one Mrs. Renling warned me of. In her white dress and her shoes that came down like pointed shapes of birds in the vague whiteness of the furrow by the swing, with lace on her arms and warm opening and closing differences of the shade of leaves back of her head, she stood and looked at me.

(AM, p. 160)

In this Eden-like setting where Augie has gone to find solace from his defeated love for Esther, Thea intrudes and tries to seduce him. Beneath the “orchard leaves” she kneels beside him, seductively touches his feet and ankles with her thighs, and says she has fallen in love with him (AM, pp. 161-162). Augie, the always innocent fantasist, is astonished that she would challenge his love for Esther by professing her own love for him. He stands up to leave and says to her, “‘Now, Miss Fenchel. … You're lovely, but what do you think we're doing? I can't help it, I love Esther’” (AM, p. 162). Thea, however, is adamant and attempts to pursue him. Recognizing her intentions, Augie “had to escape from the swing and get away in the orchard” (AM, p. 163). He retreats further into the garden rather than confront Thea's seduction. In doing so, he exemplifies the type of innocence characteristic of the early American Adam.

His Adamic role is finally accented when, following the scene with Thea, Augie goes to a pier to wait for his brother Simon, who is planning a vacation near the resort at which Augie and Mrs. Renling have stayed. While he waits for his brother to disembark from a ship, he watches other vacationers and describes them as “Tough or injured, … bearers of things as old as the most ancient of cities and older; desires and avoidances bred into bellies, shoulders, legs, as long ago as Eden and the Fall” (AM, p. 164). The implication is that these vacationers have suffered the ramifications of the fall from Eden and thus are “Tough” and “injured.” By juxtaposing these characters with Augie, who has just retreated into the garden to avoid consummation of “desires,” Bellow underlines Augie's role as an innocent Adam.

However, despite Augie's attempts to remain innocent, optimistic, adventurous, and unbeaten; despite his attempts to remain like the early American Adams, he encounters a number of devastating occurrences which finally shatter his idealism. First, his friend, Mimi Villars becomes pregnant, attempts to have an abortion, procures the services of an incompetent doctor, and almost dies from his butchering. Second, an acquaintance of Augie's sees him helping Mimi, assumes he is the father of the child, and runs to tell Lucy Magnus, Augie's fiancée, that Augie has been unfaithful. Though Augie is not the father but only has attempted to aid Mimi, Lucy and her parents break off the engagement. Next, Simon, who has chosen Lucy for Augie because she is wealthy, is offended that Augie has compromised himself and lost this chance at an economically promising marriage. In his anger, Simon more or less disinherits Augie and says he never wants to see him again. Though Augie is able to stand up under the pressures rather well, he suffers a final indignity which crushes his optimism. He is caught in a squabble between the AFL and the CIO, is beaten by agitators, and has to hide to avoid being killed.

After these traumas, Augie loses much of his innocence and states that he “was no child now, neither in age nor in protectedness, and [he] was thrown for fair on the free spinning of the world” (AM, p. 318). Though his reality instructors had been unsuccessful in shaking his optimisim, the traumas he suffers succeed in forcing him to realize that life is brutal and that no one can remain as idealistic and youthfully innocent as he had been.

Augie recognizes that his initial innocence has been destroyed, and he finds “That in any true life you must go and be exposed outside the small circle that encompasses two or three heads in the same history of love. Try and stay, though, inside. See how long you can” (AM, p. 318). Once Augie concludes that he has lost Eden, he no longer is like the early American Adams; Bellow proceeds to depict Augie as a modern Adam who is defeated by life and who seeks to escape the world by envisioning a new Eden in which he can hide. Before, he had retreated into the garden to avoid Thea's seduction so that he could maintain his youthful innocence. Now, Augie has to seek a new Eden in which he can retrieve the innocence he has lost.

Ironically, Thea offers him his first vision of escape in Eden. Thea plans to go to Mexico to get a divorce, and she “assumed that [Augie would] go to Mexico with her” (AM, p. 350). Augie, having been wounded by reality, “never seriously thought of refusing” her primarily because he thinks Mexico will allow him to escape his traumas (AM, p. 350). He concludes this because Thea has suggested that in Mexico they will experience “something better than what people call reality” (AM, p. 353). To this suggestion, Augie thinks, “Very good and bravo! Let's have this better, nobler reality” (AM, p. 353). That Mexico will be paradisiacal for Augie is further indicated when we learn that Thea's house in Mexico is called “‘Casa Descuitada,’”—“Carefree House” (AM, p. 383). The implication is that Mexico will obliterate Augie's cares by allowing him a return to innocence in a new Eden.

However, as Patrick Morrow states, Bellow is a hopeful artist who has come to “believe that man's living within society is preferable to self-imposed alienation.”8 Bellow asserts that it is impossible to escape reality by envisioning paradise and that one must adapt to the world rather than attempt to flee it. To accentuate this assertion, Bellow surrounds Augie's trip to Mexico with portents and eventually depicts Mexico as a pseudo-paradise which is actually hellish. For instance, even before Augie departs for Mexico, he is made uneasy by his friends' warnings not to go. “Nobody, then, gave the happy bon voyage I'd have liked. Everybody warned me. … I argued back to myself that it was just the Rio Grande I had to cross, not the Acheron, but anyway it oppressed me from somewhere” (AM, pp. 360-361). Immediately the tone is set. Though Augie hopes to find a paradise in Mexico, Bellow equates the trip to one into hell.

This portentous atmosphere is furthered when we learn that Thea, the temptress earlier in Augie's life, plans to travel to Mexico “with snake-catching equipment” (AM, p. 357). In fact, once Augie and Thea are in Mexico, Thea spends much of her time collecting snakes or visiting “snaky” areas (AM, p. 395). After a while, she has collected so many snakes and deposited them at her home that Augie says their porch became “a snake gallery” (AM, p. 402), and they “seemed in the age of snakes among the hot poisons of green and the livid gardenias” (AM, p. 395). In this sense, Thea compliments her earlier role as an Eve-like seductress who promises Augie, the Adamic character, pleasure, but who actually threatens his safety in Eden.

The final portent surrounding Augie's supposedly paradisiacal venture into Mexico is that Thea takes with her an eagle which she plans to train to hunt iguanas. Though the eagle is Thea's idea, the chore of handling it is relegated to Augie. Forced to spend a great deal of time with the eagle, which he names Caligula, Augie becomes almost possessed by it. Just as Thea is a snake-like temptress, who corrupts Augie's paradise, Caligula, who glides “like a Satan,” is a demonic invasion into Eden (AM, p. 377). The eagle becomes almost a demon reminder to Augie of his mortality. As he says, “In the most personal acts of your life you carry the presence and power of another; you extend his being in your thoughts, where he inhabits. Death, with monuments, makes great men remembered like that. So I had to bear Caligula's gaze” (AM, p. 374). Rather than finding Eden in Mexico, Augie resides with the satanic eagle whose gaze he must endure and whose deathly emanations enter and inhabit his thoughts.

These incidents which cloud Augie's quest for paradise prove to be portentous inasmuch as his stay in Mexico is disastrous. Not only does he suffer an accident in which his skull is cracked, but also Thea and he drift apart, fight, and end their relationship. Thea leaves him alone at her “Casa Descuitada,” and for days he feels like one of “the damned” (AM, p. 445). Rather than retrieving his lost innocence, optimism, and adventurousness as he had hoped to do in the new Eden, he finds no solace. In fact, his having sought escape in paradise leaves him even more wounded than he was before he left for Mexico. Alone in Mexico, he says,

suddenly my heart felt ugly, I was sick of myself. I thought that my aim of being simple was just a fraud, that I wasn't a bit goodhearted or affectionate, and I began to wish that Mexico from beyond the walls would come in and kill me and that I would be thrown in the bone dust and twisted, spiky crosses of the cemetery, for the insects and lizards.

(AM, p. 447)

Perhaps one of the reasons Augie suffers so in Mexico is that his expectations are excessively romantic. He assumes that Mexico will be paradisiacal; when this assumption proves fallacious, he is destroyed. If he could learn to adapt to reality rather than seek escape, he possibly could avoid such pains. After Thea leaves him, he comes close to recognizing his penchant for fantasy and thus adapting to life. He states, “my invention and special thing was simplicity. I wanted simplicity and denied complexity” (AM, p. 449). At this point in the novel, he realizes that he has desired to hide from the complexity of life; he continues to say that “whoever would give [him] cover from this mighty free-running terror and wild cold of chaos [he] went to” (AM, p. 449).

With this realization, he decides to find Thea, ask for her forgiveness, and start a more realistic life with her. However, the more he thinks of her, the more he dreams of a perfect, paradisiacal life that the two could share. “Imagining how this would be, I melted, my chest got hot, soft, sore, and yearning. I saw it already happening. It's always been like that with me, that fantasy went ahead of me and prepared the way” (AM, p. 450). Rather than adapt to reality, Augie again chooses to fantasize about life with Thea.

Though Augie and Thea never get back together, his dreams of paradise continue. Later in the novel, he tells a friend of his that he hopes to buy “‘a piece of property and settle down on it’” and start a school (AM, p. 508). Because his friend is leery of the idea, Augie attempts to remove his friend's fears. Augie states that his idea is not fantastic. “‘Oh, I don't expect to set up the Happy Isles. I don't consider myself any Prospero. I haven't got the build. I have no daughter. I never was a king, for instance. No, no. I'm not looking for any Pindar Hyperborean dwelling with the gods in ease a tearless life, never aging—’” (AM, p. 508).

However, Augie kids himself by debunking his own idea. Despite his claims to the contrary, what he envisions is a paradise in which he will have a chance at beating “‘life at its greatest complication and meshuggah power’” by starting “‘lower down, and simpler’” (AM, p. 510). What he actually desires is a pastoral Eden. “What I had in my mind was this private green place like one of those Walden or Innisfree wattle jobs under the kind sun, surrounded by velvet woods and bright gardens and Elysium lawns sown with Lincoln Park grass seed” (AM, p. 575).

Because a number of characters in the novel see that Augie is a dreamer who will not adapt to reality, they try to correct him of his excessive idealism. Unlike the reality instructors who tried to force their cynicism on Augie, characters like Padilla and Clem Tambow simply try to teach Augie to be more realistic. Padilla tells Augie that he wants too much,

and therefore if you miss out you blame yourself too hard. But this is all a dream. The big investigation today is into how bad a guy can be, not how good he can be. You don't keep up with the times. You're going against history. Or at least you should admit how bad things are, which you don't do either.

(AM, p. 481)

Padilla recognizes that Augie is detached from reality and is unable to adapt to the world. He does not necessarily want to drag Augie down into the “mire” or the “Void” as did the reality instructors; he simply wants Augie to get in step with history and at least see the world clearly.

Clem Tambow tells Augie “practically the same thing” (AM, p. 481). He states that Augie's ambitions are too general and that Augie is “‘not concrete enough’” (AM, p. 483). He says to Augie, “‘What I guess about you is that you have a nobility syndrome. You can't adjust to the reality situation’” (AM, p. 484). Because of this, Tambow fears that Augie is “‘going to ruin [himself] ignoring the reality principle and trying to cheer up the dirty scene.’” He believes that Augie “‘should accept the data of experience’” (AM, p. 485).

Considering Augie's experiences in Mexico, one can assume that it would be better for him to overcome his naive idealism and see the world clearly. However, Augie never is able to adapt to life. On the contrary, despite his traumatic experiences throughout the book, the novel ends with Augie “grinning again”:

That's the animal ridens in me, the laughing creature, forever rising up. … I am a sort of Columbus of those near-at-hand and believe you can come to them in this immediate terra incognita that spreads out in every gaze. I may well be a flop at this line of endeavor. Columbus too thought he was a flop, probably, when they sent him back in chains. Which didn't prove there was no America.

(AM, p. 599)

Patrick Morrow says that Augie's comments at the end of the novel reveal that Augie has succeeded in adapting to the world, “accommodating through the comic, specifically by his good-natured grin.”9 Such a comment is difficult to accept inasmuch as Augie has grinned throughout the novel but has met with one dilemma after another. His grins seem to be not an accommodation but a naive and juvenile inability to perceive the facts of life and assess them maturely. Ihab Hassan supplies a more acceptable interpretation when he says that the novel offers “no proper ending.” Whereas Morrow assumes that Augie's “good-natured grin” allows him to adapt successfully to the world, Hassan states that at the end of the novel, Augie is still one of the uninitiated. “Augie remains, like Huck, uncommitted, suspended, as it were, between native innocence and hard-earned knowledge, poised for the next adventure which, though it may not actually repeat a former escapade, guarantees no final knowledge or repose.”10

The implication of Bellow's ending is that for Augie there is always some unknown land, some distant horizon that is fertile ground for his imagination and for his desire for escape in a paradise. At the end of the novel, Augie is searching for peace and happiness; though he might be “a flop” like Columbus and end up “in chains,” as a modern American Adam he will not discount the possibility of a new Eden. He chooses to ignore reality and live in dreams; he fails to adapt to the world.

Notes

  1. R. W. B. Lewis, The American Adam: Innocence, Tragedy and Tradition in the Nineteenth Century (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1955), p. 198.

  2. Lewis, p. 1.

  3. Lewis, p. 198.

  4. Saul Bellow, The Adventures of Augie March (1953; rpt. New York: Avon, 1977), p. 1. Subsequent quotations from this novel will be designated parenthetically by the abbreviation AM and page numbers.

  5. Walt Whitman, “As Adam Early in the Morning,” in Leaves of Grass and Selected Prose (1921; rpt. New York: The Modern Library, 1950), p. 92.

  6. Saul Bellow, Herzog (1964; rpt. New York: The Viking Press, 1967), p. 125.

  7. Tony Tanner, in Saul Bellow (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1965), pp. 45-46, 94, and Brigitte Scheer-Schäzler, in Saul Bellow (New York: Frederick Ungar, 1972), pp. 35ff. supply lengthy discussions of the extent to which the phrase “Reality instructors” applies to numerous characters in Augie March who give the innocent protagonist their debased, cynical views of life.

  8. Patrick Morrow, “Threat and Accommodation: The Novels of Saul Bellow,” The Midwest Quarterly, 8 (Summer 1967), 389.

  9. Morrow, p. 402.

  10. Ihab Hassan, Radical Innocence: Studies in the Contemporary American Novel (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1961), p. 311.

Malcolm Bradbury (essay date 1982)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Bradbury, Malcolm. “The Fifties Novels: The Adventures of Augie March,Seize the Day, and Henderson the Rain King.” In Saul Bellow, pp. 48-66. London: Methuen, 1982.

[In the following excerpt, Bradbury perceives The Adventures of Augie March to be a turning point in Bellow's literary development, noting that the novel abandons the European angst of his earlier works.]

I looked in at an octopus, and the creature seemed also to look at me and press its soft head to the glass, flat, the flesh becoming pale and granular—blanched, speckled. The eyes spoke to me coldly. But even more speaking, even more cold, was the soft head with its speckles, a cosmic coldness in which I felt I was dying. The tentacles throbbed and motioned through the glass, the bubbles sped upward, and I thought, ‘This is my last day. Death is giving me notice.’

(Henderson the Rain King)

Bellow has often spoken of a change of style and perception that came into his work after his first two novels; it is an unmistakable feature of his fiction of the 1950s. Starting with The Adventures of Augie March (1953), he began to write a new kind of novel, one that broke out of the tight, Europeanized, soul-searching and Angst-ridden form of his first books and opened into an exuberant and positive comedy. Bellow has remarked that ‘modern comedy has something to do with the disintegrating outline of the worthy and humane Self, the bourgeois hero of an earlier age’; he has also seen that there is a modern comedy that ridicules the conditions of this misery, releasing pain as laughter.1 He has remarked too on the power of the comic in the Yiddish tradition: ‘Laughter and trembling are so curiously mingled that it is not easy to determine the relations of the two’,2 and this evidently has much to do with his own developing direction in comedy—one that sought to reach from the sad humour of human suffering to comic aspiration toward human grandeur, from the historical and diurnal world to the world of the transcendent and eternal. Bellow's heroes began to change; they became less victimized sufferers of insight and discovery, more positive, questing seekers after it. In the process, Bellow seemed to become a more affirmative writer, though in looking to that affirmation we must always observe the struggles and human pains out of which it grew.

As these new preoccupations shaped into matters of style and form, Bellow's novels changed. The old naturalist and existential containments did not by any means disappear, but they became a material to be contended with; his new books were texts of expansion and flow, novels of character-formation in which the heroes, especially Augie March and Henderson, became large mental travellers in quest through large social, psychic and neomythic landscapes to find the measure of their being, the nature of their human tenure. This released in Bellow a potential for mythic, fantastic and comic writing he had earlier contained, and along with it a Bellovian metaphysical vernacular, one of his larger offerings to the contemporary novel. In The Victim Bellow's style had already shown more suppleness, a freer motion between the hard social world and the world of thought and feeling. Now, by bringing a vital new energy and ebullience to his central characters, a new texture to his prose, Bellow was able to convert that social world into a landscape adequate to the enquiring spirit. Bellow's writing of the 1950s is thus a great opening out; in it he creates both a new form and a new kind and condition of hero. The form was that of picaresque metaphysical comedy; the heroes were self-creators, men who command large dimensions of their own fate, and move through expansive open landscapes and comic self-venturing into a growth of the spirit. The structural form expands toward contingency, toward vastly enlarged social content in The Adventures of Augie March (1953), toward mythic and psychological metaphor in Henderson the Rain King (1959), and the dominant rhetoric takes on vastly greater splendour, wit and comic self-awareness.

Bellow has since reflected that this release, coming in The Adventures of Augie March, was at first ‘too effusive and uncritical’. ‘I think I took off too many [restraints], and went too far, but I was feeling the excitement of discovery’, he said in an interview. ‘I had just increased my freedom, and like any emancipated plebian I abused it at once.’3 One form of release was to admit the voice of the extravagant self-narrator; the first-person mode of The Adventures of Augie March immediately opens out to display him as the first of Bellow's heroes who are larger than the world in which they live. Augie may have grown up in classic Chicago, that city of naturalism, ‘just plain brutal and not mitigated’, and come off its mean streets. But it is clear to him that the Studs Lonigan containments that have limited his predecessors in fiction are not meant for him, as his expansive opening utterance makes clear:

I am an American, Chicago born—Chicago, that sombre 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.

(AM [The Adventures of Augie March], p. 7)

Augie is extravagant morally, intellectually and emotionally, and in a sense he has a character by becoming a character, fictionally dense and detailed, moving in a vastly more various and established world—unlike Joseph who retires into his room and has ‘in a word, no character’. As Augie feels he has all human history behind him, and wishes to embrace the quality and texture of life, to become a Columbus of the near at hand, so Bellow, with a Dickensian abundance, provides him with it. The book is Bellow's most specified and episodic, a rich, character-filled, sprawling account of ‘adventures’ where, in scenes of very broad texture and significance, Augie passes beyond the Machiavellians and instructors of his childhood who seek to enlist him under laws of control and limitation, and moves out into a wider kingdom of abundance where he learns not just from other men and women but from all to hand: animals, nature, books.

But, appropriately enough for a novel dealing in part with a massive, energetic, material and indeed ‘sombre’ Chicago during the Depression years, the battle of determinism and independence is an essential structure to the book. ‘All the influences were lined up waiting for me’, Augie notes. ‘I was born, and there they were to form me’ (p. 52). Indeed all things seem to intersect in him: the flow of history, the interaction of races and classes, intellectual theories and their ‘terrible appearances’ within the world. Historicism and romantic independence struggle: at one point he nearly becomes secretary to the exiled Trotsky in Mexico, the man of history and historicism who shares with Augie's other heroes the wish to navigate by the great stars. But the great stars are not quite enough for him, because there is also the matter of nature. Augie sees around him a great massed weight of human ideas, with as much bulk as the massing, in a world of endless random energy, of material and men, an exciting but excessive abundance of thought turned into life:

There's too much of everything of this kind, that's come home to me, too much history and culture to keep track of, too many details, too much news, too much example, too much influence, too many guys to tell you to be as they are, and all this hugeness, abundance, turbulence, Niagara Falls torrent. Which who is supposed to interpret? Me?

(p. 525)

It is this swamping, exciting mass of ‘it’ that becomes the point of anxiety for all of Bellow's later heroes, raising in new form the problem of trying to discover the human mean.

Augie's quest therefore takes him beyond the social and historical world and into nature, seeking to find the basis of his tenure there: ‘It takes some of us a long time to find out what the price is of our being in nature, and what the facts are about your tenure’, he reflects. ‘How long it takes depends on how swiftly the social sugars dissolve’ (p. 421). He tries to acquaint himself with biological and bodily laws, often in comic form (like the eagle-training session in Mexico), and with an openness far beyond that accessible to Joseph and Leventhal, both of whom are characterized by their suppression of emotional aspects of their lives. Augie struggles in sexual relationships and friendships, at the same time hoping to find a stillness somewhere that will afford access to life's ‘axial lines’, those angles of guidance and revelation where ‘life can come together again and man be regenerated’ (p. 524). But he is a comic hero, forced, like all Bellow's heroes, to mediate between the world of action and that of thought, to make some sense of the life constituted for him in the book. He ends, as he must, in contingency, knowing that no one is special, that mortality threatens, that there is no possession of anyone or anything, that man is both good and evil, that the historical amassing of the world and the anxiety it generates is real and cannot be refused. He acquires a chastened sense of history's powers, but also a ‘mysterious adoration of what occurs’.

He has learned, in short, the passion for self-constitution that permits him to constitute the narrative, lets him write as a chastened comedian of possibility, celebrating ‘the animal ridens in me, the laughing creature, forever rising up’. The laughter is against human hope, but also is that hope:

… is the laugh at nature—including eternity—that it thinks it can win over us and the power of hope? Nah, nah! I think. It never will. But that possibly is the joke, on one or the other, and laughing is an enigma that includes both.

(p. 617)

And this is exactly the enigma the book distils, as it looks both into the dark weighty claims of modern historical experience and the passions that might be expended against it.

Notes

  1. Saul Bellow, ‘Some Notes on Recent American Fiction’, Encounter, 21 (November 1963), pp. 22-9; reprinted in Malcolm Bradbury (ed.), The Novel Today: Writers on Modern Fiction (Manchester and London: Manchester University Press and Fontana, 1977), pp. 54-70. Also, Saul Bellow, ‘Literature’, in Mortimer Adler and Robert M. Hutchins (eds), The Great Ideas Today (Chicago, Ill.: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1963), pp. 163-4. For Bellow's views of comedy and a reading of his comic methods see Sarah Blacher Cohen, Saul Bellow's Enigmatic Laughter (Urbana and Chicago, Ill., and London: University of Illinois Press, 1974).

  2. ‘Introduction’, in Saul Bellow (ed.), Great Jewish Short Stories (New York: Dell, 1963).

  3. Quoted in Harper, op. cit.

Robert R. Dutton (essay date 1982)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Dutton, Robert R. “The Adventures of Augie March.” In Saul Bellow, pp. 42-74. Boston, Mass.: Twayne Publishers, 1982.

[In the following essay, Dutton surveys a range of critical interpretations of The Adventures of Augie March, arguing that Augie's failures throughout the novel act “as a depiction both of a human condition and of contemporary literature and the artist.”]

The Adventures of Augie March (1953) must be read as a multilevel work if the reader is to comprehend fully its significance. First, the novel is to be seen as a story in which a picaresquelike hero, who is also the narrator, advances through a series of adventures which, in varying degree and nature, are relevant to a general life experience. Second, the work is to be regarded as Bellow's strictures on an existing relationship between literature and society. More specifically, on this second level, Augie March is a fictional history of American literature; it serves as an evaluation of a literary attitude, whose existence is reflected in the experiences of the protagonist and his reactions to those experiences. Third, the character and experiences of Bellow's hero may be seen as encompassing a contemporary human condition as well as dramatizing a wider and deeper comment on literature and society.

As a character in his own right on the first level, Augie plays the role of the philosophic picaro. A man of no commitments,1 he wanders from incident to incident and from place to place, never getting so deeply involved in any experience that he cannot continue in search of what he insists is his “better fate.” Since his experiences are endless in number and infinite in variety, the following examples are only the highlights: he works as a stock boy in a department store, sells trivia in a railway station, steals and sells textbooks, begins a university education, becomes a coal salesman, enters the fringes of the underworld, helps to manage a professional fighter, takes care of dogs for the socially elite, falls in love twice, becomes a union organizer, trains an eagle to catch giant lizards in Mexico, skirts the edges of joining Trotsky's cause, joins the Merchant Marine; and he finally marries and settles in Paris, where he is last seen participating in some form of shady international business. Augie is, as he says, “varietistic.” Early in the novel he confides, “Saying, ‘various jobs,’ I give out the Rosetta stone, so to speak, to my entire life.”2

The reader is likely to feel some confusion when he finishes the story of Augie March, for Bellow's protagonist ends with the same attitude with which he set forth: he still lacks commitment. Still without purpose or direction, he continues his uninvolved existence. The main source of this confusion lies in the reader's inability to penetrate Augie's attractive personality, through his keen awareness and obvious intelligence, and through his independent objectivity down to the blunt facts of his total experience: Augie is one of life's failures. It is a difficult conclusion to reach, for the reader sees in Bellow's hero many of the traits that have long been assumed to be heroic—heroic in terms of what may be called a modern mythology of heroic behavior. This heroism is founded on a rebellion from and on an opposition to, even a separatism from, established institutions. This mythology tends to blind the reader to the facts of the text inasmuch as—given this opposition and rebellion, and other qualities to be pointed out later—there seems to be a predisposition on the part of the reader to judge Bellow's protagonist, both as to character and function, on the basis of issues apart from his actual experience.

AUGIE'S APPEAL

For the reader, Augie is certainly a sympathetic character; he has abilities and qualities often thought to be necessary for integrity, nobility, and intellect. One of the most obvious and most immediately apparent of these abilities is his clear vision. A keen observer, he has all the insight of Huck Finn, with whom he has been compared as many times as the novel has critics. A case in point is evinced in Augie's reactions to one of the major characters of the novel, Einhorn, the shrewd, rapacious, cantankerous, lecherous, old man who employs Augie to run his errands and to carry around his crippled body. Of him, Augie says:

And Einhorn? Jesus, he could be winsome—the world's charm-boy. And that was distracting. You can grumble at it; you can say it's a ruse or feint of gifted people to sidetrack you from the viper's tangle and ugly knottedness of their desires, but if the art of it is deep enough and carried far enough into great play, it gets above its origin. … I every time had high regard for him. For one thing, there was always the fight he had made on his sickness to consider. … weighing it all up, the field he was put into and the weapons he was handed, he had made an imposing showing and, through mind, he connected with the spur gear. … So why be down on poor Einhorn, afflicted with mummy legs and his cripple-irritated longing.

(99-100)

Such keen descriptive insight, along with the objective ability to see all sides of a person, helps to convince us of Augie's reliability. Then his sympathetic fairness—his ability to see the good in people—comes to light. Finally, if it is true that the ability to generalize is a mark of intelligence, Augie must be seen in this passage as a figure of intellect.

Augie is also trusted and admired for his knowledge of the limits of his understanding and for his measurable honesty to self. When he is reflecting upon Einhorn's fear of death, he states, “Often I thought that in his heart Einhorn had completely surrendered to this fear,” but he quickly adds: “But when you believed you had tracked Einhorn through his acts and doings and were about to capture him, you found yourself not in the center of a labyrinth but on a wide boulevard; and here he came from a new direction …” (83).

And then Augie says of the simple and natural Willa, who is one of his many romances: “I think I could have been perfectly happy with Willa and lived all my life in a country town if the chance had ever presented itself. Or, anyhow, I sometimes tell myself that” (204). We cannot help being impressed with such candor, such an open willingness on Augie's part to suspend judgment even when his own ideas and conclusions are the subjects of consideration. Understood also is his yearning for simplicity.

Moreover, there is an admiration for Augie in his generous acceptance of people for what they are. “However, I had a high regard for him,” he says of Einhorn. And, when he sees Joe Gorman, a thief with whom he has been involved over a stolen car, sitting dazed and beaten in the back seat of a police car, Augie laments, much in the fashion of Huck to the tar-and-feather fate of the King and the Duke, “I felt powerfully heartsick to see him” (165). Augie is an unconditional humanitarian, for he knows that Gorman had lied to him, that he was carrying a gun and would have used it, which would have implicated Augie far more than was anticipated. But Joe Gorman is a human being; therefore, Augie accepts him as such and feels for him.

And so it is with Grandma Lausch; his mother; his brother Simon; the frank and rebellious Mimi; the Renlings who wish to adopt him; Thea, his sweetheart; Bateshaw, the ship's carpenter; and all the rest. Augie sees them clearly, sympathetically; he knows what they are and what they want; he accepts them; and, without malice, he removes himself from their spheres of influence: “He has a better fate.”

Augie makes one of his strongest appeals for the reader's sympathies when he philosophizes about his personal destiny of high ideal—a destiny peculiarly American in its virtuous optimism, and immediately recognizable. Early in the story he recalls his reactions as a young boy to the plans of his Aunt Anna that he will someday marry her daughter, Freidl: “Even at that time I couldn't imagine that I would marry into the Coblin family. … My mind was already dwelling on a better fate” (28). These words, “a better fate,” or their equivalents, are asserted by Augie again and again—each time, in fact, that some person or institution attempts to convert him. Whether marriage, a career, or money, nothing stands in the way to his future. Bellow's protagonist certainly seems a figure of strength, courage, and foresight.

His view of life, his weltbild, reinforces this favorable image. He simply refuses to see the world as a Valley of Despair, in spite of the obvious painful wounds and the scars of thunder sitting entrenched around him: age and deterioration are catching Grandma Lausch; his mother is growing blind; his younger brother Georgie is born an idiot; Simon's early ideals have been replaced by his mad and dismal search for money and power. Augie is surrounded by the greedy, the cynical, the shameful, the ignorant, the hopelessness of the poor, the arrogance of the rich, and by other elements that would undermine the most reasonable of stoics. Yet Augie does not despair. When he explains why he will not stop reading, even though he knows nothing will come of it, he states:

Why, I knew there were things that would never, because they could never, come of my reading. But this knowledge was not so different from the remote but ever-present death that sits in the corner of the loving bedroom; though it doesn't budge from the corner, you wouldn't stop your loving. Then neither would I stop my reading. I sat and read. I had no eye, ear, or interest for anything else. … Why everybody knows this triumphant life can only be periodic. So there's a schism about it, some saying only this triumphant life is real and others that only the daily facts are. For me there was no debate, and I made speed into the former.

(194)

So Augie's reality lies in a vision of life as triumphant, a goal that he is ever speeding toward. He is the soul of cultural optimism and great self-destiny—to him, all is possible, even in a world not the best possible. This generous, high-minded spirit is seen when Mimi urges Augie to agree or disagree with her negative opinion of Einhorn, to speak up, and to say what he thinks: “‘No,’ I said, ‘I don't know. But I don't like low opinions, and when you speak them out it commits you and you become a slave of them. Talk will lead people on until they convince their minds of things they can't feel true’” (209).

While there may be other truths to consider in what Augie says, he is right. Low opinions are uncomfortable companions, and not those of nobility. Of course, Mimi does not accept his “speak no evil” attitude, which he seems to have retained from Grandma Lausch's strictures on the three idols that sat in their house (9); but Mimi has a heatedly cynical view of life and society and of man's goodness. As for Augie, even if Mimi's cynicism is well founded, he “couldn't think all was so poured in concrete” (225) that change is impossible. He quite understandably observes with pleasure Thea's snakes as they shed: “Toughest of all was the casting of the skins. … But then they would gleam out, one day, and their freshness and jewelry would give even me pleasure, their enemy, and I would like to look at the cast skin from which they were regenerated in green or dots of red like pomegranate seeds or varnished gold crust” (369). Augie refuses to see a world of deterministic ugliness and low opinions. Such a world is not compatible with his “spur-gear” of enthusiasm nor with his anticipation of a better fate.

Part of the mythology of our cultural hero is his opposition to whatever would cause him to lose his individuality, and it is a proud and exciting moment for Augie when Einhorn discovers that such a distinction is an element of Augie's personality. When Einhorn is lecturing him to stay away from the likes of Joe Gorman and “those thieves,” Einhorn suddenly exclaims: “But wait. All of a sudden I catch on to something about you. You've got opposition in you. You don't slide through everything. You just make it look so” (117). Augie is delighted to hear this, and so is the reader; for the reader, also an admirer of opposition, would be an individual, indifferent, unique, not on the market of malleable commodities as is the world around him.

Another source of pride in Augie is his refusal to become really involved in any action or cause that does not arouse his enthusiasm. He will go along, for a time, but with only a passive acceptance; all depends on how he feels about the particular issue. It is a part of the convention of the hero that he remain detached and coolly observant until he feels a strong emotional call to involvement.

Bellow's drawing on the voices of America's literary past and assigning them to his protagonist also increases Augie's prestige with the reader. Through these faint echoes, especially to the literary minded, Augie acquires an added depth, wisdom, authority, and, equally important, a certain nostalgic and romantic aura of courage and integrity. The presence of Twain's Huck has already been noted, and he is omnipresent throughout the story. When the fear of one of Einhorn's lectures is upon Augie, he describes his fright: “the candles were now as genial to me as though they had been the ones stuck into loaves of bread by night and sailed on a black Indian lake to find the drowned body sunk to the bottom” (180).

When Mimi becomes sarcastic over Augie's letting Simon lead him to the practice of having his nails polished, Augie merely thinks, “I let it be done. I didn't consider my fingers much” (223). Then reminiscences are sung of Whitman when Augie is forced to remember his “parentage, and other history, things I had never much thought of as difficulties, being democratic in temperament, available to everybody and assuming about others what I assumed about myself” (147). Echoes of Emerson (and perhaps of Thoreau) are heard when Augie looks out over the landscape: “Meanwhile the clouds, birds, cattle in the water, things, stayed at their distance, and there was no need to herd, account for, hold them in the head, but it was enough to be among them, released on the ground as they were in their brook or in their air. I meant something like this when I said occasionally I could look out like a creature.” Then, immediately thereafter, Augie asks in Emersonian terms, with the style of Huck Finn, “How is it that human beings will submit to the gyps of previous history while mere creatures look with their original eyes?” (330).

There are other voices of the past, as is later shown. For now, the point is that the reader tends to identify Augie with the free-wheeling style and with the independent spirit of these eminent figures. Their honesty, integrity, and courage are judged to be part of Augie's character. Their heroic stance becomes his.

THE FAILURE OF AN IDEAL

Bellow gives to Augie other “advantages of the American folk hero”: he comes from a poor family; he does not know the identity of his father; he refuses to be trapped by fine clothing, social position, or wealth; he admits that he “gives his affections too easily” and that “he has no grudge-bearing power.” Bellow has endowed his narrator with the entire list of requisites to a folk hero of our time and culture; consequently, it is difficult for us to imagine Augie as one of life's failures.

But Augie does fail. In spite of his objective insights, his intelligence, his self-knowledge, his generous and humane spirit, his personal ideals and sought-for destiny; in spite of the nobility of his opposition and his discriminating enthusiasm; and, finally, in spite of the powerful and impressive voices of the past, through which he often states his case, he fails. In fact, as is seen in more detail later, there are implications at the end of the novel of a general deterioration not only of Augie's purpose but of his character.

And any confusion over Bellow's final intentions, at least one of them, is centered in this irony of the failure of greatness; for it is all too easy, once again, to see Bellow's protagonist in the light of what we have called “the mythology of heroic behavior,” and to close our eyes to the obvious deficiencies of that mythology, as—strangely enough in view of the textual facts that leave Augie in a position of ignominy—Irving Malin seems to have done when he states that “He [Bellow] favors Augie's ideal, without completely noting its inadequacies.”3 Malin is misled by what Augie says, not noting carefully enough what he does.

But Bellow knows that, for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction; for every strength, the possibility of a weakness or a disability. Or, as he has Augie say on the opening page of the book, “Everybody knows there is no fineness nor accuracy of suppression; if you hold down one thing you hold down the adjoining” (3). As a result, Augie's keen ability to observe accurately seems to carry with it the curse of estrangement: his clear insight into the characters and motivations of others has as its companion an emotional and, therefore, a functional immaturity of purpose. Consequently, as he drifts from incident to incident, he uses his “better fate” as his rationale.

Augie's generous and humane acceptance of others is, therefore, questionable. At one point, when Mintouchian, the shady and cold lawyer, asserts, “You think I'm a bandit, only you wouldn't say it on a bet. You fight your malice too much,” Augie replies, somewhat proudly it seems, “Everybody says so. It's as if you were supposed to have low opinions. I'd never say I was angelic, but I respect as much as I can” (479). Perhaps Augie respects too much, or at least too widely; for his nondiscrimination—his life without malice—permits him to dissipate his ideals through his objective passivity toward every one of his confrontations with people or with institutions. From the very beginning he passively and acceptingly joins, first, Grandma Lausch and her deceptions; second, with Simon's misplaced ambitions; third, with his aunt's plans for his marriage to Freidl; and so on through the novel—with the plans and teachings of Joe Gorman, Einhorn, the Magnuses, the Renlings, Thea, and Mintouchian. In each case he refuses to take a stand, to assert his ideals in the form of action and positive commitment. When someone calls him to join a parade, he does so; and he stays—until someone calls him to join another.

The enthusiasm that Augie calls his “spur-gear,” as he terms Einhorn's wellsprings to resolute commitment, is also double-edged. There is little doubt as to its worthwhile function in great and little enterprises; but Bellow seems to say that, as a key to the action, it may open the wrong doors. Augie manages a deep enthusiasm just twice in the novel: he falls in love twice—first, with Thea (his infatuation with her sister Esther is only temporary); second, with Stella. The first experience fails completely; and the second, as the novels ends, is failing. Evidently Bellow is saying that, with or without enthusiasm, some work is to be done, some direction and function assumed.

We have noted that Augie is proud of what he likes to think of as his “opposition,” or his refusal to be drawn into the plans of others, unless they are temporary plans, of course, or unless they have the sanctions of his enthusiasm. Here again Bellow depicts the hero of rebellion, one who will not be deprived of his individuality. But also, again, he depicts the consequences: one can alienate himself to the point of uselessness and absurdity, even grotesqueness, by pushing this rebellion to its furthest extensions.

Bellow makes this consequent alienation quite clear. At the end of the novel, one of Augie's missions for the cynical Mintouchian can only be described as grotesque: “And what have I been doing? Well, perhaps I had a meeting with a person who used to be in Dachau and did some business with him in dental supplies from Germany. That took an hour or two.” And then he adds, “After which I may have gone to the cold halls of the Louvre and visited in the Dutch School …” (522). Bellow could only intend a comment on the dismal and useless existence of Augie. What kind of life casually profits from the dentistry that took place in Dachau? And surely the sensuous painting of the Flemish Rubens and the Dutch Vermeer's depiction of the isolated, comfortable burgher, removed from the world of involvement and interested only in his pipe and lucrative shipping trade, are reflections of Augie's life.

In any case, we wonder about Augie's “better fate” and about his enthusiasm, about his high-spoken ideals concerning man's potentialities, about his generous acceptance of all living things, and certainly about his pride of opposition. We think about his language and words, noble and courageous; and we wonder if they are not mere tools to a self-betrayal.

But this view is an overly bleak and slightly distorted picture of the way in which Bellow wants us to see Augie. He is not a figure of fatalistic determinism; for, through Augie, Bellow is not saying, “Look at man with all of his endowments, to these depths he comes.” Instead he is saying that man comes to these depths only through his mistaken goals and wasted abilities. For Bellow endows Augie with all of the weapons needed to achieve a better fate, “to overcome ignominy,” if he will only see the contradictions between his ideals and reality. And at times, Augie does see. When Thea and he come to the end of their romance, Augie makes an attempt at self-examination:

Now I had started, and this terrible investigation had to go on. If this was how I was, it was certainly not how I appeared but must be my secret. So if I wanted to please, it was in order to mislead or show everyone, wasn't it, now? And this must be because I had an idea everyone was my better and had something I didn't have. But what did people seem to me anyhow, something fantastic? I didn't want to be what they made me but wanted to please them. Kindly explain! An independent fate, and love too—what confusion!

(401)

So Augie is willing to examine his own life honestly. And in this particular passage it is evident that he at least has a temporary insight into the center of his problem. Augie, for the most part, sees himself clearly; and he sees others with a fine facility. His whole difficulty is in seeing himself in relation to those others: he does not take the rest of the world into consideration when he is asserting his better fate, his ideals, and his “spur-gear” of enthusiasm. When thinking of the causes behind his break with Thea, he concludes, “My real fault was that I couldn't stay with my purest feelings” (402). Exactly! The real as opposed to the ideal is not an uncommon problem. The only way that one can stay with his purest feelings is by living in a cave. “An independent fate and love too” is as impossible as a marriage of purest feelings and a functional existence. Something must give, or one ends in a cave, useless and isolated, as Augie does.

But Augie can and does learn, even though such self-insights are partial in self-revelation. Intermittently throughout the novel he summarizes a reflection by adding that he did not know “that” at the time, as when he says, “You do all you can to humanize and familiarize the world, and suddenly it becomes more strange than ever. … I see this now, at that time not” (285). And then, describing his feeling for Thea, he says: “Not even the eagle falconry distressed me as much as that what happened to her had to happen to me too, necessarily. This was scary. This trouble of course wasn't clear to me then …” (323). This ability, the capacity to grasp even a piece of the significance of experience, is a structural cornerstone of Bellow's subangelic ideology.

Augie still does not see that the thing everybody has that he does not have is direction and purpose, involvement with life, even though these involvements might be criticized. The full meaning of his experience is lost to him, as his rather pathetic assertion, while not one of hopelessness, at the end of his story indicates: “It must be clear, however, that I am a person of hope, and now my hopes have settled themselves upon children and a settled life. I haven't been able to convince Stella as yet. Therefore while I knock around … it's unborn children I pore over far oftener than business deals” (529).

Augie will probably go his picaresque way with hope and with children still unborn; for hope alone creates nothing but despair or an “animal ridens,” as Augie describes himself at the end of the book (536). Yet perhaps Augie will come to know, even as does Joseph in Dangling Man, that there is no identity, no integrity, no better fate, no creation, of children or anything else, without a social commitment, without an understanding of one's relationship to others. It is only hoped that he comes to his knowledge with less hysteria and less despair than did Joseph. Bellow leaves Augie, for the time being, in a position that seems to be a comment on those who rest on the claim that the game is not to their liking, not to their enthusiasms, and that they are waiting for a higher, freer reality. But Bellow also leaves them Augie's abilities and his hope, pathetic or otherwise.

Bellow makes his position clear when Augie closes the story: “I may well be a flop at this line of endeavor. Columbus too thought he was a flop, probably, when they sent him back in chains. Which didn't prove there was no America” (536). All of which is to say that Augie knows his ideals are right, in spite of his less-than-high fortune. In Augie's view of himself as Columbus, Bellow intends an illumination for his protagonist—a discovery of likenesses between himself and another explorer. While both seem to have failed, their hope, vision, judgment, and courage are realities of their natures which give to them powers and potentialities that allow them the possibilities of a “better fate.” Bellow leaves it to the reader to understand that Augie's failure lies not in his high ideals but in his refusal to live them through positive action and personal involvement—and in his seeming willingness to be used by those who are actively involved but who do not possess his vision of existence as subangelic.

LITERATURE AND SOCIETY

In his introduction to Literature in America, Phillip Rahv states: “Art has always fed on the contradiction between the reality of the world and the image of glory and orgastic happiness and harmony and goodness and fulfillment which the self cherishes as it aspires to live even while daily dying.”4

The statement expresses the theme of the second level of The Adventures of Augie March, a theme seemingly of primary importance in Bellow's conception of the novel. For, although Augie March is a meaningful work in its depiction of a human condition, much of its significance is to be found in the ideas of its protagonist, in his reflections, and not in his confrontations with life. To be sure, reflection follows confrontation; but we sense that something is out of balance, that perhaps reflection outweighs confrontation, giving philosophy a major role and literature a minor one.

Somehow incident fails to support the weight of narrative, as Robert Penn Warren concludes: “if Augie plunges into the aimless ruck of experience, in the end we see that Saul Bellow has led him through experience toward philosophy. That is, the aimless ruck had a shape, after all, and the shape is not that of Augie's life but of Saul Bellow's mind. Without that shape and the shaping mind, we would have only the limited interest in the random incidents.”5

Although Warren is rather vague, inasmuch as he does not trace the “shape” of Bellow's mind, the statement has a general validity—if the novel is confined in meaning to its first level: the depiction of a human condition. In that case, there is an “aimless ruck of experience”; therefore, the incidents in Augie's life would indeed be “random” and of “limited interest.” Once again, Bellow's philosophy seems to hold the work together. Furthermore, if the novel is read with Augie as a fictional creation, it is difficult to place much value, in spite of National Book Awards, on either the theme or its dramatization. It is the old theme of nonconformity, the refusal to be trapped in social quagmires, the commitment to self and the exploration of that self. In American letters, such breast-beating goes back at least to Melville, Emerson, and Thoreau; it grew to tribal orgies in the 1920s; it still has an army of adherents.

Moreover, the ignominious state in which the protagonist ends, owing to the age-old conflict of the individual against society, is hardly a revelation to the reader schooled in Frank Norris, Stephen Crane, Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, James Farrell, and their many disciples. As Frederick Hoffman says of the novel, “In the end there is something wrong with the picture: there is too much to know, and the knowing and living have too little to do with each other.”6 Once again, we do not say that Bellow's novel on a first level is not meaningful; at the very least it is an intellectual picaresque that cannot be ignored no matter how thin the total structure and development, no matter how tired the theme, and no matter if the philosophy exceeds the rendered life.

In any case, we must examine the work as something other than a philosophical travelogue, as something more than an “aimless ruck of experience” and “random incidents.” We must consider Augie March as presenting not so much the “shape of Bellow's mind” but as showing the relationship between literature and society in general and the condition of American literature in particular. As for the novel's concern with American literature, Maxwell Geismar's comment and question are to the point: “Thus the novel which opens in the Chicago slums ends with the exotics and expatriates of Mexico and Europe: which is also a curious parable of the course of American literary realism during the last half-century. But what can we really make of all this?”7

Geismar's question deserves an answer, for Bellow has included within the story of Augie some materials that can best be accounted for only in metaphoric terms. As we stated earlier, Augie March may be read as a study of the relationship between the artist, or literature, and society. What Bellow does is to show that relationship as it exists universally, through a dramatized depiction of American realism. Bellow has made his position clear on this subject of the artist and society in works other than fiction. In his acceptance speech for the National Book Award (1964) for his novel Herzog, he said:

The fact that there are so many weak, poor, and boring stories and novels written and published in America has been ascribed by our rebels to the horrible squareness of our institutions, the idiocy of power, the debasement of sexual instincts, and the failure of writers to be alienated enough. The poems and novels of these same rebellious spirits, and their theoretical statements, are grimy and gritty and very boring too, besides being nonsensical, and it is evident now that polymorphous sexuality and vehement declarations of alienation are not going to produce great works of art either.

There is nothing left for us novelists to do but think. For unless we think, unless we make a clearer estimate of our condition, we will continue to write kid stuff, to fail in our function; we will lack serious interests and become truly irrelevant. Here the critics must share the blame. They too have failed to describe the situation. Literature has for generations been its own source, its own province, has lived upon its own tradition, and accepted a romantic separation or estrangement from the common world. This estrangement, though it produced some masterpieces, has by now enfeebled literature.

The separatism of writers is accompanied by the more or less conscious acceptance of a theory of modern civilization. This theory says in effect that modern mass society is frightful, brutal, hostile to whatever is pure in the human spirit, a waste land and a horror. To its ugliness, its bureaucratic regiments, its thefts, its lies, its wars, and its cruelties, the artist can never be reconciled.

This is one of the traditions on which literature has lived uncritically. But it is the task of artists and critics in every generation to look with their own eyes. Perhaps they will see even worse evils, but they will at least be seeing for themselves. They will not, they cannot permit themselves, generation after generation, to hold views they have not examined for themselves. By such willful blindness we lose the right to call ourselves artists; we have accepted what we ourselves condemn—narrow specialization, professionalism, and snobbery, and the formation of a caste.

And, unfortunately, the postures of this caste, postures of liberation and independence and creativity, are attractive to poor souls dreaming everywhere of a fuller, freer life. The writer is admired, the writer is envied. But what has he to say for himself? Why, he says, just as writers have said for more than a century, that he is cut off from the life of his own society, despised by its overlords who are cynical and have nothing but contempt for the artist, without a true public, estranged. He dreams of ages when the poet or the painter expressed a perfect unity of time and place, had real acceptance, and enjoyed a vital harmony with his surroundings—he dreams of a golden age. In fact, without the golden age, there is no Waste Land.

Well, this is no age of gold. It is only what it is. Can we do no more than complain about it? We writers have better choices. We can either shut up because the times are too bad, or continue because we have an instinct to make books, a talent to enjoy, which even these disfigured times cannot obliterate. Isolated professionalism is death. Without the common world the novelist is nothing but a curiosity and will find himself in a glass case along some dull museum corridor of the future.

We live in a technological age which seems insurmountably hostile to the artist. He must fight for his life, for his freedom, along with everyone else—for justice and equality, threatened by mechanization and bureaucracy. This is not to advise the novelist to rush immediately into the political sphere. But in the first stage he must begin to exert his intelligence, long unused. If he is to reject politics, he must understand what he is rejecting. He must begin to think and to think not merely of his own narrower interests and needs.8

Augie March is a dramatic rendering of a good part of these same strictures. Bellow sets his protagonist-narrator in motion in order for these ideas to come alive: Augie, too, practices “separatism”; he, too, is one of the “poor souls dreaming … of a better life”; he dreams of “a perfect unity of time and place.”9 And there is good reason to doubt that he will create children (or works of art) through “declarations of alienation.” Moreover, Augie has “failed to make a clear estimate of [his] condition”; he “has failed in … function”; he “lacks serious interests”; and he has “become truly irrelevant.” Other parallels between Bellow's speech and the characterizations of Augie will be discussed later; for now, these serve to point out that, through his protagonist, Bellow is making the same observations concerning the state of contemporary literature in its relation to society that he made in his speech.

LITERARY INFLUENCES

If we accept Augie as a paradigm for artist, as that artist reflects the state of contemporary literature, then part of his role is that of the contemporary American writer who is a product of the roots of his own national literature. In order to cast his protagonist in this role, Bellow gives Augie what might be thought of as heredity and environment: past and present literary influences. Augie's heredity manifests itself in a mind and tongue highly reminiscent of nineteenth-century American authors, all of whom are representative of the kind of artistic integrity that would define them as rebels of one sort or another.

Such names as Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, and Twain have already been mentioned earlier in this chapter; but there are others. When Augie is stranded after his abortive career in crime with Joe Gorman, he reports: “I took the excursion to Niagara Falls where nobody seemed to have any business that day, only a few strays beside the crush of water, like early sparrows in the cathedral square before Notre Dame has opened its doors; and then in the brute sad fog you know that at one time this sulphur coldness didn't paralyze everything, and there's the cathedral to prove it” (165). Augie finds proof in the cathedral of the existence of an active, warming force that sets itself against the numbing coldness of the fog, just as Henry Adams found proof in cathedrals of Europe of the driving force of the Virgin as against the cold, detached, godlike power of the steam engine or dynamo.

And, in Mexico while training the eagle Caligula, Augie philosophizes: “When Caligula soared under this sky I sometimes wondered what connection he made with this element of nearly too great strength that was dammed back of the old spouts of craters” (338). Melville's Ishmael, in the chapter in Moby Dick entitled “The Symphony,” ponders the relationship of the sun, “aloft like a royal czar and king,” with the sea and the sky; and Augie wonders at the soaring Caligula, this king of birds, and his connection with the earth and sky around him.

Of particular interest is the fact that all of the writers Bellow calls up from the past created works that speak for the same philosophic and idealistic alienation or rebellion that Augie brings into the world. From the beginning he sets a course of idealistic noninvolvement in the interests of a “better fate.” And Bellow points directly to Augie's environment when he has his protagonist state early in the novel: “All the influences were lined up waiting for me. I was born and there they were to form me which is why I tell you more of them than of myself” (43). For the most part, Bellow sets these influences in motion through the people with whom Augie associates. That is, these people, in a complex and at times confusing way, are symbols of literary movements, trends, ideas, fictive characters, and authors that have in one way or another made lesser or greater marks on American literature.

A few examples illustrate Bellow's technique in the treatment of symbolic function of character. Augie is born in Chicago, where he lives with his brother Simon, his mother, his idiot brother Georgie, and Grandma Lausch, who is the first influence to be reckoned with. This old woman is really no relation to the Marches: sometime earlier she had rented a room in their house and has stayed to exercise a dominant authority over the entire family. As Simon says to Augie, “She's really nothing to us, you know that, don't you, Aug?” (33). Her roots are in Europe, and Augie as a young boy is fearfully impressed: “That isn't to say that I stopped connecting her with the highest and the best—taking her at her own word—with the courts of Europe, the Congress of Vienna, the splendor of family, and all kinds of profound and cultured things as hinted in her conduct and advertised in her speech …” (30).

Grandma Lausch often sends Augie to the library after books: “Once a year she read Anna Karenina and Eugene Onegin [also Manon Lescaut, we learn later, p. 14]. Occasionally I got into hot water by bringing a book she didn't want. ‘How many times do I have to tell you if it doesn't say roman I don't want it?’” (11). Grandma Lausch is symbolic of the Victorian mores to which American literature was largely bound during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. With the references to “the courts of Europe,” “the Congress of Vienna,” “the splendor of family”—along with Grandma Lausch's stage appearance and her interest in Russian and French romances—Bellow intends this figure to represent a literary authority based on reaction and tradition. It is a fading authority, one that must find its comfort through the romantic past and by steadfastly denying the ugly present, or at least by not speaking of it. Augie recalls:

Monkey was the basis of much thought with us. On the sideboard, on the Turkestan runner, with their eyes, ears, and mouth covered, we had see-no-evil, speak-no-evil, hear-no-evil, a lower trinity of the house. … the monkeys could be potent, and awesome besides, and deep social critics when the old woman … would point … [and] say, “Nobody asks you to love the whole world, only to be honest, ehrlich. Don't have a loud mouth. The more you love people the more they'll mix you up. A child loves, a person respects. Respect is better than love. And that's respect, the middle monkey.” It never occurred to us that she sinned mischievously herself against that convulsed speak-no-evil.

(9)

In the last line Augie notes the duplicity and hypocrisy of his tyrannical Victorian grandmother. And, of course, Grandma Lausch's “speak-no-evil” monkey is the cultural primate that the artist had to battle during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

When Augie comments on Grandma Lausch's failing authority, he explains, “I never repudiated her that much [as much as Simon did] or tried to strike the old influence, such as it had become, out of her hands” (58). Here Augie might be seen as a paradigm of American literature; and it is particularly suitable to his passive character that he, like literature in general, accepts, for a while, all influences. He makes no direct attempt to hold aloof from them nor to diminish their influences on him: when Grandma Lausch simply grows old, she is sent to an old-folks home; and her loss of power is noted by Bellow through Augie: “The house was changed also for us; dinkier, smaller, darker; once shiny and venerated things losing their attraction and richness and importance. Tin showed, cracks, black spots where enamel was hit off, threadbarer, design scuffed out of the center of the rug, all the glamour, lacquer, massiveness, florescence, wiped out” (58-59).

This passage depicting a house of the realistic is at the close of chapter 4: the next chapter begins with Augie's statement that “Einhorn was the first superior man I knew” for whom Augie “went to work awhile … a high school junior, not long before the great crash” (60). While it is difficult to state the precise significance of Bellow's use of time, the publication dates of the following works are provocative: Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury and Sartoris (1929); Wolfe's Look Homeward Angel (1929); Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises (1926) and A Farewell to Arms (1929); Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby (1925); Dreiser's An American Tragedy (1925). In any case, the time was one for dispossessing the old and looking to the new; for with these novels—and, on the chronological fringes, the work of Anderson, Lewis, Dos Passos, O'Neill, and Mencken—the full tide of a new wave of literature was to flood the land: a realistic literature, something on the order of the personality and character of Einhorn, who becomes the second major influence on Augie.

Einhorn is a complete figure of the 1920s, or perhaps of the myth of the 1920s because of his pursuit of money, power, and sex; and, in spite of his crippled legs, he has absolute confidence in his own strength and abilities.10 His cynical view of life overrides all opposition. He is demanding, knavish, petty, and knowing, but he is confused and driven by a sexual greed that is without limits, “singlemindedly and grimly fixed on the one thing, ultimately the thing, for which men and women came together” (78). Einhorn, utterly devoid of illusions, knows the wellsprings of man and draws on them with staggering jerks and sly pulls. Above all social dictates, he tells Augie: “Besides, there's law, and then there's Nature. There's opinion, and then there's Nature. Somebody has to get outside of law and opinion and speak for Nature. It's even a public duty, so customs won't have us all by the windpipe” (67). In such a voice naturalism and realism announce their presence. When we think of Einhorn, we think of a powerful determinism, as does Augie when his “superior man” falls victim to the Depression: “I'm thinking of the old tale of Croesus, with Einhorn in the unhappy part” (106). And the story of Croesus is about the reversal of simple fate, the god of determinism.

Einhorn's activities are instructive. Primarily in real estate, his interests are without end, as Augie relates:

The stuff had to be where he could lay his hands on it at once, his clippings and pieces of paper, in folders labeled Commerce, Invention, Major Local Transactions, Crime and Gang, Democrats, Republicans, Archaeology, Literature, League of Nations. … Everything was going to be properly done, with Einhorn, and was thoroughly organized on his desk and around it—Shakespeare, Bible, Plutarch, dictionary and Thesaurus. Commercial Law for Laymen, real-estate and insurance guides, almanacs and directories; then typewriter in black hood, dictaphone, telephones on bracket arms and a little screwdriver to hand for touching off the part of the telephone mechanism that registered the drop of the nickel … wire trays labeled Incoming and Outgoing, molten Aetna Weights, notary's seal on chain, staplers, flap-moistening sponges, keys to money, confidential papers, notes, condoms, personal correspondence and poems and essays. …

(66)

And the end of his interests is nowhere in sight; for, as Augie concludes, “He had to be in touch with everything” (70). Through such a comprehensive and minute cataloging, Bellow's creation is to be seen as an embodiment of the naturalistic or the realistic, the distinctions between which are somewhat too fine for precise delineation. But Einhorn's drives are certainly reminiscent of the “chemisms” of Dreiser and the style in which Bellow indicates the activities of the old man is blatantly realistic in its enumeration of every last detail.

While Einhorn may be read as a generalized depiction of the new art and emerging culture of the 1920s, there is some evidence that Bellow means to be more precise—that he intends this figure to be representative of Hemingway, or, in part, to be seen as a Hemingway creation. Admittedly conjectural, the likenesses are interesting: Augie carries Einhorn on his back, even as Hemingway during this period was the master, guide, and controlling force of American literature. Einhorn's useless legs recall the wounds suffered by several Hemingway characters; his deep concern, perhaps even fear, of death is an everlasting omnipotent subject of Hemingway's; his stocking cap is in the Hemingway mode; Hemingway's almost fanatical emphasis on physical endurance and well-being is seen as Augie describes Einhorn at the table: “Then Einhorn took a white spoonful of Bisodol and a glass of Waukesha water for his gas. He made a joke of it, but he never forgot to take them and heeded all his processes with much seriousness, careful that his tongue was not too coated and his machinery smooth. … he was zealous about taking care of himself; and with this zeal he had a brat's self-mockery about the object of his cares …” (74).

But there is more at issue that Hemingway's stamina, and the further significance lies in the references to the “tongue” and “machinery,” as well as to the “self-mockery about the object of his cares.” While Hemingway's manner was to behave with a bravado in spite of his bodily fears, of more importance in this instance was his inclination to speak disparagingly of literary technique but to take an almost obsessive care with his own. Bellow shows this high degree of fidelity to art through Einhorn's son, Arthur, who attends the university and in whom Einhorn puts all his hope and trust, counting on him to carry on the Einhorn name. Augie is made ever aware of his position in relation to that of Arthur: “I wasn't ever to get it into my head that I was part of the family. There was small chance that I would, the way Arthur, the only son, figured in their references. … I don't think I would have considered myself even remotely as a legatee of the Commissioner [Einhorn's father] if they hadn't, for one thing, underlined my remoteness from inheritance, and, for another, discussed inheritances all the time” (72). And later, “Arthur's brainy authority made his dad occasionally sound off …” (293).

The threads of Bellow's intent are closely woven and of complex design; but the passages must be read as a specific comment on Einhorn as Hemingway or as a general comment on the writers of the 1920s, and perhaps as on both. In any case, Bellow indicates the weakness of these writers: they refused to admit into their thinking the uses and values of American literature (symbolized by Augie) as it had been handed down to them, inasmuch as their single-visioned emphasis on artistic technique (represented by Arthur) made them somewhat blind to their function as artist, a function that Bellow unfolds in his speech previously quoted.

At this point, it is necessary to say a word about the Commissioner who, again conjecturally, acts the role of Mark Twain. Hemingway's repeatedly acknowledged debt to Twain is a possible parallel to Einhorn's realization of his debt to his father. Augie states the case: “He [Einhorn] had his father to keep up with, whose business ideas were perhaps less imaginative but broader. … The old commissioner had made the Einhorn money” (66). Then, when Augie describes the Commissioner, the personality of Mark Twain is clearly evident:

The Commissioner, in a kindly, sleepy, warm-aired, fascinated way, petted and admired all women and put his hands wherever he liked. … You couldn't say it was a common letch he had; it was a sort of a Solomonic regard of an old chief or aged sea lion. … You could feel from the net pleasantness he carried what there had been between him and women now old or dead, whom he recognized, probably, and greeted in this nose or that bosom. … His sons didn't share this quality. Of course you don't expect younger men to have this kind of evening—Mississippi serenity, but there wasn't much disinterestedness or contemplation in either of them. … Einhorn … took the joking liberties his father did, but his jokes didn't have the same ring; which isn't to say that they weren't funny but that he cast himself forward on them toward a goal—seduction.

(76-77)

Evident in this passage is the literary relationship between the sensibilities of Twain and Hemingway. Furthermore, with Twain's renowned lack of business sense in Bellow's mind, the Commissioner, it is discovered upon his death, “had made loans to these men and had no notes, only these memoranda of debts amounting to several thousand dollars” (105). Then, in what may be Bellow's opinion of the relative merits of Twain and Hemingway, Augie says: “Kreindl, who did a job for him once in a while, thought he was as wise as a god. ‘The son is smart,’ he said, ‘but the Commissioner—that's really a man you have to give way to on earth.’ I disagreed then and do still, though when the Commissioner was up to something he stole the show” (61). Through Grandma Lausch, the Commissioner, Einhorn, and Arthur, then with Augie, Bellow shows the drift of literary influences; and those influences play directly upon his protagonist, the artist or symbol of American literature.

Even as naturalism or realism remains a force in literature, so Einhorn remains a figure throughout the book, but in a somewhat weakened condition, or changed position, from his earlier one of power. Augie reports the change: “His spirit was piercing, but there had to be mentioned his poor color, age-impoverished and gray; plus the new flat's ugliness; dullness of certain hours, dryness of days, dreariness and shabbiness—mentioned that the street was bare, dim and low in life, bad; and that there were business thoughts and malformed growths of purpose, terrible, menacing, salt-patched with noises and news, and pimpled and dotted around with lies, both practical and gratuitous” (155).

And Einhorn has grown bitter. When Simon, who is distracted by love, fails to send money to Augie so he can get back home, Einhorn contends that Augie should “take advantage” of the situation, should “have satisfaction” and not let Simon off easy. Augie guesses at the reasons for Einhorn's vindictive manner: “He intended that, as there were no more effective prescriptions in old ways, as we were in dreamed-out or finished visions, that therefore, in the naked form of the human jelly, one should choose or seize with force; one should make strength from disadvantages and make progress by having enemies, being wrathful or terrible; should hammer on the state of being a brother …” (183).

Finally, Bellow makes additionally clear what the realistic movement has become, how it has, in the words of his speech, “enfeebled literature,” through Einhorn's reaction to Augie's becoming a union organizer. When Augie asks him, “Then you think it's a waste of time, what I'm doing?,” Einhorn replies: “Oh, it seems to me on both sides the ideas are the same. What's the use of the same old ideas? … To take some from one side and give it to the other, the same old economics. … You think that with a closed shop you're going to make men out of slobs. … Look here, because they were born you think they have to turn out to be men? That's just an old fashioned idea” (293). The possibility of man bettering himself is an old idea, held by such romantic dreamers as Grandma Lausch. Einhorn is clearly preaching ideas of isolation here, a noninvolvement, the uselessness of effort—the same behavior that Bellow condemns in his speech and, ultimately, in his depiction of Augie's existence. Yet Einhorn has seen better days. Augie recalls that “you could always get part of the truth from Einhorn” (386). Much earlier he tells Augie: “But I'm not a lowlife when I think, and really think. … In the end you can't save your soul and life by thought. But if you think, the least of the consolation prizes is the world” (117). This is the voice of Bellow, it will be recalled, speaking to his fellow novelists and saying, “there is nothing left for us novelists to do but think.”

Through The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald left his mark not only on the literature but on the culture of this country; for Jay Gatsby embodies the sad estrangement, the disappointment, and the disillusion of those who feel that the 1920s witnessed the death of the American dream. In Augie March, Bellow gives this role to Augie's brother Simon. Like Gatsby, who in his childhood was faithful to Benjamin Franklin ideals and to dreams of self-improvement, Simon begins his adolescence. When Augie describes Simon's not participating in the deception of the Charities, he explains that his brother “was too blunt for this kind of maneuver and, anyway, from books, had gotten hold of some English schoolboy notions of honor” (4). Simon, unlike Augie, never has trouble with the neighborhood gangs; he has other interests: “School absorbed him more, and he had his sentiments anyway, a mixed extract from Natty Bumppo, Quentin Durward, Tom Brown, Clark at Kaskaskia, the messenger who brought the good news from Ratisbon, and so on, that kept him more to himself. I was a slow understudy to this, just as he never got me to put in hours on his Sandow muscle builder” (12).

Simon even gets odd jobs and works diligently. But one summer, and in this case, much in the manner of Dreiser's Clyde Griffith of An American Tragedy, Simon leaves home to work in a resort hotel. When he returns, Augie recognizes that something has happened: “he went through a change the summer he waited on tables … and came back with some different aims from his original ones and new ideas about conduct” (31). And Simon, like Fitzgerald's Gatsby or Dreiser's Griffith, begins his long road in search of power and wealth. Simon even talks like Gatsby; for, when he announces his engagement, he says to Augie, “Well, sport, we may be married in the next few months. You envy me? I bet you do” (150).

Augie also gets his chance to play the role of a Fitzgeraldian figure. When he takes up with the Renlings, we cannot miss the tone and flavor of indolent glamor. With chapter 8, Augie announces his new life: “From here a new course was set—by us, for us: I'm not going to try to unravel all the causes … I don't know how it all at once came to me to talk a lot, tell jokes, kick up, and suddenly have views. When it was time to have them, there was no telling how I picked them from the air” (125).

And Augie describes himself during this period: “There was a spell in which I mainly wished to own dinner clothes and be invited to formal parties and thought considerably about how to get into the Junior Chamber of Commerce. Not that I had any business ideas. … It was social enthusiasm that moved in me, smartness, clothes-horseyness. The way a pair of tight Argyle socks showed in the crossing of legs, a match to the bow tie settled on a Princeton collar, took me in the heart with enormous power and hunger. I was given over to it” (134).

Bellow's attempt to define Augie as a cultural and literary wind is obvious in the choice of words. “I picked them from the air” and “I was given over to it” appropriately describe Augie not only as character but also as a symbol of the way an institution such as literature adopts and is ultimately dominated by a particular inclination or influence.

Bellow depicts the Fitzgeraldian world in which Augie lives:

It was sundown, near dinnertime, with brilliant darkening water, napkins and broad menus standing up in the dining room, and roses and ferns in long-necked vases, the orchestra tuning back of its curtain. I was alone in the corridor, troubled and rocky, and trod on slowly to the music room, where the phonograph was playing Caruso, stifled and then clear cries of operatic mother-longing, that ornate, at heart somber, son's appeal of the Italian taste. Resting her elbows on the closed cabinet, in a white suit and round white hat, next thing to a bishop's biretta, bead-embroidered, was Esther Fenchel; she stood with one foot set on its point.

(142)

Making the portrayal complete, Esther turns out to be something of Gatsby's Daisy, a “deadhead,” as her sister Thea describes her, one incapable of accepting or fulfilling Augie's dreams.

But Augie leaves the Renlings for good reason: “Just when Mrs. Renling's construction around me was nearly complete I shoved off. The leading and precipitating reason was that she proposed to adopt me … Why should I turn into one of these people who didn't know who they themselves were? And the unvarnished truth is that it wasn't a fate good enough for me …” (151). So Augie is ready to leave the 1920s and its influences and to move into the 1930s and new pressures, new longings, new ideas, and new adoptive-minded people.

SEPARATISM AND SELF-APPRAISAL

The entire track that Bellow lays down cannot be traced here. But Augie's association with the Magnuses, the unions, his trip to Mexico, the near association with the dreams of Trotsky, Bateshaw, service in the merchant marine, Mintouchian, and all the rest are reflections of different literary and cultural interests at various times. Augie's function within this framework is highly complex; for he is both a part of it and outside it. He is outside it insofar as he fails to get enduringly involved with any particular force or influence. Pursuing “a better fate,” he moves on. In this role of wanderer, Augie is intended by Bellow to be what we may call the backbone of American literature, or, as he has been referred to here, the spirit of that literature. At the end of the novel, as will be seen, Bellow shows the present state of literature through his protagonist; when all of the literary influences finally come to rest on him, they make of Bellow's hero a symbolic figure of contemporary writing.

But, for now, the interest is in Augie as the participant who is inside the framework, and is responding to these influences. And there is added complexity to Bellow's protagonist in this role: for, on the one hand, he represents a specific trend in the particular literature of the period, as when he assumes a Fitzgeraldian guise; and, on the other hand, he represents what may best be described as the artist responding to these various pressures. Augie as artist may be seen, for example, when he is in that period of self-examination which was referred to in the first part of this chapter. It will be recalled that Augie is searching for his own character right after Thea has left him. For convenient reference, we cite the passage again: “Now I had started, and this terrible investigation had to go on. If this was how I was, it was certainly not how I appeared but must be my secret. So if I wanted to please, it was in order to mislead or show everyone, wasn't it, now? And this must be because I had an idea everyone was my better and had something I didn't have. But what did people seem to me anyhow, something fantastic? I didn't want to be what they made me but wanted to please them. Kindly explain! An independent fate, and love too—what confusion!” (401).

On the surface, Augie's self-appraisal arises from his realization that he seems to be unable to commit himself, to become really involved with life. It is more important, however, to see Augie as an artist of whom Bellow is asking the same questions he poses in his National Book Award speech. When Augie asks, “But what did people seem to me, something fantastic,” Bellow is commenting on the theory of literature that seems to demand a theme of alienation, or, as he states, “This theory [that] says in effect that modern mass society is frightful, brutal, hostile to whatever is pure in the human spirit, a waste land and a horror.” Bellow questions the vision that sees only a society uninhabitable and grotesque, not only as to its validity, although “it produced some masterpieces,”11 but for its consequence—“the separatism of writers.” Then Augie says, “I didn't want to be what they made of me but wanted to please them.”

Of course, Augie is posing the often contradictory position of the artist: he refuses to become actively and positively involved, either in his art or in his personal life, with the very group from which he seeks approval. As Bellow says more directly, “This is not to advise the novelist to rush into the political sphere. But in the first stage he must begin to exert his intelligence, long unused.” And Augie has every right to be confused in his impossible demands for “an independent fate and love too,” for here is the confusion manifested by the artist who, as Bellow says, exhibits “postures of liberation and independence and creativity.” Because love and independence are mutually exclusive, modification of one position or the other is an absolute necessity. So it is with independence and creativity: for, as Bellow makes clear, “vehement declarations of alienation are not going to produce great works of art either.”

Augie's adventures in love are extremely germane to his role as artist. To Bellow, love is a symbol of creation; as such, he often equates love with the creative abilities of the artist. In his essay, “Distractions of a Fiction Writer,” he says:

“To believe in the existence of human beings as such is love,” says Simone Weil. This is what makes the difference. It is possible—all too possible—to say when we have read one more modern novel: “So what? What do I care? You yourself, the writer, didn't really care.” It is all too often like that. But this caring or believing or love alone matters. All the rest, obsolescence, historical views, manners, agreed views of the universe, is simply nonsense and trash. If we don't care, don't immediately care, then perish books both old and new, and novelists, and governments, too! If we do care, if we believe in the existence of others, then what we write is necessary. … A book, any book, may easily be superfluous. But to manifest love—can that be superfluous? Is there so much of it about us? Not so much. It is still rare, still wonderful. It is still effective against distraction.12

Ihab Hassan, while he does not pursue the significance of his observation, draws a useful distinction: “For Thea love is a preparation to a more exalted state; for him [Augie] it is a worthy end.”13 Love as an end in itself—all very romantic. But all for love or the world well lost is precisely the issue. Augie loves in a vacuum; he loves his ideas and ideals; but he does not “believe in the existence of human beings as such [italics mine].” His Emersonianisms and Whitmanisms are kept apart from the actual human condition. As Thea says to him, “But perhaps love would be strange and foreign to you no matter which way it happened, and maybe you just don't want it” (396). Real love would seem foreign to Augie because he would not be able to reconcile his ideals with reality.

And so it is, Bellow says, with the artist. He must care—and care, immediately and now—within the framework of the human condition, and not only in some abstract way. Caring in the abstract is worse than useless; it has a deteriorating effect. Bellow makes this effect clear in his essay: “But it is not only ideas of evil that become destructive. Ideas of good, held in earnest, may be equally damaging to the passive thinker. His passivity puts him in self-contempt. This same contempt may estrange him from ideas of good. He lives below them and feels dwarfed. On certain occasions a hero in thought, he has become abject in fact, and he cannot be blamed for feeling that he is not doing a man's work. … Men are active. Ideas are passive.”14

Although Bellow is talking to the novelist, he is describing Augie's condition. Because he lives below his ideas of good, he has become, at the end of the novel, abject in fact. His idea of love, high and noble, is barren and uncreative; indeed it is self-damaging because it is not based on the real condition of its object—the human condition. How ironic the statement of David Galloway: “Augie's point of view—the maintenance of an intention which is opposed at almost every turn by reality—begins gradually to define him as an absurd man.”15 So Bellow would define the artist who insists on a “separatism” until a “fuller, freer life” arrives, and who spends his time in “dreams of a golden age.”

This paradigm of Augie as artist, once understood, is evident throughout the novel. Indeed, in almost every word that Augie speaks we can see Bellow's dual intent: first, to develop Augie as a character in his own right; second, to use him as a symbol of literary issues.

AUGIE AND WESTERN LITERATURE

Up to this point, Augie March has been regarded as a comment on American literature, but Bellow has set his novel on a wider stage: he would have his work read as a depiction of the relationship throughout the Western world between literature and society. In his “Distractions” essay, he says:

But I should like to point out that impotence has received more attention from modern writers than any other subject. … Here is a brief list:

Oblomov: he spends his life in bed.

Moreau in Flaubert's The Sentimental Education: a life spent on trifles, utterly spoiled.

Captain Ahab: “I have lost the low enjoying power.” He means that he is distracted. Natural beauty is recognized by his mind but it doesn't move him.

Clym Yeobright in The Return of the Native: empty of the feeling which Eustacia desires.

The hero of Henry James's “The Beast in the Jungle”: empty of feeling.

Dostoevski's hero or anti-hero in Notes from Underground: his spite, his coldness, his venom, combined with the greatness of his mind, give him an exceptional stature.

Leopold Bloom: the distracted and impotent man.

I could add hundreds more to this list, from Lawrence or Proust or Hemingway and their innumerable imitators. They all tell the same story. The dread is great, the soul is small; man might be godlike but he is wretched. The heart should be open but it is sealed by fear.16

Bellow is not only concerned with American literature; he sees the stain on a larger canvas. For this wider picture, he turns to mythology.

Augie's travels and relationships have their counterparts in mythology; there are, for example, some striking similarities in Augie as archetype of both Aeneas and Apollo. It will be remembered that Augie, in his own words, is born the result of “the by-blow of a traveling man” (125) and that he has no father, at least none living with him. His mother is an object lesson “in her love-originated servitude” (10). Moreover, Augie says of his mother: “[She] occupied a place, I suppose, among women conquered by a superior force of love, like those women whom Zeus got the better of in animal form and who next had to take cover from his furious wife” (10). As far as the punishment which was administered to “those women” by the “furious wife. … Grandma Lausch was there to administer the penalties under the standards of legitimacy, representing the main body of married woman-kind”17 (10). This background parallels the birth of Apollo to Zeus and Leto, and Leto's subsequent difficulties. Inasmuch as Apollo is the god of poetry, it seems that Bellow means in this relationship to reinforce the view of Augie as a spirit of literature.

Augie is also Aeneas. First, both are travelers. Then, as Aeneas carries his father on his back from Troy, so does Augie carry Einhorn (literary father to Augie) on his. In fact, Augie speaks of this ancient event in connection with Einhorn (122). More than in any other way, however, it is the travels of Aeneas and his destiny that are of significance. Several times before reaching Carthage and Dido, Aeneas, whose fate is to found Rome, starts to build a city; but each time he, with his followers, is driven off by various omens and misfortunes. So it is with Augie as he tries his constructions on crime, education, social position with the Renlings, wealth with the Magnuses, on a career as a union organizer, and so on through his travels. Each time, he, too, moves on to his “better fate.”

There is also a close parallel between the stay of Aeneas with Dido in Carthage and the short time together of Augie and Thea in Mexico. Both Dido and Thea are beautiful widows, and both dress their men in lavish fashion (314). Of particular interest is the plan of Venus, mother to Aeneas, to contrive a plan which will make it certain that Aeneas' feeling for Dido is of no great depth so that he, at the proper time, has the strength of purpose to continue his fated journey to Rome. This situation precisely applies to Augie; he seems to exist with Thea not as a person but as a kind of extension, on her terms, as a passive but highly willing and obedient follower. He, like Aeneas again, has “a better fate.” Both Dido and Thea plan hunting trips for their men. Then, both Aeneas and Augie leave their women crying in anguish and despair: Aeneas, to build the foundations of Rome; Augie, appropriately enough, to reach for Stella (or “star”).

Another archetypal pattern springs from Aeneas' search for the Sibyl in order that she may guide him through the underworld where he is to seek his father for advice and guidance. The Sibyl tells Aeneas he must find in the forest a golden bough, break it off the tree, and carry it in his hand as a passport throughout Hades. When these actions are accomplished as fated, Aeneas, through the aid of the Sibyl and his father, is set on the right track to his destiny. Bellow, however, is not so generous to his protagonist. When Augie is in Florence toward the end of the novel, he gives one of his hours to visit the gold doors of the Baptistery on which one may see depicted the history of mankind. There, he is accosted by an elderly woman, “this aged face of a great lady covered by mange spots and with tarry blemishes on her lips” (517), who is carrying a stick with a purse on it. She wants to act as guide to Augie, to explain the story on the doors, but he doubts her knowledge. Besides, he does not want to be bothered. When he refuses her services, she begs: “Give me five hundred [lire] and I'll show you the cathedral and I'll take you to Santa Maria Novella. It's not far, and you won't know anything if someone doesn't tell you” (519).

But Augie dismisses her: “As a matter of fact, I have to meet a man right away on business. Thanks just the same” (519). So, unlike Aeneas, Augie turns away from his “better fate,” perhaps because he is drawn away by a very immediate personal fate. We may conjecture that Bellow intends a comparison here, not only in that Aeneas heeds the Sibyl and Augie does not heed his prophetess, but in the nature of their two goals: Aeneas is engaged in the creation of Rome, an act that extends beyond himself; Augie's goal has deteriorated to personal, even perhaps illicit, trivia. And Bellow's final words of his speech are to be heard again: “He [the novelist] must begin to think, and to think not merely of his own narrower interests and needs.”

Both Aeneas and Augie have the same destiny—to create. But the latter has lost his way. At the end, Augie, it will be remembered, spends his time in “the cold halls of the Louvre” (522). Bellow describes his fallen state, even as he speaks to his fellow novelists: “For unless we think, unless we make a clearer estimate of our condition [but Augie doesn't listen to the Sibyl] … we will lack serious interest and become truly irrelevant [surely Augie's job with Mintouchian fits] … he dreams of a golden age [as does Augie]. … Without the common world the novelist is nothing but a curiosity and will find himself in a glass case along some dull museum corridor of the future [and Bellow seems to have left Augie looking for a likely spot for his case].”

RETREAT FROM REALITY

The failure of Augie to estimate his condition is central to Bellow's meaning of Augie, as a depiction both of a human condition and of contemporary literature and the artist. Augie is still a man of hope despite the reality of sordid and irrelevant affairs. But his deterioration is almost complete. When he and his maid Jacqueline are walking across the fields in the freezing cold, she urges him to sing in order to prevent his stomach from freezing: “And because I didn't want to argue with her about medical superstitions and be so right or superior wising her up about modern science I decided, finally, what the hell! I might as well sing too. The only thing I could think to sing was ‘La Cucaracha.’ I kept up La Cucaracha for a mile or two and felt more chilled than helped” (535).

This passage reflects what Augie as modern man has become, and here, Bellows intends, is too often what modern literature has become—the victim of microscopic vision. Life is only what may be seen in the laboratory. Augie tries to sing, but all he can manage is a song reminiscent of Kafka's Metamorphosis in which the protagonist slips to a lower form of life because he has not recognized his condition, because he has refused to face reality and suffer his freedom. It is little wonder Augie feels more chilled than helped.

Bellow points to this alienation from reality when Augie and Jacqueline are approaching the farmhouse where her uncle lives, after their car stops and leaves them stranded: “Then she pointed. ‘Vous voyez les chiens?’ The dogs of the farm had leaped a brook and were dashing for us on the brown coat of the turf, yelling and yapping. ‘Don't you worry about them,’ she said, picking up a branch. ‘They know me well.’ Sure enough they did. They bounded into the air and licked her face” (536).

Jacqueline and nature are friends. They know each other. One does not fear not frighten the other. But immediately after, in the last paragraph of the novel, Augie says:

I cut out for Dunkerque and Ostend. Where the British were so punished the town is ruined. Quonset huts stand there on the ruins. The back of the ancient water was like wolf gray. Then on the long sand the waves crashed white; they spit themselves to pieces. I saw this specter of white anger coming from the savage gray and meanwhile shot northward, in a great hurry to get to Bruges and out of this line of white which was like eternity opening up right beside destructions of the modern world, hoary and grumbling. I thought if I could beat the dark to Bruges I'd see the green canals and ancient places.

(536)

Through a careful choice of words, Bellow equates the dogs running to greet Jacqueline with the landscape and its threat to Augie. Augie, still retreating from reality, is like fragmented modern man: he is frightened by his vision of a destructive nature. He yearns for what Wallace Stevens calls the “old complacencies” in his poem “Sunday Morning.” Augie would escape to the artificiality of Bruges, a city born of Hanseatic man; he feels comfortable with its canals and palaces of the past as he does with his coveted and protected philosophies. And he cannot help laughing at the image of poor, unattractive, middle-aged Jacqueline, “yet still hopefully and obstinately seductive”: “What's so laughable, that a Jacqueline, for instance, … will still refuse to lead a disappointed life? Or is the laugh at nature—including eternity—that it thinks it can win over us and the power of hope” (536). Augie, still fighting nature, still does not believe in the reality of the human condition; and he establishes his battle lines between the real and his ideal—ils ne passeront pas. Again, he is very noble but self-defeating.

Augie's state, Bellow would say, is too often the state of the contemporary novel and of too many novelists: they, like Augie, practice separatism from the world. Frightened by it, as if it would contaminate them, they hurry to their laboratories to gain evidence of the world's worldliness, and profess great single truths. Once again, they see only Sisyphus struggling up the hill with his task; they are blind to his trip back down. But Jacqueline lives on the hill and senses if she does not see; unlike Ahab, she has not lost the “low enjoying power.”

In the last few lines, Augie assumes the role of literature, as Bellow contemplates its present and future: “Why, I am sort of a Columbus of those near-at-hand and believe you can come to them in this immediate terra incognita that spreads out in every gaze. I may well be a flop at this line of endeavor. Columbus too thought he was a flop, probably, when they sent him back in chains. Which didn't prove there was no America” (536). Augie's statement is, first, an interpretation of the function of literature—to establish lines of discovery and communication. At the present time, though, literature is in chains of denial, “in the bondage of strangeness for a time still” (523), as Augie describes himself, which does not prove that literature (or the novel) is dead. Everybody knows that August—March is a dormant period; and if winter comes. …

To return to Phillip Rahv's statement concerning the natural contradiction between art and reality, it is important to understand that Bellow is not asking for a dissolution of that relationship. Once again, the distinction between Augie's ideals and reality is not the problem: it is the failure on the part of the artist to “estimate his condition,” to see himself within the framework of the ideal-real nature of this world. Augie says that he does not claim to be angelic, but he turns out to be a fallen angel, what with his wasted ideals, because he removes his abilities from the human condition in the name of “a better fate” that has its roots only in his imagination. So it is with the artist of alienation. It is the subangelic attitude for which Bellow calls—an attitude that will create within the existing state, and not above or below it.

Notes

  1. Robert Penn Warren originated the terminology in “The Man with No Commitments,” New Republic, 2 November 1953, p. 22.

  2. The Adventures of Augie March (New York, 1960), p. 28; hereafter cited in the text.

  3. Malin, p. 97.

  4. (New York, 1957), p. 22.

  5. Warren, pp. 22-23.

  6. Hoffman, p. 90.

  7. Geismar, p. 218.

  8. “The Thinking Man's Waste Land,” Saturday Review, 3 April 1965, p. 20.

  9. Augie is a great believer in what he calls his “axial lines”—the attainment of a life founded on “truth, love, peace, bounty, usefulness, harmony” (i.e., pp. 414, 454).

  10. Einhorn's useless legs can be seen as symbolic of frustrated desires, much in the way that Hemingway uses physical disabilities to depict creative disabilities.

  11. And Augie's words that “you could always get part of the truth from Einhorn” show Bellow's appreciation of the positive aspects of the literature of alienation.

  12. “Distractions of a Fiction Writer,” p. 20.

  13. Hassan, p. 309.

  14. “Distractions of a Fiction Writer,” p. 13.

  15. “The Absurd Man as Picaro: The Novels of Saul Bellow,” Texas Studies in Language and Literature, (Summer 1964): 238.

  16. “Distractions of a Fiction Writer,” p. 14.

  17. Grandma Lausch is a good example of how Bellow builds and supports the functions of his characters. Grandma Lausch represents authority, both in the March household and in the history of literature. Here, Bellow widens her role by showing her as a figure of middle-class standards, likening her authority to that which held realism to be immoral.

Daniel Fuchs (essay date 1984)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Fuchs, Daniel. “The Adventures of Augie March.” In Saul Bellow: Vision and Revision, pp. 57-77. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1984.

[In the following essay, Fuchs examines Bellow's early revisions of The Adventures of Augie March, observing that a study of the manuscripts “gives us the clearest perception of Bellow's intention in this novel of mixed intentions.”]

In an otherwise laudatory review of The Adventures of Augie March, Robert Penn Warren was perhaps the first to comment on what is now commonly regarded as the central problem of the novel—Augie's character. “It is hard to give substance to a character who has no commitments,”1 said Warren, implying that it was particularly at big moments that Augie seemed somewhat insubstantial. Augie is, for Warren, a “static” character, redeemed, though, by a style which is itself a powerful device for characterization. Some critics, less generous, have thought that too much of the burden was placed on the style, finding it hysterical in its optimism. Others, who have found the style a triumph and Augie charming, found nonetheless something willed in its lyrical speechifying and intellectual farce, found the final third of the book something of a letdown. These criticisms had basically to do with some uncertainty in the conception of the central character. The manuscripts show how Bellow coped with this uncertainty.

Study of the manuscripts breaks conveniently into three parts. I have taken them in reverse chronological order, according to the amount of difficulty they gave Bellow in the writing. The final section of the novel, which posed some relatively difficult compositional problems, shows whole episodes deleted because of some doubt as to Augie's stature and direction. Corresponding tonal and verbal shifts work toward Augie's refashioned simplicity and buoyancy. In the crystallization of the upbeat, a minor character is transformed, a famous lyrical speech materializes, some of Augie's negative thoughts are cast away. The middle, Mexico, section exhibits similar but less frequent and far less thoroughgoing transformation. But in the reworking of the love affair Bellow risks a momentary high seriousness for his protagonist. The first, or Chicago, section, where Augie's character generally rests easily in youthful innocence, shows relatively few changes. One episode is recast to show the reality of this innocence to best advantage, but one important minor character is transformed, raised from triviality to seriousness, because he expresses, even in this brightest section, the case against happy innocence. He reappears in the revised final section where experience reigns, and his views carry that much more force. The manuscripts show that the dramatization of even a relatively moderate innocence met a formidable resistance in the world of experience.

The manuscripts of Augie March, unlike those of most of his other works, do not show a great metamorphosis. To be sure, there are substantial changes in character and scene, but the first two-thirds of the novel came with the compositional equivalent of ease. The words “early” and “late” in this essay do not therefore have the same force as they do in the more elaborately revised works. The manuscripts show extensive holograph material, some of which is remarkably close to the final version. The holograph material is contained in twenty-two notebooks (about 1100 pages, B.1.15 to B.2.14). The typewritten fragments (about 280 pages, B.3.1 to B.3.13) are relatively sparse, composed at various stages, many of them earlier than some of the holograph material. Then there is the final draft (over 900 pages, B.3.14 to B.4.4) with minor corrections, very close to the published novel. There are no galleys. In addition to the changes already mentioned, there are numerous verbal changes. In this novel of inclusiveness, Bellow did take some care to exclude; historical comparisons, lists of nouns, catalogues, endless apposition—much of this was excluded! The final version, in addition to limiting excessive allusion and deleting obvious psychologizing, shows minor changes of a different sort: excessive colloquialism is toned down, relative pronouns are checked, obscurities are clarified, verbs are made more concrete.

There are few notes, but there is an occasional nugget in them. On the inside of the back cover of a notebook (B.1.18) Bellow writes, “My resistance—and Augie's—to what I was ‘born to be’; a son of my family like my brothers. When I appear to be doing nothing I am doing that, resisting.” Since Bellow tells people from time to time that Augie was modeled on a character he knew in Chicago, it is good to have this confirmation, not that any was needed, that there is a good part of Bellow in the character. It is worth noting that Bellow thought of Augie in terms of strength, independence. But that is not all, for the sentence goes on: “and ‘doing nothing’ is not understanding what I have already done, and even what I am doing, ‘doing nothing.’” This speaks to the opposite of strength, to innocence as ignorance. Bellow's task was to define Augie March within this contradiction. In this he was largely, but not entirely, successful.

I

What is discarded or enlarged in the manuscripts, taken together with the novel itself, gives us the clearest perception of Bellow's intention in this novel of mixed intentions. The novel's dual nature has been often remarked. In the picaresque, with its world of episodes, accidents, surfaces, notation, a world in which respectability is close to crime, the hero cannot be too deep for a constant disponabilité. If there is a moral heroism it is unexpected, unlikely and in the process of receding. The Bildungsroman or, if you like, Entwicklungsroman2 element implies more emphatic development, greater moral strenuousness and conclusive self-discovery.

But in the novel these two elements are not discrete. Augie's resistance to the social role, the “function,” is consonant with the picaresque,3 but this evasiveness is also a kind of wisdom. For the protean Augie there seems to be no social role worth having, and he is not the first American to give us a life of “evasion according to plan.”4 Whitman was. Perhaps it is not accidental that the singer of the more recent song of myself receives illumination lying supine, à la Whitman, intuiting the axial truth when all striving ceases. Wise passiveness transcends mindless activity. And yet, and yet—the will to moral certitude may well imply function, and Augie clearly longs for community, wants to be of use. But love is the only activity he unequivocally embraces. Does Augie succeed in this? Or does he succeed in any of the other affairs of development, challenges of bildung? The manuscripts show that Bellow had such functional plans for Augie, plans he was forced to withdraw. They show ways in which Bellow was forced to temper the Bildungsroman and let the picaresque have its way. Beginning with an ingenu, Bellow had to end with him.

The final, post-Mexico, section of the novel is the most elaborately revised and the most relevant to this problem. Having failed to make love his function, Augie, in the manuscripts, begins to think of function in more conventional terms. Love takes a back seat to use. As in the novel, there is no chance for a rapprochement with Thea, though Augie usually yearns for one. Bellow almost invariably keeps the possibility of Thea remote. That she “had died in New Guinea of a fever” (B.2.10) suggests too convenient a resolution; more typically, she promises to come back, but he never hears from her, or she sends him a letter from San Francisco telling him that she has married an Air Force captain, or he sees a picture of her in a horse-show on Long Island and knows that she has made up her quarrel with her family (B.2.10). Augie's response is either post-Thea depression or, in the final version, a combination of this and relief at being freed of the burden of an adventuress who would never change. But then the novel has Stella; Bellow, late in the game, develops her into a sustained love interest, indeed, a wife. Stella is a minor character in the earlier drafts, where love is secondary to a political theme. A love interest who later develops into Stella, Donna Byers—a scriptgirl with whom he travels to Vézélay and Chartres—does not want to marry. None of this has dramatic wings.

What is interesting is the development of the political Augie, one who sounds a bit like an Ur-Herzog. Contemplating an aimless drift to his life, Augie thinks: “I didn't know what to do, but yearned till I quaked for a summary, and to be bound into one. And not for myself, but to have a use, serve an end, give my powers satisfaction” (B.2.10). Shades of the five-cent synthesis and of “civility, use, politics in the Aristotelian sense.” Augie's outlet is a postwar group called The Committee for a Reconstituted Europe (CRE).5 His organizational superiors are Frazer and Robey, both of whom function differently than in the novel. We remember Frazer as the superior, somewhat callous intellectual who is surprised to find a guy like Augie in a place like Paris. That comic deflation is immediately expunged when we see Frazer, recently returned from China as a presidential advisor to Chang, now in Spain sending a written apology to Augie for his former attitude towards him and praising Augie's work in Robey's The Needle's Eye. Robey's book is not the intellectual travesty we see in the novel but a serious work. Influenced by Frazer's theory of gigantism—great states become tyrannous—Augie reads political theory: the Greeks, Rousseau, Burke's Reflections, J. S. Mill, and The Brothers Karamazov. Inspired by the “legend of the Grand Inquisitor,” Augie reflects on “the universal ant heap or world state,” a segment that appears in the novel, not as organically related, as his speech prior to departure for the war. The CRE can combat the threat politically. The idea is to preserve the individuality of ancient communities—Basque, Catalan, Piedmontese, Bohemian, Welsh—so that the old states can be met with an effective passive resistance and a new federation formed. There would be land distribution and socialism in industry. While Augie is skeptical at first, he is soon, in his manner, enthusiastic. The enterprise is backed financially by Robey, who is not presented here as a parody of an idealist but as a serious, learned philanthropist. His letters contain classical sociological terms—Gemeinschaft, Gesellschaft, secular folk civilization—which seem to be sly indication that the program will not be a force in reality. Robey's marriage and consequent welching on his financial obligation to the group is a serious version of his farcically contradictory character as it appears in the novel. Predictably, the first CRE Congress in Bruges “attracts ideologists and that's where the astonishment begins” (B.2.10), says Augie; very few of them had any notion of what the organization was about.

Augie is their man in Spain and, the reader soon learns, the prototype for the character of Clarence Feiler in “The Gonzaga Manuscripts,” into which the most dramatic part of the Spanish episode is transformed. Briefly, Augie is disillusioned by his meeting with two Spaniards who are supposed to be sympathetic to the CRE. Alvarez-Palvo (or Guzman del Nido), a Falangist who is nevertheless sympathetic to the organization, enrages Augie with vaguely Spenglerian cant about the decline of the ideology-lacking west. Luis Estriner, neither an intellectual nor an ideologist, is very much interested in the American, not for the sake of the plan but as a customer for his hereditary stock in a Moroccan pitchblende mine; all Americans, for him, are adequately represented by the atomic bomb. An American, Augie is presumed to be a financier, a bit of typology which is easy for Augie to resist. But the effect has been depressing: “As usual, stormy with inside blackness, I lit out for the station”—an emotion that is not typical of the character as he is finally conceived. The temptation here and in the entire political episode was to take Augie too seriously, the Bildungsroman (here the term is perfectly legitimate) threatening to totally disintegrate the picaresque.

Augie is on the verge of becoming the citizen hero of the later works, a role that is reduced to minimally comic traces in the final version. Here, on the other hand, upon his return to Paris, when Frazer attacks J. S. Mill liberals for their want of hardness and says that hateful as the concentration camps were, they were proof of serious intention, Augie explodes, exclaiming that “the Germans were destroying the subject itself of politics” (B.2.12). This is a good argument, but it sounds more like Artur Sammler on Hannah Arendt than it does Augie March of the final version. Nazism, like Hiroshima and Nagasaki, though figuring in the manuscript, is virtually of a different world from the one Bellow is conjuring up in Augie March. You cannot put Tom Jones into a tragedy. In manuscript Augie confronts Frazer as an intellectual equal, which he does not at all do in the novel. There, like Huck Finn in the concluding section of Twain's novel, he falls back into anonymity, remaining in stylized awe of Frazer (even at his own wedding), as Huck does of Tom. On his return to Paris, it is Augie in manuscript (B.3.12), but Frazer in the novel, who expatiates on Paris as “the capital of the hope that Man could be free without the help of gods, clear of mind, civilized, wise, pleasant” (AM [The Adventures of Augie March], p. 521). This seems to have been too lofty a sentiment for the comic ingenu Augie finally remains. For better or worse, Bellow's narrative strategy is to have Augie necessarily fall short of the self-knowledge that the Bildungsroman hero has—he is left with the limited perception of the picaro.

Consistent with the politically unproblematic conclusion of the novel is its attempt at a generally restored buoyancy. Through whatever shades of dusk, Augie remains the laughing creature. The general description of Paris itself is emblematic of the change. In an early version, permissive Paris is seen almost as a prototype of Sammler's New York. Augie describes it as a city that did not oppose you: “Thus there were thousands of forms of ‘true life’ and its ‘independence’ was the hidden joke of each. Nothing stopped you from putting on a toga or a zoot suit or a stovepipe hat or cowboy boots. Each was right because none mattered in the place—one set of words was no worse than another. Back of it all was an irony that concealed a horselaugh that diverted tears and rages” (B.2.12). Though Bellow is consciously satirizing what he has called “an anarchy of views upon normalcy”6 in the novel generally, he wishes to subdue these somber implications. Despite considerable equivocation, the novel retains a larkiness to the end. A slightly later description gives us Paris as a merry-go-round, as in the novel, with its bridges, Greek statues, maypole obelisk, all-color ice-cream, adding what the novel excludes, “the whole outside darling play, the remainder grimness and suspicion” (B.2.13; AM, p. 521). While the goings on of Stella and others in the novel support this caveat, its exclusion represents a desire not to indict civilization itself.

Indeed, the stock buffoonery of Augie's cuckoldry is much lighter than the grim wrangling between Arthur and Mimi that occupies a considerable portion of Augie's Paris life in manuscript. The disintegration of their affair is scarcely alluded to in the novel. They have a child whom they leave to Einhorn's “wives” to bring up. The parents “never came to see nor sent to ask about her” (B.2.10), an unforgivable offense to the familial Bellow. Augie discovers this at Einhorn's funeral (again, the sort of solemn occasion that is likely to be excluded from the last part of the novel and is), where he cries profusely. Arthur, who speaks of Spinoza's conatus, striving, while living on money from his mother, is in the tradition of the alienated artist-hero. A devoted reader of Rimbaud, we see him in the novel “in the middle of an essay on the poet and death” (AM, p. 322), suggestive of some maudit transcendence. It is characteristic of him to say, “Whenever I write a dramatic poem I can't understand why the characters should ever want to be anything but poets themselves” (AM, p. 438).

In manuscript he has a long-winded discussion with Augie about identity and superfluousness, concluding with the rhetorical “Suppose you are superfluous?” (B.3.7). Yet Arthur is inclined to take Augie's fate seriously, telling him, “Sometimes I think you're preparing for a great undertaking, but you don't know what it is yet.” Augie answers, “It'll come” (B.2.8.). Bellow erases this last bit of dialogue, since it implies too dedicated a self-consciousness for the final Augie. As for Arthur, the other side of superfluity is perhaps most clearly seen in his intellectual favorite. Kierkegaard, who writes that “the regenerated oprakte wanted the sinners to mock them so that they could enjoy the wickedness of the world” (B.3.13, 833f.). It is not so much Kierkegaard's soulfulness as his iconography of heroic alienation that captures Arthur. Arthur's projected book on contemporary French thought seems to imply further long-range involvement with alienation. Where Augie is trying to live a lifelong love, Arthur maintains that “Love dies in marriage” (B.2.13), which Mimi once said to Augie. These two liberated spirits clash. Mimi sports a bloody face and puffed eye in the Paris streets as Arthur stands “terrified” and the French say, “Voilà, qu'est que c'est que l'Amérique.” This is the last scene in the early manuscript. Clearly the novel was going off in a grimly violent and psychologically difficult direction that the author wanted reversed. Arthur and Mimi figure minimally in the last section of the novel. Bellow is out to conclude differently about America.

“Love is adultery,” says Mintouchian in an early fragmentary version of the chapter in which he appears (B.2.14). As it stands in the novel, the Mintouchian chapter reverses this bit of cynicism. Most manuscript descriptions of Mintouchian are quite brief, nowhere near a character sketch. “The dirty-picture runner across state borders” (B.2.14) or, alternatively, the man who “did some special service in the rackets like disguising wanted hoodlums” (B.2.9) becomes “a crack lawyer [with] global interests” (AM, p. 478) in the novel, though he is still somewhat shady. His elevation in vocation comes with an elevation in humanity. Mintouchian assures Augie of the reality of love when he needs some assurance. The first of Bellow's marvelous divorce lawyers, Mintouchian has the wisdom of a loony Tiresias. Augie is enraged when he suggests that Stella's, in fact, everyone's deeper consciousness is outlaw and that in this sense he would just as soon marry another. Ironically, the narrative seems to bear him out. So does his own life. Granted full immunity by virtue of an invalid wife (with whom he dines every night), Mintouchian is himself an adulterer truly in love with his mistress. But Mintouchian is not a cynic, and it is interesting to note that in the entire gallery of Bellovian doubletalkers, up to Von Humboldt Fleisher, this adulterer is the only one to receive praise. In the novel it is a parasitic lecher whom he repudiates who maintains that “love is adultery.” Mintouchian's life illustrates that the converse may be true. He recognizes that Augie's love, rare as it is, “obeys the laws of life” (AM, p. 483), as does his own. Yet considering that Augie's love may well be illusory and that, in any case, the much worked-over Stella sequence can be taken seriously mainly as bedroom farce, the Mintouchian chapter comes off as a fog of affirmation. Augie says, “I have always tried to be what I am,” which prompts some critics to talk about identity and the Bildungsroman. But what is Augie here but an ingenu cuckold? To his credit, Bellow himself consciously deflates this flirtation with rosy optimism through a comedy that reduces but does not destroy. And Augie is too grateful to Mintouchian for telling him that “you will not invent better than God or nature,” since he himself had already said essentially the same thing to Kayo (AM, p. 450). The effect of the chapter is one of stylized optimism, and the narrative undercutting indicates that the author is himself uneasy with it. It is a forced attempt to keep the upbeat rhythm of the final section.

Augie's conversations with Clem in this section risk high seriousness. Clem, as others before him, lectures Augie on the value of having a function, saying, “the whole mystery of life is in specific data” (AM, p. 434). No realistic novelist could dispute this. Augie's slogan (taken from Padilla), “Easy or not at all” may be a motto for a picaro, but not for a novelist—unless you exclude the Chicago scenes of Augie March. The two important talks with Clem (AM, pp. 431-36, 454-56) did not come easily however; at least they do not exist in early versions of the manuscript (B.3.7, 744f.; B.3.9, 772f.). Clem, who presumes to speak for Freud, is armed with psychological jargon and appears to have the answers to Augie's worries about specialization leaving him behind. For Clem, Augie “can't adjust to the reality situation” (AM, p. 434); man needs function. Augie is too concerned with “trying to cheer up the dirty scene” (AM, p. 436). When Clem sets up as a vocational-guidance counselor—in the typical buffo reality of the last part of the book, Clem has never done a day's work in his life—to tell people where their aptitudes lie, this elicits, in resistance, Augie's axial lines declamation. The manuscript shows us that this aria—perhaps the most quoted speech in the book—is a very late inclusion (not even appearing in the late B.1.19). Essentially Augie is affirming his notion of personal fate precisely in the face of the pressure of function, and not quite out of the post-Thea depression at that.

As Lionel Trilling has pointed out, Bellow is “in the tradition of American Personalism which insists that a person has a fate rather than a function, and powers of enjoyment and love rather than achievement.”7 This tradition includes figures as diverse as Emerson, Whitman, Thoreau, Twain, Cummings, Saroyan, Henry Miller and Wallace Stevens. Trilling, like a number of characters in the book, believes that without a function it is very difficult to be a person and have a fate, and the manuscript indicates that Bellow has an inclination to believe the same. Indeed, the fact that Augie considers “usefulness” as well as “love” to be “axial” indicates clearly that Augie himself recognizes the value of function beyond love. Yet this recognition is an occasion for immediate comic diminution. Citizen Augie's planned colony-school—with Stella as professor of what?—will not materialize. The famous affirmation of the diminished Augie remains lyrical, but memorable. Yet Clem's skepticism is, in this important instance, justified.

Conditionality undercuts high seriousness when the war comes as well. There is a kind of determinism even larkiness cannot penetrate, though Augie in the final version almost manages to succeed in doing so. In earlier versions, however, Augie is somber and not at all altruistic. We find Augie thinking about the impersonality of war and the valuelessness of man; we find him thinking nostalgically of Philip of Valois and Edward III. Augie is not the eager recruit, but when faced with no way out of military service reluctantly joins the Merchant Marine, which offers greater independence and easier discharge (B.2.8). In one early version Augie spends most of his liberty in the 42nd Street Library. His ship is torpedoed, but this time off the New Jersey shore when, despite great danger from submarines, the rummy captain wants to get his ship back to Philadelphia so he can get ice for his martinis. Augie is saved, but there is no mention of the Basteshaw episode (B.2.10), a late inclusion. Instead we have Augie spending a long time in a Brooklyn hospital, with a random description of the clientele and Augie's depression at leaving his thirties. All this seriousness, even lugubriousness, goes nowhere and is cast aside in favor of the intellectual farce and comic gusto we get in the Basteshaw episode, one of the latest and best things in the final third of the book.

The chapter is as close as we come to an adventure story in the novel, and, since it is Bellow, it is not surprisingly an adventure in ideas. As we have said, Basteshaw is the mad utopian, ideology gone haywire. Suffering from an hypertrophy of the rational, he is a beast in his private life. Brutal to the memory of his (tyrannical) father, sadistic to his fiancée, he belongs more to the realm of pathology than that of salvation. With his visions of power and his actual powerlessness, he is a parody of the ideologist. He recounts the story of his catatonic Aunt Etta, who slept for fifteen years and woke up one day to go about her business. “While she slept she ruled,” says Basteshaw, and he might as well be speaking about his entire life. He also tells the story of the German goldsmith who sees his masterpieces melted to bullion—a powerlessness raised only by a belief in God. But what if one does not have such belief? A parodic superman, Basteshaw's collegiate ambition was to be a Renaissance cardinal, with his mother in a nunnery, his father in a gunnysack. In the face of the threat of anonymity he imagines himself to be Hymie Basteshaw, Stupor mundi: The astonishment of the world—here is power. Nothing less than words used to describe Christ will do for this new messiah. Augie maintains his skepticism about this version of Utopia. Although he has “created life,” Basteshaw admits that “I am not God” (AM, p. 500f.). He is not quite man either. Willing to let Augie drown at the beginning of the episode, he subjugates him to his will at the end of it. “I will be Moses and you Joshua,” he tells Augie in a parody of Augie's desire for the axial. Augie seems to be confronted with “a murderer,” but he proves to be merely a tyrant. Bound hand and foot for the scientific good of humanity, Augie slips his bonds and can murder the sleeping oppressor. But in a typically Bellovian casting aside of the killer's role, revenge is transformed into pity, the murderer into the male nurse—Henry Ware and Timmendiquas, Augie says, in an apt historical parallel. In his crazy way, Basteshaw wants the good. Isn't Augie, in the axial lines speech, on the verge of a similar leonine assertion? But heroic certitude, even Augie's, is undercut by the logic of the picaresque.

During the hazardous journey with Basteshaw, Augie had dreamed of an ugly, old panhandler whom he gives money. In turn, she wants to treat him to a beer. Augie touches her hair and is thrilled to find that she has “the hair of an angel.” This unanticipated grace of the common is the opposite of Basteshaw's burlesque heroism. In its extravagant comedy, the episode illustrates Augie's mistrust of heroic impulse and trust in ordinary, unheroic reality, a preference established in youth. It was Simon, with his “English schoolboy notions of honor” (derived from Tom Brown's School Days) that “we were not in a position to afford,” who does not hustle at the dispensary; Simon, with his “Old South honor and his codo-duello dangerous easiness” (AM. 19), who bore grudges; Simon who developed that look of “unforgiving cosmological captaincy” (AM, p. 110). What outlet is there for the heroic energy of this “Francis back from the hunt” (AM, p. 424), this figure too large for the law. He leaves his heraldic Cadillac triple-parked in front of his apartment! More seriously, he has a liaison—which proves to be a disaster. Greatness is opposed by goodness, in the unheroic view, power by decency, achievement by enjoyment, destiny by happenstance. Augie is accordingly disenchanted with Einhorn for grumbling over Augie's tenderness toward the brother who cheated him. One cannot consider brotherly relationships as power politics. But Einhorn judges on the basis of “the same principle for persons as for peoples, parties, states” (AM, p. 183). Augie renounces all heroism, even the Romantic sort that comes close to home: “I was no wizard, for sure, nor gazetted as anything illustrious, nor billed to stand up to Apollyon with his horrible scales and bear's feet, nor slated to find the answer to all my shames like Jean-Jacques on the way to Vincennes sinking down with emotion of the conception that evil society is to blame for all that happened to warm, impulsive, loving me” (AM, p. 424).8

Augie wants an independent fate, but is wary of the egotism which often attends this quest. He does not want it for its own sake, and the (unheroic) heroism of self-conscious exposure often betrays a peculiarly modern moral weakness. So much more vulnerable is the conventional heroism. As Trilling has pointed out, the defeat of Thea's eagle—the conventional emblem of heroism—is really a triumph for Augie. Il faut avoir un aigle, says Gide, in what might serve as a motto for modernism, but for Augie it is un aigle manqué. Caligula—the name, in addition to sounding like “eagle” in Spanish, is mischievously symbolic of berserk power—does Augie's heart good when he retreats before the lizard. But isn't Augie moved by the struggle, beginning with Danton and Napoleon, of “this universal eligibility to be noble” (AM, p. 29)? And don't the “axial lines” imply a moral heroism? Yes, but a marginal nobility and a muted heroism is what our innocent hero must settle for, which is why the final part of the book relaxes into burlesque.

In an interesting early version of the scene between Clem and Augie (one that predates the speech), Clem, referring to the subject of moral heroism, says, “Your brother Simon read all those Walter Scott and Fenimore Cooper and Henty novels and they took on you, not him. … You've got lofty ideas. Did Einhorn do you harm by calling you Alcibiades!” Augie answers, “You've stuck me with Alcibiades. My preference is for Pericles, Moses” (B.3.9, 779f.). The reversal is significantly toward law, which in its deepest meanings is the one heroism Augie will admit to. Resisting Clem's jibes from the side of personal Realpolitik, Augie, in what is the germ of the axial lines speech, says:

Think of Garibaldi in his red shirt riding in front of the fortress and saying to the driver of the carriage, “Slower, slower.” The soldiers are on the walls but he knows nobody's going to shoot. And he's not shot. That's the start of something that Pio Nono and the Holy Alliance have to reckon with. Life is not in its last long night. Not finished. Mutual understanding of a high order is back; enthusiasm is back; natural agreement is back; glances with the truth in them, unarguable facts, apprehended in a second by the eye and brain. That's the great and deep mystery, that highest desires are the desires of other men, too, and not erratic.

Clem retorts that “five minutes … [is] how much Risorgimento you can expect” (B.2.8). Like Tolstoy's Pierre and General Davout, like Trotsky's workers eyeing the friendly Cossacks, this incident affirms, quickly as lightning, a moral truth. Augie's enthusiasm for moral heroism is nevertheless undercut by the war, and in manuscript, by a subsequent disintegration of the CRE. Deflatingly enough, it is Augie who utters the sentiment about Risorgimento lasting five minutes—in the context of final breakup with Sophie Geratis from a later version of the manuscript (B.2.8). If not Moses, then Columbus. The lawgiver remains a somewhat remote eminence, the explorer signifies the search for more accessible human shores. Yet it is typical of Bellow to recall that Columbus was carried back in chains. There is no heroism that soars beyond life's intractability. It is also typical of him to add that this “didn't prove there was no America” (AM, p. 536), that hope has its intractability as well. Bellow gives Augie a fragmentary nobility of assertion but not of activity, a heroism of sentiment but not of event, an unheroic heroism. The function of the final section of the novel is to show that even this is comically qualified. As is often the case in comic picaresque, the protagonist is valued more for what he experiences than what he concludes. Bellow himself, it seems, could not take what in a Bildungsroman would be the solemn conclusive section—the last (post-Thea) part of the book—too seriously.

II

In the central, second, Mexico section of the book, idea is subordinated to event and, above all, to personality. This is the strategy most congenial to Bellow, and it marks the superiority of the first two parts of the book (generally, Chicago and Mexico) to the third. To speak of personality in the Mexico sequence is to speak of Thea Fenchel. In the earliest versions her name is Sophie, and the switch from “wisdom” to “goddess” may tell us something. Sane judgment on her part would be not quite to the point, whereas an heroic, unreachable quality would be. Is Augie a Julien Sorel to her Mathilde de la Mole? Differences in style, class, money, and direction attract him to this independent, original, and extreme woman. But Julien never really loves Mathilde; he uses her to achieve advancement in the world. On her part, Mathilde is at least romantically in love with the idea of Julien, who stands as a mysterious, dark rebuttal to the life of privileged boredom which surrounds her. Thea's attraction to Augie, although it stems partly from a sense of isolation, does not bring into question the idea of society itself; indeed, she clearly remains wedded to a bourgeois version of hereditary privilege rather than Augie. Our hero is the opposite of Julien in his willingness—one almost says his eagerness—to conceive of love as surrender. In the absence of function, love becomes the sole object of headlong commitment. Augie has always had the capacity—or perhaps the talent—to leave the world well lost, which is precisely what Julien can never do with Mathilde and can only do in a gesture of romantic renunciation with the image of an idealized Mme. de Rênal in mind. Augie is a lover, and his relationship to Thea is easily the most interesting part of the manuscript in this section.

The final version shows us a Thea extreme in gesture rather than expression. She hires a detective to find Augie; she extracts snake venom. These are consistent with such neurotic quirks as keeping money in the refrigerator, using towels to wipe the kitten's messes and never being “anywhere without an animal” (AM, p. 313)—this last is particularly ominous for Augie in retrospect. On the other hand, what she says, her termagant manner, is toned down: “What I see is mere humanity and detest it. There's no genuine life” (B.2.5). How could Augie have fallen for someone who so explicitly refutes his central sense of things? Or someone quite so domineering: “I thought, if I had been, instead of so interested and willing to go along, more definite, I wouldn't have lost her. At the same time I couldn't imagine how I or anyone else could keep her. … She gave orders” (B.2.9). True, something like this is in the novel: Augie says, “I had to accept her version of everything, this being the obstinacy of assertion I spoke of. Also it was evident that she was used to having what she wanted, including me” (AM, p. 316).

The precision of the impersonal at so early a stage in their relationship might have signified more to Augie that it did, as might have her refusal of Augie's marriage proposal when her divorce comes through and Augie's recollections of her fear of pregnancy and her equal fear “of explaining to her family that I was the father” (AM, p. 372). A late inclusion meliorates her intransigence somewhat when Augie says, “as she couldn't count on me she wouldn't cut herself off from her family for my sake.” But one feels that even if Augie had kissed her snakes they would not have, finally, made it. Thea says as much in a late manuscript: “even if Millicent (Stella) had never been in the picture … we'd have fallen out” (B.2.5).

There is much fine comedy—the lover's test—in the affair (e.g., the eagle, the snakes); though Bellow did not intend this, the episode is marvelous as picaresque victimization, unconvincing as drama of the self. In this sense, the Stella relationship is an echo of the main event. There Bellow is surely putting Augie through the comic wringer. Weak chest, bitch eyes, soft ass, hard delivery, Thea is the first of a feminine kind in Bellow, whose latent inaccessibility is the prime condition for an affair. (Mady, too, keeps her money in the icebox; vide, Freud). A spoiled, if original, upper-middle-class princess, Thea will not tolerate Augie's deviation with Stella, though Augie becomes aware that Thea “went hunting without me” (AM, p. 472). Interestingly, even in a late manuscript version (B.2.5) of the Stella adventure, Augie and Stella are perfectly chaste that night; it is like a Joseph Andrews replay of the Mimi abortion incident, with Augie helping Stella (Millicent) gratuitously and Thea not believing. “I was blamed for an offense I did not commit,” says Augie. “I'm tired of being told the truth that knocks me down” (B.2.5). But any parallel between Joseph Andrews and Augie March—Bellow told me that he had been reading the Fielding book off and on during the composition of his novel—in point of rosy innocence might well stop at the threshold of the bedroom. And Bellow did not want Thea to come off as a sort of female, disbelieving Simon. This is consistent with his softening of Thea's rough edges in the final version; consequently, the falling out can be more traumatic, with Augie doing the jilted-lover-tearing-his-hair-out bit.

Much of this sequence of elaborate, self-lacerating psychologizing (AM, pp. 400-02) is not in the late manuscript, or, one should say, not there in its present form. For much of the substance of these pages is delivered excoriatingly by Thea, not by Augie. Enraged at Augie's ingratiating manner, she accuses him of self-deception in thinking that others are better than he is and in developing a seductive manner so that others will be kind to him. Thea sees no one who “leads a genuine life … who has the strength to live his nature. … They make up a life. If you see a million men you see a million different inventions. And everyone tries to recruit others to hold up his make believe. That's what power is—that you get other people to call your invention real.” Augie can only reply, “I listened with an astonished, bitter emotion to this and saw indeed a general significance of my life described” (B.2.5). What has Thea been doing but exerting this power over Augie?

In the novel the confrontation is not as explicit, the recrimination has more to do with clashes in personal style: “It was too extreme a way of making out,” says Augie, “that couldn't be satisfied by ordinary pursuits” (AM, p. 370). Thea's offended amour-propre—at Augie's suggestion that he went along with her eccentricities out of love—cuts the relationship off without a further thought from her. It is appropriate, therefore, that les souffrances be left for Augie, who was the one possessed by at least the illusion of love. Thea's speech becomes transformed in Augie's words from headlong denunciation to a painful, dialectical self-assessment: “I didn't want to be what they made of me but wanted to please them. Kindly explain! An independent fate and love, too—what confusion! … It wasn't right to think that everyone else had more power of being.” The closest Augie comes to Thea's detestation of humanity is his recognition that the masquerade of selfhood distorts—“that's disfigured, degenerate, dark mankind—mere humanity” (AM, p. 401). Nor does Augie include himself in this negative picture. To Thea's insight about invention distorting nature, Augie adds that “the invented things never became real for me.” Finally, in a late manuscript Bellow undercuts even this modified Weltschmerz by comedy, and we have somewhere near a dramatic node of the novel, a mock-murder scene. Augie goes to Chilpanzingo to revenge himself on Thea's Talavera—with a penknife. But he is gone, and the only real murder is in Thea's heart. In sum, the affair gives us an ostensibly deeper Augie, but one who remains confused, a stranger to conclusions.

The Thea-Augie-Stella triangle is the most worked over aspect of the Mexico section, unless we consider it to be the relatively brief Trotsky episode. So minor in the novel, it has a number of variations in manuscript. In the novel it appears largely as buffoonery; all of a sudden, condescending Frazer has a place for Augie—travelling companion of the man being intensely hunted by the Russian police, headed by Chief Mink. Augie had glimpsed the great man briefly during fiesta time, his youthful heart “wild with enthusiasm” (AM, p. 374). The thought of being so close to history causes Augie to consider Frazer's offer, but his anxiety is relieved when Trotsky, whom he has seen only once, vetoes the idea.

The manuscript versions come much closer to history. In an early version, Augie appears before Trotsky who says, “fous moi le camp” (“Get the hell out”) (B.3.6). A related version has Augie called upon to guard Paslavitch—not the teary, Francophile, player of Chopin of the novel, but now the rival of Trotsky and author of “A Dialectical Interpretation of Balkan History,” which Augie thinks makes more sense than Trotsky's “law of combined development” (B.2.7). In another version he visits cold-ridden Trotsky who, looking into the Indo-China situation, has a traditionally imperialist vision of power—the world is a glass ball held by a talon. In a later version, Augie, describing himself as a sympathizer rather than a comrade, replaces a sick guard. A cast of minor characters who do not appear in the book is described. Depressed by Stalin and the Moscow trials (such specificity is deleted in the novel), Augie regards Trotsky as “so clearly in the line of great personality” (B.2.60)—a vision, as it were, of a non-ideological Trotsky. Another version has Augie contemplating the politics of assassination and the grimmest meanings of whatever is is right (B.3.6, 727). In still another version Augie can “remember seeing his murder at the gate” (B.2.10). In other words, the novel gives us Trotsky at the greatest possible distance, panorama rather than scene, subduing Realpolitik and drama to a line describing Augie's diminished, picaresque self. It would have been hard to do anything more with Trotsky without involving serious political considerations.

Minor as the Trotsky incident appears to be, it is mentioned in a rare early scenario which tells us something about the metamorphosis of the themes of love and politics. Augie is “picked up by the girl from St. Joe and runs away to Mexico with her. Spends a year in Taxco reading books—till they betray one another” (B.1.20). Bellow describes a “big political plan, corresponding roughly to the CRE, with Augie, under Frazer's direction, in charge of the Latin countries (Spain, France, Italy). He is introduced to a silent millionaire backer called Dowling (later Robey). In Mexico he meets Frazer who makes him one of Trotsky's guards. He is “tired of dissolute life with Fenchel and hoods in Taxco. … Fenchel follows him to Europe” (B.1.19).

What is clear, then, is that at first Bellow thought of Augie March as something of a political novel, with Augie possessed of a more serious mind; here, as in the early version of the Army episode, he is a hero who reads a great deal. It is as if, with such seriousness, he were invulnerable to victimization, comic or otherwise, by woman. Now Thea follows him. Think of Herzog, desiring politics in the Aristotelian sense, putting sexual politics in its proper perspective, leaving the lover-victim bit to George Hoberly, “that sobbing prick.” In the final version, on the other hand, the political theme is virtually non-existent. The closest we get to it is his brief fling as a proletarian hero, which only ends in Augie's realization that “I couldn't feel the importance of the cause much, or that it would benefit anyone for me to fight on in it. … No, I just didn't have the calling to be a union man or in politics” (AM, p. 310). This clarity of disillusioned perception occurs on the way to Thea's apartment. Heroism seems remote compared to the adventure of personality, politics abstract compared to the adventure of love. It turns out that even in love Augie's quest for noble identity must remain inconclusive though charged. This is all the Bildungsroman freight Augie can carry, the Thea episode being a fusion of Bildungsroman and picaresque. (With Stella it is straight picaresque.) As the novel evolves, Bellow must have Augie remain vulnerable, not become masterful. Humor is Augie's major defense, but he does not know enough to always see the joke. The larger questions of identity and proportion are not for him.

III

Still, the more nearly pure picaresque of the first (Chicago) section of the book is generally considered the best. Constituting more than half the novel, this longest part came easiest. Long swaths of prose come down on the blank page virtually untouched; characters spring full-blown as if from the head of Zeus. Bellow's comment on the composition, however, recalls another miraculous birth: “It was like giving birth to Gargantua.”9 Much of the energy comes with the release from modernist inhibition already described. As Bellow's remark implies, however, no birth is that easy and a flood of articulation creates its own kind of weight. The very prodigality of inspiration in a realistic novel whose principle is inclusion can be a kind of difficulty. The novel is the sort of literary celebration that evolves fairly directly from experience—surface becomes substance as much of the writing spends itself on an enlargement of the nominal. The cake of language is not, however, the Flaubertian gateau but a homemade penny-pastry eaten in the kitchen or gobbled on the run. Surface is substance but self-referential, not symbolic. Present participles hyphenated by adjectives or nouns (“loud-breathing” Winnie, “West-moving” parents); hyphenated verbal adjectives (“sex-amused” old Einhorn, “garbage-nourished” Augie, “catarrh-hampered” genius, “Aeneas-stirred” Mediterranean); proper nouns as generic nouns (a “dark Westminster of a time,” “a tremendous Canada of light,” “a coal-sucking Vesuvius of chaos”); nouns in their own engaging facticity as in the marvelous catalogues of the Einhorn chapter, and even names for their own colorful sake (“Hrapek, Drodz, Matuczynski these dealers were called”); and verbal nouns (“child-ruiners,” “human barbecuers”)—these locutions are representative of an original, if occasionally breathless, prose in which ordinary activity is named and naming is an ordinary activity. It is not a question of le mot juste, but a case where anything named will do; not an aesthetic mysticism, but a fascination with the mystery in all men; a prose with a centripetal rather than centrifugal force. If the sentences sometimes risk nominative anarchy,10 rarely has the thumbnail sketch been raised to so high an art. The small is named in conjunction with the large, the present linked with the past. So Mr. Kreindl is seen in a line of military panache. Napoleon, Frederick the Great, Kreindl—three names to conjure with. And if Kreindl was a foot under the required height, so was Napoleon.

Even the briefest linguistic analysis of Augie March points to activity, event, history, the social nexus, the traditional focus of the novel. The language works to enhance temporality, not to oppose it. Indeed, Augie March is best understood as a writer's expression of a particular historical moment, the revisionist liberal early fifties. Occasionally advertised as beginning in the roaring twenties, going through the grim thirties and so on, this Chicago novel belies our conventional expectations of these periods. There is no break in narrative stride or tone between the twenties and the thirties (and on into the forties) in that the twenties experience as we get it typically in literature (money, expatriation, aesthetic primitivism, historical doom) does not touch Augie. As for the thirties, this is when Augie turns down the plushness of the Renlings, remaining in an ideal condition of orphanage. Individuality transcends the merely economically determined. These twenties don't roar and these thirties don't bark. A consistent, buoyant, ingenuous, energetic marginality—a marginality working toward the center—is maintained; and even reinforced, since sharp-wittedness in helter-skelter conditions is at a premium in picaresque, as the twenties break into the thirties. The prose, mandarin picaresque, is designed to record, in addition to those elements already mentioned, bumpy shifts, personal discontinuities, reversals and encrustations of circumstance. In the immigrant milieu, the twenties is the time before the thirties. Nor do the thirties reflect any particular heroism to Augie. Looking in flophouses for stiffs to swell the union rolls reminds Augie of the time he recruited coal-hikers for Simon: “No use assuming that I had reversed all and was now entering those flophouse doors from the side of light, formerly from that of darkness” (AM, p. 292). The opposite of a Marxist, he does not view the proletariat as the wave of the future. No, what he sees as he appears before the beseeching workers is not at all revolutionary expectation: “what struck me in them was a feeling of antiquity and deep crust. But I expect happiness and gladness have always been the same, so how much variation should there be in their opposite?” (AM, p. 289). Viewing the world as ideological struggle conceals the essentialist reality for Augie. A sensuous will to life, a self-assertion, even in materialist circumstances, strikes his eye. The labor leader Dawson is like the businessman Karas: moneywise, well-dressed, leisurely. The recollection of Simon in a proletarian cell is amusing, but then he went for the big girls in black jackets and berets. And Augie himself has more to fear from union hooligans than from the other side. A number of characters who in one way or another “proposed a different kind of humanity altogether” (AM, p. 379)—Thea, Robey, Basteshaw—serve to make a similar point about ideology.

One cannot, of course, espouse such bracing skepticism and be considered “larky.” Indeed, Bellow's Chicago stands up because it is seen in its contradictory perspective. The celebratory notes of the novel's beginning, “I am an American, Chicago born” are immediately qualified by “Chicago, that somber city,” an indication of a habitual cast of mind. There is no one way of seeing Chicago. The approach to the city, via Gary, is lyrically evoked, compared to the “like greatness of place” (AM, p. 90) of winter London and Alpine Torino. Despite all the teeming life it contains, or because of it Chicago itself is not particularly the subject of lyric effects. The description of the city is likely to be more threatening than it is anything else. Augie recalls that the El pillars are “like a terribly conceived church of madmen” where, in a vaguely Blakean phrase, “worshippers crawl their carts of rags and bones.” The insight is Blakean: “sometimes misery came over me to feel that I myself was the creation of such places. How is it that human beings will submit to the gyps of previous history while mere creatures look with original eyes” (AM, p. 330). And even more somberly, alone, in the hospital, recuperating from his Bizocho hernia (always the mixture of the ridiculous and the serious!), Augie contemplates Chicago as “the Ezekial cauldron of wrath, stoked with bones … you're nothing here. Nothing” (AM, pp. 458f.). Significantly, this last quotation is from the last part of the book, where Bellow is particularly concerned with staving off saturnine complication because the light of Augie's innocence has been considerably diminished.

But even in the relatively bright Chicago section this has been a concern. The major recasting in this vein occurs in the Renling episode, where the story of Violet, the runaway adopted daughter of the Renlings, is deleted. The Renlings had opposed her suitor, a graft lawyer. Apparently Violet had more reason for leaving than the affair, since she hated the Renlings anyway. Mrs. Renling's “damnation chats” and general disgust are greater in manuscript and we see Augie saying, “This was when I began to have an inkling of what that disappeared Violet had been up against” (B.1.18). There is also considerable cutting down on Mr. Renling as cynical second best. The final version diminishes the Renlings' shortcomings so that what Augie gives up is seen to be neutral and good. And St. Joe is seen to be largely an attraction, not “Cain's summer pasture” (B.1.18, 138). It is easy not to want to be the surrogate son in such circumstances, more to Augie's credit to resist adoption in the toned-down novel. Most picaros would jump at this chance, but Augie's resistance complicates him upward to questions of identity. Grandma Lausch, too, has some of her rough edges smoothed. She is not quite the “female leopard” (B.1.16) of one manuscript, nor is her “witch-meanness and mental despotism” (B.1.15) made quite so explicit. Both women appear limited in the novel, though not morally dubious.

As shades of the stockyards begin to close upon the growing boy, Augie, like Huck Finn, values people for the humanity they retain and forgives them for the humanity they have lost. Einhorn is the prime Chicago example of Augie's tolerance of moral dubiety. Never mind the amusing freeloading: a man who says at his father's funeral that “the lesson of an American life like my father's … is that achievements are compatible with decency” (AM, p. 104) but who himself demands kickbacks, tries to get industrial current into a residential block, sets a fire (in manuscript “slave Bavatsky lit it on his orders” [B.1.18]) and generally lacks his father's decency is so shady that he shows the extreme breadth of Augie's latitudinarian nature. (Even the eulogized commissioner is exposed.) Nor is he seen to be wrong. Wasn't it Einhorn who first recognized Augie's essential “opposition,” who first formulated for Augie an explicit resistance to determinism? And isn't it Einhorn whose style and swagger transform the narrow quotidian possibilities of immigrant Chicago to a plateau beyond simple moral judgment? Einhorn needs no recasting or substantive editing. His energy disarms criticism.

In both Huck and Augie there is a nocturnal underside to innocence. The comparison, often mentioned, is worth extending:11 both marginal characters are sensitive, compassionate, effectively orphaned, skeptical, resisting, observant, typically “lighting out,” unheroic, buoyant though carrying a weight of suffering, elegaic about nature, with a strong nocturnal streak coming through the daylight of their vernacular delivery. It is the strategy of Huckleberry Finn that the reader is more aware of Huck's virtues and vices than Huck himself. There is little of that adolescent immunity in Augie since a greater freight of conscious self-definition comes with genital ego. Yet, as we have seen, Bellow finally chooses to defer to the picaresque convention of comic indeterminacy. Augie has no Tom Sawyer to whom he can defer, but the hokey deference he pays to Frazer and Mintouchian serves the same dramatic function. Since Augie cannot quite simplify his life, it appears that Bellow does it for him.12

The nocturnal element is deep-rooted. As we have noted, even at the beginning of the novel it is there. After visiting Georgie with Mama, Augie would take her to a fancy ice-cream parlor “to try to raise her out of her rock-depth of heavy trouble, where, I guess, the greater part of human beings have always spent most of their time” (AM, p. 193). Augie's larkiness exists in the face of something like Thoreau's belief that the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. Nor does Augie simply consider himself an exception. Spending a night in the lock-up, Augie thinks, “there is a darkness. It is for everyone” (AM, p. 175). This darkness of perception tempts Augie in the form of the occasional old friend who seems to have succumbed to it. Jimmy Klein, for instance, tells him “It's all that you want from life comes to you as one single thing—fucking. … You live to bring up the kid and oblige your wife” (AM, p. 267f.).

Even more pessimistic and more important is Kayo Obermark, a rare instance of minor character transformation in the manuscripts. While in the earliest versions Kayo's negativism is treated as a joke, as it stands finally it achieves a metaphysical dignity. Kayo first appears as a caricature of a philosopher, as a man contemptuous in his manner who is “all for reason and nuts.” Despite his yelling that “phenomena and appearances were a trap, how only the good was real, how the flesh was a dream” (B.2.8), he gets upset when there is more meat on Augie's tray at school. He first appears, in other words, as a Bellovian comic contradiction. In the novel, however, he is described as “melancholy and brilliant.” His haughtiness and intransigence are still there: “He thought the greatest purity was outside human relations, that those only begot lies and cabbage familiarity” (a precursor of Herzog's “potato love”?). And he tells Augie, “I prefer stones any time. I could be a geologist. I'm not even disappointed in humankind, I just don't care about it, and if there's one thing that's sure, it's that this world is certainly not enough, and if there isn't any more they can have it all back.” Not earth-shattering wisdom, perhaps, but not ludicrous.

Indeed, Kayo modulates into noble speech with perception which is to haunt Augie near the end of his adventures: “Everyone has bitterness in his chosen thing. That's what Christ was for, that even God had to have bitterness in his chosen thing if he was really going to be man's God, a god who was human” (AM, p. 260). There is a transformation into nobility here; rather than an idealist eccentric, we get in Kayo someone who speaks eloquently on the side of life's essentially heartbreak reality. Augie feels “both drawn … and resistant” to Kayo's view, but mainly resistant. Yet the nobility is still there, and some further dramatic undercutting is deleted. In manuscript Mimi is undergoing her abortion nightmare to which Kayo remains aloof. Consequently, Augie feels that “he had to show cause why Mimi deserved what she had and he therefore didn't have to be involved; he could be all justified, a monarch from greater vision” (B.1.22). It is possible that Bellow dropped this because the personal friction between them was enough to explain Kayo's distance; in any case, Kayo comes off better for it. It is after Thea, after the now faded Einhorn, after Robey, that Augie, “more larky formerly than now” (AM, p. 447), looks to Kayo for counsel. Feeling undistinguished and weighed down by a technological culture in which things and spirit are equally real, Augie desires more contact with nature than invention. Kayo then speaks of moha, which is a dignified way of naming “the conditioning forces” (AM, p. 450) Augie has always tried to resist. The various forms of love are the best resistance, says Kayo, a mellow, if improbable, spokesman for this view. This speech does not appear in some earlier versions and is another indication of Bellow's shift in attitude, his greater susceptibility to quasi-philosophical gloominess. Bitterness in his chosen thing becomes all too real an aspect of Augie's education. The upbeat recasting of the final section only partially mitigates its effect.

The optimism of Augie March has been exaggerated by critics who consider going against the modernist mainstream a formal deviationism, Partisan Review gone soft. It is clear from the composition of the novel that Bellow was the first to be aware of the loss of power of positive thinking. By definition, the ingenu is a character whose expectations exceed his consummations. A good heart can take you only so far in modern conditions. Hence the necessary undercutting of Augie's moral energy, issuing sometimes into obvious, stock ironies, particularly in the last section. The bursts of triumphant vision remain just that; the memorable argumentative dialogues have a quality of monologues juxtaposed. That Augie can summon up an eloquent, bittersweet lyricism at the end, a partial victory of subjectivity in the face of objective truth not exactly triumphant, is consonant with the unheroic quality of the book. Augie remains, by and large, a poet of inevitable balances, the animal ridens, seeing the smiling perspective of things. He takes heart in the hard-used Jacqueline, who refuses to live a disappointed life. Speaking through the threatening Atlantic panorama, Augie wants to “beat the dark to Bruges” where he can see “the green canals and ancient palaces” (AM, p. 536). Here, as elsewhere in the novel, chaos and civilization struggle to occupy the same subjective space. From Chicago to the Venice of the West, this landlocked Columbus will hope to discover the human.13

Notes

  1. Robert Penn Warren, “The Man with No Commitments,” in Trachtenberg, p. 13.

  2. “If we have to resort to German at all, I would suggest the more correct label of Entwicklungsroman because the emphasis in Augie March is decidedly not on Augie's encounter with objects of culture as it is in Goethe's Wilhelm Meister, the prototype of the Bildungsroman. No course in Western civilization or lifetime reading plan could satiate Augie's desire for experience … the measure of his growth remain[s] questionable as well. Augie is, more than an advocate of ‘Bildung’ and self-development, a champion of reality.” Brigitte Scheer-Schäzler, Saul Bellow (New York: Ungar, 1972), p. 57. I agree with Scheer-Schäzler's terminological point and wish that both of these terms were common in the American critical vocabulary. Since they are not, I will defer to the common usage, keeping this distinction in mind.

  3. The picaresque often projects harsh satire at the expense of society, so what the picaro resists is something more like destruction. The self-reliance of the picaro is typically a matter of necessity. The traditional picaresque hero might well jump at the chance offered by, say, the Renlings. Augie illustrates what might be called romantic picaresque, resisting the mainstream because he wants to, not because he has to. Many want to adapt Augie, not so the picaro; he is typically excluded, where Augie is often enough courted by conformity.

  4. Richard Chase, Walt Whitman Reconsidered (London: Gollancz, 1955), p. 36.

  5. There is a stray note indicating other ambitious plans for Augie. “Augie when he is a federalist missionary, runs into Mormon boys who are missionaries. Also J [sic] witnesses; anti-vivisectionists.” There is no other mention of this anywhere in the extant manuscripts. Bellow adds, “Doesn't want to be what others want to make of him. Stendhal exceptional champion of this” (D.2.3).

  6. In an unpublished letter to Lionel Trilling, 11 October 1953.

  7. Lionel Trilling, introduction, The Adventures of Augie March (New York: Modern Library), p. 196.

  8. In a fragment of what may be a scenario for an unpublished short story or, possibly, for a chapter in Herzog, Bellow puts Rousseau in an even more critical light: “He is a man that I could never stand if for no more than for the scene he leaves for himself, stubblefaced, milky, in a wig like hemp, weeping at his own opera performed before the monarch, encouraged by the weeping of the women and fancying he'd like to gobble their tears with his lips. Original sin is not always the same; but one lasts a few centuries. His has been ours.” “A Visitor Decides to Steal a Photo of the Professor in a Jinnicksha” (B.1.20). Clearly, Rousseau's Confessions had a lasting impact on Bellow. The references in Herzog are, finally, more charitable.

  9. Richard G. Stern, review of Henderson the Rain King,Kenyon Review 21, 3 (1959): 658.

  10. Occasionally they seem piled-on rather than written, as in the excessive bulge of Trafton's Gym: “the liniment-groggy, flicketyrope-time, tin-locker-chasing, Loop-darkened rooms and the Polish, Italian, Negro, thump-muscled, sweat-glittering training-labor” (AM, p. 86). One cannot raise the hyphen to a metaphysical principle. Actually the manuscripts show a cutting down in the hyphenated catalogue and, even more, a cutting down of historical (and mythological) allusions. One may wonder how even in the final version an ingenu can have such ease of reference and often penetrating moral perception. The answer is that the narrative is retrospective, sometimes explicitly so.

  11. Augie is the only character in Bellow innocent enough to be so compared, and, as my qualifications indicate, here is the exception in Bellow which proves the rule.

  12. There are even linguistic echoes of Huck in Augie—“by and by” (p. 273), “I lit out” (p. 274), “ornery” (p. 372), “I reckon” (p. 457)—occasionally full-blown, as is Augie's awed description of Frazer (at his wedding): “He was a mighty attractive and ideal man … You couldn't find a subject that stumped him … You got shivers on the back and thrills clear into the teeth. I was real proud to have such a friend come” (AM, p. 490; italics mine). It's a long way from Pike County to Humboldt Park. In this instance the prose is merely derivative. The echoes become too strong, literary precedent a crutch, the Huck accent automatic. Some of the echoes are more spontaneous. Augie views the captured Gorman as Huck views the hounded Buck Grangerford or even the captured King and Duke: “I felt powerfully heartsick to see him” (AM, p. 165). And Augie, identifying a worker at the morgue, sees with the painful clarity of Huck looking at Boggs: “I recognized him, his black body rigid, as if he died in a fit of royal temper, making fists, feet out of shape, and crying something from the roof of his mouth, which I saw” (AM, p. 249). Augie is told that his girlfriend shot him and asks, “Have they caught her?” “Naw, they won't even look for her. They never do”—which is an updated version of “No'm, killed a nigger.” In some of this one hears Sherwood Anderson as well.

  13. Though there are a few chapters of Augie March in magazines, all are close to the novel and show no changes of any consequence. In her bibliography, Marianne Nault (who is generally accurate) describes the chapter called “The Eagle” (Harper's Bazaar 87, February 1953) as an early draft. It is, however, late or close to the novel, simply a fusing of two of its chapters.

Patrick W. Shaw (essay date spring 1987)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Shaw, Patrick W. “History and the Picaresque Tradition in Saul Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March.CLIO 16, no. 3 (spring 1987): 203-19.

[In the following essay, Shaw asserts that Bellow became the first American author to consciously choose the picaresque genre as a frame for his narrative with The Adventures of Augie March, asserting that Bellow also tailored the genre to address the milieu of postwar America.]

The one distinguishing phenomenon of American prose fiction immediately after World War II was the rebirth of the picaresque, a genre which had lain fallow since Mark Twain helped define the type with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and which dominated the American novel throughout the 1950s and 1960s. While Saul Bellow was not the first to reintroduce the picaresque, having been preceded by J. D. Salinger with Catcher in the Rye (1951) and Ralph Ellison with Invisible Man (1952), he was the first consciously to choose the genre as a frame for his narrative and to tailor it to the vagaries of the new atomic age.1 R. W. B. Lewis, for one, felt Bellow succeeded in adapting the traditional genre to the modern era and that The Adventures of Augie March (1953) was a masterful example of the “unmixed” picaresque elements.2 Other critics, however, were less enthusiastic, finding the picaro from Chicago a crashing bore and readily cataloging the problems Bellow had in controlling the genre. Maxwell Geismar disparaged Augie March as a “literary survey” of questionable authenticity3 and Jack Ludwig felt Bellow was concealing a conceptual narrowness behind the pyrotechnics of an uncontrolled “free style.”4 Such polarity became so standard in Bellow criticism that most critics soon marched past Augie enroute to less befuddling Bellow protagonists. Of the thirty-nine Bellow entries in the 1982 MLA International Bibliography, for instance, only one is devoted to Augie March; in 1985, none.

One recent study, however, does devote major attention to Augie March and serves as a background and foundation for my own efforts to articulate Bellow's adaptation of a traditional genre to contemporary history. Judie Newman's Saul Bellow and History is a British work which intelligently tries to “develop an alternative reading of Bellow's novels, as works which are responsive to historical specificity, and which also incorporate a subtle understanding of different theories of history.”5 In addition to offering an excellent summary of Bellow criticism which saves rehearsing it here, Newman—with admirable temerity—confronts the texts head-to-head, avoiding the imposition of presupposed meanings that has faulted more than a few interpretations of Bellow's novels. In her examinations of Bellow's extensive use of history, however, she chooses not to discuss the role played by the picaresque tradition within which Bellow intentionally located his history-crazy picaro. She acknowledges that Augie March is picaresque, and notices that, though the narrative is otherwise steeped in history, Augie seems unaware of his own contemporary history; but she neither elucidates these observations nor mentions the satire/irony that is by definition essential to the picaresque. My “corrective” theses, therefore, are (1) that in consciously choosing the picaresque, Bellow sought to exploit the pervasive irony of that satiric mode; and (2) the narrative lens through which we as an audience have to view all else Augie says or does is his peculiar silence about postwar history. Though Augie may quote Hegel, Marx, and Nietzsche with the blind faith of the naive, Bellow does not automatically imbue “History” with dialectical validity. What he does do is confront the dilemma which results when we try to discover models for defining the “self” within a history that is itself anarchic.6

Verbose, indecisive, and visionary, Augie personifies American history between World War I and 1950. His name suggests the “march” of history and an augury of things to come; and his first pronouncement that “I am an American”7 cleverly iterates his own A. M. initials and ironically echoes Walt Whitman's breast-thumping proclamation that he was America's voice—an echo from the past which sounds the warning that by the 1950s Whitman's romantic posturing was the stuff of parody and not new departures. Born in Prohibition, bred in Depression, Augie is literally and psychologically blown from the water by World War II. Then in the era of Truman he somehow settles long enough to compose his woeful memoirs. Indeed, the major clue to Augie as satiric persona and to the meaning of the novel lies in his overt and at times ridiculously self-conscious historicity. His brain is a smorgasbord of historical tidbits, gleaned mostly from an incomplete set of fire-damaged Harvard Classics stored under his bed—books symbolizing Augie's own imprecise grasp of history and the indefiniteness of history itself. The historical allusions, asides, facts, and near facts proliferate beyond summary, but the pathetic, monomial character of Robey exemplifies the point we need to understand about Bellow's historiographics. One of the many characters whose lives intersect Augie's and whose collective monomania testifies to the aberration of American spirit, Robey is a rich eccentric with the Devil's marks of “blood-flickered eyes” and a severe stutter (439). He hires Augie to help him write a chronicle of humankind that sounds more like Laurence Sterne than Edward Gibbon. The opus is to be entitled The Needle's Eye, and will be—as Robey announces in all seriousness—a “history of human happiness from the standpoint of the rich” (438). Augie's acting as Robey's assistant and his continued work on the idiotic chronicle leave the audience skeptical of Augie's own credentials as a historian. Moreover, Bellow wants us to question our own credulity: if Robey's view of history strikes such an immediate cord of incredible eccentricity, why then do not the views of Toynbee, Tolstoi, or any other historian strike the same cord?

Such autistic misapplication of history as Robey epitomizes is, first, Bellow's satire of the historian's solipsistic attempt to superimpose an artificial design on time; and, second, Bellow's way of emphasizing the implicit historical milieu in which Augie March was written but which has practically no explicit part in the narrative itself.8 The concentration camps, the atomizing of Japan, the nonwar in Korea, the madness of the post-Hiroshima years in general—these constitute realities that stand horrible beyond comment and that in their absence from the narrative suggest the point at which reified human experience moves beyond the reach of discourse. It is the same phenomenon of demarcation that Kenneth Burke earlier had sought to clarify in A Grammar of Motives (1945) when, in discussing the relationship of figurative language and its role in “the discovery and description of ‘the truth,’” he distinguishes between “poetic realism” and “scientific realism” and concludes that fictive characters obtain “degrees of being” only in “proportion to the variety of perspectives from which they can with justice be perceived.”9 What Bellow hopes for is that the reader will act as a perspectivist also and bring two “realisms” to bear upon Augie, thereby to perceive binocularly (1) an amalgamation of the poetic/scientific realities, and (2) an entity who somehow stays distinct from both. To manage this, the reader must remain cognizant of his own duality—that is, must in experiencing Augie's narrative concentrate on the fact that the reader is simultaneously functioning in both poetic history and the scientific history that hourly shapes and defines his own existence. Thus, Augie as chronicler may (amazingly) devote considerable narrative space to the lunacy of one such as Robey but never mention the mushroom cloud or the distant plumes still rising from Nazi smokestacks. We as historically informed readers, however, are expected not only to know such signs from extratextual sources, but to grant them some holistic purpose in our efforts to describe the “truth.”

Avoiding direct references to the Nazi atrocities, Bellow therefore depends on the subtlest of allusion to remind us of the War and the Bomb and similar historical realities: Augie's offhanded mentioning of the Yalta conference (229-230) or his passing notation that his friend Padilla is “working in the uranium project” over at the University of Chicago (459). Having already attempted to offer perspectives on the War and its pre-bomb terror in Dangling Man, Bellow knew when he came to write Augie March that no feasible antiwar manifesto was possible or necessary. If conventional war were very nearly beyond the poet's and rhetoric's ability to convey, how far beyond his pen had the atomic bomb blown it? The answer is suggested by the fullness of allusions to events from ancient history through the Depression, contrasted to the paucity of actual historic details from the 1940s and 1950s. Only in the Basteshaw episode, when Augie's transport is torpedoed by some invisible German submarine, does Bellow use the War as part of the ongoing action of the narrative, and then primarily to illustrate that putting such events into any kind of meaningful perspective is beyond the capabilities of historical reportage. Knowing he cannot explain history, Bellow forces history's tragic events to serve as a narrative background against which he sets the comic performers needed for his satiric drama. It is a technique which is somewhat heuristic and which may account for some of the confusion that has accrued to Augie March, but in compensation it provides the proper environment for the subtle philosophical, psychological concepts that are Bellow's major concerns.

Let us here reiterate that Bellow purposefully selected the picaresque mode as the most appropriate vehicle for his concepts. We can logically assume in light of this premeditation either that Bellow blundered into a genre he ultimately could not manage (as some have claimed) or that he anticipated in the picaresque a genre flexible enough to accommodate the multiple forms of historical perspective he wanted to bring to his narrative and to the picaro who is his fictive spokesperson. Evidence better supports the latter assumption. That he makes of this picaro a voluble compendium of pseudo-history is but in keeping with the history of the picaresque itself, for the genre traditionally presents “heroes” who are less than reliable narrators, a point William Riggan makes in Picaros, Madmen, Naifs and Clowns when he elucidates “a certain fragmentation of the picaresque narrator's personality” which casts doubt on his believability.10 Either the picaros are flagrantly insane or naively gullible, or—in some instances—tricked by their own overriding egos. Don Quixote, Huck Finn, and Tom Jones step forth from history as witnesses. This traditional unreliability is but another element of “history” (albeit literary history) that Bellow hopes his reader will know; and though it seems with such techniques Bellow is implying the masses need not try to comprehend his art, he is actually giving them credit for possessing sensibilities which they must concentrate and focus. Yet, to the detriment of Bellow's subtle intent (and perhaps to the embarrassment of a few critics), Augie as picaro has been taken too lightly and Augie as pundit too seriously. The consequence has been a blurring of the irony that is a defining characteristic of the picaresque and a missing of the point that Bellow is offering his young protagonist as a gull who emanates from both the history of events and the history of ideas but who remains undefined by either.

In short, we have failed adequately to distinguish Bellow—who as author shares his reader's complex of scientific/poetic reality—from Augie, who exists solely in the poetic reality and who therefore offers a comparatively limited “variety of perspectives”—again borrowing Burke's terminology. Even Tony Tanner, who correctly notes that Augie March “transcends” the traditional picaresque and that Augie, untypical of the picaro, is “a very passive character” who “seldom makes a positive, forward-moving, creative decision or choice,” ultimately credits Augie with being a serious thinker whose adventures are an intellectual “quest” after self-awareness.11 On the contrary, however, the cerebral impetus of Bellow's design is not Augie. The truly insightful pronouncements in the novel come from others who superficially are far less equipped for Solomonic status than the talkative young picaro: Grandma Lausch, the coldly logical pragmatist; William Einhorn, the paraplegic sensualist; Mintouchian, the Armenian mystic; and Basteshaw, the madman genius. Mintouchian, for example, not Augie, utters this climactic statement: “On any certain day, when you're happy, you know it can't last, but the weather will change, the health will be sickness, the year will end, and also life will end” (483). Nearly hidden amidst the density of a narrative dominated by Augie's incessant and occasionally mind-dulling chatter, Mintouchian's aphoristic insight comes to us just as epiphanies come in our extrafictive reality: unexpectedly, quickly, almost imperceptibly. Only after separating it from the verbosity and bringing the complex of perspectives to bear upon it do we realize that Mintouchian's comment is the only synopsis of human history consistent with the life-ends-in death “truth” which biology forces upon us and which operates as a notable motif in Bellow's design.

The entire construct of the novel and Augie's own tumultuous life verify Mintouchian's credo, but Augie himself neither articulates nor totally comprehends it. In his own term, he is always “circling” (84). And lest we doubt Augie's naivete in the face of ontological complexity, we need only remember his response when Basteshaw offers him a chance literally to start a new life which would free everyone from the boredom that causes complex organisms to wish for death (505) and in which “every man will be a poet and every woman a saint” (509). Although Basteshaw's arrogant declaration sounds feasible to the reader—especially in light of Augie's having accustomed us to some rather eccentric ideas—and although Augie has previously shown himself to be an ideological gigolo by embracing every wild philosophy within arm's reach, he replies without hesitation that “even if I was sure you knew what you were talking about I'd still say no” (509). We might hope that some philosophical principle or scruples glorify Augie's refusal, but such is not the case. His paramount motivation for rejecting Basteshaw is a desire to return expeditiously to Stella Chesney, an actress he has married on the rebound from Thea Fenchel and whose singular appeal is her uncomplicated sexuality. Though Basteshaw may be insane by the “historical” standards commonly used to make such determinations, he nonetheless knows precisely what he intends to do and may have discovered the secret of life. His presentation of his argument, albeit bizarre, is quite clear. Augie, on the contrary, despite his unconvincing statement to Basteshaw that he already has a “course in life” (508), has failed to articulate any personal goals or philosophies. He remains a literal and psychic drifter at novel's end—a point, by the way, at which he ironically contradicts his disbelief of Basteshaw's seemingly outlandish ideas by citing historic precedent for taking chances on radical thinkers. Just because everyone thought Columbus was crazy for setting off for terra incognita, Augie argues, “didn't prove there was no America” (536).

We do not want to mislead and make Augie sound totally shallow or ignorant, for such is not his fate. On the contrary, Bellow emphasizes the poignancy of Augie's narrative and makes the audience care by granting Augie the potential for enlightenment. At certain moments Augie will realize he should reject “these big personalities, destiny molders, and heavy-water brains, Machiavellis and wizard evildoers, big-wheels and imposers-upon, absolutists” (524); but then just as quickly he is back being failed by his own overblown rhetoric, being manipulated by others, falling prey to another scheme. To borrow Jung's term for individual growth and self-discovery, there is no “individuation” taking place in Augie. He remains the naif, like Huck Finn pondering the whereabouts of the second wooden leg. The reader must therefore watch intently to see Augie emerge from the dominating and purposely distracting historical surround to stand revealed not as a spokesperson for truth and beauty but as satirical chimera who drifts through a significant portion of the twentieth century without ever truly understanding what he has encountered along the way. He is, in short, Bellow's objective correlative of what T. S. Eliot termed “the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history.”12

Bellow, therefore, presents Augie not as a reliable interpreter of events, but instead uses his travels as a method for bringing Augie into contact with significant elements of the postwar era and for forcing us to activate the multiple perspectives discussed above. A prominent example of this method is Bellow's ironic use of existentialism. Though from the perspective of the late 1980's existentialism may seem little more than another element of the modernist culture in general, in the 1950s it was forcing, as perhaps no other philosophy since Darwin, a reexamination of the values presupposed by the Judeo-Christian tradition. Bellow did not miss the irony of Jean Paul Sartre's opportunistic timing. He realized that Sartre's seminal “Existentialism Is a Humanism” lecture, delivered immediately after the Nazis had been militarily defeated in Europe and less than three months after Hiroshima, defined a philosophy that was as much German in origin as French. As Paul Johnson points out in trying to come to terms historically with the phenomenon, Sartre was “essentially a product of the Berlin philosophy school and especially of Heidegger, from whom most of his ideas derived.” In light of what had just gone before and remembering that French intellectualism tended to endorse “radical, protofascist forms of racialism,” no thoughtful person—most especially a Jewish intellectual—could ignore the acute irony underlying the triumph of such a German-flavored aesthetic.13

Bellow does not accuse French existentialism per se of being a continuation of the Nazi racialism that had captivated then devastated Europe; but certainly the Germanic connections of the movement presented intriguing possibilities for satire. Hardly by accident does Bellow reverse stereotype and give his Jewish hero the comic-strip handsomeness and dominant size of the Aryan warrior and conclude his narrative with Augie living in Paris and wandering confused through “the fields of Normandy” (536) after his French car malfunctions. The paradox of the Jewish victim in the guise of the Nazi storm trooper and the failure of the Citroen, which literally makes Augie pedestrian again, symbolize the fickleness of popular machines (mechanical and mental) and encapsulate the intellectual, moral confusion Augie experiences throughout a novel which has from the day of publication been certified as existential.14 The meaning of existentialism assumes significantly different values, however, when viewed through the lens of Bellow's picaresque irony and satire. With devices such as brother Simon's blond Aryan good looks, the Citroen, and the “darkness” that lies between Augie and a new beginning in Bruges (536), Bellow satirizes the irresolvable debates articulated—but not created—by Sartre and existentialism. He realizes Sartre introduced no new philosophy but merely inserted himself as the new chancellor of popular thought and convinced a receptive (even gullible) world—just as Augie is convinced—that reality had been redefined by a philosophy still warmed by the ashes of Teutonic arrogance. Bellow, like Sartre's friend Simone de Beauvoir, must have been “astounded” that the French people were so readily receptive to Sartre's distinctly un-Gallic pronouncements.15 As he noted in his Library of Congress address, he would like to ask Sartre: “After nakedness, what? After absurdity, what?”16 The argument, then, is not that Augie is something other than existential. The very point of Bellow's portrayal of his picaro is that Augie is existential—and though he remains involved with humankind as existentialism demands, the involvement teaches him little about self or existence. As one of his Chicago street buddies might tell him, he passes through life like a chunk of bacon through a goose, pretty much unaffected by the experience. To reiterate the point: Augie is a satirical figure, and the fact he is clearly meant to be existential is not necessarily an endorsement of that philosophy. Bellow deigns casuistry; and his satire of existentialism is his calling into account a modern ethic which he saw as being more reactionary than reasonable, more dangerous than salutary.

To reemphasize his worry about the pitfalls of pop philosophies, Bellow offers a more overt attack upon the most faddish of them all: Freudianism. Clem Tambow, another of those harebrained street acquaintances who constantly mislead Augie (and whose name is very similar to the more insidious charlatan-psychologist Dr. Tamkin of Seize the Day), tells him he needs a dose of “Dr. Freud's medicine.” In reply, Augie quite seriously relates a comic dream about multiplying pianos—comic, we might note, to the reader, not to Augie and Clem.17 In the dream, Augie is entertaining guests in his lavish home, when suddenly his two grand pianos somehow mate and become three. Augie is terribly embarrassed by the copulating pianos, because, as he says, he cannot play a piano “any more than a bull can sew cushions” (434). Clem's instant analysis is that Augie has “a nobility syndrome” and “can't adjust to the reality situation” (434). In light of what we have already discussed about Bellow's application of multiple levels of reality, the comment becomes exponentially ironic. In the immediate context of the narrative, moreover, it shows that, like Huck Finn at the mercy of the King and Duke, Augie instinctively suspects such gibberish but lacks adequate self-esteem to reject or counter it; and like Twain before him, Bellow laments what can happen to innately good and intelligent people who are cast out to survive in a world dominated by shysters, charlatans, and utter fools. Debased by such influences, Augie finally succumbs to the madness and tries to fabricate his own metaphysic; but all he can manage is a confusing, wistful theory about “axial lines” that can mysteriously bring any “unfortunate bastard” back into “focus” (454-455) and which is intended not as an emulation but a satire of theorists such as Jose Ortega Y Gasset, who tried to explain existence as being representable “by a series of concentric circles whose radii measure the dynamic distances from the axis of human life where the supreme desires are operating.”18 Bellow knows—though Augie sadly does not—that to simplify human life into a diagrammatic of concentric circles or axial lines is ludicrous if not absurd and all too reminiscent of Swift's projectors.

In keeping with the overall narrative density of the novel, Bellow extends the Freudian/sexual motif beyond obvious parody and incorporates it into the historical matrix of the tale. In the early pages of Chapter XIV, for instance, after he has just been “beat up and chased” by the union goons, and amidst the general milieu of political and social unrest, Augie flees to Thea Fenchel's apartment. They remain there for several days of erotic escape, but in that sexual interlude between Chicago violence and Mexican turmoil he rhapsodizes that “The reality was now, and in here” (311). In light of this episode and in keeping with the retrospection of the entire narrative, Augie's earlier contemplations of love and history attain additional irony and clarity. Already knowing of the pre-Mexico idyll with Thea, which he will soon divulge to the reader, Augie ruminates about his life as an outcast:

If you think, and some do, that continual intimacy, familiarity, and love can result in falsehood, this being thrown on the world may be a very desirable even if sad thing. What Christ meant when he called his mother “Woman.” That after all she was like any woman. That in any true life you must go and be exposed outside the small circle that encompasses two or three heads in the same history of love. Try and stay, though, inside. See how long you can.

(285)

He cannot stay inside long, however—neither in the sense of sanctuary nor sexuality that Bellow's double entendre rhetoric implies—for the idyll is rapidly destroyed by Thea herself, who personifies both the sexually emancipated female and the historic intrusion of American capitalism and pragmatism into the realm of dreams and idealism: “Here Thea appeared with her money, her decided mind set on love and great circumstances, her car, her guns and Leicas and boots, her talk about Mexico, her ideas” (316).

For Thea, love translates as political and economic power; sex is incidental, not essential, and she has no mind to savor a carnality which is readily pacified. Augie, however, always seeking to position himself within a continuum, speaks of his own sexuality in terms of the “history of love.” He thereby dislocates himself from a modern world for which he is misfitted and relocates his sensibilities somewhere in the past with Medieval knights and star-struck dreamers. Not unlike Don Quixote, Augie has read too many romances and his concept of love is distorted—a psychic confusion visible in the sentence fragments that dominate the above passage in which the term “history of love” appears. He cannot manage outside the temporary order that the sexual act affords, and forlornly, he goes “back to books,” back to a milieu where the perplexing flux of his own daily life is solidified into something called “history.” Unlike Freud, who sought to integrate his sexual ideas into the Darwinian-Victorian concept of human progress, Augie tries to separate the sexual self from the historical self, thereby guaranteeing his fragmentation and nullifying Dr. Freud's medicine.

Bellow's sustained satire of existentialism and his parody of Freudianism may imply that he was psychologically unwilling or unable to genuflect before any metaphysical icon with Germanic markings, be they Sartrean, Hitlerian, or Freudian. More plausible, however, is the view that Bellow's satire implies true skepticism, a disposition not to believe popular systems, especially those seeking to divide the self into fragments whose sum is considerably less than the whole. Bellow is no nihilist, certainly not in the same sense of the beatnik picaros that Jack Kerouac put on the road shortly after Augie. In consciously choosing the picaresque mode, Bellow (again unlike Kerouac) accepted the satirist's traditional responsibility of suggesting solutions to the problems he highlights. Once he shows the dangers of such factitious systems as Freudianism and existentialism, he goes ahead to offer an alternative. It is, however, a very tentative offering, for he heeds his own warning about tautology and is hypersensitive to dialectical contradictions. Therefore, his antidote to the historical misery caused by Nazism, Freudianism, and “isms” in general is noticeably circumspect amidst the clamor and clangor of Augie's unsettled life. It appears early in the narrative, when Augie is a high school junior and William Einhorn offers him one of the few valid bits of advice he will have the chance to ignore. It is subsequently elucidated in the longest of Bellow's episodes, the Mexican chapters.

Appropriately dressed in a “Mark Twain suit” to vivify the picaresque associations, the advocacy of nature, and the skepticism that the Twain allusion evokes, Einhorn tells Augie “there's law, and then there's Nature. There's opinion, and then there's Nature. Somebody has to get outside of law and opinion and speak for Nature” (67). Though a number of critics have recognized Bellow's advocacy of nature, his “Nature” is not adequately explained by the nineteenth-century “historic” literary traditions which Augie's glib allusions to Whitman, Twain, and Rousseau might suggest. Tony Tanner, later rethinking his praise of Augie as an intellectual quester, rightly admonishes against the “yearning … to assert the existence of some Transcendental reality” in Augie March.19 Bellow uses the term “Nature” not so much in its pantheistic or transcendental sense but more so to suggest a state or condition beyond both quotidian and scientifically verifiable reality. It is a state to which the individual can be made conscious via an astute intelligence coupled with an active imagination, assisted by more than a little faith; but awareness of such a state does not presuppose definition. Nature is a concept, as Bellow has Einhorn point out, with which we have lost touch in a kind of inverted Jungian process. The memory retains it in the same sense that the mind can tell us we once knew the capital of South Dakota but cannot tell us the name of that capital or how to get there. This inability to define the concept subsequently leaves us dependent upon faith. For Bellow, however, faith must be validated by the intellect, and he shows us via Augie what results when the individual fails to balance eagerness to believe with rational doubt. The consequence is gullibility. Augie does not—to borrow Jeanne Braham's term—exhibit “responsible imagination”20 and thus fails to articulate his personal experience into psychic coherency. When Augie pits himself against nature in his final peroration by wondering arrogantly if “it thinks it can win over us and the power of hope” (536) we realize that part of Augie's fictive purpose is to represent the unintegrated psyche which sees itself outside of nature—exogenous—rather than as part of the heterodoxical reason-faith syncretism which Bellow advocates.

As we have seen with Mintouchian, Bellow often puts his major “truths” into the mouths of the most unlikely characters. We should not be surprised, then, that his Nature theory comes from a “stinking Jew cripple” (107) who is hardly one of Emerson's self-reliant-hero sorts or one of Whitman's beautiful bodies, and a man the polar opposite of Augie's own Hollywood-idol physique. Bellow wishes to demonstrate that Einhorn's twisted and “unnatural” body hides the straight truth that much of the horror of the twentieth century has resulted from our dissociation from the anagogical possibilities of “Nature.” And when Bellow has Augie answer the call of the wild and trek to Mexico with Thea, there to be stomped on by a horse, threatened by poisonous snakes, and generally humiliated, we see that Bellow not only evokes Whitman and Emerson and Rousseau but borrows equally from what the fundamental naturalist Jack London taught: unless the urbanized, over-civilized individual can reestablish contact with his primordial instincts, thereby to gain knowledge of them and some modicum of control over them, he is doomed.

In Mexico, Augie has the opportunity (unrealized) to make such contact and learn such control. Mexico is literally and symbolically another country, suggesting what the United States once was, back in “history” before the frontier fell to mass transit and urban sprawl. Loyal to the picaresque tradition which governs his design, however, Bellow keeps his picaro dumb to the implications of his Mexican experiences. The characteristic most noticeable about Augie during his Mexican sojourn is not intellectual insight or enlightening self-analysis but his persistent sexual stupor over Thea—a situation which continues Bellow's ironic use of Freudian theories and reminds us of how truly unaware of contemporary historical fact Augie is. In his allusions to Marx and the Russian exiles in Mexico, and in the actual appearance of the doomed Trotsky (assassinated 1940), Bellow synecdochically admonishes us that though Hitler's manipulative insanity may have waned, the Stalinist experiment remains (in the 1950s) the most massive effort at social engineering in history, surpassing Nazi Germany in magnitude if not manifest horror and mocking the intellectual's attempt to explain the niceties of being and not being. Hitler and Stalin epitomize the unintegrated self, ones who have not come to terms with the primitive murderous impulses of nature and who turn their fury loose on an unprepared world. If on the one hand Bellow calls European intellectuals (Sartre et al) to account for their courting of those ideologies which found their worst expression in Nazism, he just as readily remembers how American intellectuals of the 1930s and 1940s danced the Stalin waltz and lured gulls such as Augie to the dance. And, again, his ironic use of history and his purposeful use of the picaresque become apparent, for his irony is multiplied by his keeping the existential and Marxist Augie naive to the Nazi/Communist atrocities, even though by the time Augie is committing his narrative to paper, the atrocities have been graphically reified for the audience in daily headlines. (Stalin died the same year Augie March was published.)

Because mode dictates that he keep his narrator unaware of significant historical facts, Bellow consequently must find some narrative method for conveying the ramifications of those events to his audience. Foiled at a critical juncture by strictures imposed on his narrator by a genre he had consciously chosen, Bellow therefore turns to tropism to expand the reader's awareness beyond the limited perspective of the self-centered individual. His symbolic use of Caligula the eagle and the more encompassing imagery of birds in general serve to exemplify the point. As we have seen, Bellow foreshadows the use of Caligula as a paradigm of American history by exaggerating history as narrative motif. Moreover, Caligula emblematizes Einhorn's warning about Nature and what happens when its laws are ignored in favor of human laws and opinion. Though named for the mad Roman emperor who appropriately, like Marx and Hitler, was Germanic, Caligula's foremost symbolic cognate is the United States. He is the domesticated, dispirited, and ineffectual eagle born free on the Texas frontier and now incarcerated in a zoo in the Indiana heartland. Thea, who has paid good capitalist currency for the bird, is shocked when Caligula turns out to have little interest in reviving his wild hunting talents to satisfy her own predatory impulses. “He's chicken!” (355) she screams with ironic fury—ironic because she should remember how readily unearned meals and soft living corrupt the free spirit, since she herself has sacrificed her once free soul to the pleasures of a comfortable marriage and the desensitized urban life. We would be straining the plausible to suggest that, with the representative American eagle and the ironies that cluster to him, Bellow is commenting on America's refusal to intercede against Hitler as he exterminated the Jews in the 1930s or the pusillanimity of America in face of Stalin's murderous expansionism of the 1940s and 1950s; but certainly Bellow indicts the generalized decadence of the United States. His point, quite simply, is that Caligula emblematizes the wild nature and intrepidity that historically defined the American character but which has been rendered effete by moral cowardice, economic greed, and political chauvinism.

Moreover, Caligula is part of the bird imagery which stands as the clearest instance in the narrative of Bellow's dependence on tropism to make the connection between the poetic realism and scientific realism we spoke of earlier.21 Though the largest and most obvious, Caligula is but one of numerous birds and the bird allusions in the novel, beginning with the Andersonian chickens that “never reached full size, … from lack of sunlight and good feed, but molted and died scraggly and in a queer state of growth” (40), and culminating with the pigeons that perch on the ledge outside Augie's room and fan down death images of “dust and straw” (399). As we see, the bird imagery merges with the more encompassing motif of movement/stasis or life/death which has been elucidated by a number of writers. We only need note here that the motif reaches its apogee with a marvelous pun near the end of the narrative when Bellow has Augie lament that “I have trouble being still” (514). The pun first literally reiterates the point of Augie's constant movement; then encapsulates the buzz words of existentialism; and finally, with the ambiguity of “being” and “still,” expresses the far deeper, psychological implications of what Bellow wishes to convey about the individual's need to escape the stolid, static environment of banks, abortion chambers, rest homes, and concentration camps, and to confront the death that is the ultimate stillness which paradoxically moves the individual out of history, time, and social strictures.

Finally, we need once more to reiterate that the picaresque is by definition satiric and to recognize that, in turn, satire is a projection of the authorial self into the collective “self” of society—or, put in terms more in keeping with our present concerns, a projection of the psyche into history. The satirist externalizes his fears, often attacking violently in others those things which most trouble his private thoughts. As Kenneth Burke observes in a slightly different context, “One cannot read great satirists like Swift or Juvenal without feeling this strategic ambiguity.”22 We thus see Bellow projecting via his satiric-fictive persona and the numerous literary devices of that persona's narratives the one quality he seems most to dread in himself; the inability of the massive intellect to articulate its own processes into patterns or forms perceivable by others. Bellow “projects” this facet of himself in Augie's two dominant personality traits: his undeniable intelligence and his near pathological need to flee responsibility (his larkiness). Bellow clearly admires the intelligence, but he also cannot deny that survival instincts encourage flight. In short, the confined intellect is intrigued by running as a physical act which objectifies a moral response. In fleeing, however, Augie betrays his humanitarian obligations, becomes one good man who does nothing to stem the tide of evil. The resulting dilemma is: should one whom nature has imbued with the capability of articulating problems and proposing changes remain within the pale of the social structure, though the articulation itself may later be synthesized into narrow tautologies and atomic wars; or should such an individual—imbued by that same nature with an instinct for survival—flee to preserve body and soul? Faced with such a contretemps, Bellow opts for the sanctuary of “strategic ambiguity” which satire not only affords but demands. This ambiguity is the major impression which the novel leaves us and, though it has been mistaken for a lack of governing design, it is in fact central to Bellow's intent.

Bellow attempts to adapt a traditional genre to a modernist situation, thus to bridge the gap—more apparent than real—between the old and new sensibilities. What better way to do this than select a genre which before the close of the seventeenth century had defined a hero in terms of the degree by which he was able to break with the political, ecclesiastical state and to rebel in the name of an individual freedom which demanded a near total dependence on self; and moreover, to utilize a protagonist who anticipated by more than two centuries the “modern” revolt and a genre which long since had itself been assimilated into the literary tradition against which the modernists defined themselves. The picaro—or more correctly the artists who created him and for whom he was the unleashed self—changed the operative question from “What does God intend for me?” to “What does my life mean?” By viewing life's problems in a metaphysical rather than a moral perspective, the picaro and his artist foreshadowed the transition often noted as the crucial distinction between classical and modern sensibilities.23 Not the least of Bellow's ironies, therefore, is his keen awareness of how divisive modern concepts of art and the artist are and how deep in tradition the roots of that divisiveness extend.

Notes

  1. See Bellow's discussion in “How I Wrote Augie March's Story,” New York Times Book Review, 31 Jan. 1954, 3, 17.

  2. R. W. B. Lewis, The Picaresque Saint (New York: J. B. Lippincott Co., 1962), 34.

  3. Maxwell Geismar, American Moderns: From Rebellion to Conformity (New York: Hill and Wang, 1958), 217.

  4. Jack Ludwig, Recent American Novelists (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1962), 13.

  5. Judie Newman, Saul Bellow and History (New York: St. Martin's P, 1984), 10.

  6. The centrality of “self” is hardly unique in post-Freudian fiction, but distinct from most of his contemporaries, Bellow struggles with the psyche more in a historical than a psychological context—unlike, for instance, the postwar confessional poets who, as Anne Sexton noted, wrote about “interior events, not historical ones” (Barbara Kevles, “The Art of Poetry XV: Anne Sexton,” Paris Review 3 [1971]:191); and unlike J. D. Salinger, whose Holden Caulfield as psychoanalyzed narrative persona is as much in the “confessional” mode as the compunctious vers librists who gave name to that minor phenomenon of postwar American literature.

  7. Saul Bellow, The Adventures of Augie March (New York: Viking Press, 1960), 3. Subsequent references to Augie March are to this text and are cited with page numbers in parentheses.

  8. Later novelists of the postwar era would follow Bellow in satirizing “history” as one of the lies inflicted on a gullible public by the pseudo-learned. Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., for instance, shows in Slaughterhouse-Five (itself containing many elements of the picaresque) that the attempt to superimpose order on a life that is clearly without design or purpose is absurd. In drama, the protagonist of Edward Albee's absurd Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf is a professor of history.

  9. Kenneth Burke, A Grammar of Motives and a Rhetoric of Motives (Cleveland: Meridian Books, 1962), 503-04. In The Continuity of American Poetry (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1961), Roy Harvey Pearce tries to define this same phenomenon of dual reality. He refers to “that radical opposition which has obsessed so many major American poets. It is the opposition between the poetic and the anti-poetic—between the self … and a reality which is not part of that self but must be brought into its purview, composed, and so (As it were) re-created” (380).

  10. William Riggan, Picaros, Madmen, Naifs, and Clowns: The Unreliable First-Person Narrator (Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1981), 43.

  11. Tony Tanner, Saul Bellow (New York: Barnes and Noble, Inc., 1965), 45.

  12. T. S. Eliot. “Ulysses, Order, and Myth,” Criticism: The Foundations of Modern Literary Judgment, ed. Mark Schorer, Josephine Miles, Gordon McKenzie (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1948), 270.

  13. Paul Johnson, Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Eighties (New York: Harper & Row, 1983), 575-76. Andre Malraux, for example, complained that while he was fighting the Gestapo, Sartre was living easy with the Nazis in Paris; and Albert Camus, himself no stranger to existentialism or Nazi atrocities, ended up as Sartre's philosophical antagonist.

  14. David O. Galloway's “The Absurd Man as Picaro: The Novels of Saul Bellow,” Texas Studies in Literature and Language (Summer 1964): 226-54, and Sidney Finkelstein's Existentialism and Alienation in American Literature, (New York: International Publishers, 1965), offer intelligent discussions which establish how readily Augie March was defined as existential.

  15. Johnson, 575.

  16. Quoted in Jeanne Braham, A Sort of Columbus: The American Voyages of Saul Bellow's Fiction (Athens: U. of Georgia P, 1984), 1.

  17. Bellow's possible use of topical or pop history here may be of interest. The name “Clem” suggests a popular character created by the comedian Red Skelton. Clem Kadiddlehopper was a classic nitwit, well known on the radio at the time Bellow was writing Augie March and introduced with considerable fanfare to television in September 1951. For further discussion, see Arthur Marx, Red Skelton (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1979).

  18. Quoted in Newman, 58.

  19. Quoted in Newman, 9.

  20. Braham, 9.

  21. Again I am indebted to Kenneth Burke. In his discussion of four master tropes in A Grammar of Motives and a Rhetoric of Motives, he distinguishes between poetic realism and scientific realism, and makes the point that, in “‘poetic realism,’ states of the mind as the motives of action are not reducible to materialistic terms” (507) as they are in scientific realism, and notes that “the basic ‘strategy’ in metonymy is this: to convey some incorporeal or intangible state in terms of the corporeal or tangible” (506). This, it seems to me, is precisely what Bellow attempts to do with his extended bird symbols.

  22. Kenneth Burke, Perspectives by Incongruity and Terms for Order, ed. Stanley Edgar Hyman (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1964), 90 in Terms for Order.

  23. For a good discussion of the modernist-traditional schism—more crucial thirty-five years ago when Bellow wrote Augie March than today—see Irving Howe, “Introduction,” The Idea of the Modern in Literature and the Arts (New York: Horizon Press, 1967).

Martin Amis (essay date October 1995)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Amis, Martin. “A Chicago of a Novel.” Atlantic Monthly 276, no. 4 (October 1995): 114-27.

[In the following essay, Amis labels The Adventures of Augie March as the “Great American Novel” and presents an overview of the characteristics that render the novel as a distinctly American work.]

The Adventures of Augie March is the Great American Novel. Search no further. All the trails went cold forty-two years ago. The quest did what quests very rarely do: it ended.

But what was that quest anyway—itself so essentially American? No literary masterpiece or federal epic is mentioned in the Constitution as one of the privileges and treats guaranteed to the populace, along with things like liberty and life and the right to bear computerized MAC-10s. Still, it is easy enough to imagine how such an aspiration might have developed. As its culture was evolving, and as cultural self-consciousness dawned, America found itself to be a youthful, vast, and various land, peopled by non-Americans. So how about this place? Was it a continental holding camp for Greeks, Jews, Brits, Italians, Scandinavians, and Lithuanians, together with the remaining Amerindians from Ice Age Mongolia? Or was it a nation, with an identity—with a soul? Who could begin to give the answers? Amid such diversity, who could crystallize the American experience?

Like most quests, the quest for the Great American Novel seemed destined to be endless. In general you won't find that mythical beast, that Holy Grail, that earthly Eden—though you have to keep looking. As with the pursuit of happiness, the pursuit is the thing; you are never going to catch up. It was very American to insist on having a Great American Novel, thus rounding off all the other benefits Americans enjoy. Nobody has ever worried about the Great French Novel or the Great Russian Novel (though it is entirely intelligible that there should be some cautious talk about the Great Australian Novel). Trying to find the Great American Novel, rolling up your sleeves and trying to write it: this was American. And so it would go on, forever, just as literature never progresses or improves but simply evolves and provides the model. The Great American Novel was a chimera; this mythical beast was a pig with wings. Miraculously, however, and uncovenantedly, Saul Bellow brought the animal home. Bellow sorted it. He dedicated the book to his father and published it in 1953 and then settled down to write Seize the Day.

Literary criticism, as normally practiced, will tend to get in the way of a novel like The Adventures of Augie March. Shaped (loosely) as an odyssey, and well stocked with (unsystematic) erudition, with invocations and incantations, the book is very vulnerable to the kind of glossarial jigsaw solver who must find form: pattern, decor, lamination, color scheme. But that isn't how the novel works on you. Books are partly about life and partly about other books. Some books are largely about other books, and spawn yet other books. Augie March is all about life: it brings you up against the dead end of life. Bellow's third novel, following the somewhat straitened performances of Dangling Man and The Victim, is above all free—without inhibition. An epic about the so-called ordinary, it is a marvel of remorseless spontaneity. As a critic, therefore, you feel no urge to interpose yourself. Your job is to work your way round to the bits you want to quote. You are a guide in a gallery where the signs say SILENCE, PLEASE; you are shepherding your group from spectacle to spectacle—awed, humbled, and trying, as far as possible, to keep your mouth shut.

A brief outline: The Adventures of Augie March is about the formation of an identity, of a soul—that of a fatherless and penniless boy growing up in and around Depression-era Chicago. Augie's mother is “simple-minded,” and so is his younger brother, Georgie, who “was born an idiot.” Simon, his older brother, is hardheaded; and Simon is all Augie's got. The domestic configuration is established early on, with typical pathos and truthfulness.

Never but at such times, by necessity, was my father mentioned. I claimed to remember him; Simon denied that I did, and Simon was right. I liked to imagine it.

“He wore a uniform,” I said. “Sure I remember. He was a soldier.”

“Like hell he was. You don't know anything about it.”

“Maybe a sailor.”

“Like hell. He drove a truck for Hall Brothers laundry on Marshfield, that's what he did.”

His mother sewed buttonholes at a coat factory in a Wells Street loft, and his father was a laundry driver; and Augie is simply “the by-blow of a traveling man.”

What comes across in these early pages—the novel's first act—is the depth of the human divide between the hard and the soft. The home, with its closed circle, tries to be soft. The outside world is all hard—isn't it? (It certainly looks hard.) Georgie is soft. He puts “his underlip forward” in search of a kiss, “chaste, lummoxy, caressing, gentle and diligent.” Given his chicken gizzard at noon, he “blew at the ridgy thing more to cherish than to cool it.” Later Georgie sits at the kitchen table “with one foot stepping on the other” while his grim future is grimly discussed. This leads to the famously unbearable scene in which Augie accompanies his brother to the institution.

We were about an hour getting to the Home—wired windows, dog-proof cyclone fence, asphalt yard, great gloom. … We were allowed to go up to the dormitory with him, where other kids stood around under the radiator high on the wall and watched us. Mama took off George's coat and the manly hat, and in his shirt of large buttons, with whitish head and big white, chill fingers—it was troubling they were so man-sized—he kept by me beside the bed while I again showed him the simple little stunt of the satchel lock. But I failed to distract him from the terror of the place and of boys like himself around—he had never met such before. And now he realized that we would leave him and he began to do with his soul, that is, to let out his moan, worse for us than tears, though many grades below the pitch of weeping. Then Mama slumped down and gave in utterly. It was when she had the bristles of his special head between her hands and was kissing him that she began to cry. When I started after a while to draw her away he tried to follow. I cried also. I took him back to the bed and said, “Sit here.” So he sat and moaned. We went down to the car stop and stood waiting by the black, humming pole for the trolley to come back from city limits.

Mama, too, simple, abandoned, a fool for love, is soft. As with Georgie, when Augie evokes his mother he accords her the beauty and mystery of a child. Family disruptions (of which there are many) frighten her: “she was upright in her posture and like waiting for the grief to come to a stop; as if this stop would be called by a conductor.” But her distress is also adult, intimidating, unreachable. In the days after the decision is made to commit Georgie, Mama

made no fuss or noise nor was seen weeping, but in an extreme and terrible way seemed to be watching out the kitchen window, until you came close and saw the tear-strengthened color of her green eyes and of her pink face, her gap-toothed mouth. … she lay herself dumbly on the outcome of forces, without any work of mind. …

In Augie's childhood world, with its hesitancy and its peeled senses, it is as if everybody is too delicate to be touched. Too soft, or too hard—like Simon. Simon is Augie's parallel self: the road not traveled. All Simon ever does is set himself the task of becoming a high-grade American barbarian; but on the page he becomes a figure of Shakespearean solidity, rendered with Dickensian force. And there is a kind of supercharged logic here. To the younger brother, the older brother fills the sky, and will assume these unholy dimensions. Simon sweats and fumes over the novel. Even when he is absent, he is always there.

Parentless and penniless: the basic human material. Penniless, Augie needs employment. If the novels of another great Chicagoan, Theodore Dreiser, sometimes feel like a long succession of job interviews, then Augie March often resembles a surrealist catalogue of apprenticeships. During the course of the novel Augie becomes (in order) a handbill distributor, a paper boy, a dime-store packer, a news vendor, a Christmas extra in a toy department, a flower deliverer, a butler, a shoe salesman, a saddle-shop floorwalker, a hawker of rubberized paint, a dog washer, a book swiper, a coal-yard helper, a housing surveyor, a union organizer, an animal trainer, a gambler, a literary researcher, a salesman of business machines, a sailor, and a middleman for a war profiteer. As late as a third of the way into the novel Augie is still poring over magazines in search of “vocational hints.”

“All the influences were waiting for me. I was born, and there they were to form me. …” Malleable and protean, “easily appealed to,” busy “trying various things on,” Augie is a natural protégé, willing prey for the nearest “reality instructor”: would-be “big personalities, destiny molders, and heavy-water brains, Machiavellis and wizard evildoers, big-wheels and imposers-upon, absolutists.” First there is Grandma Lausch (no relation), the old widow who directs and manipulates the March family with the power-crazed detachment of a eugenicist. “Her eyes whitely contemptuous, with a terrible little naked yawn of her gums, suck-cheeked with unspoken comment,” Grandma Lausch is definitely of the hardness party. But she is Old World, Odessan, “Eastern”; and Augie's subsequent mentors are embodiments of specifically American strategies and visions, as their names suggest: Mr. Einhorn, Dingbat, Mrs. Renling, Joe Gorman, Manny Padilla, Clem Tambow, Kayo Obermark, Robey, Mintouchian, Basteshaw (and Simon—always Simon). With each of these lower-case “universalists”—who believe that wherever they happen to be standing, “the principal laws [are] underfoot”—Augie goes a certain distance until he finds himself “in the end zone” of his adaptability. Then he breaks free.

So what are all these roles and models, these outfits and uniforms, these performances? Augie is on a journey but he isn't going anywhere. If he has a destination, it is simply a stop called Full Consciousness. In a sense Augie is heading to the point where he will become the author of his own story. He will not necessarily be capable of writing it. He will be capable of thinking it. This is what the convention of the first person amounts to. The narrator expresses his thoughts, and the novelist gives them written shape. Like all narrators, Augie is a performing artist (as a young man). And it is Bellow who provides his portrait.

The artist, perhaps uniquely and definingly, gets through life without belonging to anything: no organization, no human conglomerate. Everybody in Augie's immediate familial orbit is eventually confined to an institution—even Simon, who commits himself to the association of American money. A leaf in the wind of random influences, Augie wafts through various establishments and big concerns, leagues, cliques, and syndicates. As he does so, it becomes increasingly clear that whatever identity is, whatever the soul is, the institution is its opposite and its enemy. This commonplace does not remain a commonplace under Augie's gaze. Human amalgamation attacks his very sensorium, inspiring animal bafflement and visionary rage. Dickens's institutions are eccentric; Bellow's are psychopathic. Small isn't always beautiful, but big vibrates with meshuggah power.

This is the dispensary:

like the dream of a multitude of dentists' chairs, hundreds of them in a space as enormous as an armory, and green bowls with designs of glass grapes, drills lifted zigzag as insects' legs, and gas flames on the porcelain swivel trays—a thundery gloom in Harrison Street of limestone county buildings and cumbersome red street-cars with metal grillwork on their windows and monarchical iron whiskers of cowcatchers front and rear. They lumbered and clanged, and their brake tanks panted in the slushy brown of a winter afternoon or the bare stone brown of a summer's, salted with ash, smoke, and prairie dust, with long stops at the clinics to let off clumpers, cripples, hunchbacks, brace-legs, crutch-wielders, tooth and eye sufferers, and all the rest.

This is the dime store:

that tin-tough, creaking, jazzy bazaar of hardware, glassware, chocolate, chickenfeed, jewelry, drygoods, oilcloth … and even being the Atlases of it, under the floor, hearing how the floor bore up under the ambling weight of hundreds, with the fanning, breathing movie organ next door and the rumble descending from the trolleys on Chicago Avenue—the bloody-rinded Saturday gloom of wind-borne ash, and blackened forms of five-story buildings rising up to a blind Northern dimness from the Christmas blaze of shops.

And this is the old folks' home, where Grandma goes:

We came up the walk, between the slow, thought-brewing, beat-up old heads, liver-spotted, of choked old blood salts and wastes, hard and bone-bare domes, or swollen, the elevens of sinews up on collarless necks crazy with the assaults of Kansas heats and Wyoming freezes. … white hair and rashy, vessel-busted hands holding canes, fans, newspapers in all languages and alphabets, faces gone in the under-surface flues and in the eyes, of these people sitting in the sunshine and leaf-burning outside or in the mealy moldiness and gravy acids in the house.

Such writing is of course animated by love as well as pity and protest. And there are certain institutions and establishments to which Augie is insidiously drawn. The pool hall, for instance, and the anti-institution of crime. Here is Augie, in a new kind of uniform:

Grandma Lausch would have thought that the very worst she had ever said about me let me off too lightly, seeing me in the shoeshine seat above the green tables, in a hat with diamond air-holes cut in it and decorated with brass kiss-me pins and Al Smith buttons, in sneakers and Mohawk sweatshirt, there in the frying jazz and the buzz of baseball broadcasts, the click of markers, butt thumping of cues, spat-out pollyseed shells and blue chalk crushed underfoot and dust of hand-slickening talcum hanging in the air.

That frying jazz! Criminals are attractive because their sharply individualized energies seem to operate outside the established social arrangement. Augie is deeply candid, but he is not especially honest. Invited along on a housebreaking job, Augie doesn't give any reason for saying yes; he simply announces that he didn't say no.

“Are you a real crook?” Mr. Einhorn asks. “Have you got the calling?” At this point Einhorn, a crippled property broker (“he had a brain and many enterprises, real directing power”), is still Augie's primary mentor. Einhorn knows how the world works; he knows about criminals and institutions. And in one of the book's most memorable speeches he lets Augie have it. One hardly needs to say that Bellow has an exquisite ear, precise and delighted in its registers: Guillaume, for example, the dog handler who has become overreliant on his hypodermic (“Thees jag-off is goin' to get it!”); or Happy Kellerman, Simon's much-abused coal-yard manager (“I never took no shit in bigger concerns”); or Anna Coblin, Mama's cousin (“Owgie, the telephone ringt. Hear!”). Naturally, Bellow can do all this. But from time to time he will also commandeer a character's speech for his own ends, keeping to the broad modulations of the voice while giving them a shove upward, hierarchically, toward the grand style. Seasoned Bellovians have learned to accept this as a matter of convention. We still hear Einhorn, but it is an Einhorn pervaded by his creator.

Don't be a sap, Augie, and fall into the first trap life digs for you. Young fellows brought up in bad luck, like you, are naturals to keep the jails filled—the reformatories, all the institutions. What the state orders bread and beans long in advance for. It knows there's an element that can be depended on to come behind bars to eat it. Or it knows how much broken rock for macadam it can expect, and whom it can count on to break it. … It's practically determined. And if you're going to let it be determined for you too, you're a sucker. Just what's predicted. Those sad and tragic things are waiting to take you in—the clinks and clinics and soup lines know who's the natural to be beat up and squashed, made old, pooped, farted away, no-purposed away. If it should happen to you, who'd be surprised? You're a set-up for it.

Nevertheless, as the novel nears the end of its second act, Augie continues to feel the urge to bottom out. At least the bottom is solid, and there's no farther to fall—and nothing else in his life seems solid. Soon after Einhorn's speech Augie goes on another incautious jaunt (in a hot car) with the same hustler (Joe Gorman, the housebreaker) out Toledo way. Augie escapes the state troopers but gets incarcerated on another charge, in Detroit.

“Lock 'em all up.”

We had to empty our pockets; they were after knives and matches and such objects of harm. But for me that wasn't what it was for, but to have the bigger existence taking charge of your small things, and making you learn forfeits as a sign that you aren't any more your own man, in the street, with the contents of your pockets your own business: that was the purpose of it.

Augie's durance, though, on his detour in the Midwest, unmoored from Chicago, is internal and spiritual. Here for the first time he sees human misery stretched across a natural landscape: war veterans, the unemployed bums haunting the rail tracks (they “made a ragged line, like a section gang that draws aside at night back of the flares as a train comes through, only much more numerous”) and sleeping in heaps on the floors of disused boxcars.

It was no time to be awake, or half awake, with the groaning and sick coughing, the grumbles and gases of bad food, the rustling in paper and straw like sighs or the breath of dissatisfaction. … A bad night—the rain rattling hard first on one side and then on the other like someone nailing down a case, or a coop of birds, and my feelings were big, sad, comfortless, of a thinking animal, my heart acting like an orb filled too big for my chest

—“not from revulsion,” Augie adds, “which I have to say I didn't feel.” And we believe him. Passively, directionlessly, Augie is visiting the dark and bestial regions occupied by his mother and younger brother—alike incapable of “work of mind.” Some pages earlier, after an extreme humiliation, Augie has said,

I felt I had got trampled all over my body by a thing some way connected by weight with my mother and my brother George, who perhaps this very minute was working on a broom, or putting it down to shamble in to supper; or with Grandma Lausch in the Nelson Home—somehow as though run over by the beast that kept them steady company and that I thought I was safely away from.

And by the time Augie limps back to Chicago, his family is gone. Simon has taken off, in obscure disgrace; Mama has been farmed out; and Grandma Lausch (“My grates couldn't hold it. I shed tears with my sleeve over my eyes”) is dead. Childhood—Act One—ended with the house getting

darker, smaller; once shiny and venerated things losing their attraction and richness and importance. Tin showed, cracks, black spots where enamel was hit off, threadbarer, design scuffed out of the center of the rug, all the glamour, lacquer, massiveness, florescence, wiped out.

The second act—youth—ends when there is nothing to go back to, because the home is no longer a place.

“Georgie Mahchy, Augie, Simey / Winnie Mahchy, evwy, evwy love Mama.”

So Georgie used to sing, on the novel's opening page. And it wasn't quite true. Winnie, Grandma Lausch's poodle (“a pursy old overfed dog”), didn't love Mama; and it remains painfully questionable whether Simon ever loved anybody. Georgie might have amended his song so that it concluded “evwy evwy Augie love.” Simon tells Augie, with full Chicagoan contempt, “You can't hold your load of love, can you!” And it's true. Tallish, dark, flushed, “rosy,” with “high hair,” always “vague” but always “stubborn,” Augie is unembarrassably amorous. When it comes to love, Augie just refuses to get real.

This marks him out, locally, as an effeminate anachronism—as does his goodness. “You don't keep up with the times. You're going against history,” Manny Padilla says. “The big investigation today is into how bad a guy can be, not how good he can be.” Generally in literature goodness has always been bad news. As Montherlant said, happiness—the positive value—“writes white.” Only Tolstoy, perhaps, made happiness swing on the page. And goodness writes purple. We'll never know how Russian novelists would have done modern goodness. In his Russian novels, as opposed to his American novels, Nabokov's goodies exude an aristocratic triumphalism (it's his one dud note), striding, blaring, munching, guffawing. But Bellow is a Russian too, as well as an American; and he makes goodness swing. Of course, Augie is an anachronism. Empathetic on a broad scale, he remains unalienated. His sufferings are reactive rather than existential. He is not a discontent: civilization, if we could get any, would suit him fine. He believes in the soul, and in human perfectibility. For the hero of a mid-twentieth-century novel, Augie is anomalously allegro; he is daringly, scandalously spry.

With women Augie displays an almost satirical susceptibility. First love, or first yearning, smites him as a high school sophomore.

I took sick with love, with classic symptoms of choked appetite and utter absorption, hankering, great refinements of respect in looks. … with a miserable counterfeit of merely passing, secretly pumped with raptures and streaming painfully. I clumped by. … I didn't stop this sadhearted, worshipful blundering around or standing like painted wood across the street from the tailor shop in the bluey afternoon. Her scraggy father labored with his needle, bent over, and presumably thinking nothing of his appearance to the street in the lighted glass; her chicken-thin little sister in black gym bloomers cut paper with the big shears.

Augie never addresses a word to Hilda Novinson, the tailor's daughter. But he gets a little bit further with his next love object, Esther Fenchel. At this point Augie is under the tutelage of wealthy Mrs. Renling, togged up in “dude-ranch” style and holidaying in a fancy hotel on Lake Michigan. In the meantime he has become acquainted with “the sexual sting” (and will soon be noticing, for instance, that Guillaume's girlfriend is “a great work of ripple-assed luxury with an immense mozzarella bust”). Nevertheless, Augie continues to love Esther from afar, and in the high style: “the world never had better color, to say it exactly as it strikes me, or finer and more reasonable articulation. Nor ever gave me better trouble. I felt I was in the real and the true. …” One night Augie glimpses Esther alone in the music room; “troubled and rocky,” he approaches her, saying,

“Miss Fenchel, I wonder if you would like to go with me some evening to the House of David.” Astonished, she looked up from the music. “They have dancing every night.”

I saw nothing but failure, from the first word out, and felt smitten, pounded from all sides.

“With you? I should say not. I certainly won't.”

The blood came down out of my head, neck, shoulders, and I fainted dead away.

As always, Augie is surrounded by exemplars and counterexemplars, showing him what to do about love and what not to do about it, in pre-war Chicago. First there is the conventional road, brutally described by Mrs. Renling and duly followed by Augie's old friend Jimmy Klein—and by tens of millions of others. This is the arrangement whereby loss of virginity coincides with unwanted pregnancy and unwanted marriage: marriage as an institution, and nothing more. Alternatively there is the bohemian path (in outline: illegal abortion, puerperal fever, septicemia) followed by Augie's fellow boarder, Mimi Villars. “Women really are no good, Augie,” she warns him. “They're no fucking good.” “They want a man in the house,” Mimi says. “Just there, in the house. Sitting in his chair.” Augie demurs, and then beautifully reflects,

I wasn't enough of an enemy of such things but smiled at such ruining wives too for their female softnesses. I was too indulgent about them, about the beds that would be first stale and then poisonous because their manageresses' thoughts were on the conquering power of chenille and dimity and the suffocation of light by curtains, and the bourgeois ambering of adventuring man in parlor upholstery. These things not appearing so threatening to me as they ought to appear, I was … a fool to [Mimi], one who also could be stuck, leg-bent, in that white spiders' secretion and paralyzed inside women's edifices of safety.

There is another way: Simon's way. “I am an American,” Augie says at the very outset. But he is not as American as Simon: “I want money, and I mean want; and I can handle it. Those are my assets.” Later, when Einhorn is giving Augie the lowdown on labor unions, he pronounces, with superb cynicism, “One more big organization. A big organization makes dough or it doesn't last. If it makes dough it's for dough.” Meaning on dough's side: pro-dough. Simon, quintessentially, is pro-dough. And this enables him to free his head of all distractions.

He enters an arranged marriage with a girl he has never seen, Charlotte Magnus, a scion of a big-boned kindred of Chicago merchants and burghers, themselves an institution, close-knit Netherlandish folk: Simon's patrons or backers. Their world is summoned in terms of furniture and textures, the “carpeted peace and brown-gravy velour” of the vast apartments, the “mobile heraldry” of their cars rushing on soft tires “toward the floating balls and moons” of the great hotels and their “Jupiter's heaviness and restless marble detail, seeking to be more and more, introducing another pot too huge for flowers, another carved figure, another white work of iron.” At the Magnuses', at night, the “riches-cluttered hall” is “partly inventoried” by the moonlight. Watching Charlotte preparing for her nuptials, Augie observes:

Neither her ladies' trimming and gew-gawing, the detail of her tailored person, nor the decorating of the flat when they furnished one … was of real consequence. But in what related to the bank, the stock, the taxes, head approached to head discussing these, the great clear and critical calculations and confidences made in the key to which real dominion was set, that was what wedlock really rested on.

The deal here—and it is a deal—turns out to be unambiguously Faustian. Although the Magnuses are prepared to stake him, Simon has to deliver on his promised ability to make a rich man of himself, worthy to join the community of American money.

In spring he leased a yard, at the end of the coal season. It had no overhead track, only a long spur of siding, and the first rains made a marsh of the whole place. … I was spending a good amount of time at the office; for when [Simon] grabbed my wrist and told me, almost drunkenly, with the grime and chapping of the mouth that comes of long nervous talking, saying low, huskily, viciously, “There's got to be somebody here I can trust. Got to be!” I couldn't refuse.

In the brilliant—and crucial—pages that follow, the coal yard becomes a figure for Simon's marriage and Simon's life.

Over the way was a stockyards siding, dusty animals bawling in the waiting cars, putting red muzzles to the slats; truck wheels sucked through the melting tar, the coal split and tarnished on the piles, the burdocks died on the stalk. There were rats in a corner of the yard who did not stir or go away for anyone, whole families, nursing, creeping, feeding there.

A lushed-up dealer named Guzynski tore onto the scale out of the slushy yard with white steam gushing from his busted radiator. … I told a hiker to clear the scale, but Guzynski was standing over his coal with a shovel and swung on him when he came near. Happy Kellerman was phoning for a squad car when Simon arrived. … in the narrow space between the truck and the office wall, Simon caught him had him by the throat, and hit him in the face with the side of the gun. This happened right below Happy and me, we were standing at the scale window, and we saw Guzynski, trapped, square teeth and hideous eyes, foul blue, and his hands hooked, not daring to snatch the gun with which Simon hit him again. He laid open Guzynski's cheek. My heart went back on me when the cuts were torn, and I thought, Does it make him think he knows what he's doing if the guy bleeds?

The misery of his look at this black Sargasso of a yard in its summer stagnation and stifling would sometimes make my blood crawl in me with horror. … Simon's patience and swallowing were worse to me than his wrath or flamboyance—that shabby compulsory physical patience. Another such hard thing was his speaking low and with an air of difficult endurance to Charlotte on the telephone and answering her questions with subdued repetitiousness, near the surrender point.

It is as if all the institutional weights and fetters, the gravity of the large agencies and big concerns, are pressing in on Simon; and Augie, who has swung his life onto his big brother's parallel track (he even has a stern Magnus daughter to court), must suffer this pressure vicariously, fraternally, but with utterly unwelcome clarity. The novel's opening page bears a famous line about suppression: “Everybody knows there is no fineness or accuracy of suppression; if you hold down one thing you hold down the adjoining.” And we have now reached the place where that sentence was pointing. Much later, after Augie has broken clear from Chicago, he returns to the city with a disinfected eye, and he can see this suppression daubed all over the landscape like paint.

Well, here it was again, westward from this window, the gray snarled city with the hard black straps of rails, enormous industry cooking and its vapor shuddering to the air, the climb and fall of its stages in construction or demolition like mesas, and on these the different powers and sub-powers crouched and watched like sphinxes. Terrible dumbness covered it, like a judgment that would never find its word.

But now the third-act climax is approaching. From this deep entanglement, from this junction of bad roads (Simon; engagement to the Magnus girl and the Magnus money; love and what to do about it), Augie must absent himself. And he escapes the only way he ever escapes anything: through inadvertency. New Year's Eve is approaching. Neglecting his festive duties as a squire to the Magnuses, Augie accompanies Mimi Villars to a back-street abortionist. This loyal and innocent deed is discovered and misinterpreted, spelling the end of his apprenticeship at the feet of American money. The moment is signaled by another prose epiphany, in a hospital (the penultimate institution), where Augie has taken the ailing Mimi. Here we come to understand all that Augie is not ready for.

I passed through to another division where the labor rooms were, separate cubicles, and in them saw women struggling, outlandish pain and huge-bellied distortion, one powerful face that bore down into its creases and issued a voice great and songlike in which she cursed her husband obscenely. … And just then, in the elevator shaft nearby, there were screams. I stopped and waited for the rising light I saw coming steadily through the glass panels. The door opened; a woman sat before me in a wheel chair, and in her lap, just born in a cab or paddy wagon or in the lobby of the hospital, covered with blood and screaming so you could see sinews, square of chest and shoulders from the strain, this bald kid, red and covering her with the red. She too, with lost nerve, was sobbing, each hand squeezing up on itself, eyes wildly frightened; and she and the baby appeared like enemies forced to have each other. …

“What are you doing here?” said the nurse with angry looks. I had no right to be there.

A sonnet can be perfect, a short story pretty well unimprovable, a novella nearly flawless, a novel just a few blemishes away from its platonic ideal. But the art of the long novel is an inexact art. A long novel, at its conception, bids farewell to exactitude, and to other constraints. Now something strange, something passing strange, happens to The Adventures of Augie March as it enters its fourth act. At the end of Chapter Thirteen, Augie is very much where we expect him to be: hiding out in a cinema on Madison Street, Chicago, after a union bust-up in the linen room of the Northumberland Hotel. Some twenty pages later he is in another cinema, in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, with a full-grown eagle on his arm. What has happened in the interim? The answer is Thea Fenchel (the older sister of Esther, back at the Lake Michigan resort). Augie March, and Augie March, have been swept off their feet.

Thea is both lover and mentor, perhaps an untenable combination. Augie has grown used to eccentrics by now, as has the reader; but Thea, a wealthy and resolute young woman, is eccentric simply because she wants to be—not forced into a weird shape by heredity or personal history or blind circumstance. In any event, tricked out in a new uniform, Augie escorts Thea south. Their plan is to buy an eagle, which they will then train to hunt giant iguanas, “these huge furious lizards, mesozoic holdouts in the mountains south of Mexico City.” And we follow them, eagerly but dazedly, over the Rio Grande, through the smells and shapes and the aromatic heat, and through the fluctuations of their anxious, lopsided, intensely realized passion. And the eagle?

Before setting out from Chicago, Augie pays a visit to the zoo—to get the general idea.

[The eagle] perched on a trunk inside a cage forty feet high and conical like the cage of a parlor parrot, in its smoke and sun colors dipped somewhat with green, and its biped stance and Turkish or Janissary pants of feathers—the pressed-down head, the killing eye, the deep life of its feathers. Oy!

Up close, with their own eagle (Caligula), Augie finds that “this open shadow would shut out your heart with its smell and power—the Etna feathers and clasped beak opening,” the “almost inaudible whiff of his spread wings” and “the fan of the pinions with hidden rust and angel-of-death armpit.”

He was, however, powerfully handsome, with his onward-turned head and buff and white feathers among the darker, his eyes that were gruesome jewels and meant nothing in their little lines but cruelty, and that he was here for his own need; he was entirely a manifesto of that. … trees, bushes, stones, as explicit as glare and the spice of that heat could make them. The giant bird, when Thea brought him out, seemed to shoulder it with a kind of rise of sensuality.

Caligula is one of the most lavishly vivid animals in all literature (more lavish, even, than the lion in Henderson the Rain King). But for all this you have to share Augie's bafflement, and feel partly second-guessed, when he asks himself, “What did there have to be an eagle for?” You know the novel is in trouble here because you keep seeking refuge in—of all things—literary criticism. Is the eagle (águila) Augie, or what remains of his beast nature? Is the eagle money, as the twenty-five-cent coin still declares it is? Is the (American) eagle simply America? But Augie March isn't a meaning novel: it is a gut novel. It depends not on equivalences but on the free flow of voice and feeling.

Caligula carries you, magically; it is only when he is gone (and Thea is gone, and love has failed) that you see the violence he has done to the novel's unities. After all, it wouldn't be right if the Great American Novel didn't have something wrong with it. “You're not special,” Thea tells Augie, in parting. “You're like everybody else.” And what the novel now charts is Augie's drift into the ordinary. After the fever and madness of Mexico, he is re-embraced by somber Chicago, failed in love, his youth evaporating, his youthful illusions absenting themselves from his thoughts. Poor Augie babbles about his dreams (sad dreams, of disappointment and deformity) and nurses hopeless visions of reunion with idiot Georgie and blind Mama, in a little house in the country, with children and animals all around. These ordinary sadnesses are perhaps his birthright. It may be that Augie was on to something inescapable when he stared at the sky on his way south to Mexico.

For should I look into any air, I could recall the bees and gnats of dust in the heavily divided heat of a street of El pillars—such as Lake Street, where the junk and old bottleyards are—like a terribly conceived church of madmen, and its stations, endless, where worshippers crawl their carts of rags and bones. And sometimes misery came over me to feel that I myself was the creation of such places.

The novel regathers itself very powerfully toward its close. When we last see him, Augie is established in the exhausted, yawning, pinch-yourself unreality of postwar Europe. He is an illicit trader (“There was this Florentine uncle of a Rome bigshot I had to pay off, and he was one of those civilized personalities with about five motives to my one”), and he has an unreliable wife, Stella (perhaps a “Cressida type,” “a double lifer”). He can declare himself free of all influences, all Machiavellis (“I took an oath of unsusceptibility”), before adding, with comic prescience, “Brother! You never are through, you just think you are!” Sure enough, Simon—tormentor, anti-mentor, hugely loved, hugely pitied—lends his shattered presence to the gradual and reluctant conclusion. We are left, finally, with images of toil and isolation. But creative labor, and creative loneliness. Augie has fallen into the habit of going to a café every afternoon, “where I sat at a table and declared that I was an American, Chicago born, and all these other events and notions.” So he is preparing himself to write—or just to imagine—his story.

All the while you thought you were going around idle terribly hard work was taking place. Hard, hard work, excavation and digging, mining, moling through tunnels, heaving, pushing, moving rock, working, working, working, working, working, panting, hauling, hoisting. And none of this work is seen from the outside. It's internally done. It happens because you are powerless and unable to get anywhere, to obtain justice or have requital, and therefore in yourself you labor, you rage and combat, settle scores, remember insults, fight, reply, deny, blab, denounce, triumph, outwit, overcome, vindicate, cry, persist, absolve, die and rise again. All by yourself! Where is everybody? Inside your breast and skin, the entire cast.

Attentive readers will, I hope, have noticed that this is an extraordinarily written novel. There are mannerisms or tics in the way the words squirm up against each other. The compounds (“worry-wounded,” “lair-hidden,” “bloody-rinded,” “pimple-insolence,” “gum-chew innocence”) in Bellow's heavily sprung rhythms sometimes career into train-wreck compression: Trafton's gym, with its “liniment-groggy, flickety-rope-time, tin-locker-clashing, Loop-darkened rooms.” There are the verb couplings: trams “lumbered and clanged,” billiard balls “kissing and bounding,” traffic “dived and quivered,” cars “snoring and trembling” or “fluddering and shimmering.” It is a style that loves and embraces awkwardness, spurning elegance as a false lead, words tumbling and rattling together in the order they choose: “glittering his teeth and hungry,” “try out what of human you can live with,” “the long impulse from well out in ocean bobs the rotten oranges,” “a flatfooted, in gym shoes, pug-nosed old woman,” “[he] sobbed in the brakes of, he thought, most solitude,” “I hoped there'd something show on the horizon,” “I could not find myself in love without it should have some peculiarity,” “hypocritic,” “honestest,” “ancientest,” “his brittle neck would be broke,” “waked-up despair,” “loud-played love music.” Why is “loud-played” music, in a dime store, so much better than “loud”? Because it suggests willfulness, vulgarity, and youth, whereas “loud” is just loud.Augie March isn't written in English; its job is to make you feel how beautiful American is, with its jazzy verbs: “It sent my blood happy,” “to close a deal,” “to run [a nickel] into a fortune,” “we must have been making twelve knots,” “cover the house” (get around it), “beat a check” (leave without paying it), “to make time with Mimi” (seduce), “This is where I shake you, Augie” (reject). Never mind the p's and q's of fine prose. Whatever works!

Style, of course, is not something grappled to regular prose; it is intrinsic to perception. We are fond of separating style and content (for the purposes of analysis, and so on), but they aren't separable: they come from the same place. And style is morality. Style judges. No other writer and no other novel make you feel surer about this. It is as if Bellow were turning himself inside out and letting the observable world poke and prod at him nerve by nerve. Things are not merely described but registered, measured, and assessed for the weight with which they bear on your soul.

The river:

At last [Simon] answered me coldly, with a cold lick of fire in his eyes, on the stationary wintriness of the black steel harness of the bridge over the dragging unnameable mixture of the river flowing backwards with its waste.

The street guy Dingbat:

He was never anything but through and through earnest when the subject was loyalty or honor; his bony dukes were ready and his Cuban heels dug down sharply; his furrowed chin was seeking its fighting position on the shoulder of his starched shirt. Then he was prepared to go into his stamping dance and start slugging.

Mimi Villars, on the telephone:

“You'll never live to hear me beg for anything,” were Mimi's last words to Frazer, and when she slammed phone and hook together with cruelty it was as a musician might shut the piano after he had finished storming chords of mightiest difficulty without a single flinch or error.

The hospital:

Shruggers, hobblers, truss and harness wearers, crutch-dancers, wall inspectors, wheel-chair people in bandage helmets, wound smells and drug flowers blossoming from gauze, from colorful horrors and out of the deep sinks.

The cop shop:

And as the mis-minted and wrong-struck figures and faces stooped, shambled, strode, gazed, dreaded, surrendered, didn't care … you wondered that all was stuff that was born human and shaped human. … And don't forget the dirt-hardness, the dough fats and raw meats, of those on the official side.

The Chicago roofscape:

In its repetition it exhausted your imagination of details and units, more units than the cells of the brain and the bricks of Babel. The Ezekiel caldron of wrath, stoked with bones. A mysterious tremor, dust, vapor, emanation of stupendous effort traveled with the air, over me on top of the great establishment, so full as it was, and over the clinics, clinks, factories, flophouses, morgue, skid row.

The sea:

In beauty or doom colors, according to what was in your heart, the sea and skies made their cycles of day and night, the jeweled water gadding universally, the night-glittering fury setting in. …

Meanwhile the boat sauntered through glassy stabs of light and whee-whocked on the steep drink.

Augie March, finally, is the Great American Novel because of its fantastic inclusiveness, its pluralism, its qualmless promiscuity. In these pages the highest and the lowest mingle and hobnob in the vast democracy of Bellow's prose. Everything is in here, the crushed and the exalted and all the notches in between, from the kitchen stiff—

The angry skin of his dish-plunging arms and his twist horse-gauntness, long teeth and spread liquidness of eyes in the starry alley evening. … Under the fragile shell of his skull he leakily was reasoning

—to the American eagle. When an eagle flies, it isn't a matter of “the simple mechanics of any little bird that went and landed as impulse tickled him, but a task of massive administration.” This is Caligula, taking to “the high vibrations of blue.” And this is Saul Bellow, at thirty-eight, over and above the eagle—not an individual but a messenger:

Anyway, it was glorious how he would mount away high and seem to sit up there, really as if over fires of atmosphere, as if he was governing from up there. If his motive was rapaciousness and everything based on the act of murder, he also had a nature that felt the triumph of beating his way up to the highest air to which flesh and bone could rise. And doing it by will, not as other forms of life were at that altitude, the spores and parachute seeds who weren't there as individual but messengers of species.

Christopher Hitchens (essay date winter 2001)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Hitchens, Christopher. “The Great American Augie.” Wilson Quarterly 25, no. 1 (winter 2001): 22-9.

[In the following essay, Hitchens explores the enduring appeal of The Adventures of Augie March and deems the novel Bellow's “gold standard” of literature.]

Augie March stands on the Chicago lakeshore at dawn on a New Year's Day in the 1930s:

I drank coffee and looked out into the brilliant first morning of the year. There was a Greek church in the next street of which the onion dome stood in the snow polished and purified blue, cross and crown together, the united powers of earth and heaven, snow in all the clefts, a snow like the sand of sugar. I passed over the church too and rested only on the great profound blue. The days have not changed, though the times have. The sailors who first saw America, that sweet sight, where the belly of the ocean had brought them, didn't see more beautiful color than this.

Nick Carraway stands on the Long Island shoreline at the close of The Great Gatsby:

And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors' eyes—a fresh green breast of the new world. … The trees that had made way for Gatsby's house had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent … face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.

One man is reflecting at day's end and one at day's beginning. Both have just been put through it by flawed and wretched humanity. Nick Carraway has been to several funerals, and Augie March has had a close shave while helping a girl who isn't his girlfriend survive an illegal abortion. Both draw strength from the idea of America. Nick derives consolation, but Augie, it might be truer to say, finds inspiration. Reflecting on Jay Gatsby's futile quest—his “dream”—Nick decides that Gatsby “did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.” Augie doesn't take much stock in dreams, and he is about to venture onto those very fields.

I do not set up as a member of the jury in the Great American Novel contest, if only because I'd prefer to see the white whale evade capture a while longer. It's more interesting that way. However, we do belong to a ranking species, and there's no denying that the contest is a real one. The advantage The Adventures of Augie March (1953), Saul Bellow's third novel, has over The Great Gatsby (1925), which, coincidentally, was F. Scott Fitzgerald's third novel too, derives from its scope, its optimism, and, I would venture, its principles. Or rather, its principle, which Augie states clearly in the opening pages and never loses sight of:

What did Danton lose his head for, or why was there a Napoleon, if it wasn't to make a nobility of us all? And this universal eligibility to be noble, taught everywhere, was what gave Simon airs of honor.

“The universal eligibility to be noble” (eligibility connotes being elected as well as being chosen) is as potent a statement of the American dream as has ever been uttered. Simon is Augie's older brother, and Simon doesn't “make it.” But that's not the point. Augie doesn't exactly make it either. Well, it's an ideal not a promise. Augie decides to match himself against the continent, seeking no one's permission and deferring to no idea of limitation. His making, like his omnivorous education, will be his own.

In the pages of Bellow's novel, for the first time in American literature, an immigrant would act and think like a rightful discoverer, or a pioneer. The paradox of the American immigrant experience had hitherto been exactly that so many immigrants came to the New World not in order to spread their wings but to adapt, to conform, to fit in. When we are first introduced to Augie March, he is in cramped conditions, in a poor Jewish family semi-stifled by its own warmth and replete with dread of the wider world. Our hero doesn't know any better—and yet he does know. “I am an American, Chicago born,” he proclaims in the very first line of the novel. It's important to understand what that assertion meant when it was made, both to Bellow himself and to the audiences for whom he wrote.

Barely a half-century before The Adventures of Augie March was published. Henry James had returned to New York from Europe and found its new character unsettling in the extreme. In The American Scene, published in 1907, he registered the revulsion he imagined “any sensitive citizen” might feel, after visiting Ellis Island, at having “to share the sanctity of his American consciousness, the intimacy of his American patriotism, with the inconceivable alien.” On the Lower East Side, James discerned the “hard glitter of Israel.” In east-side cafés, he found himself in “torture-rooms of the living idiom.” And he asked himself: “Who can ever tell, moreover, in any conditions and in presence of any apparent anomaly, what the genius of Israel may, or may not, really be ‘up to’?” The Master was by no means alone in expressing sentiments and sensitivities of this kind. With The Adventures of Augie March, and its bold initial annexation of the brave name of “American,” his descendants got the answer to the question about what that genius was “up to.”

Saul Bellow was born—and named Solomon—in 1915, across the border in Lachine, Quebec. (Lachine itself was named by a Columbus-minded French military officer who was sent to look for China and declared he'd found it.) Bellow's parents smuggled him across the Great Lakes as an infant, and he did not discover that he was an illegal immigrant until he signed up for the U.S. armed forces in World War II. The authorities sent him back to Canada and compelled him to reapply—kept him hanging about, in other words. Among other things, Augie March is a farewell to the age of Bellow's own uncertainty, an adieu to the self of his two earlier novels, Dangling Man (1944) and The Victim (1947).

Though affirmatively, almost defiantly American, The Adventures of Augie March is by no means a paean to assimilation and amnesia. As a youth, Bellow composed and performed a standup spoof of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in Yiddish, and he has always been acutely aware of his Russian roots. (He helped Irving Howe and Partisan Review with the first translations of his future fellow-Nobelist Isaac Bashevis Singer.) One triumph of Augie March is that it takes Yiddishkeit out of the torture rooms and out of the ghetto and helps make it an indissoluble and inseparable element in the great American tongue. Those of us who inherit Lenny Bruce, Walter Matthau, Woody Allen, and Philip Roth as part of our vernacular birthright take for granted this linguistic faculty and facility. But it was not a birthright in 1953.

Only in the preceding year, for one thing, had Bellow's peers and cothinkers and kibitzers got around to producing the famous Partisan Review symposium “Our Country and Our Culture.” In those pages, the veterans of the cultural combat of the 1930s—most but not all of them Jewish—had asked whether the time had perhaps come to rewrite their project of permanent opposition. There were demurrals and reservations, but, on the whole, the formerly “alienated” began to speak as lawfully adopted sons and daughters of the United States. The exceptions, those who distrusted what they saw as a coming age of conformism, included Irving Howe and the poet Delmore Schwartz. But when Augie March astonished the critics by showing that an egghead novel could be a literary and a commercial success, Schwartz was won over.

His review of Augie opened with the simple declaration that “Saul Bellow's new novel is a new kind of book.” He compared it favorably with the grandest efforts of Mark Twain and John Dos Passos. And he was struck at once by the essential matter of the book, the language and the style: “Augie March rises from the streets of the modern city to encounter the reality of experience with an attitude of satirical acceptance, ironic affirmation, the comic transcendence of affirmation and rejection.” Indeed, Schwartz made the immigrant vengeance on the old guard quite explicit: “For the first time in fiction America's social mobility has been transformed into a spiritual energy which is not doomed to flight, renunciation, exile, denunciation, the agonised hyper-intelligence of Henry James, or the hysterical cheering of Walter Whitman.”

Schwartz, who would be the inspiration for the protagonist of Bellow's Humboldt's Gift (1975), admired Augie the character for the very quality that some reviewers distrusted: his unreadiness to be committed, or, as Augie puts it, “recruited.” Among the hostile reviewers was Norman Podhoretz (my own touchstone for critical deafness and ineptitude), who, as recently as last year, revisited the squabble and—incredibly—echoed Henry James's anti-Jewishness in accusing Bellow of “twisting and torturing the language”!

This context helps to explain why Augie March still constitutes a template for modern American literature. Just as, when new, it formed and altered the attitudes of Jews and Anglo-Saxons—Bellow's audiences, to whom I alluded earlier—so it still waits for readers and critics and helps them to take their own measure of America.

This pilot-light phenomenon can be seen in comments by the father-and-son novelists Kingsley Amis and Martin Amis. In 1987, Martin wrote that “for all its marvels, Augie March, like Henderson the Rain King, often resembles a lecture on destiny fed through a thesaurus of low-life patois.” In 1995, he began an essay as follows: “The Adventures of Augie March is the Great American Novel. Search no further. All the trails went cold 42 years ago. The quest did what quests very rarely do; it ended.” Kingsley Amis greeted the original publication by telling the readers of the Spectator of Bellow's “gaiety and good humour, his fizzing dialogue, his vitality.” But two decades later, his mood had changed: “Bellow is a Ukrainian-Canadian, I believe. It is painful to watch him trying to pick his way between the unidiomatic on the one hand and the affected on the other.” After 20 years, Amis père had sunk into the belief that everyone in America was “either a Jew or a hick.”

Augie March, “the by-blow of a travelling man,” informs us early on that the expression “various jobs” is the Rosetta Stone of his life. But the awareness of eligibility is in him, and he'll fight his corner for it and never be a hick. “What I guess about you,” says one of his pals, guessing correctly, “is that you have a nobility syndrome. You can't adjust to the reality situation. … You want to accept. But how do you know what you're accepting? You have to be nuts to take it come one come all. … You should accept the data of experience.” To which Augie replies, more confidently perhaps than he feels, “It can never be right to offer to die, and if that's what the data of experience tell you, then you must get along without them.”

Even while he is still stranded at home in Chicago, knowing somehow that there must be more to life and America, Augie invests his banal surroundings with a halo of the numinous and the heroic. For a start, he transfigures the cliché of the Jewish mother:

[Mama] occupied a place, I suppose, among women conquered by a superior force of love, like those women whom Zeus got the better of in animal form and who next had to take cover from his furious wife. Not that I can see my big, gentle, dilapidated, scrubbing and lugging mother as a fugitive of immense beauty from such classy wrath.

And then there is old William Einhorn, the lamed and misshapen local organizer and fixer and memoirist, whom Augie (“I'm not kidding when I enter Einhorn in this eminent list”) ranks with Caesar, Machiavelli, Ulysses, and Croesus. It's Einhorn who so memorably lectures Augie after he has a narrow squeak with a two-bit, no-account piece of larceny that could have turned nasty:

That was what you let yourself in for. Yes, that's right, Augie, a dead cop or two. You know what cop-killers get, from the station onward—their faces beaten off, their hands smashed, and worse: and that would be your start in life. … But wait. All of a sudden I catch on to something about you. You've got opposition in you. You don't slide through everything. You just make it look so.

Einhorn then takes the role of Augie's missing father—and releases in his listener a spurt of love that he's too wised-up to acknowledge at the time:

Don't be a sap, Augie, and fall into the first trap life digs for you. Young fellows brought up in bad luck, like you, are naturals to keep the jails filled—the reformatories, all the institutions. What the state orders bread and beans long in advance for. It knows there's an element that can be depended on to come behind bars and eat it. … It's practically determined. And if you're going to let it be determined for you too, you're a sucker. Just what's predicted. Those sad and tragic things are waiting to take you in—the clinks and clinics and soup lines know who's the natural to be beat up and squashed, made old, pooped, farted away, no-purposed away. If it should happen to you, who'd be surprised? You're a setup for it.

Then he adds, “But I think I'd be surprised.”

Before Einhorn is through with his homily, he adds one more thing. “I'm not a lowlife when I think, and really think,” says the poolroom king and genius swindler. “In the end you can't save your soul and life by thought. But if you think, the least of the consolation prizes is the world.”

I judge this a hinge moment in a novel that sometimes has difficulty with its dramatic unities. Einhorn summons the shades of the prison house for the growing boy and evokes for us the omnipresence of violence, injustice, and stupidity. He senses the lower depths of the underclass, while we sense in him what we feel in reading Thomas Gray's Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard: the unrealized potential of a great man who might have been. He, too, has felt the eligibility. And he has an untrained instinct for the examined life. Whatever he's speaking—and it's demotic American English, all right—it's not lowlife patois.

So when Augie breaks free and sets out, he is no Candide or Copperfield. And the novel is no Horatio Alger tale. Many of Augie's ground-down relatives do end up in institutions. Bellow's Chicago is not vastly different from Upton Sinclair's in The Jungle. Even in the peace and prosperity of the 1950s, Bellow was able to recall the bitterness of want and exploitation, the reek of the hoboes met on stolen train rides, the sharpness of class warfare, the acuteness of ethnic differences among poor whites in the days before all such individuals were absurdly classified together as “Caucasian.” (One of Simon's coal-yard drivers has a dread of running over a kid in a “Bohunk” neighborhood—exactly the sort of confrontation nightmare that is now reserved for Chicago's black South Side.)

Of all the odd jobs that Augie takes (and these include being a butler as well as a shoe salesman, a paint seller as well as a literary looker-upper), the three that are best-described involve, obliquely or directly, his oppositionism. As a dog groomer for the upper classes, Augie feels a sense of wasteful absurdity in the work he must perform. As a contract book-thief, he increases his knowledge of the classics and also his acquaintance with Marxist intellectuals. As a union organizer for the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), he is brushed by the grandeur of the American labor movement, which briefly did unite all trades and ethnicities in a collective demand for justice. This episode of mobilization and jacquerie calls on all of Bellow's power of taxonomy and onomatopoeia:

There were Greek and Negro chambermaids from all the hotels, porters, doormen, checkroom attendants, waitresses. … All kinds were coming. The humanity of the under-galleries of pipes, storage, and coal made an appearance, maintenance men, short-order grovelers. … And then old snowbirds and white hound-looking faces, guys with Wobbly cards from an earlier time, old Bohunk women with letters explaining what was wanted, and all varieties of assaulted kissers, infirmity, drunkenness, dazedness, innocence, limping, crawling, insanity, prejudice, and from downright leprosy the whole way again to the most vigorous straight-backed beauty. So if this collection of people had nothing in common with what would have brought up the back of a Xerxes' army or a Constantine's, new things have been formed; but what struck me in them was a feeling of antiquity and thick crust.

Later, when adrift in Mexico, Augie meets the very incarnation of opposition. Leon Trotsky:

I was excited by this famous figure, and I believe what it was about him that stirred me up was the instant impression he gave—no matter about the old heap he rode in or the peculiarity of his retinue—of navigation by the great stars, of the highest considerations, of being fit to speak the most important human words and universal terms. When you are as reduced to a different kind of navigation from this high starry kind as I was and are only sculling on the shallow bay, crawling from one clam-rake to the next, it's stirring to have a glimpse of deep-water greatness.

In an early draft of the novel. Augie signs up to work for the exiled heretic. (Bellow himself had been to Mexico to try to see Trotsky, but he arrived the day after the old man's assassination.)

Opposition, however, is only one of Augie's internal compasses. Another, operating both more and less predictably, is sex. He prefers earthy and honest expressions for this preoccupation, mentioning at one point a girl whose virtue was that she “made no bones” about what they were together for. Occasionally, he can be rhapsodic (the paramour of Guillaume the dog trainer is “a great work of ripple-assed luxury with an immense mozzarella bust”). And he can also be tender. There are few sweeter girls in fiction than Sophie Geratis, the staunch little Greek union militant. (“She had a set of hard-worked hands and she lived with her beauty on rough terms. I couldn't for even a minute pretend that I didn't go for her.”) But he doesn't feel the thunderbolt until he meets Thea Fenchel.

Thea has an eagle named Caligula, and she wants Augie to help her “man” the eagle and train it to smash full-grown iguanas—in Mexico. He falls in with the plan because he's fallen completely for the woman. And he falls so completely for the woman because—this is his weakness—she is so utterly sold on him. The magnificence of the bird he can appreciate; the project of making it into a trained hunter gives him a chill. And the lordly avian Caligula turns out to be, of all things (and in Thea's contemptuous word), “chicken.” The bird will not obey. Once she sees that Augie doesn't mind this—indeed, secretly approves of it—Thea's respect for Augie is gone.

Not all reviewers admire this long and necessary section of the novel, and many have puzzled over the significance of the bird. (Is the eagle symbolically American? Not if it's called Caligula—and not if it's chicken.) But I think the eagle is essential in showing how Augie is compelled to admire anything, but especially something so noble, that will not permit itself to be domesticated. He pays a high price. He suffers appalling torment at the loss of Thea, and lovesickness and sexual jealousy have seldom been more brutally depicted. But the wrenching experience does get him back to Chicago, “that somber city,” to take stock and begin again.

Poverty, love, and war, they say, are the essential elements in the shaping of a man—and of a bildungsroman. So when war deposes the depression as the great disciplinarian of the lower orders, Augie signs up right away for the navy, thinking the while, “What use was war without also love?” (That may be the most masculine sentence ever penned.) He lucks out with Stella Chesney. His brief and near-terminal combat experience gives him his best opportunity yet to release the “animal ridens … the laughing creature” within himself. A man of “various jobs” is never going to be more at home than in the lower deck of a ship, and he makes comedy out of the confidences of his messmates. Here again, Bellow's ear is unerring:

“You think I maybe have an inferiority complex, do you think?” one of them asked me. I passed out advice in moderate amounts; nobody is perfect. I advocated love, especially.

After a harrowing experience in an open boat when his ship is torpedoed (“They found one reason after another to detain me at the hospital,” Augie laconically phrases it), he hopes at war's end for a safe and tranquil harbor. But the truth is harsher: “Brother! You never are through, you just think you are!” For a very brief while, he imagines being a sort of Catcher in the Rye, running a foster home where his broken-up family could also take shelter. But life isn't through with him yet, and he has to live up to the great sentence on the novel's opening page: “Everybody knows there is no fineness or accuracy of suppression; if you hold down one thing you hold down the adjoining.” To hold down his own curiosity would be to betray his profoundest instinct. And thus we find him sardonically installed at a table in a European café at the novel's close, working as a middleman for an Armenian entrepreneur and declaring “I was an American, Chicago born, and all these other events and notions.” (Bellow, incidentally, boasts that he wrote not one word of Augie March in Chicago; he took himself off to Positano, Rome, Paris, and London. There is nothing provincial about his Americanism.)

If we reflect along with Augie, we look back at a host of brilliantly realized minor characters in the novel, warranting comparison with Dickens and with that remarkable boy on the Mississippi who also had The Adventures of in his title. Perhaps one shouldn't play favorites among the minor characters, but Guillaume, the fancy dog trainer who relies too much on the hypodermic when dealing with recalcitrant pooches (“Thees jag-off is goin' to get it”), will always be mine.

The two key words that encapsulate the ambitions of Bellow's novel are democratic and cosmopolitan. Not entirely by coincidence, these are the two great stand-or-fall hopes of America. The two qualities that carry Augie through are his capacity for love and his capacity for irony. These, together with reason, are the great stand-or-fall hopes of humanity. The 17th-century English metaphysical poets used the evocative word America as their term for the new and the hopeful; they even addressed lovers by that name. Augie March concludes, more cannily, by seeing the unfunny side of the funny side:

Or is the laugh at nature—including eternity—that it thinks it can win over us and the power of hope? Nah, nah! I think. It never will. But that probably is the joke, on one or the other, and laughing is an enigma that includes both. Look at me, going everywhere! Why, I am a sort of Columbus of those near-at-hand and believe you can come to them in this immediate terra incognita that spreads out in every gaze. I may well be a flop at this line of endeavor. Columbus too thought he was a flop, probably, when they sent him back in chains. Which didn't prove there was no America.

Not much in Bellow's preceding work prepared readers for The Adventures of Augie March. It's not necessary to believe, as I do, that the novel is the summit of his career (he has published 19 books to date), but let's call Augie his gold standard.

At elevated points in the subsequent novels, we think, “Yes, that's a passage worthy of Augie March.” We feel the heritage in the acuteness and, sometimes, the faint, fascinated disgust of intimate physical observation. (In Herzog [1964], for example, a rabbi is “short-bearded, his nose violently pitted with black.”) It's there in the restless mining of great texts for contemporary examples, or for what Bellow himself would perhaps scorn to call “relevance.” (Again, Moses Herzog dashes off aggressive, inquisitive letters to thinkers such as Martin Heidegger.) It's there also, to stay with Herzog a moment longer, in the fascination with fathers or with paternal surrogates on the Einhorn scale. It's in the strong dose of nostalgia, to employ the word accurately for once, informing characters' recollection of details from home. It's there when illness, decrepitude, moral crisis, and mental crisis too assert themselves. (How often I find myself recalling the line from Humboldt's Gift about “the mental rabble of the wised-up world.”)

Wanderlust, a theme fundamental to The Adventures of Augie March, is recurrent in the later novels. The instinct for travel is registered strongly in Humboldt's Gift,Henderson the Rain King (1959), The Dean's December (1982), and most recently in Ravelstein (2000). But this wanderlust is no mere touristic instinct. For Bellow, a certain internationalism is an essential component of education and formation. What's the point of having all these roots if they're all that you know? And, by way of corollary, what's so great about being a cosmopolitan if you don't know where you came from?

The Bellow novels that came before The Adventures of Augie March aspired to it, and the novels that came after drew their confidence and breadth and lift from Augie. Augie taught his heirs to spread their wings and take a chance—to risk the world.

Leonard Kriegel (essay date 23 June 2003)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Kriegel, Leonard. “Wrestling with Augie March.” Nation 276, no. 24 (23 June 2003): 27-32.

[In the following essay, Kriegel offers a critical appreciation of The Adventures of Augie March, praising the character of Augie as well as Bellow's use of language throughout the novel.]

The struggle to force language to accept its own power is what molds the idea of becoming a writer that most of us have when young. There is a moment in time when that struggle is felt most profoundly and intimately. It may be the first conscious encounter with a literary “classic”; or it may be when the world is made recognizable by an author one never before heard of. For me, it was not reading A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man or The Sound and the Fury that turned the world upside down, although my first encounters with Joyce and Faulkner had a most profound effect. It was reading The Adventures of Augie March, the novel that gave me my first literary hero. Augie is now 50 years old, and it may be that I am writing this not only to acknowledge a debt to that heroic plebeian but as a birthday card to my past. I obviously owe more to Saul Bellow, Augie's creator, than I do to Augie. Yet I prefer to think my primary debt is to a character in a novel who, in announcing to the world “I am an American,” assumed the role of writer for me and any number of other young men back in 1953. Bellow may not have intended Augie to be a writer (although the novel suggests that he did), but by telling the story of his adventures he allowed the reader to impose the role on his hero.

The Adventures of Augie March, like most Bildungsromans, has no real plot. Its appeal was, and is, to what Irving Howe termed the “mingling of high-flown intellectual bravado with racy-tough street Jewishness.” At its center is Augie, an offspring of immigrants who, with a voice that achieves a singularity seldom found in fiction, succeeds in possessing America by seizing its language for his own. Augie is something of a Luftmensch—but an urban Luftmensch, an American Luftmensch, receptive not only to experience but to what gives all experience meaning, the power of language. During the course of his adventures Augie tries on professions like a bum searching for a well-fitting suit off the rack or a writer searching to pad a book-jacket blurb. He trains eagles, bodyguards Trotsky in Mexico, is a merchant marine sailor during the war. But his true profession is as a connoisseur of the language, a guardian of the temple of words from which the urban immigrant was once so rudely excluded. Here both Augie and Bellow's novel achieve distinction. For few American novels, before or since, have more firmly stamped the language than The Adventures of Augie March.

Its opening is as striking as any postwar American novel can boast of. Invisible Man begins more dramatically, but Augie's very simplicity makes this an opening that is both superbly complex and profoundly moving:

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.

I was 20 when I read these sentences—a young 20, I should add—and fell in love not only with the language of an urban American writer but with the exhilarating sense that even a plebeian Bronx cripple might aspire to the world of “literature.” Like Augie, I was a product of the city. Yet while I had already read James T. Farrell and Meyer Levin, Bellow was the first writer to tell me that as long as one remained faithful to the language of urban America one still had a chance at becoming a writer. It is the flavor of Augie's language, what in Yiddish would be called tam, even more than his Chicago that is Augie's most profound urban secret.

During a lifetime of reading I have loved few novels more on first reading. Yet whenever I pick Augie up, to meet his exuberant embrace of the world once again, I find myself wishing that Bellow had been more honest. It would have been even better if he had allowed Augie to confess from the novel's onset that he was not merely a Chicago-born American but that he always intended to be the writer whose memoir we are reading. Would that admission have damaged the rhythm of Bellow's prose or lessened Augie's grandeur? I doubt it. Perhaps I might then have thought of him as being as trustworthy as he is bold. Augie is the writer-in-training who lives a compulsively experiential life, for the best training for the literary craft turns out to be life lived as completely and thoroughly as possible. Living is Augie's university; what adolescents used to sneer at as “the school of hard knocks” is his Harvard and Yale. The sheer density of experience—living actively and consciously—is what offers him validation. What better preparation for the writer's life can one ask for?

Augie's adventures provide the reader with the full measure of what he possesses, an urban world that is as fresh as it is intimate. Yet his greatest possession is his immense receptivity to experience. Had he opened the book by announcing, “I am a writer,” it probably wouldn't have had the power of “I am an American.” Each line frames ambition and each is different from “I am an accountant” or “I am a physician.” It is experience that links Augie's life to the reader's. Even fifty years later, what remains striking about his adventures is that they should still evoke so strong a sense of envy in us. That is why Augie is the embodiment of the writer. To this day, he hammers at the pulse of memory and desire like a smart club fighter joyfully pounding a heavy bag because he finally has been given a shot at the one big payday we all dream of. He keeps himself from thinking too much about what he is pursuing with dedication and passion. Like fighters, writers pound at the world—only with words, not fists. Armed with a gloriously urbanized speech, Augie is the writer seeking to transform the world until he succeeds in making of ambition a form of discipline.

The hunger for what has been lost is what one increasingly responds to in books as one grows older. A life reconstructed in imagination is more rooted than a life that is merely lived, and that is as true of Augie March as it is of Proust or Hemingway. As events command memory, they become meaningful. And for Bellow's protagonist their meaning is that they connect him to what makes him Augie March. The past is not made simpler through memory; it is simply made more focused. Distilling the past through his imagination allows Augie to realize that what is called “reality” has very little to do with whether or not a moment in his life is successful. It has to do, rather, with how well that moment has been embedded in the writer's eye. Success is just one of the many debts the writer must work through to get to the truth of the past. What happened is rarely as important as why it happened.

When I first met Augie I envied his conviction that destiny must reflect the meaning of one's life. Only a man convinced of his own singularity and of the power of his presence can be vain enough to believe that it is his experience that moves the universe. Augie isn't passive, but he is quietly audacious. Whether he is serving as one of Trotsky's bodyguards or hunting eagles with the lovely if slightly crazed heiress Thea Fenchel, he is conscious of the primacy of his experience. And he needs that experience the way a thirsty man needs water. It is what marks him as an American. Receptive to the world, he is immodest enough to expect the world to be equally receptive to him and his needs. Able to absorb experience, he offers himself as the “new man,” Rousseau's blank slate transformed into flesh. Because he is imbued with the energy of urban rather than agrarian America, he is able to stand de Crévecoeur's hallowed agrarian version of the American new man on its head. Jefferson would have disliked him, yet he also would have realized that Augie was as “new” a man as twentieth-century America could ask for. Each experience tempts not only his innocence but his receptivity to life.

Although he boasts of being “Chicago-born” Augie is as unlike the 1930s street tough James T. Farrell immortalized in Studs Lonigan as one could possibly be. Not only is he smarter than Studs, he isn't afraid of using his intelligence. A child of a still-immigrant urban America, he assumes that anyone who has been molded by the city is tougher than small-town protagonists who line the nation's literary past like wax figures in Madame Tussaud's. The receptivity to experience is the only constant in urban man's life, the one quality Augie considers essential to his sense of self. If he lived in the Soviet Union he would have been labeled—accurately—a “rootless cosmopolitan.” For that is what he is. Chicago is his home, but the willingness to roam feeds his desire to learn from the chaos surrounding him. He glories in urban life because it is chaotic and rootless, and because it allows him to be the sole judge of what he can do with his life.

Bellow was still a political liberal when he wrote Augie. He may even still have thought of himself as a man of the left (although James Atlas suggests in his biography that Bellow's politics were always the product of the times rather than of any deep-rooted political conviction). It was probably inadvertent, but the novel is as powerful a defense of free-enterprise self-assertion as an American novelist has given us. From Augie's perspective, the world exists to teach him how to devote his daring to the pursuit of success and self-discovery. It doesn't matter where he serves as life's pupil, whether in the poolroom of the wheelchair-bound Einhorn or drifting in a lifeboat in the Atlantic after his merchant ship has been torpedoed. His task remains to keep faith with a vision of himself as the American in search of the world, as much Columbus as modern life will permit. Capable of stretching the truth, Augie is no liar. He doesn't need to embroider experience; pursuing it is reward enough. Ultimately, he is precisely what he tells us he is in the novel's opening: Chicago-born, the American in quest of the independent self.

Augie is also one of a handful of literary characters who have assumed so powerful and meaningful a presence in my own life that I was to measure self as well as ambition against their example. His adventures may be fiction, but they aren't fictitious to a man raised in the same sort of urban world he was raised in. Is it any wonder that to this day I think of Augie just as I did when I first read the novel fifty years ago, as my rival in the pursuit of reality? Even back then, however, Augie pressed me against my own shortcomings, made me feel small, diminished. Obsessed by the trauma of having lost my legs to polio at 11, I envied the breadth of his world, envied how he sucked up experience like a vacuum of the soul's ambition. I, meanwhile, was a gimp measuring himself against a character in a novel able to absorb all that life offered because he knew it was the only way he could make his way in the world.

At 20, I still told myself that it was only natural to focus on the price one had to pay to survive as a cripple in the America of 1953. Cripples weren't expected to be heard or seen then. The assumptions I made about the world—that it was hostile and unforgiving and that if I wished to have a life I would have to hurl myself against its indifference like a battering ram—had largely been borne out before Augie appeared on the scene. Not that I was bitter. At 20, I was far too busy experiencing the joy of being able to move by myself from place to place, even on braces and crutches, to feel bitter. And it was still easy to console myself for loss. I could thank a God I claimed not to believe in or thank fate or my lucky stars for possessing so rich an interior life. Dreams do not change merely because the body does. Yet it grated on me to discover that I wasn't as receptive to the sheer variety of experience as Augie was. And it infuriated me to discover that he could meet the world so openly, whereas I was irritated at that receptivity to experience.

It was that, along with the language, that made me fall in love with the novel. Here I was, a cripple thirsting for vengeance. And here was Augie, the American chasing after self-exploration. I furiously wanted to get even with the virus that had crippled me, whereas Augie views his body as if it is the property of some casual acquaintance. In the quest for experience he refused to be trapped by flesh, bone and muscle, whereas I am enraged to this very day (a man now closing in on 70) by the bodily grace I was forced to surrender at 11. Illness formed my angle of vision; health formed Augie's. That is most infuriating. It doesn't matter that I know there is a point in life when a man should simply call it quits with the disasters of the past. I was unable to do that when I met Augie; I am still unable to do it. Unlike Augie, I am still obsessed by what happened to me—not by the pain but by the need to accept the experience and get beyond it. A cripple's Cartesian syllogism: It happened to me, therefore I am.

On the verge of my biblical three score and ten, I am in thrall to old adolescent fantasies of getting even. Like Augie's mentor, the crippled poolroom philosopher William Einhorn, I hate being neither the master of my fate nor the captain of my soul. Einhorn, Augie says, is the first superior man he has known. But why should that comfort me? I must still cry “I want!” to an indifferent world—and what I want is everything that Einhorn and I don't have, what I haven't had since I was 11. I don't care how childish or adolescent it is, and I don't care if I sound like a child ogling Santa Claus in Macy's as he checks his Christmas list. I want to walk on the beach, to fuck on top, to climb a mountain (it doesn't have to be Everest; any mountain will do). Above all, I want to rid my life of each and every “I want” that stains it like some lingering Rorschach nightmare.

Unlike Augie, I was blindsided when young. Like him, I focused on my own coming-of-age. Only, like Einhorn, struggling with the life of the cripple taught me that I had to compensate for what I had lost. I was too busy trying to tough life out to understand what Augie was trying to show me—that experience embodies its own definition and that experience remains its own finest moment, all experience and every experience. Maybe the desire to write originated in the body's need for vengeance. Yet not even that, if true, negates the experience of being crippled. “I couldn't take it, and I took it,” Einhorn tells Augie, in the most powerful portrait of a cripple any American writer, cripple or normal, has given us. With an urban whiff of reality that speaks of all that sustained illness can do to one's soul, Einhorn wants Augie to understand the daily humiliations that life imposes on the cripple. His anguish is more moving, more real, than Ahab's celebrated metaphysical rage. Einhorn is not only tougher and nastier than Melville's sea captain, he is a truer cripple. Like most cripples, he has little interest in the nature of evil, and he doesn't care whether what has been done to him possesses metaphysical meaning. It's bad that it happened, worse that it happened to him!

When I read Augie March I still dreamed of a miraculous recovery that would allow me to box and play ball again. Only, what Einhorn says to Augie is useless to those who dream of miracles. I admired Einhorn and I envied Augie. Yet I hated Augie too. I hated how he made me feel less than I was. No amount of rhetoric about courage (necessity is the only mother of what we call “courage”) would change that. The prospect of being a writer couldn't take the place of dead legs for a 20-year-old searching for the prowess stolen from his body nine years earlier.

As a writer, illness gave me a subject. As a man, it denied me a chance at the life I dreamed of. The ugly dream of becoming beautiful, but their dreams don't make them beautiful. The stupid dream of becoming smart, but their dreams don't make them smart. Augie took a life from his dreams because he could look at those dreams as he looked at the world—from a skeptical, urban distance. The willingness to distance himself from his experience made him a better man than I was. And it tells why I envied him then and why I still envy him today. Augie brought all his baggage to his life as well as to art. But what excuse do I have for the limited perspective I have allowed illness to impose on me? A rose is a rose and a gimp is a gimp. So what? A writer should be able to do more than trace the reasons why he searches for revenge.

If Augie were an actual person rather than a character in a novel, he would be Bellow's age, well into his 80s. Compared with a man in his 80s, those knocking on the door of that biblical three score and ten are mere striplings. But who wants to approach that biblical allotment still dreaming of playing baseball or making love on top or running with his 2-year-old son (himself a man of 40 now) into some fantasized landscape of the mind? There should be statutes of limitation on our fantasies as well as on our crimes and misdemeanors. Other than the rage and anger they inspired in me, my dreams have been almost embarrassingly ordinary. And what is ordinary shies away from what is weird. Yet even approaching my biblical allotment, the dreams keep coming and the fantasies keep reminding me of what I have lost. I should be better, I tell myself, than the illness that struck me down. I should write about other things. Only I'm not better and I don't write about other things, because the virus that crippled me also, in its perverse way, created me. In a sense, it owns me, just as the need for experience seems to own Augie. Illness is why I write and illness defines my life. Other realities stain that life, but I have avoided writing about them. Why don't they count too? Why don't they feed my rage and anger the way the daily struggle with what polio left in its wake does? Why can't I write about ordinary life and ordinary love, ordinary jealousy and ordinary scheming? Why can't I hunt eagles in Mexico with rich, pampered Thea?

Fifty years after we first met I still love Augie for the gifts Bellow endowed him with. Bellow has said that the novel “got out of hand,” but I couldn't disagree more. In its language as well as in the protagonist Bellow created, it remains one of the truly memorable achievements in American fiction. Augie lives not only for the moment but in the moment—and that is his strength and glory. Yet that also explains why, in the midst of the admiration I feel for him, I still hate him. I hate him because he isn't Einhorn; I hate him because he isn't superior the way we cripples deceive ourselves into believing we are superior as we echo Einhorn's “I couldn't take it, and I took it.” Augie isn't interested in taking it, although he admires the crippled poolroom philosopher. Unlike most Luftmenschen, he is practical. His world may look normal and steady, but he's smart enough to realize that it's gone askew. Experience has taught him caution, and caution shortchanges all those who insist on searching for the boundaries of their lives. And through each experience, Augie remains both judge and jury of the reader's emotions. The reader wants his approbation as he seldom wants the approbation of fictional characters. Would Augie, I wonder, empathize with my growing fascination with the crippled god Hephaestus? Like Einhorn and me, Hephaestus can't stand the thought of what being crippled has done to him. Not only is he the great artisan of Greek myth, he is also, even if grudgingly, the god who must willingly serve the other gods. It is he who must create the shield of Achilles—and that rankles me, but not because I have a problem with what he does. The smith's job is to create shields and weapons, and it does not matter whether one is a smith on earth or on Olympus. God or mortal, the smith is supposed to give meaning to metal. But that this godly gimp must create so magnificent a shield for such a self-centered, tiresome ass as Achilles makes me want to scream. Why not create the shield for himself? It's the work of his hands, his talent. Why glorify Achilles? Like metal grinding on concrete, such an injustice grates against my urge to call Hephaestus brother.

The writer must make his peace with bad bargains; the cripple doesn't. Augie accepts the limitations of experience, and even eventually comes to enjoy them. I can't accept them, because I have never had the experiences I want. And I never will have them. If there are times when we must make sense of bargains that aren't worth making sense of, that's not of much help to those of us trying to accept that we are Einhorns, not Augies. The experience that tells me what to write about is more limited than what Bellow has given his plebeian hero. One would have preferred other gifts—Sugar Ray Robinson's fists, Sandy Koufax's left arm, Ted Williams's batting eye. Yet like Augie, I tell myself that one must learn from what has shaped one. Like him, too, I still want to “go at things as I have taught myself,” “first to knock.” The issue most of us must face is rarely as simple as the right to serve as one's own Columbus. As Augie says, even when Columbus was sent back to Europe in chains it didn't “prove there was no America.” Yet shouldn't experience have taught him, as it taught me, that limitations are just as likely to define life as ambition? Who, after all, has ever complained of his Hephaestian heel?

Jerome Charyn (essay date September-October 2003)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Charyn, Jerome. “Inside the Hornet's Head.” Midstream 49, no. 6 (September-October 2003): 17-22.

[In the following essay, Charyn states that the lasting legacy of The Adventures of Augie March is the novel's profound influence on generations of Jewish American writers and readers.]

1.

I did not stumble upon [The Adventures of Augie March] lightly. I gave it as a gift to the most beautiful girl in my high school class, Valerie K. Hadn't it won awards? And wasn't it about a Jewish bumpkin like myself? (So I'd heard secondhand). I meant the book to bring me closer to Valerie, but it never did. And then, a year or two later, I actually read it and was overwhelmed by its bounty. It was a book that never stopped to breathe, and I was breathless in its wake. Leslie Fiedler calls it “unlike anything else in English except Moby Dick.” It had the same largeness of imagination … and a wondrous eagle called Caligula instead of a white whale.

But it was much more than that. It was a model and a manifest for a boy from the Bronx, a kind of open-sesame into the art of writing. I'd been nowhere, had seen nothing outside my own little ghetto: all I had was a crazy babble of tongues, an exalted gangster talk, a mingling of Yiddish, Russian, and all the books I'd ever read—whole scenes ripped from Anna Karenina, whose heroine would have been much better served in the Bronx, where we loved tall, aristocratic women with husbands that were beneath their dignity—all the dialogue from every film I'd ever seen, which included the entire repertoire of MGM and the other majors, and the rough but chivalrous language of the street, where we were all knights in pegged pants. And when Augie says that “we are meant to be carried away by the complex and hear the simple like the far horn of Roland when he and Oliver are being wiped out by the Saracens,” I knew what the hell he was talking about.

Augie's adventures have little to do with the magical places he visits—the mountains of Mexico or the plains of Paris. They are only desiderata, icons, throwaways, bits and pieces of décor in a landscape that shifts right under our feet and sends us scrambling onto the next page and the next. Augie, says Leslie Fiedler, is “a footloose Jewish boy [who] becomes Huck Finn,” with his own Mississippi—a river of words. If the Mississippi gives Huck a godlike strength, nurtures him, soothes him, allows him to shove beyond the perimeter of his own lies, then it is language that soothes Saul Bellow and carries Augie March from adventure to adventure, so that he is never used up, no matter how much narrative is crammed into a single sentence. The book is a constant rush of dialogue and detail, of shenanigans and magic tricks, or as Bellow himself writes in “Where Do We Go from Here: The Future of Fiction,” the modern hero is “an oddly dispersed, ragged, mingled, broken, amorphous creature whose outlines are everywhere, whose being is bathed in mind as the tissues are bathed in blood, and who is impossible to circumscribe in any scheme of time.” He's a “cubistic” character, an “uncertain, eternal, mortal, someone who shuts and opens like a concertina and makes a strange music.”

To read The Adventures of Augie March is to live inside a hornet's head—to hear and feel an endless clatter … whose sting is a source of terror and delight. We cannot recover from Augie March. Its sting remains with us for life. And we have to ask why. Part of the answer is in Bellow's bona fides. Born in Quebec in 1915, he grew up in Chicago's South Side ghetto during the reign of America's most notorious beer baron, Al Capone—and almost all of Bellow's male characters in Augie March have some kind of gangster mentality. They strut, they wear swell clothes, and they bully us with their words, which Fiedler reminds us, land “like kisses or blows.” And they capture the tumult of the city. Like George Gershwin, who had his share of little wars on Manhattan's Lower East Side, another cradle of gangsters [and Capone's original turf], he was raised “in the heart of noise.” As one of Gershwin's own colleagues said: “He hears the noise and finds music in it.” And Augie March might be considered Bellow's own “Rhapsody in Blue,” but with a much more hysterical and alarming beat.

“I am American, Chicago born,” Bellow insists at the very beginning of the novel, “and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style and will make the record in my own way.” We're not caught within some ghetto tale, a lightning rise from rags to riches, a celebration of America's ability to spit out righteous little citizens—noble, healthy, and clean. Augie is a monster of the New World, more American than America itself. And we have to examine this within the context of the Jewish-American writer. It's not the success of Augie March that's startling—a Book of the Month selection and winner of the National Book Award for fiction [it was published in 1953]. But suddenly, with one blow, like a fist coming out of nowhere, Saul Bellow made “[h]is appearance as the first Jewish-American novelist to stand at the center of American literature,” as Fiedler says. It's hard to grasp this fifty years after the fact. But Jewish-American writers had always lived in a terrible kind of ghetto, as if they were quaint little children, talented ventriloquists who were miming the American idiom for their Yankee readers, and if they were good, they might be rewarded with a few leftovers and shown off as the most current Jewish clown … until another clown was discovered and took this clown's place. They were entertainers, dimwits, who couldn't really enter the canon of American literature, like Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, or Edith Wharton and Eudora Welty, when women began to be noticed as writers, rather than quaint knitters of patchquilt prose. Henry James, America's first “experimental” writer, who understood the music and the hieroglyphics of modern fiction, couldn't even fathom the idea of a Jewish-American writer. When he visited the Lower East Side in 1907, he was repelled by what he saw and heard in “the flaring streets. … There is no swarming like that of Israel when once Israel has got its start,” he writes in The American Scene. He discovered “a Jewry that had burst all bounds.” He worried over “the Hebrew conquest of New York.” And East Side cafés were nothing but “torture-rooms of the living idiom.”

James's words were echoed in every English Department of every prominent university in the United States, where Jews couldn't possibly teach English literature, because they couldn't enter into the spirit of Milton, or Chaucer, or Shakespeare, no matter how hard they mimed. Lionel Trilling, the son of a Bronx tailor, and America's most eloquent literary critic, was the first American Jew to receive tenure in the English Department of an Ivy League school [Columbia], and it didn't happen until 1945! The tailor's boy had already published books on Matthew Arnold and E. M. Forster, essays on Sherwood Anderson, Kipling, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and would soon publish essays on Henry James and Huckleberry Finn. And he might never have taught at Columbia if he hadn't had such a melodious name—Lionel Trilling. Also, by 1945, America—and much of the world—had begun to change. The first images of GIs liberating the ghostly remains of Hitler's concentration camps had brought attention to the Jews, and a kind of niggling sympathy that almost humanized them. It was the Jewish freedom fighters and terrorists of the Haganah and the Irgun that finally altered the psychological and symbolic landscape, as Jews were seen as warriors rather than victims, and as “winners” once the State of Israel was voted into existence in 1948. America was now ready for Bellow's “atomic bomb.” The country seemed to need an urban myth, as “relentless urbanization [had made] rural myths and images no longer central to our experience,” according to Fiedler.

Bellow had literally concocted a new America in Augie March, with language as American as the Mississippi, and with rhythms that seemed to incorporate Faulkner, Dreiser, and Sherwood Anderson, as if Bellow were a country boy and a city boy at the same time, rural and urban, and as if his concertina could include every strand of music out of America's past … except for one, that of Ernest Hemingway. In his best stories, Hemingway was a minimalist who believed, with Flaubert, that each particular sentence was an island unto itself, that the white space between sentences could contain an entire planet, and that the real thunder of a text derived from the reader's own imagination. The reader connected these islands inside his head. He (or she) was as much the creator as “Hem.” But Bellow's own daring was to narrow that space between sentences, almost eliminate it, as if he returned to the picaresque of Fielding and Cervantes, but with a modern twist—the hero is as schizoid and haunted as the 20th century. And Augie is always around, exhausting the reader with his parodies and puns, his constant riffs, thrusting the reader right inside the hornet's head, where he experienced Augie March like an abundance of battlefields …

2.

And so America had a king, at least that part of America that could read a book. Just as Dostoevsky had said that all Russian writers of fiction had come out from under Gogol's overcoat (Gogol had written a bizarre, surreal story about a stolen overcoat that assumes a life of its own), so American writers at mid-century, Jews and gentiles, had come out from under the wings of Caligula, Bellow's eagle who “crackled his feathers or hissed as if snow was sliding.” Suddenly the novel had burst out of its narrative skin and had become an assault on language itself, a great whooping war cry. And other warriors and adventurers, demonic jokesters, including Nabokov, Pynchon, John Hawkes, and John Barth, would soon gain acceptance and recognition in good part because of Bellow. I doubt that Gunther Grass's The Tin Drum and Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude would have found many followers in the U.S. if there had been no Augie March to initiate readers into the notion that a novel could be a jungle of words … or a much wilder thing. Even Faulkner, the wildest of American novelists after Melville, was grounded in his imagined South, his “postage stamp” of Yoknapatawpha County, and Bellow was grounded in nothing at all. Like Caligula, his language could soar and then rocker down into some abyss. No one was safe, neither Augie March nor the reader.

But Bellow's book would give a particular nudge to Jewish-American writers, make them visible for the first time, not as ventriloquists, but as human beings with a singular vision and voice that could reach across America. Bellow himself would help Isaac Bashevis Singer (an immigrant who'd arrived in America as an adult and wrote exclusively in Yiddish) with a superb and stunning translation of “Gimpel the Fool.” And the fire that Bellow breathed into the story, his own magical rhythm, came from Bellow's largeness of spirit, the almost Talmudic need of one master to recognize another. Singer's concerns are less elliptical than Bellow's, but in “Gimpel,” at least, we can find a prototype of Augie March—the dreamer who weaves stories out of the air—yet Augie's world is comic, and Singer's comedy spills into nightmare.

Bellow would also solidify the reputation of a younger writer, Philip Roth, in Commentary, a magazine that was one of the first to value this new, farcical American voice that could often be so mocking of Jews themselves. In the late forties (Commentary was founded in 1945), the fifties and early sixties, the magazine didn't follow any pattern of “political correctness.” Under Elliot Cohen, Theodore Solotaroff, and Norman Podhoretz (at first), the magazine seemed eager to experiment and to discover and sustain new writers. Singer, Roth, and Bernard Malamud were all published with a certain regularity and rhythm within its pages.

Malamud and Roth would both win the National Book Award in the 1950s, after Augie March, and with books of stories rather than novels, a difficult feat, since publishers hated books of stories—stories weren't supposed to sell. The three of them—Bellow, Malamud, and Roth—were soon called the Hart Schaffner & Marx of American fiction (Hart Schaffner & Marx being an upscale Jewish clothier that dressed successful Jewish gangsters, singers, actors—the whole hoi polloi). Bellow would remain the spiritual father of this little club, with Singer as a kind of kissing cousin from an older world.

But there were more immediate cousins, like Stanley Elkin, Herbert Gold, Grace Paley, Cynthia Ozick, Tillie Olsen, Leonard Michaels, and Leonard Cohen, who had the same sense of danger in their prose, a crazy concertina with its own variety of registers that could play on and on without the need to end. Elkin seems the closest to Bellow in his insistence upon the mingling of high and low styles, rhetoric and tough-guy talk, and his first novel, Boswell (1964), is like a mirror world of Augie March, homage in the form of parody. Elkin, Paley, Ozick, and Roth all have a particular thing in common with Bellow—the invention of an idiolect that has exploded traditional English, flooded it with rhythms that had never been there before, given it an elasticity and an electrical pull. It's hardly an accident. Elkin's language, like Bellow's, is a lethal weapon, a dive bomber readying to attack the American heartland, to take revenge on a white Protestant culture that had excluded all minorities for so long (not just Afro-Americans and Jews), but the attack is always masked; it comes with a kiss, with a jibe and a bit of buffoonery. One can find the same sabotage in the films of Woody Allen, like Annie Hall (1977), where Allen's alter ego, Albie Singer, attacks all of America outside of New York City, and still managed to win an Academy Award as best picture of the year …

But Bellow's attack is buried in the nucleus of his book; Augie's an orphan of sorts who never knew his dad. It's as if that monster, Augie March, gave birth to himself. “Look at me, going everywhere! Why, I am a sort of Columbus of those near-at-hand. … I may well be a flop at this line of endeavor. Columbus too thought he was a flop, probably, when they sent him back in chains. Which didn't prove there was no America.”

And that's how the novel ends, with Augie the self-creator bumping along on his little lifeboat of words.

3.

Perhaps the most lasting and powerful legacy of Augie March is that it inspired an archeological dig—it helped bring back forgotten masterpieces such as Henry Roth's Call It Sleep. First published in 1934, the novel slept in its own sarcophagus until all the brouhaha began to broil around the Jewish musketeers of Hart Schaffner & Marx. The book was republished in 1962 by a small press; I happened to grab hold of a copy and instantly fell into the dream of its “Mississippi,” a marriage of James Joyce and ghetto English and Yiddish of the Lower East Side. I was a little priest of literature at the time and brought Call It Sleep to my editor, Robert G., who was about to publish my own first novel.

“Bob,” I said, “it's a … masterpiece. Read it. You gotta publish it in a bigger edition. I'll be the editor. We'll make a million.”

I was a wild child, his wild child, and we would have lunch twice a week at Barbetta's, a north Italian restaurant on West 46th Street favored by Mafia chieftains and rich, melancholy men with melancholy mistresses and wives. I'm not quite sure what else Bob did other than take me to lunch. He'd come out of Cornell, had scribbled a novel of his own, and was a senior editor at a publishing house whose prodigy I'd become. They were banking on me as the next Saul Bellow, which just proves how much magic Bellow had in 1964 and how “innocent” Bob was, since every major publishing house was banking on another Bellow or two. The king had just come out with Herzog, which was a much bigger bombshell than Augie March, Moses Herzog was like a relative of Joyce's Leopold Bloom, but I didn't have the same affection for him as I'd had for Augie March. Herzog, we're told, likes to make love in the missionary position, and I couldn't imagine Augie, with all his slurpings, ever saying that. No matter. Herzog was number one on the bestseller list.

I was drinking white wine with Bob. I knew nothing about white wine. The novel I'd written was about an aging Yiddish actor on Second Avenue. I hadn't seen too many Yiddish actors, but I'd tramped the Lower East Side as a kid and had discovered pictures of the great stars, like Maurice Schwartz and Molly Picon, in the lobby of a decrepit theatre next to the Williamsburg Bridge. Still, the book seemed authentic enough to Bob. Bashevis Singer had sent him a letter declaring that his protégé and wild child had a mysterious understanding of cafeteria culture. Bob liked to keep the letter in his wallet and wave it to me during lunch.

“That's our meal ticket,” he'd say, showing off in front of the waiters, who adored him, because Bob was as loyal to Barbetta's as the Mafia chiefs. There weren't many other editors around, since most publishers, like Viking and Holt, were on the East Side, but a couple of young editors happened to be in the restaurant. And Bob would gloat with that letter in his hand.

“Fellas, meet Jerome. He doesn't write. He paints—like Chagall, swear to God.”

The first chapter of my novel had just been published in Commentary, and these young editors pretended to have seen it. “Your kid's a comer,” they said. “Roth and Malamud had better make a little room … Book of the Month Club, Bob. Or at least a Pulitzer.”

They were con artists and flatterers, and when they returned to their table, I brought up Call It Sleep. But Bob wouldn't bite at whatever little bait I had.

“It's old-fashioned,” he said. “I couldn't even finish the book.”

A month or two later a pocket edition of Call It Sleep appeared, and was reviewed on the front page of The New York Times Book Review, which rarely ever happened to a reprinted book. The reviewer was Irving Howe, another member of the Jewish “gangster” critics, with Alfred Kazin and Leslie Fiedler, who'd risen out of the ghetto to reinterpret all of American literature. Howe celebrated Call It Sleep, and it would go on to sell more than a million copies and bring Henry Roth, who'd become a chicken farmer and slaughterer in Maine, back from the dead. Roth might have remained a chicken slaughterer if Augie March hadn't exploded upon the landscape and redefined the parameters of American literature; but one writer Augie wasn't able to rescue was Anzia Yezierska, who flourished in the 1920s as a kind of ghetto princess, received much more acclaim than Henry Roth … and a Hollywood contract, and then fell into complete silence until 1950 when she published a novel-cum-memoir, Red Ribbon on a White Horse, about her own unraveling as a writer. Like Saul Bellow, she'd worked in the WPA Writers Project during the Depression (a kafkaesque federal relief agency that paid writers to produce by the “pound”). But Bellow went from writers' relief to the Merchant Marines in the middle of World War II (like Augie March), to a teaching job at Bard College, a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1948, and to a stint in Europe, where he wrote much of Augie March, just as Augie claims to be writing his own memoirs while he sits in Paris.

The fact is that Yezierska fell into fashion … and fell out. And she never belonged to that same wild school as Bellow and Paley and Elkin and Gold and Philip Roth. How could she? She wasn't born into English, hadn't learnt it as some brat in the streets of Chicago or the Bronx. It would never have the elasticity of Augie March; there was a much different kind of hornet inside her head, the music of lament …

No one really knows when she was born. It was around 1880. There were no birth certificates in her Polish shtetl. She arrived in America in 1901, according to Irving Howe, who documents her story with a great deal of tenderness in The World of Our Fathers (a monumental study of the migration to America of East European Jews). I would never have tumbled onto her without Irving Howe. The name stuck in my head, Anzia Yezierska, like a tiny, poetic lexicon that was as strange and oddly familiar as the Old World itself. I couldn't call her Yezierska. She was Anzia from the start, like a lost child. Howe made her five years younger (born in 1885), but that was the mask Anzia wished to wear—the “maiden” who'd gone out to Hollywood rather than the forty-year-old. She'd been a servant girl, a charwoman, a sewing machine operator in a sweatshop … and a frustrated professor of cooking She'd studied English at night school like so many greenhorns. But Anzia was different. She started to sew with words. She wanted to become a writer in this borrowed, twisted Yankee tongue. And like Virginia Woolf, she desperately desired a room of her own. “My earliest dream of becoming a writer flashed before me,” she declares in one of the last stories she ever published. “My obsession [was] that I must have a room with a door I could shut. To achieve this I left home. And so I cut myself off not only from my family, but from friends, from people. The door that I felt I must shut to become a writer had shut out compassion, feeling for pain and sorrow, love and joy of friends and neighbors. Father, Mother, sisters, brothers became alien to me, and I became alien to myself.”

Her story, in Howe's hands, has more than a hint of Jewish pathos and melodrama—a miraculous rise out of the ghetto, a journey to Hollywood, “Yiddish accent and all,” a drying up of her talent, a descent into “loneliness and poverty,” with a few books published “but little noticed: all in her fervent signature, pitiful in their transparency.” Then her autobiographical novel at sixty-five (she was closer to seventy), with a title chosen from an old Jewish proverb, says Irving Howe: “Poverty becomes a wise man like a red ribbon on a white horse.” And Howe insists that “[i]n some groping, half-acknowledged way she had returned to the world of her fathers—a final reconciliation, of sorts.”

Her own father was a Talmudic scholar who totally rejected her career as a writer. “A woman alone, not a wife and not a mother, has no existence.”

And Howe wouldn't permit Anzia one little ironic touch. She did indeed wear her poverty “like a red ribbon on a white horse.” But the “old Jewish proverb” was her own, invented by Anzia as a bit of deviltry. What Howe couldn't quite comprehend was that Anzia was a “hunger artist,” like Kafka. “She is destined to eat herself alive forever,” according to Vivian Gornick, who wrote the introduction to Anzia's collected stories in 1991, when a new generation of writers and readers began to resurrect her.

There was so much confusion around such simple facts. Suddenly this isolated priestess of art had a daughter, two husbands, a college degree, a short but not quite love affair and fling with America's foremost “Puritan,” philosopher John Dewey, a different name—Hattie Mayer—and twenty lost years between Hester Street and Hollywood. Red Ribbon on a White Horse is dedicated to her daughter, Louise Levitas, who is never once mentioned in the book. In fact, Anzia tells us in the final chapter: “I too had children. My children were the people I wrote about. I gave my children, born of loneliness, as much of my life as my married sisters did in bringing their children into the world.”

Anzia was hiding, like any hunger artist, but it's thanks to this invisible daughter—abandoned by her mother at four—that we have some image of what Anzia might have been about. Her birth is still unclear. She was the youngest of seven children, born in the Polish-Russian village of Plotsk (often called Plinsk in her own writing). Her family arrived at Castle Garden, an artificial stone island off the Battery, used as a processing station for immigrants before Ellis Island. Levitas believes the Yezierskas arrived around 1890 and were immediately Americanized into the “Mayers.” And Anzia, who was ten at the time, became “Hattie Mayer.” Ten isn't fifteen or twenty, and she might have seized English if she'd labored in the classroom like a little bandit, but her father, a total tyrant in his religious zeal, didn't allow her much schooling, and she had to help support him and the rest of the family. Thus began the saga of Hattie Mayer as a servant girl and seamstress. But in 1899 she would opt for that room of her own, while still supporting her family, and moved into a monklike cell at the Clara de Hirsch Home for working girls. She conned the wealthy patrons at the home into giving her a scholarship to study “domestic science” at Columbia University Teachers College, so that she could return to the ghetto as a cooking teacher with a college degree. But she had to invent a high school diploma for herself, since she'd never been near any high school.

“Domestic science” didn't do her much good. The Board of Education considered her sloppy and unkempt and wouldn't give her a permanent teacher's license. She had to drift from school to school as a substitute teacher. Somewhere in her twenties she decided to write, and the nom de plume she settled on was Anzia Yezierska—her very own name. The truth is that Anzia had no name; she was an invented creature, a forlorn child of the New World, without a language of her own.

In December 1917, after she'd abandoned her child and her second husband and was living like a monk, utterly devoted to the craft of writing in this invented English of hers, she ran to John Dewey, the doyen of education at Columbia. “[B]urning-eyed and red-haired,” she cornered him in his office, hoping he would intervene in her fight with the Board of Ed, and poor John “never knew what hit him,” Vivian Gornick reminds us. A New England “pragmatist,” he was susceptible to gypsies like her. Married, with children of his own, he took Anzia under his wing, permitted her to audit his seminar in philosophy, found her work as a translator on one of his projects, and gave the little gypsy her first typewriter. He would also take walks with her through the Lower East Side. Dewey was reticent. But Anzia clutched at him with her eyes, wouldn't let him retreat. They began to exchange letters on the sly. Anzia lived within the dream of John Dewey as some godlike creature. He worried about his “evasion of life. … I must begin humbly like a child to learn the meaning of life from you.” She remained the hunger artist in spite of loving him and criticized his stilted, academic prose, his “clear head and cold heart.” But his letters were warm and passionate. “In your letters … you are St. Francis, loving the poor.”

The Puritan was obsessed with her, as much as his own nature would allow. “You are translucent,” he wrote while he was on a lecture tour. He began writing poems to Anzia that he hid inside his desk. He talked about his “unillumined duties” and “thoughts which travel th' untracked wild / Of untamed desire.”

Finally, he acted on his desire. He arrived at Anzia's tenement, took her to dinner, and then strolled with her in a neighborhood park. He kissed her, fumbled with her breast, and Anzia's body stiffened against his touch. “His overwhelming nearness, the tense body closing in on me was pushing us apart instead of fusing us,” she would write in Red Ribbon, trying to recapture the moment. “A dark river of distrust rose between us. I had not dreamed that God could become flesh.”

The spell was broken for John. He withdrew from Anzia, asked her for his letters back. She insisted on keeping them. Dewey disappeared on a lecture tour that lasted three years. Her own sentimental education was already over. The hunger artist in Anzia now consumed her. She wrote stories that were rejected everywhere. “The stories had become her whole existence,” writes Louise Levitas. Then magazines began to buy them and soon swallowed her up as the “Sweatshop Cinderella,” even though she hadn't worked in a sweatshop for years. It was the start of the Jazz Age, and readers loved the notion of an immigrant working girl who could deliver the ghetto to them in good English. Samuel Goldwyn bought the film rights to Anzia's first collection of stories, Hungry Hearts, for ten thousand dollars [a fortune in 1920], and beckoned her to Hollywood to work on the script. And Anzia had her revenge. The Board of Education that had shunned her as slovenly invited Anzia to lecture on her book …

Red Ribbon starts with Anzia as a starving writer on Hester Street who receives a telegram that invites her to pack her bags … and she's on her way to Hollywood. “I felt like a beggar who drowned in a barrel of cream.” But Hollywood couldn't satisfy her own hungry heart. It was nothing but a “fish market in evening clothes.” And Anzia left without having written one line. But she'd been picked up by influential journalists, and her portrait appeared in all the Sunday supplements. She went to Europe, met with Joseph Conrad and Gertrude Stein, and on the trip back, she decided to travel steerage like the ordinary immigrant that she had once been. But Anzia couldn't revisit her own past. She was horrified by the stench and the filth, and after one night, she was transferred to second class …

Still, the Jewish Cinderella couldn't last. She kept repeating her own immigrant tales. “I can never learn to plot and plan. It's always a mystery to me how I ever work out a beginning or an end of a story.”

By the end of the decade she'd stopped being a mystery to her readers. Anzia was no longer read. The Depression didn't have much use for ghetto princesses. And she would never regain those lost readers during her lifetime. But she labored continually, often spending two or three years on a single story. “I went on writing and rewriting, possessed by the need to get at something unutterable, that could only be said in the white spaces between the words.” [“The Fat of the Land”]

These white spaces were her own lost language—the Yiddish, Russian, and Polish of her childhood, before America. This is why she was so brutally shut out. Anzia wrote like an amnesiac, with missing musical chords. And the white spaces in her stories unsettle us, because they have all the sadness of the unsaid. One of her most discerning critics. William Lyon Phelps, claimed that Anzia “has, in one sense of the word, no literary style. … In the works of Tolstoy, the style is like plate glass, so perfectly does the plain, simple word fit the thought, but in Anzia Yezierska's tales there is nothing. One does not seem to read, one is too completely inside.”

And Anzia is like the dybbuk of Saul Bellow and all the stylish writers that clustered around him in the sixties; she's that troubled “ancestor” who didn't dare mix the high and the low, who was like some eternal veteran of a night-school war in which she had to spend herself to embrace the Yankees and offer them a glimpse into her private and public ghetto. She was too brittle to “evolve,” to wear the mask of style after style. Anzia loved to wear masks, to fabulate and confound her own history, but as a writer, she had no mask—she was pure emotion in a language that didn't really fit. It leaves us with the guileless charm of unadornment … and permanent grief. She didn't go back into any orthodoxy, as Irving Howe suggests. She persisted as a hunger artist to the very end, and her style of no style moves us more than most other writers.

Before there could be a king like Bellow, there had to be a ghetto princess like Anzia, the golem that gave birth to Saul Bellow and his flowering in the fifties. He would seize Yiddish and Henry James and everything else around him. He had no desire to explain himself to Americans, as Anzia did. He was America the way Anzia could never be, certain of himself, ready to fight any establishment catch-as-catch-can. And Jewish-American literature exists in the shifting tonalities, the shrinking white spaces, that finally wed Anzia to Saul Bellow and Philip Roth and Woody Allen …

Note: One can only lament that Leonard Cohen has stopped writing novels and that Woody Allen is much more obsessed with film than with narrative fiction: both were once genuine hunger artists.

I would include Allen Ginsberg, because at least in Kaddish he too had lived inside the hornet's head.

Previous

Suggested Readings