The Adventures of Augie March Saul Bellow - Essay

Saul Bellow


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Adventures of Augie March Saul Bellow

Canadian-born American novelist, short story writer, editor, critic, playwright, lecturer, and memoirist.

The following entry presents criticism on Bellow's novel The Adventures of Augie March (1953) through 2003. For further information on his life and complete works, see CLC, Volumes 1, 2, 3, 6, 8, 10, 13, 15, 25, 33, 34, 63, and 79.

A marked departure from the author's earlier, more modernist novels, The Adventures of Augie March has become one of Bellow's most recognized and enduring works. Utilizing the structure of picaresque narratives, the novel chronicles the journeys of Augie March, a charismatic and entrepreneurial young man, coming of age during America's Depression and World War II eras. Bellow portrays Augie as a romantic hero, whose comic misadventures offer both nostalgic and biting commentary on restrictive social mores and the American immigrant experience. Narrated in an idiomatic Chicago-American accent, the novel emphasizes the metaphysical inertia of the protagonist as Augie passively experiences a range of emotional situations, including grief, loss, and betrayal. In 1999, when the Modern Library compiled their list of the 100 best novels of the twentieth century, The Adventures of Augie March was ranked as 81.

Plot and Major Characters

The Adventures of Augie March revolves around the remarkable life of Augie March, a Jewish American born to a poor family in the slums of Chicago, Illinois, during the Prohibition era. Augie's father abandoned his family, leaving his wife to work long hours as a seamstress in order to raise her three sons—Georgie, Simon, and Augie. Due to his mother's absence, Augie's childhood is dominated by the controlling personality of Grandma Lausch, an elderly widow living with the March family. Augie's brother, Simon, is both ambitious and intelligent with a knack for business, while his other brother, Georgie, was born mentally challenged and is eventually placed in an institution. From an early age, Augie works a variety of odd jobs, at first partnering with Simon, who seems to succeed at anything he attempts. Augie later secures a position as an assistant to William Einhorn, a crippled and circumspect real-estate broker and businessman. After leaving Einhorn's employment, Augie begins working for the Renling family, who own a successful sporting-goods store. Mr. Renling sees a great deal of potential in Augie and offers to pay for his education and legally adopt him into the Renling family—an offer that Augie eventually refuses. During this period, Simon, now a wealthy and married businessman, suggests that Augie marry his sister-in-law, Lucy. Augie attempts to court the decidedly conventional Lucy but comes to feel stifled by their relationship and decides to head off on his own to find his fortune. With the advent of the Great Depression, Augie struggles to make a living, accepting a string of low-class and transient jobs, including selling bathroom paint, grooming dogs, stealing books, and smuggling immigrants across the Canadian border. Growing tired with his lifestyle, Augie agrees to travel to Mexico with a wealthy acquaintance, Thea Fenchel, who wants to train eagles to hunt giant lizards. Once in Mexico, the couple begins a passionate affair, but after their venture fails and Augie gets injured, Thea leaves him for another man. Augie soon meets Stella, a beautiful woman whom Augie saves from the wrath of her former lover. Stella and Augie return to the United States together and are quickly married. The attractive Stella becomes a motion picture star and travels to Europe to work on a film. Augie follows his wife, but his ship is torpedoed while crossing the Atlantic, and he finds himself stranded in a small lifeboat. After being rescued, Augie joins Stella in Paris, where their marriage dissolves due to Stella's flirtatious nature and Augie's general indifference. The novel concludes with Augie working as a middleman for a wily Parisian black marketer named Mintouchian, still trying to obtain the sense of personal independence he referenced in the novel's opening lines—“I am an American, Chicago born—Chicago, that somber city—and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent. But a man's character is his fate, says Heraclitus, and in the end there isn't any way to disguise the nature of the knocks by acoustical work on the door or gloving the knuckles.”

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.”

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Charles J. Rolo (review date October 1953)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Robert Penn Warren (review date 2 November 1953)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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W. M. Frohock (essay date winter 1968)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Jeffrey Meyers (essay date March 1977)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Steven M. Gerson (essay date spring 1979)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Malcolm Bradbury (essay date 1982)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Robert R. Dutton (essay date 1982)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Daniel Fuchs (essay date 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Patrick W. Shaw (essay date spring 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Martin Amis (essay date October 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Christopher Hitchens (essay date winter 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Leonard Kriegel (essay date 23 June 2003)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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....

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Jerome Charyn (essay date September-October 2003)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.]


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...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary 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...

(The entire section is 336 words.)