Saul Bellow was without question the dominant American novelist of the second half of the twentieth century. Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1976, the Pulitzer Prize in the same year for Humboldt’s Gift (1975), and National Book Awards for three earlier novels (The Adventures of Augie March, 1953; Herzog, 1964; and Mr. Sammler’s Planet, 1970), Bellow created a substantial body of literary work matched only in the twentieth century in the United States, perhaps, by William Faulkner. That body of work, as James Atlas argues in his detailed and comprehensive biography, came almost directly out of the life and cannot fully be understood without some knowledge of it.
Bellow’s beginnings did not show early signs of literary genius. He was born in 1915 in Montreal, Canada, the only one of his Russian immigrant parents’ children born in North America, and moved with his family to Chicago when he was nine. That city would become Bellow’s great theme and the background for his best work, Atlas shows; Chicago was “the catalyst for Bellow’s art” as he was the “lyric celebrant of its physical beauty.” Bellow’s mother died a month before he graduated from Tuley High School in 1933, and the loss of the woman who had held the Bellow family together meant that the writer would be increasingly alienated from his father and two brothers, who succeeded in business in Chicago and had little sympathy for their “artistic” son and sibling.
Their impatience with the writer is not hard to understand. Bellow spent almost a decade as a literary apprentice, practicing his craft and destroying most of his early manuscripts, and living partly on his first wife Anita’s income (they were married in 1937). His first story was not published (in Partisan Review) until 1941, his first novel (Dangling Man) until 1944. His early books (such asThe Victim in 1947, and Seize the Day in 1956) were critical successes but commercial failures, and Bellow supported himself through temporary teaching positions (at the University of Minnesota and Bard College, among other schools) and occasional grants or fellowships. By the age of forty-five, Bellow was still living the way he had lived at twenty-five: “itinerant, unattached, provisional in his living arrangements, without a real job.” Yet—and this, as Atlas proves, is the often capricious course of literary fame in the United States—a few years later, he was by common consent the country’s leading novelist. Dangling Man had announced the arrival of a new, distinctive writer in American literature; the voice of The Adventures of Augie March a decade later “sounded like no other in American fiction.” A poll taken by the Chicago Sun-Times Book Week “found that Bellow, by a wide margin, had written the most distinguished fiction of the 1945-1965 period,’” and three of his novels—Seize the Day, Henderson the Rain King (1959), andHerzog—were voted by readers “among the best novels of the postwar years.”
The second half of Bellow’s career, while it provided further literary awards, also recorded a decline in his literary range and power. Mr. Sammler’s Planet, while earning his third National Book Award, testified to Bellow’s growing conservatism and his occasional misogyny and racism.Humboldt’s Gift, in 1975, based in part upon the life of Bellow’s early friend and rival, the poet Delmore Schwartz, was diffuse in both plot and style. The novels in the remaining twenty-five years suffered, like much of Bellow’s later work, from sketchiness and haste. The exception, amazingly, was Bellow’s novel Ravelstein, published in 2000, “a startling achievement, the most compelling book Bellow had written in years,” Atlas argues, and a controversial novel based on the life and career of Bellow’s colleague in the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago, Allan Bloom, the author of The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students (1987), who died in 1992.
The best parts of this biography are the analyses of the novels themselves. Atlas understands Bellow’s fiction, sees it in the context of the career, and uncovers the complex literary and psychological themes that run through it. Like so many American writers—Ernest Hemingway and Faulkner, for instance—Bellow was largely self-created....
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