Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1848
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. As a student at Northwestern and the University of Chicago, he studied anthropology and nearly settled on that field as a career. His early models as a writer were the modern classics: Fyodor Dostoevski, Gustave Flaubert, James Joyce, and an American and fellow Chicagoan, Theodore Dreiser. He became a great writer, Atlas implies, by working alone in Chicago in his formative years in the 1930’s and finding his own distinctive voice.
Part of this distinction is that Bellow is a writer who grapples with ideas; he has used his marginality, for example, his sense of being an outsider in his family as in his society, to great purpose in his fiction. “As a Canadian and as a Jew,” Atlas explains, Bellow “would always be an outsider, but that same ancestry enabled him to renovate the language” and to introduce a new literary style into American fiction from his very first work. Dangling Man—a book about the struggle of an individual to hold onto his sense of identity and worth during the vast confusions of wartime—“has about it an unmistakable air of authenticity; it grapples with deep themes, breaks narrative rules in pursuit of its idiosyncratic vision, and captures the temper of an era.” His second novel, The Victim (1947), “was the first attempt in American literature to consider Jewishness not in its singularity, not as constitutive of a special world of experience, but as a quality that informs all of modern life, as the quality of modernity itself.” When Bellow began to write, American novels written by Jews (such as Abraham Cahan’s The Rise of David Levinsky in 1917) were ethnic and exotic; Bellow (and a few years later, Bernard Malamud and Philip Roth) turned the Jewish-American experience into the essential American experience. Every Bellow novel would build on that early achievement, from Henderson the Rain King through Mosby’s Memoirs and Other Stories, a collection published in 1968 that revealed “a practitioner of fiction whose moral depth and commanding vision were unequaled by any of his contemporaries.”
The source of some of these incisive analyses is Atlas’s understanding of the strengths and limitations of Saul Bellow—the son, the brother, the husband, and the father. With the death of his mother at the age of seventeen, Bellow apparently lost some fundamental ability to commit himself in any relationship, and at the same time gained an almost unquenchable thirst for praise. Married five times, Bellow was neither a good husband nor a consistent father, and he would leave each of his first three marriages after the birth of his sons and when the family no longer gave him the kind of emotional support he needed, but he managed in each case to make himself out as the victim of the resulting collapse. He would leave his publishers as he abandoned his families, and with a “Houdini-like ability to get out of any situation that demanded taking responsibility for his actions, Bellow managed to transform himself from the abandoner to the abandoned.” He could always find an explanation for his behavior, and it usually revolved around the notion of himself as victim. He was equally demanding as a friend, extremely competitive with any other writer, and he would remember for decades any reviewer who ever slighted his work. Friends and critics alike would often find themselves recast as antagonists in Bellow’s later work. “No amount of praise was enough” for Bellow, as the void caused by his mother’s death “could never be filled.”
Atlas understands the intricate connections between Bellow’s fragile psyche and the literary works he produced: Many of Bellow’s stories and novels involve a protagonist who cannot bear to make a commitment himself, for example, and often “the wives in Bellow’s novels come off as harpies, while the mistresses . . . exhibit an intimidating sexual rapacity.” In Bellow’s best work, as in Herzog, Bellow’s neuroses are transmuted into powerful art:
[T]he novel captures the emotional truth of Bellow’s life: the discovery that, like Herzog, he was a man both “mother-bound” and “his father’s son,” condemned to reenact the pattern of betrayal and rejection passed from one generation to the next. The power of Herzog, its purity of style, derives in large measure from its self-knowledge, its awareness of the person its author had become.
In his lesser later works, such as the novel The Dean’s December (1982), Bellow’s prejudices are only thinly veiled, his life experiences (including his real-life enemies) only barely disguised. Where he uses his own narcissistic feelings, his novels tend to have less significance: Humboldt’s Gift, based on the poet Delmore Schwartz, is “an act of revenge against the poet who had once taunted him,” the biographer claims (and Atlas also wrote the definitive biography of Schwartz); “Zetland” is a short story that catalogs the struggles and failures of his childhood friend Isaac Rosenfeld.
The main drawback to Atlas’s biography is that these limitations and weaknesses of Bellow the man begin to affect (after several hundred pages of recurring stories of his hatreds and infidelities) the reader’s regard for the fiction. Each of his five marriages (with the exception of the last) ends in the same way, with extramarital affairs, recriminations, and abandonment. Bellow’s fiction is strongly autobiographical, and Atlas is right to read the fiction with one eye on the life and career. However, the bottomless self-absorption in Bellow’s life, like his use of fiction as a weapon against his enemies, real and imagined, finally wears down the reader.
The novelist, however, soldiers on. Bellow celebrated his eightieth birthday in 1995; four years later, his first daughter (and fourth child) was born to his fifth wife, Janis. The next year, Bellow published his best novel in at least a quarter of a century, Ravelstein. In the preceding twenty-five-year period, Bellow had established himself as a major voice in American literature. Following the Nobel Prize in 1976, Bellow wrote and spoke out on a number of issues, and his nonfiction takes up a large portion of the shelf of his books; To Jerusalem and Back: A Personal Account(1976), for example, is one of the best early studies of the political situation in the Middle East. Although many of his opinions grew increasingly reactionary in later years, his views on art and culture established him as an important commentator on American culture and appeared in journals and newspapers around the world. Atlas’s biography, accompanied by dozens of photographs, ten pages of acknowledgments, and forty-five pages of notes, will probably prove to be the definitive portrait of this major American twentieth century writer for decades to come.
Sources for Further Study
The Economist 357 (October 14, 2000): 102.
New Statesman 129 (October 23, 2000): 51.
The New York Times, October 16, 2000, p. B7.
The New York Times Book Review 105 (October 15, 2000): 10.
Publishers Weekly 247 (September 11, 2000): 76.
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