Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

An immediate critical success, Dangling Man was a first novel that pointed not only to the direction of its author’s later work but also to that of American fiction itself. Encapsulating the psychology of the 1940’s, it simultaneously looked ahead to the fiction of the 1950’s. On the first page of Dangling Man, Bellow speaks disparagingly of the “hard-boiled”: “They are unpracticed in introspection, and therefore badly equipped to deal with opponents whom they cannot shoot like big game or outdo in daring.” This scarcely veiled reference to Ernest Hemingway contains Bellow’s rejection of externalization and his intention to create a fiction of the inner life. His Joseph, introspective and flawed, is the model for all the later Bellow heroes who struggle mightily to understand and to find salvation through reason. The many alienated figures whose introspections crowd the pages of contemporary American fiction are Joseph’s descendants.

In its style and aims, no less than in its characterization, Dangling Man has pointed toward Bellow’s future work. Tersely reported evocations of grim urban landscapes relieved by sporadic metaphysical flights, all filtered through a troubled central consciousness, established a narrative mode that Bellow has never abandoned. Later protagonists, older and more sophisticated than Joseph, act on a wider stage and philosophize more abstrusely. Yet their struggles, essentially similar, are expressed by similar means. At the outset of his career, Bellow found, in Joseph’s dangling, a metaphor for the human condition. All of his future protagonists would dangle, sifting alternatives, searching for the proper means of carrying on their lives. Beginning with Joseph, these free agents, morally aware and hungry for values, have done battle against the forces of nihilism and unreason. For Bellow’s is finally a fiction that is dedicated to the celebration of human potentialities.