Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The critical reception of The Dean’s December was mixed. No one has claimed for it the excellence of Herzog (1964), The Adventures of Augie March (1953), or Henderson the Rain King (1959). Some critics have claimed that the novel is a failure. In John Updike’s felicitous phrase, Bellow is not simply a good writer, “He is one of the rare writers who we . . . feel to be taking mimesis a layer or two deeper than it has gone before,” yet The Dean’s December lacks “a firm, simple center.” Some critics have admired Bellow’s descriptions of Bucharest, yet there is a consensus that the descriptions of Chicago are even more effective. Most critics and readers have felt that the Tocquevillian comparison of the Communist system with that of Chicago does not work. There is more disagreement about the second major criticism of the novel, the figure of Corde. Although an unconvincing dean, he is nevertheless a substantial, contradictory, fascinating character. As Robert Towers pointed out, even more than in Herzog Bellow has staked everything upon the personality, reflections, and speech of his central character. This daring is not without interest and rewards. The Dean’s December is certainly a problem novel—it is far from an aesthetic success—but in it Bellow has revealed some of his most intimate, intriguing personal concerns.