(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Herzog is going through a difficult time. While living in New York City, in June, he spends most of his time writing letters. Sometimes he writes them on paper, sometimes only in his mind. He writes to people he knows, people he has never met, and people who died long before he was born. He writes to Dwight David Eisenhower, thirty-fourth president of the United States; Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, who died in 1900; his dead mother; some of his intellectual rivals; even God. In the letters, he argues about intellectual things the people said or wrote; sometimes he argues about things he himself said or wrote, or failed to say or to write.

When his girlfriend, Ramona, tells him he should rest at her place on the shore, he instead leaves New York by train to visit a friend on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. While traveling, he continues writing letters. At Martha’s Vineyard, he goes to the room his hosts had prepared for him. Then, leaving a letter explaining his actions, he immediately sneaks out of the house and returns by air to New York. Back in his apartment, he starts writing letters again.

During most of the next day, he writes letters. He goes to dinner at Ramona’s apartment, where he spends the night. The next morning, he calls his lawyer, Harvey Simkin, to discuss the possibility of getting custody of his daughter, June; he hears that Madeleine, his former wife, and Valentine Gersbach, her lover, locked June in a car when they wanted to talk. Simkin has to go to court that morning but agrees to leave a message at the courthouse for Herzog. While waiting for Simkin’s message, Herzog attends several trials, including one involving an unmarried couple accused of beating the woman’s son to death. Herzog leaves the courtroom and later that day flies to Chicago. There, he goes to his father’s old house, now inhabited by his aging stepmother, and gets a pistol his father owned. It has two bullets in it. Herzog intends to use one on Madeleine and the other on Gersbach. By now it is dark. He goes to the house where he, Madeleine, and June had lived. Through the kitchen window, he sees Madeleine doing the dishes. Walking around the house, he looks through the bathroom window and sees Gersbach giving June a bath. Gersbach bathes June with obvious love, and June enjoys being bathed. The sight makes Herzog realize that he cannot kill anyone.


(The entire section is 973 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Considered by many to be Bellow’s masterwork, Herzog may well be his prototypical novel, and Herzog the prototypical Bellovian hero. Like Emily Dickinson, who wrote poems as a means of opening a communion with the world, Moses Herzog, sensitive student of Romanticism, writes letters to the world-at-large in an attempt to keep his sanity and to measure his need for compassion and empathy in a world devoid of both. Like Gimpel the Fool, Herzog is a true schlemiel, a loser by the standards of the world but a noble spirit.

Though capable of anger and self-pity at the breakup of his marriage, and of lust in his relationship with his mistress, Ramona, Herzog can still yearn for a deeper, richer life. Like the great thinkers to whom he writes his imaginary letters, he seeks meaning and peace. Even amid the bustle of the urban life of New York and Chicago, Herzog is withdrawn into the private bustle of his mind, remembering events from his broken marriage and formulating rebuttals to the negative, spirit-killing philosophies of men such as Sandor Himmelstein, whose surname means “stoney heaven,” and even seventeenth century philosopher Baruch Spinoza. His letters come to him like bursts of inspiration and serve as antidotes to his own fears that he is out of his mind.

The novel thus represents a form of psychoanalysis: Herzog’s remembrances are transferred into the actual world of his letters. The direction of the plot is thus not...

(The entire section is 504 words.)