Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*Chicago. Gritty midwestern city in which the Canadian-born Saul Bellow grew up. Chicago figures prominently in his writings; indeed, Bellow’s great strength is his portrayal of the density and fabric of modern urban life in America. The city is associated with the Jewish American social and cultural experience to which Bellow is drawn. Such major urban centers as Chicago, with its grinding poverty, street crime, youth gangs, and widespread racism—all the ills of modern society—are also focal points of cultural and intellectual life and thus are treated somewhat ambivalently in Bellow’s fiction.

American intellectuals come to love and despise the modern urban civilization upon which their existences are ultimately based. Cities are places to which intellectuals are invariably drawn but from which they must also inevitably escape. Ever since the rise of modern urban centers, there has been a labeling of cities as sources of social alienation in which people no longer know their neighbors, a contrast to the idealized romantic notion of rural communities.

Chicago is, in part, representative of the domain of actuality or “real life” in the modern world with which the vain and emotionally confused professor of literature, Moses E. Herzog, is continually confronted and with which he must come to terms. As an intellectual and idealist who has written on the social and political aspects of European Romanticism, he prefers to view what is often a rather harsh and brutal reality in terms of abstracted notions and philosophical ideas. In the cities he meets the urban people—like the crude and mocking lawyer Sandor Himmelstein or the pompous professor Valentine Gersbach, the supposed friend who steals away Herzog’s wife, Madeleine Pontritter—who take it upon themselves to be his “teachers” and to introduce him to a nihilistic vision of reality that he instinctively abhors.

Herzog’s reaction to this spiritual malaise and philosophical nihilism, especially the loss of humanistic moral values in favor of mute and indifferent facts, is an expression of Bellow’s own response to the alienation of human beings and the negativity of the...

(The entire section is 901 words.)

Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

Sexuality in the 1950s and 1960s
Most Americans in the 1950s retained conservative attitudes towards sexuality: they did not...

(The entire section is 594 words.)

Literary Style

(Novels for Students)

Herzog contains a unique narrative structure that helps illuminate its themes. Part of the novel is composed in an...

(The entire section is 293 words.)

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Point of view in Herzog is unusual and effective. Technically, it is third-person, yet the reader seems to be sharing Herzog's...

(The entire section is 189 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Novels for Students)

1963: The Feminine Mystique, by Betty Friedan, is published. The book chronicles the growing sense of dissatisfaction American...

(The entire section is 208 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

Using the historical section in this entry and other research sources, determine whether Herzog has followed an existentialist philosophy in...

(The entire section is 148 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The literary work most often mentioned in connection with Herzog is James Joyce's Ulysses (1922). It is tempting to see Leopold...

(The entire section is 135 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

Bellow's The Adventures ofAugie March (1953) follows the hero's coming of age as he tries to make sense of his life in the middle part...

(The entire section is 146 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)

Corner, Martin, "Moving Outwards: Consciousness, Discourse and Attention in Saul Bellow's Fiction," in Studies in the...

(The entire section is 278 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Clayton, John Jacob. Saul Bellow: In Defense of Man. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1968. One of the pioneering studies on Bellow. Interprets the changes the protagonist in Herzog undergoes in the course of his narrative as symbolizing hope for humanity.

Cohen, Sarah Blacher. Saul Bellow’s Enigmatic Laughter. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1974. Includes a discussion of Herzog that contrasts the protagonist’s experience in his house in Ludeyville, where he lives in a kind of “Eden communing only with God and nature,” with the novel’s end, where he awaits the coming of another human being, a sign of his return to sanity.

Dutton, Robert R. Saul Bellow. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1982. Points out that Saul Bellow in Herzog is showing how one man’s earthly salvation lies “in learning to live with himself.”

Pifer, Ellen. Saul Bellow Against the Grain. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990. Discusses Herzog’s growing awareness of his relationship with God.

Wilson, Jonathan. On Bellow’s Planet: Readings from the Dark Side. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1985. Sees Herzog as a novel about the protagonist’s release from his obsession with Madeleine and consequently from his need to write letters that involve intellectual conflicts with others.