Humboldt’s Gift is filled with references to literature and philosophy and, on the whole, focuses more on thinking than on action. Although Humboldt’s Gift took the Pulitzer Prize in 1976, critics have given it mixed reviews. Anatole Broyard, writing for the New York Times, gives a tepid review:
While the random contents of Saul Bellow’s mind make better reading than most novels, they do not make for a good novel in this case because they are not integrated into the action, such as it is.
Richard Gilman, in a more favorable New York Times review, compliments Bellow’s examination of American views on art and culture: “Its length is a function not so much of copious incident as of slow accretion of recognitions, a painstaking working-out of a plan of escape.” Gilman identifies the central theme as misdirected intelligence. John Leonard also gives a favorable review of both the book and the author in the New York Times. He describes Humboldt’s Gift as “a fierce, energetic comedy about postwar Jewish intellectuals trying to come to terms with American popular culture.” Louis Simpson puts it succinctly in his article on Delmore Schwartz and Humboldt’s Gift for the New York Times: “The interest of Humboldt’s Gift does not lie in the plot, it is in Bellow’s ideas.” As other critics have pointed out, the plot is weak in comparison to the characters and the ideas.