Saul Bellow’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Humboldt’s Gift is a novel of much thought and little action, a lot like its main character, Charlie Citrine. Charlie spends a great deal of time inside his own head, exploring anthroposophy, thinking about the blight of boredom in contemporary culture, worrying about his girlfriend, worrying about money, trying to communicate with the dead, and reminiscing about the past. As the novel progresses and his reality worsens, Charlie withdraws all the more from society. Despite the reader’s proximity to the narrator through the first-person point of view, most knowledge of Charlie’s character actually comes from what other people say about him, often right to his face. What many people say is that Charlie is a snob.
Charlie is as sentimental as he is intellectual; the one may temper the other, but both still leave him removed from reality.
Charlie does not seem to be a snob from the first-person perspective, where the reader is as lost in Charlie’s thoughts as Charlie is. He does not treat others with obvious superiority. In his private mind, he only finds fault with people who do not mean him well, such as Denise, Cantabile, and Urbanovich, and that can hardly be considered a sign of a superior attitude.
When Charlie fumbles his cue to repay Cantabile at the Playboy Club and inadvertently offends Mike Schneiderman, Cantabile says, “You have contempt. You’re arrogant, Citrine. You despise us.” Although Charlie’s actions are unintentional, Cantabile is not wrong. Throughout Humboldt’s Gift, Charlie condemns people who have invested too heavily in the American dream. His worst reproach is reserved for lawyers, as if they are the grease that keeps the whole ugly machine running. Even Naomi, Charlie’s childhood sweetheart, is not spared. Although he is excessively sentimental about her, Charlie sees Naomi’s transformation into a common American as something Naomi gives up—never mind that she is probably the most content person in the whole novel. Charlie pities Cantabile’s earnest desire to be a successful hoodlum; of course, when Charlie tells Cantabile that he likes to sit in his room and think for hours, Cantabile comments, “A hell of an egotistical thing to do.” Schneiderman and his gossip column mean nothing to Charlie, although he pretends to care in order to satisfy those around him, those who are living in reality. Denise calls Charlie a snob when she senses his disdain for the intelligentsia with whom she surrounds herself—and Charlie does not disagree. Although he has always disdained Denise’s friends, he has never bothered to expend any energy in explaining himself. Renata writes to him, “I admit you’re smart. . . . You should be as tolerant toward undertakers as I am toward intellectuals.” His singular pursuit of some undefined truth seems to provide the dividing line between those whom Charlie deems worthy and those who are not.
At their kindest, Charlie’s friends and associates tie his snobbishness to a dreamy, detached attitude that goes along with his long and tangled thought processes. To some degree, he is forgiven his distracted air because he is a writer, but the less Charlie publishes, the fewer people consider his rambling thoughts to be useful to his work. Charlie’s lifelong friend George says to him, “This abstract stuff is poison to a guy like you. . . . You’re too exclusive, you’re going to dry out!” Renata and Naomi do not consider Charlie to be a snob as much as intolerably boring and long-winded. Their focus is on the material world; spiritual matters are worthless and overly romantic. Downright hostile, Renata and Naomi are unsupportive of Charlie’s mental aerobics, which may belie Bellow’s own experience and prejudice against women (he was married five times). Kathleen and Demmie are exceptions. Kathleen, who was once married to Humboldt, misses the poet’s ecstatic, intellectual conversations, even if she does not...
(The entire section is 13,736 words.)