Humboldt’s Gift is a kind of gothic novel in the sense that its protagonist is haunted by a ghost. The ghost is both a living man and the spirit or ideals that the man, an older writer named Von Humboldt Fleisher, represents.
Humboldt is a writer whose talent—or genius—has been corrupted by the American vision of success. The protagonist is modeled closely on Bellow’s recollections of a friend, poet Delmore Schwartz, who in the late 1930’s produced a first book of poetry that was hailed as a work of promising genius but who died with the promise unfulfilled. Humboldt has also produced a first volume of poems, Harlequin Ballads, but has since lived off his early reputation. Humboldt had “made it big,” as the narrator remarks, but had produced nothing since. Instead, he had lived the good life, which included fast cars, women, and other trappings of materialistic success.
Yet Humboldt was aware of his entrapment by the overpowering world of things. Sensing his own surrender to materialism, he had taken to playing the role of the great Romantic nonconformist. The paradox of Humboldt’s condition was that, as a poet, he was an example of unfulfillment and failure, but as a man and public figure he represented the idea of poetry as a spiritual, revivifying force capable of saving a sick society.
It is this paradox that haunts the narrator, Charlie Citrine. He too is a writer, but unlike Humboldt, his idol, he has not produced any significant work—he has written histories, biographies, and political...
(The entire section is 640 words.)