Humboldt's Gift Themes
by Saul Bellow

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Social Concerns / Themes

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Humboldt's Gift examines the role of the artist in American society. The United States is an advanced technological society, controlled by business interests, dominated by money. Science achieves remarkable successes. It can perform heart bypass surgery and fly people from coast to coast. What role does art have in such a society? Is it merely the province of a few harmless intellectuals? Why is it that so many American poets have committed suicide?

Von Humboldt Fleisher acts out the agony of the poet in American society. Nothing in the society sustained his dreams. The temptations and distractions of America were too great for the individual poet. Now, his friend, Charlie Citrine, examines Humboldt's career. Charlie too is an artist who has fallen into difficulties, and the novel is largely about his struggles to avoid the fate of the dead poet.

Charlie Citrine wrestles with the question of death. A follower of Walt Whitman, he believes death is the question of questions, especially for a democracy devoted to pleasure and consumerism. He realizes that the underlying assumption of America's world view is that death is final. That assumption pervades American institutions and conduct. It dominates American thought. Nevertheless, Charlie is seeking a way out, a way to find infinitely more room in the universe. Specifically, he turns to the anthroposophic beliefs of Rudolf Steiner to help him gain a different perspective. Like religion, mysticism has taken seriously the existence of spiritual realities, and Charlie Citrine is a late twentieth-century Don Quixote on a spiritual quest.


(Novels for Students)

Money, Success, and Happiness
Money is a significant entity in Humboldt’s Gift. At the time this story is told, Charlie has been a successful writer and rich from his successes, but his wealth is drying up due to poor financial management and exploitations he has suffered by friends, family, and strangers. Numb and unhappy, Charlie is at a loss for how to transform his life. He trusts everyone so much that other people have repeatedly made off with his money and property.

By contrast, in the first part of the book, Charlie reflects on an earlier period in his life, when he was poor and happy. At that time, he was filled with ideas, energy, literature, conversation, rhetoric, and the love of beautiful Demmie Vongel. But just as Charlie’s Von Trenck is becoming a wildly successful Broadway show, his friendship with Humboldt crumbles, and his girlfriend dies in a plane wreck. Over and again, Bellow’s commentary, via the character of Humboldt, is that money and success are not tied to happiness and may, in fact, be the antithesis of happiness.

Thaxter, for example, obsessively wastes other people’s money, and although he seems jolly, he is a fair-weather friend. Renata is also fair-weather, concerned only with marrying a rich man. Although she never learns of Charlie’s destitute finances, she grows impatient with him and quickly marries someone else. Denise, Charlie’s ex-wife, got everything in their divorce—the house, the children, and a lot of his money. But it is not enough because, as Urbanovich and others point out, Charlie has an excellent potential for making more money so long as he does some work. By way of his money, Charlie has attracted a pack of jackals, none of whom has Charlie’s interests in mind. He can only be rid of them by giving up his money.

Humboldt’s message is lost on Charlie until the end of the book. Charlie comes into a great deal of money via Humboldt’s legacy but focuses instead on finally leading the life that interests him rather than pursuing greater riches. Money is blinding to creativity, which is partly why Humboldt is so angry with Charlie and his flashy success with the play. Charlie was not being true to his artistry; he was just being popular.

Insanity and Artistry
It is a long-held assumption in Western culture that artists are eccentric and passionate because their creativity and talent stems from their...

(The entire section is 1,496 words.)