Saul Bellow Biography

Saul Bellow once said that “Fiction is the higher autobiography.” And true to his words, Bellow infused his work with incidents and characters from his own life and beloved hometown of Chicago. It was a method that worked well: he has garnered more awards for his writing than any other American author, including the Nobel Prize in literature, three Pulitzer Prizes, and the Presidential Medal of Honor. In addition to using personal experience in his writing—shown to particularly good effect in his much-loved breakthrough novel The Adventures of Augie March—Bellow considered himself to be a “historian of society,” and his anthropological approach is apparent in critical and popular successes such as Henderson the Rain King, Herzog, and Mr. Sammler’s Planet.

Facts and Trivia

  • Although considered a through-and-through American, Bellow was not actually born in the United States. He was born in Quebec and didn’t move to the United States until he was nine years old.
  • Bellow’s mother wanted him to be either a rabbi or a concert violinist. However, during a hospitalization at age eight, Bellow fell in love with literature and committed to that path for the rest of his life.
  • One of his closest friends was the writer Ralph Ellison.
  • He once said that the character Eugene Henderson (from Henderson the Rain King), a pig farmer and violinist, was the most like himself.
  • Regarding his craft, Bellow claimed, “The writer’s art appears to seek compensation for the hopelessness or meanness of existence.”

Biography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1945

Article abstract: In writing nine novels and numerous short stories and articles over several decades, Bellow, as an American writer, has achieved international recognition signified only in part by his receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1976.

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Early Life

Saul Bellow was born in 1915, in Lachine, Canada, the fourth child of religious Jewish parents who had emigrated two years earlier from Russia. He grew up speaking English, French, Yiddish, and Hebrew. At the age of nine, he moved with his family to Chicago, where he spent all of his spare hours in the public libraries. By the time he entered Tuley High School, he had already made his first efforts at writing fiction. After graduation in 1933, he enrolled in the University of Chicago, transferring two years later to Northwestern University, where he founded a Socialist club and received, in 1937, a bachelor’s degree with honors in anthropology and sociology.

He entered graduate school at the University of Wisconsin but soon dropped out. On December 31, 1937, he married Anita Goshkin, a social worker; they would have one child, Gregory, born some years later. Bellow had continued to write since high school, publishing his first story in 1941. He also wrote biographies of American authors for the Works Progress Administration Writers Project and participated in Mortimer Adler’s “Great Books” program for the Encyclopœdia Britannica. He also did some teaching. In 1944, his first novel, Dangling Man, and in 1947, his second, The Victim, were published. The novels had a mixed critical reception but were highly regarded by antiestablishment intellectuals, especially for their existentialist themes and apparent European influences, notably that of Fyodor Dostoevski.

A Guggenheim Fellowship in 1948, allowing him to begin work on his next novel, launched young Bellow on his brilliant career—a career more successful, perhaps, than that of any other contemporary American writer. Yet as often happens with successful people, Bellow’s private life was turbulent: Soon his marriage to Anita failed, and, following an unfriendly divorce, he remarried—a pattern he would repeat twice more in twenty years. His dark and beautiful wives, with all of their faults and virtues, would find their way into his novels, as would Bellow himself. The characters representing the author were often larger and stronger than Bellow, but not necessarily more handsome. Bellow has deep-set brown eyes, a “theatrically chiseled” nose, and hair that turned to silver somewhat prematurely. He has been described as physically slight and boyish, about five feet nine inches tall—weighing perhaps 150 pounds in his younger years—but others have noted a certain athletic quality in his build, with a very sturdy chest. Altogether, these physical and psychological aspects of Bellow’s life offer an unexpected parallel to those of Ernest Hemingway, a writer whose influence on Bellow was not great.

Life’s Work

Bellow’s first important success was The Adventures of Augie March, published in 1953—a partly autobiographical Bildungsroman, modeled in part on its picaresque predecessor, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). This exuberant, stylistically innovative novel was both a best-seller and a critical success, and after thirty-five years remains a favorite among Bellow’s extremely broad and varied readership. For this work, he won the National Book Award for Fiction, the first of three such awards he would receive. In 1955, he received a second Guggenheim Fellowship, and the following year he married Alexandra Tschacbasov; they had one child, Adam.

Bellow’s novella, Seize the Day, was published in 1956, together with three stories and a one-act play. The style of Seize the Day is beautifully sparse and tight (in marked contrast to the sprawling energy of The Adventures of Augie March); Bellow delineates the defeat of middle-aged Tommy Wilhelm, jobless, penniless, his marriage a failure. The concluding paragraphs are as famous as any in contemporary literature. Tommy chances into a funeral parlor, stands by the coffin of a stranger, and begins to weep. “Soon he was past words, past reason, coherence. He could not stop. The source of all tears had suddenly sprung open within him. . . .” The controlled emotional power of this novella places it in contrast to most of Bellow’s other works, which tend to be dominated by intellectual argument.

Bellow himself has said his own favorite among his writings is Henderson the Rain King, published in 1959. It is a deliberately composed “quest romance” that takes the protagonist (Bellow’s first who was not Jewish) to Africa, a place that Bellow had not yet visited. The gigantic, blustering, crazed, and comic Henderson was not universally popular among reviewers and critics, but the novel nevertheless testifies to Bellow’s remarkable creative diversity.

After a stay of ten years in the New York City area, Bellow returned permanently to Chicago. Having divorced Alexandra, he married Susan Glassman (in December of 1961); their son, Daniel, was born in 1963. In 1962, Bellow joined the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. His novel Herzog, a best-seller like all of his books from The Adventures of Augie March onward, was published in 1964; for it, he won four major prizes, including the National Book Award for Fiction for the second time. More than one critic found this novel “brilliant”—its almost pure realism is the mode in which Bellow works best.

In 1968 appeared Mosby’s Memoirs and Others Stories, the title work proving that Bellow is a master of the realistic short story as well. In that year, Bellow was awarded in France the Croix de Chevalier des Arts et Lettres. By this time, Bellow had been separated from Susan; great bitterness would remain between them, as alimony payments would be contested following divorce, culminating in an open fight in court in 1977. During this same period (from the mid-1960’s), Bellow lost the favor of most leftist American intellectuals following his attendance at the same White House dinner in 1965 that Robert Lowell had refused to attend in political protest against United States policy in Vietnam. Bellow’s conservatism consisted chiefly in not accepting the ideas and manners of the radicals, but since that time, he has nevertheless come to be identified by many as an establishment figure.

Although Mr. Sammler’s Planet (1970) was not enthusiastically received by reviewers, it won for its author a third National Book Award for Fiction. The protagonist, an old Polish Jew who is trying to cope with life in a huge metropolis, effectively criticizes the insanity of American culture from the point of view of rational conservatism. What is of most interest here, perhaps, is the dissimilarity of this novel to Bellow’s other works.

In Humboldt’s Gift (1975), Charles Citrine, the protagonist, reminisces about his friend Humboldt, who is based on the poets John Berryman and Delmore Schwartz, whom Bellow had known in his younger years. In this novel, the plot is casual, the style uneven, sometimes careless, but the attention to detail, one of Bellow’s strongest points, is superb. The same criticism applies to The Dean’s December (1982), though now the protagonist, Albert Corde, dramatizes through his own experience the contrast between Eastern (Romanian) Communism and Western (American) capitalism. The focus is chiefly on their faults, with those of Communism seeming to be most intractable. Bellow’s conclusion here is similar to certain implications in his nonfiction work To Jerusalem and Back: A Personal Account (1976), where he suggests that the struggle between Jew and Arab could somehow be dealt with in an orderly way if only each side did not continually act irrationally, against its own interests.

Bellow won the Pulitzer Prize for Humboldt’s Gift in 1975; in 1976, he received the Nobel Prize for Literature. In 1974, he had married Alexandra Bagdasar Tulcea, a professor of mathematics at Northwestern University. It seems very likely that Albert Corde’s wife, Minna, a professor of astronomy, born in Romania, was based on this new woman in Bellow’s life. The last scene in The Dean’s December places man and wife together so as to show their mutual love, respect, and concern; perhaps this scene reflects a certain happiness in marriage that Saul Bellow, now in the fullness of his career, had not earlier known.

Summary

Saul Bellow’s impact on American culture has been made through his novels, which reflect his own sense of himself and his relationship to his society. Bellow partly represents that older sense of America as a haven for European émigrés—first as the son of Russian-Jewish émigrés to Canada, then as a French-Canadian himself, newly arrived in Chicago. He tells of the pain of adjustment in The Adventures of Augie March. The pain of being Jewish in a nation that does not really love Jews is a frequent theme in his work, although, ultimately, Bellow accepts casual assimilation as a suitable choice for himself. In this respect, he could be said to symbolize the diversity of the United States without testifying to a false harmony.

Bellow sees himself as an American writer who happens to be Jewish, not as a Jewish writer—though he identifies profoundly with Jews, including Israeli Jews. Yet Bellow is not a practicing, or religious Jew. He seeks religious experience primarily within the realm of ideas. His first loyalty is that of the intellectual to the world of ideas, and it is this special world that is chiefly dramatized in his novels. In so doing, Bellow has had an important impact on Americans. In a nation where intellectual novels are uncommon, Bellow has made a career writing such works, almost all of them best-sellers. He has helped Americans examine their role as individuals in relation to society—often in opposition to it—and as individuals in conflict with themselves.

Bellow seldom speaks of patriotism, but rather tends to relegate “society” to a sort of naturalistic background. Bellow’s vision is clear and honest; his characters are sensitive, aware, and vital. His perceptions are sufficiently compelling so that even many of those who have ideologically “rejected” him will still read his next book. He always opens up new worlds. Thus he has compelled citizens of the whole world, not only Americans, to read his works. His international recognition, in turn, makes his impact on Americans all the greater, offering them some hope of attaining greater sophistication, which they need.

Bibliography

Braham, Jeanne. A Sort of Columbus: The American Voyages of Saul Bellow’s Fiction. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1984. Although biography appears only incidentally, this monograph is of interest for its emphasis on the strictly American themes in Bellow’s work.

Dutton, Robert R. Saul Bellow. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1982. The first chapter includes a succinct, readable biography. Also provided are a useful chronology of life and work and a selected bibliography.

Fuchs, Daniel. Saul Bellow: Vision and Revision. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1984. Biographical references occur only incidentally in the text, but two chapters are of special interest: “Bellow and the Modern Tradition” and “Bellow and the Example of Dostoevsky.” There is also a good final chapter on The Dean’s December.

Harris, Mark. Saul Bellow: Drumlin Woodchuck. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1980. Anecdotal yet well-documented account of Mark Harris’ dealings with Bellow in the 1960’s. Shows how certain characters in the novels are based on Bellow and certain women in Bellow’s life. Harris admires the writer, but not the man very much.

Newman, Judie. Saul Bellow and History. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1984. Interesting for its concentration on a subject that is central to Bellow’s preoccupations. Excellent bibliography.

Wilson, Jonathan. On Bellow’s Planet: Readings from the Dark Side. London: Associated University Presses, 1985. Original, perceptive discussion of all nine of Bellow’s novels. Biographical details are given only casually. Good selected bibliography.

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