Saul Bellow Biography

At a Glance

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.
  • As to his craft, Bellow claimed, “The writer’s art appears to seek compensation for the hopelessness or meanness of existence.”


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

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.

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”...

(The entire section is 1945 words.)