Ruth K. Miller’s Saul Bellow: A Biography of the Imagination is not a conventional biography. Most of the important events in Bellow’s life are mentioned in the book in passing, but Bellow’s life is not the focus. It is, instead, a study of the “progress of the writer” from his earliest published works up until his most recent ones. This study of Bellow as a writer also includes an account of the critical reception of his major works. It is a useful book for those who are seeking an overall treatment of Bellow’s novels, but those readers who are looking for a biography of Bellow will be disappointed.
Miller claims her authority to speak of Bellow as a writer from her personal relationship with him. Bellow was her teacher at a business college in 1939. He saw some potential in Miller and encouraged her to apply to the University of Chicago; Miller attended Chicago and later became a professor of English. She kept up this friendship with Bellow over the years. She does not, however, speak for Bellow. He has not approved the book, and there well may be judgments and comments he will not approve of in the book.
After discussing her personal relationship with Bellow, Miller gives a very brief account of Bellow’s early years. Most interesting, perhaps, is Bellow’s friendship with Isaac Rosenfeld. Bellow and Rosenfeld went to New York together in the 1940’s, and Rosenfeld had some early success as a reviewer and essayist for the Partisan Review. He was never able to write a popular or critically successful novel, however, and died young. There is a great contrast between his unfulfilled life and that of the Nobel Prize-winner and celebrated novelist.
Miller’s treatment of Bellow’s first novel, Dangling Man (1944), is typical of the rest of her book. She concentrates on retelling the novel’s plot, a summary that may be of value to those who have not read Bellow but that is annoying to those who have. She touches briefly on the characters of the novel, calling Joseph a “prototype of the Bellow hero who pursues the chimera of instruction and rejects the instructor.” The answer to the search for instruction and enlightenment is “Prepare to live and not to die.” This is an important critical comment, since so many of Bellow’s novels do present the protagonist as a seeker who finds not an answer but a directive to live. Miller does not, however, comment on Bellow’s refusal to offer a full closure to any of his novels. This is a critical problem that needs more attention.
The reception of Dangling Man is dealt with very quickly. The reviews were mixed; many praised the first novel of a promising writer, while one reviewer disagreed and called the novel “sterile.” Miller does not adjudicate between these competing judgments but is content to record them.
Bellow’s next novel, The Victim (1948), is dealt with in a similar fashion. Miller sums up the novel cogently. She deals briefly with the characters, especially the antagonist Allbee, who asks the Bellow question “What am I going to do about it?” The answer to this novel is even less clear than that to Dangling Man. The protagonist, Asa, has found a place for himself, and Allbee seems to be enjoying life, but there is not a direct answer.
The reception of The Victim is more interesting and significant. Bellow acquired the label “Jewish writer” after the publication of this novel, which dealt directly with anti- Semitism, but he fiercely resisted such labels. Miller records Bellow’s many comments on why he is a universal and not merely a Jewish writer. In an interview, Bellow summed up his position succinctly: “I don’t have any sense of ethnic responsibility. That is not my primary obligation. My primary responsibility is to my trade and not to any particular ethnic group.” It is true that Bellow often chooses to portray Jewish characters, but many of his protagonists are identifiably not Jewish. Miller does not add very much to the debate. She is content to cite Bellow’s objections to the label and does not add any critical observations.
On occasion, Miller does bring her observations on particular novels together into some interesting critical comments. She includes a brief discussion of Bellow’s women in this section, citing their reduced role. Women certainly are not the central figures in the novels. Miller, however, does not note that they tend to be portrayed as either whores or bitches, with no middle ground between these extremes.
Bellow’s next novel was a watershed for him as a writer. The Adventures of Augie March (1953) is written in an exuberant style with a loose structure. Celebrating Bellow’s “discovery of an original style,” Miller suggests that he was getting rid of influences and models and finding his...
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