Saul Bellow Short Fiction Analysis
Saul Bellow’s stature in large measure owes something to the depths to which he plumbed the modern condition. He addressed the disorder of the modern age, with all its horror and darkness as well as its great hope. Though intensely identified with the United States, his heroes are preoccupied with dilemmas arising out of European intellectual and cultural history. Bellow’s fictional world is at once cerebral and sensual. His concern is with the interconnections between art, politics, business, personal sexual proclivities and passions, the intellectual, and the making of culture in modern times. He is heady, like German writer Thomas Mann, revealing the limitations and powers of the self. Few contemporary American writers deal with such weighty issues as masterfully as did Bellow.
Bellow’s honors and reputation document but do not explain his importance, although it will be more clearly seen in the future when some of the main tendencies of American fiction of his era have been fully developed. He is important because he both preserved and enhanced qualities that are present in the great fictional works of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries yet he fully participated in the tumult and uncertainty of the modern era. Though he often opposed the political left and espoused “traditional” cultural positions, Bellow was not primarily a polemical writer. His main concern was not with maintaining social or cultural order but was more spiritual and philosophical in nature. In this, he differed from the group of “New York intellectuals” that centered in the 1940’s and 1950’s on the journal Partisan Review. Although Bellow was for a time friendly with members of this group he took pains to distance himself from it and to stress his essential independence of any creed or ideology, as his paramount concern was for the individual. This theme is especially prominent in his short fiction, whose smaller canvas gives heightened emphasis to Bellow’s stress on the struggle of the individual for self-definition and development against the background of the sundry obstacles the world has in store.
Bellow’s characters have selves and interact with a society and a culture that Bellow created in detail after careful observation. In some of his works, especially Mr. Sammler’s Planet, Bellow’s attitude toward that society and that culture borders on scorn, but his attitude has been earned, not merely stated in response to limitations on his own sensibility. The interaction between self and society in his work occurs against the backdrop of moral ideas. This is not to say that Bellow was didactic; rather, his work is infused with his sophisticated understanding of moral, social, and intellectual issues. In addition to preserving a rich but increasingly neglected tradition, Bellow enriched that tradition. After the exuberant opening words of The Adventures of Augie March, he also added new possibilities to the prose style of American fiction. In short, his work offers some of the benefits that readers in previous centuries sought in fiction—most notably, some ideas about how to be a person in the world—yet it also offers a technical brilliance that Bellow keeps in rein instead of letting it control his work.
Mosby’s Memoirs,and Other Stories
The stories collected in Mosby’s Memoirs, and Other Stories explore characteristic Bellow themes and clearly demonstrate the writer’s moral and aesthetic vision. “Looking for Mr. Green ” is set in Chicago during the Depression and recounts the efforts of a civil servant, George Grebe, to deliver relief checks to black residents of the south side. This is the stuff of social protest literature, and Bellow’s story does dramatize the suffering that was endemic at that time, but it is much more than didactic. Bellow avoids a single-minded attack on economic injustice and the resulting inartistic story by, among other things, using a number of contrasts and ironies. For example, two scenes...
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