Bellow, Saul 1915–
Award-winning Jewish-American novelist, Bellow has written witty and intellectual novels which have won him world acclaim. His best-known works are Herzog, The Adventures of Augie March, and Henderson the Rain King. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
Saul Bellow has become not merely a writer with whom it is possible to come to terms, but one with whom it is necessary to come to terms—perhaps of all our novelists the one we need most to understand, if we are to understand what the novel is doing at the present moment…. His appearance as the first Jewish-American novelist to stand at the center of American literature is flanked by a host of matching successes on other levels of culture and subculture…. The acceptance of Bellow as the leading novelist of his generation must be paired off with the appearance of Marjorie Morningstar on the front cover of Time. On all levels, the Jew is in the process of being mythicized into the representative American….
As The Victim is Bellow's most specifically Jewish book, Augie March (in this, as in all other respects, a reaction from the former) is his most generally American. Its milieu is Jewish American, its speech patterns somehow molded by Yiddish, but its theme is the native theme of Huckleberry Finn the rejection of power and commitment and success, the pursuit of a primal innocence. It is a strangely non-Jewish book in being concerned not with a man's rise but with his evasion of rising…. Unlike Twain, Bellow, though he has found the proper tone for his episodes, cannot recapture it for his close. Augie, which begins with such rightness, such conviction, does not know how to end; shriller and shriller, wilder and wilder, it finally whirls apart in a frenzy of fake euphoria and exclamatory prose….
Since Bellow's style is based on a certain conversational ideal at once intellectual and informal, dialogue is for him necessarily a distillation of his strongest effects. Sometimes one feels his characters' speeches as the main events of the books in which they occur; certainly they have the impact of words exchanged among Jews, that is to say, the impact of actions, not merely overheard but felt, like kisses or blows. Implicit in the direction of his style is a desire to encompass a world larger, richer, more disorderly and untrammeled than that of any other writer of his generation; it is this which impels him toward the picaresque, the sprawling, episodic manner of Augie March. But there is a counter impulse in him toward the tight, rigidly organized, underplayed style of The Victim: and at his best, I think, as in Seize the Day, an ability to balance the two tendencies against each other: hysteria and catalepsy, the centrifugal and the centripetal in a sort of perilous rest….
More, perhaps, than any other recent novelist, Bellow is aware that the collapse of the proletarian novel, which marks the starting place of his own art, has meant more than the disappearance of a convention in the history of fiction. With the disappearance of the proletarian novel as a form there has taken place the gradual dissolution of the last widely shared definition of man: man as the product of society. If man seems at the moment extraordinarily lonely, it is not only because he finds it hard to communicate with his fellows, but because he has lost touch with any overarching definition of himself. This Bellow realizes; as he realizes that it is precisely in such loneliness, once man...
(This entire section contains 6504 words.)
learns not to endure but tobecome that loneliness, that man can rediscover his identity and his fellowship with others.
Leslie A. Fiedler, "Saul Bellow," in Prairie Schooner, Summer, 1957, pp. 103-10.
There is something in Bellow's accent that may remind us of the innocent and childlike spirit of a Stephen Crane, consumed as the earlier writer was also by the flames of his own oedipal and religious conflict…. Saul Bellow is genuinely concerned with, and even oppressed by, the moral values of his heritage—that he suffers from them—while [others have] cashed in on them.
Maxwell Geismar, "Saul Bellow: Novelist of the Intellectuals" (reprinted by permission of Hill and Wang, a division of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.: © 1958 by Maxwell Geismar), in his American Moderns: From Rebellion to Conformity, Hill & Wang, 1958, pp. 210-24.
Bellow still works in a comic tradition that is greater than farce or the comedy of manners. He has not only farce and wit but also humor—a richer thing, being permeated with realism, emotion, and love of human temperament. His imagination is fecund and resourceful. His tradition, at a hazard, includes, besides the naturalistic novel, Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, Joyce, and Yiddish humor….
It appears that although Bellow's insistence on being free is not a complete view of human destiny, neither is it simply a piece of naïveté or moral irresponsibility, as has sometimes been suggested. He believes that if we ever define our character and our fate it will be because we have caught up with our own legend, realized our own imagination. Bellow's fertile sense of the ever-possible conversion of reality and imagination, fact and legend, into each other is the source of the richness and significance of his writing. He differs in this respect from the traditional practice of American prose romance, which forces the real and imaginary far apart and finds that there is no circuit of life between them…. Bellow differs, too, from the pure realist, who describes human growth as a simple progress away from legend and toward fact, and from the naturalistic novelist, who conceives of circumstance as always defeating the human impulse of further thrusts toward autonomy. Which is merely to say that Bellow's sense of the conversion of reality and imagination is something he shares with the greatest novelists.
Richard Chase, "The Adventures of Saul Bellow: The Progress of a Novelist," in Commentary, April, 1959, pp. 323-30.
Anyone who has read his first two novels, Dangling Man and The Victim, knows that Bellow began with an almost excessive nobility of style, that the open and comically pretentious style in which Augie talks [in The Adventures of Augie March] is a tour de force. Bellow has always been fascinated by characters who, in the deep Existentialist sense, are conscious of being de trop, excessive of themselves and their society, insatiable in their demands on life. All his representative men, in the phrase of Henderson the rain king, cry "I want! I want!" This excess of human possibility over social goals, of the problem, man, over his intended satisfactions, led to a prose in Augie which is rapturously, not whiningly, faithful to all the signs and opportunities of experience…. In Augie, Bellow attained a rosy deliverance from the grip of his past, he discovered himself equal to the excitement of the American experience, he shook himself all over and let himself go.
Alfred Kazin, "The Alone Generation," in Harper's, October, 1959, pp. 127-31.
I know that there are many people to whom Bellow's novels seem the familiar material of American naturalism, and who even think of him as a tough, aggressive writer. But I do not understand them. To me Bellow's world is far from being identical with the mass big-city America he writes about. It is distinctively a world of his own—in style, in speculative intelligence, in the anguish of its feeling and the conscious buffoonery of its wit. It as little resembles even the European tradition of the novel Bellow would like to follow as it does those young American novelists who have lately found in him the kind of strength they would like to capture. Bellow, even for a writer, is so much his own man that the various cultural labels that come with him—the Chicagoan, the Jew, the one-time anthropologist—figure more as themes in his work than they explain him. One of the key themes in his fiction, however, is the attempt of his protagonists to get a grip on existence, to understand not themselves (they know that this is impossible) but the infinitely elusive universe in which, as human creatures, they find themselves….
The external world, for Bellow, is always the covering, not the home, of a spirit not so much disaffected as unattachable. He is a novelist who in this sense reminds one of "metaphysical" American novelists like Melville, for he identifies man's quest with the range of the mind itself. Even when he describes a sinister mountebank dismally carrying pot roast and purple cabbage to a cafeteria table, Bellow sees in him multiple aspects of the human condition.
What makes Bellows' work so unusual, and in its very sense of the extreme often so comic, is the fact that his characters are all burdened by a speculative quest, a need to understand their particular destiny within the general problem of human destiny. This compulsion, even when it is unconscious, as is the case of Asa Leventhal in The Victim or Tommy Wilhelm in Seize the Day, or mocked in himself as it is by Augie March, is the motivating energy of his heroes. And in … Henderson the Rain King, the cry "I want! I want!" forces the hero to desert his family for Africa….
Bellow's sense of comedy is always a human being's diffidence before the superior forces of life, a Chaplinesque sense of himself as the accidental and paltry vessel on which life has been conferred. Privately, Bellow has always had this humor to a surpassing degree. I've never known any writer who has more clearly both a sense of his destiny as a writer and a humorous self-deprecation before his fate. Some time ago, when a Fuller Brush man at his door who had got nowhere with him finally demanded, "Won't you even take it as a gift?" Bellow is supposed to have replied, "I've been given the gift of life, and it's more than I know what to do with."
Alfred Kazin, "The World of Saul Bellow" (1959), in his Contemporaries (© 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961 by Alfred Kazin: reprinted by permission of Atlantic-Little, Brown & Co.), Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1962, pp. 217-23.
Most serious critcs … would probably single out Saul Bellow as the leading American novelist of the postwar period. There are many reasons for this. First of all, Bellow is an intellectual, by which I do not only mean that he is intelligent, but also that his work exhibits a closer involvement with ideas than the work of most other writers in this period…. His books, whatever else we may say of them, mean something: they are charged with the urgency and the passion of a man to whom the issues he writes about are matters of life and death. And finally, Bellow is a stylist of the first order, perhaps the greatest virtuoso of language the novel has seen since Joyce.
Norman Podhoretz, "The Adventures of Saul Bellow" (1959), in his Doings and Undoings (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1953, 1954, 1955, 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1963, 1964 by Norman Podhoretz), Farrar, Straus, 1964, pp. 205-27.
Bellow's large novel, The Adventures of Augie March, constitutes the mainstay of his reputation not merely because of its bulk or the multitude of its themes, or even because of the unusual amount of favorable critical attention it has received, but primarily because of the freshness and innovations it has brought to the form of the novel. For this book has rendered a new, if not always convincing, reinter-pretation of the social novel without entirely exploding the form of the social novel itself. Like The [sic] Dangling Man and The Victim, this "new" novel of the Fifties explores the life and consciousness of a disaffiliated urban hero.
Ralph Freedman, "Saul Bellow: The Illusion of Environment," in Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 1, No. 1, 1960 (© 1960 by the Regents of the University of Wisconsin).
The comic turn which Bellow puts upon his crucial situations is no doubt partly an American response. He knows that writers everywhere have been concerned in our time with men in impossible fixes; he is thoroughly aware of the grave, not to say morbid, sense of the "absurd," that watchword of postwar European letters. Yet an American writer has reason to be less surprised than his European fellows at finding the traditional props of human values to have fallen…. And certainly Bellow is not alone in seeing the absurdity of the absurd, the ridiculousness of the serious: two other writers who come to mind are Ralph Ellison and [J.F] Powers. The Negro, the Catholic, and the Jew have in [the] present generation joined the Southerner in discovering the advantage of being in a conscious minority; if the politicians and authors of textbooks had not been saying so for so long, one might speculate that this is one of the most viable ways to be an American….
In his own way, Bellow joins Emerson and Whitman in admonishing us not to change, but to live, and like his predecessors he does not intend to live meanly. Henderson the Rain King gives one more proof of that. In the first place, Bellow's energetic, alienated, suffering, and remarkably unquiet hero enacts a fable against salvation by good works…. But Bellow's purpose goes beyond his demonstrating the superiority of American know-how in satirizing America. Henderson's main adventure is among the lion-people, among whom he learns both acceptance and aspiration.
J. C. Levenson, "Bellow's Dangling Men," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. IV, No. 4, 1960, pp. 3-14.
Bellow is both in a new and old-fashioned sense a sustained fantasist of the real…. The discovery of reality, in the end, is the discovery of the limits we willfully impose on the real. Human knowledge is always embarrassed by the presence of life. The sense of cosmic wonder Bellow preserves through his novels lightens the solemnity of the spiritual quest his heroes undertake. The quest is presumably for freedom, for knowledge, for love. This is old hat. But true seekers, Bellow shows, never know where their quest will come to rest. Freedom, knowledge, and love are merely versions of the real; they give the quest its form without determining its end. What we do recognize, in the end, is that reality eludes the versions we make of it, eludes and transcends them. What remains when all our seeking is done amounts to this: the inestimable gift of awareness, of life willing and overreaching itself. An axiomatic statement beyond which the heroes of Bellow cannot go.
It is true that Bellow's heroes finally learn to humble themselves before experience. But if they end with humility, they begin in humiliation. They sink first to their knees by sullen choice and sink again at last because they must. They cultivate anger in perversity, suspicion and petulance in the spirit of hope…. Freedom is the provisional goal of their quest, but freedom forces upon them a knowledge of the self they did not bargain for, and self-knowledge discloses to them a world intelligible only in love. The notion of love is one that Bellow develops more acutely with each successive work. Mediated constantly by the full play of reality,… love entails on the part of the hero an attitude of joyful acceptance; it answers the ego's need for harmony, not sacrifice…. It is no wonder that the earlier hero-victims of Bellow, detached, analytical, surly, give way to characters like Augie and Henderson who find their prototypes in the Jewish schlimazl and philosophical buffoon, the grieving, bouncing children of fate born under a lucky but crooked star.
Ihab Hassan, in his Radical Innocence: Studies in the Contemporary American Novel (© 1961 by Princeton University Press: Princeton Paperback, 1971; reprinted by permission of Princeton University Press), Princeton University Press, 1961, pp. 290-92.
Bellow's alienated hero before he is alienated is a terribly oppressed individual, and it is with the feeling of his oppression that the fiction no doubt begins. Human beings crowd upon Bellow's hero and attempt to subjugate him. Human beings become burdensome to him. And it is not only those others who directly assault him who threaten his freedom. He begins in a condition of individuality imperiled, and his career is a series of adventures through a metropolis of perils. Bellow's hero lives among clutter, boredom, distraction, things….
The exercise of personality is everywhere in Bellow's world an act of courage. The salvation of the self, whether by defiance or evasion, is an honored behavior. The self is where felt reality is, and where meaning may be….
Bellow's domain for investigation is nothing less than the bases of all moral behavior, wherein one expects no solutions except by fiat or by sermon. Fiction is only the jittery act of reaching. When the goal is sufficient, as in Bellow's fiction it is, and when in spite of jitters the reach is serious and long and one can see that it is reaching, fiction becomes crucial. As in Bellow's case it has.
Marcus Klein, "A Discipline of Nobility: Saul Bellow's Fiction," in Kenyon Review, Spring, 1962, pp. 203-26.
[In some of Bellow's novels] the emphasis seems to be on the immensity of society while in others it is on the individual human being who in a sense opposes it. This dichotomy is indeed so pronounced in his work that Bellow sometimes seems to be two writers, one introvert, the other extravert.
On the naturalistic level, Dangling Man and the novel that followed it, The Victim (1947), both describe what may be called personal nightmares, and the element of nightmare, of the characters' exacerbated hypersensitivity to the world about them, removes them from the naturalistic plane and strikes a note of affinity with Kafka….
Bellow's first extravert novel [The Adventures of Augie March is] a long, sustained exercise in the picaresque told by Augie himself…. New characters come into the novel with each episode. Vigorous, eccentric, possessed of enormous vitality, they seem a little larger than life, as though distorted in the mirror of Augie's open-eyed receptivity to experience. He responds to each of them in turn. That is his function; he is in his way the indomitable saluting and rejoicing in the indomitable….
Seize the Day (1956) is a return to Bellow's introverted novel; a wry, affectionate comedy of exasperated urban man, it has the same acceptance of the contemporary world…. There is a case to be made against Bellow—and in Seize the Day Bellow is at his most assailable. The resolution of the novel seems to me altogether too easy; but what saves the book as a whole is the energy and firmness of the prose and the astonishing eye for externals….
There is in Seize the Day, compared with Dangling Man and The Victim, a suspicion of the soft centre, as though acceptance, formerly difficult and the fruit of moral struggle, has become almost masochism. By contrast, the exuberance and expansiveness of Henderson the Rain King (1959) are such as to suggest over-compensation…. Striking as it is, Henderson the Rain King is not, I think, as successful as Augie March. We are in the presence the whole time of a continuous blast of energy in the form and voice of Henderson. It is a wonderful performance, but also an exhausting one for the reader, as though he is being physically borne down by it. And there is a monotony about Henderson which stems from an extremely narrow range of emotion and expression. It seems as though the novel has been written on the one single unwavering note. And though Bellow's invention is continuous and unflagging, it still seems curiously schematic, composed to an intellectual formula. This makes for a sense of thinness both of texture and of experience; Bellow's Africa, for instance, convinces neither as Africa nor as a representation of a psychic state, as is immediately apparent when compared with New York as suffered by Joseph in Dangling Man and Leventhal in The Victim.
Bellow is certainly one of the richest and most exciting talents in contemporary writing. He has, it seems, yet to heal the division within himself, and up to now he has been at his best in his more sombre, introverted mood, in Dangling Man and, especially, The Victim. The energy, overwhelmingly impressive as it is, of Augie March and Henderson does not compensate for the absence of the qualities of the earlier novels. Affirmation is not necessarily the more convincing for being made in a stentorian voice.
Walter Allen, in his The Modern Novel (© 1964 by Walter Allen; published by E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc. and used with their permission), Dutton, 1964, pp. 322-28.
There is always an air of the ludicrous and the absurd in the world to which the Bellow creature seems committed. It is not the "absurd" of Camus's reading of Kafka, however; the absurdity of Bellow's world is more likely to consist of a profusion of things, a clutter and surplusage of experience, the city world of Chicago and New York, where "things" and gestures and manners and knowledges are heaped upon one another because there isn't enough space to contain them or time to consider them separately. Bellow's heroes are therefore something less than ideally heroic; they are agonizingly at grips with their own personal and moral identity and security: with surviving the flux and contrarieties of experience; finally, with the overwhelming noumenal question of their relation to an unknown. We cannot expect from them either the large qualities of conventional heroism or the agonizing moral toothaches of the "alienated hero."…
Bellow has proved himself the master of the short tale as he is the artist of the large, uninhibited picaresque and the "moral fantasy." The emphasis that critics have put upon his affirmation has sometimes been excessive. It is not so much the "avowal of life" that is important, but the analysis of lives. This analysis is feasible equally in the narrow-range and in the broad-scaled novels.
Frederick J. Hoffman, "The Fool of Experience: Saul Bellow's Fiction" (© 1964 by Southern Illinois University Press; reprinted by permission of Southern Illinois University Press), in Contemporary American Novelists, edited by Harry T. Moore, Southern Illinois University Press. 1964, pp. 80-94.
A major theme in [the first] six [of Bellow's novels] is the necessity of discovering brotherhood in an age which is uncomfortably close to the one predicted for us by Aldous Huxley and George Orwell. In some ways, Bellow's theme is the opposite of Thoreau's. In order to discover the values that are essential to man, wanting to distinguish the irrelevant from the real, Thoreau left society, temporarily, for the experiment at Walden Pond. Bellow's heroes, by contrast, come to see that—for their time, for their place—isolation is associated with arrogance and destruction. Their allegiance to essential values requires them to sense their place in society…. Bellow's heroes need to see the sacrality of the commonplace. There is no suggestion here that one should accept the hypocritical or the conformist values of society. The need, rather, is to accept the ethical burden of the 1960's, to admit that individual action is no longer tenable, to see that contemporary man must husband the old values on a concrete sidewalk, in a lonely crowd.
Max Westbrook, in The Modern American Novel: Essays in Criticism, edited by Max Westbrook (© 1966 by Random House, Inc.; reprinted by permission of the publisher), Random House, 1966, p. 222.
[The] whole of Bellow's work is singularly lacking in real or vivid female characters; where women are introduced, they appear as nympholeptic fantasies, peculiarly unconvincing. His true world is a world of men in boarding houses, men whose wives are ill, or have left them, or have gone off on vacation; and the deepest emotions he evokes are those which simultaneously join together and separate father and son, brother and sister, con-man and victim. This holds true throughout the body of his work, from Dangling Man to Seize the Day, and is even seen, in a bizarre context, in Henderson the Rain King, in which Bellow actually returns (three times over) to the convention of the dark companion….
With the publication of Herzog, Bellow has simultaneously entered the lists of best-sellers and embraced the subject matter of popular ladies' fiction (my best friend betrayed me with my wife); but Madeleine, the wife, seems a nightmare projection bred by baffled malice rather than a realized woman; and Herzog's passionate involvement with her remains, therefore, unconvincing. The most moving and credible relationship in the book is that between Herzog and his faithless friend, Valentine Gershbach. who turns out to be the most vital and believable human being created in the book. Bellow remains the laureate of such disturbing and ambiguous encounters.
Leslie A. Fiedler, in his Love and Death in the American Novel, Stein & Day, revised edition, 1966, pp. 363-64.
Bellow's trademark is the popular-novel theme which is, through great richness of language and subtlety of insight, transformed into something anti-popular, if not unpopular (Bellow is no côterie novelist). The popular anti-Semitic theme is thus radically altered in The Victim, and Dangling Man is an American war-novel with no war in it. Surely, says Bellow, the pain and hardship and danger can be taken for granted; much more interesting and psychologically fruitful is the position of the man waiting to enter on the war experience, dangling in the void between civilian security and supervision of the spirit…. On the surface, Henderson the Rain King looks like a romantic adventure story, but that is the Bellow way—the use of the popular form to make surprising statements about the human soul. The successful man (which every Jewish immigrant has traditionally wished to be) cannot be a Bellow hero…. Herzog … creates a fine Jewish victim who is bigger than the victors who 'run things.'. A flood of words, rich and dialectical, celebrates the dignity of man: man the victim complains perpetually, but ironically, comically, with great self-awareness but no self-pity. Herzog is not what America would call a success, but he is very much alive.
Anthony Burgess, in his The Novel Now: A Guide to Contemporary Fiction (reprinted by permission of W.W. Norton & Co., Inc.; © 1967 by Anthony Burgess), Norton, 1967, pp. 195-97.
The first of the American Jewish writers to capture a large reading audience without departing from an American Jewish idiom, [Saul] Bellow has been instrumental in preparing a way for other writers like Bernard Malamud, I. B. Singer, and Philip Roth. But his achievement has been impressive enough in its own right; he has developed a marvelously supple style of grotesque realism modulated by an ever-present sense of irony. But the very success of his fictions may have drawn attention away from the intense moral seriousness of his concerns. (p. 5)
[The] creation of a recognizable character type, the Bellow hero, is Bellow's major accomplishment. The faces and individual circumstances of this hero have varied from fiction to fiction. He has been rich and poor, well- and ill-educated; he has grown from youth to middle age, gone to war, multiplied his wives and mistresses, narrowed and extended his field of operations with the world. But when we compare the personae of his earliest published sketches in 1941 ("Two Morning Monologues") with his latest, we realize that the alterations in the hero are surprisingly superficial. He postures to a Dostoevskian rhythm in Dangling Man; he is clumsy and vulnerable in The Victim and Seize the Day; as Augie March, he affects the freewheeling manner of an unlikely reincarnation of Huck Finn; and … in the character of Moses Herzog, he absorbs all his previous roles in a comical apotheosis of despair. The variations among the individual protagonists seem largely to be due to the expedients of their different dramatic settings…. In a strange way he is the introspective inversion of the Hemingway hero, his most immediate Chicago predecessor. Like him, he is fearfully alone and afraid; like him, he struggles incessantly to achieve dignity and to impose a moral dimension upon life. But unlike him, he is cursed or blessed with a pervasive sense of irony; he is mistrustful of action, skeptical of heroics, painfully aware of the limitations of reason as only an intellectual can be, but unwilling, at the same time, to surrender himself to the dangerous passions of unreason. (pp. 16-17)
Bellow differs … significantly from the contemporary "black" humorists and nihilistic practitioners of "the absurd." While their works tend to extract a dark humor from the very senselessness of the inhuman condition, concentrating on the stark outrageousness of their fictional situations for their comic effects, Bellow's concern is directed toward the articulated human response to that condition—the verbal phrases and kinetic metaphors with which suffering man escalates implacable defeats into comic impasses which are, at least, barely tolerable. For, with the contemporary hostility against language and logic—against words as a mechanism of submission and compromise—Bellow has nothing to do. For him, man becomes human because he uses words. And, more than that, style is the final resort for the victim—his means of transcendence out of slavishness into a kind of comic heroism. This, of course, does not mean that Bellow is advancing a rhetoric which besmears reality—which gives the grandiloquent lie to life. Rather, it is an employment of language to define more accurately the crosscurrents which roil the spirit between a will to live and an awareness of death. For Bellow, neither demonic rhetoric nor silence can define the human condition correctly. Rhetoric invites dishonesty and silence cuts both below and above the level of the human. Bellow's notion of man is far too dependent on the miracle of rationality—on man's internal dialogue with himself—for him to be hostile to words. And hence, it is in his style that the complexities of his humor and his moral concern with the human unite and most persuasively develop. (pp. 40-1)
Bellow's prose and the life style which his fictions have figured forth are, in a sense, an expansion and extension of that brooding voice—a rich fusion of sophisticated erudition and earthiness which brings the full current of man's coursing blood into the world of mind and spirit, and which is careful to retain the sensual as the root metaphor of all experience. It is Bellow's style, thus, which subsumes and encompasses the direction and shape of his achievement as a writer. Rational, honest, ironic, cognizant of human limitations but struggling not to be cowed by them, it gropes and grapples and learns to accept itself as a deliberate comic thrust against life. It is, at the end, its own justification, but one severely fought for, and one which holds its victories as cheap because it knows well the heavy price it has had to pay for them. It is in his style that one can see Bellow's weaknesses as a writer—the narrowness of his scope, the solipsistic closure, the forfeits which his imagination has had to surrender to irony, and to the realism of mortal flesh. But his style is triumphantly a record of his remarkable strengths as well—his success in establishing and making viable an image of the human in the face of the dual tides of mechanism and brute animality that threaten to obliterate the very concept of humanity in their sweep. And it is here, I believe, that his finest achievement ought to be read and reckoned. (pp. 42-3)
Earl Rovit, in his Saul Bellow ("University of Minnesota Pamphlets on American Writers," No. 65), University of Minnesota Press, © 1967 (and in Dictionary of American Literary Biography, Scribner's, © 1973).
One of the commonplace things to remark about Saul Bellow's work is that it is a fiction of ideas. Bellow himself is that widely sought but seldom found figure in American letters, the genuine intellectual, and everyone points out that the memorable thing about his novels is not the action they detail but the thought they generate. Bellow is not only attracted to ideas, a rare enough thing in American writing, but adroit at handling them; consequently reading his work is a stimulating mental exercise, a response associated more with European than American fiction. Bellow's intellectual bent was evident enough with his first novel, Dangling Man, but the book that established the point once and for all was Herzog, a novel about a man thinking.
Ronald Weber, "Bellow's Thinkers," in Western Humanities Review, Autumn. 1968, pp. 305-13.
Herzog is a kind of patchwork quilt of all the ideas, memories, speculations and perceptions which engross the hero during the course of the novel. Bellow's writing blends both vernacular and stream of consciousness traditions. But what is entirely new in American fiction is that Bellow's central character is an intellectual (though a comically failed intellectual) and the consciousness dramatized in the narrative is the consciousness of a man of ideas. Herzog thinks and feels with frenzied articulacy, and Bellow's novel charts every shift and twist of his mind….
In the novel there is no real consistency of time, logic or language. Herzog is a fragmented man, splintered into facets which will not fit together into a unified whole. Intellect, emotion and perception are at war, and Herzog's tragedy is the loss of control and direction. Bellow's vision of the life of an intellectual in America is one of massive personal disintegration. His triumph as a novelist is to have turned that disintegration into the backbone of his literary form.
Jonathan Raban, in his The Technique of Modern Fiction, Edward Arnold, 1968, pp. 53-5.
It is a tribute to Bellow's art that he achieves profundity while fixing upon a few basic ideas. Good and evil, the nature of man, his response to love, death, and the desire for power, are preoccupations in all the works, and by ringing changes on these classic themes in thoroughly modern contexts he provides a wondrous variety and a source of constant insight. Some readers, baffled by Bellow's astonishing fertility and by the idiosyncratic nature of his central characters, are disaffected by several aspects of his work. The novels are, all of them, essentially plotless, held together by "heroes" whose anxieties are inexplicable, ambiguous, or bizarre, and sometimes laced with zest and comic sensuality. All of the stories end with no sense of finality, as if each man's suffering represents a phase rather than a realization. His fiction thus resembles a juggling act to which more and more slices of experience are added with an almost compulsive virtuosity.
Abraham Bezanker, "The Odyssey of Saul Bellow" (© 1969 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), in Yale Review, Spring, 1969, pp. 359-71.
In an era in which alienation has been called the great 20th-century malaise and bookshops are crowded with volumes diagnosing the ills of our complex, machine-driven age, a new voice has risen to champion the dignity and worth of modern man. The voice is that of Saul Bellow….
Bernard Dekle, "Saul Bellow: Alienation Is for the Birds," in his Profiles of Modern American Authors, Charles E. Tuttle, 1969, pp. 179-83.
"He, personally, was a symbol," Artur Sammler says of himself. "Of what was he a symbol? He didn't even know." But the last words of this wonderful novel [Mr. Sammler's Planet], Bellow's best, echo like reverberations from a rocket on its way to the moon: "we know, we know, we know." And we do. Well into his seventies, a flotsam Jew washed up on New York's upper West side after the Nazi hurricane, disinterested but swept back relentlessly into the turmoil of human conditions, Sammler is a symbolic declaration for rationality, inner order, imitation of higher rather than lower representations. His planet is stormed by aberrancies: loony offsprung children; hypertrophied sexuality; crimes ranging from pickpocketing to Mafia depredations; revolutionaries for whom "shit" is the ultimate term of evaluation; violence; money that defiles; dying without peace or dignity. Stop the world! I want to get off! one expects Sammler to shout, which would make the novel no more than his—or Bellow's—complaint. But Sammler is saying in his interminable speculations that even on the moon ignorance would be the ultimate evil; that our shortest views take us back to earth and to knowledge already in our hearts.
James Aronson, "Reservations" (© 1970 by The Antioch Review, Inc.; first published in The Antioch Review, Vol. XXIX, No. 4; reprinted by permission of the editors), in Antioch Review, Winter, 1969–70, p. 587.
Saul Bellow's Herzog is such a rich book, brimming with wit and thoughtfulness and feeling, that one can go on reading it over and over. So I have been doing, off and on, for the past three months. I am prepared to say that its interest is inexhaustible—one of the tests of literature. However, I also have to say that it is much easier and possibly more rewarding to reread passages than to try to hold them together in your mind. Its principle of composition is that of overflow: Bellow's consciousness of life, much of it no doubt his life, caught at the flood, with the form of the novel kept wide open to receive it….
Though Herzog ends the novel where he began it, flat on his back, he has come a distance in learning to keep still, to curb his vanity, and to let his heart fill of its own accord. But the elegiac prose of the closing section is so gentle and moving that one tends to overlook the fact that it is quietly burying most of the issues that earlier had been raised in connection with Herzog's relations to society. At the end, he rests more firmly and spiritually in his passivity, but it is still passivity….
I suspect that the same discursive looseness of structure that has allowed Bellow to indulge his flair for ideas has also ended by allowing him to indulge his flair for optimism. Like Herzog himself, the story of his recovery lacks the true opposition of Otherness, just as his protests remain too much the worldly discontents of an unworldly man. The finest thing about it is Bellow's incredible grasp of the individual intellectual plight—of the crisis of belief that lies beneath the complex surface of Herzog's behavior. As porary humanist, Jewish-style, whose relations with the modern world are as inceasingly hapless as Hersuch, the novel is a great portrait of the contemzog demonstrates them to be. It's too bad that Bellow was driven to turn such a searching question of a book into a comfortable but evasive answer.
Theodore Solotaroff, "Napoleon Street" (1964), in his The Red Hot Vacuum and Other Pieces on the Writing of the Sixties, Atheneum, 1970, pp. 94-102.
Except for The Adventures of Augie March, Bellow's novels are all variations of the same plot: the protagonist undergoes an internal crisis precipitated by external events; as he searches for a way out his existence becomes increasingly subjective and restricted; at last he recognizes and accepts the common humanity which his situation reveals to him, and in his subsequent commitment to the fullness of life he becomes free and fully human.
Howard M. Harper, Jr., in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 12, No. 2, 1971 (© 1971 by the Regents of the University of Wisconsin), p. 212.