Bellow, Saul 1915–
Canadian-born American novelist, Bellow, with his witty and intellectual works, has won critical encomiums and worldwide readership. He is the author of Herzog and Mr. Sammler's Planet. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
It is perhaps because Mr. Bellow subconsciously sensed Augie's inadequacy as a character [in The Adventures of Augie March] that he sought through his style to impose upon his material an almost fearsome significance, a disguise of acute profundity, allusion, and paradox, suggesting that behind or above the people of the novel there hangs a thick cloud of metaphysical, philosophical, and historical truth in relation to which their thoughts and actions have meanings more sublime than any that may appear on the surface. One can in fact say that it is the style alone that preserves the novel from the purely naturalistic stereotype, that keeps it from being simply a chronicle of the adventures of an educated Studs Lonigan. It is the style, in particular, which suggests through its images and metaphors that there is a philosophically informed dimension to Augie's development. It creates around him an aura of speculation and examination, so that throughout nearly the whole of his progress, we continue to believe that he is truly engaged in a struggle to choose among fantastically complicated metaphysical alternatives, and that at the end his revelation and ours will come….
[Augie March demonstrates an] excess of theme over content and the inability of content to meet the responsibility imposed on it by the theme. If Mr. Bellow could have been satisfied simply with the adventures of his hero, with the form which the picaresque tradition made available to him, he would have avoided this problem altogether. But as a serious writer with a strong sense of his responsibility to the issues of our time, he insisted upon trying to do more, and what more he tried to do is expressed in the imperfect union of his theme and his material, his philosophical intention and the incapacity of his material to body it forth; and that is as much a fault of his experience of his time as it is of his talent.
John W. Aldridge, "The Society of Augie March," in his In Search of Heresy, McGraw-Hill, 1956.
Where Dangling Man and The Victim are closed and restricted books, limited in space and time, The Adventures of Augie March (1953) is open and expansive, with a huge cast of highly individualized characters, and rapid movement through time and space, through decades and across continents. No American novel since Dos Passos' U.S.A. has given such a vividly immediate sense of widely ranging scenes and occupations, of experiences in all sorts of moods and aspects. Augie steals books in Chicago, runs a coalyard, helps a girl get an abortion and then tries to cure her of blood poisoning, manages a prize fighter, attempts smuggling, trains an eagle to hunt iguanas in Mexico, is secretary to a millionaire, finds himself alone with a lunatic in a lifeboat after his ship is torpedoed. He alternates unpredictably between poverty and riches.
All this is told in a style beautifully adapted to content, a style that is packed, nervous, witty, observant. Sometimes too much is observed, the sentences strain with lists of things remembered….
Seize the Day is Bellow's one exercise in pure naturalism. He takes a character ill-equipped for life, whose mistakes become more and more unredeemable as he grows older, and lets him sink under their weight. But is this really the end for Tommy? It was not for Allbee....
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Is the consummation referred to in the last sentence some kind of new beginning spiritually? What is the "heart's ultimate need" referred to so cryptically?
Bellow's following book, Henderson the Rain King (1958), seems to pick up where Seize the Day ended, and certainly suggests that no end is final while life remains in the body. Henderson, now aged fifty-five, has made as many mistakes as Wilhelm, Augie and Joseph put together. He has advantages that they did not have. He comes of an old family, is not Jewish, has inherited both wealth and bookishness, is very strong, but describes his life as one long litany of blundering and inner anguish. "… One of the world's biggest operations." Like the earlier Bellow heroes, Henderson, "a monster of grief," is easily angered, easily made indignant, by wives, children, mistresses, servants, tenants, and unprepared strangers who happen to encounter him in a bad mood. Because of his strength, his money, his background, his bull-headedness, he can act outrageously and survive—so far as external consequences are concerned. It is within himself that he has to pay. He really doesn't mean ill; he just gets carried away….
To escape himself or recreate himself, Henderson departs on a photographing trip to Africa with a friend of his own age who has just remarried. Characteristically he finds it impossible to travel with the newlyweds, and sets off by himself with a single native guide. Here the narrative of Henderson the Rain King enters a realm of fantasy far exceeding anything in The Adventures of Augie March. It is not by any means free fantasy, however. This is the anthropological world of Frazer and Lord Raglan, of temporary kings, totem and taboo….
Henderson itself is a triumph of the imagination, with its marvelous descriptions of a purely fictive Africa, an Africa of the soul. For all the exoticism of the events, the writing is as tough and witty as in the earlier books. Henderson, who tells his own story as Augie did, uses an even more flavorful language. Despite his comic blunderings and bull-headedness, he is an appealing figure. And despite the fantastic setting, the central character is capable of deeper emotional attachment to people and objects than has been true in the preceding books.
Robert Gorham Davis, "The American Individualist Tradition: Bellow and Styron" (© 1963 by Nona Balakian and Charles Simmons; reprinted by permission of Doubleday & Co., Inc.), in The Creative Present: Notes on Contemporary American Fiction, edited by Nona Balakian and Charles Simmons, Doubleday, 1963, pp. 111-41.
Bellow's work sounds to many intellectuals like the intellectual literature they have long hoped one of their number might someday produce. Not only was [Bellow's early fiction] obviously, almost, it seemed, deliberately, not "great" in the classic, grass-roots sense, but it embodied the intellectual-academic ideal, highly fashionable in the forties and fifties, of a fiction small in scope, tidy in form, antidramatic in content, ambiguous in meaning, which turned on the shy, sad sufferings of intellectual characters trapped in darkly internal crises of personal identity and moral responsibility. In a very real sense, it was just the sort of fiction most intellectuals would have written if they had been able to write fiction. It derived from their kind of experience and educational background; it had the staid, sedentary, vaguely pedagogical quality that they recognized, however reluctantly, to be the quality of their own lives; it was written with the same wry fastidiousness about the stereotypes and platitudes, the same distrust of cant and affectation, that their own deep commitment to literary values had given them. It quite simply expressed them in a way that the fiction of Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Faulkner never had and never could, no matter how much they may have admired it in their youth or been entranced by the vision of experience it put forward.
John W. Aldridge, "'Nothing Left to Do but Think'—Saul Bellow" (1964), in his Time to Murder and Create: The Contemporary Novel in Crisis, McKay, 1966, pp. 87-94.
With … Herzog, his sixth novel, Saul Bellow emerges not only as the most intelligent novelist of his generation but also as the most consistently interesting in point of growth and development. To my mind, too, he is the finest stylist at present writing fiction in America….
[This] novel positively radiates intelligence—not mere brightness or shrewdness or that kind of sensitiveness which all too often passes for mind among us. This intelligence is a real endowment, coherent, securely founded and of a genuine intellectual quality which, marvelously escaping the perils of abstractions, is neither recondite nor esoteric. It is directed toward imaginative ends by virtue of a true and sharp sense of the pain that rends the human world, of its ills both curable and incurable, and equally by a bracing, unfailing sense of humor and irony serving to counteract such chronic vulnerabilities of intelligence as oversolemnity of mind on the one hand and perversity of sensibility on the other….
Herzog is far and away the most personal novel Bellow has written, the most immediate in self-reference. But the personal element in this case in no way strikes us as an intrusion, as it makes for a clear gain in impact and reality-mindedness. By comparison The Adventures of Augie March seems like a wonderfully inventive exercise in mere narrative fantastication, projecting an affirmative message that falls short of conviction. Herzog, moreover, despite its deeply personal provenance, betrays none of that orgastic self-glorification that you find in our hipster writers who make do with the self (the ravenous, raging self of erotic fantasy and adolescent daydreams of power) when talent and moral intelligence fail them. As a maker of prose fiction, Bellow is far too scrupulous and his personality too complicated to engage in such capers. He has put a great deal of himself into his protagonist Herzog, but always with a twist of irony and a minimum of self-display….
Bellow's style in this narrative, as in most of his fiction, provides a very meaningful pleasure in its masterful combination of the demotic and literary languages. At once astringent and poetic, it neither muffles nor distends his themes. Among the elements back of it is, no doubt, a deep sense of humor derived from his Jewish background and thoroughly assimilated to his sensibility. This style is sensibility in action.
Philip Rahv, "Saul Bellow's Progress," in his The Myth and the Powerhouse (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1949, 1950, 1951, 1952, 1953, 1954, 1955, 1956, 1957, 1958, 1960, 1963, 1964, 1965 by Philip Rahv), Farrar, Straus, 1965.
Bellow has always had the habit, which in his later work has tended to become a rather facile trick, of treating his secondary characters as if they were inmates of either a zoo or a madhouse. Augie March and Herzog in particular are depicted as quiet, deferential princes set down among trolls in bedlam…. Bellow's handling of these people constantly verges on caricature. In fact, there are moments when they seem to exist solely as verbal abstractions, creations of merely adjectival intensity. Yet their function is clearly not to suggest living people drawn from close observation of the real world. Rather, it is to provide a milieu of grotesque idiosyncrasy and self-preoccupation against which Herzog can be seen as saintly. To be sure, in comparison with the he is ineffectual, bumbling, and a fool—the very type of the silly intellectual helplessly adrift in the cutthroat world of practical affairs. But however ridiculous he may be, he is also so much more of a human being, so much more sensitive and responsible than they, that his ridiculousness becomes, like his suffering, a badge of honor, the mark of his moral superiority….
The novel [Herzog] … is as wholesome and nutritious as a dish of corn flakes, a clearly "major" establishment work in the sense that it dramatizes a theme of considerable size with complete honesty and without once expressing an idea that could possibly give offense to anyone. On the contrary, it has brought much good cheer and glad tidings to the intellectual community and, as is so often the case, such service has not gone unrewarded.
John W. Aldridge, "The Complacency of Herzog" (1965), in his Time to Murder and Create, McKay, 1966, pp. 133-38.
Bellow's novels, like those of Dostoyevsky (whom he also resembles in his intensity, his humor, his humanity), are not so much philosophic novels as religious. In all of them the particulars of the story are designed to bring before us the questions, What is man? How is he related to his fellows and the universe? How should he live? His heroes are all driven to seek and put their lives somehow in harmony with—the will of God, they may sometimes call it, though they don't know what He is or whether He exists. One might call it, instead, reality, or the flow of force which produced the stars and grass and men, or the deepest truth about our nature and its sources of happiness and pain. And if turning from "God" to "reality" seems to make the word "religious" inappropriate, add that it is in feeling rather than in the data of "objective" systems and machines that Bellow finds his clues to that reality, a reality which is therefore for him, as it was for the great Romantics, limitless in every direction, mysterious, yet somehow related to and malleable by human desire and imagination.
Irvin Stock, "The Novels of Saul Bellow," in The Southern Review, Vol. III, No. 1, Winter, 1967, pp. 13-42.
In the original Dangling Man,… Joseph suffers from 'a feeling of strangeness, of not quite belonging to the world, of lying under a cloud and looking up at it.' He feels himself cut adrift from the past, living in a spectral present tense in which Tuesday is the same as Saturday because both are featureless. So we register the first difference in Herzog, that a verifiable past is Moses's ball and chain. But at least he has a past. Like Wilhelm in Seize the Day, he is 'a visionary sort of animal,' but he commits himself to his own experience. Wilhelm 'had cast off his father's name,' but Moses keeps the name and the image. His father and mother are dead, but they range through his story, carrying the brute weight of their existence. Moses never repudiates them. Like The Adventures of Augie March, this is a Jewish story, a family story. Indeed, it is closer in spirit to Augie March than to any of the other books, before or after. Bellow has given up the allegorical neatness of The Victim in preference for the richer idiom of fact and event. Equally, he has evaded the symbolic itch of Henderson the Rain-King: we are not required to take a course in 'the Africa within.' Herzog's experience is given to us in the same terms in which it is given to him; specific acts, casualties, and sufferings. We are not allowed to substitute a formula for the things given. Nor is he. The plot is a commitment to live through the terms of its reference: Herzog keeps going, he strikes through every proffered mask, and because God is finally Good he is eventually allowed to reach a quiet place, the rediscovered Berkshires of his spirit. Bellow has often found trouble in making an appropriate Act Five, but the end of Herzog is entirely convincing, Moses lying down, containing himself, feeling the strength of his quietness for the first time. Tommy Wilhelm believed that the 'easy, tranquil things of life' might still be recovered, that even yet life might be 'reduced to simplicity again.' The simplicity is realized in Herzog, but it is not a reduction; life is enhanced in those quiet Berkshires.
So the book is animated by Bellow's constant concern; Fact and Value, the relation between the terms; the redemption of the event, the thing done, because it is done in a certain spirit. Herzog knows that he must do a great deal of mind-work if he is to preserve his vigilance and be ready to deal with his experience as it comes to him and he goes to meet it. 'Awareness was his work; extended consciousness was his line, his business.' But he knows that this can't be the answer: we have been conscious for centuries, and, look, we have not come through. The quality of our consciousness is wrong, to begin with. We need the consciousness of appreciation, not the consciousness of possession; the open hand, not the grip of claw….
The knowledge of … fundamental things is not obtained in the head. It is a sixth sense, closely in touch with the other five; or perhaps it is an ur-sense prior to any other. And if it has a special intimacy with one of the five, it is with the sense of touch: we come to know what to live for by touch, in the silence of wonder. Herzog has spent much of his life abusing and ridiculing himself, writing manic letters to men good and bad, living and dead, for fear his mind will stop and, stopping, bring him crashing to the ground. The turning-point comes when he gives up the abuse and the struggle to convert experience into mind; and simply waits. The human imagination, he says at one point, 'starts by accusing God of murder.' It cultivates a grievance. No more of that: let the dead grievances bury their dead. Herzog has lived most of his life converting experience into words, as if words alone were certain good….
So this is a book of genial words reaching into silence. At the end, Herzog finds that he has said everything he needs to say, at least for the present; there will be no more talk, no messages, no unmailed letters to Nietzsche. Now, for a saving while, he will live modestly among tangible things, trusting to the emergence of light without force or pressure. So his last fictive moments are spent among wine bottles, hats, roses, a Recamier couch, Mrs. Tuttle's broom….
Bellow is a man's novelist. His female characters tend to be done with far smaller resource, as in Herzog Ramona, given in great detail, is a piece of cardboard while Father Herzog, a brief sketch, is authentically 'there.' Bellow's prose can deal with women only when they are magisterial figures in the landscape of the past; and then they are nearly men. If a woman is thirty-five and about to become the hero's mistress, the chances are that she will reveal herself the product of scissors-and-paste. The reason is, perhaps, that in Bellow's fiction these women are there merely to give the hero something more to suffer; they merely add to the noise and fret of his life. And, strictly speaking, anyone could do this for him. In the novels since Augie March Bellow's imagination is devoted to this problem, among many; how to lure the facts into peace without denying their recalcitrance, how to reach solid ground, how to live. Women have very little to do with this part of the story: the hero's problem is now personal and representative. I mention this limitation to suggest that Bellow's resources as a novelist, more impressive than ever, are not unlimited. But he is one of the important novelists because of the depth at which his options are made and his sense of the pressure they have to meet. This is what the novelist's integrity means, the measure of his scruple. If we think of Herzog as a severe examination of the modern orthodoxies in literature, the Wasteland myth and the arrogance of consciousness, we know at the same time that Bellow is not a smiling salesman selling toothpaste. His 'positives' go no further than the propriety of silence, at this time; the illness is not miraculously cured. I would not ask him to go beyond this point. But Herzog is important because it reveals our whining orthodoxies for the shoddy things they are; and because it urges us to try again, and try harder. The book tells us that we are infatuated with our own illness, since we deem it the proof of our integrity. But health is better than illness, and Herzog points to at least one possibility….
The early books are rigid in their parables, they live by constriction, and they exhibit a correspondingly rigid style. The style is the parable. But according as Bellow has liberated himself, more and more deeply, from the governing orthodoxies of modern literature, he has moved into richer modes of style. There is clearly a direct relation between the possibilities he sees in life and those he has discovered in his language. The eloquence of the writing wells up from the life it exhibits, the characters, events, situations: it is not an artificially induced eloquence, a merely personal invention.
Denis Donoghue, in his The Ordinary Universe (reprinted with permission of Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. from The Ordinary Universe by Denis Donoghue; © 1968 by Denis Donoghue), Macmillan, 1968, pp. 194-203.
In ["Mr. Sammler's Planet"] Bellow has succeeded in doing something he never quite managed before—or at least not quite so successfully. He has created a character who embodies his ideas, who serves, in fact, as his spokesman, yet remains convincing in his own right. Sammler is more than the sum of Bellow's parts. Where Augie March, Henderson and Herzog were brilliant, Sammler is brilliantly human. Where Herzog especially was rather hagridden by his ideas, Sammler carries his with grace.
It was a master stroke to make him an old man. An old man is the ideal anti-hero, without his usual hang-ups. His age emancipates him from the stifling egocentricity of so many characters in contemporary fiction. His needs have narrowed down to the need to understand. To him, everything is peroration, a summing up, a post-coital perspective, so to speak.
There is something appealingly elegiac about Sammler. The book is not only his swan song, but civilization's as we once knew it. With his minutely articulated ideas as his only tools, Sammler is something like a watchmaker tinkering with the huge and faulty mechanism of modern life. And though he may not succeed in putting it back in working order, it is both moving and instructive to see him try.
Anatole Broyard, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1970 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 1, 1970, pp. 1, 40.
It is the times, probably, that have elicited from Saul Bellow this premature testament: premature because Mr. Sammler's Planet gives no sense of having earned its perspective as a secular summa, a final kiss-off to this world. That Artur Sammler, the novel's hero and standard-bearer, is "a man of seventy-plus" is a significant reflection on what must have been the impetus behind Bellow's latest novel. In every respect it is an old man's book….
Lunacy: the word's derivation is prophetic of our latest national craze. Mr. Sammler's Planet, very much rooted in the topical, abounds with references to man's landing on the moon. The excitement, as Sammler sees it, is the final symptom of our inability to live with ourselves…. Man is racing to the moon to escape his own futurelessness. He has messed up the earth too much to want to inhabit it. He has messed up himself too much to care any longer for his own finite existence. He looks instead for cheap infinities.
The earth is Mr. Sammler's planet. The finite is his personal province….
Costumes, escapes, originality, the moon trip itself—this is how we sublimate our nihilism….
Bellow has written a novel with a message. The message, one may well complain, is inadequate for the novel's mounting perplexities. It seems almost a sentimental abdication. More than this, one may feel that there is a kind of collapse in such reductiveness. The narrative energies of Mr. Sammler's Planet have been thoroughly subordinated to its testamentary purpose. Morally and artistically, the book too easily dismisses its own life….
Untransmuted self-indulgence may also account for the moralistic stance: one senses Bellow's presence far too much in the sour reflections of Artur Sammler. With Mr. Sammler's Planet Bellow has turned moralizer. The novel is an editorial about our times. It is filled with topical allusions…. The novel's ethos depends more on this external topicality than its own internal life. Its characters and situations don't stand a chance: they are there only to mirror our national decline.
Bellow's success as a moral visionary (a far different thing from a moralizer) has been as a creator of private drama. That is the novelist's proper business—it is true even of War and Peace. The public sphere, meant to be a backdrop to the private drama of this novel, palpably overwhelms it. It becomes increasingly clear that the private drama of Mr. Sammler's Planet exists only as a vehicle for sounding public proclamations and moral mandates, for getting things off Bellow's chest…. The novel is rich with ideas about life, poor with life itself.
Beverly Gross, "Dark Side of the Moon," in Nation, February 9, 1970, pp. 153-55.
The issues Saul Bellow takes up in his novels are very much like those with which Malamud is concerned, but Bellow is less attentive to the social obligations of the free individual. In this world men must deal with suffering and humiliation. Our condition is an absurd dialectic between human hopes and the resistance of nature to those hopes. Bellow sees two extreme reactions that one might make to this dialectic. Finding that the world makes it impossible for the human being to fulfill his hopes completely, the individual may become what Herzog calls a "snarling realist," concluding that human life is mean and ignoble, full of degenerate prostitutes whose selfishness and cruelty must be returned in kind. The other extreme reaction is that of the man who cleaves to his hope and rejects the world. In his dissatisfaction with the condition as given, he cultivates a sense of grievance which becomes the center of his moral position. Like Malamud's escapees, he looks for a way out of his world and himself, feeling unjustly treated by a reality which denies him his fondest hopes, seeking to evade the responsibility that is thrust upon him by life.
Bellow examines the machinery of this dilemma and attempts to work out the "best solution" to it. In the seven novels he has written to date, his conclusion is that the solution lies somewhere in the middle ground between the two extremes. The "whole man" neither abandons hope nor seeks to resist nature. He arrives at a higher consciousness similar to that achieved by Yakov Bok [protagonist of Malamud's The Fixer]. To be human, Bellow might argue, is to attempt to give order and value to life even while we recognize that nature itself will never yield to such order and value. We can neither resist that condition nor repudiate our need for order and value and expect to remain human…. The "highest" … is human, and human is the paradox of order and chaos. One might make his peace with that paradox. He must accept the responsibility for being what he is, for only each self is its creator, sufferer, enjoyer. It is only in the self that the "highest" appears.
Jerry Bryant, in his The Open Decision (reprinted with permission of Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. from The Open Decision by Jerry Bryant; © 1970 by The Free Press, a Division of Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc.), The Free Press, 1970, pp. 341-42.
Bellow seems to have set himself the task in Henderson of constructing a Reichian fantasy without sex. His use of the Reichian notion of primordial energy goes beyond the sexual. Including the Reichian motif in several works, most strongly in Henderson, Bellow reveals an ambivalence toward it. None of his heroes is Reichian. Although Augie's longing for the "axial lines" of his life, for the harmony at the bottom of man's nature, may be termed a Reichian longing for "cosmic consciousness," it is also a longing for a transcendency over the confusions and imprisonments of everyday existence; Augie converts the vision of natural harmony into the ideal goal imaged in the foster home. "Seize the Day," Henderson the Rain King, and Herzog all have one important character who appears as a Reichian advisor to the hero. In "Seize the Day," Dr. Tamkin, a mad pseudo-scientist who claims to be a doctor of psychology, has mystical quasi-religious ideas about the universe and a penchant for expressing them in poetry. He may indeed be a parody of Wilhelm Reich himself. Tamkin is also a kind of surrogate-father for the hero, Tommy Wilhelm. Tommy's own father, a real doctor and a "righteous" man, refuses to love him or to lend him the money which he badly needs. [And] Tamkin advises Tommy in specifically Reichian terms….
Henderson's Reichian advisor, Dahfu, is not a fraud. Still there is toward Dahfu's Reichian teaching an ambivalence in the novel, manifested by the fact that Dahfu not only lives but also dies by the primordial energy of lions and the lion cult which he embraces. By the time Ramona, the Reichian advisor of the last novel, Herzog, appears, the Bellovian hero is immune to sermons on the mysterious power of natural energy. Specifically the mysterious is sexual passion, and popular Reichian, in Ramona's case, but her sermonettes are represented as trivial. In Herzog, neither sexual energy nor mind can serve as guide to the heart-stricken hero, who feels and wishes to prove himself righteous. Herzog is an investigation of the heart, foolish and wise. Dahfu in Henderson remains, then, the only strong Bellovian embodiment of the Reichian idea as a possible good….
None of the symbolism [in Henderson] is gratuitous or merely decorative. However, neither is this an allegorical novel in which the symbols may be systematically read. They rather conform to a scheme of no-system, a play scheme, which is one of the comic attributes of the book. And the echoes from The Odyssey, from the Bible (Moses and Daniel, especially), from the crusade of Richard the Lionhearted, from Rasselas, from Conrad and Hemingway, and from other literature and history, enrich the quest of the present with accentuations from the past, not in Eliot's way in The Wasteland or Joyce's way in Ulysses, which ways served to show the poverty of the present as it confronts the lost rich traditions of the past, but in its own way, which is to show human possibilities embodied in the past and still, perhaps, there to be rediscovered in all men at any time, even now. These accents from the past, to be sure, are not wholly hopeful, not wholly affirmative; there is a somewhat pessimistic wistfulness in them. Still, there remains the element of the assertion of human possibility. Human nobility may seem to have disappeared, but Bellow appears to ask: Where did it go? Who saw it leave? Perhaps it didn't leave at all. The Adventures of Augie March has this same underlying emphasis on past grandeur. Almost every chapter opens with a paragraph or two invoking the past (pastoral, mythic, historic) and making some sort of connection between it and present action which is more than literary decoration….
Herzog must be seen not as Bellow himself but as one of several possible constructs for a novelistic hero: the sufferer, the saintly fool. That the Bellovian hero's progress should begin with the victim-hero construct, proceed through the activist hero, and come to this new hero is an understandable development. The activist hero has been seen as a reaction against the victim-hero and his situation. If, as has been shown, the activist hero's quest is doomed to failure in its most transcendent terms, then the sufferer, the ordinary man of much heart who yearns for more than is possible in the world's terms, or the fool, might well emerge as the dominant hero type in a novelist's work. I would not contend that this is necessarily the case, but it seems a logical progression….
Bellow's definition of the situation of the young intellectual in his characterization of Joseph [in Dangling Man] and later his definition of a possible answer—at least a literary answer—to the dilemma of that situation in his characterization of Augie March changes the whole course of American fiction. Bellow affected a whole generation of younger novelists to whom the stylized sensitivity of the novels of the twenties and the somewhat naive social realism of the novels of the thirties seemed no longer adequate after the holocaust and the terror of the Second World War.
Helen Weinberg, in her The New Novel in America: The Kafkan Mode in Contemporary Fiction (reprinted from Helen Weinberg: The New Novel in America: The Kafkan Mode in Contemporary Fiction; copyright © 1970 by Cornell University; used by permission of Cornell University Press), Cornell University Press, 1970, pp. 92-104, 166.
Saul Bellow's most recent novel, Mr. Sammler's Planet, first published in 1969, is in some ways a development of Herzog—still Bellow's best known and most respected work—yet it is also a new departure. The newness is to be found in the sense of affirmation and wisdom embodied in the hero Artur Sammler. For whatever reasons (and many theses have been advanced to explain the essentially Jewish plight of his protagonists) one of Bellow's main preoccupations has been with The-Hero-as-Victim, as the titles of his early novels indicate: Dangling Man (1944) and The Victim (1947). The Adventures of Augie March (1953) similarly, was originally entitled Among the Machiavellians. Herzog (1964) is Bellow's most intense and sustained attempt to describe the emotional lives of his victims. We see Herzog's inner turmoil through the various evasions and contortions he uses to maintain a precarious existence from day to day. Mr. Sammler, too, is confronted by various dilemmas and by a society in the process of tearing itself apart, but he is not a victim of Herzog's kind. Sammler's sanity is never in doubt….
For Artur Sammler the important thing is not leading a conventionally 'good' life; it is the readiness to accept, without shirking, the terms of the contract that is in each man's heart, known to each: trying to live with love, compassion, generosity and forgiveness. Sammler himself lives by these values, by and large, and it is for this reason that he is able to see the same qualities in Elya Gruner. One very striking thing about Sammler's prayer is the way he is ready to refer to himself. Most people in the same situation would have avoided any personal comparison for fear of bathos or of seeming incredibly egocentric. Sammler's attitude shows precisely the reverse. It is clear that Moses Herzog, at the end of the book, is moving towards a similar state of mind, a state where one is ready to admit that God's will is knowable. Sammler knows this as part of his very identity; it is a knowledge that informs all his daily actions. It is the source of his humility, his wisdom and his detachment…. Mr. Sammler, then, is a person who has a kind of sanctity, or wholeness, qualities which Herzog is beginning to grope for at the end of the book.
D.P.M. Salter, "Optimism and Reaction in Saul Bellow's Recent Work," in Critical Quarterly, Spring, 1972, pp. 57-66.
In Henderson the Rain King [Saul] Bellow has skillfully provided specific forms of sound effects and musical accompaniment to enhance the themes of Henderson's quests for regeneration of soul and for a life style that will enable him to exercise his Messianic service impulse. The musical background also helps to establish pace in the novel, from the dirge-like moaning of the Arnewi to the frenzied drums and chanting of the rainking ceremony and Dahfu's lion hunt. The symphony of sound culminates in the final scene when the fully regenerate Henderson dances with joy around an airplane in a symbolic Newfoundland to the silent but insistent strains of Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus," a feat which Bellow accomplishes through a monumental piece of cumulatively inferred literary allusion. Bellow's use of music in this novel, then, clarifies theme and structure, enhances character, and adds a substantial dimension of pleasure.
M. Gilbert Porter, "Henderson the Rain King: An Orchestration of Soul Music," in New England Review, Number 6, 1972, pp. 24-33.