Saul Bellow

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Bellow, Saul 1915–

Bellow, a Canadian-born Jewish-American novelist, short story writer, essayist, playwright, editor, and translator, is regarded by many to be the most important spokesman of the post-war generation. The realization of selfhood in a time when the concept of individualism is degenerating has been the task of nearly all of his protagonists, of whom several—Herzog, Henderson, Augie March, Mr. Sammler—have come to stand for tooth-and-nail optimism in the face of chaos and despair. Augie's famous cry "I want! I want!" expresses the primal knowledge of Bellow men, those who will survive, who will not surrender. Chester E. Eisinger provides an excellent summary: Bellow "knows that man is less than what the Golden Age promised us, but he refuses to believe that man is nothing. He is something, Bellow says, and saying it he performs an act of faith." A recipient of three National Book Awards, he won both the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1976. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 6, 8, 10, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

Peter M. Axthelm

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Moses Herzog, the hero of Bellow's most brilliantly realized confessional novel,… arrives at a unique kind of perception—one which is in relation to nothing and, at the same time, to everything. An examination of this seemingly paradoxical state and of how it is achieved provides an understanding of what may be the ultimate possibility for the modern confessional hero.

Herzog's perception relates to nothing, in that it is a simple, quiet decision to stop his confession, a signal that his internal storm has at last been calmed; it simultaneously relates to everything, in that it indicates a profound understanding of his past and present existence. It contains nothing in the form of a momentary vision or an affirmation of one special value, but its development includes glimpses of almost everything in man's intellectual repertory. Finally, it relates to nothing because, conceived in isolation, it affirms the joy of isolation; yet this isolation simultaneously connects Moses Herzog with everything—in his rare state, both his mind and the world are at peace. (pp. 129-30)

Before he arrives at this unprecedented level of peace and self-understanding in his hero, Bellow considers many traditional themes of the confessional genre. Two of these themes are developed to an extent which requires some discussion before we can turn to a specific treatment of Bellow's work. First, the intellectual hero who has been developing throughout the course of the confessional novel reaches a rich maturation in Herzog; second, Bellow approaches the problem of suffering with the sensitive insight of Jewish tradition.

"Your intelligence is so high," a friend tells Moses Herzog, "—way off the continuum."… Herzog employs his great mental capacities not only as a thinker or philosopher in the sense of the Sartrean hero, but also as a near-encyclopedic source of intellectual references and allusions…. It is one of the triumphs of Herzog that it is able to encompass such a wide range of facts and thoughts without becoming irrelevant or dull. The technique of having the hero write letters to many scholarly colleagues gives some degree of unity to his observations, but the manner in which they remain consistently vital to his personal problems is chiefly attributable to the remarkable use of irony.

In part, Bellow's irony resembles that satirical humor used so effectively by his modern Jewish counterparts, such as Salinger in "Franny" and Philip Roth in Goodbye, Columbus. It also includes an ironic view of the hero, undercutting his approaches to profundity in the manner of Dostoevsky and Sartre's use of the sharp letdown. (pp. 131-32)

The most...

(This entire section contains 3230 words.)

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distinctive aspect of the irony inHerzog is not that of the author, but of the hero. He, too, can satirize others…. This satirical ability frequently adds life to basically gloomy scenes. (p. 132)

More important than his satiric wit, however, is Herzog's capacity for self-directed irony. "There was a passionate satire in him," and this quality is one of the basic tools of his self-scrutiny. Just as the author undercuts the hero's own early attitude, Herzog gradually comes to revel in an irreverent treatment of the generalizations which he and other intellectual historians had long held dear. (p. 133)

Through his enduring irony, [Herzog] maintains control over his wide-ranging thoughts, never allowing his intellectualism to separate him from his most pressing problems. In fact, his intellectual comments become an integral part of his mind, reflecting its whims as well as its suffering. Eventually, they lead him, in a gradual and painful progression, toward a harmonious relation of his mind with the world. (p. 134)

The Jewish legacy of suffering is an important theme of Herzog, and it is interesting to note its special nature. The Jewish hero is not, like the Underground Man, "passionately in love with suffering"; he cannot share the malignant pleasure which Dostoevsky's hero finds in his humiliation and pain. However, he accepts suffering as his inevitable fate, and he takes a certain pride in knowing how to suffer. The Jew doesn't "love" suffering, but in a sense he needs it to feel his identity. (p. 135)

Bellow qualifies the theme of his hero's Jewish heritage in two important ways. First, the same element of irony which directs Herzog's intellectual excursions has a similar effect on references to his race. Herzog speaks of his ancestors in short phrases which remind us that he is a member of a suffering race, without attempting to blame any of his personal suffering on that race. Perhaps the finest example of this rueful humor is his lament about Madeleine: "She's built a wall of Russian books around herself. Vladimir of Kiev, Tikhon Zadonsky. In my bed! It's not enough they persecuted my ancestors!" (p. 137)

Bellow's second modification of the Jewish theme occurs in its relation to the novel as a whole…. [For Bellow], suffering is not the "only certainty." Herzog's ultimate act is not one of submission to pain but one of transcendence. Suffering presses upon him, and he accepts it; yet he also refuses to become immersed in it. His Jewish background is intrinsically related to his suffering, but the two are not synonymous. (pp. 137-38)

The essential point is that, for Bellow, Jewish tradition is meant to define, not to determine; it is important only as long as it elucidates the nature of an individual's problem…. Bellow's heroes will not be placed on a stockpile. They never cease to affirm their individual natures, and they accept their suffering, as well as their joy, as an intensely personal fact.

The Jewish theme, as applied to Herzog, introduces two central aspects of his confession. He is, on the one hand, an outcast, a descendant of the Wandering Jew; at the same time, he is deprived of the cultural continuity which sustains the Jews—he cannot hope for his child to achieve the peace which he himself has been denied, because that child has been snatched from him…. The essential solution to his alienation must be sought far from the "oceanic" realm, in his own personal world. (pp. 138-39)

[Arthur Koestler's] Darkness at Noon, in which the hero frequently compares himself to Moses, and [William Golding's] Free Fall, with its relation to the Fall from Paradise, suggest that the confessional hero's quest for reconstructed values leads him toward mythic patterns. In Herzog, Bellow brings modern man even closer to myth. The hero's life is the quest of a modern Moses for his own Promised Land. Herzog seeks fulfillment by leading his wife Madeleine and his friends Valentine and Phoebe Gersbach to the peaceful country life of Ludeyville. His flock soon deserts him, and his quest proves disastrous. Left alone, he sees himself as "a broken-down monarch of some kind." His confession is a renewal of his search, a pilgrimage through his disintegrated life toward a state of true peace and perception. The theme of this mental journey remains linked to the story of Moses, but its structure of rambling meditations and memories is organized on the pattern of the Odyssey.

When he begins his first search, Moses Herzog is married to a woman named Daisy. "Stability, symmetry, order, containment were Daisy's strength," he recalls. "By my irregularity and turbulence of spirit I brought out the very worst in Daisy."… In seeking a life more attuned to his own spirit, Herzog is attracted to a woman even more unpredictable and passionate than himself. His relationship with Madeleine is described as a constant, raging battle, in which he proves hopelessly overmatched. The nature of their struggle is elucidated by the symbols which come to represent their battle standards. (p. 147)

Madeleine gradually destroys Moses' control over his life and reduces all its order to chaos. He has been drifting away from his Jewish heritage all his life, as he realized during his affair with the Japanese girl Sono; but Madeleine forces him to reject it outright in a painful ritual of surrender. He begins to feel this pain when she makes him accompany her to church: "He was a husband, a father. He was married, he was a Jew. Why was he in church?" He proceeds to give up his first wife and son, but she insists on extracting the final toll. (p. 149)

In a gesture of total renunciation of his past, Moses invests all his father's savings, "representing forty years of misery in America," in the Ludeyville house and spends a year rebuilding it as the site of his Promised Land. Madeleine reacts by keeping it in constant disorder. Herzog makes several attempts to reassert his own position with her. Before they marry, he takes some pleasure in the fact that "She had been a Catholic for only three months, and already because of Herzog she couldn't be confessed, not by Monsignor, anyway."… But this victory fades quickly, and, by making him feel like a corruptor, Madeleine humbles Herzog still more. At Ludeyville, he tries again to gain the upper hand by requiring her to make love on the bathroom floor; this desperate effort only feeds her constant interior rage. When Herzog, still possessing his powerful intellect, first clashes directly with Madeleine concerning his disordered house, the result is one of the most unforgettable scenes in the novel; it is … a brilliant example of Madeleine's terrifying power…. This exchange ends like a clap of doom, an ominous declaration that Madeleine will always be in control of both Herzog and the child, June, who is still within her. (pp. 150-51)

Moses Herzog's search for his Promised Land is a kind of mental epic, and Bellow, like Joyce, uses the Odyssey as the basis of his structure. Odyssean themes are neither as prominent nor as consciously invoked in Herzog as they are in Ulysses, and the hero's quest remains as close to that of Moses as it is to that of Odysseus. Nevertheless, this source provides an illuminating insight into the form and the overall significance of Herzog's vast and chaotic range of thoughts.

Herzog's confession can be divided into five movements, each distinguished by an external action. The first is a gesture of escape, an attempt to find meaning in exile; he takes a train from New York to Cape Cod for a vacation but returns the same night, unable to rest. His thoughts while he rides are a dirge of disintegration, an echo of another epic vision of modern man, Eliot's The Waste Land. The second phase is a night at home, during which Herzog listens to the song of the Sirens from his past. His glimpse at past romances brings a faint light into his world, but love is ultimately seen as elusive and destructive. In the third section, Herzog spends a night with Ramona—his Nausicaa—and considers her offer of peace and happiness. On the following day, the hero begins his journey through hell, which takes him to the New York criminal court and then to the origin of his sufferings in Chicago, outside the house occupied by Madeleine and Gersbach. Only after the purification of this episode can he proceed to the fifth stage of his confession, in which he returns to Ludeyville and finds true perception. (p. 152)

Moses Herzog's trip through hell is the longest of the five sections of his confession, a wandering adventure which takes him from New York to Chicago and forces his consciousness into the depths of his intellectual and spiritual existence. It begins with a call to the lawyer Simkin and the thought, "I should have phoned Simkin earlier." This casual phrase suggests that Herzog has been in need of some positive gesture for some time and reminds us that he had indeed attempted a kind of journey to hell before. That first effort was the trip to Europe which Moses took just before the beginning of his confession. "This year I covered half the world," he writes to the Polish girl Zinka, "and saw people in such numbers—it seems to me I saw everybody but the dead. Whom perhaps I was looking for."… In Poland, "he went many times to visit the ruins of the ghetto." This effort to commune with the shades of his ancestors proves as unsuccessful as all his subsequent approaches to the past he has rejected. His search brings him nothing but a slight venereal infection—a parody of the purification which he had sought. This early failure indicates that real purification for Herzog cannot be achieved in a physical gesture or in the shades of his past. It lies instead in a mental reenactment of the Nekuia, an effort to communicate with the dark and hidden forces within the hero himself. It is this effort which becomes the crucial fourth movement of Herzog's confession and the prelude to perception.

The Nekuia of Moses Herzog can be seen as a gradual process of dispelling the illusions and preoccupations which have obscured true meaning in his life. His conversation with Simkin about suing Madeleine emphasizes his desire for revenge, as well as the thought that his daughter's presence would restore all order to his life. Another of his illusions is the hope, a vestige of his intellectual career, that a sound world-view can bring him peace; he also holds a vague belief that suffering itself is a redeeming factor in his life. On his journey, he comes to see that all these solutions are as limited as the sensual creed he has rejected in Ramona. (pp. 163-64)

[After he is] stripped of his visions of the world and his romantic notions of revenge, Herzog at last frees himself from the limitations imposed by his own confession and sees that truth lies beyond the scope of intellectual constructions, however elaborate they might be.

The self-awareness which has come to Herzog in stages is fully defined … on his disastrous outing with June. The end to all his abstractions comes after the accident, as he passes out. When he awakes, he looks at June: "Her face was tearless, clouded, and this was far worse. It hurt him. It tore his heart." He knows that, in her child's mind, "he was spattered forever with things that bled or stank." Despite his pain, however, Herzog sees another new light. His daughter, still wonderful and the object of his deepest love, somehow loses her quality as a savior; he sees that it is not June he needs, but something deeper for which she stands…. In the darkest recess of his personal hell, at the moment of his most dismal blunder, the hero has cast off the last illusion and found himself. For the first time, he is in harmony with his world. (pp. 169-70)

Herzog has abandoned the intellectual historian's attempt to fit all functions into a pattern, but he has not been lured to the opposite pole, where all functions are divided and destroyed…. Between these absolutes, Moses has confronted the ambiguity and complexity of the problem and found in it a satisfying conception of the world—the first stage of his perception. This marks the beginning of the final movement of Herzog's confession, the return to Ludeyville and the realization of his true Promised Land. This initial step toward full perception begins to elucidate the dual definition of perception which was at the start of this chapter. Moses affirms a division of functions which cuts him off from those around him, yet it brings him a sense of peace and an ability to relate to others, which unite him to the world. The second aspect of his perception is similarly paradoxical; he finds the joy of freedom only in the denial of one part of it. (p. 171)

[When, in Ludeyville, he writes a letter to his dead mother repudiating his past wishes for death], Herzog is overcome by "a deep, dizzy eagerness to begin."

This word leads us back to a fuller understanding of the structure of the novel and to a consideration of what confession has meant in the life of Moses Herzog. Herzog is in the country, strangely happy, writing the last of his letters; wondering what he should write, he thinks, "If I am out of my mind, it's all right with me."… This repetition of the opening line of the novel is not a thematic device. It does not recall that opening moment; it is that moment. Everything that has gone on since that first sentence has been a part of the hero's memory. During Herzog's confession, Bellow has suspended all temporal order and replaced it with mythic structure. At the end of his mental odyssey, even the hero himself is surprised at the temporal compression of the events he has recalled: "Was it only a week—five days? Unbelievable! How different he felt!"…

This subtle joining of the mythic and temporal dimensions of Herzog's quest points toward a fusion of the two basic legends which lie behind it. The hero, who began as Moses seeking his Promised Land, allowed his mind to journey through its own Odyssey of choices and purifications and has arrived back at his starting point—like Odysseus returning to Ithaca. (p. 174)

The crucial sundering of the hero's bond to Moses occurs early in the novel, when it becomes apparent that revelation is no longer possible in Herzog's world. He parodies a prayer: "O Lord! forgive all these trespasses. Lead me not into Penn Station."… More important, however, than the hero's attitude is the condition of the world itself, plunging onward toward its own disintegration at a pace too fast to be arrested by any heavenly emissary…. For Herzog, cut off from his Jewish heritage and incapable of accepting revelation, the archetype of Moses offers little; with his tremendous intellect, he is more attuned to emulation of Odysseus, the versatile, crafty, inventive Greek. Before he can develop that inventiveness beyond the constructions of his letters, he must proceed on his odyssey; at its conclusion, he has broken down his old constructions and created a new, coherent one—the fulfillment of his Promised Land.

Whether Ludeyville can best be described as an Ithaca or an Israel is basically irrelevant; the crucial fact is that the hero constructs it, rather than finds it. Among the weeds and the rats and the musty closets, Moses Herzog has arrived, stripped of illusion, free and self-aware. Out of the fusion of Moses and Odysseus within him, there arises a hero who is, like his confessional predecessors, a sufferer, a wanderer, even at times a destroyer; but Herzog has added a new dimension—that of the inventor or creator. (pp. 175-76)

Ultimately, Herzog's success goes beyond the knowledge and understanding that are traditional goals of the confessional hero. The hopeful conclusion which had seemed so contrived in Crime and Punishment and so far from realization in Nausea at last becomes an integral part of a confessional novel. The hero has gained a self-awareness so deep and a peace so profound that he can cease his letter writing and halt his mental journey. In contrast to every other confessional novel, Herzog does not stop short of complete perception for the hero; it leaves no feeling that more should be said. Indeed, Moses Herzog has reached an end to confession and an entrance into meaningful life. No longer challenged to know, he hastens forward to begin. (p. 177)

Peter M. Axthelm, "The Full Perception: Bellow," in his The Modern Confessional Novel (copyright © 1967 by Yale University), Yale University Press, 1967, pp. 128-77.

David R. Jones

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Despite its initial success, [The Adventures of Augie March] has not worn well…. [Difficult] questions continue to disrupt considerations of the novel. Bellow's strategy … is a reckless one, to fling an individual out across the surface of a very large work. Any such book depends for its success on the resiliency of that individual, on his ability to become, like a new coat, comfortable with time. There is also a problem of focus, for Bellow parades American types and deformities past the reader in considerable number, and we often have to peer over their heads to get a glimpse of Augie. As if to complicate matters, we must continually adjust our register to accommodate the two Augie Marchs, narrator and actor, an adjustment which is not always easy. And after we have resolved these problems, how are we to take this expatriate American, disenchanted Chicagoan, non-Jewish Jew, and unadventurous adventurer? Is he, unlike Bellow's earlier heroes, a proof that modern society can bring to maturity a man who affirms—by his words and his presence—the brutish, glorious, squalid, monumental, and petty life of men? Or is he an example of our society's ability to make all motion circular, to reduce men to demented jabbering in the face of its alternating demands and rejections? Finally, and more important for the reader approaching the book for the first time, does the style of Augie's reminiscences bear enduring? The pitch of the writing here is more extreme than anything else Bellow has attempted in his career. Augie's prose is either daringly successful or very aggravating, and more than one reader has put the novel aside because he could not tolerate its surface.

Augie tells us at the first that "a man's character is his fate,"… and if this is true, we need to know who and what Augie March is. He introduces himself with a naive bluster which is neither informative nor encouraging, and the initial words, "an American, Chicago born," are most helpful to the hunter of allegories. We find out a great many irrelevancies in the next pages (to be exact, in the first half of the book), but we still do not know the answer to this question…. Augie, a free soul, will not be defined by neighborhood. Neither can we place him by occupation…. Throughout, rich women are constantly present, and only his particular sense of himself saves Augie from becoming a gigolo. No, we will not find him out there.

We begin to discover Augie in the reactions he provokes in others…. By his character rather than his will, he is thrust into the middle of a philosophic battlefield. (pp. 84-6)

Life is the swindling of the brutes by the managers, the trade of advantage for pain. In the middle stands Augie, the free agent, the "man of feeling."… Urged to find a profession and become "a specialist" before the world closes up, he vacillates. Overpowered by his opponents, he wiggles away and strikes off on his own. Mired in inaction, he is called "fool,"… "mushhead,"… and "too dumb to live."… His form of "opposition" is to duck a shoulder under the outreached arm and sidle off into another chapter, another adventure. He admits his own "larkiness," but knows that it is in the best cause, the search for a "worthwhile fate."… (pp. 86-7)

In the middle of the book, while Augie is peacefully down-and-out, Thea Fenchel appears…. But when the affair with Thea begins, the novel, like the glue on its binding, cracks in half. First, the style alters considerably. Augie leaves Chicago for the first sustained period, and the bursting descriptive passages which had dominated the novel disappear entirely. So does Augie's basic preoccupation with others. From the opening battles of the book, we have a very difficult time learning anything about the young Augie March. The principles behind his actions are obscure…. Larger issues are explained with equal vagueness, for the older March, the writer of the memoirs, is usually as mystified as his readers…. What little we learn about Augie himself is drowned in the descriptions of his surroundings and recruiters. At the beginning of another new adventure, the narrator alludes to the difficulty which bothers his readers: "All the influences were lined up waiting for me. I was born, and there they were to form me, which is why I tell you more of them than of myself."… The book, however, is about his submission and resistance to these influences, and we should know more about the character which determines his fate. A bildungsroman is usually about somebody, and Augie March seems suspiciously, at times, like nobody. But in the latter half of the novel, as if to reward us for our patience, he turns what was a trickle of self-reflection into a torrent. The collapse of the affair with Thea is the signal for his incessant gabbing to begin. By the end of the novel, when he meets an old friend in Paris and refuses to discuss his accumulated ideas, we gasp in relief.

More important, the disintegration of his love for Thea provides the emotional climax of the book and his first significant insight…. [He realizes that his] "simplicity" is an invention, and this "devising" costs him dearly in his "secret heart." He too is creating a "someone who can exist before" external life and is advertising, if only to himself, a "version of what's real." "Personality," he moans, "is unsafe in the first place. It's the types that are safe."… (pp. 87-8)

This is an important and pertinent revelation, that even those who resist the "versions" of others do so by creating their own fictions. But it would have had more force if the novel had not lapsed back into another series of bouts with the Machiavellians. Augie returns to Chicago and is interrogated in turn by nearly all his acquaintances there. (p. 88)

The principal difficulty in approaching Bellow's third novel, then, is in getting to know Augie March. At first he tells us too little about himself as he piles up the remarkably detailed picture of Chicago. Later, by talking compulsively, he tells us nothing. And as a narrator, he becomes increasingly ponderous….

Aggravations multiply. As he ages, Augie becomes surlier, and the negative facets of the poolroom wise-guy show more frequently. But nowhere is he more tiresome than in his prose. He describes his method of writing as "freestyle," and it is, in fact, as simple and repetitive as the freestyler's crawl. Augie's stroke is the simile, a device he almost invariably secures with the debris of his self-education. (p. 89)

Besides appearing on nearly every page, the similes become long, mixed, and wildly inappropriate. On the occasion of the Depression, Augie glosses Einhorn with a two-hundred word comparison to Croesus, and a later friend is compared at similar length to Clemenceau's statue in the Champs Elysées…. [In] contrast with the use Joyce makes of such parallels in Ulysses, Bellow's devices seem undirected, superficial, and wearying—in short, a self-indulgence.

In general, the prose is a child's wildest ice-cream sundae dream. Augie prefers verbs and adjectives six or eight in a row. The historical material shoulders its way among slang [, eminent people of the time and the familiar objects of life]…. At its best, the prose is like the city, a pile of objects and people…. When successful, this prose is among modern America's finest. We forget the "etceteras," the "whatnots," and the "who-else-nots" which dangle on the ends of clauses and the "kind of's" which are liberally sprinkled throughout. All too often, however, the prose is simply elephantine or uncomfortably limp and soggy…. (pp. 90-1)

These things said, the vital failure of The Adventures of Augie March is still not explained. If we dislike Augie himself (some readers find him "masochistic"), his occasionally bloated prose, and his speeches with their air of old theatrical rant, we can find convincing rationalizations. Structural flaws, of themselves, do not consign works to the categories of "interesting" and "little read." Huckleberry Finn, a book very like Augie March in obvious ways, is broken in the middle but still entrancing. There is something else wrong here. What? The question arises at many points in discussing the book, and the answer may lie not in its imperfections, but in a quality which it lacks.

The holiday nature of the book's composition is an attractive, if vexed, answer. (pp. 91-2)

[The] exuberance between the novel's lines often resembles the cry of a boy let out from school, and simple "liberation" (a word Bellow used for the writing of Augie March) is not necessarily a ticket to success. In his rejection of polish and tight, clear structure for episodic jaunting and steam-powered prose, Bellow obviously found this a delightful book to write. It has, in addition, many of the material ingredients of a great novel. But at that place in its creation where the imagination should have fired the material into life, a vagueness crept in.

If this vagueness is the problem, it surely must trouble our impressions of the novel's two central characters, Augie March and the city of Chicago. In the case of Augie, the borderline between his "opposition" and sheer passivity is too cloudy; his adventures all too clearly happen to him. The definition of character by negative action ("opposition" or passivity) leaves Augie uncertain about himself in very many ways and frustrates our search for that character among the details and behind the talk. The same can be said for Bellow's Chicago. He has said that, while writing the book, "Chicago itself had grown exotic to me," and the word "exotic" illuminates the difficulty we encounter. For all the portraits, caricatures, massive detail, and inside knowledge, his Chicago is not alive, like Dickens' London or Joyce's Dublin. The picture of the city is taken from a fascinated traveler's notebook.

Unfortunately—for the novel has many successes and spectacular potential—the man and his city have become their superficies. (p. 92)

David R. Jones, "The Disappointments of Maturity: Bellow's 'The Adventures of Augie March'," in The Fifties: Fiction, Poetry, Drama, edited by Warren French (copyright © 1970 by Warren French), Everett/Edwards, Inc., 1970, pp. 83-92.

Irving Malin

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In the stage directions [for The Last Analysis], Bellow indicates that the action of his play occurs in a "two-story loft in a warehouse…." The setting seems perfectly ordinary. Is there, however, an additional meaning? Can we see the symbolism of the physical facts? The play, as we shall learn, deals with the various stories told (or retold) by the hero. These stories are "double" in effect because he needs in his present condition to create (or recreate) a new self—to shed his skin. He tells certain stories for his own mental well-being. "Loft." Luftmensch (remember Augie March). Left. I free-associate, but I think Bellow does the same. Surely, his play is about the "upper depths"—the phrase is his—and it ends, we should note, with a raising of the "arms in a great gesture." How can his hero rise and fly? What should he leave behind? These questions are at the heart of The Last Analysis….

At curtain we discover Bummidge, the hero, "lying in the barber chair, completely covered by a sheet." Is he dead or alive? Will he be spruced up or embalmed? (Remember the endings of Seize the Day and Mr. Sammler's Planet.) We do not know right away. In this crazy environment, we cannot be certain of anything!

It is significant that the first words are spoken by an intruder, Winkleman, Bummidge's cousin. They are: "Imogen, where's my cousin?" Again, we sense symbolic meaning. This shrewd businessman (and keeper of the "law") does not know how to react to his location. It is, after all, loony. And, of course, Bummidge—called "Bummy" affectionately—does not really know where he is; he is looking for his true self.

Winkleman notes the television equipment, saying that it's "not the real thing." It is only "closed-circuit"—an interesting choice of words, which underlines the hero's sense of enclosure and his relative obscurity. (p. 116)

Bummy is comedian and analyst. When he looks at himself in the mirror—certainly, the entire proceedings are a kind of mirror: dream mirrors reality (and vice versa); the cousins mirror each other; the "action" mirrors the soliloquies—he shrewdly wonders: "Can people accept my message of sanity and health if I look like death or madness?" It is too early for decent answers. But he already reaches for "everyone" and "everything": "Heart, reason, comic spirit." He knows that he has to perform his own act despite the fact that the "enterprise is bigger than me." (p. 117)

[Later] Bummy plays an even more difficult role. He is both patient and analyst; he wears glasses as analyst and removes them as patient. (The glasses suggest the distortions of the play itself.) As patient, he recounts dreams about swimming pools, old gentlemen; as analyst, he gives standard, trite readings of symbols. But these interpretations are limited because they fail to account for quirky differences. The point is clear: there must be more than "breast castration, anxiety, fixation to the past." Bummy (as patient) screams: "I am desperately bored with these things, sick of them."

What can he do? He must recreate his ambivalences; he must become his dreams. Therefore, he again "carries himself away"; he flies away from the present as he relives his childhood hostility toward his father…. He tries to get at the "bottom" of things. He is funny, of course, but he strangely echoes the heroic plights of Oedipus and, later, Christ—as well as Bellow's earlier and later protagonists. (p. 118)

Bummy moves beyond conventional role playing into a world of his own. He splits into fragments, but at least they are "authentic" (unlike the institutionalized ones of the business world). (pp. 118-19)

Bummy emerges as an artist. (Surely, there is a parallel between him and Bellow the playwright.) His art is crude—to say the least!—but it is in touch with realities. (p. 119)

Despite the desire of the [other characters] to use him—the parasite image is … underlined—Bummy exerts his sly strength and "directs" them. He "ad libs" their lines, not for materialist gain but for comic expression. He presents a play within the play. He has them perform roles that are, in a sense, more representative of their souls than their usual petty conspiracies. (pp. 119-20)

The "Greek" playlet they perform is The Upper Depths, or the Birth of Philip Bomovitch. It is trite and grand—as are all of our lives?—because it mixes language, characters, and events in a deliberately odd pattern. (pp. 120-21)

Bummy seems changed. When the playlet ends, he "seems far removed from them all." He feels "both old and new." He is Lazarus, Christ reborn—no wonder that his performance has "wowed" the supporting players and the audience, including the great impressario, Fiddelman!—but he must still iive in this world. "Something has happened." He floats.

Bellow could stop here, concluding his play on a lofty plane. But he is too serious to rescue his hero entirely. Thus, Bummy may tear up his new contract and toss out the others, but he lacks irony. He is "over the edge" as he hopes to build "The Bummidge Institute of Nonsense."… Bummy is "ready for the sublime" as the play ends; we are not sure, however, that he can handle it (or that it is so easily available.)

We are "double-crossed." We are sad because we recognize, even if Bummy doesn't, that there is no "last analysis," no final moment of Truth. The comic work must continue! Bummy has somehow stopped—even though he talks about training programs for the Institute—and he lacks the "mental comedy" needed for higher elevation.

The final effect of The Last Analysis is mixed. We are uncertain whether or not to join Bummy as he "saves the world"; we cannot merely laugh or cry. We dangle between different worlds—ours and his, Bellow's and his, Bellow's and ours. Surely, we do know one thing: we have been strangely touched by this powerful, shrewd, and funny play. (p. 121)

Irving Malin, "Bummy's Analysis," in Saul Bellow: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Earl Rovit (copyright © 1975 by Irving Malin; reprinted by permission of Irving Malin), Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1975, pp. 115-21.

Earl Rovit

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The problematic theme to which Bellow has been irresistibly drawn from Dangling Man to Mr. Sammler's Planet is that of trying to reconcile virtue with the fact of self-consciousness: can modern man attain "dignity," can he live a "good" life when he must assume the traditional function of God, when he himself must judge his own frailties, cowardices, and ignoble motives?…

For Bellow, a story-line seems more than anything else a weblike scenario that he weaves more and more tightly around his captured protagonist; it is primarily a method of presenting the stifling power of the human predicament in order to measure his hero's ability to endure the harrowing weight of his own life. In effect, the typical Bellow plot is rarely more than a device to bring his protagonist and his reader into a heightened emotional awareness of the thin sliver of freedom that life permits to consciousness. In fact, one can readily imagine Bellow under different circumstances being perfectly comfortable as an eighteenth-century essayist—formidably intelligent, comprehensively "liberal" in a crisply satirical way, and slightly contemptuous of such errant frivolities as fiction. In Mailer's work, the story-line appears to be almost arbitrary and incidental to the sporadic pronouncements of "truth" that the continuity of events (usually encounters of violence and/or sex) provides for…. (p. 163)

[Although] Mailer can always be counted on for flights of verbal excitement …, and though Bellow conveys a brilliant stylistic exuberance in The Adventures of Augie March and in the first section of Henderson the Rain King, I think it fair to say that neither man has made any radical experimentation or exploration of the novel form itself. Perhaps both have been so vividly engrossed in substance—in the urgencies of the ideas that move them—that they have been tolerably satisfied to leave the conventional solutions of style and structure pretty much in the places where they found them. (p. 164)

Ultimately, and most concretely, the naturalistic tradition may help Bellow and Mailer to express their deepest sense of reality—to locate it, to strive to understand it, and to drive their total energies in an effort to articulate it. Here, I think, we may begin to discern the very different focuses of their work—here in their differing responses to a Dreiserian sense of reality. Both Bellow's and Mailer's earliest works (Dangling Man, The Victim, The Naked and the Dead) take for granted an objective reality that is essentially indifferent—if not actively hostile—to man; an utterly claustrophobic environment that can be adequately defined only in terms of interlocking power-relationships, within which Bellow's early heroes dangle as pathetic victims, and which Mailer's officers and infantrymen express in barely more than animal responses and as animated embodiments. From the beginning, Mailer's has been the harsher and more uncompromising point of view…. But Bellow (who has singled out Jennie Gerhardt as the novel that best illustrates Dreiser's power) never fully succumbed to the stark naturalistic view. Joseph, Leventhal, and Tommy Wilhelm are clearly victims, but they are victims who are intensely aware of themselves as victims. And it is precisely Bellow's commitment to the fact of their developed self-awareness that has led him to exploit the introspective space between history and personality—the precious human space in which morality, humor, grace, and creativity may conceivably exist. In fact, the steady current of development from Bellow's earliest work to his latest can be appreciated partially in terms of his painstakingly honest efforts to widen that space between—to present victim-man with valid opportunities to enlarge his human capacities. Augie, Henderson, Herzog, and Sammler are continually victimized, but they are not victims; for want of a better descriptive term, we could call them "survivors." (pp. 164-65)

Bellow's survivors pick their way gingerly through the detritus of their experience, straining to maintain a precarious balance between the irrevocabilities of the past and the dwindling possibilities of the future….

Bellow's work has developed along relatively traditional lines. Composed in a period of some thirty years, his individual fictions have a strong family resemblance to one another, and his thematic concern with the ambiguities of morality and personality has grown suppler and more tensile with his increasing craftsmanship. Along with this mastery, his later novels seem to breathe an air of richer repose; Bellow gives the impression of moving with larger ease and freedom through the bleak foreground of his own world as he gains confidence in the reality and value of the creative self-consciousness. One consequence of this, apparent in Mr. Sammler's Planet, is a greater receptivity to the possibilities of religious experience; however, a less happy by-product is the tone of acerbic self-righteousness that tinges that novel. Nevertheless, the steady publication of serious, well-wrought novels over a long period of time augurs well for their survival and suggests that Bellow's art will continue to grow and unfold with slow richness and quiet surprise. (p. 167)

Earl Rovit, in Saul Bellow: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Earl Rovit (copyright © 1975 by Earl Rovit; reprinted by permission of Earl Rovit), Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1975.

Seymour Epstein

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The failures of Western civilization and the pleasures of it spin out the thematic thread that runs through the novels under discussion here. As a theme, it is as worthy as any being worked in contemporary fiction, and proof of this is in the unity and persuasiveness of Bellow's oeuvre as compared to any of his contemporaries who might be considered at the same level of seriousness. (p. 36)

Bellow's first three novels—Dangling Man (1944), The Victim (1947), and The Adventures of Augie March (1953)—are interesting, varied, but essentially diverse in theme. Augie March, that large, trumpeting announcement of Self, is in many ways a prototype of Bellow's subsequent use of character, and of those juxtapositions that make a novelist comfortable and fecund within the enclosure of his fictional world. In any event, the major theme, as perceived and discussed in this essay, does not yet make an unequivocal appearance. Augie March ends with the proclamation:

Look at me, going everywhere! Why, I am a sort of Columbus of those near-at-hand and believe you can come to them in this immediate terra incognita that spreads out in every gaze. I may well be flop at this line of endeavor. Columbus too thought he was a flop, probably, when they sent him back in chains. Which didn't prove there was no America.

But it is Bellow's named and occupied America will be investigated here.

Dr. Tamkin, a Mephistophelean swinger, whose "bones were peculiarly formed, as though twisted twice where the ordinary human bones was turned only once" …, is one of Bellow's early "reality instructors" In Seize the Day …, Bellow has this charlatan play the role of one of man's legendary bedevilers. He is Puck, the Pied Piper, Loki, the Devil, and Baron Munchausen rolled into one. He is a swindler, a healer, and a mythomaniac. He is a creature who has mutated into his queer form in order to survive in a rapidly deteriorating culture. His client-victim, a Lumpen-Faust with as many names as failures (Tommy will do), is the single natural schlemiel in Bellow's entire cast of losers. (pp. 38-9)

The symbol of Tommy as a failure is in some respects crude, since he was so obviously doomed to fail; but his failure is instructive at least in its causes if not in its tragic implications. He is society's dupe. He is the quintessentially modern failure. The particular manner of his failure(s) would have been impossible for his historical counterpart fifty years previous, or indeed at any other previous time in human history…. Almost everything about him is synthetic. Almost everything. The only genuine thing in Tommy's life is his capacity to suffer—and this is what Seize the Day is about: the suffering of a totally alienated man. In all his subsequent novels, Bellow hasn't limned this much overdramatized and overpublicized condition as truly and poignantly as he did in this novella written in 1956. (pp. 39-40)

Almost to escape the realizations of Seize the Day, Bellow sends his next hero-failure off to Africa to see if some restorative mightn't be discovered by poking around in primitive origins.

Eugene Henderson of Henderson the Rain King is a large, lumbering man—a bigger, wiser, braver, gentile Tommy—but a man who also wears his suffering heart on his sleeve, whose desire to do good, to "burst the spirit's sleep", is no less than that of his pathetic, New York predecessor. Bellow suggests that Henderson has set out on his journey because he has been afflicted almost to destruction by the antilife forces present in technological America. Unlike Tommy, he is familiar with the Western world's art and philosophy, but this cranky millionaire's suffering takes the form of a huge hunger rather than a thwarted ambition. There is a voice in him that is always chanting, "I want, I want, I want!"

Among the Arnewi tribe. Henderson learns the expression gruntu-molani—man-wants-to-live—and this is precisely what he has come to Africa for: to learn how to live: to submit his volcanic energy to some natural imperative. His failure is neither personal nor small, but general and colossal. In attempting to rid the Arnewi watering place of a plague of frogs, he explodes both frogs and retaining wall, destroying the resource and the pollution in one blast. (p. 40)

Henderson's impulse was his society's impulse to subdue nature, and he brought this impulse to peoples whose religions and customs were all shaped around the accommodation and placation of nature rather than its conquest. Far from benefiting from his Rousseauian adventures, he has loused up the natural balance where it did exist, and confirmed his own hopeless addiction to Western civilization's drug of humanism.

Henderson was published in 1959, Herzog in 1964. Between those two dates (in November 1963, to be exact) there appeared in Encounter an article by Bellow entitled "Some Notes on Recent American Fiction". In his comments on J. F. Powers's novel, Morte d'Urban (1962), Bellow finds deficiency in Powers's view of Self, because "there is curiously little talk of souls in this book about a priest. Spiritually, its quality is very thin." A look at the dates makes it clear that Bellow must have been working on Herzog at the time he wrote the article, and, of course, the views of a novelist-in-progress must be looked at with adjusted lens. Not every detraction need be a defense, but the two have more than a casual connection. Bellow goes on to say in his critique of Morte d'Urban:

A man might well be meek in his own interests, but furious at such abuses of the soul and eager to show what is positive and powerful in his faith. The lack of such power makes faith itself shadowy, more like obscure tenacity than spiritual conviction.

Whether or not Bellow personally holds any traditional theistic views is not to be determined from his novels, but that "spiritual conviction"—or the dread of its disappearance—is to become a growing part of his creative life is easily demonstrable. His advocacy of the individual, or the Self, as announced in his Encounter article, and reiterated with increasing thematic centrality in all subsequent works, is not a nineteenth-century, Romantic view of Self (Moses Herzog's studies in romanticism lay in a closet, "eight hundred pages of chaotic argument"), but rather a new individuality as conceived through social awareness and a deepening sense of responsibility. (pp. 40-1)

Most Bellow heroes are men in the middle—and no one is more in the middle than Moses Herzog. His middleness is his agony—or so Bellow would have us believe—but is it possible to believe in the agony of a man who has the wit and the locution to address himself to Presidents, philosophers, spiritual leaders, scientists, new frauds, and old lovers? A man who styles himself a "suffering joker"? A man who feels enormously sorry for himself but agrees with the saying, "Grief, sir, is a species of idleness"?

Herzog is an intellectual and a teacher. His major unfinished work, Romanticism and Christianity, stands as a sad analogue of his other sad defeats, particularly his marital defeats. In his book he had tried to trace those religious and political innovations that had aspired to bring man into a more advantageous relationship with himself and his fellow mortals; but it is critically, almost hysterically, apparent to Herzog that man is no better off now than he was a thousand years ago. The poison of historical hope has precipitated into the petty realization that he has been a bad husband and a bad father. People of Herzog's generation measure their failures not in terms of broken faith but in broken marriages. The Miltonic council of fallen angels takes place in the marriage counselor's office.

In Herzog it is sometimes difficult to know whether what one is hearing is a comic note in the despair or a desperate note in the comedy, but the fact that they are mingled in no way diminishes the sincerity of either. There is both desperation and comedy, and it is to be noted that the mixture is most pungent where the narration is most personal. Herzog is written in the first person. So is Henderson. And Augie March. And Humboldt. Seize the Day and Mr. Sammler's Planet are third-person novels, and in both instances the desperation far outweighs the comedy. Which would seem to indicate a greater degree of authorial self-consciousness working in the more personal form. That is not surprising, since the true fictional function of the first-person form is to give the creating mind the instantaneous freedom to turn on itself and reveal the mockery in every posture. (pp. 42-3)

Bellow's women are among the most misunderstood and castrating in all of literature. Not all his women, but those who do take on the bitch-role fairly sizzle in it. Madeleine is one of the angriest. She turns on Herzog with such hatred that one is prompted to go back and pick up the overlooked reasons for all that venom. There are a few hints that Herzog may have been sexually inconsiderate (or incompetent), and that he may have been equally inconsiderate in meeting Madeleine's intellectual needs, but these are rather inconclusive hints. What we are given to see most clearly is a picture of Herzog trotting devotedly after beautiful, blazing Madeleine, with her mixed religions and mixed ambitions.

There is a deliberate ironic comedy in the whole business of Madeleine's Catholic conversion, and in Herzog's being persuaded to try some religiosity himself in order to get better adjusted to Madeleine's nature. It serves to bring the failure of the last few centuries and the predicament of the modern intellectual, as personified in Herzog, into painful relief. The late twentieth-century's modality is not religious (even Madeleine gave it up after a while), but the history of religion becomes one more item in the intellectual's inventory of ideas. The fact that traditional religions have lost their force has not obviated man's need to feel a passionate faith in some higher order, intelligence, or idea that will do as medium through which one can seek transcendence.

Herzog's search for such an absolute was conducted in places other than heaven. There was (in Herzog's historical time) the Marxist hope, and that, for many, failed. There was the hope that through self-understanding (the Freudian dispensation) man would come considerably closer to civilized behavior; and that, too, seems to have failed. These various failures have urged Herzog from idea to idea, as well as from woman to woman, and marriage to marriage. (pp. 43-4)

These personal mistakes are bad enough in themselves, but in Herzog's eyes they are also symptomatic of some kind of world disarrangement. Madeleine is not just another woman unhappy in her marriage, but an historical correction officer sent to teach him a lesson. Mind will not substitute for instinct, and the great thoughts of three centuries are not worth a damn in bed, or in the daily rub of domestic life. Beginning again over the wreckage of marriages, religions, and world systems is just too much for a man weighted down with daily responsibilities and a still-operative sex life. The young are fortunately free of the first, and the old are thankfully (or regretfully) free of the second, and what the young and old make of it is examined in Bellow's next novel, Mr. Sammler's Planet.

In Mr. Sammler's Planet (1970) we learn from the outset that Elya Gruner, Mr. Sammler's faulty but faithful nephew, has been hospitalized with a dangerous condition, a threatening aneurysm. This condition becomes the pervasive symbol of the novel. Civilization, too, is suffering a dangerous condition, but the difference between Elya Gruner and civilization is that Elya's death will be immediately ascertainable while civilization's death may be protracted and disguised through countless convulsions.

Bellow is here posing the imminent death of an attitude as well as a man. Elya is no saint. He has been corrupted by the times. He has connections with the underworld in his profession as gynecologist, performing illegal abortions for Mafia money. And he has spoiled his children to the point of imbecility, allowing his daughter too much money and license, and his son too much time and whimsy. (pp. 44-5)

The significant point about these two costly parasites is that their peculiar existences require very large subsidies. Centuries of scientific and artistic cultivation have produced such strange fruit. Removing all monetary and moral necessity from their lives, Elya Gruner has made his family a showcase of the final corruption of the Puritan ethic.

Artur Sammler himself is a survivor. He is from another country and another time. He is keenly aware of the anachronistic nature of his survival. He knows better than anyone else that his sense of values is rapidly disappearing from the world around him. More, he is that old and has been through so much that he has cast himself in the role of disinterested observer. He has absolutely no hope of changing anything, and the combination of his own experience and his living obsolescence gives him a special vantage point which has indissoluble links to the past and an apocalyptic view of the future. (p. 45)

Bellow places Mr. Sammler in New York City, where the stresses and contradictions of society are at their most severe. If there is something wrong with our civilization, it will find its most extravagant expression in this city; and what Mr. Sammler finds most seriously wrong is the almost total attrition of humanism. The people he comes into contact with seem to have lost all faith in the future. The incident of the princely Negro pickpocket who exhibits himself to Mr. Sammler in the lobby of an apartment house in Manhattan (one of the most vividly effective scenes in recent fiction) is illustrative of the condition Bellow is defining. The national sin of racial injustice has gone on for too long, and the victims of that injustice no longer have patience with the slow processes of history. (p. 46)

Civilization, Bellow would appear to be saying, maintains itself by a consensus of values and a desire to project those values into the future. Here is the principal area of breakdown. "The ideas of the last few centuries are used up." On one hand you have the pleasure-seekers like Angela; on the other hand you have cynics like Lionel Feffer, the young man who uses his brilliance and organizational abilities to practice every con game going in the intellectual and/or investment market. For Lionel, intellectuality is no longer tied to the ideal of improving mankind, but to mere cleverness and kicks. Idealism is not simply dead, it is ludicrous.

The novel ends with the death of Elya Gruner, and his death is indicative of Bellow's pessimism. (pp. 46-7)

The cry of all Bellow heroes: to do good. But they are all pleasure-seekers as well, striving, stumbling pleasure-seekers. Indeed, some of the most brilliant insights in Bellow's novels spring from the loss of love or money. Bellow characters declare their hunger for spiritual transcendence, and their author plays with as many means as past religions and philosophies can supply; but while there's a scintilla of pleasure to be wrung from the body, that's where the body is—in good restaurants, in expensive clothes, in the arms of dream-sexy lovers.

Having brought his theme of Western civilization's bankruptcy to near-ultimate definition in Mr. Sammler's Planet, Bellow has little choice other than reiteration or new ground. In Humboldt's Gift he went for reiteration, but a peculiar kind or reiteration. Enough has been said already about Von Humboldt Fleisher and Delmore Schwartz to avoid the point here, but it doesn't really matter whether the character of Humboldt was modeled on Delmore Schwartz or not. Another prototype could have been found who would have evoked the Zeitgeist equally as well. Bellow's shuffling between that bright beginning and the frayed present adds nothing to an understanding or appreciation of either. Charlie Citrine is an aging Augie March, still the Chicago boy sitting down to the feast of life; but now the exotic dishes are all familiar, and instead of the marvelous appetite that stimulated the early Bellow fressers there's a definite dyspepsia souring the many pages of Humboldt's Gift.

Perhaps a clue is to be taken from what Charlie has to say about the dead Humboldt:

He blew his talent and his health and reached home, the grave, in a dusty slide. He plowed himself under. Okay. So did Edgar Allan Poe, picked out of the Baltimore gutter. And Hart Crane over the side of a ship. And Jarrell falling in front of a car. And poor John Berryman jumping from a bridge. For some reason this awfulness is peculiarly appreciated by business and technological America. The country is proud of its dead poets. It takes terrific satisfaction in the poets' testimony that the USA is too tough, too big, too much, too rugged, that American reality is overpowering.

                                                  (p. 48)

The imperious, hot-eyed women are here, and the "reality instructors" who teach the hero the difference between idealism and reality, and the inventory of dead ideologies, and the onomastic fireworks (Proust and Charlus … Wheeler-Bennett, Chester Wilmot, Liddell Hart, Hitler's generals … Walter Winchell, Earl Wilson, General Rommel, John Donne, T. S. Eliot, and many more, all on a single page!), but somehow there is no plangency in the recitation of these names. They seem to be there for their own sake. The former wives and the present lovers are still as demanding and castrating as ever, but their connection to the hero doesn't seem as organic. It's as if Charlie Citrine and his retinue occupy separate stages where each works out separate disillusions and destinies. Indeed, the whole novel seems more a dramatic theory of a life than a dramatic presentation of one. The clownishness and cultural detritus has finally clogged the fictional pipeline, and it wouldn't be too unfair to assume that this has come about through a general debilitation of the theme's vitality. The push is no longer strong enough to wash it all through. (p. 49)

Bellow—or any novelist—owes us no answers. That's an old story. But the novelist who has raised important questions owes us the integrity not to trivialize those questions by repetitive improvisations on a theme, no matter how adroit. So adept is Bellow's hand that one can read Humboldt's Gift with almost all the pleasure that previous Bellow novels have given … but when the book is put away there is a curious lack of residue; there is the feeling that these ideas and these people can yield no more.

But what they have yeilded is great. No contemporary American author has made his theme yield more. Historians must surely suffer from the plethora of means and materials at their disposal, and the very profusion must make a manageable perspective almost impossible to obtain. But if they would wish to know how it was in the hearts of men (and the discrimination is deliberate; Bellow is no feminist) in post-World War II America, there is no better single source than the novels of Saul Bellow. (p. 50)

Seymour Epstein, "Bellow's Gift," in The Denver Quarterly (copyright © 1976 by The University of Denver), Winter, 1976, pp. 35-50.


Bellow, Saul (Vol. 10)


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