Saul Bellow 1915-
Canadian-born American novelist, short story writer, editor, critic, playwright, lecturer, and memoirist.
The following entry presents an overview of Bellow's career through 2003. For further information on his life and works, see CLC Volumes 1, 2, 3, 6, 8, 10, 13, 15, 25, 33, 34, 63, 79, and 190.
Bellow is regarded as one of the most celebrated authors of the twentieth century. His fiction typically addresses the meaning of human existence in an increasingly impersonal and mechanistic world. Writing in a humorous, anecdotal style, Bellow often depicts introspective individuals sorting out a conflict between Old World and New World values while coping with personal anxieties and aspirations. The Adventures of Augie March (1953), Herzog (1964), and Mr. Sammler's Planet (1970) each won the National Book Award. Bellow won a Pulitzer Prize in 1976 for Humboldt's Gift (1975) and has been widely recognized as a highly original contemporary stylist.
The son of Russian-born parents, Bellow was born June 10, 1915, in Lachine, Quebec. He developed an interest in literature while confined to a hospital for a year during his childhood. At seventeen, Bellow and his friend, the future newspaper columnist Sydney J. Harris, ran away to New York City, where they unsuccessfully attempted to sell their first novels. After briefly studying at the University of Chicago, Bellow graduated from Northwestern University in 1937 with honors in sociology and anthropology. He briefly undertook graduate study in anthropology at the University of Wisconsin. During World War II, Bellow attempted to join the Canadian Army but was turned down for medical reasons; this experience provided the basis for his first published novel, Dangling Man (1944). In 1943 Bellow worked on Mortimer Adler's “Great Books” project for the Encyclopedia Britannica. Bellow then returned to New York, where he briefly earned a living as a freelancer before accepting a teaching position at the University of Minnesota in 1946. In 1963 Bellow accepted a permanent position with the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. He served as a war correspondent for Newsday during the 1967 Arab-Israeli conflict, and he has taught at New York University, Princeton, and the University of Minnesota. He continues to write fiction and essays and has received numerous awards for his work.
Bellow's novels are characterized by the “Bellow hero”—a term referring to the typical Bellow protagonist who is a Jewish, male, intellectual urbanite struggling to find meaning in a materialistic and chaotic world. In developing his characters Bellow emphasizes dialogue and interior monologue, and his prose style features sudden flashes of wit and philosophical epigrams. With The Adventures of Augie March Bellow established himself as a leading American novelist. The book is a picaresque narrative chronicling the adventures of a compelling and sympathetic protagonist, Augie March, from his childhood in Chicago to his adult years in Mexico and Europe. In Henderson the Rain King (1959) Bellow relates the voyage of an arrogant millionaire who travels to Africa to confront his anomie and fear of death. With Herzog Bellow fuses the formal realism of his early works with the vitality of his picaresque novels of the 1950s. Herzog is an animated but tormented Jewish intellectual who has difficulty maintaining human relationships, especially with women.
Mr. Sammler's Planet has often been identified as Bellow's most pessimistic novel. Mr. Sammler, an elderly man, has experienced the promises and horrors of twentieth-century life. He offers an extensive critique of modern values and speculates on the future after observing a pickpocket on a bus. Although many critics disagreed whether Mr. Sammler succeeds as a perceptive commentator who ruminates on contemporary existence, Bellow's portrayal of this character has generally been commended. Humboldt's Gift centers on the conflict between materialistic values and the claims of art and high culture. The protagonist, Charles Citrine, is a successful writer who questions the worth of artistic values in modern American society after suffering exhaustive encounters with divorce lawyers, criminals, artists, and other representative figures from contemporary urban life. He also recalls his friendship with the flamboyant artist Humboldt Fleischer, a composite of several American writers who despaired in their inability to reconcile their artistic ideals with the indifference and materialism of American society. Citrine finally concludes that he can maintain artistic order by dealing with the complexities of life through ironic comic detachment.
In The Dean's December (1982) Bellow directly attacks negative social forces that challenge human dignity. Set in depressed areas of Chicago and Bucharest, Romania, this novel focuses on Albert Corde, a respected journalist who returns to academic life to revive his love of high culture. Corde rebukes politicians, liberal intellectuals, journalists, and bureaucrats in both democratic and communist nations for failing to maintain humanistic values. In More Die of Heartbreak (1987) Benn Crader is a botanist who becomes engaged to the wealthy daughter of an avaricious surgeon seeking to use him to undermine Benn's Uncle Vilitzer, a corrupt political boss. Ravelstein (2000) is regarded as a fictionalized account of Bellow's close friendship with the prominent conservative critic Allan Bloom, who died in 1992. Ravelstein is an eccentric, brilliant, private man; when he realizes that he is dying, he asks Chick, the narrator, to write his biography and Chick agrees.
Bellow has also written several works of short fiction. The novella Seize the Day (1956) focuses on Tommy Wilhelm, a middle-aged man who yearns for wealth and fame but has failed in both his business and human relationships. However, by coming to terms with his mortality—a prominent theme in Bellow's fiction—Wilhelm gains a better understanding of himself and an appreciation of others. In the short fiction collected in Mosby's Memoirs and Other Stories (1968) and Him with His Foot in His Mouth and Other Stories (1984), Bellow depicts sensitive everyday characters and intellectuals who struggle to maintain their dignity and reaffirm faith. In The Actual (1997) Harry Trellman becomes an intellectual consultant for the aging tycoon Sigmund Adletsky. When Amy Wustrin, Harry's true love, suddenly becomes a widow, Sigmund brings Harry and Amy together. In 2001 a selection of Bellow's short stories, Collected Stories, was published. Another wide-ranging collection of Bellow's essays, It All Adds up: From the Dim Past to the Uncertain Future, was published in 1994. These selected essays, travel pieces, lectures, literary appreciations, and autobiographical recollections reflect Bellow's diverse interests.
There have been many assessments of Bellow's fiction and reviewers note that he is one of the most scrutinized writers in contemporary American literature. Scholars have traced his development from an initially formal, realistic style to a more lively, discursive manner. His cultural and social commentary has also been a topic of critical discussion, and Bellow has been praised for producing insightful and compelling fiction that explores such issues as mortality, memory, family relationships, and friendship. Critics have also examined how his work addresses the gap between private and public experience, the effects of materialism and technological progress, and the role of the artist in society. Herzog received praise for its exploration of various Western intellectual traditions, its poignant evocation of events, and its colorful minor characters. Reviewers have applauded Bellow's resiliency and adaptability, his philosophical musings, and his longevity, noting that his career stretches over more than fifty years. More Die of Heartbreak has been praised as a witty and compassionate meditation on friendship and mortality. Humboldt's Gift has been hailed as a compelling work that treats spiritual matters within the context of a commercial world. Other reviewers have panned this novel, faulting passages they deemed unrealistic. Several critics have asserted that the beliefs of protagonist Citrine reflect those of Bellow himself. Most reviewers have described Bellow as an artist who affirms Judeo-Christian religious and social values in his work. He has been analyzed as a Jewish writer, and the theme of Jewish assimilation into American society has been a recurring theme in his fictional works. Ethan Goffman wrote: “By exploring Sammler's personal history as embedded in a larger Jewish history, [Mr. Sammler's Planet] gradually unveils a counternarrative of terror inflicted upon marginalized peoples culminating in a moment of identification between Jew and black.” Despite debate over Mr. Sammler's validity as a social commentator, critics generally agree that Sammler is one of Bellow's most fully realized protagonists. Some commentators have alleged that Bellow's novels lack convincing plots, while others have viewed Bellow's treatment of women and people of color as inadequate at best. Another major topic of debate has centered on the autobiographical aspects of Bellow's fiction, with some critics bemoaning the similarities between the lives of Bellow's protagonists and the author's own. Overall, critics have favorably assessed Bellow's literary achievement and have celebrated his works as a valuable contribution to American literature.