Should we believe in Bellow?

Text Umi Perkins
Art Will Caron

In the prologue of his collected nonfiction writings There is Simply Too Much to Think About (2016), Saul Bellow asked:

“What was it, in the Thirties, that drew an adolescent in Chicago to the writing of books? How did a young American of the Depression period decide that he was, of all things, a literary artist? I use the pretentious term literary artist to emphasize the contrast between such an ambition and the external facts [of the] colossal industrial and business center ... heavy, growling, lowbrow Chicago.”

Throughout his storied career as a literary artist, one of Bellow’s immense strengths was his illustrations of this very contrast between the lowbrow and the high. My first reading of Bellow's Herzog (1964), which featured the contrast at its most stark, was a revelation. That someone could capture both the life of letters as well as an author’s decline—including physical decline—showed something uniquely human. When the cerebral, but vain Moses Herzog buys a pair of pants before traveling to visit (and impress) some friends, the salesman:

“… was a trifle rude to Moses, for when he asked his waist size and Moses answered ‘Thirty-four,’ the salesman said ‘Don’t boast.’ That had slipped out, and Moses was too gentlemanly to hold it against him. His heart worked somewhat with the painful satisfaction of restraint.”

Herzog is the semi-autobiographical story of a washed up scholar, whose ex-wife Madeline runs off with her therapist and their daughter. He spends much of the book alternately obsessing over her and berating himself for his own infirmities, weakness and even impotence. In a scene with a mutual confidant, Zelda, all of this is brought into the open:

“‘You’ve been reckless about women.’”
“‘Since Madeline threw me out, maybe. Trying to get back my self-respect.’”
“‘No, while you were still married.’ Zelda’s mouth tightened …”
“He muttered, ‘She made it tough for me, too. Sexually.’”
“‘Well, being older … But that’s bygones,’ said Zelda.”

Herzog writes letters, which he never sends, to everyone; the philosopher Heidegger (notably a Nazi):

“Dear Doktor Professor Heidegger, I should like to know what you mean by your expression ‘the fall into the quotidian.’ When did this fall occur? Where were we standing when it happened?”

The President:

“Dear Mr. President, I listened to your recent optimistic message on the radio and thought that in respect to taxes there was little to justify your optimism. The new legislation is highly discriminatory … more adolescent gangs will dominate the underpoliced streets of big cities. Stresses of overpopulation, the race question…”

The writer Phillip Roth writes that “this book of a thousand delights offers no greater delight than these letters, and no better key with which to unlock Herzog’s remarkable intelligence and enter into the depths of his turmoil over the wreckage of his life.”

Bellow dug beneath the surface to show that his cultured characters (and self) were only one generation removed from bootleggers and Jews who scraped together a living in a Dickensian underbelly, usually of Chicago. And they suffered. This may be the primary theme in Bellow’s writing: the suffering, with or without worldly success. Bellow himself worked his way through college in Chicago’s industrial backyards:

"Of course coal was paying my way through college and so I had to work behind the scales in a semi-industrial neighborhood where there was light industry, poultry markets, wholesale markets all around and railroad people coming in, It was actually a better education for me than the university."

Bellow’s conflicted view of himself continued through adulthood. In his introduction to Herzog, Roth notes:

“Bellow once told me that ‘somewhere in my Jewishness and immigrant blood there were conspicuous traces of doubt as to whether I had the right to practice the writer’s trade.’ He suggested that … this [was] because ‘our own Wasp establishment, represented mainly by Harvard-trained professors,’ considered a son of immigrant Jews unfit to write books in English. These guys infuriated him.”

The New Yorker notes the irony of his identification in the opening line of The Adventures of Augie March (1953):

“‘I am an American, Chicago born.’ begins the famous first sentence of ‘The Adventures of Augie March.’ The author of that sentence was actually an illegal immigrant, Canada born, and the words were written in Paris.” Unlike Herzog, Augie March is a frantic story about a decidedly lowbrow kid, but shows the rich, frenzied, inner mental life of such characters, always on the take, always up to some scheme. Not all critics appreciated the high-low contrast. The critic Ron Rosenbaum wrote that Bellow:

“…strains too hard to yoke together two somewhat contradictory aspects of his being and style. There’s the street-wise Windy City wiseguy and then—as if to show off that the wiseguy has Wisdom—there are the undigested chunks of arcane, not entirely impressive, philosophic thought and speculation. Just to make sure you know his novels have intellectual heft.”

Perhaps because his other identities (American, Chicagoan) were never quite fixed, like his characters, Bellow could never escape his Jewishness (nor did he want to). The critic Martin Greenberg wrote that “Bellow had succeeded in making Jewishness ‘a quality that informs all of modern life. . . the quality of modernity itself.’” Like Gore Vidal (who features as a minor rival in Bellow’s published letters), Bellow was part of that generation of the literary egoiste:

“Recognition magnifies idiosyncrasies … A characteristic of Bellow’s mentioned by nearly everyone who knew him was his touchiness. He cut people who commented critically on drafts he sent them for comment, and he imagined conspiracies operating behind negative reviews or press coverage that he regarded as less than flattering. He broke with old friends after political disagreements over dinner. These reflexes did not serve him well out in the arena. After he got in trouble with multiculturalists for asking an interviewer ‘Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus, the Proust of the Papuans?,’ he published a Times op-ed piece in which, while attempting to distance himself from the remark, he called his critics Stalinists. This did not clear the air.”

Recently, Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of Between the World and Me (2015), gave an answer to Bellow’s provocative question, which posits a universality of literature: “Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus.”

Bellow’s characters seemed to closely, but never entirely, mirror his life. Like the character Humboldt, he taught at Princeton for a year, but didn’t want to be “tied down” by an academic post. His very public divorce from one of his five wives mirrored Charlie Citrine’s divorce in Humboldt’s Gift, showy and expensive. The therapy that preceded it, in which both sides had the same psychotherapist, is reflected in Herzog, where his therapist marries his ex-wife (and tells him not to be so neurotic about it). Bellow later found out that his own therapist, Jack Ludwig, was having an affair with his wife.

Bellow’s writing seemed to capture something universal. He is the only writer to win three National Book Awards as well as the Nobel Prize for literature.

Late in life, Bellow became even more expressive about his art. In a 1965 interview in Paris Review, he noted:

“I wonder whether there will ever be enough tranquility under modern circumstances to allow our contemporary Wordsworth to recollect anything. I feel that art has something to do with the achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos. A stillness that characterizes prayer, too, and the eye of the storm. I think that art has something to do with an arrest of attention in the midst of distraction.”

The New Yorker compares Bellow to, of all people, Jack Kerouac—at least The Adventures of Augie March, which it likens to On the Road. Both books are also “revolts into style,” protests against the formal and moral prudishness of highbrow culture. One could be forgiven for the comparison with frenetic passages like this:

“Well, now, who can really expect the daily facts to go, toil or prisons to go, oatmeal and laundry tickets and the rest, and insist that all moments be raised to the greatest importance, demand that everyone breathe the pointy, star-furnished air at its highest difficulty, abolish all brick, vaultlike rooms, all dreariness, and live like prophets or gods? Why, everybody knows this triumphant life can only be periodic. So there’s a schism about it, some saying only this triumphant life is real and others that only the daily facts are. For me there was no debate, and I made speed into the former.”

Never a postmodern multiculturalist, Bellow said he did owe something of his literary sensibility to radicalism. A former Marxist, he was present at the death of Trotsky in Mexico:

“We asked for Trotsky and they said who are you and we said we’re newspapermen. They said Trotsky’s in the hospital. So we went to the hospital and we asked to see Trotsky and they opened the door and said he’s in there, so we went in and there was Trotsky. He had just died. He had been assassinated that morning. He was covered in blood and bloody bandages and his white beard was full of blood.”

In the epilogue of Too Much to Think About, Bellow questions American artists’ sense of belonging to the great (read: European) artistic tradition. Through an examination of the critic Hilton Kramer’s remarks on popular American artists Jackson Pollock and the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, Bellow, by extension, explores his own membership in the tradition of letters.

In response to Kramer’s view that “Pollock stands to Picasso as Ginsberg (a ‘poet of small, fragmentary accomplishment’) stands to Whitman and Pound: provincials aspiring to a status which their intrinsic gifts deny them,” Bellow asks “Why not?” “Were Pound of Idaho ... Eliot of Missouri [and] Whitman of Long Island less provincial than Jackson Pollock of Cody, Wyoming?” Bellow’s sense of place has here a double purpose: by bridging the lowbrow and the high, he means to find a place, as a Russian-Canadian Jewish immigrant, to call home, and to find one’s place among the artists, literary and otherwise, in the Western canon.


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