[Paleopsych] NYT: Saul Bellow, Who Breathed Life Into American Novel, Dies at 89
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Wed Apr 6 21:53:13 UTC 2005
Saul Bellow, Who Breathed Life Into American Novel, Dies at 89
[I have read no novels by Saul Bellow, or Philip Roth or Bernard Malamud
or any of the Jewish-American greats in the novel, since until I abandoned
reality I rarely read novels. Where might I begin?]
By MEL GUSSOW and CHARLES McGRATH
Saul Bellow, the Nobel laureate and self-proclaimed historian of
society whose fictional heroes - and whose scathing, unrelenting and
darkly comic examination of their struggle for meaning - gave new
immediacy to the American novel in the second half of the 20th
century, died yesterday at his home in Brookline, Mass. He was 89.
His death was announced by Walter Pozen, Mr. Bellow's lawyer and a
"I cannot exceed what I see," Mr. Bellow said. "I am bound, in other
words, as the historian is bound by the period he writes about, by the
situation I live in." But his was a history of a particular and
The center of his fictional universe was Chicago, where he grew up and
spent most of his life, and which he made into the first city of
American letters. Many of his works are set there, and almost all of
them have a Midwestern earthiness and brashness. Like their creator,
Mr. Bellow's heroes were all head and all body both. They tended to be
dreamers, questers or bookish intellectuals, but they lived in a
lovingly depicted world of cranks, con men, fast-talking salesmen and
In novels like "The Adventures of Augie March," his breakthrough novel
in 1953, "Henderson the Rain King" and "Herzog," Mr. Bellow laid a
path for old-fashioned, supersized characters and equally big themes
and ideas. As the English novelist Malcolm Bradbury said, "His fame,
literary, intellectual, moral, lay with his big books," which were
"filled with their big, clever, flowing prose, and their big,
more-than-lifesize heroes - Augie Marches, Hendersons, Herzogs,
Humboldts - who fought the battle for courage, intelligence, selfhood
and a sense of human grandeur in the postwar age of expansive,
materialist, high-towered Chicago-style American capitalism."
Mr. Bellow said that of all his characters Eugene Henderson, of
"Henderson the Rain King," a quixotic violinist and pig farmer who
vainly sought a higher truth and a moral purpose in life, was the one
most like himself, but there were also elements of the author in the
put-upon, twice-divorced but ever-hopeful Moses Herzog and in wise but
embattled older figures like Artur Sammler, of "Mr. Sammler's Planet"
and Albert Corde, the dean in "The Dean's December." They were all men
trying to come to grips with what Corde called "the big-scale
insanities of the 20th century."
At the same time, some of his novellas and stories were regarded as
more finely wrought. V. S. Pritchett said, "I enjoy Saul Bellow in his
spreading carnivals and wonder at his energy, but I still think he is
finer in his shorter works." Pritchett considered Mr. Bellow's 1947
book "The Victim" "the best novel to come out of America - or England
- for a decade" and thought that "Seize the Day," another shorter
book, was "a small gray masterpiece."
All his work, long and short, was written in a distinctive,
immediately recognizable style that blended high and low, colloquial
and mandarin, wisecrack and aphorism, as in the introduction of the
poet Humboldt at the beginning of "Humboldt's Gift": "He was a
wonderful talker, a hectic nonstop monologuist and improvisator, a
champion detractor. To be loused up by Humboldt was really a kind of
privilege. It was like being the subject of a two-nosed portrait by
Picasso, or an eviscerated chicken by Soutine."
Mr. Bellow stuck to an individualistic path, and steered clear of
cliques, fads and schools of writing. He was frequently lumped
together with Philip Roth and Bernard Malamud as a Jewish-American
writer, but he rejected the label, saying he had no wish to be part of
the "Hart, Schaffner & Marx" of American letters. In his younger days,
he was loosely allied with the liberal and arty Partisan Review crowd,
led by Philip Rahv and William Phillips, but he eventually broke with
them saying, "They want to cook their meals over Pater's hard gemlike
flame and light their cigarettes at it." He spoke his own mind,
without regard for political correctness or fashion, and was often
involved, at least at a literary distance, in fierce debates with
feminists, black writers, postmodernists.
On multiculturalism, he was once quoted as asking: "Who is the Tolstoy
of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans?" The remark caused a furor
and was taken as proof, he said, "that I was at best insensitive and
at worst an elitist, a chauvinist, a reactionary and a racist - in a
word, a monster." He later said the controversy was "the result of a
misunderstanding that occurred (they always do occur) during an
In his life as in his work, he was unpredictable. He was the most
urban of writers and yet he spent much of his time at a farm in
Vermont. He admired and befriended the Chicago machers - the
deal-makers and real-estate men - and he dressed like one of them, in
bespoke suits, Turnbull & Asser shirts and a Borsalino hat. He was a
devoted, self-taught cook, as well as a gardener, a violinist and a
He was a great admirer of, among others, John Cheever, William
Faulkner, Ralph Ellison (a close friend), Cormac McCarthy, Denis
Johnson, Joyce Carol Oates and James Dickey. Mr. Bellow grew up
reading the Old Testament, Shakespeare and the great 19th-century
Russian novelists and always looked with respect to the masters, even
as he tried to recast himself in the American idiom. A scholar as well
as teacher, he read deeply and quoted widely, often referring to Henry
James, Marcel Proust and Gustave Flaubert. But at the same time he was
apt to tell a joke coined by Henny Youngman.
While others were ready to proclaim the death of the novel, he
continued to think of it as a vital form. "I never tire of reading the
master novelists," he said. "Can anything as vivid as the characters
in their books be dead?"
Once, with reference to Flaubert, he wrote, "I think novelists who
take the bitterest view of our modern condition make the most of the
art of the novel," and added, "The writer's art appears to seek a
compensation for the hopelessness or meanness of existence.
"Saul Bellow was a kind of intellectual boulevardier, wearing a jaunty
hat and a smile as he marched into literary battle. In spite of - or
perhaps, because of - his lofty position, he was criticized more than
many of his peers. In reviews his books were habitually weighed
against one another. Was this one as full-bodied as "Augie March"?
Where was the Bellow of old? Norman Mailer said that "Augie March,"
Mr. Bellow's grand bildungsroman, was unconvincing and overcooked;
Elizabeth Hardwick thought that in "Henderson," he was trying too hard
to be an important novelist. He was prickly but also philosophical:
"Every time you're praised, there's a boot waiting for you. If you've
been publishing books for 50 years or so, you're inured to
misunderstanding and even abuse."
Years ago, at the Breadloaf Writers Conference in Vermont, he spent a
great deal of time with Robert Frost. "I thought when I was his age,"
he said, "people would let me get away with murder, too. But I'm not
allowed to get away with a thing." Smiling, he vowed, "My turn will
Taking His Success in Stride
In a long and unusually productive career, Mr. Bellow dodged many of
the snares that typically entangle American writers. He didn't drink
much, and though he was analyzed four times, and even spent some time
in an orgone box, his mental health was as robust as his physical
health. His success came neither too early nor too late, and he took
it more or less in stride. He never ran out of ideas and he never
The Nobel Prize, which he won in 1976, was the cornerstone of a career
that also included a Pulitzer Prize, three National Book Awards, a
Presidential Medal and more honors than any other American writer. In
contrast with some other winners, who were wary of the albatross of
the Nobel, Mr. Bellow accepted it matter-of-factly. "The child in me
is delighted," he said. "The adult in me is skeptical." He took the
award, he said, "on an even keel," aware of "the secret humiliation"
that "some of the very great writers of the century didn't get it."
This most American of writers was born in Lachine, Quebec, a poor
immigrant suburb of Montreal, and named Solomon Bellow, his birthdate
is listed as either June or July 10, 1915, though his lawyer, Mr.
Pozen, said yesterday that Mr. Bellow customarily celebrated in June.
(Immigrant Jews at that time tended to be careless about the Christian
calendar, and the records are inconclusive.)
He was the last of four children, but as he was always quick to point
out, the first to be born in the New World. His parents had emigrated
from Russia two years before, though in Canada their luck wasn't much
better. Solomon's father, Abram, failed at one enterprise after
another. His mother, Liza, was deeply religious and wanted her
youngest child, her favorite, to become either a rabbi or a concert
violinist. But Mr. Bellow's fate was sealed, or so he later claimed,
when at the age of 8 he spent six months in Ward H of the Royal
Victoria Hospital, suffering from a respiratory infection and reading
"Uncle Tom's Cabin" and the funny papers. It was there, he said, that
he discovered his sense of destiny - his certainty that he was meant
for great things.
In 1924, when their son was 9, the Bellows moved to Chicago, where the
family began to prosper a little as Abram picked up work in a bakery,
delivering coal, and even bootlegging. The family continued its old
ways in the United States, and during his childhood, Saul was steeped
in Jewish tradition.
Eventually he rebelled against what he considered to be a "suffocating
orthodoxy" and found in Chicago not just a physical home but a
spiritual one. Recalling his sense of discovery and of belonging, he
later wrote, "The children of Chicago bakers, tailors, peddlers,
insurance agents, pressers, cutters, grocers, the sons of families on
relief, were reading buckram-bound books from the public library and
were in a state of enthusiasm, having found themselves on the shore of
a novelistic land to which they really belonged, discovering their
birthright ... talking to one another about the mind, society, art,
religion, epistemology and doing all this in Chicago, of all places."
Eventually Chicago became for him what London was for Dickens and
Dublin was for Joyce - the center of both his life and his work, and
not just a place or a background but almost a character in its own
He began writing in grammar school, alongside his childhood friend
Sydney J. Harris, later a Chicago newspaper columnist: "We would sit
at the Harrises' dining room table and write things to each other -
any old thing." His father was disapproving, and remained so for
decades. "You write and then you erase," he said when Mr. Bellow was
in his 20's. "You call that a profession?"
His mother was more supportive, but when Saul was 17, she died, a loss
that he found difficult to overcome. With her death and his father's
remarriage, he said, "I was turned loose - freed, in a sense: free but
also stunned, like someone who survives an explosion but hasn't yet
grasped what has happened." He added, "It was disabling for me for a
couple of years."
In 1933 he began college at the University of Chicago, but two years
later transferred to Northwestern, because it was cheaper. He had
hoped to study literature but was put off by what he saw as the tweedy
anti-Semitism of the English department, and graduated in 1937 with
honors in anthropology and sociology, subjects that were later to
instill his novels. Bu he was still obsessed by fiction. While doing
graduate work in anthropology at the University of Wisconsin, he found
that "every time I worked on my thesis, it turned out to be a story."
He added: "I sometimes think the Depression was a great help. It was
no use studying for any other profession."
Quitting his graduate studies at Wisconsin after several months, he
participated in the W.P.A. Federal Writers' Project in Chicago,
preparing biographies of Midwestern novelists, and later joined the
editorial department of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, where he worked
on Mortimer Adler's "Great Books" series.
He came to New York "toward the end of the 30's, muddled in the head
but keen to educate myself." While living in Greenwich Village and
writing fiction, aimlessly and with little success at first, he also
reviewed books. When World War II began he was rejected by the Army
because of a hernia; he later joined the merchant marine and was in
training when the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. During his
service, he finished writing "Dangling Man," about the alienation of a
young Chicagoan waiting to be drafted. It was published in 1944,
before the author was 30, and was followed by "The Victim," a novel
about anti-Semitism that was written, he said, under the influence of
Dostoyevsky. Mr. Bellow later called these novels his "M.A. and Ph.D."
They were apprentice work, he believed, finely written but weak in
plot and too much in thrall to European models.
Epiphany in Paris
In 1948, financed by a Guggenheim fellowship, Mr. Bellow went to
Paris, where, walking the streets of Paris and thinking about his
future, he had a kind of epiphany. He remembered a friend from his
childhood named Chucky, "a wild talker who was always announcing
cheerfully that he had a super scheme," and he began to wonder what a
novel in Chucky's voice would sound like. "The book just came to me,"
he said later. "All I had to do was be there with buckets to catch
The resulting novel, "The Adventures of Augie March," was published in
1953, and it became Mr. Bellow's breakthrough, his first best seller
and the book that firmly established him as a writer of consequence.
The beginning of the novel was as striking and as unforgettable as the
beginning of "Huckleberry Finn," and it announced a brand-new voice in
American fiction, jazzy, brash, exuberant, with accents that were both
Yiddish and Whitmanian:
"I am an American, Chicago born - Chicago, that somber city - and go
at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the
record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an
innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent."
"Fiction is the higher autobiography," Mr. Bellow once said, and in
his subsequent novels, he often adapted facts from his own life and
the lives of people he knew. Humboldt was a version of the poet
Delmore Schwartz; Henderson was based on Chandler Chapman, a son of
the writer John Jay Chapman; Gersbach, the cuckolder in "Herzog," was
a Bard professor named Jack Ludwig, who did indeed seduce Mr. Bellow's
wife at the time; and in one guise or another most of Mr. Bellow's
many girlfriends all turned up.
"What a woman-filled life I always led," says Charlie Citrine, the
protagonist of "Humboldt's Gift." Those are words that could have been
echoed by the author who had almost innumerable affairs and was
married five times. His wives were Anita Goshkin, Alexandra
Tsachacbasov, Susan Glassman, Alexandra Ionescu Tulcea and Janis
Freedman. All of Mr. Bellow's marriages but his last ended in divorce.
In addition to his wife Janis, he is survived by three sons, Gregory,
Adam and Daniel; a daughter, Naomi Rose; and six grandchildren.
A Turning Point
With "Henderson the Rain King" in 1959, Mr. Bellow envisioned an even
more ambitious canvas than that of "Augie March," with the story of an
American millionaire who travels in Africa in search of regeneration.
Mr. Bellow, who had never been to Africa, regarded that novel as a
turning point. "Augie March," he said later, was a little unruly and
out of control; with "Henderson" he had full command of his creative
"Henderson" was followed in 1964 by "Herzog," with the title character
a Jewish Everyman who is cuckolded by his wife and his best friend.
"He is taken by an epistolary fit," said the author, "and writes
grieving, biting, ironic and rambunctious letters not only to his
friends and acquaintances, but also to the great men, the giants of
thought, who formed his mind."
Looking back on the writing of that book, he said: " 'Herzog' was just
a brainstorm. One day I found myself writing letters - all over the
place. Then it occurred to me that it was a very good idea for writing
a book about the mental condition of the country and of its educated
class." The novel won a National Book Award.
In contrast, that same year "The Last Analysis" (one of several plays
by Mr. Bellow) opened on Broadway and was a quick failure. "It started
as a lark," he said, "but it ended as an ostrich."
With "Mr. Sammler's Planet" in 1969, a novel about a survivor of the
Holocaust living and ruminating in New York, Mr. Bellow won his third
National Book Award. "Humboldt's Gift," in 1975, proved to be one of
his greatest successes. In it, Charlie Citrine, a Pulitzer
Prize-winning writer, has to come to terms with the death of his
mentor, the poet Von Humboldt Fleischer.
Life imitated art in this case, and "Humboldt" won the Pulitzer Prize
for fiction. The Nobel Prize in Literature soon followed, with the
Royal Swedish Academy citing his "exuberant ideas, flashing irony,
hilarious comedy and burning compassion," and Mr. Bellow was now
placed in a class with his American predecessors Ernest Hemingway and
"After I won the Nobel Prize," he said, "I found myself thrust in the
position of a public servant in the world of culture. I was supposed
to seem benevolent and to pontificate and bless with my presence -
elder statesman whether I liked it or not. The price you have to pay."
His first book following the Nobel was "To Jerusalem and Back," a
nonfiction memoir about his trip to Israel. That was followed by "The
Dean's December," a novel about the decay of the American city; the
short-story collection "Him With His Foot in His Mouth" and, in 1987,
the novel "More Die of Heartbreak." From then on, through "The
Bellarosa Connection" and "The Actual," his books became shorter and
shorter, a case of Mr. Bellow sending out what he called "a briefer
With "Ravelstein" (2000), he returned to longer fiction. Inspired by
the life of his close friend Allan Bloom, the author of "The Closing
of the American Mind," the book dealt with a celebrated professor
dying of AIDS. In his review in The New York Times Book Review,
Jonathan Wilson said it was "a great novel of that much-maligned item,
American male friendship."
In 1993, after many years of living in Chicago and teaching at the
University of Chicago, he left his adopted city. The reasons for his
departure were complex. Several of his close Chicago friends had died,
among them Allan Bloom, and Mr. Bellow said he "got tired of passing
the houses of my dead friends." He was also upset by the ugly racial
climate in Chicago at the time. A few people in the radical black
community tried to spread a story that Jewish doctors were
deliberately infecting black children with H.I.V., and Mr. Bellow
objected to this "blood libel" in an article printed in The Chicago
He moved to Boston and, at the invitation of the chancellor, John
Silber, began teaching at Boston University. Explaining why he
continued to teach, even though he was one of the most financially
successful of serious American novelists, he said: "You're all alone
when you're a writer. Sometimes you just feel you need a humanity
bath. Even a ride on the subway will do that. But it's much more
interesting to talk about books. After all, that's what life used to
be for writers: they talk books, politics, history, America. Nothing
has replaced that."
In 1994, while on a Caribbean vacation with his wife in St. Martin,
Mr. Bellow became sick after eating a toxic fish, and almost died - an
incident that is also recounted in "Ravelstein." After a long recovery
process, he returned to his writing, with "By the St. Lawrence," a
story evoking a traumatic memory of his childhood.
Throughout Mr. Bellow's life, his approach to his art was that of an
alien newly arrived on earth: "I've never seen the world before. Now I
was seeing it, and it's a beautiful, marvelous gift. Enchanting
reality! And when the end came, I was told by the cleverest people I
knew that it would all vanish. I'm not absolutely convinced of that.
If you asked me if I believed in life after death, I would say I was
an agnostic. There are more things between heaven and earth, Horatio,
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