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Pulitzer Prize and Nobel Prize-winning novelist Saul Bellow has taken a place among the leading figures in twentieth-century American literature. in his writing and teaching, Bellow championed human and moral possibilities in the face of personal and social struggle. in a Times Literary Supplement article, Julian Symons compared Bellow to two British “other-sayers,” George Orwell and Wyndham Lewis. ”In the United States,” writes Symons, ”Saul Bellow has, for the past twenty years and more, been saying unpopular things about American culture in general, and about the relationship between the society and its literature in particular.”
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Canadian Childhood, Escape to America
The son of Russian-born parents living in a slum in Lachine, Quebec, Bellow was confined to a hospital for a year during his childhood; he passed the time reading. At seventeen, as the Great Depression was ravaging the Canadian economy, he and friend Sydney J. Harris (later a noted newspaper columnist) ran away to New York to sell their first novels, unfortunately without success. Eventually, Bellow enrolled at the University of Chicago. In 1937 he graduated from Northwestern University, where he founded a socialists’ club, with honors in sociology and anthropology. He found employment writing biographical sketches of Midwestern writers.
Beginning of a Literary Career
Later, with the outbreak of the Second World War, Bellow tried to join the Canadian Army, an active British ally, but he was turned down for medical reasons. This experience provided the germ for his first published novel, Dangling Man (1944). Using his own life events to inspire his fiction would prove a lifelong habit. A persistent criticism of Bellow is that he merges with his protagonists. Bellow has said, ”i would have to suffer from dissociation of personality to be all these people in the books,” but he confessed, ”i lend a character, out of pure friendship, whatever he needs.” He lent Joseph of Dangling Man his Canadian birth and Chicago upbringing. In 1943, he worked on Mortimer Adler’s ”Great Books” project for the Encyclopedia Britannica. He then returned to New York and did freelance work before taking a teaching job at the University of Minnesota in 1946. He published his second novel, The Victim, in 1947 (with that work’s character Asa Leventhal he shared the editing experience he got at the Encyclopedia Britannica) and traveled to France in 1948. He taught at various universities and traveled extensively. In 1963, he accepted a permanent position on the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago.
The Adventures of Saul Bellow
Bellow’s best-known protagonist, Augie March, starts out in Bellow’s own 1920s Chicago and ends up, after his merchant-marine stint, in France, where Bellow, after some merchant-marine service of his own, started writing The Adventures of Augie March (1953). The vexed and effortful hero of Bellow’s next novel, Herzog (1964), got Bellow’s Chicago and Canadian roots, his bootlegging immigrant father, and his two ex-wives.
Frequently Bellow shares with his protagonists his station in life, intellectual inclination, and cultural background. There is, moreover, a correspondence between Bellow’s conception of the artist and his conception of his protagonists. Just as the artist must demonstrate his trust in intuitions radically deeper than his conscious knowledge, so the characters Henderson, Herzog, Sammler, and Citrine hold themselves account-able for the utterance of what they know unaccountably. These protagonists reflect Bellow’s own struggle to ”express a variety of things I knew intimately,” according to the author.
Works in Literary Context
In his works, Bellow addresses the question of what it is to be human in an increasingly impersonal and mechanistic world. Writing in a humorous, anecdotal style that combines exalted meditation and modern vernacular, Bellow often depicts introspective individuals who suffer a conflict between Old World and New World values while trying to understand their personal anxieties and aspirations.
Throughout his career, Saul Bellow showed himself to be a stylist equally at ease with the comic and tragic voices. As a writer who often explored the most sensitive and difficult public and private aspects of contemporary life, he won the respect of critics but has also suffered the approbation of feminist critics for perceived sexist and misogynist portraits of female characters and of leftist critics for alleged conservative political and cultural values.
The Holocaust and Anti-Semitism
Bellow was among the first American writers to treat anti-Semitism (prejudice against those of Jewish descent and/or belief) and the Holocaust in fiction. He addressed cultural anti-Semitism in The Victim (1947); religious anti-Semitism in The Adventures of Augie March (1953); economic and social anti-Semitism in ”The Old System” (1967); and violent anti-Semitism in Herzog (1964), ”Mosby’s Memoirs” (1968), and the National Book Award winner Mr. Sammler’s Planet (1970). The Holocaust is rarely at the thematic center of Bellow’s novels, yet it is an ever-present element in characters haunted by its specter. In Humboldt’s Gift (1975), for example, Humboldt Fleisher declines an invitation to present a lecture series in Berlin because a year in Germany would be a constant reminder of ”the destruction of the death camps, the earth soaked in blood, and the fumes of cremation still in the air of Europe.”
The ”Bellow Hero”
In their many books and essays on Bellow’s works, critics often concentrate on two aspects of Bellow’s fiction: his skillfully crafted protagonists, who collectively exemplify the ”Bellow hero,” and his expansive prose style. Bellow’s typical protagonist, who is generally a male, urbanite Jewish intellectual, was described by the Nobel Committee as a man ”who keeps trying to find a foothold during his wanderings in our tottering world, one who can never relinquish his faith that the value of life depends on its dignity, not its
success.” In developing his characters Bellow emphasizes dialogue and interior monologue, and his prose style features sudden flashes of wit and philosophical epigrams. As his protagonists speak to themselves and to others, the reader is drawn into their struggles with self and society. Bellow’s earliest novels, Dangling Man and The Victim, are written in a disciplined, realistic style that he later rejected as constraining. During the 1950s, Bellow developed a lively prose style that could accommodate comic misadventures and philosophical digression. He began to write picaresque narratives that employ larger-than-life protagonists and various rhetorical elements. The Adventures of Augie March (1953), for example, features an extroverted, exuberant character who believes that a ”man’s character is his fate.” With Herzog, Bellow successfully fused the formal realism of his early works with the vitality of his picaresque novels of the 1950s.
Works in Critical Context
The recipient of the 1976 Nobel Prize in Literature, Bellow is among the most celebrated authors of the twentieth century. He has received three National Book Awards, a Pulitzer Prize, and the 1976 Nobel Prize in Literature. According to Irving Howe, Bellow evolved ”the first major new style in American prose fiction since those of Hemingway and Faulkner.”
The Adventures of Augie March
Despite being his third novel, The Adventures of Augie March (1953) was Bellow’s first major success. Charles J. Rolo, in his review for the Atlantic Monthly, states that ”Mr. Bellow’s novel is a notable achievement, and it should be one of the year’s outstanding successes.” Rolo’s one criticism, however, is that the author ”has not tried to take us more deeply inside his hero.” Some other critics were less impressed. In a review for Commonweal, T. E. Cassidy notes that while the author ”has some fine things in this book,” the novel ultimately fails because ”there is no depth and no great theme.” However, Robert Penn Warren, in a review for New Republic, disagrees with this assessment, stating that it is a ”rich, various, fascinating, and important book, and from now on any discussion of fiction in America in our time will have to take account of it.”
Herzog (1964) is notable for the split it caused among critics. Bellow’s second National Book Award-winner, it was both praised and highly criticized. Alfred Kazin called it Bellow’s ”most brilliant” novel while Brendan Gill termed it ”faultless.” Other critics worried that Herzog pondered only himself, making the novel concerned only with the self. Critics divide largely into those who forgive this disorganization (since it reflects Herzog’s mind) and those who do not.
- ”The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow.” Contemporary Literary Criticism. Edited by Tom Burns and Jeffrey W. Hunter. Vol. 190. Detroit: Thomson Gale, 2004, pp. 1-76.
- Bigler, Walter. Figures of Madness in Saul Bellow’s Longer Fiction. New York: Peter Lang, 1998.
- Cohen, Sarah Blacher. Saul Bellow’s Enigmatic Laughter. Champaign, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1974.
- ”Herzog.” Novels for Students. Edited by Jennifer Smith. Vol. 14. Detroit: Gale, 2002.
- Kramer, Michael P., editor. New Essays on Seize the Day. Cambridge, Mass.: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
- McCadden, Joseph F. The Flight from Women in the Fiction of Saul Bellow. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1980.
- ”Leaving the Yellow House.” Short Stories for Students. Edited by Jennifer Smith. Vol. 12. Detroit: Gale Group, 2001.
- ”Seize the Day.” Novels for Students. Edited by Marie Rose Napierkowski. Vol. 4. Detroit: Gale, 1998.
- Wasserman, Harriet. Handsome Is: Adventures with Saul Bellow, A Memoir. New York: Fromm International, 1997.
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