“Saul Bellow,” said Stanford University Jewish Studies professor Steven Zipperstein, “can be credited with having invented the ways in which modern Jews are written about in fiction.”
Zipperstein spoke in tribute to the Nobel Prize-winning Jewish author, who died Tuesday, April 5, at his home in Brookline, Mass., at the age of 89.
Few writers have been so honored in their time. Bellow won three National Book Awards: in 1954 for “The Adventures of Augie March,” in 1965 for “Herzog” and in 1971 for “Mr. Sammler’s Planet.” In 1976, he won the Pulitzer Prize for “Humboldt’s Gift.” That same year, he was awarded the Nobel Prize, cited for his “human understanding and subtle analysis of contemporary culture.”
In 2003, the Library of America paid the rare tribute of releasing work by a living writer, issuing a volume of Bellow’s early novels.
“The backbone of 20th-century American literature has been provided by two novelists — William Faulkner and Saul Bellow,” Philip Roth said in a statement this week. “Together they are the Melville, Hawthorne and Twain of the 20th century.”
Bellow was the most acclaimed of a generation of Jewish writers who emerged after World War II, among them Roth and Bernard Malamud, leading Bellow to joke that he and his two peers were the “Hart, Schaffner & Marx” of literature. To American letters, he brought the immigrant’s hustle, the bookworm’s brains and the high-minded notions of the born romantic.
“They didn’t call him the chairman of the board without reason,” said KQED radio host and English professor Michael Krasny. “He was the Sinatra of literature and had enormous impact. He wasn’t keen on being identified as a Jewish writer though. He disliked the idea of being categorized, but he identified strongly with his heritage.”
Added San Francisco-based novelist Herbert Gold, “[Bellow] opened up the pathway — and not just to Jewish writers — to use the American language. Not the language of Henry James but the American language as she is spoke. He gave that permission to writers like Malamud, Roth and me. We thought of him as the person who opened the door for us.”
In spite, or perhaps because, of all the praise, Bellow also had detractors. Norman Mailer called “Augie March” a “travelogue for timid intellectuals.” Critic Alfred Kazin, a longtime friend who became estranged from Bellow, thought the author had become a “university intellectual” with “contempt for the lower orders.” Biographer James Atlas accused Bellow of favoring “subservient women in order to serve his own shaky self-image.”
Old-fashioned, but not complacent, he kept writing into his 80s and, hoping to make his work more affordable, had his novella “A Theft” published as a paperback original in 1989. His recent works included “The Actual,” a sentimental novella published in 1997, and “Ravelstein,” a 2000 novel based on the life of his late friend, Allan Bloom, author of “The Closing of the American Mind.” Also in 2000, Bellow was the subject of Atlas’ acclaimed biography.
Bellow had a gift for describing faces, and the author’s own looks — snowy hair, aristocratic nose and space between his front teeth — were familiar from book jackets. His personality was equally distinctive. In “Humboldt’s Gift,” the narrator’s childhood sweetheart refers to him as a “good man who’s led a cranky life.”
He had five wives, three sons and, at age 84, a daughter. He met presidents (Kennedy, Johnson) and movie stars (Marilyn Monroe, Jack Nicholson). He feuded with writers (Truman Capote, Mailer), and helped out writers, notably William Kennedy, on whose behalf he lobbied to get his work published.
“When I first talked about writing with Saul he insisted on the ability to change, to get a serious grip on what was real in your life,” Kennedy said. “He was the 20th century’s literary wizard, who fused the intellect and the imagination in glorious and comic language that we’d never heard before.”
After teaching for many years at the University of Chicago, Bellow stunned both the literary and academic world by leaving the city with which he was so deeply associated. In 1993, he accepted a position at Boston University, where he taught a freshman-level class on “young men on the make” in literature.
Like his characters, Bellow’s life was an evolution from the unbearable yet comic passion of the Old World, to the unbearable yet comic alienation of the New World.
The son of Russian immigrants, he was born Solomon Bellows in Lachine, Quebec, outside Montreal. He dropped the final “s” from his last name and changed his first name to Saul when he began publishing his writing in the 1940s.
The classic Bellow narrator was a self-absorbed intellectual with ideals the author himself seemed to form during the Depression. While he would remember the fear most people had during those years, Bellow found them an exciting and even liberating time.
“There were people going to libraries and reading books,” he told The Associated Press in a 1997 interview. “They were going to libraries because they were trying to keep warm; they had no heat in their houses. There was a great deal of mental energy in those days, of very appealing sorts. Working stiffs were having ideas.”
From the beginning, Bellow was determined to tell a different kind of American story, to depart from the tight-lipped machismo of Ernest Hemingway.
“Do you have emotions? Strangle them. To a degree, everyone obeys this code,” Bellow wrote in his debut novel “Dangling Man,” published in 1944. While the Hemingway hero keeps his problems to himself, Bellow declared “I intend to talk about mine.”
The Bellow themes were in place, but his prose matured later. As the author himself would acknowledge, his early books were too prim, too careful. Only in 1953, with “The Adventures of Augie March,” would readers see another Bellow: the funny Bellow, the immigrant Bellow, Bellow the son of a bootlegger.
“Well, ‘Augie March’ was a sort of Niagara of freedom that poured over me suddenly. I thought of myself as an imperfect writer who needed to perfect himself, perfect his language and style, and all of a sudden that was a suffocating project that I had to break with,” he said.
“Augie March” and the books that followed — “Seize the Day,” “Henderson the Rain King,” “Herzog” — established him, and perhaps saddled him, as a canonical writer. In each work Bellow lived up to Augie March’s idea of imaginative power, of inventing “a man who can stand before the terrible appearances.”
Bellow’s men stood before the New World and trembled. Nonbelievers amid the worship of machines and money, they shook with existential despair. They did everything from compose letters to dead people in “Herzog” to running off to Africa in “Henderson the Rain King.”
“He had a rep for being difficult,” said Krasny, who was friendly with the author. “He could be prickly but always generous to a fault with me, very kind and sweet, really. What we got out of Bellow was the vexing question: How should a good man live?”
Said Bellow: “There is something terribly nervous-making about a modern existence. For one thing, it’s all the thinking we have to do and all the judgments we have to make. It’s the price of freedom: Make the judgments, make the mental calls.”
A public memorial is planned.
Hillel Italie is a writer for The Associated Press; Dan Pine is a writer for j.