Saul Bellow (June 11, 1915 – April 5, 2005) was a writer who achieved worldwide acclaim and recognition throughout his career. Although he was born in Canada and raised in America, his writings traverse gender, race, and country. His novels echo the ideas of isolation, spiritual dissociation, and the importance of the human awakening.
He remains one of the forerunners in shedding a positive light on the Jewish-American heritage. His characters are humorous, charming, a bit disillusioned, and slightly neurotic. Thus, his novels survive the passing of years as the universal themes continue to be applicable. Bellow cherished and championed Judeo-Christian religious values and scorned such studies as absurdism and nihilism. He thought nothing was as important as simple, ordinary lives being lived as best the person could live.
Saul Bellow's best known work is The Adventures of Augie March, however, he won many awards and prizes, including the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1976, for Humboldt's Gift.
He was known for creating a sense of place and for strong eccentric characters. He opened The Adventures of Augie March:
"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."
Solomon (nicknamed "Sollie") Bellows was born in Lachine, Quebec (now part of Montreal), in 1915. Bellows has customarily celebrated his birthday on June 10, but he was always a little doubtful of the actual date because his original birth certificate was burned when a fire destroyed Lachine's City Hall. Bellow's parents were both immigrants from St. Petersburg, Russia, and had traveled to Canada in 1913. Bellow's father had imported Turkish figs and Egyptian onions while in Russia, but life proved to be very difficult in Canada. Thus, Bellow's father resorted to bootlegging and other activities. The small family lived in the most impoverished section of the city of Montreal with other immigrant families from Poland, Greece, Italy, and Russia.
In 1924, Bellow's father was beaten almost to death because of his dealings with nefarious, questionable people. Thus, the family decided to leave Montreal and move to America. They moved south, settling in an equally impoverished region in the Chicago slums. Bellow, already nine years old, began school for the first time. His childhood, far from innocent and serene, provided him with many of the ideas would become backdrops to many of his novels.
A lot of Bellow's education took place at home. His mother, Lescha (Liza) was adamant that Bellow learn Hebrew and Yiddish, as well as English. She was very religious and the first book Saul remembers reading was the Bible.
His desire to read was further developed when he faced many different illnesses that kept him indoors. After one particular bout with sickness, Bellow decided that once he recovered, he would work harder at not becoming sick again. Although he was bookish by nature, he worked hard at his physical fitness and lived for optimum health. Along with the Bible, he loved other religious texts and they comforted him during many hard times.
When Bellow's mother died suddenly, he was emotionally distraught for many months. Liza Bellow died when Saul was only 17, and about this event he said, "My life was never the same after my mother died."
In 1933, Saul Bellow entered the University of Chicago. One of his fellow classmates, John Podhoretz, said that Bellow and his good friend, Allan Bloom, "inhaled books and ideas the way the rest of us breathe air." Early on in his studies at Chicago, he decided to transfer to Northwestern University and began studying anthropology and sociology. Although his emphasis was not Literature, Bellow took many writing and English classes. While at Northwestern, the English-department chairman told Bellow that "No Jew could really grasp the tradition of English literature," and suggested he not waste his time. Many, including the famous Professor Melville J. Herskovits, encouraged Bellow to become a concert pianist.
Later Bellow would say that his Jewish heritage was "a gift, a piece of good fortune with which one does not quarrel," but he also insisted that he was not a "Jewish" writer, rather an American writer who happened to be a Jew.
After completion of his degree at Northwestern, Bellow did his postgraduate studies at Wisconsin University. During his first Christmas break at Wisconsin, he fell in love with Anita Goshkin. They married shortly after their first meeting. Because of his whirlwind romance, Bellow left his studies at the university and decided to begin his writing career immediately.
It took several years before Bellow had a novel published, and during this time he wrote book reviews for ten dollars apiece. He taught school at Pestalozzi-Froebel Teachers' College in Chicago from 1938-1942. After that, he worked as an editor for the Encyclopedia Britannica, from 1943 to 1944.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Bellow tried to enlist in the Army, but was rejected because he suffered from a hernia. After a few months of healing, he went to enlist again and served as a U.S. Merchant Marine during the last year of World War II. It was while Bellow was serving in the Merchant Marines that he wrote his first full novel, Dangling Man. Published in 1944, it dealt directly with emotions and struggles that Bellow saw around him in the various faces of the soldiers he served with, and no doubt, which existed in his own psyche. The main character in Dangling Man struggled with intellectual and spiritual questions while he waited to be drafted into the war. Bellow claims that the novel was loosely based on Fyodor Dostoevsky's Notes from the Underground (1864).
When his service ended, he returned to teaching. As he traveled to various posts at the Universities of Minnesota, New York, Princeton, and Puerto Rico, Bellow constantly worked on his own writing. In 1947, he followed his first novel with The Victim. Set in New York City, it was about the complex relationship that develops between a Jew and an anti-Semite. The book addressed the issue of humanity's fate. Does one have a right to choose his fate, or is it chosen for him? This was a theme that coursed through many of Bellow's stories. Most reviewers recognized the young author's potential and Bellow was awarded his first Guggenheim Fellowship in 1948. The fellowship allowed Bellow to give up teaching temporarily and travel to Europe
Saul Bellow's most famous work, The Adventures of Augie March, is at the top many reviewers' lists of all-time great books in history. It was with this novel that Bellow let go of previous ideals and restrictions he had placed upon himself in his earlier writings. The novel deals with the lives of two brothers carried on different paths after similar childhoods. The brothers, Augie and Simon, were raised in a fatherless household in the slums of Chicago. Though the novel is comedic in parts, and deftly entertaining, it also portrays Bellow's childhood world in tragic, specific detail. This would be the novel that immortalized Chicago in a specific time. Bellow began the book while living in Paris (1953), and finished it up while traveling to other places. He says that, "not a single word of the book was composed in Chicago."
With these three early novels, Bellow created a name for himself. His reputation grew and he was soon regarded as one of the foremost American novelists of the twentieth century. He found himself compared to Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner even though he differed greatly from them in style and subject matter. Bellow fiercely rejected Hemingway's notorious "tough guy" model of American fiction. He focused on illustrating various cultures and traditions, with emphasis on his Russian-Jewish heritage, the deep ideas of Friedrich Nietzsche, and Oedipal conflicts. Bellow relied heavily on the usage of the first-person narrator. He explored the relationship of author-character-narrator and explained his concept of his books, "No writer can take it for granted that the views of his characters will not be attributed to him personally," he once said. "It is generally assumed, moreover, that all the events and ideas of a novel are based on the life experiences and the opinions of the novelist himself" (Bellow, in The New York Times, March 10, 1994).
He became the first novelist to be awarded the National Book Award three times (in 1954 for The Adventures of Augie March, in 1965 for Herzog and in 1971 for Mr. Sammler’s Planet).
Saul Bellow is well-known for inspiring and guiding writers, such as Philip Roth. Roth, who worked closely with Bellow for several years, said, "The backbone of twentieth century American literature has been provided by two novelists—William Faulkner and Saul Bellow. Together they are the Melville, Hawthorne, and Twain of the twentieth century." To add to this praise, James Wood, in his eulogy of Bellow in The New Republic, wrote:
I judged all modern prose by his. Unfair, certainly, because he made even the fleet-footed—the Updikes, the DeLillos, the Roths—seem like monopodes. Yet what else could I do? I discovered Saul Bellow's prose in my late teens, and henceforth, the relationship had the quality of a love affair about which one could not keep silent.
During the 1960s, Bellow's major work, Herzog, focused on the life of a middle-aged Jewish intellectual, who, like Bellow's other characters, is dissatisfied with where his life has taken him. The main character, Moses E. Herzog, is contemplating ending his life. He writes letters to various friends and philosophers, including is ex-wife Madeleine, Martin Heidegger, Neitzche, and God.
From 1960 to 1962, Bellow was co-editor of the literary magazine The Noble Savage, and in 1962, he was appointed professor on the Committee of Social Thought at University of Chicago. In 1975, Bellow visited Israel and recorded his impressions in his first substantial non-fiction book, To Jerusalem and Back.
In 1975, Bellow won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature with his novel, Humboldt's Gift. The protagonist, Charlie Citrine, is a wealthy writer, very successful to the world, but deep inside he fears that he has failed.
Charles Simic's response to Humboldt's Gift was;
Bellow, too, is convinced that to have a conscience is, after a certain age, to live permanently in an epistemological hell. The reason his and Dostoevsky's heroes are incapable of ever arriving at any closure is that they love their own suffering above everything else. They refuse to exchange their inner torment for the peace of mind that comes with bourgeois propriety or some kind of religious belief. In fact, they see their suffering as perhaps the last outpost of the heroic in our day and age.
Ian McEwan, a British writer, considers Herzog to be the most important post-war American novel.
Saul Bellow finished up his career as he had begun it, by teaching. His final position was at Boston University, where he co-taught a class with James Wood, senior editor at The New Republic.
He died on April 5, 2005, at age 89. He is buried at the Jewish cemetery Shir he harim in Brattleboro, Vermont.
Many critics argued that his work was too conventional and old-fashioned for the modern world. Criticized for trying to revive the nineteenth century European novel, some thought his characters too inconceivable, "larger than life," and simply the mouthpieces used by Bellow to spout his philosophical views and obsessions.
Linguist Noam Chomsky, heavily criticized Bellow's To Jerusalem and Back: A Personal Account (1975) in his 1983 book, Fateful Triangle: The United States, Israel & the Palestinians. Chomsky wrote, "he sees an Israel where ‘almost everyone is reasonable and tolerant, and rancor against the Arabs is rare,’ where the people 'think so hard, and so much’ as they ‘farm a barren land, industrialize it, build cities, make a society, do research, philosophize, write books, sustain a great moral tradition, and finally create an army of tough fighters.’" He also angered Palestinians when he praised Joan Peters' controversial book, From Time Immemorial, which challenged the conventional mythology of the Palestinian people.
Perhaps his most controversial moment came with the publication of his 13th novel, Ravelstein. The story was of Abe Ravelstein, a university professor and intellect, as well as a closet homosexual who dies of an AIDS-related disease. It was no secret that Ravelstein's character was based on Bellow's close friend and colleague, Allan Bloom, author of The Closing of the American Mind(1987). When Bloom passed away in 1992, the officially announced cause of death was liver failure. But the novel sparked suspicion of a real-life drama. Bellow responded, "This is a problem that writers of fiction always have to face in this country. People are literal minded, and they say, 'Is it true? If it is true, is it factually accurate? If it isn't factually accurate, why isn't it factually accurate?' Then you tie yourself into knots, because writing a novel in some ways resembles writing a biography, but it really isn't. It is full of invention" (Bellow in Time, May 8, 2000)
In an interview in the March 7, 1988 New Yorker, Bellow sparked a controversy when he asked, concerning multiculturalism, "Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans?" This nonchalant attitude towards the blacks met with public scorn. Many thought the comment was an unheralded criticism against non-Western literature. Bellow at first claimed to have been misquoted and decided to write his side of the story in the New York Times. He wrote, "The scandal is entirely journalistic in origin …I may be one of the few people who have read a Papuan novel… Always foolishly trying to explain and edify allcomers, I was speaking of the distinction between literate and preliterate societies. For I was once an anthropology student, you see."
In his later years, Bellow became known for his curmudgeon behavior and his honest, curt responses. For example, he once said, "California is like an artificial limb the rest of the country doesn't really need. You can quote me on that."
Even though Bellow identified deeply with the city of Chicago, he often kept his distance from the city's conventional writers. Studs Terkel in a 2006 interview with Stop Smiling magazine said of Bellow: "I didn't know him too well. We disagreed on a number of things politically. In the protests in the beginning of Norman Mailer's Armies of the Night, when Mailer, Robert Lowell, and Paul Goodman were marching to protest the Vietnam War, Bellow was invited to a sort of counter-gathering. He said, "Of course I'll attend." But he made a big thing of it. Instead of just saying OK, he was proud of it. So I wrote him a letter and he didn't like it. He wrote me a letter back. He called me a Stalinist. But otherwise, we were friendly. He was a brilliant writer, of course. I love Seize the Day."
During his life, Saul Bellow married five times. He had three sons from his first four marriages. His first three wives were Jewish women from the Midwest. His fourth wife, Alexandra Tulcea, was 19 years younger than he. In 1989, he married Janis Freedman. She was 31 and he 74. The couple had one daughter, Naomi, born in 1999, when Bellow was 84. Bellow also reportedly had many mistresses.
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