Saul Bellow was born in Lachine, Quebec in 1915, just two years after his parents emigrated from Saint Petersburg, Russia. James Atlas, author of the problematic biography, Bellow (2000), notes the importance of “the aggregate of languages and cultures” – Russian, Yiddish, French, English – from which Bellow would eventually construct a unique and instantly recognizable literary idiom. At age four he could already recite whole pages from the Book of Genesis, but within just a few years, after his family’s relocation to Chicago, Bellow was setting aside religious texts and violin practice in favor of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Spengler. Ezra Davis, a roomer who stayed in the Bellows’s house in Chicago, recalls coming home from work to find Bellow poring over War and Peace or The Possessed at the kitchen table. Or it might have been something overtly political, like Trotsky’s pamphlet on the German question. “It knocked me for a loop,” Bellow writes in one of the skillfully edited letters collected here by Benjamin Taylor (who also provides an excellent introduction). “But my real interests were literary.”
In Chicago, the family settled in the Humboldt Park neighborhood, a hub of Polish and Jewish immigrants. When the depression hit, Bellow took on various jobs to help keep the family’s economy stable; he delivered floral arrangements, worked in the mail room of a shoe store, and caddied for “real estateniks” at the Sunset Ridge Country Club. In The Adventures of Augie March (1953), the novel that effectively launched his literary career, Bellow describes the company the young Augie kept while struggling to make his way on the streets of Depression-era Chicago:
In one direction, a few who read whopping books in German or French and knew their physics and botany manuals backwards, readers of Nietzsche and Spengler. In another direction, the criminals. Except that I never thought of them as such, but as the boys I knew in the poolroom and saw also at school, dancing the double-toddle in the gym at lunch hour, or in the hot-dog parlors. I touched all sides, and nobody knew where I belonged.
Likewise Bellow; his fictional universe is home to readers of whopping books and eccentric criminals alike. In his best work – Augie March, Humboldt’s Gift, The Dean’s December, Herzog – Bellow’s heroes, all of them “higher-thought clowns,” find themselves adrift on the great tide of modernity in its most dizzying guise: the American metropolis. In the opening sections of Herzog, Moses is trying frantically to escape Manhattan; sitting in a taxi on his way to Grand Central Station, he glimpses the streets where “buses were spurting the poisonous extract of cheap fuel, and the cars were crammed together, it was stifling, grinding, the racket of machinery and the desperately purposeful crowds – horrible!” Among the crowds in the station, his reason is overwhelmed by “the subterranean roar of engines, voices, and feet and in the galleries with lights like drops of fat in yellow broth and the strong suffocating fragrance of underground New York.”
Like an accordion, Saul Bellow was stretched between the disparate worlds of thought and noise. A well-known photograph shows Bellow in the New York subway indulging in, as the narrator of Ravelstein calls it, a “humanity bath”: “There are times when I need to ride the subway at rush-hour or sit in a crowded movie house.” In his earliest novels, Dangling Man (1944) and The Victim (1947) Bellow had yet to find an adequate way of absorbing and transforming his experience of American modernity. These apprentice efforts are staunchly European in style – Sartrean, Dostoevskian, Kafkaesque. As early as 1948 he admits to a friend that he had failed to write them “freely,” unaware that he was on the verge of an unparalleled stylistic achievement. Not since Moby-Dick had American prose seen such energy and metaphorical splendor. To Bernard Malamud, shortly after the publication of Augie March, Bellow claims that “a novel, like a letter, should be loose and cover much ground, run swiftly, take risk of mortality and decay. I back away from Flaubert, in the direction of Walter Scott, Balzac and Dickens.” In light of his fleeting residences in Chicago, New York and Paris, this development seemed inevitable. In a letter to Ralph Ellison in 1956 he discusses, almost analogously, the concept of fishing in the modern world: “I like fish, but after you’ve pitted your brain against theirs for an afternoon, the interest begins to give out. I’m fonder of horses. But you can’t kid yourself. The jets go over the sky with a clap of air after them, and there goes your primitive moment.”
Yet Bellow needed the private realm, the only remaining sanctuary from all the “antipoetic phenomena” (“accountants, tax-experts, investment counselors, organizations and fronts, fund-raising, autobiographing, speechifying, mail-answering, lawsuits, interior decorations, spleen”) that drove von Humboldt Fleischer, not to mention Delmore Schwartz, his real-life counterpart, into the ovens of insanity. “It may be more difficult to cut through the whirling mind of a modern reader,” Bellow said in his Nobel lecture, “but it is still possible to reach the quiet zone.” His letters are a testament to his struggle to keep from going crazy, and of trying not to get caught up in the perils of literary celebrity. “Dizzy times for me,” he writes in 1988, “– nobody but nobody gets a break, a reprieve. I can understand why Romantic poets loved rural life.”
But Saul Bellow was not a Romantic poet, and rural life in any case would have had nothing to do with him. He is too fizzy, too zany. (“I am a strange dog,” he confesses.) Like Humboldt, Bellow “wasn’t meant to be a solitary.” In his letters he is combative, witty, bitter, tender, endlessly self-deprecating. In other words: a typical Bellovian hero. Take, for instance, this 1955 letter to Alfred Kazin:
In this wilderness, and that is no figure of speech, I haven’t seen your book yet. But I did chance to see the review in the Times, which I thought so foul that I wanted to bang [Cleanth] Brooks on the head. Eastern white-collar? Why, he might as well have come out flatly with “Jew.” What vileness! How I detest these “rooted” Southerners among us poor deracinated Hebes of the north. I notice that they teach at Yale, though, or Minnesota. If they are not missionaries from Southern Culture they are liars and cowards. Christly heavens, what chutzpah!
Accept my double congratulations, on book and baby, and never mind these hookworm victims.
This is Bellow at his mischievous best: ironic, boyish, and pugilistic. From the outset of his career he is bogged down in dubious battle with publishers and editors, and over the course of his long life the list of antagonists is extended to include friends, wives, ex-wives, children, critics, journalists and scholars. On occasion, the battles are waged on the higher grounds of moral seriousness, as in a response to William Faulkner’s suggestion that they call for Ezra Pound’s release from St. Elizabeth’s Hospital outside Washington D.C. Bellow fumes: “Pound advocated in his poems and in his broadcasts enmity to the Jews and preached hatred and murder. Do you mean to ask me to join you in honoring a man who called for the destruction of my kinsmen? […] Why, better poets than he were exterminated perhaps. Shall we say nothing in their behalf?” (Later on he writes to Ralph Ellison about Faulkner’s comments on the South: “I buy Life and see that Faulkner is threatening a second Civil War.”)
Elsewhere, Bellow is downright venomous, as in a 1961 letter to Jack Ludwig: “you are too woolly, self-absorbed, rambling, ill-organized, slovenly, heedless and insensitive to get on with,” or in his denunciation (to Cynthia Ozick) of The Nation as a bunch of “gnomes that drink, drug, lie, cheat, chase, seduce, gossip, libel, borrow money, never pay child support, etc.” Writers or critics of whom he disapproves are typically denounced of being more or less anti-Semitic: “[Hugh] Kenner was openly anti-Semitic”; “[Graham] Greene didn’t find me ‘difficult’ – by ‘difficult’ he meant Jewish”; “these Hitchenses are just Fourth-Estate playboys thriving on agitation, and Jews are easy to agitate.”
But the most awful letters of this collection are the ones addressed to his ex-wives. They are defensive, aggressive, wounded, bitter, and utterly painful to read. When Bellow writes to his ex-wife Sondra, for instance, that “strong mothers who hold fathers in contempt sometimes make homosexual sons,” you wonder whether you hadn’t been better off keeping your nose out of his private correspondence in the first place. But then you stumble on something as moving as this: “Gregory [Bellow’s youngest son] is not so disturbed as you might think […] I have never loved him more,” and you are prepared to forgive the poor man anything. He might be boorish and stubborn, but he never ceases to include himself in his criticism. “I am not stainless faultless Bellow. I leave infinities on every side to be desired.”
To his friends, however, Bellow’s care and warmth is abundant. There is Ralph Ellison, to whom Bellow at one point writes, “We miss you here. I could use some of those long conversations we used to have.” (According to James Atlas, Bellow and Ellison, who shared a home in Tivoli, New York in the 1950s, were at one time “inseparable.”) And there is the complicated, imposing figure of John Berryman – a “melancholy Santa Claus,” as Bellow calls him – to whom Bellow writes some of his finest letters. In December 1956 he offers his impression of Homage to Mistress Bradstreet:
Meanwhile, Anne Bradstreet has given comfort. When I read it in Princeton there were a lot of competing excitements. Later I saw it better, and now very clearly. [Edmund] Wilson is right and more than right. He usually is; a sound man. You seem just now to have poetry practically to yourself. Yes, [Robert] Lowell is very fine but he hasn’t built himself as much freedom as you have – this power to bring elements together which gives the greatest release. There’s plenty of talent; we’re all talented, but it’s this further strength we’re a little short of.
The Bradstreet is wonderful. I take nothing from it if I say that your more recent poems are written in something more like my tongue. I think Bradstreet is a triumph in modern poetry…
The Berryman letters become increasingly forbidding, anticipating the tragic end to come. “Your bad health is a nuisance,” Bellow writes, “You should really decide to improve it, John.” And later, in the same letter: “for the love of Mike stop knocking yourself out!” The tone in these letters is unmistakably warm and loving (“We keep each other from the poorhouse. If it hadn’t been for you there would have been many a night of porridge and a thin quilt, cocoa made with water,” he writes in 1962), though not without an alarming awareness of his friend’s condition. “I’m afraid John Berryman is overboard again,” he warns Ralph Ross in 1962. Learning of Berryman’s suicide ten years later, Bellow recalls him fondly as “a dear friend.” In a memoir of Berryman written shortly afterwards, and later included as an introduction to Berryman’s novel Recovery (1973), Bellow writes of their literary kinship: “The Bradstreet was blazing then; Augie was not nearly so good. Augie was naïve, undisciplined, unpruned. What John liked was the exuberance of its language and its devotion to the Chicago Streets […] What he said was true: we joined forces in 1953 and sustained each other for many years.”
Readers hoping, as I did, to learn more from these letters about Bellow as a writer might be better off consulting the essays collected in It All Adds Up, especially “The Sealed Treasure,” “Facts that Put Fancy to Flight” and the excellent Nobel lecture. The letters do not quite illuminate Bellow’s fiction to the extent that Flaubert’s or James’s letters did, though they do function as a necessary supplement to the ideas of fiction expressed elsewhere. This is especially true of Bellow’s unfailing belief in fictional character, his insistent refusal to accept anything less than a truthful representation of the human experience. He bemoaned the sometimes “tyrannical” conditioning of characters in Flaubert, James and Woolf, writing admiringly of the nineteenth-century novelists (especially the Russians) that “they are trying in a variety of ways to establish a definition of human nature, to justify the continuation of life as well as the writing of novels.” This was Bellow’s project, too. In a 1988 letter to Harold Brodkey, he writes:
I see that we agree about human beings as they are represented in fiction, in modern literature. The models irritate or bore us, they are utterly used up; thin but usable for a century, they are coming apart now, a mass of floating threads. Speaking for myself (perhaps for you too) I find that what passes for human in most fiction these days is not merely inadequate but enraging as well…
One of the towering achievements of Bellow’s fiction was its resuscitation and transformation of nineteenth-century character; his novels fused a kind of Dickensian amplitude with the modernist impulse to “make it new.” Thus Bellow’s most are unforgettably ‘real,’ yet unmistakably assailed by the noisy plenitude of modernity.
It is therefore fitting that the great value of these letters lies in the glimpses they offer of Saul Bellow himself as a human being – something James Atlas was less successful in doing, busy as he was passing off the novels as unremitting roman á clefs. (Bellow says of Atlas’s biography that “there is a parallel between his book and the towel with which the bartender cleans the bar.”) Benjamin Taylor writes in his introduction of Bellow’s characters that they are “intellectuals who discover how feeble their learning is once real life has barged in […] Scratch these intellectuals and you find flesh-and-blood, struggling, bewildered human beings.” This is essentially what we find beneath the surface of their creator, too: a struggling, bewildered human being. In political terms, Bellow is often dismissed as some kind of conservative stooge, but in the ways that mattered most (artistic, human) he was the exact opposite. Like Rob Rexler, the main character in the story “By the St. Lawrence,” Bellow kept asking himself: “How deep can the life of a modern man be?” His attempts to answer that question account for his intellectual and artistic restlessness. Everything, on the page as in life, was a process of discovering what it is to be human. “It may be that we are somewhere between a false greatness and a false insignificance,” he wrote in the essay “The Sealed Treasure”:
At least we can stop misrepresenting ourselves to ourselves and realize that the only thing we can be in this world is human. We are temporarily miracle-sodden and feeling faint.
Morten Høi Jensen was born in Copenhagen, Denmark. His writing has appeared in Words Without Borders Magazine, The Quarterly Conversation and The Critical Flame. He writes a literary blog for the Danish newspaper Jyllandsposten.