Saul Bellow


In Nobel Prize Winners in Literature 1988.

Born: Lachine, Canada: June 10, 1915

A novelist who rejects the orthodoxy of modernism, Bellow's work is distinguished by his humanistic concern for character and his clear-sighted analysis of contemporary society.

The Award Presentation

The Nobel Prize for Literature was presented to Saul Bellow on December 10, 1976, by King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden. The Swedish Academy's presentation emphasized Bellow's contribution to contemporary fiction and his continued development as a writer. Identifying two stages In Bellow's career, the Academy praised his early novels for breaking away from the harshness of naturalism and his later novels for their thought-provoking expansiveness.

Bellow's early novels offered an alternative to reductive naturalism by adopting a confessional style and reasserting the centrality of character. In particular, the Academy noted Bellow's role in helping to create the "anti-hero of the present." Bellow's anti-heroes are beset by all of the well known alienating forces of the modern world, but they nevertheless manage to maintain a life-affirming dignity. They embody a courageous struggle to gain "a foothold in our tottering world." Their courage derives, in part, from their refusal to abandon the idea that life's essential value is not quantifiable. Their intuitive refusal to accept alienation complements their humanistic belief that men are responsible for one another.

The Academy indicated that Bellow built on this literary foundation in his later work by extending the scope of his writing. Bellow's mature novels, which the Academy identified as "something quite, new" in contemporary fiction, were described as an exciting mixture of picaresque adventure, subtle cultural analysis, comedy, tragedy, and meditative philosophy. Throughout. Its presentation the Academy emphasized the intellectual vitality of Bellow's fiction, referring to its "exuberant Ideas, flashing irony, hilarious comedy, and burning compassion."


Nobel lecture

In his Nobel lecture, Bellow recounts the decline of individualism and the novel in the twentieth century, but he argues that contemporary writers can, by confronting the critical tradition of despair and fragmentation, redirect their efforts and respond to the persistent human desire for art to represent the essential qualities of life.

He opens his lecture by referring to Conrad's definition of art as a search for "what was fundamental, enduring, essential" in the universe, an intuitive appeal to the commonality of human experience. Conrad's theory is the foundation of Bellow's argument, which he supports by references to other masters of characterization such as Proust, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky.

Bellow sees the destruction of individualism in society as parallel to the deemphasis of character in literature. He recounts how he, like others who matured between the two great wars, "was convinced that the horrors of the twentieth century had sickened and killed humanistic beliefs with their deadly radiation," abandoning the sensitive individual to "solidarity with other isolated creatures." Bellow identifies several factors that have worked to undercut the stature of the individual: the sense that each nation's culture is increasingly dominated by "identifiable personalities," sterotypes created by national- literatures: the inflexibility of a psychoanalytic view of character; and the opposition of totalitarian regimes to bourgeois individualism. He argues that this sense of alienation has been accepted by artists and become an inflexible critical tradition. As an extreme example, he cites Robbe-Grillet's reductive theory of "thingism" that assumes the demise of character.

Yet Bellow argues that, despite the special difficulties modern writers face in creating character and describing the essential, they should not allow themselves to be intimidated by the defeatist tradition of modern criticism. In fact, he argues the "the terrible predictions we have to live with, the background of disorder, the vision of ruin" make an artistic effort to describe the essential more necessary and more likely of success. He agrees that modern man stands "open to all anxieties" and that "the decline of everything is our daily bread," but he believes that man's "purer, subtler, higher activities have not succumbed to fury or nonsense."

Bellow asserts that modern writers do not do justice to mankind, and he believes that readers recognize the falseness of these limited portrayals. Readers are weary of "all the usual things about mass society dehumanization," for "there is much more to us; we all feel It." This dissatisfaction creates an opportunity for writers, writers who are willing to reexamine the formulations of our age and strive to be "simple and true." Bellow believes that the novel can still be an appropriate vehicle for moral judgment, offering "meaning, harmony, and even justice," and although he does not predict the modern novel can return to the glories of the nineteenth century, he says it can serve as "a sort of latter-day lean-to, a hovel in which the spirit takes shelter."

Critical Reception

Although Alfred Kazin, writing of Bellow's award for The New Republic (November 6), indicated that announcement of Bellow's award caused "forced smiles, clenched teeth, much headshaking from New York's two million authorities In literary history," the published reactions, including Kazin's, recognize the justness of the Swedish Academy's decision. Kazin suggests that the familiarity of Bellow's writing, referring to both his popularity and his tendency to write of common people and situations, was a chief difficulty: "so much ordinariness no doubt invites condescension and even surprise."

Other reactions were less tempered in their praise. Writing for Newsweek (November 1), Walter Clemons agreed with Irving Howe's judgment that Bellow had created the "first major new style In American prose fiction since those of Hemingway and Faulkner: a mingling of high-flown Intellectual bravado with racy-tough street Jewlshness." Clemons also praised Bellow's comic abilties, calling him the "best exponent since Charles Dickens of monomaniac eccentricity."

The Time article (November 1) concentrated on Bellow's "extraordinary range" as a writer and his insistent determination to work against the artistic fads of his time. Thus, Time saw Bellow as "one of few serious novelists who have pleased precisely by not giving the public what It thinks it wants."

Writing in the New York Times (October 22), John Leonard emphasized

Bellow's position as a Jewish-American author, a label that has sometimes offended the author. Leonard argued that Bellow filled a post-World-War-II need for an author to tell the "Jewish romance with America," to become a "Yiddish-speaking combination of Huck Finn and Herman Melville." However, Leonard goes on to indicate that Bellow has transcended the role of Jewish-American author to become "the most intelligent of our novelists," an author whose uncompromising approach to fiction has "authenticated the experience of American intellectuals in the twentieth century."

Rita Jacobs, in World Literature Today (Spring 1977), describes the "peculiarly American quality " of Bellow's mixture of humor and dignity, asserting that the central purpose of his fiction has been to respond to modern man's desire "to be and in that be-ing know a true direction." In the end, the triumph of his art is the approximation of "a harmonic balance of self," a state In which the contradictory demands of past and present, of head and heart, find peace.

Several commentators at the time of the award and subsequently have noted that Bellow's selection reasserted the Academy's bias in favor of affirmative authors, noting that other American winners--Lewis, Faulkner, Hemingway, Steinbeck--had received the prize after their writing began to display a more positive tone. Several reviewers recounted the sad record of American prize winners, echoing Hemingway's comment that "no son of a bitch that ever won the Nobel Prize ever wrote anything worth reading afterwards," Bellow has managed to escape this jinx, for since winning the Nobel Prize, he has published The Dean's December (1982) and More Die of Heartbreak (1987), critically acclaimed books that have proved his ability to continue to produce significant literary works.


Saul Bellow was born Solomon Bellows on June 10, 1915, In Lachine, Canada to recent Russian immigrants. His father was a persistent and unevenly successful entrepeneur and during Bellow's early years the family lived on St. Dominique Street, a raw but vital slum where the boy learned English, Hebrew, Yiddish, and French, as well as the tough lessons of the street.

When Bellow was nine, his familv moved to Humboldt Park In Chicago where he lived a physically and intellectually vigorous youth despite financial difficulties at home and the death of his mother when he was fifteen. He attended the University of Chicago but transferred to Northwestern from which he graduated in 1937 with a degree In anthropology and sociology. Later that same year, he abandoned his graduate studies, married Anita Goshkin, and decided to become a writer. He supported himself by writing biographical sketches for the Work Projects Administration and teaching at Pestalozzi-Froebel Teacher's College.

During World War II, Bellow, exempted from military service for medical reasons, briefly served in the merchant marine and then worked for Encyclopedia Britannica. After the war, he settled in New York and worked in publishing until a Guggenheim Fellowship allowed him to spend two years travelling in Europe. On his return, he accepted a series of teaching appointments at New York University, Princeton University, Bard College, and the University of Minnesota. In 1955 he was divorced and married Alexandra Tschacbasov.

Bellow continued to teach, accepting positions at the University of Minnesota and the University of Puerto Rico. He also edited the periodical Noble Savage. In 1963, after marrying his third wife , Susan Glassman, he accepted a permanent appointment to the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. After his third marriage ended in a protracted court battle and divorce, he married Alexandra Tulcea, a mathematics professor. Bellow continues to live a relatively private life in Chicago.

Literary Career

Saul Bellow's literary career began it Tuley liiah qcliool In (,hicqao where he and friends such as Sydney Harris, who became a newspaper columnist, shared their precocious enthusiasm for literature ind leftist politics. At seventeen, Bellow and Harris ran away to New York City In an unsuccessful attempt to sell their first novels.

After graduating from Northwestern, Bellow wanted to study literature, but having been advised that anti-Semitism would limit his chances for a literary career, he accepted a scholarship in anthropology at the University of Wisconsin. After only one semester, he boldly decided to leave graduate school and began 1938 by dedicating himself to writing. Success came slowly. In Mexico during 1940, Bellow wrote the never-published novel Acatla, but in the following year the Partisan Review accepted "Two Morning Monologues," his first published story. Before the end of World War II, Bellow had published the first in a series of critically acclaimed novels that have established him as the most consistent and enduring serious American novelist since Faulkner.

Bellow's first two published novels, Dangling Man (1944) and The Victim (1947), form the first phase of his literary career, a period in which he was writing in reaction to the "hard-boiled" style and deterministic message of naturalism. In both novels, Bellow creates anti-heroes who struggle against the carceral pressures of the modern world. Although Bellow's careful depiction of the forces that entrap modern man shroud these initial novels with a claustral sense of limitation, his protagonists refuse to resign themselves to alienation and isolation; instead, they struggle to maintain a sense of human dignity and to oppose Indifference.

Bellow transformed his own frustrating experiences with the draft board into Dangling Man, a novel presented as a rambling series of journal entries in which Joseph, the protagonist, futilely attempts to withstand the regimentation of the modern world. From the opening paragraphs, Joseph's self-pitying voice attacks the Hemingway model of manly restraint: "the- code. . . . of the tough boy." Joseph uses his confessional style to confront the world of limits, but in the end he must resign himself to the regimentation of army life.

In The Victim, the psychological harrassment of the contemporary world is personified in the character of Kirby Allbee, a bigot who accuses Asa Leventhal of ruining his life and asserts that Leventhal is, thereby, indebted to him. Although the tone of the novel is somber, Leventhal refuses to deny his responsibility for his fellow man. The complex relationship that develops between Jew and anti-Semite bothered some commentators because the two characters seemed psychologically similar, but 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. There he worked on a new novel and published stories that were later collected In Moseby's Memoirs and Other Stories (1968). In 1952 he received the National Institute of Arts and Letters Award.

The publication of The Adventures of Angie March (1953) marked the beginning of the second phase of Bellow's literary career, a period in which he also published Seize the Day (1956), and Henderson the Rain King (1959). In this period, Bellow was more consciously reacting against the apathy and ascetism of modernism. In particular, the picaresque humor of The Adventures of Augie March and Henderson the Rain King, which contrasts with the relative darkness of the earlier books, established Bellow's reputation as a life-affirming author. Seize the Day, which Bellow may have worked on before The Adventures of Augle March, is also an affirmative work, but this concise and somber masterpiece is often read as the coda to Bellow's first phase.

The protagonist of The Adventures of Augie March is unlike Bellow's previous characters, for Augie March is an intellectual Huck Finn who holds back the oppression of the modern world by refusing to embrace it. This energetic, comic novel describes a world in which surfaces are worth beholding and through its protagonist argues that humans have an intuitive awareness of eternal virtues such as truth, beauty, and love. Although Augie's ability to accept the world is inevitably tempered by experience, the novel won Bellow his first National Book Award and his second Guggenheim Fellowship on the basis of its qualified exuberance.

Seize the Day recounts one climactic day in the life of Tommy Wilhelm, a man who has failed in his attempts to accomodate himself to American society and desperately tries to disguise his deep need for authority and truth. This tightly plotted narrative takes Wilhelm through a painful rejection by his father and a betrayal by the phony psychologist/investment counselor Dr. Tamkin to a cathartic final scene in which Wilhelm is finally able to experience his deep anguish and his sense of human sympathy at the funeral of a stranger.

After winning a Ford Foundation Grant in 1958, Bellow published Henderson the Rain King (1959), often cited as the work that marks the beginning of Bellow's maturity as a novelist. Despite the unconvincing nature of its conclusion, the novel extends Bellow's consideration of the human condition by seriously exploring the connection between the essential human spirit and the universe. A broadly humorous parody of the primitivism of D. H. Lawrence and Hemingway, the novel also exemplifies Bellow's unpredictability. At a time when the Jewish-Americn novel was becoming popular, Bellow creates his first WASP protagonist, a bullying, violent man who travels to Africa to escape from his pervasive anxiety over death. There he confronts the horror of the naturalistic world symbolized in the brutal, white heat of the barren landscape, and with the guidance of the ironic King Dahfu, learns to accept his existence and to stop his typically American struggle to become something different.

After winning the Friends of Literature Fiction Award in 1962, Bellow published Herzog (1964) with the assumption that his intellectual dramatization of an eccentric consciousness moving toward recovery, might sell a few thousand copies; instead, Herzog was named a Literary Guild selection, was on the best-sellers list for six months, and won Bellow his second National Book Award. Herzog marks the beginning of the third phase of Bellow's literary career, a period in which Bellow's novels have been characterized by a new wholeness of vision. These books present Bellow's affirmative belief in essential humanistic values as well as his clear-eyed descriptions of modern America's moral, social, and intellectual depravity.

Moses Herzog's rambling account of his effort to move from the emotionally charged personal life that has caused him so much suffering to a calmer, more rational existence is interspersed with a stunning series of eccentric letters written to a broad range of public figures. The epistolary method permits Bellow to blend

the public and the private in a way that enriches the historical relevance of his fiction. Tn recognition of Ilerzog, Bellow received the Fomentor Award and the James L. Dow Award.

Following the success of Herzog, Bellow experimented with drama and journalism. The Last Analysis, premiered in 1964, but despite several glowing reviews, this intellectual farce was a financial failure and closed after twenty-eight performances. Three one-act plays written by Bellow, A Wen, Orange Souffle, and Out From Under, were performed unsuccessfully in Europe and the United States with the title Under the Weather in 1966. In 1967 Bellow turned to journalism, covering the Six-Day War for Newsday. In the following year he was presented with the Jewish Heritage Award by the B'nai B'rith, and the Croix de Chevalier des Arts et Lettres from France. Moseby's Memoirs and Other Stories, which brought together several of his early uncollected stories, kept Bellow's fiction before the public.

As though stubbornly resisting the flow of this youth-oriented period of American history, Bellow created a seventy-two-year-old protagonist named Artur Sammler for his next novel, Mr. Sammler's Planet (1970). Sammler steadfastly pursues duty, dignity, and essential good in the face of a violent and selfish world. His admiration for H. G. Wells underscores his belief in rationality and his desire to believe in literature as a vehicle for creating social harmony. The good he pursues, however, is intellectually abstracted from the physical world, an environment that is consistently portrayed in the novel as cheap and monstrous. Mr. Sammler's Planet, rightly regarded as Bellow's least affirmative novel, won the author an unprecedented third National Book Award.

Humboldt's Gift (1975) was a Book-of-the-Month-Club selection and earned Bellow the Pulitzer Prize for Literature. Its publication immediately preceded Bellow's Nobel Prize in 1976, but critics have not generally considered it his best work. Like many of his works, Humholdt's Gift concentrates on memories. In this case they are the recollections of Charles Citrine, an historian and playwright who reminisces about a deceased poet named von Humboldt Fleischer. Fleischer is the epitome of the self-limiting modernist, but he leaves Citrine with an ironic pair of gifts that help him combat the brutality and confusion of the world. One is a trashy movie scenario which eventually earns Citrine a great deal of money, and the other is a scribbled assertion of the supernatural quality of man.

As though trying to apply the message of his Nobel lecture, Bellow, in recent years, has more openly applied his art to the social problems of his time. This effort is evident in his journalistic account of his travels In Israel, To Jerusalem and Back (1976), in which he combines humous anecdotes with political analysis. In 1979 he covered the signing of the Israeli-Egyptian Peace Treaty for Newsday.

The Dean's December (1982) was a Literary Guild main selection and sold over 100,000 copies in hardback. In it Bellow uses Dean Albert Corde's journey to Bucharest to be with his dying mother-in-law to compare the similar inhumanity of capitalist and communist societies. The isolation and inactivity Corde endures in Bucharest provide him with the necessary distance from which to view the social chaos of Chicago and the lack of engagement in his own academic life. Like his Nobel lecture, the novel argues that the failure of political specialists warrants the entry of humanists into the social debate.

Although Him with His Foot in His Mouth and Other Stories (1984), a collection of five lengthy stories, disappointed some critics who saw it as an indication of Bellow's weariness, Most Die of Heartbreak (1987), reassured readers that Bellow could still produce fresh and challenging fiction. The novel explores the human desire for connection through an ironically meditative and philosophical prose. In this case, the relatively simple story of world-famous botanist Benn Crader's disastrous marriage to the beautiful but avaricious Matilda Layamon is narrated, interpreted and embellished upon by Kenneth Trachtenberg, Crader's nephew. This self-absorbed and self-deprecating narrator, who is playfully named after Bellow scholar Stanley Trachtenberg, conducts an incessant search for hidden meaning. His obssessive obtuseness and self doubt hint that Bellow may be making gentle fun of his own literary efforts to resurrect the essential in humanity. Although the novel satirizes a sexual revolution that has taught people not to take one another seriously, discloses the pervasive greed of American society, and details the pollution of our biological and social environments, Bellow continues to be optimistic. In an interview regarding More Die of Heartbreak, he affirmed that "our humanity is in so many ways intact. . . ordinary people can still see 'King Lear' and weep."



NOVELS: Dangling Man, 1944; The Victim, 1947; The Adventures of Augie March, 1953; Seize the Day, 1956; Henderson the Rain King, 1959; Herzog, 1964; Mr. Sammler's Planet, 1970; Humboldt's Gift, 1975; The Dean's December, 1982; More Die of Heartbreak, 1987.

SHORT FICTION: Mosby's Memoirs and Other Stories, 1968; A Wen. 1965.

TELEPLAY: The Wrecker, 1944

NONFICTION: The Future of the Moon, 1970: To Jerusalem and Back: A Personal Account. 1976.

ANTHOLOGY: Great Jewish Short Stories. 1963.


Bradbury, Malcolm. Saul Bellow. New York: Methuen, 1982. This short volume treats Bellow's novels through Humboldt's Gift as a continually developing body of historically sensitive work in which the author finds increasingly sophisticated ways to maintain and to define self in the face of social changes. The book emphasizes Bellow's belief in the ongoing potential for meaningful relationships between the self and society. Includes a bibliography.

Braham, Teannp. A Sort of Columbus: The American Voyages of Saul BeIlow's Fiction. Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 1984. This study sees Bellow as part of a moralistic and humanistic tradition in American literature, a tradition that attempts to reassert the ideal in the face of modern barbarism. The continued development of Bellow's work through The Dean's December has led to a more complete vision that comprises an understanding of both material reality and transcendental belief. Includes an Index and bibliography.

Clayton, John J. Saul Bellow: In Defense of Man. Second edition. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982. This update of Clayton's 1971 edition attempts to describe the unifying contradictions of Bellow's fiction through Humboldt's Gift. Specifically, Clayton argues that although Bellow opposes the cultural nihilism, alienation, and conformity of the modern world, his heroes are nevertheless depressed, alienated, and reliant upon an acceptance of the brotherhood of man for their personal salvation. Includes a selected bibliography.

Cohen, Sarah Blacher. Saul Bellow's Enigmatic Laughter. Urbana, III: University of Illinois Press, 1974. This study concentrates on Bellow's use of humor as a defense against despair. With detailed application to all of the novels through Mr Sammler's Planet, Cohen argues that wit allows Bellow's characters to survive the nihilistic and brutalizing aspects of the modern world. Includes a bibliography.

Dutton, Robert R. Saul Bellow. Revised edition. Boston: Twayne, 1982. This revision of Dutton's earlier text provides a brief biographical sketch and a useful analysis of Bellow's writing through To Jerusalem and Back. It presents Bellow as a affirmative writer who tries to describe a middle-state between the "idiocy of orthodox affirmation" and the denial of nihilism. Includes a chronology, an index, and an annotated bibliography.

Fuchs, Daniel. Saul Bellow: Vision and Revision. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1984. This study opens with two important chapters in which Fuchs identifies Bellow's place in America's literary and cultural history. The subsequent chapters examine Bellow's manuscripts from The Adventures of Augie March through The Dean's December to show that the author's revisions tended to increase the imaginative and spiritual content of his work. Includes an index.

McCadden, Joseph F. The Flight From Women in the Fiction of Saul Bellow. Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1980. In this study Bellow is seen as part of a "misogynist tradition" in American literature. In this view, his novels repeatedly contrast the male protagonist's need for idealistic love with the selfishness of the female characters. Thus, the study argues that Bellow portrays women as obstacles to spiritual growth, obstacles that his most successful protagonists learn to transcend. Includes an index and a list of works cited.

Newman, Judie. Saul Bellow and History. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1984. This book argues that Bellow's novels are guided by a sense of history. Particular attention is given to the "historians of culture"--Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Ortega, Karl Jaspers, Burkhardt, Freud, and Heidigger--whose ideas impinge upon Bellow's fiction. The Adventures of Augle March, Henderson the Rain King, Herzog, Mr. Sammler's Planet, and Humboldt's Gift are analyzed in detail. Includes a bibliography and an index.

Porter, M. Gilbert. Whence the Power? The Artistry and Humanity of Saul Bellow. Columbia, Missouri- University of Missouri Press, 1974. A psychological and formalist study of the novels through Mr. Sammler's Planet, this volume concentrates on matters of theme, form, imagery, and symbolism. Porter views Bellow as a "neo-transcendentalist," a writer reacting against the existentialism of his age. Includes a bibliography.

Rodriquez, Eusebio L. Quest for the liuman- An Exploration of Saul Bellow's Fiction. East Brunswick, N.J.: Associated University Presses 1981. As its title suggests, this study sees Bellow's novels as increasingly sophisticated efforts to discover and to define the essentially human. An examination of theme, structure, and language in each novel through Humboldt's Gift describes Bellow's struggle to balance the demands of individuality with the desire for connection. Includes an index and a list of works cited.

Trachtenberg, Stanley, ed. Critical Essays on Saul Bellow. Boston: G.K.Hall, 1979. This collection includes a brief but useful survey of Bellow criticism, reprints a review of each novel through Humboldt's Gift, and gathers ten critical essays, providing an appropriate range of themes and approaches. Three of the essays appear for the first time In this collection. Includes an index.

Wilson, Jonathan. On Bellow's Planet! Readings from the Dark Side. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1985. This study argues that Bellow's novels through The Dean's December articulate "a single vision of the world," a vision that pictures humans as trapped between belief and desire. Maintaining that the novels embody a "static dialectic" in which the opposing forces of order and chaos are irresolvable, this study refutes the assumption that Bellow is a "life-affirming," author. Includes an index and a selected bibliography.

Carl Brucker

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