Saul Bellow

Saul Bellow

Infobox Writer
name = Saul Bellow

imagesize = 250px
caption = Saul Bellow (left) with Keith Botsford
birthname = Solomon Bellows
birthdate = birth date|1915|6|10|mf=y
birthplace = Lachine, Quebec, Canada
deathdate = death date and age|2005|4|5|1915|6|10
deathplace = Brookline, Massachusetts, United States
occupation =
nationality = American
awards = awd|Nobel Prize in Literature|1976
influences = The Bible, William Shakespeare, Stendhal, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Anton Chekhov, Joseph Conrad, James Joyce, Thomas Mann, Franz Kafka
influenced = Philip Roth, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie, Julian Barnes, John Berryman

Saul Bellow, born Solomon Bellows (June 10, 1915April 5, 2005), was an acclaimed Canadian-born American writer. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1976 and the National Medal of Arts in 1988. [ [ University of Chicago accolades - National Medal of Arts] . Accessed 2008-03-08.]

Bellow is best known for writing novels that investigate isolation, spiritual dissociation, and the possibilities of human awakening. Bellow drew inspiration from Chicago, his hometown, and he set much of his fiction there. His works exhibit a mix of high and low culture, and his fictional characters are also a potent mix of intellectual dreamers and street-smart confidence men. Among his best known works are "The Adventures of Augie March", "Herzog", and "Humboldt's Gift".


Early life

He was born Solomon Bellows (nicknamed 'Sollie') in Lachine, Quebec (now part of Montreal), shortly after his parents had emigrated from Saint Petersburg, Russia. It is unclear if Bellows (who later dropped the 's' from his last name) was born in June or July 1915, because at the time of his birth immigrant Jews tended to be careless about the Christian calendar (Bellow celebrated his birthday in June). [Mel Gussow and Charles McGrath, [ Saul Bellow, Who Breathed Life Into American Novel, Dies at 89] , "The New York Times", April 6, 2005. Accessed 2008-08-07 (subscription required). "...his birthdate is listed as either June or July 10, 1915, though his lawyer, Mr. Pozen, said yesterday that Mr. Bellow customarily celebrated in June. (Immigrant Jews at that time tended to be careless about the Christian calendar, and the records are inconclusive.)"] A period of illness from a respiratory infection at age 8 both taught him self-reliance (he was a very fit man despite his bookishness) and provided an opportunity to satisfy Bellow's hunger for reading: reportedly he decided to be a writer when he first read Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin". When Bellow was nine, the family moved to the slums of Chicago, the city that was to form the backdrop to many of his novels. Bellow's father, Abram, was an onion importer. He also worked in a bakery, delivering coal and as a bootlegger. [The New York Times, April 6, 2005] Bellow's mother, Liza, died when he was 17. She was deeply religious, and wanted her youngest son, Saul, to become a rabbi or a concert violinist. But he rebelled against what he later called the "suffocating orthodoxy" of his religious upbringing, and he began writing at a young age. [The New York Times, April 6, 2005] Bellow's lifelong love for the Bible began at four when he learned Hebrew. Bellow also grew up reading William Shakespeare and the great Russian novelists of the 19th century. [The New York Times, April 6, 2005] In Chicago, he took part in anthroposophical studies.

Education and early career

Bellow attended the University of Chicago, but later transferred to Northwestern University. He originally wanted to study literature, but he felt the English department to be anti-Jewish and instead he graduated with honors in anthropology and sociology. [The New York Times, April 6, 2005. "He had hoped to study literature but was put off by what he saw as the tweedy anti-Semitism of the English department, and graduated in 1937 with honors in anthropology and sociology, subjects that were later to instill his novels."] It has been suggested Bellow's study of anthropology had an interesting influence on his literary style, and anthropological references pepper his works. Bellow later did graduate work at the University of Wisconsin. John Podhoretz, a student at the University of Chicago, said that Bellow and Allan Bloom, a close friend of Bellow (see "Ravelstein"), "inhaled books and ideas the way the rest of us breathe air."

In the 1930s, Bellow was part of the Chicago branch of the WPA Writer's Project, which included such future Chicago literary luminaries as Richard Wright and Nelson Algren. Most of the writers were radical: if they were not card-carrying members of the Communist Party, they were sympathetic to the cause. Bellow was a Trotskyist, but because of the greater numbers of Stalinist-leaning writers he had to suffer their taunts. [Drew, Bettina. "Nelson Algren, A Life on the Wild Side." Austin: University of Texas Press, 1991]

In 1941 Bellow became a naturalized American citizen. [cite book
last = Slater
first = Elinor
coauthors = Robert Slater
title = Great Jewish Men
publisher = Jonathan David Company
date = 1996
pages = 42
url =
chapter = SAUL BELLOW: Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature
chapterurl =
isbn = 0824603818
accessdate = 2007-08-28
quote = Bellow became a naturalized American citizen in 1941.

During World War II, Bellow joined the merchant marine and during his service he completed his first novel, "Dangling Man" (1944.) The book was about a young Chicago man waiting to be drafted for the war.

From 1946 through 1948 Bellow taught at the University of Minnesota, living on Commonwealth Avenue, in St. Paul, Minnesota. []

In 1948, Bellow was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship that allowed him to move to Paris, where he began writing "The Adventures of Augie March" (1953). Critics have remarked on the resemblance between Bellow's picaresque novel and the great 17th Century Spanish classic "Don Quixote". The book starts with one of American literature's most famous opening paragraphs, and it follows its titular character through a series of careers and encounters, as he lives by his wits and his resolve. Written in a colloquial yet philosophical style, "The Adventures of Augie March" established Bellow's reputation as a major author.

Returns to Chicago

Bellow lived in New York for a number of years, but he returned to Chicago in 1962 as a professor at the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. The committee's goal was to have professors work closely with talented graduate students on a multi-disciplinary approach to learning. Bellow taught on the committee for more than 30 years.

There were also other reasons for Bellow's return to his home turf of Chicago, where he moved into the Hyde Park neighborhood with his third wife, Susan Glassman. Bellow found Chicago to be vulgar but vital, and more representative of America than New York. [The New York Times Book Review, December 13, 1981] He was able to stay in contact with old high school friends and a broad cross-section of society. In a 1982 magazine profile, Bellow's neighborhood was described as a high-crime area in the city's center, and Bellow maintained he had to live in such a place as a writer and "stick to his guns." [Vogue, March 1982]

Bellow hit the bestseller list in 1964 with his novel "Herzog". Bellow was surprised at the commercial success of this cerebral novel about a middle-aged and troubled college professor who writes letters to friends, scholars and the dead, but never sends them. Bellow returned to his exploration of mental instability, and its relationship to genius, in his 1975 novel "Humboldt's Gift". Bellow used his late friend and rival, the brilliant but self-destructive poet Delmore Schwartz, as his model for the novel's title character, Von Humboldt Fleisher. [Atlas, James. "Bellow." New York: Random House, 2000.]

Wins Nobel Prize

Propelled by the success of "Humboldt's Gift", Bellow won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1976. In the 70-minute address he gave to an audience in Stockholm, Sweden, Bellow called on writers to be beacons for civilization and awaken it from intellectual torpor. [Atlas, James. "Bellow." New York: Random House, 2000.]

Bellow traveled widely throughout his life, mainly to Europe, which he sometimes visited twice a year. [Atlas, James. "Bellow." New York: Random House, 2000] As a young man, Bellow went to Mexico City to meet Leon Trotsky, but the expatriate Russian revolutionary was assassinated the day before they were to meet. Bellow's social contacts were wide and varied. He tagged along with Robert F. Kennedy for a magazine profile he never wrote, he was close friends with the author Ralph Ellison and he rubbed shoulders with Chicago gangsters.

His many friends included the journalist Sydney J. Harris and the poet John Berryman.

While sales of Bellow's first few novels were modest, that turned around with "Herzog" and he eventually was in a position not needing to teach for a living. But Bellow continued teaching well into his old age, enjoying its human interaction and exchange of ideas. He taught at the University of Minnesota, New York University, Princeton University, the University of Puerto Rico, the University of Chicago, Bard College and Boston University, where he co-taught a class with James Wood ('modestly absenting himself' when it was time to discuss "Seize the Day"). In order to take up his appointment at Boston, Bellow moved in 1993 from Chicago to Brookline, Massachusetts, where he died on April 5, 2005, at age 89. He is buried at the Jewish cemetery Shir he harim of Brattleboro, Vermont.

Bellow was married five times, with all but his last marriage ending in divorce. His son by his second marriage, Adam, published a nonfiction work titled "In Praise of Nepotism" in 2003. In order, Bellow's wives were Anita Goshkin, Alexandra Tsachacbasov, Susan Glassman, Alexandra Ionescu Tulcea and Janis Freedman. In 1999, at the age of 84, Bellow and his fifth wife, Janis, had a daughter (his fourth child).

While he read voluminously, Bellow also had less bookish pursuits; including playing the violin and following sports. Work was a constant for him, but he at times toiled at a plodding pace on his novels, frustrating the publishing company. [Atlas, James. "Bellow." New York: Random House, 2000]

His early works earned him the reputation as one of the foremost novelists of the 20th century, and by his death he was regarded by some as the greatest living novelist in English. He was the first novelist to win the National Book Award three times. His friend and protege Philip Roth has said of him, "The backbone of 20th-century American literature has been provided by two novelists—William Faulkner and Saul Bellow. Together they are the Melville, Hawthorne, and Twain of the 20th century." James Wood, in a eulogy of Bellow in "The New Republic", wrote: [Wood, James, 'Gratitude', "New Republic", 00286583, 4/25/2005, Vol. 232, Issue 15]

Themes and style

The author's works speak to the disorienting nature of modern civilization, and the countervailing ability of humans to overcome their frailty and achieve greatness (or at least awareness). Bellow saw many flaws in modern civilization, and its ability to foster madness, materialism and misleading knowledge. [Malin, Irving. "Saul Bellow's Fiction." Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1969] Principal characters in Bellow's fiction have heroic potential, and many times they stand in contrast to the negative forces of society. Often these characters are Jewish and have a sense of alienation or otherness.

Jewish life and identity is a major theme in Bellow's work, although he bristled at being called a "Jewish writer." Bellow's work also shows a great appreciation of America, and a fascination with the uniqueness and vibrancy of the American experience.

Stylistically, Bellow crammed his works with references and quotes from the likes of Marcel Proust and Henry James, but he offset these high-culture references with jokes of the kind comedian Henny Youngman might tell. [The New York Times, April 6, 2005] Bellow interspersed autobiographical elements into his fiction, and many of his principal characters were said to bear stark resemblance to their author.

Criticism and controversy

Bellow's detractors considered his work conventional and old-fashioned, as if the author was trying to revive the 19th century European novel. Vladimir Nabokov called Bellow a "miserable mediocrity." [Wood, James (February 1, 1990) [,,99383,00.html "Private Strife."] "Guardian Unlimited".] His characters were seen as vehicles for his philosophical brooding or opportunities to display his erudition, and they failed to grow. Herzog, Henderson, and the other "larger than life" characters Bellow created seemed to be fashioned from the author's philosophical obsessions, not from real life. Journalist and author Ron Rosenbaum described Bellow's "Ravelstein" (2000) as the only book that rose above Bellow's failings as an author. Rosenbaum wrote,

Wrote Sam Tanenhaus:

Although Tanenhaus goes on to write:

V. S. Pritchett praised Bellow, but found his shorter works to be his best. Pritchett called Bellow's novella "Seize the Day" a "small gray masterpiece." ["The New York Times", April 6, 2005]

Bellow's account of his own 1975 trip to Israel, "To Jerusalem and Back: A Personal Account", was criticized by Noam Chomsky in his 1983 book "Fateful Triangle: the United States, Israel & the Palestinians". Bellow, Chomsky wrote, "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 has also been criticized for having praised Joan Peters's controversial book, "From Time Immemorial", which challenged the conventional history of the Palestinian people. [ [ Review: The Joan Peters Case] , Edward W. Said, "Journal of Palestine Studies", 15:2 (Winter, 1986), pp. 144-150. Accessed 2008-03-27.] [ [ The Fate of an Honest Intellectual] , Noam Chomsky (2002), in "Understanding Power", The New Press, pp. 244-248. Accessed on 2008-03-27.]

Although never beholden to any single political school of thought, Bellow gravitated away from leftist politics and became identified with neoconservatives. [Atlas, James. "Bellow." New York: Random House, 2000] His opponents included feminists, campus revolutionaries and postmodernists, and he thrust himself into the often contentious realm of Jewish and African-American relations. In "Mr. Sammler's Planet", Bellow's portrayal of a black pickpocket who exposes himself in public was criticized as racist. In 2007, attempts to name a street after Bellow in his Hyde Park neighborhood were scotched by local alderman on the grounds that Bellow had made remarks about the neighborhood's current inhabitants that they considered racist. [Ahmed, Azam and Ron Grossman (October 5, 2007) [,0,5351307.story "Bellow's remarks on race haunt legacy in Hyde Park."] "Chicago Tribune."]

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? I'd be glad to read him." The taunt was seen by some as a slight against non-Western literature. Bellow at first claimed to have been misquoted. Later, writing in his defense in the "New York Times", he said, "The scandal is entirely journalistic in origin... Always foolishly trying to explain and edify all comers, I was speaking of the distinction between literate and preliterate societies. For I was once an anthropology student, you see." Bellow claimed to have remembered shortly after making his infamous comment that he had in fact read a Zulu novel in translation: "Chaka" by Thomas Mofolo (an inaccuracy remains in this: Mofolo's novel is in Sesotho, not Zulu).

Despite his identification with Chicago, he kept aloof from some of that city's more 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"."


" [There is] an immense, painful longing for a broader, more flexible, fuller, more coherent, more comprehensive account of what we human beings are, who we are and what this life is for." [Saul Bellow's [ Nobel Lecture] , December 12, 1976.]

"I feel that art has something to do with the achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos. A stillness which characterizes prayer, too, and the eye of the storm. I think that art has something to do with an arrest of attention in the midst of distraction." [Alfred Kazin and George Plimpton (eds.), "Writers at Work: The Paris review interviews, Volume 3". New York, NY: Viking Press, 1967. ISBN 0-67079-096-6.]

"A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep." [Saul Bellow, "To Jerusalem and Back: A personal account", p. 127. Penguin Classics, 1976. ISBN 0-14118-075-7.]

"People can lose their lives in libraries. They ought to be warned." [Quoted in Steven Gilbar, "The Reader's Quotation Book: A literary companion". Wainscott, NY: Pushcart Press, 1990. ISBN 0-91636-664-2.]



* "Dangling Man" (1944)
* "The Victim" (1947)
* "The Adventures of Augie March" (1953)
* "Seize the Day" (1956)
* "Henderson the Rain King" (1959)
* "Herzog" (1964)
* "Mosby's Memoirs" (short stories also available in "Collected Stories") (1968)
* "Mr. Sammler's Planet" (1970)
* "Humboldt's Gift" (1975), won the 1976 Pulitzer Prize
* "The Dean's December" (1982)
* "Him with His Foot in His Mouth" (short stories also available in "Collected Stories") (1984)
* "More Die of Heartbreak" (1987)
* "A Theft" (1989)
* "The Bellarosa Connection" (1989)
* "Something to Remember Me By: Three Tales" (collecting the eponymous short story, "A Theft" and "The Bellarosa Connection") (1991)
* "The Actual" (1997)
* "Ravelstein" (2000)
* "Collected Stories" (2001)


* "To Jerusalem and Back" (1976)
* "It All Adds Up" (1994)


* "News from the Republic of Letters" (from 1997)
* "Editors" ( [ Publisher's information] )
* "ANON"
* "The Noble Savage"

On Bellow

* "Saul Bellow", Tony Tanner (1965) (see also his "City of Words" [1971] )
* "Saul Bellow", Malcolm Bradbury (1982)
* "Saul Bellow: Modern Critical Views", Harold Bloom (Ed.) (1986)
* "Handsome Is: Adventures with Saul Bellow", Harriet Wasserman (1997)
* "Saul Bellow and the Decline of Humanism", Michael K Glenday (1990)
* "Bellow: A Biography", James Atlas (2000)
* "Even Later" and "The American Eagle" in Martin Amis, "The War Against Cliché" (2001) are celebratory. The latter essay is also found in the Everyman's Library edition of "Augie March".
* 'Saul Bellow's comic style': James Wood in "The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel", 2004. ISBN 0224064509. ( [ Online extract] )
* "The Hero in Contemporary American Fiction: The Works of Saul Bellow and Don DeLillo ", Stephanie Halldorson (forthcoming December 2007)

Published as

* "Novels 1944-1953: Dangling Man, The Victim, The Adventures of Augie March" (James Wood, ed.) (Library of America, 2003) ISBN 978-1-93108238-9.
* "Novels 1956-1964: Seize the Day, Henderson the Rain King, Herzog" (James Wood, ed. 2007) (Library of America, 2007) ISBN 978-1-59853002-5.

ee also

* PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction


External links

* [ Mr. Sammler's City, "City Journal," Spring 2008]
* [ Nobel site with two speeches (one of which is an audio recording) & longer biography]
* [ Annotated Bibliography of Criticism] by the Saul Bellow Society
* [ Bellow's 1955 autobiographical statement for reference book]
* [ JM Coetzee on the early novels]
* [ "Slate"'s assortment of other writers' takes on Bellow,] mostly eulogistic
* [ Joyce Carol Oates on Saul Bellow]
* [ Saul Bellow 'Bookweb' on literary website The Ledge, with suggestions for further reading.]
* [ Blogpost on Bellow's Russian family name–Belo or Belov?]
* [,,2092-1562185,00.html Saul Bellow, a neocon’s tale] by John Podhoretz

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