The Novelist, Writ Large
Wednesday, April 6, 2005
The void left in the American literary landscape by the death yesterday of Saul Bellow is too large to map or describe. He was the last giant of our literature when it still had giants, when it ruled the world, when it spoke to and about this country -- its people, its history, its character -- in ways that connected not to the little world of the literati but to the people themselves. He was not as well known to the general reading public as the giants of the generation that preceded his own -- Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Hemingway -- and his books only irregularly made the bestseller lists, but his presence was huge.
His career spanned more than half a century, from "Dangling Man" in 1944 to his triumphant last hurrah, "Ravelstein," in 2000. In 1953, with the publication of "The Adventures of Augie March," he established himself for good -- it was awarded the National Book Award the next year, at a time when that prize still meant something -- and in the bargain made the Jewish American experience a major preoccupation and theme of American fiction. Two big novels followed -- "Henderson the Rain King" in 1959 and "Herzog" in 1964 -- and then, during the upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s, works (most especially "Mr. Sammler's Planet" in 1970) that bemoaned in rather bitter terms the modern world generally and modern America specifically. Yet just when it seemed he was turning sour and dyspeptic, Bellow rounded out his astonishing career with wry, witty miniatures ("A Theft" and "The Bellarosa Connection" in 1989) that served to remind us of his considerable gifts as a humorist. At his death he was just two months shy of his 90th birthday.
Though he closed his career with miniatures, Bellow was no miniaturist in ambition or vision. "The Adventures of Augie March" is just about the last attempt at what every American with literary aspirations not so long ago wanted to write: the Great American Novel. Its famous opening sentence declares that there is a new voice in the land -- "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" -- and that voice asserts itself on every one of the more than 500 pages that follow.
As "Augie" made emphatically plain to its startled and dazzled early readers, Bellow was something American literature hadn't previously had: a man of the streets and a man of ideas, and a Jew who asserted himself, proudly and defiantly, as wholly American. He was immensely learned and more than held his own among the powerful minds who gathered in and around the University of Chicago in the decades after World War II, yet he positively loved gangsters (from afar, at least) and gave them major roles in many of his novels. From youth onward he mainlined Chicago, and even after he moved to other places -- the last years of his life were spent in New England -- Chicago informed his work more than any other place.
He saw Chicago as a metaphor for America, and he was right. Like Theodore Dreiser before him, he understood that among our great cities Chicago is the most quintessentially American, and he reveled in everything about it: the muscularity of Louis H. Sullivan's massive buildings, the fiercely hermetic ethnic and racial enclaves forever at war with each other and within themselves, the sprawl over mile upon mile of the Midwest, the crooks and the thugs, the artists and the dreamers. Chicago's literature is richer than any other American city's, Los Angeles possibly excepted, and Bellow's contribution to it dwarfs everyone else's.
There were many astonishing things about Bellow and his work, but when one contemplates the tendency of American literary careers to flame too quickly and die out too soon, perhaps the most astonishing is that the older he got, the more energy he seemed to have and the more his ambition seemed to press him forward. Some years ago he came to Baltimore to accept an award from the Enoch Pratt Library, which asked me to introduce him. In my brief remarks I emphasized this aspect of his achievement, and when I turned over the podium to him he thanked me profusely, in words that led me to believe that he hadn't heard much along that particular line of praise and that he happened to think it was accurate.
Just about the only other important American writer to maintain so high a level of achievement over so many years without significantly faltering is Peter Taylor, Bellow's contemporary though not, to the best of my knowledge, his friend or even his acquaintance. In contrast with Taylor, who labored in unwarranted neglect for most of his life, Bellow was famous before he was 40 and thus had to labor against all the expectations, pressures and demands that American culture places upon successful artists. That his work only broadened and deepened over this half-century surely is explained in substantial measure by his refusal to play the publicity game. He liked the limelight, but he knew that writing was what had gotten him there and would keep him there, so instead of playing the public figure, he kept on writing.
He was a notably (or notoriously) difficult man, to which an impressive string of ex-wives and, one assumes, ex-lovers presumably could attest, but he could turn on the charm with ease, and there was plenty of it. He was diminutive, fine-featured, quick-witted and he made many friendships, some of them important. "Ravelstein" is a thinly veiled portrait of the author of that huge if unlikely bestseller "The Closing of the American Mind," his friend Allan Bloom (too thinly veiled, some of Bloom's other friends thought), and his friendships among younger writers were numerous. He was especially admired by young British novelists, in particular Martin Amis, who did not understand him quite so keenly as they thought but who were correct in their instinctive sense that to know Bellow was to know America.
Or, more precisely, those American territories that Bellow knew well and in which he was comfortable. When it came to the great American masses, he was at least as contemptuous as H.L. Mencken (who called them boobus Americanus ) or Vladimir Nabokov. A mutual friend some years ago gave me a photocopy of an extraordinary letter in which Bellow carefully analyzed the controversy then underway about art and obscenity and concluded, ruefully but bluntly, that part of the price of living in an immense popular democracy is having a mass audience almost entirely deficient in taste, discrimination and judgment. He was an elitist, and proud of it. He was right, too.
It is therefore no surprise that the excesses of the 1960s and 1970s appalled him. Vulgarity, narcissism, self-indulgence were all about him, expressed in rhetoric so crass and clumsy that he simply could not countenance it. This, he seemed to be saying, from our most privileged and pampered children! Though he was right about this, too, for a while he seemed to decline into crankiness; after reading "Mr. Sammler's Planet" I wondered if all his best work was behind him and despaired for the future of a writer whom I deeply admired. Yet for whatever reason he gradually turned around, recovering his senses of humor and perspective, enriching his legacy all the more.
He never wrote the Great American Novel, but he may well have been the last great American novelist. Certainly he is the last of his generation, the generation of Bernard Malamud and Eudora Welty and Peter Taylor and Flannery O'Connor and Ralph Ellison. Big writers (even those who mainly wrote short stories) with big ambitions, men and women who weren't afraid to take chances, who looked out at the world instead of into the mirror. Our loss is incalculable.
Bellow's writing made the Jewish American experience a major theme of American fiction.
In his many works, Nobel Prize winner Saul Bellow used the city of Chicago as a metaphor for America.