The Life of Saul Bellow: To Fame and Fortune, 1915–1964
by zachary leader
knopf, 832 pages, $40
Saul Bellow had a cat named Rufus. He learned from Ralph Ellison how to make drip coffee—though, according to his new biographer, the “elaborate procedure” that Ellison taught him “was hard to see as worth the effort.” Also meriting attention in Zachary Leader’s 800-page chronicle of the first half of Bellow’s life: the incorporation in 2002 of Bellow’s birthplace, Lachine, Quebec, into the city of Montreal. In his sophomore year of high school, Bellow’s grades were mostly “Good” or “Excellent.” The father of Bellow’s third wife, Susan, was a doctor for the Chicago Bears and Blackhawks. One of Bellow’s colleagues at the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought gave another of his colleagues a silver marrow spoon at Christmas one year, and one of Bellow’s writing students went on to pen the screenplay for Dirty Dancing. I could go on with these pocket lint pearls. Leader certainly does.
But why? One answer is that Saul Bellow merits outsized attention because he is the last uncontestable Great American Writer. When he died in 2005, he left a body of work that surpasses Hemingway’s and ranks with Faulkner’s. No other postwar writer comes close. One could point to Bellow’s 1976 Nobel Prize in literature, his Pulitzer, and his hat trick of National Book Awards. But the real achievement, of course, is witnessed in his fourteen novels, published between 1944 and 2000; his short story collections; his literary essays; and his cultural criticism, which was strongly anti-communist during the Cold War and, as years passed, became increasingly conservative.
The later Bellow made himself notorious as a critic of the silly doodle lines of secular liberal culture. In 1994, having allegedly slighted non-Western cultures by observing in an interview that there was no “Tolstoy of the Zulus” or “Proust of the Papuans,” Bellow pushed back against his critics’ “sort of Stalinism”: “As a onetime anthropologist, I know a taboo when I see one. Open discussion of many major public questions has for some time now been taboo. We can’t open our mouths without being denounced as racists, misogynists, supremacists, imperialists, or fascists.”
eeper and more enduring than such polemics is what’s to be found in books like The Adventures of Augie March, Henderson the Rain King, Herzog, Humboldt’s Gift, Mr. Sammler’s Planet, and Ravelstein. There, on almost every page, one encounters a bold, unflinching, artful excavation of modern human experience. Bellow was keen to reveal the collisions of fixed beliefs with mercurial personal desires. He wrote about flawed and endearing and exasperating people who spring from conflicting cultures and who slam together in families and bedrooms, on campuses and city streets.
He had come from a world of fast-thinking, fast-loving, fast-fighting Jewish men, products of immigrant families in Chicago, who sought to take on the WASP-dominated intellectual and literary traditions of America. Not just take them on, but take them over and deepen and extend them, remaking them on new terms. This aspiration is nowhere more evident than in the famous opening to Bellow’s first major novel, 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 know, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent. But a man’s character is his fate, says Heraclitus, and in the end there isn’t any way to disguise the nature of the knocks by acoustical work on the door or gloving the knuckles.
The cocky, brainy boldness of this gambit; the bright, democratic street talk of Heraclitus and Chicago-style knuckle-work; the protagonist’s concluding self-celebration (“Look at me, going everywhere! Why, I am a sort of Columbus of those near-at-hand”): All of this comes to us from the narrator of the novel, but all of it speaks to Bellow’s own raucous and towering ambition.
As a writer, he drew heavily on his personal life, including relationships with his family members, wives, ex-wives, lovers, fellow writers, and academic colleagues. He was candid about the consequences of doing this, admitting the discomfort, embarrassment, and pain felt by people who discovered their lives reimagined in his pages. But Bellow believed that the novel was “the highest form of human expression yet attained,” and so everything in his life was ordered to and by a single dictum: “What matters is that good things get written.” For Bellow, “goodness” certainly did not entail kindness to the people in his life, who gave him such good things to write.
e know as much, and too much else, thanks to Leader’s new biography. Leader’s book follows upon a few other Bellow biographies, notably James Atlas’s 2000 effort, which was faulted at the time for being too much about Atlas. But the earlier book now feels more impressive, because Atlas at least knew that not every last detail was relevant to the intersections of Bellow’s life and work. Leader seems incapable of distinguishing between details that reveal what made Bellow into the writer he was—like his growing up in a neighborhood where even the Polish barber was an avid reader of Oswald Spengler—and details that say nothing about Bellow, but all too much about the exhaustive efforts of his latest chronicler. Likewise—and disappointingly, given Leader’s profile as a literary scholar and biographer—most of Leader’s readings of the fiction amount to fussy cat’s-cradle efforts to identify the real-life figures who show up in Bellow’s work. From here, Leader rarely proceeds to any higher-order analysis.
But if the execution is flawed, Leader surely has the right idea, convinced as he justly is that Bellow’s personal life mattered profoundly to his novels. Leader’s accordingly encyclopedic treatment begins with Bellow’s Jewish ancestors in Russia and moves, following Bellow’s birth in 1915, to his early years with his emigrant family in Montreal. The family subsequently decamped to Chicago, where it grew, amid tempestuous relations, under the headship of Bellow’s father, a tyrannical patriarch and (despite his questionable citizenship status) an American patriot.
eader traces Bellow’s emergence from this family to undergraduate life at the University of Chicago and then to graduate studies in anthropology at the University of Wisconsin, which he left off to pursue his writing career. After a detour in World War II into the Merchant Marine, Bellow began to publish novels—increasingly accomplished and redounding to his growing fame—while cycling through two marriages (productive of two sons) toward a third, conducting innumerable affairs, and mixing it up in intellectual and literary circles, notably those associated with the Partisan Review and the Committee on Social Thought. Bellow began teaching at the University of Chicago in 1962, two years before publishing Herzog, his national bestseller about a cuckolded Jewish academic who pens letters full of piss and vinegar to Nietzsche and other famous people living and dead.
That a novel of this description was a national bestseller fifty years ago tells us something about the decline of American literary taste. But what charges Herzog’s pages, as Leader emphasizes, is the autobiographical dimension: Bellow wrote the novel after discovering Sasha, his second wife, in an affair with Jack Ludwig, a fawning admirer and clumsy colleague of Bellow’s at the University of Minnesota—who had the audacity to present himself as a mediator in the Bellows’ foundering marriage, even as he was sleeping with one of the principals.
Late in this biography, Leader quotes an angry letter from Sasha that is full of dramatic “accusations and counteraccusations,” which, as Leader explains in his donnish way,
are rehearsed here because they are part of the life Bellow lived as he wrote Herzog, in which marriage to Sasha, her adultery with Ludwig, and the mental state of a hero very much like himself are given fictional form. Real life is woven into fiction almost immediately. To look to the novel for what really happened . . . or even for what Bellow thought happened, is futile. The novel offers evidence of what Bellow made of his experience, by which is meant how he turned the thoughts and feelings it raised into art.
Leader is absolutely correct here—even as he exposes the futility of so much of his own labors.
Bellow’s emphatically and brilliantly American literary art abundantly rewards attention today—and one hopes that the anticipated next volume of Leader’s biography, charting the second half of Bellow’s life, will make a more persuasive case as to why. Here is a suggestion: less about his cats and coffee-making, and more about the books that came of Bellow’s hard-knocking, free-style, first-person way of Heraclitean American life.
Randy Boyagoda is the author, most recently, of Richard John Neuhaus: A Life in the Public Square.