Swans Commentary » swans.com June 6, 2005  



Saul Bellow In Retrospect


by Louis Proyect






(Swans - June 6, 2005)   When Saul Bellow won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1976, he joined other American prize winners who expressed their time. 1962 Nobel Laureate John Steinbeck captured the spirit of the turbulent 1930s just as African-American Toni Morrison, who received the award in 1993, gave expression to another period of strife and struggle.

Contrary to these voices of rebellion, Bellow epitomized the postwar America retreat into psychoanalysis, material success, and establishment politics. As somebody who had experienced poverty in the 1930s and who had made a brief commitment to radical politics, Bellow was the artistic counterpart to an entire generation of intellectuals who had made room for themselves at the American dinner table. As so many of the others in this movement, Bellow's Jewish identity gave added weight to his right turn. The ascendancy of the Jewish intellectual in terms of social acceptance and material gain in the USA corresponded to the rise of the state of Israel. Not only had they made it; they resented others who had not picked themselves up by the bootstrap.

Despite his conservative bent, Saul Bellow was a great writer capable of deep humanitarian insights. This article will consider his life and career and focus on one of his most highly regarded works, Seize the Day. This 1956 novella captures the anxieties of people on the precipice of fame and wealth but still capable of falling backwards into poverty and obscurity. Bellow was the bard of an America that still remembered the Great Depression but that was anxious to move forward to power and prosperity. This tension gives it literary value. It also drives home what a loss it was when people such as Saul Bellow finally achieved insider status and lost touch with their humble roots.

Born on June 10, 1915 to immigrant parents in Lachine, a working-class suburb of Montreal, Saul Bellow and his family soon moved to Chicago, Illinois, where his father struggled to make ends meet, eventually turning to bootlegging. Ironically, things improved after the 1929 crash, when his father began selling wood chips for bakers' ovens. (This biographical detail and subsequent ones come from James Atlas's Bellow, a definitive 685-page work that took a decade to research and write. Atlas is obviously alienated from Bellow's political views and shortcomings as a human being, but was scrupulous in his treatment of the great writer.)

Bellow discovered an early love of literature. By the time he was nine years old, he had read all the children's books in the local library and was moving on to the adult section, starting with Gogol's Dead Souls.

When Saul Bellow arrived at Tuley High School in 1931, he discovered a thriving radical movement. He soon struck up a friendship with Albert Glotzer, a Trotskyist who later became one of the exiled Russian's bodyguards. Although Bellow was never ideological, his sympathies were with the left. As Glotzer put it, "It was inevitable, given our experience of life under Tsarism, that our family and close friends would be politically radical, if not always socialist."

Bellow was a fellow traveler of the Young People's Socialist League, which was moving leftwards in the 1930s and offered an alternative to the Communist Party. In addition to Glotzer, Bellow had struck up a friendship with Isaac Rosenfeld, another leftist and son of immigrant Jewish parents, who would eventually become a respected contributor to the Partisan Review, a journal that reflected Trotsky's influence. Bellow remained friends with Glotzer and Rosenfeld long after his shift to the right.

After Bellow and Rosenfeld became freshmen at the University of Chicago, they became known as Zinoviev and Kamenev on campus. They belonged to the Socialist Club on campus and edited Soapbox, its journal. On the masthead there was a quotation from William Randolph Hearst: "Red radicalism has planted a soapbox in every educational institution in America."

In 1938, the Depression was still in full-swing and Saul Bellow had to scramble around for employment like other young men and women. That year he landed a job with the Federal Writers' Project, which was a hotbed for aspiring young authors, especially those with a social conscience. It provided employment for other Chicago radicals like Nelson Algren, who had already published a novel, Somebody in Boots, about vagrant life, and Richard Wright, who spent most of his time at the project working on Native Son. Algren was a supporter of the Communist Party (CP) and Wright a member.

Looking back at this period in a Guardian article dated April 10, 1993 -- long after he had embraced conservative ideology -- Bellow still demonstrated an obvious affection for his youthful radicalism:

The country took us over. We felt that to be here was a great piece of luck. The children of immigrants in my Chicago high school, however, believed that they were also somehow Russian, and while they studied their Macbeth and Milton's L'Allegro, they read Tolstoy and Dostoevsky as well and went on inevitably to Lenin's State And Revolution, and the pamphlets of Trotsky. The Tuley high school debating club discussed the Communist Manifesto and on the main stem of the neighbourhood, Division Street, the immigrant intelligentsia lectured from soapboxes, while at "the forum," a church hall on California Avenue, debates between socialists, communists and anarchists attracted a fair number of people.

This was the beginning of my radical education. For on the recommendation of friends I took up Marx and Engels, and remember, in my father's bleak office near the freight yards, blasting away at Value Price and Profit while the police raided a brothel across the street -- for non-payment of protection, probably -- throwing beds, bedding and chairs through the shattered windows. The Young Communist League tried to recruit me in the late 1930s. Too late -- I had already read Trotsky's pamphlet on the German question and was convinced that Stalin's errors had brought Hitler to power.

In college in 1933 I was a Trotskyist. Trotsky instilled into his young followers the orthodoxy peculiar to the defeated and ousted. We belonged to the Movement, we were faithful to Leninism, and could expound the historical lessons and describe Stalin's crimes. My closest friends and I were not, however, activists; we were writers. Owing to the Depression we had no career expectations. We got through the week on five or six bucks and if our rented rooms were small, the libraries were lofty, were beautiful. Through "revolutionary politics" we met the demand of the times for action. But what really mattered was the vital personal nourishment we took from Dostoevsky or Herman Melville, from Dreiser and John Dos Passos and Faulkner. By filling out a slip of paper at the Crerar on Randolph Street you could get all the bound volumes of The Dial and fill long afternoons with T. S. Eliot, Rilke and e. e. cummings.

By the end of WWII, the United States had already begun to move past the revolutionary fervor of the 1930s. To an extent, a new-found willingness to accept liberal capitalism on its own terms was accentuated by the Communist Party's submersion into the New Deal, symbolized by party chairman Earl Browder's announcement that the CP was ready to dissolve itself into a kind of discussion club called the Communist Political Association that disavowed revolutionary goals.

For writers and intellectuals around the Trotskyist movement, a willingness to accommodate had more to do with personal ambition rather than ideology. Since Saul Bellow was always consumed early on by a desire to write great literature rather than make a revolution, the goal of "tending one's garden" made perfect sense.

From the publication of Dangling Man in 1944 (a semi-autobiographical tale of a young writer awaiting a military call-up at the end of WWII) to the 1953 Adventures of Augie March, Bellow would earn the reputation of a gifted and serious writer who never enjoyed commercial success. His struggle to make it had Oedipal overtones since his father (and brothers) had all become wealthy businessmen by the late 1930s. Saul was always seen as the dreamer whose modest achievements were downplayed as long as he remained economically insecure. He would often have to borrow money from his father or brothers just to make ends meet. Handouts were inevitably accompanied by a lecture.

If Bellow remained unfulfilled in a material sense, by the arrival of the 1950s there was a spiritual void that gnawed at him as well. Despite his strong identification with the Yiddish language and culture, he was basically a secular Jew. Like many people in the 1950s, Bellow gravitated toward psychoanalysis, which had become a secular religion with the analyst filling in for the priest. For Bellow, deliverance assumed the form of Reichian therapy delivered at the hands of Dr. Chester Raphael.

Wilhelm Reich had earned a reputation as a Marxist opponent of Nazism, especially in terms of its sexual repression, but had become something of a crank during his exile in the United States. Reich had developed a bizarre theory of orgone energy, which posited the existence of an invisible substance that was critical to mental health. To overcome neurosis, he recommended sitting in specially licensed orgone boxes. Eventually the FDA cracked down on Reich's quackery and he died in prison.

For a time Bellow followed a strict Reichian regimen. He sat in an orgone box in his modest Queens apartment gathering up orgone energy while reading books beneath a single light bulb strung from the ceiling. Occasionally he stuffed a handkerchief into his mouth and screamed, another method recommended by Reich to achieve emotional release. There is no indication that this therapy did much for Bellow, who remained profoundly unhappy throughout his life, just as Woody Allen remains neurotic despite decades of psychoanalysis.

(In many ways, Woody Allen is the popular culture analogue to Saul Bellow. Perhaps in recognition of these connections, Bellow appears as one of the talking head experts in Zelig, a modestly amusing meditation on a mediocre character played by Allen who adapts chameleon-like to changing circumstances. Bellow's take on Zelig: "His sickness was also at the root of his salvation; it was his very disorder that made a hero of him.")

Saul Bellow finally achieved best-seller status with the publication of Herzog in 1964. This novel was inspired by Bellow's failed marriage, which he blamed on his wife's cheating. Herzog, a writer just like Bellow, holes up in a country retreat where he writes long philosophical letters to famous figures, both living and dead. It is filled with shrewd psychological insights about the author, even if they steer clear of coming to terms with his own failings as a husband.

As biographer James Atlas reveals, Bellow was cheating on his wife long before he discovered that she was involved with another man. Indeed, considering the low esteem that Bellow held her and other women in, it is surprising that she put up with him as long as she did. When feminists objected to an unflattering portrayal of an art critic's girlfriend (a typical relationship in Bellow's oeuvre) in his Vanity Fair short-story titled "What Kind of Day," Bellow took great umbrage. He told a Washington Post interviewer on May 20, 1984:

"I have to be true to nature. I don't mind saying good things. But I cannot allow my arm to be twisted. I've had ladies say to me after that story appeared in Vanity Fair -- not a magazine that does me proud anyway, I don't know why they were reading it -- they said, 'What sort of a woman is this you've portrayed? She's really old-fashioned and sexually enslaved without a mind of her own, running after an older man and trying to make it in the world of high culture. We're not like that any more.'

"Well, I'm sorry girls -- but many of you are like that, very much so. It's going to take a lot more than a few books by Germaine Greer or whatshername Betty Friedan to root out completely the Sleeping Beauty syndrome." And anyway, "I'm an historian, not an ideologist. I don't think that I really owe anybody anything. The American public is accustomed to slathers of flattery. I go neither the one way nor the other."

Blacks did not fare much better in Bellow's novels. Until Mr. Sammler's Planet, they were largely invisible just as they are in Woody Allen's movies. Of course, there was one exception to this. The 1959 Henderson the Rain King is picaresque tale of a white man in Africa surrounded by foolish natives functioning as minstrels, saying things like "Wo, dem be trouble." Considering that Bellow received an undergraduate degree in anthropology and that the civil rights revolution was in full swing when the novel was being written, it is quite a statement on his racial insensitivity.

Things only got worse after Bellow became famous and powerful. The patronizing tone adopted in Henderson gave way to open hostility. As Bellow had grown older, fears about crime in his University of Chicago neighborhood, which abutted a crime-ridden ghetto, blended with resentment toward Black Nationalism. In Mr. Sammler's Planet, the eponymous character -- a survivor of Nazi concentration camps -- is accosted by a black pickpocket who exposes himself sexually. Thus, sexual and racial fears are conflated in an altogether unfortunate manner.

On February 6, 1994, NY Times reporter Brent Staples wrote about his obsession with Saul Bellow. As a literate and successful African-American, Staples was haunted by Bellow's deep animosity toward his people. This led to a voyage of self-discovery in Bellow's Chicago neighborhood, not far from his own childhood home in the ghetto that Bellow feared and hated so much. Staples writes:

Bellow lived in an apartment tower just off the Midway on Dorchester Avenue. I knew from the novels that his apartment faced the lake and that it therefore overlooked my running route at the eastern end of the Midway. When passing that spot, I concentrated on the upper windows of the tower. I envisioned him staring down at the lone runner trudging along. I raised my arm and waved.

I added the tower to my evening walks. The intersection at 59th and Dorchester was the dark stretch of sidewalk where I had played the cruelest innings of Scatter the Pigeons.

Now and then I bounded up the tower stairs to make sure Bellow's name was still on the bell. A security gate cut you off from the base of the tower itself, which was too bad because there were shadows there to linger in.

What would I do when I caught him? Perhaps I'd lift him bodily and pin him against a wall. Perhaps I'd corner him on the stairs and take up questions about "pork chops" and "crazy buffaloes" and barbarous black pickpockets. I wanted to trophy his fear.

I stalked Dorchester Avenue for months before I caught him out. I turned out of 58th Street when I saw him: a little man in an overcoat, hurrying along the sidewalk about 20 yards ahead of me. I cursed my timing. Ten seconds earlier would have put me right on his heels. I could easily have run him down, but that wasn't the game. The game was to wait for a chance to place me squarely between the tower and him. That way, he'd have to face me in the dark. This was not to be the night. He threw back a glance, wisps of white hair flying, then picked up his pace. He showed surprising bounce getting up the stairs. When I reached the tower, I saw only his shoe disappearing through the gate.

I finally got the advantage of him in broad daylight, in an afternoon crowd in front of the Hyde Park Bank. The crowd wasn't as good as darkness, but it was camouflage. I could watch him without being seen. He was walking toward me, his khaki cap pulled low to protect his eyes from the sun. Even squinting, the eyes seemed saucerous, huge, the skin around them slack from heavy use. Spider-legged squint lines radiated from the corners of his eyes, upward into the temple and downward into the jaw. The skin over these squint lines was translucent, like the membrane of an egg, so luminous in the sunlight that I nearly reached out to touch it. He moved through the crowd looking downward, hungrily scanning hips, crotches and legs. This was how he did it. The rest of us were a junkyard where he foraged for parts.

I wanted something from him. The longing was deep, but I couldn't place it then. It would take years for me to realize what it was. I wanted to steal the essence of him, to absorb it right into my bones. After I passed him, I felt faint and reached out for a wall. That's when I realized that I'd been holding my breath.

Like so many others of his generation, Bellow was profoundly shocked by the 1960s student revolt. As the son of a lowly immigrant family that had shown enormous gratitude toward the welfare state and its public university system, he could not understand why students would attack such institutions during the antiwar movement. Since the Vietnam War was launched by New Dealer Lyndon Johnson, the tendency for a veteran of the Federal Writers' Project was to circle the wagon in defense of the war-making democracy. In their eyes, the Vietnamese were as much a threat to peace and security as the fascists were in the 1930s. Students who dared to take the side of the Vietnamese rebels were little better than fascist sympathizers.

Even after the Vietnam War came to an end, the culture wars it stirred up raged on. In 1987, U. of Chicago philosophy professor Allan Bloom published The Closing of the American Mind, an erudite diatribe against the academic left. His best friend and colleague Saul Bellow wrote the forward. On May 29, 2005, the NY Times reported about the end of the Olin Foundation, which dispensed money to right-wing causes since its founding in 1969 by arms manufacturer John M. Olin. Olin had been shocked into action by the armed Black Nationalist student protest at Cornell University, his alma mater. One of the beneficiaries of Olin's philanthropy was Allan Bloom. The NY Times mentions that James M. Pierson, long-time director of the Olin Foundation, "had few specific expectations when he helped a little-known political theorist, Allan Bloom, create the democracy center in Chicago. But after a few years of high-brow seminars, Mr. Bloom wrote 'The Closing of the American Mind,' which topped best-seller lists in 1987 and inspired the continuing assault on campus liberalism."

Bloom was a disciple of Leo Strauss, another U. of Chicago faculty member. Strauss's philosophy is an adaptation of classical Platonic idealism to the needs of the modern imperialist state. Paul Wolfowitz was another Strauss disciple.

Bellow took up Bloom's Straussian elitism as a defense mechanism against radical students who had begun to challenge him at his well-attended and well-paid campus appearances.

In the spring of 1968, Bellow gave a talk at San Francisco State College, when the school was on the verge of a student strike. During the question and answer period, Floyd Salas, a creative writing instructor sympathetic to student demands and of part-Navaho descent asked Bellow, "Are you saying the university should offer writers a haven from the vulgarities of the contemporary world? Is this what you said in your speech?" When the audience grew increasingly more restive, Bellow left in a huff. Bellow would complain in a letter written to Mark Harris, a minor writer who had built a one-man cult around him: "No, it was very poor stuff, I assure you. You don't found universities in order to destroy culture. For that you want a Nazi party."

(Floyd Salas is still alive and as feisty as ever. The home page at floydsalas.com states: "All considerations of language, of ideas, of symbols and metaphors serve only one function: to convey the soul of a living being to the soul of other living beings and in that process break us out of our isolation and loneliness and put us in touch with the universal spirit." Although this sounds very much like a credo that Saul Bellow himself could identify with, the clash between the two writers should indicate that the more famous of the two lost the ability to translate it into prose the older and more successful he became.)

A year later, Bellow dramatized this incident in Mr. Sammler's Planet. But he was not finished with student radicals. In The Dean's December, he dramatized the murder of U. of Chicago student Mark Gromer in 1977, who was thrown to his death from his third floor apartment by a prostitute and her pimp. During the trial, potential witnesses were shot at by a student radical sympathetic to the accused pair. Out of this sordid and unrepresentative tale Bellow sought to construct some kind of universal lessons about the need to defend the capitalist system: "Again, the high intention -- to prevent the American idea from being pounded into the dust altogether. And here is our American idea: liberty, equality, justice, democracy, abundance."

The critics found the book strident and lacking. Despite Bellow's goal to assume the stature of Dostoyevsky, he came across more like a novelist cut from David Horowitz's cloth.

Ravelstein, written in 2000 when Bellow was 85 years old, is a tribute to Allan Bloom and his last novel that reveals the fact that the conservative scourge of the left was a homosexual. (Bloom died from AIDS in 1992.) Written as a kind of Boswellian remembrance of a latter-day Johnson, Ravelstein contains shrewd observations about the commodification of culture that suggest the lingering influence of Marxism on Bellow, at least as a critical tool:

Ravelstein's legacy to me was a subject -- he thought he was giving me a subject, perhaps the best one I ever had, perhaps the only really important one. But what such a legacy signified was that he would die before me. If I were to predecease him he would certainly not write a memoir of me. Anything beyond a single page to be read at a memorial service would have been unthinkable. Yet we were close friends, none closer. What we were laughing about was death, and of course death does sharpen the comic sense. But the fact that we laughed together didn't mean that we were laughing for the same reasons. That Ravelstein's most serious ideas, put into his book, should have made him a millionaire certainly was funny. It took the genius of capitalism to make a valuable commodity out of thoughts, opinions, teachings. Bear in mind that Ravelstein was a teacher. He was not one of those conservatives who idolize the free market. He had views of his own on political and moral matters. But I am not interested in presenting his ideas. More than anything else, just now, I want to avoid them. I want to be brief, here. He was an educator. Put together in a book his ideas made him absurdly rich.

(The first chapter of Ravelstein, which contains this passage, can be read at: http://www.nytimes.com/books/first/b/bellow-ravelstein.html)

Turning finally to Seize the Day, we discover in this 118-page novella all of the themes that define Bellow's fiction with all of his strengths. It is a very simple tale that revolves around the difficulties that Tommy Wilhelm, the main character, is having with money and a broken marriage. In other words, it is drawn from Bellow's own experiences. Wilhelm's father, a physician named Adler, lives in the same Upper West Side Manhattan hotel as him and is modeled on Bellow's own father. Dr. Adler constantly reminds Tommy of his failings as an earner and as a husband and father.

Tommy Adler assumed the name Wilhelm after an abortive attempt to launch an acting career in Hollywood long ago. This thoroughly impractical undertaking was not much different than trying to make it as a novelist perhaps.

The other major character is a psychologist named Tamkin, who runs a side business as a commodities broker. Wilhelm has turned over his meager savings to Tamkin in order to make a killing. One can guess how things turn out for him.

On page 36, we discover that he is ambivalent on the question of money, no matter how much hope he pins on his stake in the risky commodities trading business:

"Uch! How they love money, thought Wilhelm. They adore money! Holy money! Beautiful money! It was getting so that people were feeble-minded about everything except money. While if you didn't have it you were a dummy, a dummy! You had to excuse yourself from the face of the earth. Chicken! that's what it was. The world's business. If only he could find a way out of it."

In a consultation with Tamkin, Tommy Wilhelm allows that his problems would be solved if he could only make $15,000 in profits from commodities trading. Tamkin, who is older and wiser and more cynical than Tommy, assures him that this is within reach:

"I should hope!" said Tamkin. "If love is love, it's free. Fifteen grand, though, isn't too much for a man of your intelligence to ask out of life. Fools, hard-hearted criminals, and murderers have millions to squander. They burn up the world -- oil, coal, wood, metal, and soil, and suck even the air and the sky. They consume, and they give back no benefit. A man like you, humble for life, who wants to feel and live, has trouble -- not wanting," said Tamkin in his parenthetical fashion, "to exchange an ounce of soul for a pound of social power -- he'll never make it without help in a world like this. But don't you worry." Wilhelm grasped at this assurance. "Just you never mind. We'll go easily beyond your figure."

Since we must assume that every character in a Bellow novel is a projection to some extent of his own inner feelings, one wonders whether the exchange of "an ounce of soul for a pound of social power" was something worth attaining. In 1956, Bellow was still relatively unknown and certainly not wealthy and powerful. It was his outsider status that gave his literature -- and that of all Jewish authors ultimately -- its strength and conviction.

Years later that strength would be sapped from his art as he became more and more of an insider. In 1975, Bellow would admit to one of his students after having lunch with Henry Kissinger: "Finally, I found I could more than hold my own against the Kissingers and the Abba Ebans and Moishe Dayans. I had made it."

His gain was literature's loss.

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Published June 6, 2005