Places: Herzog

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1964

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Psychological realism

Time of work: 1960’s

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Chicago

*Chicago. HerzogGritty midwestern city in which the Canadian-born Saul Bellow grew up. Chicago figures prominently in his writings; indeed, Bellow’s great strength is his portrayal of the density and fabric of modern urban life in America. The city is associated with the Jewish American social and cultural experience to which Bellow is drawn. Such major urban centers as Chicago, with its grinding poverty, street crime, youth gangs, and widespread racism–all the ills of modern society–are also focal points of cultural and intellectual life and thus are treated somewhat ambivalently in Bellow’s fiction.

American intellectuals come to love and despise the modern urban civilization upon which their existences are ultimately based. Cities are places to which intellectuals are invariably drawn but from which they must also inevitably escape. Ever since the rise of modern urban centers, there has been a labeling of cities as sources of social alienation in which people no longer know their neighbors, a contrast to the idealized romantic notion of rural communities.

Chicago is, in part, representative of the domain of actuality or “real life” in the modern world with which the vain and emotionally confused professor of literature, Moses E. Herzog, is continually confronted and with which he must come to terms. As an intellectual and idealist who has written on the social and political aspects of European Romanticism, he prefers to view what is often a rather harsh and brutal reality in terms of abstracted notions and philosophical ideas. In the cities he meets the urban people–like the crude and mocking lawyer Sandor Himmelstein or the pompous professor Valentine Gersbach, the supposed friend who steals away Herzog’s wife, Madeleine Pontritter–who take it upon themselves to be his “teachers” and to introduce him to a nihilistic vision of reality that he instinctively abhors.

Herzog’s reaction to this spiritual malaise and philosophical nihilism, especially the loss of humanistic moral values in favor of mute and indifferent facts, is an expression of Bellow’s own response to the alienation of human beings and the negativity of the fashionable existentialism taught in American universities during the 1950’s and 1960’s. In a time of great pessimism–in a post-Holocaust and Cold War Western world–Bellow’s work stands as an existential affirmation of humanity.

*New York City

*New York City. Second great American urban center in Herzog. The urban centers of America are the places where one finds the modern self-obsessed neurotic individual who seems unable to maintain healthy emotional relationships with others. Like the neurotic New York character types found in the cinematic texts of filmmaker Woody Allen, Bellow’s cities harbor rather dysfunctional people who seem to dwell in a delusional state. The long-suffering and egocentric Moses E. Herzog (whose initials spell “me”), divorced three times, is one such plagued and pitiful person. Bellow intends for him to be, in this regard, an ironic representative of the modern city dweller, a poor self-involved soul who nonetheless possesses a great sense of human compassion and moral commitment. The character’s name “Herzog” implies (from the German) that he is both a prince (Herzog) of a man and a man with great heart (Herz). Bellow’s Herzog character suggests the author’s firm conviction that despite the distortions of the personality that occur from the stresses of modern urban life and the excesses of human self-consciousness, there is a deeper and more “natural” self that remains healthy and that fundamentally affirms human existence. Herzog’s decision at the novel’s conclusion not to murder Madeleine and Gersbach indicate Bellow’s belief that the natural and healthy instincts of the self–despite the negative influences of modern society and urban life–can assert themselves and can prevail. That Herzog makes his decision as he draws a deep breath would seem to suggest that his choice is a natural one (as opposed to a rationally moral one) and is an affirmation of intrinsic human nature.


*Berkshires. Mountainous region in western Massachusetts that is the location of Ludleyville, where Herzog owns a large and dilapidated summer country home. A romantic at heart, the urban intellectual Herzog is drawn to what he perceives to be nature and its supposed “healing” effects. When he first purchases his Berkshire home, he envisages it as becoming a kind of idyllic and princely country estate where he can devote himself to his academic work. However, its poor condition seems constantly to mock his grand vision of himself, and the isolated location becomes a major point of marital contention between him and Madeleine, who yearns for the intellectual and cultural stimulation of the city. The run-down condition of the vacation home where Moses Herzog is found at the novel’s beginning serves as a symbolic commentary on the state of his life, a catalog of both his academic and personal failures. The fact that even in the country Herzog cannot succeed seems to suggest Bellow’s belief that location, be it city or country, is ultimately not the source of a character’s failures; the foibles and frailties of the human heart are the source. An escape to some idealized vision of a romantic idyll in the countryside is only a delusion. Herzog’s retreat to the ramshackle home in Ludleyville suggests, however, his final acceptance of all that he is and has become, both the good and the bad.

BibliographyClayton, John Jacob. Saul Bellow: In Defense of Man. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1968. One of the pioneering studies on Bellow. Interprets the changes the protagonist in Herzog undergoes in the course of his narrative as symbolizing hope for humanity.Cohen, Sarah Blacher. Saul Bellow’s Enigmatic Laughter. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1974. Includes a discussion of Herzog that contrasts the protagonist’s experience in his house in Ludeyville, where he lives in a kind of “Eden communing only with God and nature,” with the novel’s end, where he awaits the coming of another human being, a sign of his return to sanity.Dutton, Robert R. Saul Bellow. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1982. Points out that Saul Bellow in Herzog is showing how one man’s earthly salvation lies “in learning to live with himself.”Pifer, Ellen. Saul Bellow Against the Grain. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990. Discusses Herzog’s growing awareness of his relationship with God.Wilson, Jonathan. On Bellow’s Planet: Readings from the Dark Side. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1985. Sees Herzog as a novel about the protagonist’s release from his obsession with Madeleine and consequently from his need to write letters that involve intellectual conflicts with others.
Categories: Places