Places: Humboldt’s Gift

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1975

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Psychological realism

Time of work: 1970’s

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Chicago

*Chicago. Humboldt’s GiftMidwestern city where Charlie grew up and still lives. Chicago is also the home of his mistress, Renata, and his ex-wife, who calls Chicago a deadly, ugly, vulgar, and dangerous place. In American culture, Chicago is indelibly associated with gangsters, and Charlie has adventures involving a gangster, Rinaldo Cantabile, who has Charlie’s beautiful Mercedes bashed repeatedly with a baseball bat and who takes Charlie up to a girder high on an unfinished skyscraper, where he throws down money Charlie lost to him in a poker game. To escape from Chicago and all the problems it represents to Charlie, he plans to fly directly to Europe with Renata but decides to stop at New York first to find out about a legacy he has been left by his late friend, Von Humboldt Fleisher.

*New York City

*New York City. Largest city in the United States, a place of great poverty and great wealth. When Charlie visits New York, he stays in the plush Plaza Hotel and enjoys all the luxuries money can buy. He and Renata visit an old-age home on Coney Island, where Humboldt’s uncle Waldemar lives. There Charlie gets the legacy Humboldt has left him, in a sealed package.

The last time Charlie sees Humboldt alive occurs while he is on a business trip to New York City. There, in the company of the state’s two current U.S. senators, Jacob Javits and Robert Kennedy, he flies over the city in a Coast Guard helicopter and attends a political luncheon at the expensive restaurant, Tavern on the Green in Central Park. While on this business trip to New York, he sees the impoverished Humboldt on the street eating a pretzel for lunch. Charlie takes advantage of the anonymity the city offers to hide behind a parked car and watch Humboldt but does not approach his old friend. Two months later, Humboldt dies in the elevator of a flophouse near Times Square while taking out his trash. Afterward, Humboldt is buried in a crowded cemetery in the fictitious New Jersey city of Deathsville.

Valhalla Cemetery

Valhalla Cemetery. Graveyard in the New York City area, where the novel ends in early spring, when Charlie, Waldemar, and one of Waldemar’s friends have Humboldt reinterred. This cemetery, with its blooming flowers, represents a new beginning for Charlie.

*Madrid

*Madrid. Capital of Spain where Charlie is supposed to meet Renata. He wants to meet her there, rather than in Milan, Italy, where they first planned to meet, so he can begin writing a chapter for a cultural travel guide about Europe that will begin in Madrid. Through this travel guide, he hopes to make enough money to free himself from his creditors, the Internal Revenue Service, and especially his ex-wife. However, he eventually finds that no publisher is interested in his book.

*Paris

*Paris Capital of France in which Charlie finds himself with the gangster Cantabile among the crowds on the Champs Élysées, one of the most fashionable streets in the city, waiting to see the film Cantabile mentions in Madrid. In Paris, Charlie also uses the package from Humboldt to prove that he and Humboldt did write the movie’s scenario and begins to engage in a series of deals that will enable him to rebury Humboldt as well as solve all of his economic problems and many of his personal problems.

BibliographyChavkin, Allan. “Humboldt’s Gift and the Romantic Imagination.” Philological Quarterly 62 (1983): 1-19. Discusses the novel as reflecting Bellow’s “essential romantic humanism” and interprets the flower symbolism at the end as “the possibility of spiritual rebirth.”Dutton, Robert R. Saul Bellow. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1982. Includes a detailed discussion of Humboldt’s Gift and concludes that Charlie needed to break with Cantabile, Denise, and Renata to achieve peace.Newman, Judie. “Bellow’s ‘Indian Givers’: Humboldt’s Gift.” Journal of American Studies 15 (1981): 231-238. Discusses Bellow’s message in the novel that the artist must give “of himself, freely and without condescension.”Pifer, Ellen. Saul Bellow Against the Grain. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990. In her discussion of Humboldt’s Gift, the author interprets the crocuses at the end of the novel as symbols of “the ‘unseen’ processes of rejuvenation ceaselessly at work in the world” and of Citrine’s own determination “to find a ‘personal connection’ to creation.”Wilson, Jonathan. On Bellow’s Planet: Readings from the Dark Side. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1985. Argues that Charlie Citrine, not Humboldt, is the central figure in the novel and that Citrine is Bellow’s “avatar.”
Categories: Places