Authors: Saul Bellow

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

Author

June 10, 1915

Lachine, Quebec, Canada

April 5, 2005

Brookline, Massachusetts

Biography

Saul Bellow (BEH-loh), one of America’s greatest novelists since World War II, was the youngest of four children of Russian-Jewish immigrants. The family moved to Chicago when Bellow was nine, and he attended public schools before going to the University of Chicago on a scholarship; he graduated from Northwestern University in 1937. Although his father wanted him to be a doctor and his mother wished for him a career as a Talmudic scholar, Bellow pursued his studies in anthropology and sociology.

By the late 1930s, Bellow was married, and he had begun to read contemporary fiction and, in a back bedroom of his Chicago apartment, to write. He became employed with the Works Progress Administration (WPA) as a biographer of midwestern writers, and during World War II he served in the merchant marine, completing his first novel, Dangling Man, in 1944. After the war, he taught English at the University of Minnesota until he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1948, which afforded him an opportunity to live in Paris and travel in Europe. Returning to America in 1950, he spent the next ten years in New York City, the setting for Seize the Day. He returned to Chicago, where he became associated with the University of Chicago in 1962. In 1993, he moved to Boston, where he became a professor of literature at Boston University. Among his many awards are the Pulitzer Prize, three National Book Awards, and, in 1976, the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Saul Bellow and Keith Botsford in 1990's, at Boston University.

ext-link-type="db-image"

xlink:href="cwa-11869810001166-150644.jpg"/>

By Keith Botsford [CC-BY-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

Although some critics consider Dangling Man and The Victim apprentice works, there is no question that they bear Bellow’s distinguishing characteristics as a novelist: accurately realized scenes of urban and domestic lifestyles and of the hero who feels alienated from his environment because of his moral insight. Bellow came to be recognized as a major talent with the publication of The Adventures of Augie March. A massive, sprawling novel in picaresque form, the book records in a euphorically dazzling style reminiscent of the optimistic affirmations of Walt Whitman the coming-of-age of its idealistic title character. The host of subsidiary personalities gives the work a special exuberance. The portrayal of the Einhorn family, for example, has a Dickensian zest that places the book in the tradition of the nineteenth-century European novel. Seize the Day, more economical than its predecessor, presents a more somber and confused hero in Tommy Wilhelm, who tries to maintain his dignity amid the crises of a failing marriage and career and the embittered disappointment of a domineering, unloving father. In Henderson the Rain King, a comic fantasy about a man who flees to Africa to find himself, Bellow creates a farcical world in which he satirizes the very idealism some of his earlier characters had upheld. The novel bursts with exuberance and includes an opulent range of characters, including King Dahfu, who has read philosophy and who dreams of being reincarnated, after death, in the form of a lion.

With Herzog, Bellow produced what many consider his finest novel. Moses Herzog, the sensitive intellectual and student of Romanticism who writes letters to the world at large in an effort to keep his sanity and to understand his place as a moral sufferer in a world devoid of compassion, is a composite of all the heroes in Bellow’s fiction. He is a man with a conscience and a deep sense of his dignity, who is in conflict with a society that has become indifferent to human needs. The central dilemma for Herzog, as for all Bellow’s heroes, is how to maintain self-respect and a system of values in the midst of the self-effacement imposed by the social structure of postwar America. Bellow here assumes a traditional position as a novelist. He is more concerned with the basic, unchanging values of humankind than with the psychic disorders peculiar to the modern individual who is reflected in much twentieth-century fiction. As a novelist, Bellow looked back on such “moralistic” classics of world literature as the works of Fyodor Dostoevski rather than toward the aesthetically experimental psychological novels of his own time.

After the appearance of Herzog, Bellow’s reputation continued to grow as he published novels, essays, and short stories at regular intervals. His work attracted both attention and controversy. Mr. Sammler’s Planet, Humboldt’s Gift, The Dean’s December, and More Die of Heartbreak dealt in part with sensitive political and social issues and offended some critics. Ravelstein was a roman à clef about the dying of his friend Allan Bloom, the controversial author of the best seller The Closing of the American Mind (1987). Yet for all his interest in social and political problems, Bellow must be seen as essentially a spiritual and philosophical writer whose primary preoccupation throughout his career was the exploration of the souls of human beings in crisis. Bellow was a writer who consistently grew with each new work. His place in American letters as a major novelist is assured.

After suffering from an illness, Bellow died at his home in Brookline, Massachusetts, on April 5, 2005, at the age of eighty-nine.

Author Works Long Fiction: Dangling Man, 1944 The Victim, 1947 The Adventures of Augie March, 1953 Seize the Day, 1956 Henderson the Rain King, 1959 Herzog, 1964 Mr. Sammler’s Planet, 1970 Humboldt’s Gift, 1975 The Dean’s December, 1982 More Die of Heartbreak, 1987 A Theft, 1989 The Bellarosa Connection, 1989 The Actual, 1997 (novella); Ravelstein, 2000 Short Fiction: Mosby’s Memoirs, and Other Stories, 1968 Him with His Foot in His Mouth, and Other Stories, 1984 Something to Remember Me By: Three Tales, 1991 Collected Stories, 2001 Drama: The Wrecker, pb. 1954 The Last Analysis, pr. 1964 Under the Weather, pr. 1966 (also known as The Bellow Plays; includes Out from Under, A Wen, and Orange Soufflé) Nonfiction: To Jerusalem and Back: A Personal Account, 1976 Conversations with Saul Bellow, 1994 (Gloria L. Cronin and Ben Siegel, editors) It All Adds Up: From the Dim Past to the Uncertain Future, 1994 Saul Bellow: Letters, 2010 Edited Text: Great Jewish Short Stories, 1963 Bibliography American Studies International 35 (February, 1997). A special issue on Bellow, in which a number of distinguished contributors discuss the importance of Bellow’s work as a symbol of the civilization of the United States. The issue contains tributes, critiques, and analyses of Bellow’s thought and art. Atlas, James. Bellow: A Biography. New York: Random House, 2000. Full and accessible biography was written with the cooperation of its subject. Includes bibliography and index. Bach, Gerhard, ed. The Critical Response to Saul Bellow. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1995. Substantial collection presents two to five reviews and essays on each of Bellow’s novels. Includes an informative editor’s introduction, a chronology, and an interview with Bellow. Bellow, Saul. “Moving Quickly: An Interview with Saul Bellow.” Salmagundi (Spring/Summer, 1995): 32–53. In this special section, Bellow discusses the relationship between authors and characters, John Updike, intellectuals, gender differences, Sigmund Freud, and kitsch versus avant-garde art. Bigler, Walter. Figures of Madness in Saul Bellow’s Longer Fiction. New York: Peter Lang, 1998. Examines the psychological makeup of Bellow’s characters. Includes bibliographical references. Bloom, Harold, ed. Saul Bellow. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. Omnibus of reviews and essays on Bellow’s work gives a good sense of the early critical responses. Includes commentary by writers such as Robert Penn Warren, Malcolm Bradbury, Tony Tanner, Richard Chase, and Cynthia Ozick. Boyers, Robert. “Captains of Intellect.” Salmagundi (Spring/Summer, 1995): 100–108. Part of a special section on Bellow. A discussion of characters in stories from the collection Him with His Foot in His Mouth and Other Stories as captains of intellect who pronounce authoritatively on issues of the modern. Discusses Bellow as an intellectual leader with a multifaceted perspective. Cronin, Gloria L. A Room of His Own: In Search of the Feminine in the Novels of Saul Bellow. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 2001. Approaches Bellow’s novels from the perspective of French feminist theory, providing many provocative insights on gender in the works and analyzing Bellow’s characters with attention to the nuances of language. Unlike some critics, Cronin avoids a reductionist reading of Bellow’s work that sees the novels as the product of a biased male point of view. Cronin, Gloria L., and L. H. Goldman, eds. Saul Bellow in the 1980’s: A Collection of Critical Essays. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1989. This anthology brings together a sampling of a wave of criticism that focuses variously on Bellow’s women, his debts to Judaism, connections to theories of history, and modernism. Freedman, William. “Hanging for Pleasure and Profit: Truth as Necessary Illusion in Bellow’s Fiction.” Papers on Language and Literature 35 (Winter, 1999): 3–27. Argues that Bellow’s realism is a search for truth, not the discovery of it. Discusses how Bellow deals with the question of whether the individual is isolated or a member of a human community. Contends that for Bellow the value of literature is the ceaseless search for truth in a world that promises truth but seldom provides it. The Georgia Review 49 (Spring, 1995). A special issue on Bellow in which a number of contributors discuss his life and art, his contribution to American thought and culture, and the wide range of his works. Halldorson, Stephanie S. The Hero in Contemporary American Fiction: The Works of Saul Bellow and Don DeLillo. New York: Palgrave Macmillan; 2007. Juxtaposition of the works of two major American writers who are rarely linked results in an insightful examination of the meaning of the hero and the antihero in modern culture. Hollahan, Eugene, ed. Saul Bellow and the Struggle at the Center. New York: AMS Press, 1996. Part of the Georgia State Literary Studies series, this volume includes bibliographical references and an index. Kiernan, Robert. Saul Bellow. New York: Continuum, 1989. Provides a useful chronology of Bellow’s life and production. Traces the writer’s development from Dangling Man to More Die of Heartbreak. Among the best books on Bellow for the general reader. Leroux, Jean-Francois. “Exhausting Ennui: Bellow, Dostoevsky, and the Literature of Boredom.” College Literature 35, no. 1 (Winter, 2008): 1–15. Explores the theme of ennui, a major element in Bellow’s work, and the influence of the novels of Fyodor Dostoevski on Bellow’s outlook. Menand, Louis. "Young Saul." The New Yorker, 11 May 2015, www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/05/11/young-saul. Accessed 11 May 2017. Discusses Bellow's life and the inspiration behind some of his major works, particularly Herzog. Miller, Ruth. Saul Bellow: A Biography of the Imagination. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991. Traces Bellow’s travels, linking the author’s life to his work. Containsaa useful appendices, a bibliography, a listing of interviews, and a table of contents from The Noble Savage, a journal edited by Bellow. Pifer, Ellen. Saul Bellow Against the Grain. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990. In a study that deals comprehensively with the writer’s oeuvre, Pifer’s central observation is that Bellow’s heroes are divided against themselves and conduct an inner strife that dooms and paralyzes them. Their struggle, like Bellow’s, is a search for language to articulate the modern condition.

Categories: Authors