Places: The Adventures of Augie March

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1953

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Picaresque

Time of work: 1920-1950

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Chicago

*Chicago. Adventures of Augie March, TheGrowing midwestern metropolis whose diversity and harshness in the post-Depression era create opportunities and conflicts at every corner. The novel alludes to the city’s ethnic diversity but pays greater attention to its economic diversity and variety of locales. Augie’s coming-of-age is shaped by place as he brims with hope and imagined possibilities yet struggles against economic realities, competing ideas and desires, the manipulations of friends and strangers, and freedom of choice in an economic downturn. Chicago offers Augie philosophers, hucksters, con men, shrewd businessmen, thieves, fallen aristocrats, and new-monied didacts who influence his understanding and direction.

The novel offers a smorgasbord, more than a melting pot, of human habitation and business: the free eyeglass dispensary on Harrison Street, a greasy spoon restaurant on Belmont Avenue frequented by truckers, conductors, and scrubwomen, Dearborn’s unemployed musicians, South Side slums, the stockyards, the coal yards, leather-goods shops on Lincoln Street, Crane College, the penthouses and lavish hotels of Benton Harbor, and the millionaire suburbs of Highland Park, Kenilworth, and Winnetka.

Bellow’s Chicago renders the harsh, unfair disparity of wealth in twentieth century America, the unpredictable opportunity and promiscuity of a struggling free market economy, the temptations of criminal behavior in a discriminating yet widely unregulated society. Augie’s adventures reveal the variety of possibilities in metropolitan America as he bounces from job to job, while simultaneously depicting the existential angst of living in such freedom where boredom is pervasive and, according to this novel, the source of modern evil. Augie’s period as a petty thief is motivated by both his family’s lack of money and his own lack of professional direction. Yet when he meets the affluent Renlings, who seek informally to adopt and support him, his desire for experience and understanding is not satiated, even though his basic necessities are met, and he leaves the city. Through both Augie and Chicago, Bellow shows that the glory, misery, and disparity of place are products of the restlessness of vibrant, sympathetic, yet unresolved people.

The Irish author James Joyce once observed that one could rebuild the city of Dublin from the pages of his novel Ulysses (1922). One could say the same about Chicago and The Adventures of Augie March.

March home

March home. Impoverished Chicago home in which Augie grows up in a family that relies on benefits from “charities.” The family also draws support from Grandma Lausch, a boarder who is the widow of a Russian businessman and not Augie’s true grandmother. Here, Bellow reveals the struggle to survive and maintain dignity in difficult economic conditions. The necessity of human relationships and, at the same time, the development of individual initiative are demonstrated in Augie’s childhood home, a place poor in material comforts but resonant with survival instincts, an appreciation for intellectual life, and a sense of a lost aristocratic past conveyed through the presence of Grandma Lausch.

Einhorn’s poolroom

Einhorn’s poolroom. Public tavern in which Augie works as an assistant and encounters a wide variety of Chicago characters, including the owner, William Einhorn, a paraplegic who is a successful and diverse entrepreneur, a streetwise trader, and a lay philosopher. Serving as a crossroads of human traffic, the poolroom brings Augie into contact with the wide range of possibilities that exist for him, and the type of American Renaissance man he will aspire to be in the figure of Einhorn.

*Buffalo

*Buffalo. Upstate New York city to which Augie flees after having to leave Chicago when a scheme in which he participates with Joe Gorman to smuggle immigrants in from Canada fails. Buffalo is Augie’s first venture out of Chicago.

*Acatla

*Acatla. Mexican town about one hundred miles southeast of Mexico City to which Augie goes with his occasional mistress, Thea Fenchel, who wants to divorce her husband in order to be with Augie. Thea wants Augie to train an eagle to capture giant iguanas at her home in Acatla. The town and the eagle symbolize the exotic freedom of the world outside Chicago, but the eagle’s inability to defend itself against the iguanas it attacks and to live freely demonstrates the difficulty of survival even in a place of beauty. Despite the romance of living in a house with beautiful red tiles, patios, fountains, and oxhide chairs, Augie severs his relationship with Thea in order to assist Stella Chesney to escape from an abusive man. Beauty, struggle, and survival are intrinsically connected in Acatla, a place where Augie’s adventure transforms him from a wishful young man to an experienced man of insight.

Lifeboat

Lifeboat. Boat on which Augie is adrift at sea after a German submarine sinks the merchant marine ship Sam McManus on which he is serving during World War II. His only companion is a man named Bateshaw, who wants to go to the Canary Islands, where he can be interned and do research for the rest of the war. Bateshaw is a mad genius who articulates Augie’s developing understanding of the pervasive nature of boredom as a cause of modern illness. As a castaway at sea, unsure of his location, Augie exemplifies the nature of the human predicament.

*Paris

*Paris. City in which Augie’s restlessness finally abates. There, married to Stella, he finds a sense of internal peace selling army surplus goods after recognizing that other restless thinkers, such as the French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau, discovered their true natures and deepest wisdom only when they developed a sense of home. While admitting that he and Stella may continue to roam, Augie is no longer searching for a single answer to his desire, finding peace in marriage and work that allows him to survive, living in a city that is both historic and contemporary. The elements of the new, burgeoning America and the old culture of Europe present in his childhood home are unified finally in Paris, where Augie, first and always a Chicagoan and an American, finds a home.

Suggested ReadingsClayton, John Jacob. Saul Bellow: In Defense of Man. 2d ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1968. An early book-length study of Bellow. Says the novel is about reaching after personal uniqueness and the way each person tries to convince others that he has “captured reality.”Cohen, Sarah Blacher. Saul Bellow’s Enigmatic Laughter. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1974. Argues that in this “comedy of character,” Augie is a kind of Columbus exploring America and Americans. He is “the picaresque apostle” who hears all confessions and forgives all sins.Dutton, Robert R. Saul Bellow. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1982. Treats the novel on three levels: as a picaresque, as a “fictional history of American literature,” and as a comment on the “contemporary human condition.” Augie turns out to be a “fallen angel” and “artist of alienation.”Gerson, Steven M. “The New American Adam in The Adventures of Augie March.” Modern Fiction Studies 25 (Spring, 1979): 117-128.Harper, George Lloyd. “Saul Bellow.” In Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews, edited by George Plimpton. New York: Penguin, 1977.Kiernan, Robert F. Saul Bellow. New York: Continuum, 1989.Pifer, Ellen. Saul Bellow Against the Grain. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990. Describes how Augie travels through “a New World Babylon” on a pilgrimage to discover what is “uniquely meaningful” in his life. He refuses to yield to the authority of people who claim to be authorities but instead seeks his own truth.Wilson, Jonathan. On Bellow’s Planet: Readings from the Dark Side. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1985. Augie’s main conflict is internal. For him, growing up does not bring with it control over the self. Instead, he struggles between the will to freedom and the need to be controlled.
Categories: Places