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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,110

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This is the grave of Saul Bellow.

Born in 1915 in Lachine, Quebec, which is outside of Montreal, Solomon Bellows grew up in Jewish immigrant family. His parents had come over from Russia in 1913. In 1922, the family moved again, this time to Chicago. Bellow was a heavy reader as a child and that combined with his childhood in Chicago provided the background for a career as a writer. His family was heavily religious and his mother hoped he would become a rabbi, but young Saul, as he was now known, was far more secular and rejected the hard-core Orthodox religion of his parents, as did so many young Jewish-Americans.

Instead, Bellow was more interested in intellectual pursuits. He started college at the University of Chicago and then transferred to Northwestern. He would have majored in English but the English department at Northwestern was full of anti-Semites and so he became an anthropology major instead. He considered becoming a full-time anthropologist and started graduate school at the University of Wisconsin but decided this wasn’t for him.

Bellow then went into writing. Early on, this had a leftist political bent. He was caught up in the political maelstrom of the 1930s. He wasn’t a good Stalinist though. He was a Trot. And this meant he was seen as a faker by the CP people. Given the political realities of that time and place, this was a real issue for him and he often faced taunts from the communist writers. Much of this was when he was in the Chicago branch of the WPA Writer’s Project, one of the best of the New Deal programs. Like a lot of leftists, and especially Jewish leftists, he was horrified at what was happening in Europe. In 1941, he attempted to join the military. But it turned out his parents had immigrated illegally and he was still a Canadian citizen. So he had to go through the citizenship process to do so. He ended up in the Merchant Marine.

By the mid 40s, Bellow was already considered a rising literary star, even before he published anything major. Dangling Man was his first novel, from 1944, about a man waiting to be drafted. It bombed with the critics. He himself pretty much disavowed it as minor league work. But The Victim, from 1947, was far better received. He didn’t care for this one that much either as it turned out, thinking it too much under the spell of the European writers. Then came The Adventures of Augie March. One of the classic novels in the mid-century American scene, it won nearly every available award, including the National Book Award. It made Bellow a big celebrity too at a time when that could happen for writers. After that, he could basically do whatever he wanted. He taught occasionally, he won lots of fellowships, and he kept writing. Augie March didn’t really sell that well and for awhile he was more a critical darling than a best-seller. That finally changed with the publication of his other real classic, Herzog, in 1964. By that time, his publishers had nearly given up. Bellow was not a fast writer. This was not Philip Roth churning out a novel a year. It had been five years since Henderson the Rain King had come out. But Herzog went big time. He won the National Book Award again. It was only at this time that Bellow believed he had become a good writer. And to be fair, Augie March is a bit too sprawling so I can see why he would think this. This did not speed up his writing and it would take six more years before Mr. Sammler’s Planet was published. Once again, he won the National Book Award for this book on a Holocaust survivor living in New York.

Bellow was running about one wife per novel there for awhile and was married five times. By few accounts was this a man easy to live with and this was also a period where the Artist was given plenty of leeway to not be a great person to those around him, which has mercifully been pushed back against in the last twenty years or so. One of his wives was Alexandra Ionescu-Tulcea, the famous mathematician who still lives today. They were married from 1974-85. Naturally, he was 20 years older than she.

Bellow’s America was that of the person striving to succeed in a world of sketchy people. That sketch–the con men and card sharks and grifters–these were the characters that Bellow saw in America and he didn’t depict them with contempt but with a certain understanding. They provided the background for this strivers, these fundamentally good men existing during the peak period of capitalism and the height of American materialism in the mid 20th century.

In 1976, Bellow won the Nobel Prize for Literature. He became the 7th American to win, joining Sinclair Lewis, Eugene O’Neill, Pearl Buck, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, and John Steinbeck. In his speech, he urged writers to be beacons of civilization and to raise the masses from their intellectual torpor. Pretty snobby, really, but it also reflected how Bellow was aging. In any case, Bellow certainly earned this honor and it demonstrates just how beloved the man’s works were at this point in time.

Bellow also wrote a number of plays, but these are generally less remembered. One of them, The Last Analysis, opened on Broadway and completely bombed. I admit to not knowing much about his plays at all. I guess I should read them.

Unfortunately, as he aged, Bellow turned sharply conservative, a trait he passed on to his idiot son Adam who makes John Podhoretz look like he earned his spot in the right-wing “intellectual” universe. Bellow was one of those guys who the late 60s and 70s broke. He hated feminism. He hated multiculturalism. He hated affirmative action. He became quite racist toward cultures that had not produced Great Novelists such as himself. He compared multiculturalism to his old enemy Stalinism, because of course he would. Studs Terkel, truly the King of Chicago, noted how disconnected Bellow was from the city and its politics and how strongly he embraced being anti-anti-Vietnam War protests. Bellow also got on the “English should be the official language of the United States” train.

Some of this is that Bellow was just a cranky bastard. Thinking about the impact of his Nobel, he stated later in life, “I found myself thrust in the position of a public servant in the world of culture. I was supposed to seem benevolent and to pontificate and bless with my presence — elder statesman whether I liked it or not. The price you have to pay.” But he didn’t really pay that price because he didn’t want to pay it.

Now, none of this takes away from his literary output. I don’t think Bellow is seen as one of the stars of American letters today in the way he was at his peak. I find few people really talk about him. But yes, he was a great writer. However, it’s so incredibly ironic to me how the son of Jewish immigrants who probably didn’t speak that much English themselves could go all the way with “English only” nonsense, which was so clearly an attack on Latin American immigrants. What an asshole. This is also a time to again remember his idiot son Adam, who notoriously wrote the book In Praise of Nepotism in 2003. One can see why. However, by complete chance, I met someone the other days who briefly knew one of Bellow’s other sons and said he was a completely decent person, so perhaps you can’t blame Saul for Adam’s moronic behavior. In any case, the work stands for itself. If you want art to always have your precise politics, which themselves are naturally going to shift over time, well, I guess you read some sort of weirdo fan fiction that will provide that, but it’s pretty limiting on an artistic level.

Bellow did keep working until close to his death. Humboldt’s Gift came out in 1975, followed by The Dean of December in 1982, More Die of Heartbreak in 1987, A Theft in 1989, The Bellarossa Connection in 1989 (two in one year!), The Actual in 1997, and his final work, Ravelstein, in 2000. It’s worth noting here that despite Bellow’s growing conservatism, he was still quite capable of sensitive writing about potentially divisive social topics. Ravelstein was based on his friendship with Allan Bloom, a gay man who had recently died of AIDS. It’s fictionalized, but it’s not as if Bellow was engaging in homophobia in writing this. It’s a deeply touching book of friendship lost through death, a common theme of the aging person, not to mention those suffering from a new disease that wiped out a generation of gay men.

Toward the end of his life, Bellow left Chicago. Some of this was the death of his friends, some of it was that he considered Chicago an increasingly anti-Semitic place, much of which had to do with his own growing racism toward the city’s Black population who he refused to understand. He moved to Boston and also spent a lot of time on a farm he bought in Vermont. He also kept teaching. By no means did he have to do so. But he found writing to be an extremely lonely experience (absolutely true) and he needed the interaction with people to keep him moving forward. While I am very very far from any Bellow, I find this quite true. The ideal number of courses per semester to teach is not 0, despite what many academics would like. It is 1, something to keep you on schedule, give you a deadline here and there, and force you to interact with young people. Or as Bellow put it, “You’re all alone when you’re a writer. Sometimes you just feel you need a humanity bath. Even a ride on the subway will do that. But it’s much more interesting to talk about books. After all, that’s what life used to be for writers: they talk books, politics, history, America. Nothing has replaced that.” Yes indeed.

Bellow died in 2005, at the age of 89.

Saul Bellow is buried in Morningside Cemetery, Brattleboro, Vermont, not far from his farm up there.

Bellow was one of the first mid-twentieth century writers to have his books placed in the Library of America. His first volume is #141, which means it came out sometime in the 90s. In fact, I’m pretty sure he is the first person the LOA published while still alive. If you would like this series to visit other authors in the Library of America, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. John Dos Passos, published right after Bellow and another one time left-leaning guy who turned juuuuuuuust a bit right wing, is in Kinsale, Virginia and Ezra Pound, published right after Dos Passos and with, uh, similar political problems, is in Venice. If you’d like to send me to Venice for graves, I suppose I could handle the sacrifice. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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