On October 21, 1976, the Nobel Prize Committee announced the winner of that year’s Prize for Literature: Saul Bellow, the Montreal-born, Chicago-raised, Yiddish-speaking novelist who today, a decade after his death, continues to elicit strong and varied reactions from critics. Some regard him as America’s greatest 20th-century writer, while others view him as long-winded, small-minded and increasingly irrelevant as the years advance. Few can deny, however, the sheer power of his writing, and his erudition and wit.
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Schloime, or Solomon, Bellow, as he was called as a child, was born in Lachine, Quebec -- today a neighborhood in Montreal, though then a separate town – on June 15, 1915. His father was Abraham Belo, a Druya, Belarus-born former rabbinical student who had moved to St. Petersburg, Russia. There he met and married Lescha Gordin, with whom he moved to Quebec in 1913, where she became known as Liza.
Saul was the youngest of their four children, and the first to be born in North America.
In 1924, when Saul was nine, the family moved to Chicago – crossing the U.S. border illegally, he learned many years later – to the Humboldt Park neighborhood that went on to offer a lively backdrop for much of his writing. Abraham tried his hand at a number of different careers, importing onions, delivering coal, even selling bootlegged liquor.
The pious Liza hoped her son would enter one of two sacred Jewish professions, becoming either a rabbi or a violinist. But a six-month stay in the hospital, for treatment of pneumonia and peritonitis, at age 8, had given Saul the opportunity to do a lot of reading, and he resolved during his confinement that he would be a writer.
He had begun learning Hebrew several years earlier, but as he reached adulthood, he decided to give up what he dubbed “a suffocating orthodoxy.”
Almost an anthropologist
Bellow graduated from Tuley High School, on Chicago’s West Side, in 1933, only weeks before his mother’s death, and began college at the University of Chicago. After two years, a family financial crisis led him to transfer to Northwestern University, north of Chicago, whose tuition was lower than the U. of C’s. After deciding that the English department was anti-Semitic, he concentrated in sociology and anthropology, studying the latter with Melville Herskovits, the doyen of the field in America.
Following graduation, in 1937, Bellow briefly pursued a master’s in anthropology at the University of Wisconsin, in 1937, before moving back to Chicago, where he began working for the Federal Writers’ Project, writing biographical sketches of Midwestern writers. He also worked as an editor for the Encyclopedia Britannica, while working on his own fiction, and in 1938 married for the first of five times.
Bellow published his first two, short novels, “Dangling Man” and “The Victim,” in 1944 and 1947, respectively. His breakthrough novel, however, was the picaresque “Adventures of Augie March” (1953), which won him his first of three National Book Awards.
He went on to publish another 12 novels, winning the other two NBAs for “Herzog and “Mr. Sammler’s Planet,” and a Pulitzer Prize for “Humboldt’s Gift,” in 1975. That book was based in part on the short, brilliant career of Bellow’s friend, the poet Delmore Schwartz, one of many people in Bellow’s life who made their way into his fiction. A year after its publication, he was awarded the Nobel.
Although a communist in his youth, Bellow got over that, in part because of the Soviet Union’s policies toward Israel, from which Bellow reported, both during the Six-Day War (for the New York paper Newsday) and in his 1976 memoir “To Jerusalem and Back.” A tendency to speak candidly, sometimes indelicately, about black-white relations, and male-female relations, among other things, earned him a not-fully deserved reputation as a neo-con in his later decades.
In their New York Times obituary for Bellow, who died on April 5, 2005, Mel Gussow and Charles McGrath wrote that his protagonists, like Bellow himself, “were all head and all body both. They tended to be dreamers, questers or bookish intellectuals, but they lived in a lovingly depicted world of cranks, con men, fast-talking salesmen and wheeler-dealers.”