Saul Bellow and the Disappearing Breed of Great American Jewish Novelists

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Saul Bellow laughs in this April 17, 1997 file photo during an interview in his office at Boston University.Credit: AP

“There Is Simply Too Much to Think About: Collected Nonfiction,” by Saul Bellow (edited by Benjamin Taylor), Viking, 544 pages, $35

“The Life of Saul Bellow: To Fame and Fortune, 1915-1964,” by Zachary Leader, Knopf, 812 pages, $40

When the American Jewish novelist Saul Bellow first visited Israel in 1961, the great Hebrew writer S. Y. Agnon urged him to have his novels translated into Hebrew since, he said, “they would only survive in the Holy Tongue.” Bellow reported that Agnon’s “sweetly needling” him was effective, as he revealed in “A Jewish Writer in America,” a 1988 lecture: “I then sensed that eternity was looming over me and I was aware of my insignificance.” This year marks the centennial of Bellow’s birth, a good occasion to reflect on his significance and literary longevity. To help us, we are blessed with two new books: “There Is Simply Too Much to Think About,” a massive collection of his nonfiction, edited by Benjamin Taylor, and the even heftier first volume of a new biography by Zachary Leader, an English professor at the University of Roehampton, in London. These are impressive books — coffee-table books not in the usual sense, but more in that if your table were missing a leg, one would do in a pinch. But precisely because these tomes are the means by which the great writer is embalmed, stuffed and preserved for posterity, it is hard to avoid Agnon’s teasing question about survival. Who is reading Bellow these days? Do his works have a future?

The problem is that Bellow’s social worlds have died, together with the forces that first made them famous. Born in Quebec, Bellow grew up in a Chicago of industry, railroad tracks and organized crime. His father was a coal dealer. To readers on a diet of T. S. Eliot’s melancholic conservatism or Ernest Hemingway’s macho safaris, Bellow’s masterpieces like “The Adventures of Augie March,” “Seize the Day” and Herzog had the sooty, realistic and nourishing taste of ethnic capitalism. Today, however, the furnaces and factories are rusted and unused, and the engine of American business has stalled. In the age of “The Wire,” midcentury African-American urban novels such as Richard Wright’s “Native Son” or James Baldwin’s “Go Tell It On the Mountain” read as prophetic. In 2015, Bellow’s cities no longer evoke the dangers — bankruptcy, adultery, radical politics — that once excited readers. All that’s left is nostalgia.

Also disappearing is the group that furnished both Bellow’s roots and his social club, the people with whom he drank and argued and who reviewed his books: Columbia University professor and literary critic Lionel Trilling, Commentary editor and early neoconservative Norman Podhoretz, the philosopher Hannah Arendt. Bellow’s was the last generation of American Jews to spurn their parents’ pieties but remain tethered to their culture: They spoke Yiddish and shared a canon of legends (Bellow knew the Bible intimately), an intellectual sensibility and an outsider’s resentment. For us, that legacy has shrunken to bagels with lox and perhaps books about Bellow.

American Jews have become American

In college, Bellow and his friend Isaac Rosenfeld wrote a Yiddish send-up of T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” titled “The Song of Songs of Mendl Pumshtock” (later translated into English by Ruth Wisse). In “Pumshtock,” the women come and go speaking not of Michelangelo but of Marx and Lenin, and the evening is spread across the sky not like a patient etherized upon a table but like a “clay golem on Tisha B’av.” We Jews, Bellow was saying, were bewailing our impotence before Eliot’s ancestors knew from ennui.

What cultured American Jew today gets that joke or appreciates the poem’s delicious Yiddish rhymes? Who, reading “The Adventures of Augie March” today, frets over the absence of “Jewish” in Augie’s famous self-introduction, “I am an American, Chicago born”? Bellow’s readers at the time understood this omission as an audacious statement, but American Jews have so successfully become American that the point is now lost. Bellow’s literary ambition was to match high European culture with earthy, immigrant Jews, to plausibly imagine Augie together with Heraclitus. But Jews are no longer outsiders, and in the age of digital democracy there is no Anglophile high culture to be outside of. Both Pumshtock and Prufrock have proved dispensable.

Writers can grow more attractive while their cities and tribes fade into myth, but when their ideas go stale they are in trouble. This is particularly true for Bellow, who did graduate work in anthropology, taught for many years at the University of Chicago and was the rare American novelist with a rigorous education beyond fiction. (Gore Vidal called him “the only American intellectual who read books.”)

Bellow went from Prufrock parodies to the Partisan Review, a little magazine of the independent, non-Stalinist left for which he wrote a great deal. Unfortunately, the problems that engaged Bellow — particularly an obsession with the question of the individual in mass society — emerged from political debates that are now moribund.

Universalized human concerns

To be sure, Bellow rarely addressed politics head-on. As a young radical traveling in Mexico, he tried to get Leon Trotsky to answer some nagging doubts about international communism but arrived just after the great Russian revolutionary and exile had been bludgeoned with an ice ax. Depending on who was telling the story, as Leader explains in his biography, Bellow saw Trotsky either in the hospital or the morgue, and the uncertainty is symbolically appropriate. Bellow writes so casually and vaguely about politics that it remains unclear whether his youthful Trotskyism (which he quickly jettisoned) was a living, breathing reality, or if it was always just part of his backstory, the requisite misspent youth of a Jewish intellectual.

Instead, politics appears in his work, as collected by Taylor, transmuted into what Bellow thought of as universalized human concerns. For instance, although Bellow quietly opposed the Vietnam War, its first appearance in his collected nonfiction, in “On America: Remarks at the U.S. Cultural Center in Tel Aviv,” is to exemplify how the news distracts modern people. He loves the theme of distraction and alludes frequently to the William Wordsworth sonnet, “The World Is Too Much With Us.” Essays often lead from current events back to Wordsworth, or Alexis Tocqueville, or Leo Tolstoy. He begins by diagnosing contemporary American materialism, the perils of democratic leveling or the distraction of mass culture, but he always ends with standard critiques of modernity (too much stuff, not enough soul) and vague Romantic promises of spiritual renewal. Bellow’s essays are like impossibly brilliant and eloquent freshman compositions, bogged down with leaden questions like “whether a democratic mass society can remain a free society” and “Can an individual, the subject of the novel, compete in interest with corporate destinies?”

Still, reading this prose in conjunction with Bellow’s biography lends a concrete political context to his abstract theorizing. Bellow, whatever his politics as a young man, eventually became an enthusiastic cultural Cold Warrior. He crisscrossed Eastern Europe on a lecture tour for the United States Information Agency, took admiring interest in the anti-Marxist CIA-front Congress for Cultural Freedom and nastily skewered Jean-Paul Sartre’s communism and support for postcolonial violence. In the nonfiction Taylor collects, Bellow frequently urges writers to eschew narrow politics for broad, timeless literary values and to remain independent of institutions, both of these old American pieties about novelists. But his biography ties him closely to a carefully organized, government-funded cultural front of the Cold War. It is through the conflict between American capitalism and the Soviet Union that Bellow’s intellectualizing has to be interpreted. Readers often complain that Bellow’s criticism feels boring or contrived. In fact, the prose is clean and supple; the trouble is that the ideas are dated.

Bellow, like most midcentury intellectuals, was obsessed with the tension between the individual and the collective, because the defining ideological conflict of his time was between American individualism and Soviet collectivism. But then the Berlin Wall fell, and both the autonomous self and the massive, impersonal forces threatening it receded into the intellectual background. In 2011, The New York Review of Books published a 1989 Bellow lecture that began by attacking “existentialist, deconstructionist, and nihilist” thinkers and defending the “idea of a substantial person,” which now feels as dated as defending free enterprise. The debate has moved on.

The only Jewish English worth reading

So what will survive? Well, if I offer a jaundiced view of Bellow, it is because neither his biography nor his nonfiction captures him at his best. Bellow’s genius was linguistic and imaginative. A translator of the great Yiddish novelist Isaac Bashevis Singer, Bellow wrote the only Jewish English worth reading. He swirled together Greek philosophers, askew Yiddish syntax and radiant, idiosyncratic details.

He handles even very stupid ideas beautifully. “Henderson the Rain King,” in which the American hero journeys to Africa to be revitalized, mixes literary blackface (“I no know, sah,” says Henderson’s African guide, “Dem no so good people like Arnewi”) with the psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich’s cockamamie philosophy of orgasmic rejuvenation. Even worse, the supposedly gentile Henderson sounds like someone you would overhear at a Partisan Review cocktail party.

The novel is an absurdity, and yet it works. From the beginning, in which a disgruntled and desirous Henderson shakes loose cash from between the pages of his father’s books, to the end, near which Henderson performs before a crowd by riding a roller coaster with Smolak, an infirm carnival bear, Bellow imagines each grandiose scene perfectly. He furnishes an abundance of verbal jewels, fluttering through the novel like the bills fluttering through Henderson’s library. And he melds Henderson’s vast undefined desire with mythic, magical set pieces or, as Henderson says, “I [was] enbeared by [Smolak], and he probably humanized by me.” The absurd pathos of this moment is the novel’s central trick: Bellow mocks and celebrates the Romantic synthesis of human desire with nature.

From his storehouse of bombastic ideas and high-low cultural mash-ups, Bellow offers us something weirder and less probable than, yet still fundamental to, his familiar Jewish protagonists: a genuine comic affirmation that Henderson’s life has meaning, is worth living. If Bellow survives, it will not be because he has been translated into Hebrew, but because, amid arcane Yiddish and the obscure polemics of mid-century America, he found a home for great spirits like Henderson.

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