Janis Bellow reflects on her late husband’s letter-writing habits, his feelings about his legacy, and what it was like to read over his old love letters
I interviewed Janis Bellow at Rami’s Falafel near her home in Brookline, Mass. We first met at a conference on Saul Bellow’s work held at Haifa University in 1987, two years before she married him. For the last several years we have been colleagues in the English Department at Tufts University. Rami’s is a consistent Friday lunch spot for us. Early in my academic career, before I turned to fiction, I wrote two books on Saul Bellow’s novels. Her late husband’s oeuvre is a subject we never tire of discussing but of course it’s not our only topic. The publication of the Saul Bellow: Letters, however, presented an opportunity I didn’t want to pass up. It’s not that easy to interview a friend but I tried not to be circumspect in my questions and Janis was engagingly candid in her responses.
Can you talk about your role with the letters during the years you were with Saul? How he composed them and so on?
When I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago, I began working for Saul as a secretary. I took over from a hard-working student named Lillian Doherty, and she had replaced a wonderful woman (now in her hundredth year) whose name was Esther Corbin. It became clear to me early on that my job was to get through the dreck as quickly as possible—handle it, manage it, sweep it off the desk, and leave him time for important personal letters. As the years went by and our connection changed, I let go of the more unpleasant end of the correspondence and hung on to the precious file which contained letters to friends, letters to writers, letters of some significance. We carried that around wherever we went, whatever we were doing. We always had a sheaf of these letters and often responses would spring into his mind as we were driving or walking, or in the middle of the night and he’d say, “Got a piece of paper”? Or, he’d hand me the back of an envelope and start talking. It would begin as my handwritten mess and then I would type it, he would mark it up, retype it. Sometimes a letter would go through two or three drafts, sometimes it would just come out clean the first time—it was irregular that way. He wrote hundreds and hundreds of letters. He felt a strong need to respond to people who wrote to him. There was never a quiet time when that letter file was empty and the work was done.
Do you think that he felt he was writing for posterity and if so do you think that influenced the way that he wrote the letters?
That’s such an interesting question and nobody’s asked me that. The answer is he didn’t give a damn about what he called “posteriority.” He just didn’t care. He never wanted to save copies of his stuff and I will confess that I sometimes fished things out of the garbage. I kept things. And it wasn’t just that I kept carbons at the beginning, and copies later on. I would keep an early draft. I didn’t like to see his handwriting in the bin. But he had less than no interest in these things and I don’t think he was kidding when he writes in one of his letters that Isaac Rosenfeld’s burning his early letters saved him from future embarrassment. He meant it when he said, “I’m glad of it.” He really didn’t have that hoarding, pack-rat tendency. I guess it’s lucky that I did. I felt that these things were precious and I didn’t feel comfortable until I had taken the letter he had written, stapled it to the letter he was answering, scribbled the correspondent’s name on the upper right hand corner, and filed it away. There were many others who continued this work, among them, [assistants] Tim Spiekerman, Chris Walsh, and Will Lautzenheiser. Eventually all the letters ended up in the [University of Chicago's] Regenstein Library. That meant a lot to me but it meant nothing to him.
So, you never felt he was crafting the letters thinking, “Oh, one day someone will read my letters to Philip Roth?” Or something like that?
No, no. Saul had no interest in that.
One of the things that struck me is that the letters get feistier in the last 15 years. Do you have a sense of why this is so? And were you involved? Did you provoke or encourage strong responses?
Well, I certainly enjoyed them and this may be connected to your other question. Saul wasn’t imagining an audience 10 or 20 years from now, but he very much paid attention to the person he was speaking to while dictating and he was always trying to amuse me. He’d look up and he’d want to see if I was smiling or laughing. If I didn’t understand a word he would translate it for me. He was educating me, and if we’d been talking about something at great length this was a further elaboration, and so with some of the letters I felt he was speaking to me, conveying something he wanted me to know. If he was very worked up and angry about something he would want me to know about that too, and to understand. Our conversation could very well ignite a roaring fire. Yes, there is definitely something to that.
Right from the beginning there are no punches pulled in letters to other writers. Saul tells Cynthia Ozick what the problems are with The Messiah of Stockholm and is very direct in a letter to Philip Roth in his criticism of I Married a Communist. This kind of exchange between writers doesn’t exist much any more. He appears to have no fear. And this begins long before he was famous. Was that your sense, and what was his sense in that regard of the writer’s responsibility to other writers?
OK. Many things I want to address because you’ve put your finger on the heart of who he was and probably the thing I miss most about him. He was direct. There was nothing he wouldn’t say and not just in a letter to another writer but in company or among colleagues, or to students. He had a clean, pure, open way of being in the world. And maybe some of that will emerge for people reading this book—his fearlessness may impress young people who are longing to be that way themselves. When you say this directness came out early, you are right. It wasn’t just the 80-year-old elder statesman who gave ‘em what for, but also the young man who didn’t hesitate to tell a publisher, “If that’s all you got from reading The Adventures of Augie March I don’t want you even looking at my next book and I’ll go elsewhere.” There might be consequences for speaking his mind, but he always said exactly what needed to be said. Then, too, there is something of the fighter in him, the scrappy kid from the Chicago streets. You call me a kike, I’m going to punch you in the face and then I’m going to get you on the ground. This when teased as a 9-year-old in the hospital. There he is lying in bed, close to death, forbidden to move, but he remembers getting up and screaming at the tormentor in the bed beside him, “I’m going to kill you stone to dead.” And he said if he hadn’t collapsed on the floor and been whisked off by the nurses, he would have done just that. It’s punch and then follow-through; he really had that kind of ferocity. When it comes to criticizing writers, let’s hope the impulse is a gentler one. But writing was the most important thing to him and this is precisely the moment where he most needed to speak his mind. He wrote freely to the writers he respected most. These are the writers whose books he loved. You could also ask the question, “Could Saul take it”? Well, he was as touchy as the next person. He knew how much criticism stung because he was often on the receiving end. If Roth criticizes The Actual, or Ravelstein, you can’t ignore that. You absorb the blow, you brood on it, and you’re the better for it. I think the willingness to take a punch is to be admired.
Let me speak my mind about another aspect of the letters. The poems, especially the love poems are terrible.
(Laughter) I don’t think so! Not to me.
OK. Not the ones to you.
There aren’t any.
True. Do you have a favorite letter?
I have several. Some of the ones that came out of things we were talking about—conversations that I can remember lasting till dawn and then furious writing the next day. I love the ones that were cooking for a long time like that one to Stephen Mitchell.
About Saul’s reading the New Testament while he was in the hospital as a child?
Yes. That’s a very pointed letter. It takes you all the way from that boy in the hospital to the fully mature man. Deep thoughts about what it means to be a Jew, and the long history of Jew-hatred that all Jews need to be aware of, and attempt to understand. And you see that too in his last letter to Owen Barfield.
What’s it like for you to read all the love letters to the former wives and girlfriends?
I went through this book many times: the manuscripts, the proofs. In the beginning it’s a little bit like a detective story and you are personally involved. I’m reading along and wondering is there going to be something in this collection that’s going to be embarrassing or heartbreaking for me? So, yes, there’s certainly that. Also there’s that backward looking feeling of distress and jealousy and unhappiness connected with some of these intimacies. Maybe you knew about them, maybe you thought you knew more than you actually did know. Then there are people you didn’t even know about. If you are with somebody for 20 years and you imagine you know about all the lovers and the friends from before you arrived on the scene, well, you don’t. It’s inevitable there are going to be surprises, but then there’s a kind of sweetness in finding parts of a person suddenly emerging that you didn’t know about. It’s like mining all this beautiful fresh material.
Will there be a Collected Letters?
Someday. I’d like to see a massive academic edition. It would also be interesting to read a volume in which there were lengthy exchanges, between Saul and Philip, say, or Saul and Cynthia Ozick and so on. But for now I think we have enough to keep readers busy. Benjamin Taylor has done a superb job editing this volume. I think it’s beautiful.
Jonathan Wilson is the director of the Center for the Humanities at Tufts University. His books include the novel A Palestine Affair, the story collection An Ambulance is On the Way, and, from Nextbook Press, the biography Marc Chagall.
In his letters, Saul Bellow was thoughtful, eloquent, feisty—and quite possibly at his most Jewish