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Saul Bellow Was a Cranky Essayist

A new collection of the writer’s aggrieved nonfiction sends readers running back to his masterful fiction

Adam Kirsch
April 01, 2015
The writer Saul Bellow in France on September 29, 1982.(Louis Monier/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images)
The writer Saul Bellow in France on September 29, 1982.(Louis Monier/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images)

The mid-20th century is remembered as a golden age of American Jewish fiction. But were any of its leading lights content to be described as Jewish writers? “I am often described as a Jewish writer,” Saul Bellow observes coolly in a 1974 essay, “Starting Out in Chicago,” which serves as the prologue to There Is Simply Too Much To Think About, a new edition of his collected nonfiction edited by Benjamin Taylor. “In much the same way, one might be called a Samoan astronomer or an Eskimo cellist or a Zulu Gainsborough expert. There is some oddity about it. I am a Jew, and I have written some books. I have tried to fit my soul into the Jewish-writer category, but it does not feel comfortably accommodated there.”

Bellow’s analogies draw a sharp distinction between origin and achievement, what you are born as and what you make yourself into. Of course, this is itself a highly American way of looking at things—the natural attitude in a country where people of all backgrounds come to make themselves anew. “I am an American, Chicago born,” boasts Augie March, the hero of a novel whose title, The Adventures of Augie March, deliberately draws a connection between this 20th-century son of Jewish immigrants and the archetypal American adventurers, Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. Much of the detail of Augie’s life and surroundings is drawn directly from Bellow’s own childhood, and it is natural to think of Augie as a version of Bellow himself, much as the heroes of later novels—Moses Herzog in Herzog, Charlie Citrine in Humboldt’s Gift—are clearly the writer’s surrogates. Yet as has often been observed, Bellow was actually born Canadian, in the Montreal suburb of Lachine in 1915. Not until he was 9 years old did his family move to Chicago (illegally, it is worth noting). Augie the American is not what Bellow was but what he labored to become.

If Bellow insisted on keeping some distance between himself and his Jewishness, it was not at all out of shame, or a desire to be a legitimate member of the WASP literary tradition. On the contrary, as he explains in the 1988 lecture “A Jewish Writer in America”—one of several pieces on Jewish themes in There Is Simply Too Much To Think About—Bellow was early and vocal in his criticism of that tradition and its genteel anti-Semitism. In the 1930s and 1940s, many Jewish writers could be found worshiping at the altar of Henry James and T.S. Eliot, modernist geniuses whose opinion of the Jews was markedly unfriendly. Bellow, whose self-confidence was the key to his greatness and exuberance as a writer, could not share this self-abasement:

A Jewish writer could not afford to be unaware of his detractors. He had to thicken his skin without coarsening himself when he heard from a poet he much admired that America had become the land of the wop and the kike; or from an even more famous literary figure that his fellow Jews were the master criminals who had imposed their usura on long-suffering gentiles, that they had plunged the world into war, and that the goyim were cattle driven to the slaughterhouse by Yids. It was the opinion of the leading poet of my own generation that in a Christian society the number of unbelieving Jews must be restricted.

I’m not sure which poet used the word “kike,” but the “even more famous literary figure” is clearly Ezra Pound, and the “leading poet” Eliot. In many European countries, Jewish writers faced with similar anti-Semitism had found themselves contorted into soul-destroying positions of alienation and beseeching. Kafka famously lamented that he felt it impossible to write in German, even though it was his native language. In America, however, Bellow found a different response available: “For a Jew,” he writes, “the proper attitude was the Nietzschean spernere se sperni, to despise being despised.” After giving a résumé of the anti-Semitic attitudes he faced early in his career, Bellow concludes majestically, “such things are ultimately without importance, merely distracting.”

The American Jewish writer was something new in history, a Jew who had as good a claim as anyone to be a cultural insider and a master of language. “I did not go to the public library to read the Talmud,” Bellow insists, “but the novels and poems of Sherwood Anderson, Theodore Dreiser, Edgar Lee Masters, and Vachel Lindsay.” These writers, Midwesterners all, mattered to the young Chicagoan because they were evidence for a proposition that sometimes felt doubtful: “that the life lived in great manufacturing, shipping, and banking centers, with their slaughter stink, their great slums, prisons, hospitals, and schools, was also a human life.” The sense that he was bearing witness to the highest things while swamped by the lowest never left Bellow. It is there from his first novel, Dangling Man, to his last, Ravelstein.

The same belief animates many of Bellow’s lectures and essays, whose titles tell an ongoing story of spiritual resistance: “Distractions of a Fiction Writer,” “The Thinking Man’s Waste Land,” “Skepticism and the Depth of Life,” “Machines and Storybooks: Literature in the Age of Technology.” On several occasions Bellow quotes Whitman’s famous phrase, “the priest departs, the divine literatus comes”: The writer is the heir to religion’s lost authority, wielding a charisma born of imaginative conviction. Bellow is contemptuous of the Beats, with their “shaggy, dubious, inferior form of shamanism,” but as a student of anthropology he respects the primitive power of the shaman and longs to share in it: “The suggestion that what we need in American literature is some of this shamanism implies a tremendous longing that someone should be free enough to tell off the State and all its organizations, the ruling industries and the enormous apparatus of persuasion, information-misinformation, manipulation, and control.”

The soul, Bellow often seems to be saying, was born free and is everywhere in chains. But this variant of the Marxist diagnosis, by focusing on the soul instead of homo economicus, implies a spiritual rather than a political solution. For all his criticism of 20th-century America, Bellow does not really write as a social critic; he is not interested enough in the details of problems and solutions for that. Rather, he writes as an artist—that is, as someone possessed of an intuition. In his novels, Bellow is always able to communicate that intuition, his fragile sense that the lives we lead now are stifling what is permanent and noble in our nature. “For that is the truth of it—that we all know, God, that we know, that we know, we know, we know,” reads the final sentence of Mr. Sammler’s Planet; and Bellow is always insisting that we know something supremely important about ourselves and the world, even if he is no more able than anyone else to say exactly what it is we know.

Bellow seems to have turned to the essay mainly out of a sense of grievance against those who would limit his freedom and disparage his intuitions.

The essay, however, is not suited as a genre to this kind of passionate intimation. It demands more rational argument, more consecutive logic, than Bellow really wants to supply. Not every piece in There Is Simply Too Much To Think About is an essay: There are some flavorful portraits of Midwestern landscapes and characters, and some biographically valuable reminiscences and interviews, and a fascinating, impressionistic chronicle of Israel just after the Six Day War. But the tone of the book is set by its argumentative pieces, and these do not show Bellow at his best. He seems to have turned to the essay mainly out of a sense of grievance against those who would limit his freedom and disparage his intuitions.

Sometimes that means society at large, the ever-accelerating tempos of American mass media, culture, and politics. “We are in a state of radical distraction; we are often in a frenzy,” he writes in “A World Too Much With Us.” “We have been, as it were, appropriated mind and soul by our history.” This is a worthy target, but such a vague and enormous one that it is hard to say anything useful about it; complaints about noise themselves threaten to become part of the noise. And as he gets older, Bellow’s imprecations against the culture sound more like crankiness than criticism—as when he takes shots at Michael Jackson’s music videos or the hairstyles of TV news anchors (nicely described as “the nearest thing observable to the wigs of Versailles”).

In other essays, the enemy of the novelist’s imagination lies closer to home. Bellow spent most of his career teaching in universities—for decades he was a professor at the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago—but he displays a consistent animus against academics, intellectuals, and literary critics. These noncreative writers have, Bellow feels, usurped the leadership that once belonged to the artist and seduced away his audience. “And what do these intellectuals do with literature?” he asks in the essay “Cloister Culture.” “Why, they talk about it; they treasure it; they make careers of it; they become an elite through it; they adorn themselves with it; they make discourse of it.” The one thing they can’t actually do is make it themselves, and Bellow, who can, resents their presumptions. Lionel Trilling is a particular target: “No wonder Professor Trilling is upset. He sees that a literary education may be a mixed blessing and that the critics, writers, and executives sent out into the world by English departments have not turned out very well,” Bellow sneers.

The problem with Bellow’s attacks on academics and intellectuals is not their target but their tone, which generally comes across as too personal and vengeful. Perhaps that is because Bellow knows that, by writing essays, he is fighting on the enemy’s ground. When similar arguments are made in, say, Herzog, as part of the whirling inner monologue that also encompasses so much observation and emotion, the reader does not need to pass judgment on them, because then they are not propositions but facts. In this way, reading Bellow’s nonfiction sends us back to his fiction—and in doing so, performs the greatest service of all for both Bellow and the reader.


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Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.

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