Saul Bellow was born exactly 100 years ago, on June 10, 1915, in Lachine, Quebec, near Montreal. Nine years later, his parents smuggled him and his sister and brothers past the unwatchful eyes of border police to immigrant-packed Chicago. Bellow’s father, who had escaped from prison in Czarist Russia, was a bootlegger, a baker, and later, a coal-yard owner. The young Saul, then called Solomon or Shloimke, spent his free days at the public library reading Theodore Dreiser and Sherwood Anderson. He spoke Yiddish at home and English in the streets. Decades later, he became the most honored American writer of his time and a favorite with readers who couldn’t wait for the next constantly surprising, life-hungry Bellow novel.
“He was going to take on more than the rest of us were,” Alfred Kazin wrote about the young Bellow, newly arrived in 1940s New York. “He was wary—eager, sardonic, and wary.” Bellow, Kazin noted, was then not yet a novelist, much less a great one, but he had a pressing sense of his own coming destiny, “like an old Jew who feels himself closer to God than anybody else.”
In 2015, Bellow’s godlike status has declined. Lee Siegel started the Bellow 100th-birthday festivities in March with a piece for New York magazine depicting the deceased author as an out-of-it old duffer—and a racist and a sexist to boot. Siegel began by recounting an essay that Brent Staples wrote for the New York Times Magazine in 1994. Staples fantasized about physically attacking Bellow as payback for his depiction of an African American pickpocket in Mr. Sammler’s Planet. (Staples was evidently less interested in The Dean’s December, a novel deeply attentive to the misery of black life in urban America in which black characters are more heroic and admirable than the white ones.) Siegel then rehashed an equally tired controversy: Bellow once commented to an interviewer, in a discussion about broadening the curriculum, “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans? I’d be glad to read him”—a remark for which he later atoned by mentioning his admiration for the Zulu novelist Thomas Mapfumo.
The key moment in Siegel’s attack on Bellow was his comment that Bellow “turn[s] off” younger readers, “people below the age of fifty,” because such readers are “as hostile to the official literary pantheon as the young Bellow—the impecunious son of Jewish immigrants—had been to the Hemingways and Eliots of his day.”
Here was Siegel’s real agenda: Bellow, he meant to imply, had become the equivalent of T.S. Eliot praising the glories of Christian society, or Hemingway with his anti-Semitic sneers. Just look at Bellow’s “magisterial generalizations about history and culture,” Siegel added—as if, say, the writings of David Foster Wallace, William Vollman, or Arundhati Roy contain no such sweeping generalizations. Siegel’s objection is clearly not to writers making judgments about history and culture. It’s to a writer who believes in an “official literary pantheon,” that is, who thinks that certain old books might be more worth reading than new ones. What Bellow didn’t realize, we are meant to suppose, was that the new is better because it’s new.
Siegel’s wish to label Bellow an old fogey with outdated prejudices relies, one suspects, on the world’s current image of American Jews, who are no longer “impecunious,” to use Siegel’s word. Jews are now the establishment: They have money and power, and we therefore have the right to assume that they represent archaic attitudes that must be corrected by right-thinking people. Bellow himself became a wealthy though alimony-plagued celebrity, a wearer of fedoras and finely tailored suits. If Jews have become the new WASPs, what better image for this transformation than Bellow’s friendship with the grouchy neoconservative Allan Bloom, alias Abe Ravelstein?
Though Siegel started it with a bang, Bellow’s centennial has mostly been a quiet one. Too quiet. The accolades have trickled rather than poured in from places like the New York Times and the New York Review of Books. We’ve been told that Bellow was a consummate stylist—always the kiss-off of death in literary discussions—that his books are vivid and full of life, that he was a great observer. There have been a few outright attacks like Siegel’s, but for the most part Bellow has been all-too-faintly praised.
What hasn’t been said is why and how Bellow is not just the greatest Jewish American writer of all time, but the greatest American novelist since Faulkner. The enormous relevance of Bellow for the present day is right there for us to see, but no one has mentioned it. Bellow’s novels have been reissued for his centennial, his essays have been beautifully collected by Ben Taylor in a new volume called There Is Simply Too Much to Think About (reviewed in these pages by Adam Kirsch), and there is a magisterial new biography of him by Zachary Leader. The time is ripe to make the case that Bellow is an essential writer.
Bellow writes people in a way that’s rare among novelists. His universe is physical: people are their bodies and their faces, and their souls shine through their flesh. Take the actor Murphy Verviger in Humboldt’s Gift, rehearsing at a Broadway theater that looks “like a gilded cake platter with grimed frosting.” Or Humboldt himself in his desperate last days: “He wore a large gray suit in which he was floundering. His face was dead gray, East River gray. His head looked as if the gypsy moth had gotten into it and tented in his hair.” Every Bellow fan has a mental list of such gloriously precise human pictures. In each one, Bellow shows how the psyche is right there in the flesh, ready to be seen.
Personality, which Bellow constantly praises, is now in eclipse. Instead, we have identity. Americans are mad for identity, since this is a country in which, we have always been told, you can become whatever you want. We have been trained to wrap ourselves proudly in the signifiers of our choice. We “identify as” transgender, mixed-race, Jewish, Hispanic. We can make ourselves interesting, we think, by putting on a style, a stance, an identity: We are what we wear, how we look, what we buy, what we Tweet.
Identity choice is now part of us, mostly thanks to the social media industrial complex that would have appalled Bellow had he lived to see it. Personality, Bellow teaches, can tell who you are in a way that social identity cannot. Personality is one of a kind. There is only one Humboldt, one Herzog, one Ravelstein. Whoever you are, there is only one you.
The search for a Jewish identity that will seem authentic rather than merely the trendy choice of a mask to wear is a phenomenon of the last few decades that would have been unrecognizable to Bellow. For Bellow, Jewishness was simply a fact of life, something to be grateful for rather than to be puzzled over. Bellow was sent to heder at the age of 4, where he began to learn Hebrew and, he said, “to memorize most of Genesis.” He remarked late in his life that:
It would be a treason to my first consciousness to un-Jew myself. One may be tempted to go behind the given and invent something better, to attempt to re-enter life at a more advantageous point. In America this is common, we have all seen it done, and done in many instances with great ingenuity. But the thought of such an attempt never entered my mind.
Personality, which Bellow constantly praises, is now in eclipse. Instead, we have identity.
What does it mean to be a Jew? Am I really a Jew? Am I too much a Jew, or too little?—these questions, so basic to Bellow’s younger rival, Philip Roth, never appear in Bellow’s writing. Roth was the herald of the new identity game; he made Gatsby-like self-invention the essence of Jewishness. For Bellow, by contrast, a Jew was a Jew, just as an American was an American. Bellow’s confidence about Jewishness belongs to an earlier era, but it has something to teach us: Sometimes being a Jew is a simple fact, rather than, as in Roth and Bernard Malamud, an agonized one.
Bellow is sometimes called a novelist of ideas, but he knew that ideas can block life. His particular target was the New York Intellectuals, the gang he ran with but also the frequent object of his attacks. In a letter to Leslie Fiedler in June 1955, he wrote, “I don’t consider myself part of the Partisan group. Not those dying beasts.” He delighted in introducing the eminences of Partisan Review to Dave Peltz, a colorful and louche pal whom he’d known since he was a teenager. Once Bellow and Peltz took Lionel Trilling slumming after a lecture, standing him drinks in a dive bar. “A cold coming we had of it,” Bellow joked in a letter, likening these three diverse Jews to T.S. Eliot’s Magi.
The intellectual’s doom occurs when he chooses ideas over the lively world. In Humboldt’s Gift, Bellow reluctantly judges that the madcap and mad Humboldt, based on his friend Delmore Schwartz, has succumbed to ideas. He has made himself boring and so turned his back on life. “Humboldt had become boring in the vesture of a superior person, in the style of high culture, with all of his conforming abstractions. Many hundreds of thousands of people were now wearing this costume of the higher misery.” Bellow’s task is to shake us out of this straightjacket, the higher misery of ideas. Yet he loved ideas, too: You had to go through them to get out of them.
In his novels Bellow refuses most of the usual themes of fiction: There’s no Julien Sorel-like remaking of identity and no puzzles of inwardness to solve, as with James or Tolstoy, who make us try to figure out who their characters really are (James does it teasingly, Tolstoy satisfyingly). Bellow’s characters are who they are from the beginning; they seldom grow or decline. In Bellow personality is performance, and its style is basically comic: self-delighting, unfolded all at once.
Look how Bellow portrays Alec Szathmar, a lawyer on the prowl in Humboldt’s Gift:
Always a conservative dresser he tried to cover his broad can with double-vented jackets. So he looked like a giant thrush. The exceedingly human face of this bird was framed with stormy white sideburns. The warm brown eyes full of love and friendship were not especially honest. … In his chair his posture suggested clumsy but unshakable sexual horsemanship atop pretty ladies.
Szathmar is not a fraud but a rather complicated guy, “exceedingly human,” his vanity something to behold. In a later novel this character, under a different name, has a face like a Roualt in ecstasy when impressing women on the dance floor. Bellow respected the passion of even his scurrilous characters: There is an innocent wonder about the portrayal of Herzog’s Valentine Gersbach or Humboldt’s Rinaldo Cantabile. They are human phenomena, and Bellow enjoys them fully. Nothing could be more distant from our current culture of flaming and shaming, the way we use social media to turn the people we dislike into ignorant, evil nonentities.
Bellow’s comedy is, like all the best comedy, neither too naïve nor too knowing, and so it takes a stand against irony, which always knows too much. Irony is the novel’s achievement but also, as Bellow recognizes, its danger. Stendhal and Flaubert pioneered novelistic irony: They lovingly absorbed romantic idealism in their work but corrected it with a dose of cynicism, and by doing so suggested that romanticism had lost its cachet, that love itself was tarnished. Bellow never pulled rank on human emotions in this way. He took our passions seriously and straight, whether the passion was love, greed, selfishness, altruism, or all of them at once.
Bellow in his work and life went for incomplete people, because he knew he was one of them. He wasn’t nearly so cocksure as he pretended to be, with his dandyish suits and his ferocious wit, not nearly so polished and wised-up. He knew that he didn’t really know. Whether he was writing about the Shoah—“that black cloud of faces, souls”—or the slums of Chicago or the character of a friend, Bellow realized that “the soul of another is a dark forest” (a Russian proverb quoted by Ravelstein). He never stopped trying to figure things out, but he remained humble before the human mystery.
Bellow was anything but common in his novelistic genius, but he shared his bold uncertainty with the rest of us. His message came across to me when I was a teenager reading about Herzog, that thwarted, oddly joyous wreck of a hero, and I hear it now too, more than three decades later. The message goes like this: As anarchic as life gets and as full of ungovernable emotion, you still feel the urge to think it through. You might turn yourself into something of a clown in the process, true. But Bellow makes thinking and living feel like slightly perverse, irresistible pleasures. Necessary ones, too.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.