It has been a bewildering experience, these last few years, recognizing how many new American novelists ask—and expect—nothing more for themselves in the kingdom of literature than the undependable status of being considered “interesting.” The novel, which by the middle of the nineteenth century had clearly become the central and all-expressive form that formerly the ancient epic and Elizabethan tragedy had each been in its turn, had markedly, by the middle of the twentieth century, become for many of its practitioners just another avant-garde defiance by intellectuals, as self-consciously specialized in its relation to the visible world, to the universal cycle of human experience, as those other hifalutin’ skills that bring renown to the specialist but not much pleasure or enlightenment to the rest of us.
To one’s unspeakable regret, one suddenly saw that novelists—even novelists—could become as pedantic, showy, and entirely literary as those hordes of uninteresting poets, suffering from nothing but a lack of something to say, who in our age have so often made poetry a synonym for artifice, sterile elegance, and cultural self-pity. There was the same empty enthusiasm for “form,” the same peculiar evasiveness of style hoping to be mistaken for profundity even when the writer knew that nothing very unusual was being said, the same top-heavy load of theory; above all, the same naïve attempt to show oneself an artist at the expense of reality. When the question of whether the novel is “alive” or “dead”—a foolish question which novelists have usually been too busy to pose—could actually become part of the novel itself, then the camp anti-novel, or the intellectual essay designed in dramatic form so as to parody and destroy the novel’s “outmodedness,” was bound to appear, as it has in our day. The intellectual’s habit of mere self-assertiveness has at times seemed to triumph over the comic sense, the common sense, and the incomparable vitality of the English novel.
One reason for this strange recent weakness—this all-too-conscious and even deliberate weakness on the part of so many individual novelists—has been their superstitious respect for recent literary tradition, their need to associate themselves with the “revolution of sensibility” accomplished by Proust and Joyce. Just as many painters nowadays seem hung up on theory, are always trying to figure out some new bedazzlement to suit the “exhaustion of old forms,” so many novelists have identified themselves with literary “progress.” The marked academization of literary taste in our day has resulted in the idolatry of modernism. The novel, whose essential genius as a medium has always been the utter freedom it has given, since the eighteenth century, to individualizing and concretizing experience, has by its very freedom and plasticity in dealing with matter of fact become an embarrassment to those many over-impressionable intellectuals who no longer think of themselves as free men, who have no natural love for the unmediated facts of human existence, thus no longer think of the novel as the indispensable free form most bountifully expressive of life. “The novel,” said D. H. Lawrence, “is the one bright book of life…. The novel as a tremulation can make the whole man tremble…. Only in the novel are all things given full play…when we realize that life itself, and not inert safety, is the reason for living.”
THE ACADEMICIZED novel became a marked feature of the 1940s, when Bellow began to publish, and is the necessary background to any real understanding of his counter-effort as a novelist and of his current favor with the common reader. “I rejoice to concur with the common reader,” Dr. Johnson wrote, “for by the common sense of readers, uncorrupted by literary prejudices, after all the refinements of subtlety and the dogmatism of learning, must be generally decided all claim to poetical honours.” In a period when young novelists frightened by the thought of being left behind were already doing their best to astonish, stupefy, and outwit the reader—if with nothing but typographical innovations—Bellow turned to fiction as a medium that would justify and support his devotion to the truth of experience—one might even say, to the truth of his experience. The most striking thing about his first novel Dangling Man (1944), was its somber lucidity, its straightforwardness, the hero’s determination, in an era of “hard-boiled-dom, when emotions are at a discount,” to talk openly about his troubles (a word that serves to introduce many of Bellow’s stories, especially Seize the Day). The mid-Forties were a time when, to the sound of “the breaking of the nations,” many Western traditions were coming to an end. In response to these dissolutions, when a visible panic came over the arts yet aestheticizing experience was proceeding happily under the aegis of the New Criticism, Bellow’s first novel was marked by its open confrontation of human tragedy in a period of unprecedented destructiveness; the hero-narrator, in all the unease of youth, consciously tries not merely to save his life but to find some foundation for life itself.
In this first novel we see all the typical themes of Bellow’s later fiction: the intellectual orientation of experience, the emphasis on troubles, the search for salvation. Above all—that which all his novels have now made his distinct signature—there is the contrast of this somber, often desperate individual world, a world deeply and engravedly personal, aggrieved, heavy, with an elegant intellectual wit, a consciously unavailing, rueful curiosity that may be useless in over-coming so much pressure, but which is sanctioned by some larger spiritual world, outside the narrow circle of the hero’s own desperate existence. To this he seeks access.
In Dangling Man and in Bellow’s second volume, The Victim, the protagonist seems constrained. He feels that he has been chosen by his mysterious destiny to be in trouble, to feel these vacancies—Joseph in Dangling Man is caught between civilian life and the army, Asa Leventhal in The Victim is inexplicably accused by a virtual stranger of ruining his life out of a Jew’s hatred of non-Jews. Within this crisis of constraint the hero unsuccessfully pursues his speculations, trying to find the way to the source of all troubles, to lose himself in the larger whole from which he constantly feels himself deprived. He vaguely perceives that his suffering is the form that this deprivation takes. Life is a matter of destiny, thought is a matter of recognizing this destiny from inadequate signs; yet one reads one’s own movements on the larger dial that shows all human destiny. There are typical sentiments of Jewish thought—fatalistic, yet without cynicism; preserving an aura of wonder at the providential, trans-human nature of a creation which yet has some mysterious bounty for the expectant spirit that knows how to distinguish between the ways of man and the ways of God. Though these deep-rooted convictions have up to the twentieth century been traditionally impervious to secular art, and have even been considered superior to art, not the least of Bellow’s importance is that he has from the first made a bridge to modern literary forms. He has been able to personify the Jew in all his mental existence, to fit ancient preconceptions to our urban landscape, to create the suffering, reaching, grasping, struggling mind of contemporary Jews.
STILL, THE CONSTRAINT, the conscious somberness of Joseph and of Asa Leventhal, could not make the appeal to a wider current of feeling that Augie March did; Joseph and Asa, lost in their ghetto bleakness, as it were, have not been able to come up to the light. Augie is constructed entirely as a passageway to “America,” is an attempt to break down all possible fences between the Jew and this larger country, so abundant and free in possibility that Augie is a conscious mythological creation—not only the messenger of the glad tidings that the long-awaited marriage between American and Jew has at last been accomplished, but also the rhetorically indomitable, unbuyable, American tough, from Huck Finn to James Cagney, who in Bellow’s most abandoned free style has at last been balanced with a Jewish upbringing and the slums of Chicago.
IF BELLOW had not so urgently expanded and released himself in the early Fifties to complete Augie March, his “breakthrough” novel, he would never have been able to create his little masterpiece, Seize the Day—the short novel which even the most furious detractors of his larger and more self-assertive novels, Augie March, Henderson the Rain King, and Herzog admire as the painfully exact American tragedy of our affluent day. Bellow’s progress as a novelist is clearly one of conscious personal development based on the value-system he ascribes to each of his protagonists in turn—Joseph, Leventhal, Augie, Tommy Wilhelm, Henderson, Herzog. His imaginative world is formed candidly and submissively, as if in homage to his own imagination, around some larger fictional self whose journeyings and afflictions and revelations are meticulously upheld as an allegory of Bellow’s own strivings and revelations. The ground of this feeling is the romantic attachment to one’s own experiences that Wordsworth in The Prelude and Keats in his letters established as the source of authentic growth. Along with the chastening and constraint that we see in Dangling Man and The Victim there is a constant release into the free upward movement that we see in Augie March and, later, in Henderson. But this pattern of constraint and expansion is actually the real inner life of Bellow’s protagonists even when one may seem dominant over the other—Joseph’s mind soars, if only in his journal; Asa Leventhal believes in happiness, and in his unwitting way will temporarily achieve it; Augie March and Henderson, despite their violent air of confidence, cannot be trusted to keep it up in solitude. The spirit of release and retreat, of up-and-down, hope and despair, marks Bellow’s work from book to book, from character to character, often from line to line. It is vibrant with the moodiness of the Jew, the intellectual, the city man. But it is the expressive combination of these two faculties of the human heart so as to make them seem not merely “personal” but also the unwitting manifestations of our collective life under the rule of money that gives Seize the Day its subtle tension, its expression of the sinister fantasies at work on the city streets, its experiment in consciousness. The subject is the excruciatingly simultaneous pressures on a man not strong nor bright enough to bear them. The stage is the street of streets in the city of cities—Broadway.
The pattern of expansion and contraction is literally the situation itself in Seize the Day. Tommy Wilhelm, who is still “Wilkie” Adler to his severely independent father, old Dr. Adler, is a salesman down on his luck, out of a job, separated from his wife and children, but still a dreamer for whom America The Rich, American The All-Powerful, America The Big Money, is still the most tempting of all delusions. He is not particularly intelligent, strong, or resourceful, is particularly given to self-deception and inaccurate reading of other people; so he easily identifies himself with every new promise and delusion on the wing. With his blond, deceptively non-Jewish good looks, the glib unthinking chatter that has made him a successful salesman in the past, Tommy looks and dresses a part that by now, the day through which the story takes place, he no longer has the spirit to sustain. Lost and dismayed, he begins his day by looking at his reflection in the glass surfaces of the Broadway hotel in the West Seventies where he now lives; he must reassure himself that the expansive image of the unreal Tommy Wilhelm which all the forces of his society have helped him to create is holding up. The money society has become Tommy Wilhelm’s real self—everything must yet be expected of it, it will carry him (his father no longer will), surely nothing can go wrong for a man still in his early forties, with his blond good looks? Like other deluded, perpetually “young” men, Tommy cannot admit and address his own mediocrity until it is too late. By contrast with the expansive opulence of the American scene, where the money seems to pump through everybody like the blood-stream, Tommy Wilhelm himself is so constrained, brought down to his fundamental resources, that it is exactly his slow recognition that he can no longer make the effort, that he will fail to make himself equal to this society, which draws the story out to Tommy’s one authentic and passionate emotion—he mourns himself as if he were dead. Tommy is finally doomed to be nothing and nobody but himself, and the deflation by which this is accomplished brings a matter-of-factness to the story that is the very taste of life on our own teeth—in this society where everything rises or falls on the rise or fall of our money.
© Alfred Kazin 1968