Saul Bellow, Drumlin Woodchuck
by Mark Harris
University of Georgia Press, 184 pp., $9.95
“Go, and never darken my towels again!” cried Groucho Marx, showing a pushy nuisance the door. In moments of agitation and dismay, Saul Bellow must have longed to issue the same order to his would-be biographer Mark Harris, for the evidence of Saul Bellow, Drumlin Woodchuck suggests that subtle hints (coughing, yawning, glancing at one’s watch) wouldn’t throw a persistent admirer like Harris off the scent—only rudeness would do. Harris, the author of Bang the Drum Slowly and several other baseball novels, began corresponding with Bellow in 1959 after Bellow had recommended a friend for a teaching job at San Francisco State, where Harris taught English literature. (He now teaches at Arizona State University.) In 1961, Harris visited Bellow at his house in New York’s Hudson Valley; a few days later, they had dinner together in Manhattan.
Over four years pass. Harris broods about Bellow, sends him letters which gush and flatter, letters Bellow (mostly) ignores. Undaunted, Harris sends Bellow his new book; the gift goes…unacknowledged. So smitten with Bellow is Harris that even his hero’s aloofness draws him on. “He was busy. He was at work. Why should he have answered my mail? Never mind, I went to him.” One evening in Bellow’s Chicago apartment, Harris springs the grim news on his hero: he wants to write Bellow’s biography. Blood drains from Bellow’s face; in the bathroom, the white towels tremble.
Saul Bellow, Drumlin Woodchuck—the title comes from a Robert Frost poem—is not a biography of Saul Bellow but a self-deprecating memoir about trying to win the confidence of Herzog’s creator. Harris, who is currently whittling away at Boswell’s journals to produce a single-volume edition, has fond hopes of playing Bozzy to Bellow’s Dr. Johnson—a fancy born out of chutzpah and self-deception. Brash and dissolute as he often was, Boswell was amusing company, a rakish charmer who drew from Johnson a friendly love: “I love the young dogs of this age,” said Johnson, and Boswell was always cocksup for a frisk.
No such affection springs between Bellow and Harris; wary, irritated, Bellow keeps a frosty distance from Harris, as well he might. For though Harris professes unfaltering devotion to King Saul and dismisses as envious upstarts those writers who refuse to share that admiration (the nit-pickers include critic Marvin Mudrick and John Updike), his memoir is acidly laced with malice—malice and prurience. The malice consists of niggling, needling comments sprinkled throughout the book to make Bellow look vain, grumpy, petty, politically complacent, even a touch anti-Semitic. According to Harris, Bellow once sideswiped someone by referring to him as “a Harvard kike.” Harris’s heart takes a disillusioned dive, and he wonders whether or not he should roll up his sleeping bag and haul his weary soul home. “Bellow’s views on Vietnam discouraged me. And ‘Harvard kike’ cast me down altogether. Men had broken over less.” It should be noted however that Harris …
Friendship June 11, 1981