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The Obedient Bellow

In almost everything he wrote, Saul Bellow asserted his authority as artist, thinker, moralist, and lover. His admirers rejoiced in his authority and celebrated a new kind of dominant voice in American fiction: expansively ambitious, philosophical, and demotic, the voice of a moralizing comic hero unlike anything in the genteel or frontier traditions. “Someone has to stand up for Jews and democrats,” he said in a letter, “and when better champions are lacking, squirts must do what they can.” His detractors, meanwhile, rejected his authority, writing whole books denouncing him as if he were a lecherous and corrupt literary tyrant.

Both sides misunderstood him. His letters make clear what was always implicit in his fiction, that he asserted his authority half-unwillingly and only as a last resort—because those who ought to be in charge had failed in the job, or had given it up entirely. In Mr. Sammler’s Planet (1970), he writes:

Mr. Sammler was testy with White Protestant America for not keeping better order. Cowardly surrender. Not a strong ruling class. Eager in a secret humiliating way, to come down and mingle with all the minority mobs, and scream against themselves. And the clergy? Beating swords into plowshares? No, rather converting dog collars into G strings.

Bellow accepts a friend’s judgment that he is an outlaw, but adds: “In outlaw bravado I have no interest. I only meant that I wish to obey better laws.” That celebrated rebel Augie March, Bellow explains to another friend, has the same wish to obey:

Augie misses the love, harmony and safety that should compensate our obedience…. To me Augie is the embodiment of willingness to serve, who says “For God’s sake, make use of me, only do not use me to no purpose. Use me.”…Surely the greatest human desire…is to be used.

In his letters Bellow is always conscious of his position in a chain of command. To a Jewish friend or colleague, he writes from a superior height, either affectionately (“Remember you occupy one of the top compartments in my heart”) or contemptuously (“Coventry, pal, is not the place”). To any gentile whom he suspects, usually rightly, of anti-Semitism, he writes in Olympian disdain. But to a Protestant who embodies “love, harmony and safety”—Robert Penn Warren, Ralph Ellison, John Cheever—he writes in courtly gratitude, as he does when he first writes to a future wife, though his tone to his wives changes afterward.

And to Owen Barfield, the English writer of spiritual speculations to whom Bellow offered himself as a disciple, he writes in forelock-tugging servitude, never noticing that Barfield had no use for it or that he was bewildered both by Bellow’s initial self-abasement and by his subsequent revolt against Barfield’s authority—which Barfield never guessed he had embodied in Bellow’s eyes.

1.

Solomon (later Saul) Bellow was a Canadian, born in a Montreal suburb in 1915 to Orthodox Jewish parents who had fled from Russia two years before, and who slipped illegally into Chicago nine years later. His father had worked in Russia as an importer, in America as a bootlegger and baker. As a child, Bellow spoke Yiddish, English, and French, and memorized biblical passages in Hebrew.

When he was eight years old he came down with pneumonia and peritonitis and began a six-month stay in the hospital. Sixty-eight years later he wrote:

Then a lady came from some missionary society and gave me a New Testament to read.
Jesus overwhelmed me….I was moved out of myself by Jesus, by “suffer the little children to come unto me,” by the lilies of the field. Jesus moved me beyond all bounds by his deeds and his words.

But he also learned “the charges made in the Gospels against the Jews, my people…. In the ward, too, Jews were hated.” That hatred was unjust, always to be rebelled against. “My thought was…: How could it be my fault? I am in the hospital.”1 For the rest of his life he was always aware that Christians had betrayed the Christian ideal, that their hatred of the Jews was at the core of their betrayal. They would deserve authority and service had they lived up to that ideal, but, as Mr. Sammler understood, they had failed, and the world was in chaos because no one worthy was in charge.

The earliest letter in this book, and the first of Bellow’s many anathemas, is a letter he wrote at seventeen to a girlfriend who had found someone else. “Yours is a Young Communist League mind,” he tells her. His ambivalent eulogy for her sixty-six years later, also in the book, makes the same complaint in gentler words. At twenty-two he graduated from Northwestern with a degree in anthropology and sociology. Anthropology excited him. He briefly studied it in graduate school, and dramatized it in Henderson the Rain King (1959). Sociology bored him. He listened to sociologists

with every effort to be fair and understanding but I can’t make out their Man. Surely that’s not homo sapiens, mon semblable! The creature the theologians write about is far closer to me.

By his early twenties he had begun to write letters in the scholar-gangster style that he first deployed in his fiction in The Adventures of Augie March (1953), a dozen years later. A friend’s letter, he writes in 1941, is

just the sort of letter I have been awaiting from you; one in which you could be a little more recognizable than the Oscar of “cons” and cold-owl trips to see a girl who fucks.

Cold-owl” alludes to a more poetically erotic trip than Oscar’s, Porphyro’s journey to Madeline in Keats’s “The Eve of St. Agnes,” when “the owl, for all his feathers, was a-cold.”

This style is Bellow’s most enduring invention. In all his mature novels, the narrator’s voice, rather than the compromising or defeated characters, is the true, indomitable hero. Bellow’s vestigial plots exist mostly to give his narrators something more to talk about than cultural complaints and philosophical speculations.

Bellow’s combination of wise-cracking wit and seigneurial authority could not have existed without the precedent set by Damon Runyon’s gangsters and molls, whose speech was as artificial as that of the Arcadian shepherds and shepherdesses on whom they were modeled. Bellow transformed Runyon’s language into an artificial style suited to an urban-pastoral dystopia, the voice of a Jewish besserwisser who could outtalk even the most eloquent gentile. Like T.S. Eliot, Bellow had the characteristically American ambition to master European culture while also seeking beyond culture and beyond ambition for some transcendent spiritual truth.

2.

This handsome edition of Bellow’s letters is capaciously selected and sketchily annotated by Benjamin Taylor, who adds an introduction, a chronology, and sixteen pages of stiffly posed photographs. Some reviewers have complained that all the letters are performances. That is precisely what makes them exhilarating. Bellow was most himself when performing, but he never performed merely to display himself. One of the riches of this book is Bellow’s mastery over an epic range of tone and manner. He calibrates his style to each of his correspondents: to his elders, deferential and ingratiating; to young writers, encouraging and sympathetic; to intimates and friends, either chattily relaxed or volcanically abusive. He writes incidental character sketches as comic and exact as anything in his novels, and when he takes offense at real or imaginary slights, he doubles the force of his contempt by the skill of his rhetorical flourishes.

Bellow’s pleasure in his own virtuosity is as infectious in his letters as it is in his fiction. He tells a friend, “It’s harder for me to write the insurance company than to do a story.” But these performances left him dissatisfied. He was always troubled by the gap between his peacock’s display of words and the self that his words half-concealed. He points to his “talent for self-candor which so far I have been able to invest only in the language of what I’ve written”—not in the content. He never stops wishing for a way to speak directly instead of performing. Late in life he describes himself as

a loner troubled by longings, incapable of finding a suitable language and despairing at the impossibility of composing messages in a playable key…. By now I have only the cranky idiom of my books—the letters-in-general2 of an occult personality, a desperately odd somebody who has, as a last resort, invented a technique of self- representation.

A still small voice is audible beneath the comic panache of Bellow’s letters, insisting that his bravura is a last resort, an inadequate substitute for the security and calm that he despaired of finding.

3.

Bellow published two novels in a taut, laconic style before he found the courage to go public in his fiction with the style he had perfected in his letters. Dangling Man (1944) records five months in the life of a Jewish- American counterpart of Dostoevsky’s underground man, keeping a diary while he waits to be drafted. Like his more garrulous successors in Bellow’s fiction, Joseph is alienated from his wife, startled by his own anger, hungry for philosophical answers, and lost in the universe. At the end, he rushes gratefully into the army, writing:

Hurray for regular hours!
And for the supervision of the spirit!
Long live regimentation!

Bellow said at the time, “I was only making an ironic statement,” but the irony covers his deeper wish for someone else to take charge so that his inner chaos might be soothed.

That wish drives the story of The Victim (1947), another Dostoevskian variation, this one on The Eternal Husband. This second novel has none of the expansive self-display of Bellow’s later ones, but it may be his most self-revealing. Asa Leventhal’s wife has been away from home tending her mother. In her absence, Asa is psychologically tormented by a down-at-heels New England aristocrat named Kirby Allbee. Allbee has an obscure grievance against him that Leventhal worries may have some half-mad justice. Leventhal is a Jew who nearly convinces himself that a WASP, no matter how repulsive, deserves his service and ought to be in charge. As Bellow did with Dangling Man, he spoke of the “ironies” of The Victim, but the book arose from sources too deep for its author to confront:

I ought to have given Leventhal greater gifts. I’m trying to understand why I showered so many on Allbee instead.

In everything but his gender, Allbee is the first and most fully drawn of the tyrannical, avenging wives or ex-wives who populate Bellow’s fiction. Margaret in Seize the Day (1956), Madeleine in Herzog (1964), Matilda in More Die of Heartbreak (1987), and Vela in Ravelstein (2000) take their distinctive looks, mannerisms, and breasts from a real woman whom Bellow married, but Kirby Allbee is the psychological archetype for all of them.

In 1956 Bellow divorced his first wife after eighteen years of marriage. Four more marriages and three divorces followed. Bellow writes about his marriages—all but the last—as if they were power relations more than erotic ones. Joseph in Dangling Man says of his wife Iva: “I had dominated her for years; she was now capable of rebelling.” Bellow writes to a friend about his second wife: “When I was weaker there was some satisfaction for her in being the strong one. But when I recovered confidence…she couldn’t bear it.” (This is fictionalized in Herzog: “There was a flavor of subjugation in his love for Madeleine.”) Bellow’s letters portray a recurring pattern in his marriages. He worships a woman, then marries her; then, a few years later, she reveals herself as the power-mad fury she had secretly been from the start. It seems unlikely that this should have been inherent in all their personalities; but in all marriages, each partner’s fantasy image of the other has the Pygmalion-like power to make the image real.

  1. 1

    In the version of this incident reimagined in Herzog, Bellow omits the effect of his reading and remembers instead the “strained and grim” face of the woman who reads the Bible to him; Herzog is five years old, not eight, when it occurs, and can’t read for himself. In the version in Humboldt’s Gift, Charlie Citrine is eight when he goes into the hospital, and “day and night, I read the Bible…. I appear to have become a Hallelujah and Glory type.” 

  2. 2

    An archaic term of etiquette, meaning official or public letters, as opposed to private or personal ones. 

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