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.
Tommy Wilhelm is a weakling, a passive sufferer, a nebbish in the crowded storm of New York life. Only his illusions about “making it” have made him an interesting fabulist in the past—he even left college to take a screen test! But on this early summer day the fabulousness will vanish to the point where Tommy will stray into a stranger’s funeral and mourn his own life. What, then, sustains our interest in this non-hero? What makes him an interesting contender with life? What lifts him for a moment above our thick urban swarm, so that we can identify with him and finally mourn him as he mourns himself? It is the fact that in this kind of urban, modern American fiction environment serves as meaning. “Society” has replaced nature, and the collaboration of so many souls, senses, eyes in the contemporary city becomes Bellow’s opportunity. He shows with a peculiar vividness and sharpness that Tommy Wilhelm lives constantly with his mind pressing on other minds and other minds pressing on his. In the city, where the triumph of numbers is complete, the technical collaboration between men persists in the midst of the greatest loneliness and destructiveness. There is a meticulous unending confrontation between man and other men, between man and his things, even between things and their things. In the city of cities, every mind has been so socialized that the whimper of loneliness deep inside Tommy’s soul is, curiously, the last of his individuality. At the end, when Tommy has lost everything exactly on the day that the false messiah, Dr. Tamkin, has promised fulfillment (and profit on the commodities market), he identifies this individuality only with his own death. He can find in the threat of his own dissolution his only access to that “larger body,” that true world from which his immediate society has so long deprived him. And it is exactly this that shows up all our deepest constraint. We have been deprived of truth not associated with our own effort. We have been deprived of the creation. Tommy Wilhelm is socially so impressionable and conformist that he is defenseless before his own merciless “interpersonal” examination of himself. What do I owe you? How do I look to you? How, according to you, shall I think of myself? This is the cruelty by which Tommy, poor nebbish, must live. And it is this unrelenting examination that makes Tommy’s suffering vibrations in and out of the Hotel Gloriana in the West Seventies so ominous for the rest of us.
THIS USE OF ENVIRONMENT is of course not new in realistic fiction; if anything, it is the very essence of fiction itself, a form which obviously depends on rendering the minute relationship between man and the world he creates. But what is distinctive about Seize the Day is that the story proceeds by sensations which are as individuated, warm, and vivid as they are in romantic poetry, but unfold into a dramatic action which is destructive of all hope in Tommy Wilhelm. Tommy Wilhelm coming down from his hotel room, hoping that his father will enter the elevator and so immediately give him the moral support he needs as much as money, finds all visible surfaces glittering in his eyes—and the promise of each sensation is unconscious. It is not the romantic egotism of nineteenth-century “genius” that puts the exciting world into play here; it is the constant promise offered to the average man that today, today of all days, he will yet make it: he will make the money that makes the day. The French writer Léon Bloy once wrote that “money is the blood of the poor.” On the bustling, upsurging, massed West Side of New York, where the past poverty of so many parvenues is as evident as death disturbing the feast in a medieval allegory, money is the sure quicksilver in everybody’s blood. “It was getting so that people were feeble-minded about everything except money: While if you didn’t have it you were a dummy, a dummy! You had to excuse yourself from the face of the earth.” Tommy impulsively left college because a shyster agent who would have been transparent to anyone else promised him a screen test. His estranged wife is after him for the money he owes, his mistress is a Catholic and will not be allowed to marry him. Tommy responds wildly to everything with leaps of hope or despair. We are turned into Tommy, we are “with him,” pulsation by pulsation, as if he were a rabbit whose exposed heart we hold in our hand.
Tommy starts his day, as he comes to breakfast, consciously posing the strength he no longer feels, still the actor he vainly tried to be. “He was smoking a cigar, and when a man is smoking a cigar, wearing a hat, he has an advantage.” But though he “believed—he hoped—that he looked passably well: doing all right,” his mood sinks with the elevator taking him down to breakfast as he goes past his father’s floor without old Dr. Adler coming in. “But there was no stop on the fourteenth, and the elevator sank and sank. Then the smooth door opened and the great dark red uneven carpet that covered the lobby billowed toward Wilhelm’s feet. In the foreground the lobby was dark, sleepy. French drapes like sails kept out the sun, but three high, narrow windows were open, and in the blue air Wilhelm saw a pigeon about to light on the great chain that supported the marquee of the movie house directly underneath the lobby. For one moment he heard the wings beating strongly.”
THE FORCE OF DEFINITION in this writing is remarkable; the outer world is constantly a register of Tommy’s ups and downs. The essence of Bellow’s sense of fiction is to study the imposition of force on people who are too innocent, too hopeful, too eager to recognize their destiny until, as at the end of Seize the Day, they are engulfed by it. “Destiny” is an important word in Bellow’s imaginative world; as important as money (no other American novelist with his intellectual perception has in recent years made such solid, wearing use of it as has Bellow); so is weakness or strength of the body, the instrument for living, the only power for resistance to so much force. (Tommy, in his middle forties, has a heavy and strong back, “if already a little stopped or thickened.” Maurice Venice, the agent: “His breath was noisy and his voice difficult and rather husky because of the fat in his throat.”) Bellow is always peculiarly attentive to such facts, and measuring the confusedly striving Wilhelm as an anthropologist might (he had some early training at this), he creates the style of definition, dry without being cold, which renders the environment as a series of pressures on this all-too-feeling but never-really-knowing hero.
So from the opening of Seize the Day we get the intensity of numbers in the West Seventies, the preponderance of old and sick people (here is your fate, Tommy Wilhelm), the anxious Jewish preoccupation with health—an allegory for survival. By contrast with Tommy’s fatal immaturity, Rubin, who runs the cigar stand in the hotel lobby, is one of those who know, and so doesn’t give out very much. He has poor eyes. “They may not have been actually weak but they were poor in expression, with lacy lids that furled down at the corners.” Rubin is a judgment on Tommy because he can so easily take his measure. Everybody of a certain age, who has learned constraint, has this advantage over poor Tommy. The most depressing example to our hero is his father, old Dr. Adler, small, neat, professional, dry, whose cool autonomy is a horror to his son, for he cannot break through this privacy, and it humiliates as well as deprives him by the contrast it makes with his own foolish expectancies.
The most brilliant use of this knowingness as a human characteristic is the mysteriously untrustworthy “Doctor” Tamkin, so ominously a charlatan and a crook, who becomes the very essence of the city environment by the way he manipulates Tommy Wilhelm’s soul—and depleted bank account—as the all-explainer, the great brain and reassurer, the last possible guide through this metropolitan hell. Bellow is rather more of an “intellectual” than most good American novelists, and his protagonists, usually Jews, are typically implicated in the life of the intellect even when, like many intellectuals, they are incapable of thinking for themselves. Nevertheless, Bellow refuses to grant much value to intellectuals. His resistance is probably based on the fact that he has always lived among intellectuals, but wants his own creative difference to be recognized; he emphatically does not want to be confused with those whom Harold Rosenberg has called “the herd of independent minds.” But deeper than this pride goes a profound distrust of all the fashionable literary, critical, psychological claims to knowledge, a conviction that the reality of life is to be found in personal experience, in works of literature as life-actions, not among the doctrinaires and ideologues, radical, Freudian, academic, who are usually deluded by their own pronouncements, and, like Tamkin, know they are well by ministering to the sick.
Still, no one is “like Tamkin” but Tamkin himself. If Tommy Wilhelm is the suffering rabbit, Tamkin is the magician who charms him out of the hat and puts him back in again. But who is to say what Tamkin is, where he begins, who he is, what he believes? His fathomlessness is Tamkin. He is the very personification of a kind of modern urban know-it-all, the quack analyst, the false guide to the many afflicted by their terrible uncertainty. Wherever it is that he lives with himself, whoever he may “really” be (and he may be the last to find out), Tamkin exists by explaining to lost souls like Tommy Wilhelm who they are and what their suffering is all about. What a marvelous touch this is. Tommy Wilhelm’s unasked for “analysis” is conducted right on Broadway, over cafeteria pot roast and purple cabbage, at a stockbroker’s Broadway branch office—by a faintly unclean, frighteningly dubious figure in a gray straw hat with a wide cocoa-colored band, who claims to have been everywhere, to have done everything, who pops up when you are least expecting him, is not to be found when you need him, and whose unending line of chatter, though he is an obvious faker, holds Tommy’s attention as a bird is mesmerized by a snake.
Tamkin knows. Tamkin always knows. Where everything sickeningly turns under Tommy’s feet, Tamkin presents himself as the source of light, the inspirer, the only solid underpinning in a world deprived of father, mother, wife, children, security, business, faith. This is indeed the role that many bogus analysts play to the suffering, deprived, and confused people in a world whose treachery confuses them after the bliss of earliest childhood. Forever afterward, the suffering man, who indeed suffers from the world because it daily robs him of his natural faith, will blame his faithlessness on “himself” rather than on the world that has robbed him of himself. He becomes not only the greatest possible sufferer but his own accuser. The victim makes himself guilty in the vain hope of securing some reprieve from the forces that indifferently block him. What a world it is, indeed, in which Tamkin can alone give the illusion of faith and love and hope, in which Tamkin alone can seem to offer meaning, where everybody else around Tommy has turned savage in his pursuit of money. “Seize the day!” Tamkin’s ridiculously affected yet singularly human poem says to our sufferer. No one speaks to his heart except the fake who in effect robs him. Yet who is to say, when the last of Tommy’s money is gone speculating on lard in the commodities market, who is to say that Tamkin (now disappeared) has not been as much a victim of his own reckless self-confidence as Tommy is? Who can say what is truth and what is false in this foundationless world where at the end, as Tommy stumbles into a stranger’s funeral, only death is real, and a man must mourn for himself more feelingly than anyone else ever will for him? At the end, Bellow’s typically austere, witty, curt sense of the irony inherent in every human demonstration takes over.
The great knot of ill and grief in his throat swelled upward and he gave in utterly and held his face and wept. He cried with all his heart.
One woman said, “Is that perhaps the cousin from New Orleans they were expecting?”
“It must be somebody real close to carry on so.”
“Oh my, oh my! To be mourned like that,” said one man and looked at Wilhelm’s heavy shaken shoulders, his clutched face and whitened fair hair, with wide, glinting, jealous eyes.
After Seize the Day, Bellow went on to write the full-length novels, particularly Herzog, that have given him his national reputation. But it is safe to say that none of his works is so widely and genuinely admired as this short novel. It has a quite remarkable intensity of effect without ever seeming to be forced. It is a particularly good example of what can be done with what Henry James called “that blessed form, the novella.” And not least, Seize the Day is probably the most successful rendering of the place, the time, the style of life, of Bellow’s representative Jew. The protagonist is the city man who feels that the sky is constantly coming down on him. Before he dies, he will make it clear that his greatest need is not money nor love nor the “peace” he vainly seeks out of the city, but the reason of things. No one in history ever felt the loss of this so keenly as the modern man who lives in the most “developed” society of all time.
© Alfred Kazin 1968
March 28, 1968