“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’s ear is not one of nature’s keener instruments, and that his memory is as riddled with holes as a gangster’s getaway car.
Soon I was engaged in conversation with Zita Cogan, who had attended high school with Bellow. What high school?… I didn’t quite catch it….
…I changed direction and drove back past the Sterns’ house, where I was pleased to see Bellow’s car parked, and he within the house in the company of Harold Rosenberg. They were discussing either Tolstoy’s story, “The Death of Ivan Ilyitch,” or the social critic by that name.
Our party assembled at a Chinese restaurant on 63rd Street, near Dorchester, I believe, on the South Side. I think this restaurant was a favorite of the Sterns, who had taken me there April 5, 1961. The Sterns arrived with Paul Fussell, of Rutgers, and Fussell’s wife, whose name I never learned; and with Bellow and his companion, a woman of twenty-five (I guessed or was told) named or called Stat or Stats or Stap or Staps.
I believe, I think, I guessed: no, Harris isn’t one to nail down details with Boswellian rigor. Perhaps Harris seems to be staggering about in a haze because facts aren’t really what he’s after. Nostrils aflare, Harris sniffs through Bellow’s personal life for secrets and indiscretions, appraising the women in Bellow’s life with a tail-wagging enthusiasm that’s truly—no gentle word will do—insipid. Arriving in Chicago, Harris phones Bellow’s estranged wife, Susan. “I remembered that she had worn dark pants fitting snugly, and her face shone. Her hips I remembered. And her lips. Hips and lips.” Learning of the separation, Harris’s libido begins to race, and he toys with the notion of moving in on those hips and lips, just as Boswell had worked his way into the alluring arms of Rousseau’s mistress, Therese. Failing that, the sundering of Bellow’s marriage could still be turned to Harris’s advantage: “In compensation for the disappointment of a failed marriage Bellow would certainly welcome the attention of a biographer.” Logic and common sense take a terrible wringing at Harris’s hands.
Bellow, being of sound mind and body, didn’t welcome such attention, of course; he stands Harris up, neglects to return his calls, drops his letters into the circular file. And what letters!—fawning, chummy, yet always managing somehow to strike a brassy note of impertinence. When Bellow wins the Nobel Prize for literature, Harris writes, “Of course I send you personally my greetings and congratulations. It’s only the principle to which I object, the ugliness of competitiveness.” Were Harris to win the Nobel Prize, he presumably would send his regrets to Stockholm and return to his cubbyhole to do the humble work God intended him to do: grading papers.
But of course Harris will never win the Nobel, and his jealous resentment is what simmers beneath all the fannish prattle. (Harris is miffed to discover that the Atlantic is going to serialize Mr. Sammler’s Planet—the same editor has just rejected his new novel.) Bellow surely shrewdly grasped the sense of grievance and frustration lurking behind Harris’s grinning obsequiousness; he surely knew that intimately involving himself in Harris’s grand project would tangle him up in a thousand small annoyances. “[T]he damnable habit of consorting with losers,” writes Norman Mailer in The Armies of the Night, “was that they passed their subtle problems on.”
Soon the frost between Bellow and Harris turns to ice, and still Harris chips away, persisting in his folly. Why? It is curious. The book is dedicated to Richard G. Stern, a Chicago-based novelist and short-story writer who has known Bellow since the 1950s. Whenever Harris’s enthusiasm and confidence begin to flag, Stern, he tells us, nudges him on, assuring him that Bellow will be flattered by all this attention, honest. So grateful is Harris for Stern’s encouragement that he praises Stern’s latest collection of stories (Packages) to the rafters in The New Republic. Reviewing a book by someone you’ve just dedicated your own book to strikes me as an unseemly bit of literary back-scratching, but let it go. In that review, after honoring Stern as a friend and a gentleman, Harris writes, “In Chicago his best-known companion is his colleague and confidential friend, Saul Bellow, who in his trials and afflictions and creative crises has been able to depend upon Stern for the most generous counsel.”
I can’t imagine Bellow or Stern being pleased with this tribute. Just a few more steps, then we’ll pump some coffee into you and slip you into some dry clothes…. It’s baffling. Is Harris trying to sabotage this “confidential” friendship by indiscreetly blabbing away, or is he simply insensitive? You can’t help wondering what sort of friend Stern can be to encourage Harris’s doggy attentions, if indeed he did so—it’s almost a cruel prank, like crayoning Bellow’s phone number on a bathroom wall under the words, “Lonely? For a good time, dial….” Some sort of complicated personal drama is being played out with the publication of Drumlin Woodchuck, and perhaps we would all be better off not knowing what it is. Silence descending like snow might be a blessing.
Yet the book, like Harris himself, refuses to go quietly into that good night. A few reviewers have found this memoir moving and amusing because of Harris’s unashamed delight in playing the donkey. For some, watching Harris make an ass of himself is innocent, silly fun. I don’t think it’s innocent—I think Drumlin Woodchuck is an attempt to do Saul Bellow dirt, to take him down a few notches; and that the magazines which published excerpts from the book (The Nation, The Georgia Review) are catering to the current appetite for literary-world gossip, no matter how mean, trivial, or fatuous. The irony is that this slapdash, self-intoxicated book doesn’t even satisfy that itch. Except for a funny anecdote about a men’s room encounter with Lionel Trilling, this book is slim on the true stuff of a writer’s life (friendships, children, the search for ideas); padded instead with lists of award winners, lengthy and often inappropriate quotations from Bellow’s work, and Harris’s woolly ruminations on truth, beauty, politics, and his own iffy place in American letters. In one of the book’s few tangy moments, Bellow describes someone else’s prose as “an elevator trying to move sideways.” Mark Harris’s writing in Saul Bellow, Drumlin Woodchuck resembles a rattling elevator which moves in only one direction.
January 22, 1981