Bellow’s Gift

Saul Bellow
Saul Bellow; drawing by David Levine

1.

Among American novelists of the latter half of the twentieth century, Saul Bellow stands out as one of the giants, perhaps the giant. His noontime stretches from the early 1950s (The Adventures of Augie March) to the mid-1970s (Humboldt’s Gift), though as late as 2000 he was still publishing notable fiction (Ravelstein). The Library of America has now republished Bellow’s three earliest books in a single thousand-page volume: Dangling Man (1944), The Victim (1947), and Augie March (1953). Bellow thereby becomes the first writer of fiction to receive the Library’s imprimatur during his lifetime.

Dangling Man is a short novel in the form of a journal. The journalkeeper is a young Chicagoan, Joseph, an unemployed history graduate supported by his working wife. The year is 1942, America is at war, and Joseph is dangling while he waits for word from his draft board. He uses his journal to explore how he became what he is, and in particular to understand why, about a year ago, he abandoned the philosophical essays he was writing and began to dangle in another sense too.

So wide does the gap seem between himself as he is now and this earnest, innocent past self that he thinks of himself as the earlier Joseph’s double, wearing his castoff clothes. Though the earlier Joseph self had been able to function in society, to strike a balance between his work in a travel agency and his scholarly inquiries, he was troubled by a sense of alienation from the world. From his window he would survey the urban prospect—chimneys, warehouses, billboards, parked cars. Does such an environment not deform the soul? “Where was there a particle of what, elsewhere, or in the past, had spoken in man’s favor?… What would Goethe say to the view from this window?”

It may seem comical that in the Chicago of the 1940s someone should have been occupied in such grandiose musings, says Joseph the journal- keeper, but in each of us there is an element of the comic or fantastic. Yet he recognizes too that by mocking the earlier Joseph’s philosophizing he is denying his better self.

Though in the abstract the early Joseph is prepared to accept that man is aggressive by nature, he can detect in his own heart nothing but gentleness. One of his remoter ambitions is to found a utopian colony where spite and cruelty would be forbidden. Therefore he is dismayed to find himself being overtaken by fits of unpredictable violence. He loses his temper with his adolescent niece and spanks her, shocking her parents. He manhandles his landlord. He shouts at a bank employee. He seems to be “a sort of human grenade whose pin has been withdrawn.” What is happening to him?

An artist friend tells him that the monstrous city around them is not the real world: the real world is the world of art and…


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