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.
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…
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