A March’s End: Saul Bellow, 1915-2005

“It is sometimes necessary to repeat what we all know. All mapmakers should place the Mississippi in the same location and avoid originality.” So wrote Saul Bellow in his 1970 novel Mr. Sammler’s Planet, and so he has written for more than 60 years, with similar traces of truth laced with reams of invention in his work. Bellow, the enviable literary genius, passed away this week at the age of 89, bringing to close a linguistic talent seamlessly apt with gut and meaning.

If a rich life is the path to great fiction, Bellow’s trail was worn to bare earth. Canadian-born in 1915, Bellow’s family, who had emigrated from Russia, moved to Chicago’s Eastern European enclave Humboldt Park in 1924. Entering the University of Chicago in 1933, Bellow proceeded quickly to Northwestern University where he graduated four years later and received the “sound advice” to give up plans to study the language from the English-department chairman. Choosing to take his studies elsewhere, Bellow dropped the plans altogether for his first of five marriages and a series of relationships his fiction would continually mine.

But it was his relationship with Chicago, “that somber city”, which gave Bellow the torque his fiction needed. The city would remain home while Bellow taught at the University of Chicago until he left for Boston in 1993. His years in the Windy City provided the perfect canvas for piecing together swatches of the American cultural-fabric. Under the nose of Prohibition, the young Bellow relayed in an NPR interview that the excitement “drew me away from my Jewishness. Not so as to make me forget it, but that I wanted to combine it with other things.”

Bellow’s third novel, The Adventures of Augie March, was just such a mixture, and brought the first of three National Book Awards, the commencement of a lifetime of success and acknowledgement. As novelist, and professional lightning-rod, Martin Aims wrote: “The Adventures of Augie March is the Great American Novel. Search no further. All the trails went cold forty-two years ago. The quest did what quests rarely do: it ended.” The release of this quintessential American masterwork in 1953 was an epiphany for the 38-year-old Bellow, whose first two works were tune-ups for the passionate orchestrations of Augie March’s odyssey. Where the early works cloaked themselves in European nuance, The Adventures of Augie March unloaded an unseen American vision, a narrative alive in its own verve and a country’s identity quest, strewn with the want of decency Bellow’s characters took as a charge; a losing of one’s self to find one’s self, or a “Bellovian” existence. Augie March gets on the ride, the elusive American wanderer, taking himself elsewhere every time one of his metaphorically-mythic mentors nears defining him.

The lush lineage of characters Bellow leaves behind is a gallery of anti-heroes — sometimes humorous, always witty, and drawn from his true-life relationships. To Bellow, the connections between poet, wife, or intellectual, they were all rewarding retellings. In the course of the ten years after The Adventures of Augie March, Bellow released Seize the Day (1956), Henderson the Rain King (1959), and Herzog (1964), solidifying his space on the shelf of American letters and giving other works such as Lolita, On the Road, Things Fall Apart, Naked Lunch, Rabbit, Run, The Recognitions, and Letting Go all they could (and can still) handle. With Herzog, Bellow collected his second National Book Award, a recognition he would yet again receive in 1971 for Mr. Sammler’s Planet.

His next novel, Humboldt’s Gift, served as a “comic book about death” and brought him the Pulitzer Prize a year later in 1976. The self-destructive lyric poet Delmore Schwartz and his relationship with Bellow provided the fictionalized template for the novel’s artistic contemplations. In the same year he won the Pulitzer, Bellow was immortalized with a Nobel Prize for Literature, for crafting the type of hero “who keeps trying to find a foothold during his wanderings in our tottering world, one who can never relinquish his faith that the value of life depends on its dignity, not its success”.

While his later novels never managed to recapture the incisive drumbeat of earlier work, Bellow had plenty of flash left. At the age of 84, he took to memorializing friend Alan Bloom in the controversial and unevenly received Ravelstein, fathered his first daughter (he had three sons), and saw the publication of his long-labored biography by James Atlas. In 2003, The Library of America collected his three earliest works, an honor rarely provided to living writers, having previously only fallen upon Eudora Welty.

Time will truly tell the story of Saul Bellow. In an age when literature is a hobby instead of an outline for national discourse, the longevity and breadth of modern masters has yet to play out. Bellow long ago tossed his hat into the ring, and never stopped fighting. His career was justly lauded and recognized, by the elites with awards and by the masses as a bestseller. What Bellow leaves behind is a body of work attempting to define human nature, one that he lived and dreamed.