Saul Bellow

From Academic Kids

Missing image
Bellow as depicted in his Nobel diploma.
Saul Bellow (June 10, 1915April 5, 2005), was an acclaimed Canadian-born American Jewish writer, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1976 and is best known for writing novels that investigate isolation, spiritual dissociation, and the possibilities of human awakening. While on a Guggenheim fellowship in Paris, he wrote most of his best-known novel, The Adventures of Augie March.

He was born Solomon (nicknamed 'Sollie') Bellows (earlier 'Belo/v') in Lachine, Quebec, shortly after his parents had emigrated from St. Petersburg, Russia. The family moved to the slums of Chicago, the city where he received his schooling and that was to form the backdrop to many of his novels, when he was nine; Bellow's father worked there as an onion importer. His lifelong love for the Bible began at four when he learned Hebrew. A period of illness in his youth both taught him self-reliance (he was a very fit man despite his bookishness) and provided an opportunity to satisfy Bellow's hunger for reading: reportedly he decided to be a writer when he first read Uncle Tom's Cabin. John Podhoretz, a pupil at the University of Chicago, said that Bellow and Allan Bloom, a close friend of Bellow (see Ravelstein), 'inhaled books and ideas the way the rest of us breathe air'.

Here is Podhoretz on Bellow's physical appearance (see links): 'Bellow was then 65, and even at the time was one of the best-looking men on earth—despite a set of sadly neglected teeth. (In the 1940s a Hollywood talent scout spotted Bellows photograph on the back flap of the dust jacket of his second novel, The Victim, and offered him a screen test.) He was neat, precise, slight and thin. He would speak for three or four minutes and when he had finished, you realised that what he had just done was spontaneously speak a beautifully written essay.'

Bellow has taught at the University of Minnesota, New York University, Princeton, the University of Chicago, Bard College and Boston University where he cotaught a class with James Wood ('modestly absenting himself' when it was time to discuss Seize the Day). In order to take up his appointment at Boston, Bellow relocated in 1993 from Chicago to Brookline, Massachusetts, where he died on April 5, 2005, at age 89. He is buried at the Jewish cemetery of Brattleboro, Vermont.

Bellow began his undergraduate studies at the University of Chicago but left after two years to complete his degree not in English, but in anthropology at Northwestern University. It has been suggested that the study of anthropology has had an interesting influence on his literary style.

Before Bellow started his career as a writer he wrote book reviews for ten dollars apiece. His early works earned him the reputation as one of the foremost novelists of the 20th century, and by his death he was regarded by many as the greatest living novelist in English. He was the first novelist to win the National Book Award three times. His friend and protege Philip Roth has said of him, "The backbone of 20th-century American literature has been provided by two novelists—William Faulkner and Saul Bellow. Together they are the Melville, Hawthorne, and Twain of the 20th century."

Although not as widely acclaimed as some of his novels, Bellow's later works include the powerful and well-crafted collection of short stories entitled Him with His Foot in His Mouth. Bellow's story lines are led by the personal quests and crises of his protagonists rather than by action. Our introduction to a Bellow protagonist is often at a point of deep crisis in the character's life. Whether romantic, financial or sparked by other causes, the turmoil experienced by a typical Bellow protagonist leads to deep existential questioning. Bellow artfully manages to reference the teachings of great philosophers and thinkers within many of his novels, usually without damaging their readability or disrupting story flow. One remarkable example of this technique is seen within Mr. Sammler's Planet, Bellow's novel about a curmudgeonly Holocaust survivor living in New York City amid the cultural revolution of the 1960s.


Examples of Prose

This is the famous and often quoted beginning of Augie March:

I am an American, Chicago-born—Chicago, that somber city—and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent. But a mans character is his fate, says Heraclitus, and in the end there isnt any way to disguise the nature of the knocks by acoustical work on the door or gloving the knuckles.
Everyone knows there is no fineness or accuracy of suppression; if you hold down one thing you hold down the adjoining.

Adam Mars-Jones's gloss on this is: 'Maybe the fact that he starts low and goes high, rather than starting high and going low, in terms of cultural reference, was a breakthrough in its own way.'

This longer excerpt from James Wood's review of the Atlas biography is an attempt to explain Bellow's genius (for the full article see Bibliography, 'On Bellow'):

Perhaps nothing is more movingly comic in the whole of Bellow than the scene in The Adventures of Augie March, in which Einhorn, a Chicago autodidact, writes an obituary of his father for the local newspaper. Stiff, clumsy, noble, the obituary is foolishly, ambitiously 'intellectual,' and the reader is able to see, in a paragraph, the quavering pretensions of a generation of intelligent American Jews:
Einhorn kept me with him that evening; he didn't want to be alone. While I sat by he wrote his father's obituary in the form of an editorial for the neighborhood paper. 'The return of the hearse from the newly covered grave leaves a man to pass through the last changes of nature who found Chicago a swamp and left it a great city. He came after the Great Fire, said to be caused by Mrs. O'Leary's cow, in flight from the conscription of the Hapsburg tyrant, and in his life as a builder proved that great places do not have to be founded on the bones of slaves, like the pyramids of Pharaohs or the capital of Peter the Great on the banks of the Neva, where thousands were trampled in the Russian marches. The lesson of an American life like my father's, in contrast to that of the murderer of the Strelitzes and of his own son, is that achievements are compatible with decency. My father was not familiar with the observation of Plato that philosophy is the study of death, but he died nevertheless like a philosopher, saying to the ancient man who watched by his bedside in the last moments. . .' This was the vein of it, and he composed it energetically in half an hour, printing on sheets of paper at his desk, the tip of his tongue forward, scrunched up in his bathrobe and wearing his stocking cap.
I doubt that this could be bettered by Dickens or Joyce, and when we read it we are splashed by the antique streams of the greatest comedy. We begin the obituary in laughter and end it in tears, in a sublime dapple of emotions. Everything is here: the ungrammatical pompousness of the unpracticed writer ('leaves a man to pass through the last changes of nature who found Chicago a swamp'. . . 'saying to the ancient man who watched by his bedside'), the rambling, feebly chanelled anarchy ('he came after the Great Fire, said to be caused by Mrs. O'Leary's cow'), the intellectual hauteur that crumbles into non-sequitur ('my father was not familiar with the observation of Plato that philosophy is the study of death, but he died nevertheless like a philosopher'), the historical allusions hanging off the sentences like sloths ('in flight from the conscription of the Hapsburg tyrant'), and finally Einhorn's affecting, foolhardy American optimism, whereby this new land proves that 'great places do not have to be founded on the bones of slaves.' Such care, such favoring finesse! Note that Bellow does not have Einhorn write 'Plato's observation that,' which is the formulation that a real intellectual would use, but the more upholstered and uneasy 'the observation of Plato,' a phrase whose awkwardness enshrines a certain distance from Plato. And what a delicious word 'observation' is here—as if Plato were someone who tossed off mots like Wilde.




  • To Jerusalem and Back (1976)
  • It All Adds Up (1994)

On Bellow

  • Saul Bellow, Tony Tanner (1965) (see also his City of Words [1971])
  • Saul Bellow, Malcolm Bradbury (1982)
  • Saul Bellow: Modern Critical Views, Harold Bloom (Ed.) (1986)
  • Handsome Is: Adventures with Saul Bellow, Harriet Wasserman (1997)
  • Saul Bellow, James Atlas (1999)
  • 'Even Later' and 'The American Eagle' in Martin Amis, The War Against Clich (2001) are celebratory. The latter essay is also found in the Everyman's Library edition of Augie March.
  • 'Saul Bellow's comic style': James Wood, The Irresponsible Self (2004).(Online extract (

External links

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