Life & Culture

Why Saul Bellow was the best US Jewish writer of his generation

Penguin is reprinting some of his best-known works in new editions


No American writer had a voice like Saul Bellow. An early biographer, James Atlas, wrote.

“What he did was infuse the native American idiom with his own Jewish, Western European inflection. He always said he was a writer first, an American second and Jewish third. But all three were elements of his genius”. According to Salman Rushdie, Bellow “took the American Jewish novel and transformed it into something pretty close to the Great American Novel”.

Then came the backlash. A new generation criticised the way he wrote about women and about black Americans.

They saw him as too right-wing, too cranky and Eurocentric. “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus?” he asked in the 1990s. “The Proust of the Papuans?” These words damaged his reputation and the jury is still out on whether it will ever recover. What got lost in this politically correct witch hunt was the key question: What kind of writer was Bellow?

These new Penguin editions of selected works by Bellow, published this month, and covering more than half a century from his first novel, Dangling Man (1944), to his last, Ravelstein (2000), could not be more timely.

First, they give a sense of his voice, that distinctive mix of high and low, all those big thinkers, the literary references (to Joyce, Flaubert and his beloved Russians), but also a new post-war America “hipped on superabundance”, full of wise guys, reality instructors and shmendriks.

As his friend Philip Roth wrote, “in his characteristically American way he has managed brilliantly to close the gap between Thomas Mann and Damon Runyon”.

Second, these books give a sense of his range and the key turning points in his career.

Dangling Man is thin, anxious and clearly influenced by French existentialism, then in vogue. Like many of his early books it’s about confinement, single men confined to single rooms.

But then came a great shift in Bellow’s writing in the 1950s and 60s. It became more exuberant, more alive.

As Bellow wrote in an earlier letter, “in [The Adventures of] Augie March I wanted to invent a new sort of American sentence. … Street language combined with a high style […] I had found — or believed I had found — a new way to flow.” Crucially, his writing also became more American.

Think of the famous opening of The Adventures of Augie March (1953): “I am an American, Chicago born… and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style…”

But with Herzog (1964) and Mr. Sammler’s Planet (1970) he then added an extra depth, a set of moral and intellectual preoccupations. Both books took on big ideas and big history. Sammler was the first of his novels to sound the alarm about the new craziness in Sixties America.

As Atlas pointed out, Sammler is “the first book in which Bellow aligned himself with the fathers”.

His earlier heroes were defiant, rebellious sons. Artur Sammler is the first of his heroes to be wiser, older father figures, bemused by the modern world.

In his republished Introduction, Stanley Crouch fails to quote the famous exchange between Saul Bellow and Cynthia Ozick about why Mr. Sammler’s Planet was his first novel to address the Holocaust. Why did it take him so long?

Third, these books give a sense of Bellow’s Jewishness, part immigrant, part Chicago. He was the first great American writer who grew up speaking Yiddish.

His father was born on the border of Belarus and Latvia. His mother, a rabbi’s daughter, was one of 12 children.

The family moved to Montreal, where Bellow was born in 1915, then to Chicago. As Roth later wrote to Bellow, “Really Chicago is your America.”

Years later, Bellow translated Bashevis Singer’s story Gimpel the Fool into English in 1953. His masterpiece Herzog is sprinkled with Yiddish. His great novels are full of American Jews.

A new kind of Jewish voice had broken into American literature. No one had seen anything like it before.

Finally, three of these Modern Classics editions republish introductions by major writers: JM Coetzee on Dangling Man (first published in 2007), Stanley Crouch on Mr. Sammler’s Planet (1995) and Martin Amis on More Die of Heartbreak (2004).

The best is by Amis (originally delivered as a lecture in Israel in 1987). Amis is superb on some of the central issues in Bellow: how he writes about women; his extraordinary turn of phrase; and two of Bellow’ s defining subjects, America and the modern.

These are crucial to understanding Bellow’s place as the writer of the post-war Jewish cultural ascendancy.

Bellow understood better than anyone, even Roth, how post-war America changed the way we think about the modern world, how America was an early taste of “the moronic inferno”.

These books remind us what made Bellow the greatest Jewish American writer and that what really counts when we think about his reputation is not his politics but his writing.

Saul in Seven

Dangling Man, 1944 (£10.99)
Bellow’s first novel. “It was slight – less than 200 pages – derivative of the existential, European ‘literary’ novel that was then in vogue, and nearly plotless,” said Bellow’s biographer James Atlas.

Mr. Sammler’s Planet, 1970 (£10.99)
Artur Sammler wanders in the alien world of 1960s New York at the height of the student radical movement.

To Jerusalem and Back, 1976 (£10.99)
A non-fiction work offering a series of reflections on Israel. Bellow interviewed numerous Jewish government and cultural leaders. Later in 1976 he was awarded the Nobel Prize.

The Dean’s December, 1982 (£12.99)
Perhaps Bellow’s last great novel, contrasting the corruption and inhumanity of Communism with the decline of 1980s Chicago.

More Die of Heartbreak, 1987 (£12.99)
This addresses Bellow’s great subjects: Jews, women, America and the modern world.

The Actual, 1997 (£9.99)
Barely a hundred pages long, this novella tells the story of Harry Trellman, an ageing Chicago businessman, and Sigmund Adletsky, a billionaire.

Ravelstein, 2000 (£10.99)
Bellow’s last novel. Abe Ravelstein, ferocious intellectual and bestselling author, is dying. The novel is based on Bellow’s close friend Allan Bloom.

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