U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Saul Bellow’s Racism And Chicago’s Intellectual Life

[Updated/edited: 2/11/2015, 7:30 pm]

About a week ago the Chicago Tribune published a story, co-authored by Azam Ahmed and Ron Grossman, on Saul Bellow’s racial views. I do not know if the authors intended it this way, but the piece is really an introduction to Bellow’s place in Chicago’s intellectual life. This comes at the same time that Chicago magazine placed Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March as one of the top ten “essential” novelsgreat books I say—about Chicago.

The Tribune story, titled “Bellow’s remarks on race haunt legacy in Hyde Park” and dated October 5, is excerpted below with my interlinear commentary.

– “In a city whose streets commemorate fascist pilots [General Italo Balbo] and other controversial figures, it should have been a rubber-stamped request: a street, a statue, maybe a school named in honor of Saul Bellow, one of America’s greatest writers and a Chicago literary icon.”
– “The request, made several months ago to Mayor Richard Daley’s office by Bellow’s longtime friend and University of Chicago colleague Richard Stern, was sent along to Ald. Toni Preckwinkle (4th.). The request was promptly denied, Stern said.”
– “Stern [down, right] said he received a letter from the alderman saying she had heard remarks from Bellow she considered racist and because of those comments would not agree to name something after the author.”
– “Bellow, who died two years ago at age 89 after moving to the Boston area, had a complex relationship with Chicago. His career was not without controversy over racial and ethnic issues, topics he explored in essays and books. Stern and other friends of Bellow said he wasn’t a racist. His thoughts and feelings about race and ethnicity were more complex.”

TL: But isn’t this the standard retort when considering the racial views of historical figures? You can’t treat Bellow like you would a Gilded Age figure: Bellow lived through the civil rights era in the U.S.

– “He feared the racial changes in his Hyde Park neighborhood, once filled with European immigrants and now predominantly African-American, Stern said.”

TL: Okay, but was he fearing the loss of immigrant culture or the nature of those incoming?

– “A letter to the editor of the Hyde Park Herald…revealed Preckwinkle’s decision, Stern wrote: “That fact that I know that Bellow was as far from being a racist as either Preckwinkle or myself does not alter the fact that here and there in his work are sentences which could be taken as Preckwinkle took what she heard and
about which I myself argued with him.”
– “But that doesn’t change the fact that Stern believes something in the city should be named in honor of the novelist, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1976. Several Chicago authors have places named in their honor in the city, among them novelist Nelson Algren and poet Gwendolyn Brooks. Among the more notorious honorees is Italo Balbo, a pilot and military and political leader for the Italian facist government of the 1930s.”

TL: But this also doesn’t change the fact that race relations have come a long way since the 1930s. Algren and Brooks were not known for racism. And Balbo was honored for a singular event, not for his general life of “accomplishments.” Success with novels is not “event” oriented, although one might argue that all recipients of Nobel Prizes should have streets names after them.

– ” ‘We have a tradition of naming streets in Chicago for great writers — (German romantic writer) Goethe and (French poet Jean) Racine — so it seems appropriate to name something after him,’ Stern said.”

TL: But those streets were not named in the 21st century when a heightened sensitivity to racism is predominant (and appropriate).

– “It isn’t the first time that Bellow’s thoughts on race got him into trouble. In an interview with the New York Times Magazine in 1988, Bellow was quoted as having said: “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans? I’d be glad to read them,” a remark that earned him accusations of insensitivity, elitism and racism.”

TL: Ah, context—how it can save the day. How does Stern explain away this?

– “James Atlas, Bellow’s biographer, said one couldn’t classify the complexity of the man and his work without examining the complexity and nuance of his books. ‘If you look at the black character who stalks Sammler in his novel Mr. Sammler’s Planet, you get a sense that Bellow himself felt threatened by or could feel threatened by blacks,’ Atlas said. ‘On the other hand, he also expressed tremendous pain and sympathy about the conditions of blacks in the South and West Side ghettos of Chicago.’ ”

TL: Now we’re getting somewhere. But occasional empathy does constitute one’s general character and views.

– “The nostalgia of his literary vision, a love affair with a vanishing Chicago, was paralleled by a traditional way of educating. Bellow was an educator of the old school – and especially of the Great Books program established in the 1930s and 1940s at the University of Chicago by its President Robert Maynard Hutchins” [right].

TL: Now you’re seeing, in part, why I’m reflecting on Bellow here at USIH. But my real general interest is in the intellectual history of Chicago.

– “For Hutchins and Bellow, great books were essentially books written by Greeks, Romans and those who came after them in the Western tradition.”
– “Bellow headed the U. of C.’s elite Committee on Social Thought, and one of his proteges was Allan Bloom. Bellow encouraged Bloom to set down on paper his ideas that standards in American higher education were being sacrificed on the altar of multiculturalism and political correctness. The resulting book, The Closing of the American Mind, made Bloom’s fame — and, in their opponents’ minds, also made Bellow an accomplice in the “culture wars,” as those curricular battles came to be called.”

TL: Wait, an “accomplice”? Are Ahmed and Grossman holding Bellow responsible for Bloom? If so, that’s a slippery slope: it’s weak. Encouraging an articulate firebrand to write is not the same as encouraging racism. Bloom =/ Bellow, even if their names hold a certain alliterative quality.

– “Bellow was a product of Chicago’s neighborhoods, who through his novelistic alter ego Augie March observed: ‘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.’ Having grown up in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood, Bellow was uncomfortable with subsequent chapters in the Northwest Side community. Years later, he recalled that the Polish and Jewish immigrants of his generation had been succeeded by migrants from Puerto Rico lacking, he thought, the work ethic of their predecessors. The streets seemed shabby and neglected, he said.”

TL: Okay, we’re back on solid ground with the racism charge.

– “On Thursday, Studs Terkel, another venerable Chicago writer, said: “I don’t think he was a racist; I think he was a bit more scared of black-skinned people than he should have been.’ ”

TL: With all due respect, Mr. Terkel—and I mean that—fear of people on the basis of skin color ~alone~ is sine qua non racism.

– “But Bellow was close friends with Ralph Ellison, the African-American novelist. The two were roommates during the 1950s, and Bellow was a constant source of encouragement both before and after Ellison’s now classic Invisible Man.”

TL: This is like the white people from my hometown in western Missouri disabusing racism on the basis of their one black friend in Kansas City. It won’t cut it.

– “While people may criticize his racial outlook, he had a distinguished literary career. A prolific writer, his work often centered on the difficulties of the modern world, with hustler characters who could spout philosophy like professors.”

TL: This is true, but it doesn’t excuse Bellow’s racism in a world—post-World War II America—that knew better. And Bellow didn’t even have the sorry excuse of having grown up in a region of the U.S. where racism was tolerated.

– “One thing for sure, whomever he liked or didn’t like, Bellow, like the hero of his novel Herzog, had a love affair with Hyde Park. He described it in the book as shabby and rundown, not unlike Humboldt Park, but adding nonetheless that in Hyde Park, ‘among these spacious, comfortable, dowdy apartments where liberal, benevolent people lived…Herzog did in fact feel at home.’ ”

TL: Well, Mr. Bellow, you were clearly not one of those “liberal benevolent people.” And your calling Hyde Park, one of the most diverse and educated neighborhoods in Chicago today, home makes the inconsistency of your racial views more disconcerting. You were scared of people because of their skin color, and history is now judging you accordingly. Perhaps Herzog was who you wanted to be? It doesn’t seem to be who you really were. – TL

10 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I find this post really troubling. I don’t really care if Bellow gets his street, but what would it do to the state of American letters if every writer knew that after his death, some de facto coalition of newspapermen, politicians, and bored academics would scan through his work looking for any ambivalence that could be cast as politically unpleasant? Should Bellow be punished for staying in Hyde Park while every other white writer of his generation (Roth, Updike, et al) simply pretended urban poverty did not exist?

  2. The Bloom/Bellow connection is there to suggest that Bellow is being punished unfairly by Bloom’s critics, being, let’s say, “tarred” by Bloom’s brush. 🙂

    Styron’s intro. essay in later editions of _Confessions of Nat Turner_ laments precisely this problem. In 1963 he was lauded by black folks, and by 1968 he was excoriated.

    Memorials aren’t about what is being memorialized, they are about the contemporary meaning and significance of their subjects.

  3. Russell: This is what scholars do—pour through the works of the dead (& living) to understand to the utmost those that mattered (or don’t matter). And who says that Roth, Updike, et al won’t be “punished” for their sometimes myopic visions of the United States? And, does sensitivity to poverty trump insensitivity to race? I suppose that is possible in some places and times, but those places and times are not here and now in the United States.

    Jon: I’m not so sure I agree on the Bloom/Bellow connection in the piece. The authors leave it vague, but in the context of the piece—on Bellow’s racism (to the authors)—it suggests that Bellow shared Bloom’s intolerant, anachronistic worldview.

    But, Jon, on memorials: I agree with you completely. Memorials are as much about the historical context in which they are built ~as~ the purportedly transcendent thing they are helping us remember.

    Perhaps that’s the real question with regard to Bellow: What transcendent “thing” or “value” are we supposed to appreciate or remember about him? If his novels are about character and the “great ideas,” shouldn’t we judge Bellow on the merits of his characters and ideas? – TL

  4. regarding racism:

    Although I don’t agree that it is always given, let’s assume in this case it’s given that ‘we’ (this pronoun should always have scare quotes around it) as historians are entitled to judge individuals in the past for their actions in terms of a context that we, given our distance and hindsight, can understand better than they could.

    even (especially?) given this, racism is such a massive, heavy word that we as scholars, even in a blog, surely shouldn’t make it a true/false question of innocence or guilt. If historiography is the juridical apparatus of history, then at least its judgments are issued in monographs and its punishments meted out in citations. (excuse the bloated metaphor).

    surely by this point, we all agree that there is such a thing as systemic racism, which doesn’t require the active collaboration and encouragement of individuals. It sustains itself even against a certain amount of activity on the part of the system against it. any self-aware academic understands themselves to be part of just such a racist institution (if we take academia as an more or less enclosed institution, which i think we must–on a university or college basis, one would have to make individual judgments).

    so, just to play devil’s advocate here, isn’t it racist to remain a part of an institutional structure that one knows to be deeply skewed against the participation of various sorts of minorities, that is structurally committed to the social reproduction of its white, male (largely) heterosexual elite?

    novelists are, at least according to certain no longer fashionable visions of literature and its role in society, supposed to hold a mirror up for their readers, and force them to see in it how far the world is from where it ought to be. this is a special kind of truth. it is *not* the kind of truth to which academics, even activist academics, are usually thought to hew. So, from this perspective, the racism of a novelist is quite different from the racism of an academic. Personal ‘failings’ (even on major political issues) are absolutely to be distinguished from artistic success.

  5. Eric,

    Your warning about either/or “racism” is duly noted. I want to make it clear here that I personally ~do not~ subscribe to a true/false view on the subject. For this post I began, like any good historian, with the evidence in front of me—the terms, views, and people therein. But in building on that story, I’m with Eric in parsing the term.

    So the new questions appear to be: What kind of “racist” was Bellow? Were his views intentional? If so, how much? If not, how much? Does he deserve approbation, such as is articulated in the article? Or does he deserve the sympathy voiced by Stern? Or is he uncomfortably in between?

    And if Bellow lies between the extremes, does that merit the exclusion of memorialization?

    But let’s not hide behind the facade that historians should not or can not judge. We do it all the time, whether explicitly or implicitly. – TL

  6. Actually, I do not agree that Tim’s questions are the most important ones. I’m not even sure that they are terribly relevant, even though they are the ones that people clearly want to be raising. I think we can easily stipulate that Bellow held a lot of ideas about race that make contemporary Chicagoans uncomfortable. But whether or not he was a “racist,” however defined, is a query so fraught with essentialist presuppositions that a meaningful answer is unlikely to be found, and even less likely to be helpful.

    The really important issue, as I see it, is not one specific to Bellow. Instead, it is a broader philosophical question, one that been brought up a million times before: can people be memorialized for some accomplishments and not others? Thomas Jefferson held slaves, Martin Luther King cheated on his wife, and so on. Yet we honor those people with relatively little controversy. Is it possible to celebrate Bellow as a novelist and Chicagoan without honoring him as a “racist”?

    As has been pointed out already, the answer to this question always has to do with the audience in the present rather than the actors in the past. As such, consistent standards will seldom apply. For example, no one cares about fascism anymore–if there ever came about a new threat from that ideology, Balbo would be renamed by the end of the week. In the meantime, though, a street bearing the name of a fascist doesn’t seem to trouble Chicagoans nearly as much as one potentially named after a racially intolerant novelist. It’s unclear what standards one could use to argue that this position should be supplanted by another one.

    With regard to Bellow, I, for one, think that his literary accomplishments outweigh the admittedly unsavory evidence presented in this post (which is about all that I personally know about the subject). I’d even go a step futher and say that if the consensus among Chicagoans is that the former do not provide a more significant lens through which to view Bellow’s life, that I personally find their view a bit myopic. But it is certainly their right to hold such a position, and to value one aspect of a person’s life above another one. How else could you do it?

  7. I doubt Bellow feared blacks because of the darkness of their skin. I’m sure it had something to do with the fact that roughly 6% of the population (black males) commit half of the murders. And even of that percentage, I’m sure Bellow was capable of differentiating an elderly black man minding his own business, drinking a cup of coffee and reading a newspaper, and a group of black teen males moving menacingly in his direction.

  8. I think, for better or worse, that bellow’s racism is a populist kind of racism. His fear of African Americans is what i believe most white people fear and i’m glad he foregrounded it, but i would hope that we recognize its intellectual paucity. To compare a philanderer with a racist is like comparing an apple and a pipe bomb, one is detrimental on a personal level affecting at most a few people, while the latter has the potential to affect whole groups of people.

  9. Perhaps Saul Bellow, like so many others, simply felt pain at seeing most of Hyde Park turn into just another extension of the south side, with all the problems of crime, violence, section eight tenants, and inferior schools and quality of life that accompany such a change. Many of us still remember remember working for an integrated Hyde Park-Kenwood, supporting our local public schools, and believing that such a community could be maintained. We remember when Drexel Boulevard was a blue chip address for black and white professionals, instead of being known for scores of drive-by shootings. Bellow’s writing poignantly publicized the discrimination faced by Chicago blacks in the forties and fifties. If Jesse Jackson Senior admitted feeling fearful knowing that black youths were walking behind him, can Bellow be faulted for sharing these feelings too?

    As for Alderman Preckwinkle: “Sister, Please!”

    • “Anonymous” has hit the nail on the head! Many Hyde Parkers, both black and white, thought that we could maintain an integrated Hyde Park – Kenwood community. In retrospect, there just were not enough of us on both sides to pull this dream off. Now once proud Drexel Boulevard is a gang parade ground, and the public schools are a joke. It’s no wonder that many former Hyde Parkers were left with the feeling of being “had.”

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