[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” novels—great 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