U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Focus on Saul Bellow

This week, the USIH Blog embarks on the second of its bimonthly Focus Weeks, this time on the novelist Saul Bellow (1915-2005). Along with Toni Morrison, Bellow is only one of two Anglophone American writers to win the Nobel Prize in literature in the last fifty years.[1] Bellow’s interest to U.S. intellectual historians is at least two-fold. First, Bellow’s fiction grapples very directly with ideas of larger importance to U.S. intellectual history. Thus Bellow is one of the key figures in Mark Greif’s recent book The Age of the Crisis of Man (2014). Through readings of The Dangling Man (1944), Bellow’s first novel, and The Adventures of Augie March (1953), arguably his first great work, Greif suggests that Bellow attempted to offer answers to a series of questions that dominated much of American thought from the 1930s through the 1960s, questions that together formed what many thinkers saw as the “crisis of man” that marked the twentieth century.

Bellow’s answers, in Greif’s view, reflected the novelist’s deep connections to the University of Chicago of Robert Maynard Hutchins and Mortimer Adler. Bellow began his college education at the U of C, before finishing at Northwestern. And for a number of years in the 1940s, he worked on the editorial team putting together the Synopticon, a kind of index that attempted to catalogue the key ideas that appeared in the Great Books of the Western World series that Adler edited. Finally, in the early 1960s, Bellow returned to the University of Chicago to take a faculty position in the Committee on Social Thought, where he taught for three decades.

Over the course of two chapters in the middle of his book, Greif contrasts Bellow with his friend – and sometime housemate – Ralph Ellison. Both emerged as significant literary figures in the decade after World War II, whose major works grappled with Greif’s “crisis of man” while also exploring the particular experiences of his own ethnic group. But while Ellison in Invisible Man (1952) suggests that there is something particular about the African American experience that is irreducible to universals, the world of the Jewish characters in, for example, Augie March seems less bound by particular ethnic experiences.

In addition to the kind of interest in Bellow as a novelist of ideas exemplified by Greif, there is a second way in which Bellow is of interest to U.S. intellectual historians. Bellow’s later years were punctuated by a number of famous interventions in the culture wars of the late twentieth century. Most infamously, in a 1988 interview, he dismissed efforts to open up the canon: “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans? I’d be glad to read him.”  In a sense, the novel Mr. Sammler’s Planet (1970), which bitterly criticizes the cultural changes of the 1960s, straddles these two kinds of intellectual interest in Bellow.

On Wednesday, Andrew Hartman will be exploring Bellow and the culture wars, with a focus on the novels Mr. Sammler’s Planet and Ravelstein (2000), his fictionalized portrait of his friend and Chicago colleague Allan Bloom and on the infamous Zulus comment.

On Friday, Andy Seal will write about the unsent letters in Herzog (1964) and compare them with some similarly unsent letters in Carol Shield’s novel Unless (2002).

And if experience of these focus weeks is any indication, you should expect some additional posts about Bellow, as well.

[1] Two other Americans at the time of their prizes — Isaac Bashevis Singer, who wrote in Yiddish, and Joseph Brodsky, who wrote primarily in Russian — also won during this period.