U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Saul Bellow’s Kulturkämpfe

BellowAs Ben Alpers made clear in his introductory post to Saul Bellow week, the novelist is important to intellectual historians for helping to enumerate representative twentieth-century literary themes, such as the “crisis of man” trope isolated by Mark Greif in his new book. But as Ben also pointed out, late in life Bellow was a conservative culture warrior. In today’s post I will analyze this a bit more.

One of the central interventions that my forthcoming book, A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars, makes is that secular neoconservatives like Saul Bellow were arguably more important than religious conservatives in defining the parameters of the culture wars. This goes against the grain of how most people think about the culture wars, in part because most of us understand the culture wars through the lens of the book that has been the standard-bearer for 25 years: James Davison Hunter’s Culture Wars. I will write more about this in future posts, but for now let’s just say that the intellectual history of the culture wars allows us to think more carefully about the genealogies of the culture wars.

Neoconservatives were crucial because the New Left had changed the national debate about political culture. Unlike traditionalist conservative thinkers who conflated liberalism with the New Left, neoconservatives believed the New Left had infected the liberal intellectual culture they loved. That they detected such a change was one of the central reasons for their political conversion; it was one of the primary reasons neoconservatives proved so useful to the modern American conservative movement. As such, the texture of post-sixties anti-intellectualism was best revealed in neoconservative writings, even in the fiction of Bellow.

In the 1969 novel Mr. Sammler’s Planet—the neoconservative novel par excellence—Saul Bellow drew a picture of the “new class” type distinct from older anti-intellectual caricatures (as Stephen Schryer argues in his excellent Fantasies of the New Class: Ideologies of Professionalism in Post-World War II American Fiction, which Andy Seal first pointed out to me a few years ago). In the opening scene,Artur Sammler complains that “intellectual man has become an explaining creature. Fathers to children, wives to husbands, lecturers to listeners, experts to laymen, colleagues to colleagues, doctors to patients, man to his own soul explained.”

Despite being an explainer himself, Sammler is alienated because he believes that most explanation contradicts the “natural knowledge” innate to the human soul. Having fun with Hegel’s “Owl of Minerva,” which only takes flight at dusk—a reference to Hegel’s allegory about philosophy only being revealed after phenomena—Sammler says that the soul rests “unhappily on superstructures of explanation, poor bird, not knowing which way to fly.” Bemoaning that intellectuals increasingly dedicated their work to rationalizing bad behavior, Sammler offers a thinly veiled critique of the sixties liberation ethos:

The labor of Puritanism was now ending, the dark satanic mills changing into light satanic mills. The reprobates converted into children of joy, the sexual ways of the seraglio and of the Congo bush adopted by the emancipated masses of New York, Amsterdam, London.

By siding against contemporary intellectual mores, Bellow and the neoconservatives aligned with the more authentic sensibilities of average Americans. In other words, the neoconservative mind was the intellectualization of the white working-class ethos. As a Commentary writer put it: “Three workingmen discoursing of public affairs in a bar may perhaps display more clarity, shrewdness, and common sense” than a representative of the “new class,” with his “heavy disquisitions.” In this way, neoconservatives elaborated on the crude conservative populism of George Wallace’s presidential campaigns. They gave theoretical expression to Spiro Agnew’s colloquial eviscerations of the “nattering nabobs of negativity.” Most importantly, they helped make sense of the seemingly incongruous fact that some of nation’s most privileged citizens doubled as its most adversarial. These were the people the Catholic intellectual and budding neoconservative Michael Novak labeled the “Know-Everythings”: “affluent professionals, secular in their values and tastes and initiatives, indifferent to or hostile to the family, equipped with postgraduate degrees and economic security and cultural power.”

The development of such neoconservative “new class” thought was crucial to the culture wars—crucial to the continuing attack on higher education by conservatives such as Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. It also helps explain the racial arrogance of Bellow’s infamous statement: “When the Zulus produce a Tolstoy we will read him.” 

Greif argues that Bellow’s connections to the University of Chicago help explain the “crisis of man” theme that runs through some of his best early works. I would argue that this connection also explains his role in the culture wars, especially his close friendship with Allan Bloom, author of the culture wars über-text, The Closing of the American Mind. Bellow’s 2000 novel Ravelstein—which is actually one of my favorite Bellow novels—is about his good friend Bloom, who died of AIDS in 1992. In the book Bloom, or rather “Ravelstein,” is depicted as a complex, eclectic, lovable, troubled, multi-dimensional human being.

This is not how Bloom necessarily comes across in his role as Chief Culture Warrior. In fact, Bellow had a lot to do with the cartoonish depiction of Bloom that loomed large in the American imagination.

Bellow authored the renowned foreword to Closing of the American Mind, in which he announced in the first sentence: “Professor Bloom has his own way of doing things.” Namely, according to Bellow, Bloom refused to stoop to the level of his philistine contemporaries, preferring instead to keep company with the likes of Aristotle. By encouraging readers to think of Bloom as a renegade genius, Bellow also invited mockery. Philosopher Robert Paul Wolff playfully suggested that Bloom was a figment of Saul Bellow’s literary imagination:

Saul Bellow has demonstrated that among his other well-recognized literary gifts is an unsuspected bent for daring satire. What Bellow has done, quite simply, is to write an entire coruscatingly funny novel in the form of a pettish, bookish, grumpy, reactionary complaint against the last two decades. The ‘author’ of this tirade, one of Bellow’s most fully-realized literary creations, is a mid-fiftyish Professor at the University of Chicago, to whom Bellow gives the evocative name ‘Bloom’. Bellow appears in the book only as the author of an eight-page ‘Foreword,’ in which he introduces us to his principal and only character.

The idea that helped make Bloom a cultural marvel—the notion of him as a sage among boors, sent from some distant past to rescue civilization from the abyss—was also what helped make him an easy target for ridicule. For better or worse, this perception also secured Closing of the American Mind’s place as the most important text of the culture wars. Bellow played some part in that.

18 Thoughts on this Post

  1. It’s always so fascinating–and disturbing–to learn about yet another white American male intellectual, who during the post WWII years followed that well trodden path from leftist circles to end his days as a crabby conservative. The list is so long. I wonder if this is a particularly post WWII thing, or is it just as common in other periods.

  2. Really good question, Eran. I think the left-to-right trajectory of many intellectuals–mostly white men–is much more common and pronounced after WW2 for a few reasons. Because of the Cold War leftwing anti-Stalinists made fast friends with conservative anticommunists, which had a more general conservatizing effect on them. But equally if not more important was the effect that the movements of the sixties–feminism, gay rights, Black Power, etc–had on people like Bellow in terms of disturbing their positions of intellectual authority in relation to the nation.

    • i think it’s only human nature for many folks to be more radical when they are young and posses little or nothing and then to become more conservative as they come to possess things (power, possessions, money, position, etc.) they wish to protect for themselves. i dont’t think this is isolated to the novelists of the (let’s call it) the world war ii generation.

      that generation was different because of what they had to face in life — their reward for surviving the depression was world war ii after all. many of them (including writers such as salinger, vonnegut, jones, heller, etc.) were seared by their experiences at D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge, Gudalcanal, the Batte of the Hurtgen Forest, 60 bomber missions, attacks by u-boat wolfpacks and the fire bombing of Dresden to name just a few.

      so i can understand the survivors desire to come home to a nice quiet little life of peace and prosperity after what they had been through. they had experienced enough change, displacement, death and turmoil and their wish to live the way they did was not due to any -isms but because they were human.

      • May I recommend dr. Jonathan Shay’s
        http://www.amazon.com/Achilles-Vietnam-Combat-Undoing-Character/dp/0684813211
        Achilles in Vietnam, to toss a complication into the quandary and myths of the “greatest generation” being pandered as part and parcel of some special right to drift from BDU, through Grey Flannel Suit, into the hirsute of holy defender of lost culture. I wonder how much of the post vietnam angst fest rests with the unresolved question of was it a liberal failure Nixon saved us from? Or was it the unpleasant unwrapping of American exceptionalism that was not quite polite to talk about in decent society? We live in a time in which Iraq war vet kills another, and all those who wished they had served want answers! Someone to tidy up the story!
        Achilles, like all war vets, just wants to return to that mythological world, in Vietnam era parlance, “the world”, but I fear it was never really there in the first place.
        But that is probably too scary for even civilians to live with.
        I really wish some day Americans will sort out how they really want their “wars”, including the asymmetric warfare spaces. Maybe then we can also resolve if the kulturKampf is over.

  3. I think maybe the reaction to Stalinism in the 1930s actually produced a greater swing than the postwar and especially the neo-con turn of the 1960s. John Dos Passos, Max Eastman, James Burnham, etc. were pronounced figures in this turn, and you can find examples of the shift from left to right going back to 19th c. figures like Orestes Brownson and the mid 19th-century liberals that Leslie Butler discusses in _Critical Americans_ (although she seems to argue that they stayed committed to their vision of democracy, even as the world changed around them and rendered that vision of democracy a defense of a meritocratic bourgeois elite). And then there are figures like Ronald Radosh, David Horowitz, and Eugene Genovese, who I think have a different trajectory than the neo-cons like Podhoretz and Kristol.

  4. Andrew,
    I look forward to reading your book. I agree on the importance of the neocons to ‘the culture wars’ (just on the basis of general observation, not acquaintance w the academic lit on the topic).

    If I were to disagree somewhat with one of your statements in this post, it would be this passage:

    By siding against contemporary intellectual mores, Bellow and the neoconservatives aligned with the more authentic sensibilities of average Americans. In other words, the neoconservative mind was the intellectualization of the white working-class ethos. As a Commentary writer put it: “Three workingmen discoursing of public affairs in a bar may perhaps display more clarity, shrewdness, and common sense” than a representative of the “new class,” with his “heavy disquisitions.” In this way, neoconservatives elaborated on the crude conservative populism of George Wallace’s presidential campaigns. They gave theoretical expression to Spiro Agnew’s colloquial eviscerations of the “nattering nabobs of negativity.”

    The ‘neconservative mind’, I would suggest, was not so much “the intellectualization of the white working-class ethos” as it was the intellectualization of what the neoconservatives assumed to be, from a distance, the white working-class ethos. With a few possible exceptions (say, Michael Novak, maybe), I don’t think the neocons spent time actually hanging out in white working-class bars. Certainly I’d be surprised if Norman Podhoretz (or Saul Bellow) did, though I don’t know that much about Bellow’s life. In place of an actual acquaintance with “the white working-class ethos” (assuming for the sake of argument the existence of a unitary one), the neocons had assumptions and second-hand knowledge, derived from what they read in the newspapers or perhaps saw on TV, etc.

    To attempt to ‘intellectualize’ and theorize something one doesn’t really know first-hand is probably a recipe for distortion, it seems to me. At the very least the neocons were selective, identifying with what they saw as the white working-class’s resentment of ‘new class’ professionals, but not identifying with much of the white working-class’s continuing attachment to unions, for example. On that line, I haven’t read Jefferson Cowie’s book(s) on the working class in the ’70s (Stayin Alive I think is the title), but would be interested if you have run across it and if so what you think — admittedly, I don’t think there’s a direct connection to the culture wars, but perhaps there’s an indirect one.

    • i don’t disagree with your notion of distortion. After all, what is the white-working-class ethos? Is there ONE? To intellectualize it or characterize it in general terms is to distort. And yet it stood in for a general conservative zeitgeist that the neocons tapped into better than most, judging by the degree to which others riffed on them.

      • Minor nit, as one of those who lumped trucks at the local warehouse to pay the freight through college, the big irony was that I am not sure there was one working class ethos, save as it got defined in the anti-anti-war context. The grand irony of a total embrace of a rebel without a cause from those who probably also hated james dean as one of those they were hating on.

    • For a time in the early 1970s many neocons remained pro-union insofar as the unions took a stand against the “new politics” that they believed had taken over the Democratic Party in the wake of the McGovern reforms that opened up the party to minorities, women, gays, etc. Cowie deals with this to some extent, indeed argues that the unions helped weaken themselves by not being open to the cultural changes wrought by the New Left liberation movements.

      • this is really a key point. The “AFL-CIA” moment often involved support of authoritarian anti-communist regimes in Africa and Latin America, and triangulation with Israel, in a way that spoke to neocon passions. Some good people, including Bayard Rustin, got caught up in that, in quite a sad way.

  5. Louis,
    I think you’re right to point to some distortion in the way neoconservatives thought about the white working-class ethos, but I think the distortion came not from a lack of knowledge of others’ experience but rather a romanticization of their own experience. Bellow’s novels, I think, were instrumental in this, but so was, say, Podhoretz’s Making It. Bellow, as a young man, praised James T. Farrell’s novels, I believe, but there are worlds of difference between Farrell’s white working class and the refracted memories of those same neighborhoods you get twenty or more years later in Augie March or his other novels.

    • Andy,
      Yes, good point.
      (Although Mr. Sammler’s Planet, for some reason, and I think also The Adventures of Augie March were on my parents’ shelves when I was a kid, I couldn’t get into them. Nor is Bellow someone I had to read in school. I have read Ravelstein or at least parts of it, come to think of it, but apart from that I haven’t read Bellow. So I’m going to take your word for it on Augie March etc. :))

      • hear you on bellow. had to read henderson the rain king for a contemporary american lit class and just couldn’t get through it and to this day have no memory of it except its boringness and my resolve to never read any more bellow. other writers just had more to offer.

  6. @publius:
    Well ok, but I should make clear I wasn’t intending to dis Bellow as a writer or suggest he is boring; the reasons one ‘can’t get into’ a writer vary and don’t always or necessarily reflect on the writer himself/herself. In a sense I was more criticizing myself than Bellow, I suppose. I’ll leave it at that for now.

  7. Andrew, if you have not yet read http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Reactionary_Mind
    I would highly recommend that you take the time. I believe the author has done an excellent job of showing how it is more of a system than most folks like to admit to. It has to do with explaining how the ancien regime failed, rather than how to restore the ancien regime.

    My lense on this was studying in a bible school that considered oral Roberts university a hot bed of liberalism. But by the time the actor reagan got to the new day in America, folks wanted a change from the piety of jimmy carter, who we were suppose to back as the Christian in the race.

    I joke that I expect neo-cons will move to an anti-hetro stance, as hetro’s want schools, public roads, drinkable water, breathable air. All liberal code words for tax increases. We watched the move from christian schools to protect against desegregation, to the new charter school memes. So moving the antiTax meme down the trail is not that hard. All we need is a firmer biblical literalist commitment to the Pauline dictum to not marry, so as to focus on the gospel.

  8. @drieux (first of drieux’s comments above):
    I wonder how much of the post vietnam angst fest rests with the unresolved question of was it a liberal failure Nixon saved us from? Or was it the unpleasant unwrapping of American exceptionalism that was not quite polite to talk about in decent society?

    Nixon and Kissinger unnecessarily prolonged and extended the U.S. war in Indochina in the name of a chimerical “peace with honor,” producing tens of thousands (at least) of additional deaths. Whether or not one judges the initial involvement in Vietnam a “liberal failure” (I would perhaps tend to do so, in the broad sense of ‘Cold War liberalism’), it was not something Nixon “saved” the U.S. from. Humphrey had belatedly set out his own (independent from Johnson) position on the war in Sept. 1968, and had Humphrey been elected in Nov. 1968 rather than Nixon it is quite possible (though who knows for sure?) that the U.S. involvement would have ended sooner than it did under Nixon and Kissinger.

    The latter two, of course, had also illegally and clandestinely interfered with the Paris peace talks underway during the run-up to the 1968 election, persuading Thieu via Anna Chennault to hold out for the supposedly better terms Nixon and Kissinger were going to produce; and the effort to cover-up that interference, a recent book has argued, is directly tied to Watergate (I will try to come back later and link to the book).

    • In May 1963, President Kennedy advised the Joint Chiefs of Staff to begin preparations for the poll out of the 17,000 advisors in S. Vietnam. This directive ultimately resulted in National Security Action Memorandum 263 in early October of that year which specified that 1,000 advisors be brought home by the end of 1963 and all by the end of 1965. This withdrawal was announced to the American people by Robert McNamara. These orders were still in effect at the time of JFK’s death and 220 or so nontechnical personnel were in fact withdrawn from Vietnam on December 3, 1963.

      Then it all changed as LBJ took the reins of power and National Security action Memorandum 273 in subtle bureaucratic language changed to nature of America’s commitment from withdrawal to staying the course and winning (NSAM 263 had specified assisting the S. Vietnamese to win).

      So really it was those who killed JFK whom the nation needed to be saved from. And I doubt that there was much ideological difference between Nixon’s and Johnson’s corporate backers to have much effect on being labeled liberal or conservative.

      Nixon saved no one from nothing, lest of all death. JFK and Vietnam by John Newman is a fascinating account of all of this.

      • Thks for the ref to Newman.
        The book on Watergate that I alluded to above is Ken Hughes, Chasing Shadows: the Nixon Tapes, the Chennault Affair, and the Origins of Watergate (2014).

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