An American author of fiction, essays, and drama, Saul Bellow (born 1915) reached the first rank of contemporary fiction with his picaresque novel The Adventures of Augie March.
Saul Bellow, born of Russian immigrant parents in Lachine, Quebec, on July 10, 1915, grew up in Montreal, where he learned Hebrew, Yiddish, and French as well as English. When he was nine his family moved to Chicago, and to this city Bellow remained deeply devoted. After two years at the University of Chicago, Bellow transferred to Northwestern University and obtained a bachelor of science degree in 1937. Four months after enrolling as a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, he fled formal education forever.
During the next decade Bellow held a variety of jobs— with the WPA Writers Project, the editorial department of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the Pestalozzi-Froebel Teachers College, and the Merchant Marine. More importantly, he published two novels, both with autobiographical overtones. Dangling Man (1944), in the form of a journal, concerns a young Chicagoan waiting to be drafted into military service. The Victim (1947), a more ambitious work, describes the frustrations of a New Yorker seeking to discover and preserve his own identity against the background of domestic and religious (Gentile versus Jewish) conflicts. Neither novel was heralded as exceptional by contemporary critics.
After World War II Bellow joined the University of Minnesota English Department, spent a year in Paris and Rome as a Guggenheim fellow, and taught briefly at New York University, Princeton University, and Bard College. Above all, however, he concentrated on writing fiction. With the publication of The Adventures of Augie March (1953), Bellow won his first National Book Award. A lengthy, free-form liberating story of a young Chicago Jew growing up absurd, Augie March combines comic zest and a narrative virtuosity rare in any decade. Bellow followed it in 1956 with Seize the Day, which is a collection of three short stories, a one-act play, and the novella that gives the title to the volume—a tautly written description of one day in the life of a middle-aged New Yorker facing a major domestic crisis. Some critics feel that Bellow never surpassed this novella.
Devotees of Henderson the Rain King (1959) enjoyed Bellow's return to a more free-flowing manner in describing an American millionaire's search to understand the human condition in his flight from a tangled marital arrangement and his adventures in Africa. His next novel, Herzog (1964), won him a second National Book Award and an international reputation. Doubtlessly based on personal sources, it portrays Moses Herzog, a middle-aged university professor, and his battles with his faithless wife Madeline, his friend Valentine Gersbach, and his own alienated self. Through a series of unposted letters, many of them highly comic, Herzog finally resolves his struggles, not in marital reconciliation but in rational acceptance and self-control.
In 1962 Bellow became a professor at the University of Chicago, a post which allowed him to continue writing fiction and plays. The Last Analysis had a brief run on Broadway in 1964. Six short stories, collected in Mosby's Memoirs and Other Stories (1968), and his sixth novel, Mr. Sammler's Planet (1969), elevated Bellow's reputation to the point where one critic wrote that if Bellow was not the most important American novelist, then whoever was had better announce himself quickly. Some critics called him the successor of Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner.
Humboldt's Gift (1975) added the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize for Literature to Bellow's list of awards and led Frank McConnell to observe that his books "form a consistent, carefully nurtured oeuvre not often encountered in the works of American writers." In her glowing review of his short story collection, Him with His Foot in His Mouth and Other Stories (1984), Cynthia Ozick declared: "these five ravishing stories honor and augment his genius."
Bellow's later novels have not received the same unequivocal praise. The Dean's December (1982) and More Die of Heartbreak (1987) retained his distinctive style but some believed the cynicism of the characters signaled a lessening of Bellow's own trademark humanism.
Since 1987, Bellow has released a number of novellas: A Theft (1989), The Bellarosa Connection (1989), Something to Remember Me By (1991), and The Actual (1997). These works have met with similarly mixed reviews.
Despite the recent coolness towards his work, Bellow's place in American literature seems secure, most notably for his ability to combine social commentary with sharply drawn characters. His best fiction has been compared to the Russian masters, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.
Robert Penn Warren's review of Augie March in The New Republic in 1953 seems to sum up subsequent reaction to his work: "It is, in a way, a tribute, though a backhanded one, to point out the faults of Saul Bellow's novel, for the faults merely make the virtues more impressive."
Further Reading on Saul Bellow
Full-length studies of Saul Bellow include Keith Michael Opdahl, The Novels of Saul Bellow: An Introduction (1967); John Jacob Clayton, Saul Bellow: In Defense of Man (1968); and Irving Malin, Saul Bellow's Fiction (1969). Useful introductory essays are Tony Tanner, Saul Bellow (1965); Earl Rovit, Saul Bellow (1967); and Robert Detweiler, Saul Bellow: A Critical Essay (1967). Irving Malin edited a collection of 12 essays, Saul Bellow and the Critics (1967). Another essay collection, edited by Harold Bloom, is Saul Bellow (1986).