|(Swans - June 6, 2005) When Saul Bellow won the Nobel Prize for
literature in 1976, he joined other American prize winners who expressed
their time. 1962 Nobel Laureate John Steinbeck captured the spirit of the
turbulent 1930s just as African-American Toni Morrison, who received the
award in 1993, gave expression to another period of strife and struggle.
Contrary to these voices of rebellion, Bellow epitomized the postwar
America retreat into psychoanalysis, material success, and establishment
politics. As somebody who had experienced poverty in the 1930s and who had
made a brief commitment to radical politics, Bellow was the artistic
counterpart to an entire generation of intellectuals who had made room for
themselves at the American dinner table. As so many of the others in this
movement, Bellow's Jewish identity gave added weight to his right turn. The
ascendancy of the Jewish intellectual in terms of social acceptance and
material gain in the USA corresponded to the rise of the state of Israel.
Not only had they made it; they resented others who had not picked
themselves up by the bootstrap.
Despite his conservative bent, Saul Bellow was a great writer capable of
deep humanitarian insights. This article will consider his life and career
and focus on one of his most highly regarded works, Seize the Day. This
1956 novella captures the anxieties of people on the precipice of fame and
wealth but still capable of falling backwards into poverty and obscurity.
Bellow was the bard of an America that still remembered the Great
Depression but that was anxious to move forward to power and prosperity.
This tension gives it literary value. It also drives home what a loss it
was when people such as Saul Bellow finally achieved insider status and
lost touch with their humble roots.
Born on June 10, 1915 to immigrant parents in Lachine, a working-class
suburb of Montreal, Saul Bellow and his family soon moved to Chicago,
Illinois, where his father struggled to make ends meet, eventually turning
to bootlegging. Ironically, things improved after the 1929 crash, when his
father began selling wood chips for bakers' ovens. (This biographical
detail and subsequent ones come from James Atlas's Bellow, a definitive
685-page work that took a decade to research and write. Atlas is obviously
alienated from Bellow's political views and shortcomings as a human being,
but was scrupulous in his treatment of the great writer.)
Bellow discovered an early love of literature. By the time he was nine
years old, he had read all the children's books in the local library and
was moving on to the adult section, starting with Gogol's Dead Souls.
When Saul Bellow arrived at Tuley High School in 1931, he discovered a
thriving radical movement. He soon struck up a friendship with Albert
Glotzer, a Trotskyist who later became one of the exiled Russian's
bodyguards. Although Bellow was never ideological, his sympathies were with
the left. As Glotzer put it, "It was inevitable, given our experience of
life under Tsarism, that our family and close friends would be politically
radical, if not always socialist."
Bellow was a fellow traveler of the Young People's Socialist League, which
was moving leftwards in the 1930s and offered an alternative to the
Communist Party. In addition to Glotzer, Bellow had struck up a friendship
with Isaac Rosenfeld, another leftist and son of immigrant Jewish parents,
who would eventually become a respected contributor to the Partisan Review,
a journal that reflected Trotsky's influence. Bellow remained friends with
Glotzer and Rosenfeld long after his shift to the right.
After Bellow and Rosenfeld became freshmen at the University of Chicago,
they became known as Zinoviev and Kamenev on campus. They belonged to the
Socialist Club on campus and edited Soapbox, its journal. On the masthead
there was a quotation from William Randolph Hearst: "Red radicalism has
planted a soapbox in every educational institution in America."
In 1938, the Depression was still in full-swing and Saul Bellow had to
scramble around for employment like other young men and women. That year he
landed a job with the Federal Writers' Project, which was a hotbed for
aspiring young authors, especially those with a social conscience. It
provided employment for other Chicago radicals like Nelson Algren, who had
already published a novel, Somebody in Boots, about vagrant life, and
Richard Wright, who spent most of his time at the project working on Native
Son. Algren was a supporter of the Communist Party (CP) and Wright a member.
Looking back at this period in a Guardian article dated April 10, 1993 --
long after he had embraced conservative ideology -- Bellow still
demonstrated an obvious affection for his youthful radicalism:
The country took us over. We felt that to be here was a great piece of
luck. The children of immigrants in my Chicago high school, however,
believed that they were also somehow Russian, and while they studied their
Macbeth and Milton's L'Allegro, they read Tolstoy and Dostoevsky as well
and went on inevitably to Lenin's State And Revolution, and the pamphlets
of Trotsky. The Tuley high school debating club discussed the Communist
Manifesto and on the main stem of the neighbourhood, Division Street, the
immigrant intelligentsia lectured from soapboxes, while at "the forum," a
church hall on California Avenue, debates between socialists, communists
and anarchists attracted a fair number of people.
This was the beginning of my radical education. For on the
recommendation of friends I took up Marx and Engels, and remember, in my
father's bleak office near the freight yards, blasting away at Value Price
and Profit while the police raided a brothel across the street -- for
non-payment of protection, probably -- throwing beds, bedding and chairs
through the shattered windows. The Young Communist League tried to recruit
me in the late 1930s. Too late -- I had already read Trotsky's pamphlet on
the German question and was convinced that Stalin's errors had brought
Hitler to power.
In college in 1933 I was a Trotskyist. Trotsky instilled into his
young followers the orthodoxy peculiar to the defeated and ousted. We
belonged to the Movement, we were faithful to Leninism, and could expound
the historical lessons and describe Stalin's crimes. My closest friends and
I were not, however, activists; we were writers. Owing to the Depression we
had no career expectations. We got through the week on five or six bucks
and if our rented rooms were small, the libraries were lofty, were
beautiful. Through "revolutionary politics" we met the demand of the times
for action. But what really mattered was the vital personal nourishment we
took from Dostoevsky or Herman Melville, from Dreiser and John Dos Passos
and Faulkner. By filling out a slip of paper at the Crerar on Randolph
Street you could get all the bound volumes of The Dial and fill long
afternoons with T. S. Eliot, Rilke and e. e. cummings.
By the end of WWII, the United States had already begun to move past the
revolutionary fervor of the 1930s. To an extent, a new-found willingness to
accept liberal capitalism on its own terms was accentuated by the Communist
Party's submersion into the New Deal, symbolized by party chairman Earl
Browder's announcement that the CP was ready to dissolve itself into a kind
of discussion club called the Communist Political Association that
disavowed revolutionary goals.
For writers and intellectuals around the Trotskyist movement, a willingness
to accommodate had more to do with personal ambition rather than ideology.
Since Saul Bellow was always consumed early on by a desire to write great
literature rather than make a revolution, the goal of "tending one's
garden" made perfect sense.
From the publication of Dangling Man in 1944 (a semi-autobiographical tale
of a young writer awaiting a military call-up at the end of WWII) to the
1953 Adventures of Augie March, Bellow would earn the reputation of a
gifted and serious writer who never enjoyed commercial success. His
struggle to make it had Oedipal overtones since his father (and brothers)
had all become wealthy businessmen by the late 1930s. Saul was always seen
as the dreamer whose modest achievements were downplayed as long as he
remained economically insecure. He would often have to borrow money from
his father or brothers just to make ends meet. Handouts were inevitably
accompanied by a lecture.
If Bellow remained unfulfilled in a material sense, by the arrival of the
1950s there was a spiritual void that gnawed at him as well. Despite his
strong identification with the Yiddish language and culture, he was
basically a secular Jew. Like many people in the 1950s, Bellow gravitated
toward psychoanalysis, which had become a secular religion with the analyst
filling in for the priest. For Bellow, deliverance assumed the form of
Reichian therapy delivered at the hands of Dr. Chester Raphael.
Wilhelm Reich had earned a reputation as a Marxist opponent of Nazism,
especially in terms of its sexual repression, but had become something of a
crank during his exile in the United States. Reich had developed a bizarre
theory of orgone energy, which posited the existence of an invisible
substance that was critical to mental health. To overcome neurosis, he
recommended sitting in specially licensed orgone boxes. Eventually the FDA
cracked down on Reich's quackery and he died in prison.
For a time Bellow followed a strict Reichian regimen. He sat in an orgone
box in his modest Queens apartment gathering up orgone energy while reading
books beneath a single light bulb strung from the ceiling. Occasionally he
stuffed a handkerchief into his mouth and screamed, another method
recommended by Reich to achieve emotional release. There is no indication
that this therapy did much for Bellow, who remained profoundly unhappy
throughout his life, just as Woody Allen remains neurotic despite decades
(In many ways, Woody Allen is the popular culture analogue to Saul Bellow.
Perhaps in recognition of these connections, Bellow appears as one of the
talking head experts in Zelig, a modestly amusing meditation on a mediocre
character played by Allen who adapts chameleon-like to changing
circumstances. Bellow's take on Zelig: "His sickness was also at the root
of his salvation; it was his very disorder that made a hero of him.")