Paying Tribute to Mr. Bellow
Considering the legacy of the late American novelist, Saul Bellow.
Saul Bellow, whose exuberant novels shouldered their way through the second half of the 20th century, died on April 5, at the age of 89. Recipient of three National Book Awards, a Pulitzer Prize, and the Nobel Prize for literature, Bellow, whose books included The Adventures of Augie March (1953), Henderson the Rain King (1959), Herzog (1964), Mr. Sammler’s Planet (1970), and Humboldt’s Gift (1975), continued to write until shortly before his death. The veins of the tributes to Bellow this spring were as varied as his characters. But united as they were in praise, his eulogists could not agree on his essential qualities: Was he a misanthrope or a champion of flawed humanity? Was he the first modern American novelist to successfully embrace a European mode, or the quintessential American writer?
“Bellow’s dark philosophical moods are what defined him as the most European of American novelists, though he is often celebrated—especially by British writers—as the epitome of American literary exuberance,” critic Lee Siegel wrote in The Nation (May 9, 2005). “But Bellow was really a nationally unaffiliated free agent who exuberantly used European lines and pulleys to get America under control of his imagination, just as he wielded an American idiom to throw off any claim that Europe might have had on his creative will.”
In The Guardian’s pages (April 7, 2005), novelist Ian McEwan proclaimed Bellow uniquely American as he explained why British writers tend to lay claim to him. “What is it we find in him that we cannot find here, among our own? I think what we admire is the generous inclusiveness of the work—not since the 19th century has a writer been able to render a whole society, without condescension or self-conscious social anthropology. Seamlessly, Bellow can move between the poor and their mean streets, and the power elites of university and government, the privileged dreamer with the ‘deep-sea thought.’ His work is the embodiment of an American vision of plurality. In Britain we no longer seem able to write across the crass and subtle distortions of class—or rather, we can’t do it gracefully, without seeming to strain or without caricature. Bellow appears larger, therefore, than any British writer can hope to be.”
Bellow himself was famously impatient with people who tried to read too much into his work, or trace too deliberately the development of his writing over the course of his career. And so, in The New Republic (April 25, 2005), critic James Wood, a longtime friend of Bellow’s, concluded his tribute by setting aside the encomiums and simply returning to the man himself: “Like anyone, writers, of course, are embarrassed by excessive praise, just as readers are burdened by their excessive gratitude—one cannot keep going on about it. And, eventually, it is easier to turn the beloved literary work into a kind of disembodied third party: to admit that the work itself exceeds the writer, that it sails . . . away from the writer and toward the delighted reader. In the final year of Saul’s life, as he became very frail, I would read some of his own prose to him, something he would doubtless have found, as a younger man, mawkish or cloying or tiresome. It did not feel any of those things, as Bellow sat there in forgetful frailty; rather it felt as if I were gently reminding him of his own talent and that he was grateful for this, and perhaps grateful for my gratitude. But, in truth, I could not thank him enough when he was alive, and I cannot now.”