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Saul Bellow

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Saul Bellow

Saul Bellow
Bellow at the Miami Book Fair International of 1990
Born Solomon Bellows
(1915-06-10)10 June 1915
Lachine, Quebec, Canada
Died 5 April 2005(2005-04-05) (aged 89)
Brookline, Massachusetts, United States
Occupation Writer
Nationality Canadian/American
Alma mater University of Chicago
Northwestern University
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Notable awards Nobel Prize in Literature
Pulitzer Prize for Fiction
National Medal of Arts
National Book Award
1954, 1965, 1971
Spouse Anita Goshkin (1937–56), Alexandra (Sondra) Tschacbasov (1956–59), Susan Glassman (1961–64), Alexandra Bagdasar Ionescu Tulcea (1974–85), Janis Freedman (1989–2005)


Saul Bellow (10 June 1915 – 5 April 2005) was a Canadian-born American writer. For his literary contributions, Bellow was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, the Nobel Prize for Literature, and the National Medal of Arts.[1] He is the only writer to win the National Book Award for Fiction three times[2] and he received the Foundation's lifetime Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters in 1990.[3]

In the words of the Swedish Nobel Committee, his writing exhibited "the mixture of rich picaresque novel and subtle analysis of our culture, of entertaining adventure, drastic and tragic episodes in quick succession interspersed with philosophic conversation, all developed by a commentator with a witty tongue and penetrating insight into the outer and inner complications that drive us to act, or prevent us from acting, and that can be called the dilemma of our age."[4] His best-known works include The Adventures of Augie March, Henderson the Rain King, Herzog, Mr. Sammler's Planet, Seize the Day, Humboldt's Gift and Ravelstein. Widely regarded as one of the 20th century's greatest authors, Bellow has had a "huge literary influence."[5]

Bellow said that of all his characters Eugene Henderson, of Henderson the Rain King, was the one most like himself.[6] Bellow grew up as an insolent slum kid, a "thick-necked" rowdy, and an immigrant from Quebec. As Christopher Hitchens describes it, Bellow's fiction and principal characters reflect his own yearning for transcendence, a battle "to overcome not just ghetto conditions but also ghetto psychoses."[7][8] Bellow's protagonists, in one shape or another, all wrestle with what Corde (Albert Corde, the dean in "The Dean's December") called "the big-scale insanities of the 20th century." This transcendence of the "unutterably dismal" (a phrase from Dangling Man) is achieved, if it can be achieved at all, through a "ferocious assimilation of learning" (Hitchens) and an emphasis on nobility.


Early life

Saul Bellow was born Solomon Bellows[9][10] in Lachine, Quebec, two years after his parents, Lescha (née Gordin) and Abraham Bellows,[11] emigrated from Saint Petersburg, Russia. (He changed his name in 1936.)[9][10] Bellow celebrated his birthday in June, although he may have been born in July (in the Jewish community, it was customary to record the Hebrew date of birth, which does not always coincide with the Gregorian calendar).[12] Of his family's emigration, Bellow wrote:

A period of illness from a respiratory infection at age eight both taught him self-reliance (he was a very fit man despite his sedentary occupation) and provided an opportunity to satisfy his hunger for reading: reportedly, he decided to be a writer when he first read Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin.

When Bellow was nine, his family moved to the Humboldt Park neighborhood on the West Side of Chicago, the city that formed the backdrop of many of his novels.[10] Bellow's father, Abraham, was an onion importer. He also worked in a bakery, as a coal delivery man, and as a bootlegger.[10] Bellow's mother, Liza, died when he was 17. He was left with his father and brother Maurice. His mother was deeply religious, and wanted her youngest son, Saul, to become a rabbi or a concert violinist. But he rebelled against what he later called the "suffocating orthodoxy" of his religious upbringing, and he began writing at a young age.[10] Bellow's lifelong love for the Bible began at four when he learned Hebrew. Bellow also grew up reading William Shakespeare and the great Russian novelists of the 19th century.[10] In Chicago, he took part in anthroposophical studies. Bellow attended Tuley High School on Chicago's west side where he befriended fellow writer Isaac Rosenfeld. In his 1959 novel Henderson the Rain King, Bellow modeled the character King Dahfu on Rosenfeld.[14]

Education and early career

Bellow attended the University of Chicago but later transferred to Northwestern University. He originally wanted to study literature, but he felt the English department was anti-Jewish. Instead, he graduated with honors in anthropology and sociology.[15] It has been suggested Bellow's study of anthropology had an influence on his literary style, and anthropological references pepper his works. Bellow later did graduate work at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Paraphrasing Bellow's description of his close friend Allan Bloom (see Ravelstein), John Podhoretz has said that both Bellow and Bloom "inhaled books and ideas the way the rest of us breathe air."[16]

In the 1930s, Bellow was part of the Chicago branch of the Works Progress Administration Writer's Project, which included such future Chicago literary luminaries as Richard Wright and Nelson Algren. Many of the writers were radical: if they were not members of the Communist Party USA, they were sympathetic to the cause. Bellow was a Trotskyist, but because of the greater numbers of Stalinist-leaning writers he had to suffer their taunts.[17]

In 1941 Bellow became a naturalized US citizen.[18] In 1943, Maxim Lieber was his literary agent.

During World War II, Bellow joined the merchant marine and during his service he completed his first novel, Dangling Man (1944) about a young Chicago man waiting to be drafted for the war.

From 1946 through 1948 Bellow taught at the University of Minnesota, living on Commonwealth Avenue, in St. Paul, Minnesota.[19]

In 1948, Bellow was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship that allowed him to move to Paris, where he began writing The Adventures of Augie March (1953). Critics have remarked on the resemblance between Bellow's picaresque novel and the great 17th Century Spanish classic Don Quixote. The book starts with one of American literature's most famous opening paragraphs, and it follows its titular character through a series of careers and encounters, as he lives by his wits and his resolve. Written in a colloquial yet philosophical style, The Adventures of Augie March established Bellow's reputation as a major author.

In the spring term of 1961 he taught creative writing at the University of Puerto Rico at Río Piedras.[20] One of his students was William Kennedy, who was encouraged by Bellow to write fiction.

Return to Chicago and mid-career

Bellow lived in New York City for a number of years, but he returned to Chicago in 1962 as a professor at the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. The committee's goal was to have professors work closely with talented graduate students on a multi-disciplinary approach to learning. Bellow taught on the committee for more than 30 years, alongside his close friend, the philosopher Allan Bloom.

There were also other reasons for Bellow's return to Chicago, where he moved into the Hyde Park neighborhood with his third wife, Susan Glassman. Bellow found Chicago vulgar but vital, and more representative of America than New York.[21] He was able to stay in contact with old high school friends and a broad cross-section of society. In a 1982 profile, Bellow's neighborhood was described as a high-crime area in the city's center, and Bellow maintained he had to live in such a place as a writer and "stick to his guns."[22]

Bellow hit the bestseller list in 1964 with his novel Herzog. Bellow was surprised at the commercial success of this cerebral novel about a middle-aged and troubled college professor who writes letters to friends, scholars and the dead, but never sends them. Bellow returned to his exploration of mental instability, and its relationship to genius, in his 1975 novel Humboldt's Gift. Bellow used his late friend and rival, the brilliant but self-destructive poet Delmore Schwartz, as his model for the novel's title character, Von Humboldt Fleisher.[23] Bellow also used Rudolf Steiner's spiritual science, anthroposophy, as a theme in the book, having attended a study group in Chicago. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1969.[24]

Nobel Prize and later career

Saul Bellow (left) with Keith Botsford, around 1992

Propelled by the success of Humboldt's Gift, Bellow won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1976. In the 70-minute address he gave to an audience in Stockholm, Sweden, Bellow called on writers to be beacons for civilization and awaken it from intellectual torpor.[23]

The following year, the National Endowment for the Humanities selected Bellow for the Jefferson Lecture, the U.S. federal government's highest honor for achievement in the humanities. Bellow's lecture was entitled "The Writer and His Country Look Each Other Over."[25]

Bellow traveled widely throughout his life, mainly to Europe, which he sometimes visited twice a year.[23] As a young man, Bellow went to Mexico City to meet Leon Trotsky, but the expatriate Russian revolutionary was assassinated the day before they were to meet. Bellow's social contacts were wide and varied. He tagged along with Robert F. Kennedy for a magazine profile he never wrote, he was close friends with the author Ralph Ellison. His many friends included the journalist Sydney J. Harris and the poet John Berryman.

While sales of Bellow's first few novels were modest, that turned around with Herzog. Bellow continued teaching well into his old age, enjoying its human interaction and exchange of ideas. He taught at Yale University, University of Minnesota, New York University, Princeton University, University of Puerto Rico, University of Chicago, Bard College and Boston University, where he co-taught a class with James Wood ('modestly absenting himself' when it was time to discuss Seize the Day). In order to take up his appointment at Boston, Bellow moved in 1993 from Chicago to Brookline, Massachusetts, where he died on 5 April 2005, at age 89. He is buried at the Jewish cemetery Shir HeHarim of Brattleboro, Vermont.

Bellow was married five times, with all but his last marriage ending in divorce. His son by his second marriage, Adam, published a nonfiction book In Praise of Nepotism in 2003. Bellow's wives were Anita Goshkin, Alexandra (Sondra) Tsachacbasov, Susan Glassman, Alexandra Ionescu Tulcea and Janis Freedman. In 1999, when he was 84, Bellow had a daughter, Rosie, his fourth child, with Freedman.

While he read voluminously, Bellow also played the violin and followed sports. Work was a constant for him, but he at times toiled at a plodding pace on his novels, frustrating the publishing company.[23]

His early works earned him the reputation as a major novelist of the 20th century, and by his death he was widely regarded as one of the greatest living novelists.[26] He was the first writer to win three National Book Awards in all award categories.[2] His friend and protege Philip Roth has said of him, "The backbone of 20th-century American literature has been provided by two novelists—William Faulkner and Saul Bellow. Together they are the Melville, Hawthorne, and Twain of the 20th century." James Wood, in a eulogy of Bellow in The New Republic, wrote:[27]

Themes and style

The author's works speak to the disorienting nature of modern civilization, and the countervailing ability of humans to overcome their frailty and achieve greatness (or at least awareness). Bellow saw many flaws in modern civilization, and its ability to foster madness, materialism and misleading knowledge.[28] Principal characters in Bellow's fiction have heroic potential, and many times they stand in contrast to the negative forces of society. Often these characters are Jewish and have a sense of alienation or otherness.

Jewish life and identity is a major theme in Bellow's work, although he bristled at being called a "Jewish writer." Bellow's work also shows a great appreciation of America, and a fascination with the uniqueness and vibrancy of the American experience.

Bellow's work abounds in references and quotes from the likes of Marcel Proust and Henry James, but he offsets these high-culture references with jokes.[10] Bellow interspersed autobiographical elements into his fiction, and many of his principal characters were said to bear a resemblance to him.

Criticism, controversy and conservative cultural activism

Martin Amis described Bellow as "The greatest American author ever, in my view".[29] For Linda Grant, "What Bellow had to tell us in his fiction was that it was worth it, being alive."

On the other hand, Bellow's detractors considered his work conventional and old-fashioned, as if the author was trying to revive the 19th-century European novel. In a private letter, Vladimir Nabokov once referred to Bellow as a "miserable mediocrity."[32] Journalist and author Ron Rosenbaum described Bellow's Ravelstein (2000) as the only book that rose above Bellow's failings as an author. Rosenbaum wrote,

Sam Tanenhaus wrote in New York Times Book Review in 2007:

But, Tanenhaus went on to answer his question:

V. S. Pritchett praised Bellow, finding his shorter works to be his best. Pritchett called Bellow's novella Seize the Day a "small gray masterpiece."[10]

As he grew older, Bellow moved decidedly away from leftist politics and became identified with cultural conservatism.[23][35][36] His opponents included feminism, campus activism[37] and postmodernism.[38] Bellow also thrust himself into the often contentious realm of Jewish and African-American relations.[39] Bellow has also been critical of multiculturalism and once said: "Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans? I'd be glad to read him."[40]

Despite his identification with Chicago, he kept aloof from some of that city's more conventional writers. In a 2006 interview with Stop Smiling magazine, Studs Terkel said of Bellow: "I didn't know him too well. We disagreed on a number of things politically. In the protests in the beginning of Norman Mailer's Armies of the Night, when Mailer, Robert Lowell and Paul Goodman were marching to protest the Vietnam War, Bellow was invited to a sort of counter-gathering. He said, 'Of course I'll attend'. But he made a big thing of it. Instead of just saying OK, he was proud of it. So I wrote him a letter and he didn't like it. He wrote me a letter back. He called me a Stalinist. But otherwise, we were friendly. He was a brilliant writer, of course. I love Seize the Day."

Awards and honors


Novels and novellas

Short story collections

  • Mosby's Memoirs (1968)
  • Him with His Foot in His Mouth (1984)
  • Something to Remember Me By: Three Tales (1991)
  • Collected Stories (2001)


  • The Last Analysis (1965)

Library of America editions

  • Novels 1944–1953: Dangling Man, The Victim, The Adventures of Augie March (2003)
  • Novels 1956–1964: Seize the Day, Henderson the Rain King, Herzog (2007)
  • Novels 1970–1982: Mr. Sammler’s Planet, Humboldt’s Gift, The Dean’s December (2010)
  • Novels 1984–2000: What Kind of Day Did You Have?, More Die of Heartbreak, A Theft, The Bellarosa Connection, The Actual, Ravelstein (2014)



  • To Jerusalem and Back (1976), memoir
  • It All Adds Up (1994), essay collection
  • Saul Bellow: Letters, edited by Benjamin Taylor (2010), correspondence

Works about Saul Bellow

  • Saul Bellow's Heart: A Son's Memoir, Greg Bellow, 2013 ISBN 978-1608199952
  • Saul Bellow, Tony Tanner (1965) (see also his City of Words [1971])
  • Saul Bellow, Malcolm Bradbury (1982)
  • Saul Bellow Drumlin Woodchuck,Mark Harris, University of Georgia Press. (1982)
  • Saul Bellow: Modern Critical Views, Harold Bloom (Ed.) (1986)
  • Handsome Is: Adventures with Saul Bellow, Harriet Wasserman (1997)
  • Saul Bellow and the Decline of Humanism, Michael K Glenday (1990)
  • Saul Bellow: A Biography of the Imagination, Ruth Miller, St. Martins Pr. (1991)
  • Bellow: A Biography, James Atlas (2000)
  • Saul Bellow and American Transcendentalism, M.A. Quayum (2004)
  • "Even Later" and "The American Eagle" in Martin Amis, The War Against Cliché (2001) are celebratory. The latter essay is also found in the Everyman's Library edition of Augie March.
  • 'Saul Bellow's comic style': James Wood in The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel, 2004. ISBN 0-224-06450-9.
  • The Hero in Contemporary American Fiction: The Works of Saul Bellow and Don DeLillo , Stephanie Halldorson (2007)
  • Saul Bellow a song, written by Sufjan Stevens on The Avalanche

See also


  1. ^ University of Chicago accolades — National Medal of Arts. Retrieved 2008-03-08.
  2. ^ a b "National Book Award Winners: 1950–2009". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-03-12.
  3. ^ "Distinguished Contribution to American Letters". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-03-12.
  4. ^ [1] Press Release: The Nobel Prize in Literature, 1976, Swedish Academy
  5. ^ Obituary: Saul Bellow BBC News, Tuesday, 5 April 2005
  6. ^ [2], Mel Gussow and Charles McGrath[2005] , in Saul Bellow, Who Breathed Life into American Novel, Dies at 89."
  7. ^ Arguably: Essays, Christopher Hitchens[2011], "Saul Bellow: The Great Assimilator", Atlantic Books, 2011 ISBN 9780857892577
  8. ^ "Jewish American titan from the ghetto" By Christopher Hitchens, 30 December 30, 2011
  9. ^ a b Library of America Bellow Novels 1944–1953 Pg.1000.
  10. ^ a b c d e f g h Mel Gussow and Charles McGrath, Saul Bellow, Who Breathed Life Into American Novel, Dies at 89, The New York Times 6 April 2005. Retrieved 2008-10-21.
  11. ^ [3]
  12. ^ The New York Times obituary, 6 April 2005. "...his birthdate is listed as either June or July 10, 1915, though his lawyer, Mr. Pozen, said yesterday that Mr. Bellow customarily celebrated in June. (Immigrant Jews at that time tended to be careless about the Christian calendar, and the records are inconclusive.)"
  13. ^ Saul Bellow, It All Adds Up (Penguin, 2007), pp. 295–6.
  14. ^ "Isaac Rosenfeld's Dybbuk and Rethinking Literary Biography", Zipperstein, Steven J. (2002). Partisan Review 49 (1). Retrieved 2010-10-17.
  15. ^ The New York Times obituary, 6 April 2005. "He had hoped to study literature but was put off by what he saw as the tweedy anti-Semitism of the English department, and graduated in 1937 with honors in anthropology and sociology, subjects that were later to instill his novels."
  16. ^ Saul Bellow, a neocon’s tale
  17. ^ Drew, Bettina. Nelson Algren, A Life on the Wild Side. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1991
  18. ^ Slater, Elinor; Robert Slater (1996). "SAUL BELLOW: Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature". Great Jewish Men. Jonathan David Company. p. 42.  
  19. ^ (Life and Works). Saul Bellow Journal.
  20. ^ Bellow, Saul (2010). Saul Bellow: Letters. redactor Ben Taylor. New York: Viking.  
  21. ^ The New York Times Book Review, 13 December 1981
  22. ^ Vogue, March 1982
  23. ^ a b c d e Atlas, James. Bellow: A Biography. New York: Random House, 2000.
  24. ^ "Book of Members, 1780–2010: Chapter B". American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 30 May 2011. 
  25. ^ Jefferson Lecturers at NEH Website . Retrieved 22 January 2009.
  26. ^ 'He was the first true immigrant voice' The Observer, Sunday 10 April 2005
  27. ^ Wood, James, 'Gratitude', New Republic, 00286583, 25 April 2005, Vol. 232, Issue 15
  28. ^ Malin, Irving. Saul Bellow's Fiction. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1969
  29. ^ Martin Amis Author of Yellow Dog talks with Robert Birnbaum 8 December 2003, by Robert Birnbaum
  30. ^ Martin Amis Author of Yellow Dog talks with Robert Birnbaum, Identity Theory, December 8, 2003, by Robert Birnbaum
  31. ^ 'He was the first true immigrant voice' Linda grant, The Observer, Sunday 10 April 2005
  32. ^ Wood, James (1 February 1990) "Private Strife." Guardian Unlimited.
  33. ^ Rosenbaum, Ron. "Saul Bellow and the Bad Fish." Slate. 3 April 2007
  34. ^ Tanenhaus, Sam (February 4, 2007) "Beyond Criticism." New York Times Book Review.
  35. ^ Review: The Joan Peters Case, Edward W. Said, Journal of Palestine Studies, 15:2 (Winter, 1986), pp. 144–150. Retrieved 2008-03-27.
  36. ^ The Fate of an Honest Intellectual, Noam Chomsky (2002), in Understanding Power, The New Press, pp. 244–248. Retrieved 2008-03-27.
  37. ^ "Campus Activism". Campus Activism. Retrieved 28 February 2010. 
  38. ^ "The New American McCarthyism: policing thought about the Middle East". 
  39. ^ Ahmed, Azam and Ron Grossman (5 October 2007) "Bellow's remarks on race haunt legacy in Hyde Park." Chicago Tribune.
  40. ^ John Blades (19 June 1994). "Bellow's Latest Chapter". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved 1 October 2012. 
  41. ^ "National Book Awards — 1954". National Book Foundation (NBF). Retrieved 2012-03-03. (With essay by Nathaniel Rich from the Awards 60-year anniversary blog.)
  42. ^ "National Book Awards — 1965". NBF. Retrieved 2012-03-03. (With acceptance speech by Bellow and essay by Salvatore Scibona from the Awards 60-year anniversary blog.)
  43. ^ "National Book Awards — 1971". NBF. Retrieved 2012-03-03. (With essay by Craig Morgan Teicher from the Awards 60-year anniversary blog.)
  44. ^ "History". Past winners & finalists by category. The Pulitzer Prizes. Retrieved 2012-03-30.

External links

  • Works by Saul Bellow at Open Library
  • Works about Saul Bellow in libraries (WorldCat catalog)
  • Spring 2008City Journal,Mr. Sammler's City,
  • Nobel site with two speeches (one of which is an audio recording) & longer biography
  • Annotated Bibliography of Criticism by the Saul Bellow Society
  • Bellow's 1955 autobiographical statement for reference book
  • Gordon Lloyd Harper (Winter 1966). "Saul Bellow, The Art of Fiction No. 37". Paris Review. 
  • JM Coetzee on the early novels
  • s assortment of other writers' takes on BellowSlate', mostly eulogistic
  • Joyce Carol Oates on Saul Bellow
  • Saul Bellow 'Bookweb' on literary website The Ledge, with suggestions for further reading.
  • Blogpost on Bellow's Russian family name–Belo or Belov?
  • Review of Bellow's collected letters
  • Saul Bellow, a neocon’s tale by John Podhoretz
  • Reflections with Saul Bellow by Dejan Stojanović
  • Saul Bellow's grave, Brattleboro, Vermont
  • 'Between Fiction and Autobiography', review of Letters in The Oxonian Review
  • "Leaving the Yellow House", a short story in Narrative Magazine, (Winter 2007).
  • "Bellow and Trotsky", Judie Newman, Berfrois, 1 June 2011
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