The Chicago Public Library (CPL) selected Saul Bellow’s third novel, The Adventures of Augie March, as the 21st book in the One Book, One Chicago program, which is ten years old this autumn. This makes it an opportune time to reflect on the life and career of one of the city’s favorite sons.
Saul Bellow was born Solomon Bellow, the fourth and last child of Russian-Jewish émigrés in Lachine, Montreal, Canada on either June 10, 1915 or July 10, 1915. [According to his New York Times obituary, “Immigrant Jews at that time tended to be careless about the Christian calendar, and the records are inconclusive.”] His father Abraham’s luck was no better in Canada than it had been in Russia, with a string of business failures.
It was his mother’s hope he would become either a rabbi or a violinist, but he would later recount he felt a calling to become a writer at the age of eight while he spent six months in Ward H of the Royal Victoria Children’s Hospital with a lung infection. There, he read the seminal abolitionist novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
In 1924, when Bellow was nine years old, his family moved to Chicago and settled in a Humboldt Park tenement. His father made money working in a bakery, as a coal deliveryman, and as a bootlegger.
Bellow, who spent much of his time in public libraries, began trying his hand at writing fiction while still in grammar school, alongside his friend Sydney J. Harris, who grew up to become a newspaper columnist. He was fluent in English, French, Yiddish, and Hebrew. When he was seventeen, his beloved mother died and his father subsequently remarried.
After he graduated from Tuley High School in 1933, he enrolled at the University of Chicago to study literature. In 1935, Bellow transferred to Northwestern University, because it was cheaper. He graduated in 1937 with honors and earned bachelor’s degrees in anthropology and sociology. After a brief attempt at the study of anthropology at the graduate school at the University of Wisconsin, Bellow ended his academic career and returned to Chicago to focus on writing fiction.
Commissioned by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) Federal Writers’ Project, Bellow composed biographies of Midwestern authors. Next, he joined the editorial department of Encyclopedia Britannica, where he participated in Mortimer Adler’s “Great Books” program and taught classes at the Pestalozzi-Froebel Teachers’ College.
In the late 1930s, he moved to Greenwich Village in New York City, where he wrote book reviews. This means he was a published writer, but he was still working his way up from writing about authors to being one himself.
In 1941, Bellow published his first story, “Two Morning Monologues,” in Partisan Review. When the U.S. entered World War II, he attempted to join the U.S. Army, but was rejected because of a hernia. He was training in the U.S. Merchant Marine when the war ended.
Bellow’s first novel, Dangling Man, published in 1944, depicts a young Chicagoan who awaits the draft. His second novel, The Victim, published in 1947, concerns anti-Semitism. He cited Dostoyevsky as an influence for this second novel for which he was awarded the first of two Guggenheim Fellowships.
In 1948, with the money from the Guggenheim Fellowship, he traveled to Paris, where he wrote the semi-autobiographical novel The Adventures of Augie March, published in 1953. It was his first bestseller.
The CPL states, “Aside from garnering Bellow a National Book Award, Augie March is notable both for its memorable opening paragraph and as a turning point in the author’s career. While the bleak topics of his first two novels are treated with marked gravity, Bellow applies to Augie March the spirited, comic narrative style with which he would be associated for years to come. His classic novella, Seize the Day (1956), portrays an absurd protagonist whose comic misadventures lead to epiphany in a Chicago subway. Henderson the Rain King (1959) is a huge, wildly comic romp and the novel that Bellow himself claimed to be his personal favorite.”
In 1962, Bellow accepted a professorship at The University of Chicago. He served as the Raymond W. & Martha Hilpert Gruner Distinguished Service Professor in the John U. Nef Committee on Social Thought, which is an interdisciplinary doctoral program, and the Department of English, from 1962 to 1993. Bellow served as Chairman of the Committee on Social Thought from 1970 to 1976.
“During the 1960s and 1970s,” the CSL states, “Bellow’s narratives would take another notable turn. Herzog (1964), Mr. Sammler’s Planet (1970) and Humboldt’s Gift (1975) are marked by complex characters and themes of reflection, guilt and social dissatisfaction. In 1965, Bellow won the International Literary Prize for Herzog, becoming the first American to receive the honor.” The same year he won a National Book Award for Herzog, Bellow’s play The Last Analysis bombed on Broadway.
Bellow remains the only author to have won the National Book Award three times. In 1968, the French Minister of Culture awarded him the Croix de Chevalier des Arts et Lettres. [This made him a member of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres(Order of Arts and of Letters).] That same year, Bellow received the B’nai B’rith Jewish Heritage Award.
Bellow’s first three wives were Anita Goshkin, Alexandra Tsachacbasov, and Susan Glassman. The first four of his five marriages ended in divorce. Adam Bellow, his son by his second marriage, wrote the book In Praise of Nepotism, published in hardcover in 2003 with the subtitle A Natural History and in paperback in 2004 with the subtitle A History of Family Enterprise from King David to George W. Bush.
In 1974, Bellow married his fourth wife, the Romanian-born mathematician Alexandra Ionescu Tulcea (born in 1935). In 1976, Bellow won the Pulitzer Prize for Humboldt’s Gift and the Royal Swedish Academy bestowed the even more prestigious Nobel Prize in Literature. He was the seventh American writer to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature.
In 1977, the National Endowment for the Humanities selected him to deliver the Jefferson Lecture. The National Endowment for the Humanities considers this “the highest honor the federal government confers for distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities.” Bellow’s lecture was entitled, “The Writer and His Country Look Each Other Over.”
Bellow and Alexandra divorced in 1985. His fifth and final wife was Janis Freedman. In 1999, when he was eighty-four-year-old, she had his daughter, Naomi Rose, who was his fourth child.
In 1988, the U.S. Congress awarded him the National Medal of Arts. The next year, the Tulsa Library Trust in Tulsa, Oklahoma presented Bellow the Peggy V. Helmerich Distinguished Author Award. The award was named in honor of the wife of oilman Walter Helmerich III, Chairman of the Board of Helmerich & Payne, Inc. You might recognize Mrs. Helmerich under her stage name Peggy Dow as the beautiful Nurse Kelly in Harvey (1950).
Bellow’s final novel was Ravelstein, published in 2000, when Bellow was eighty-five years old. Many if his novels are semi-autobiographical, but with Ravelstein he went a step further, and many critics consider it a roman à clef. It was inspired by his longtime friendship with Alan Bloom (1930-1992), a student of the great Leo Strauss (1899-1973) at The University of Chicago who later taught there himself alongside Bellow.
With Bellow’s encouragement, Bloom wrote The Closing of the American Mind, a bestselling condemnation of American colleges and pop culture, published in 1987, which earned Bloom a certain degree of wealth and fame. The book was generally well-received by critics, but some people felt Ravelstein represented a personal betrayal because Bellow indirectly revealed something about Bloom that his intimate friends had known, but had not been a matter of public knowledge: that Bloom was a homosexual and he died of AIDS-related illness.
Bellow’s short stories were featured in such periodicals as Harper’s Bazaar, The New Yorker and Esquire. His literary criticism appeared in The New Republic and The New York Times Book Review.
Bellow was a much-honored scholar, entertainer, and man of letters. He was highly identified with Chicago, a city that had such an impact on his psychological landscape that when he lived in Paris in the late 1940s, he wrote a novel about living in Chicago, not Paris. Critics place him in the ranks of the greatest American novelists, alongside the likes of Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) and William Faulkner (1897-1962).
Bellow died in 2005 at the age of eighty-nine. He was survived by his widow, Janis; his three sons, Gregory, Adam, and Daniel; and his daughter, Naomi Rose.