Does Saul Bellow Hold Up as a Great American Novelist in a Woke Age?

After almost a century of the esteemed international award, the Nobel Prize for Literature has only been awarded to an American writer 11 times; in 1930, Sinclair Lewis was the first yankee recipient of the award; while in 2016 singer-songwriter Bob Dylan was improbably the most recently awarded, a distinction that rocked the literary establishment and spawned harsh debates and think pieces. Among these select few are the names of such icons of American letters as Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, and Toni Morrison, the only African-American winner. Writers who were oddly passed over are legion, but have included F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Updike, Joyce Carole Oates, T.S. Eliot, James Baldwin, Norman Mailer, Joan Didion, and Philip Roth. The latter seems to especially be an oversight considering that Saul Bellow, his mentor and rival for the crown of ¨Great Jewish American Writer,¨ was indeed given the Nobel in 1976.

In the 21st Century, a mere 15 years after Bellow´s death and 20 years after his acclaimed final work Ravelstein, the once rapturous enthusiasm surrounding his literary output has largely faded away. It is likely that the typical English major in 2020 is not very familiar with his work, even though contemporaries like William S. Burroughs, Kurt Vonnegut, Thomas Pynchon, and yes, Philip Roth, remain familiar to the majority of the literarily inclined.

Why, some four decades after winning the most renowned literary prize, has a writer who died in the current century become so overlooked in the contemporary fiction landscape? And does the antiquated ideology embedded in novels which were written with a post-war mentality still contain relevance in the enlightened age of Black Lives Matter and Me Too?

Why Is Saul Bellow No Longer The Literary Household Name He Once Was?

The bold, beefy Chicago of Saul Bellow´s fiction has changed greatly over the years Photo by Christian DeKnock on Unsplash

The truth is, there is an obvious reason which explains why the reputation of previously noted writers like Vonnegut or Burroughs has endured for years after their respective deaths, while time has seen the opposite effect on Bellow´s legacy. These novelists, alongside the aforementioned Pynchon and Roth, were in their own way subversive, boasting an experimental and rebellious streak perfectly attuned to the profound, seismic social changes taking place in the Cold War Era. Bellow´s first novel, a minor work entitled Dangling Man, was published in 1944, a full year before the end of World War II, and by the time the 1960s rolled around, the writer was already pushing 50. Although considered a key post-war writer, his sensibilities were clearly more aligned with the first half of the 20th Century, and it could be argued that his colorful, dense novels, overflowing with character and incident, were in fact updates of the 19th Century Picaresque novel.

Two of these, The Adventures of Augie March (1954) and Humboldt´s Gift (1975) seem like they could have been written by Mark Twain and Dostoevsky, respectively, despite their ostensible settings in then-contemporary Chicago. Meanwhile, his most intimate, autobiographical novel Herzog (1964) seems to be his most timeless and lasting work, but the story of a sad sack middle-aged professor who writes letters to vent his anguish is not likely to have the eternal dorm room impact of say, Naked Lunch or Slaughter-House Five. Nor do any of his works provoke the intense speculation and fan theories that have accompanied Gravity´s Rainbow in the decades following its controversial publication, and furthermore, none of his novels remain as polarizing and infamous as Portnoy´s Complaint.

Another culprit is the relative insularity of much of Bellow´s published works. Although there are notable exceptions, the rollicking adventure epic Augie March and the fantastical, kaleidoscopic journey through an imagined Africa, Henderson The Rain King (1959) being chief among them, the majority of Bellow´s oeuvre narrowly focused on the character studies of middle-aged Chicago Jewish intellectuals and scholars, very much like Bellow himself. However, the novelist´s own Jewishness never became a focal point of his literature in a similar manner to Roth or their contemporary Bernard Malamud, whose 1966 novel The Fixer remains cited as a classic in its depiction of anti-Semitism.

While it is true that for those who received their PhDs in an era when tenure-track professorships were the norm, Bellow´s subjects were (and remain) endlessly fascinating, this far-from-universal perspective surely alienated would-be readers. While Roth also stayed in the realm of autobiography for most of his career, etching a recurrent portrait of a neurotic, womanizing writer from Newark, he managed to paint on a broader canvas over the course of his 31 novels, ranging from the red scare (I Married a Communist), the impact of Vietnam (American Pastoral), the polio epidemic (Nemesis), and the Nazi takeover (The Plot Against America), the latter of which was adapted into a recent TV miniseries. The fact that several of Roth´s works were made into varyingly successful films, while Bellow only had one nearly forgotten novella, Seize The Day, undergo the transition from literature to cinema, is a testament to the relatively limited, niche audience for the Nobel-winning novelist.

Was Bellow´s Literature Racist and Misogynistic?

Hyde Park in Chicago was once the realm of Saul Bellow, now it has passed him by.. by Brandi Ibrao on Unsplash

More troublingly, in recent years, Bellow´s fiction has been taken to task for alleged elements of racism and sexism. Furthermore, controversial statements made by the writer during his lifetime do little to contradict this point of view of the unsavory aspects of what are otherwise great works of modern literature. Most notoriously, towards the twilight of his career he once remarked, ¨”Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans? I’d be glad to read him.¨Although he later half-heartedly apologized for his remarks, these insensitive, decidedly un-PC comments branded him as a writer with outdated, ignorant views on race and multiculturalism.

Long before these comments, his 1970 novel Mr. Sammler´s Planet had been the target of harsh criticism, with many literary scholars declaring it to be an explicitly racist work. Once again a portrait of an urban Jewish professor (although this time in New York, not Chicago), the novel has a marked emphasis on the urban, as the titular protagonist interacts with the overwhelmingly African-American denizens of his uptown Manhattan neighborhood. Although this could be construed simply as the perspective of its 70-something protagonist´s view towards African Americans, rather than the view of Bellow himself, in a politically correct era these passages have become under attack by contemporary critics, tarnishing the already fading legacy of his literature.

Throughout the novel, there is a mysterious, thinly sketched black character who stalks the protagonist. Of course, as aforementioned, this could simply be the skewed view of the main character, and a classic example of depiction not equating to endorsement. Nevertheless, this aspect of this 50-year old novel has dated it extraordinarily in an era hyper-focused on racial sensitivities, and these lingering elements of racism, despite debatably not being overt, have helped obscure his legacy, and is one of the key factors behind the conspicuous lack of a street in Chicago named for a writer so associated with the spirit of the metropolis.

Also open for analysis and discussion is the presence of misogyny in Bellow´s output. Bellow was never a frequent target of feminist critics, in striking contrast to Mailer, Updike, and Roth. While Mailer especially was quite openly a misogynist, and Updike can easily be taken to task for elements of sexism, Roth, more than 5 decades after this initial and widely held view, does not seem so much misogynistic as knowingly satirical in his frequent portraits of lecherous, womanizing men who try to deny and justify their mistreatment of women.

Bellow, on the other hand, is remarkable for being a Nobel-Prize winning novelist who ultimately devoted such little time to creating multi-dimensional female characters. In his most beloved novels; Herzog, Augie March, Henderson The Rain King; all the female characters are periphery figures, and do not in any significant way contribute to the richness and thematic resonance of each work.

Even Humboldt´s Gift, which boasts his most instantly memorable female creation in Renata, the voluptuous, free-spirited girlfriend of the novel´s flawed hero Charlie Citrine, is guilty of this. Renata is quite frankly not as well-defined as the male characters, resulting in a figure that seems to affirm shortsighted stereotypes of the female gender rather than a literary character that appears as if she were rendered in flesh and blood. Although on one hand Renata is far from submissive, she is also pushy, temperamental, and obsessed above all with getting married, all personality traits which seem played out nowadays when it comes to female characterizations. In his other novels and stories, the women tend to be even more vaguely imagined, resulting in a novelist who wrote some of his best works during a sexual and feminist revolution but neglected to even shine a cursory light on the women´s movement. All these ideological and literary flaws result in a once-acclaimed writer who has seemed to fall by the wayside.

The works of Saul Bellow will endure anywhere where his fiction is sold Photo by DeMorris Byrd on Unsplash

It remains to be seen if Bellow´s literature, which at its best holds up in the 21st Century for his multi-faceted characterizations, vivid evocation of urban American life, and a potent mixture of intellectual philosophizing and haunting emotional resonance, will see a re-appraisal in coming years. There are undoubtedly valid reasons for his decline in stature, and the most explicitly ideological aspects will only become more pronounced with time. Despite all this, Bellow clearly deserves to be considered a towering figure in 20th Century American Literature. There are few works of fiction as deserving of the cliched ¨Great American Novel¨ label as his own Herzog or The Adventures of Augie March, and this will be a fact as long as these books are available in your dusty local bookshop or on Amazon.

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