Bellow, Saul (1915-2005)
Born in Lachine, Montreal, Canada on June 10, 1915 Saul Bellow was the fourth child of Abraham (Abram) and Lescha (Liza) Belo, Jewish immigrants from St. Petersburg, Russia who arrived in Canada in 1913. Lachine, a working class town on the outskirts of Montreal, was home to a huge melting pot of Ukrainians, Russians, Italians, Greeks, Hungarians and Poles. In 1918, the family moved to St. Dominique Street, Montreal, a slum neighborhood of poverty, rats, and colorful, mostly Jewish immigrants. Here, Liza enrolled Saul in Hebrew-class, hoping her brilliant son would become a Rabbi or a Talmudist, and by the age of four he had memorized large passages from the Old Testament.
This bookishness, as well as his early acquaintance with death, permanently estranged him from his business-minded father and brothers. In 1918 he watched numerous funeral corteges for the victims of the influenza epidemic go by his window. In 1923 he spent six months in the tuberculosis-ward at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Mont Royal Park where he saw many children and adults die. His fiction would reflect this obsession, as well as the plight of a dreamer emotionally isolated within his own family. It would also turn on nostalgic memories of childhood in colorful if poor immigrant neighborhoods
In 1924 Abraham Bellow was almost arrested for bootlegging and the family ended up being smuggled across the border and put on a train for Chicago. The immigrant tenements of Humboldt Park, Chicago, soon captured the young Bellow’s nostalgic imagination. Chicago in the 1920s boasted a population of approximately 125,000 Jews. Idiomatic immigrant English in Humboldt’s Park was enhanced by Yiddish, Hebrew, Russian, and other European languages, a rich linguistic and cultural mix for a young Chicago immigrant child who would later aspire to be succeed Theodore Dreiser as Chicago’s social realist writer. He reveled in the surrounding neighborhoods with their gas street lights, balalaika music, lodges, clubs, congregations, relief associations and various ethnic community associations, stories about famous Chicago Mafia criminals and local characters. This material would appear in all his subsequent novels.

In February of 1933 Liza died at home at the age of fifty, an event that would leave the adolescent Bellow emotionally lost and permanently unable to form lasting relationships with women, a recurring theme in all but his most recent novel. As the family began to fall apart, Bellow increasingly took refuge in Chicago’s radical intellectual life and leftist politics. He entered the University of Chicago in 1934, transferred the following year to Northwestern University, studied anthropology under Melville J. Herskovits, graduated in 1937, and immediately left for New York with the explicit ambition to become a writer. However, he returned at Christmas and soon thereafter he married his first wife, Anita Goshkin. The couple moved into his mother-in-law’s flat in Ravenswood where Bellow began to work on Dangling Man on a bridge table in the back room. From 1938 to 1939 he was in Chicago working on the WPA project, and the Synopticon, the two-volume index for the Great Books series.

In August of 1940 Saul and Anita traveled to Mexico to meet with the exiled Trotsky, the inspiration for Bellow’s youthful revolutionary socialism, only to find that Trotsky had been murdered on August 20, 1940, the day before they arrived. For the rest of the year he worked on and abandoned a manuscript called “Acatla.”, which was reportedly set in Mexico. Some of this adventure will also find its way into The Adventures of Augie March (1953). “Two Morning Monologues” and “The Mexican General” appeared in print in 1942, the same year that William Roth of Colt Press agreed to publish Bellow’s first novel, The Very Dark Trees. When Bellow was inducted into the Merchant Marines and Colt Press ceased publication, he reportedly tossed the manuscript down an incinerator chute. Those who heard Bellow read from it described it as a novel about American racial identity, an issue that would surface regularly in Bellow’s later fiction.

During the 1940s Freud, French existentialism and Hemingway’s monumental literary reputation dominated the American literary scene. All three were problematic for Bellow, but none more than Hemingway’s masculine adventure tales, stoic masculinity, and dominant mood of despair. Repulsed, the ambitious Bellow, a small, un-athletic, urban Jewish intellectual, would spend the rest of his career writing against the grain of what he called a destructive existentialism, alienation ethics, absurdism, nihilism, the loss of the unitary Romantic self, and fears of the imminent collapse of Western Civilization. Not surprisingly Dangling Man (1944) features Joseph, a would-be writer and intellectual caught waiting for the Draft, who believes that intellectual and spiritual enlightenment is to be attained by romantically isolating himself within the confines of a room in a cheap New York boarding house while he studies the great writers of the Enlightenment. As the months go by, Joseph quarrels with everyone, lives off Eva, succumbs to fits of paranoia, engages in a desultory sexual affair, despises his elderly neighbors, and is haunted by death anxieties. Defeated, he admits that all his perspectives have all ended in four walls. Reduced to the same modern condition as all other young men of his generation, he is last seen standing naked with all the other draftees being prodded and poked by an elderly military physician. Nearly every major reviewer agreed that Bellow had written an important first novel. Central to Dangling Man are typically modern existentialist themes, a Flaubertian aesthetic standard, and themes of individual freedom, moral responsibility and social contract. The same year that Dangling Man appeared, Anita gave birth to Bellow’s first son, Gregory, on April 16, 1944. The birth was traumatic and the doctor doubted he would be able to save either mother or baby. Fatherhood notably rarely appears as a theme in Bellow’s fiction and where it does it is problematic for the protagonists, most of whom never reproduce anything like Bellow’s family of childhood.

Bellow next published The Victim (1947), also written to a Flaubertian standard. It reflects the nightmare atmosphere of post-Holocaust Jewish America, alienation and anti-semitism.. Asa Levanthal spends a long lonely hot summer of struggling with his WASP nemesis, Kirby Albee, the moral anxiety of literally becoming his brother’s family’s keeper, and his own Jewish paranoia about gentiles. In 1948, Bellow was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship based on the success of these first two books, and began his third while living in Europe, the landscape of his beloved nineteenth-century European writers. From 1948-50 he lived in Paris with African-American writer Ralph Ellison while Ellison worked on Invisible Man and Bellow worked on a huge new manuscript called “The Crab and the Butterfly”. Bellow soon abandoned this experiment, however, to begin work on his picaresque novel, The Adventures of Augie March (1953), in which he abandons his Flaubertian standard and modernist aesthetics and depicts a first-generation Jewish American picaro journeying through the transitional world of the depression-era Chicago of his own youth. He would never repeat its wild exuberance, but he would continue to produce American optimists who repeatedly reject European despair.

Between 1949 and 1954 Bellow’s first short stories, begin to appear: “Dora” and “Sermon By Dr. Pep”, (1949) “The Trip to Galena”, (1950) “Looking For Mr. Green”, “By the Rock Wall”, and “Address by Gooley McDowell to the Hasbeen’s Club of Chicago”, (1951). In 1952 he received the prestigious National Institute of Arts and Letters Award and became the Creative Writing Fellow at Princeton University. “Leaving the Yellow House”, appeared in 1954, followed by a Ford Foundation Grant. In 1953 The Adventures of Augie March appeared to the amazement of his critics. Its romantic-picaresque formula, Chicago neighborhood materials and wholly American voice heralded a major change in Bellow’s stylistic and philosophical outlook. In 1955, Bellow embarked on a lecture tour of Poland, West Germany and other European countries to recuperate from the recent collapse of his marriage with Anita Goshkin. In 1956 he married his second wife, Sondra (Alexandra/Sasha) Tsachacbasov, but was divorced by 1960. Alexandra gave birth to Bellow’s second son, Adam Abraham Bellow, on January 19, 1957. During this turbulent time in which he was finishing Seize the Day (1956), a tale of a spurned son and divorcee, and beginning work on Henderson the Rain King, (1959), his father died (in May of 1955), friends betrayed him, his house was constantly under repair, and his new wife was complaining about lack of money and of boredom. Longtime friend and fellow writer, Isaac Rosenfeld, died in July of 1956, his trusted Viking Press publisher and friend, Ben Huebsch, had died, and Delmore Schwartz was close to the end of his life. Years later, Bellow told interviewer that he was appalled at the philosophical immaturity of Augie March and wrote Seize the Day in an attempt to transcend its effusive and emotional limitations. It was possibly written before The Adventures of Augie March at the same time as the first two “alienation” novels, though Bellow has never more than hinted at this. Despite its alienation formulas, many critics read the novel as counterpointing death and despair with psychic renewal and spiritual survival, and consider that Bellow is shaping a fiction of hope. Henderson the Rain King, despite Bellow’s seasons of personal losses, appeared in 1959. It is Bellow’s most successful comic novel, a parody of colonialist ethnography, the colonial African adventure story, Hemingwayesque existentialist formulas, and the aesthetics of literary modernism. As early as 1944, Bellow had questioned the modern failure of faith in the contemporary novel, and argued that two whole generations of university professors were raised to view Joyce, Mann, Proust, Eliot, and Lawrence as the very last literary prophets or models. Now, says Bellow, misguided novelists feel they have to adopt the early modern “waste land view” of man in order to be considered intellectually respectable. With Henderson The Rain King, Bellow finds his principal philosophical platform — a parodic philosophical rejection of wasteland ideologies.

In 1961 Bellow married Susan Glassman, his third wife; he received an Honorary Doctor of Letters from Northwestern University in 1962, and joined the prestigious Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago the same year. He also began work on Herzog. In 1963 he received an Honorary Doctor of Letters from Bard College, and again became a father when Susan gave birth to Daniel Oscar, Bellow’s third son, on March 17, 1964. Herzog (1964) his acknowledged masterwork takes the form of an epistolary novel in which the embattled intellectual, Herzog, a victimized divorcee and failed academic, realizes his great magnum opus on Romanticism will never be finished. It appears that contemporary life has defeated him. He writes endless letters to Nietzsche, Heidegger, Freud, Dewey, and Whitehead, to name just a few, objecting violently to their cringing conception of modern life. He attacks modern physics, genetics, anthropology, demography, sociology, statistics, Darwinism, and Freudianism. Herzog is Bellow’s penultimate assault on literary and philosophical modernism’s attack on the inner life of the individual. In 1965, he received the James L. Dow Award, the Fomentor Award, the National Book Award, and the International Prize for Herzog. Few were surprised, however, when his play, The Last Analysis, closed after only two weeks on Broadway. In 1965, Bellow’s international reputation was secured with the award of the International Prize, by 1967 he had made an important trip to Israel to report on the Six Day War for Newsday Magazine, and by “The Old System” was published. In 1968, his first short story collection Mosby’s Memoirs and Other Stories, appeared, he divorced his third wife, Susan Glassman, and won both the French Croix de Chevalier des Arts et Lettres and the B’ Nai Brith Award.

During the Seventies the old comic spirit of Bellow’s earlier works deserted him. He was booed off the stage at San Francisco State College by rowdy student radicals and an unprotesting faculty who clearly signaled their contempt for his generation just at the very moment he had achieved a major reputation. Bellow’s reflexive was confirmed by this event. In 1970 the seemingly misanthropic Mr. Sammler’s Planet appeared,. Though it garnered the National Book Award in 1971 critics conflated author and protagonist and found it anti-youth culture, misogynous, and racist. Bellow had clearly taken revenge on a generation of student radicals. Mr. Sammler is an emotionally damaged and elderly Holocaust survivor whose European and Anglophile Bloomsbury education, not to mention his near-death experiences during the Holocaust, have rendered him less than humanly engaged. He hates the bizarre world of hippie-era New York and to his American Jewish relatives he is merely a priestly or sacred object. His moral task is to end his aloofness, transcend his personal traumas, and learn once again to love. By now it was evident to readers that much of the brilliant self-ironic comedy of Bellow’s novels erupts principally from the invariably male protagonists narcissism and overt misogyny, that Bellow was not interested in depicting femininity beyond reflexive stereotypes, and that his depictions of black characters and black issues was increasingly problematic. In particular critics have increasingly taken serious umbrage at Bellow’s racist stereotyping in his depiction of the black pickpocket who famously exposes himself threateningly to the elderly Jew.

In both Mr Sammler’s Planet (1970) and Humboldt’s Gift (1975), as well as in his essays and other fiction, Bellow registered his final quarrel with Freud and instead sought further understanding about the unconscious and transcendental experience through his reading of anthroposophists Rudolph Steiner and Owen Barfield. In 1974 Bellow had married his fourth wife, the Roumanian mathematician, Alexandra Ionescu Tulcea, and published “Zetland: By a Character Witness” (1974), and “Burdens of a Lone Survivor” (1974). He also began discussions about anthroposophy with Professor Le May, a trusted mentor. Humboldt’s Gift registers Bellow’s belief that the modern condition has depleted the inner life of the artist. It describes the failure of poetic sensibility, the bankrupting of Western humanism, destructive rationalism, and the diminution of the private life. It is also a memorial to his friend Delmore Schwartz, and records much of the angst of his divorce from Susan Glassman, his third wife, after only four years of marriage. In this major comic novel Bellow portrays the spiritual plight of Charlie Citrine, a Chicagoan with a taste for low pursuits, gangland excitement, pneumatic young women, and a poetic gift he has almost lost. It seemed, after the rather bitter Mr. Sammler’s Planet, that Bellow had recovered his comic spirit. However, To Jerusalem and Back: A Personal Account (1976), Bellow’s documentary account of his recent trip to Israel was poorly received. The book combines interviews, a journalistic chronology of his stay, fictional stories, reported conversations, travelogue, bits of essays, and pieces of public addresses. It also makes public Bellow’s ambivalence about Israel and further established Bellow’s reputation as a neo-conservative.

In 1974 while visiting Bucharest with his wife, Alexandra Ionescu Tulcea, he began work on The Dean’s December, a tale of two cities, Bucharest and Chicago, in which restrictions on access to truth and cultural degradation are far advanced. Dean Albert Corde, tries to effect a Houdini-like escape from what he believes to be false modern descriptions of history and human experience either side of the iron curtain. As Corde tries to read the signs of a Platonic home-world beyond a nightmarish daily experience, he feels the need to build a buffer zone between himself and all outer manifestations of disorder. He now doubts the sheer human knowability of truth, and the concoctedness of academic and media-based views of history. This book was generally received as a tired work and was greeted by reviewers with disappointment. Later in the decade he published “A Silver Dish”, (1978), perhaps one of his most loved short stories.

In 1984 a volume of short stories appeared, Him With His Foot in His Mouth, followed by More Die of Heartbreak (1987) three years later. This novel appeared to recapture much of the old Bellovian energy and comedy, despite the fact that it fell short of the earlier masterworks. Like earlier and later works, it is a self-ironic, comic-misogynist, Prufrockian lament about failed loves and absent mermaids. It brims with misogynous love-lore, comic characters, botched loves, fatal forays into the danger zones of sex and romance, farcical retreats, and serio-crackpot sexual philosophizing. In 1989, two the paperback novellas A Theft and The Bellarosa Connection, appeared. A Theft features Bellow’s first female protagonist and is another Bellovian comic opera on the hijinks of the failed heterosexual pair. Clara Velde, has been raised on old time countrified mid-western religious values and plunged into the urban world of contemporary marriage and business. Four-times divorced and still involved with her true love, Ithiel Regler, she now knows he will never marry her. It deals with some very old Bellow themes including: the Hawthornian theft of the human heart, the lure of the intellect, the classic evasions of the male lover, the social chaos of “Gogmagogsville”, the seeming impossibility of higher synthesis, the human comedy of sexual desire, the failure of psychiatry, boredom, power politics, the chaotic proliferation of ethnic others, the increasing absence of civilized spaces, and the diminished status of the individual. Bellow’s demythologization of romantic love in “Gogmagogsville” once again hinges on the ironic portrayal of a male protagonist torn between desire for ultimate union with the female, and pursuit of the rational intellect. The Bellarosa Connection (1989) features an unnamed narrator who is a memory freak, an elderly person trying desperately to recapture a lost opportunity for a relationship with the authentic and mysterious Sorella Fonstein and her Holocaust-survivor husband, Harry. The narrator is overcome with the desire to find the couple and repent of his aloofness, as well as his own American Jewish amnesia with regard to the Holocaust. When he is informed that they have both died several months earlier he knows that he has lived his entire life more through memory than through actual relationships.

Bellow produced two more books in the 1990’s: It all Adds Up (1994), his collected essays, followed by another novella, The Actual (1997). It tells the familiar Bellow story of an old adolescent love reclaimed in late middle age. The worldly and clever Harry Trellman, an intellectual social observer and ambassador of the arts, is invited to “notice” on behalf of Sigmund Adletsky: Harry will be his informer and brains trust, while Adletsky will discern the nature of Harry’s great unrequited adolescent love, Amy Wustrin, finally bringing the two together. The plot turns on one of Bellow’s favorite Platonic themes, the existence one’s soul mate or “actual.” Critics have suggested that this work belongs to the period of the 1970’s, and that Bellow is now clearing his desk. The date of his marriage to Janis Freedman in the late nineties is unknown, however in 1999 Bellow’s fourth child, daughter Naomi Rose Bellow was born to Saul and Janis. Ravelstein, (2000) which appeared the following year is an autobiographical and ethnographic fiction written ostensibly as a memorial to the late Allan Bloom of the University of Chicago, but also as a tribute to Janis. But it is also the site upon which Chick, a thinly-disguised persona for Bellow, can also imagine himself more fully as the child of Russian Jewish immigrants. Through Ravelstein (Bloom), Chick (Bellow) finally understands the origins of his own Jewish voice, humor, moral anxiety, and immigrant legacy. Ravelstein is a comic text rife with Catskill comedian gags, meditations on Platonic idealism, and a preoccupation with the meaning of death. The character of Rosamund, is clearly a tribute to his current wife, Janis who literally saved Bellow’s life after a nearly fatal episode of food poisoning. Collected Stories appeared in 2001. Only time will tell if Bellow will still publish his reported work-in-progress, “All Marbles Still Accounted For”, or if he has other manuscripts in process.

Bellow’s critical reputation, along with that of most white male writers of his era, is currently under reconsideration. The majority of his novels are told as first-person male monologues which usually construct an androcentric world view. While such masculine dilemmas and sensibility are the principal source of comedy in the Bellow novel, this inevitably marginalises women. An increasing number of postcolonial critics, linguists, theorists, and cultural historians are investigating the racial ideologies embedded in Bellow’s texts. In one set of Bellow’s novels African Americans never appear at all, while in another set they appear obscured behind a thick veil of dread-filled colonialist and primitivist stereotypes. Bellow’s rather transparent propensity for meditating on issues of whiteness through racist and sexist tropes of both femininity and Africanity is now a matter of scholarly inquiry. Readers complain that “real” women are conspicuously missing from his texts, as well as “real” African Americans, a matter of some importance in the work of a Chicago-based, self-designated social realist. If Bellow’s fiction now seems to enact a circumscribed kind of moral and ethical brilliance, his international status in the post-WW II American literature can only be compared to that of Hemingway or Faulkner. Nobel Laureate (1976) and winner of numerous literary awards, Bellow has commanded serious international attention for more than 50 years.

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