Though Saul Bellow (1915-2005) was, ironically, advised by the English department chairman at Northwestern University that “no Jew could really grasp the tradition of English literature,” he went on to become widely regarded as one of the twentieth century’s greatest authors.
The only writer to win the National Book Award for Fiction three times – for The Adventures of Augie March (1954), Herzog (1964) and Mr. Sammler’s Planet (1970) – he also won a Pulitzer Prize for Humboldt’s Gift (1975); a Presidential Medal; and the Nobel Prize for Literature (1976).
Bellow’s work speaks to the confusing nature of modern civilization and to the ability of man to transcend his frailties and achieve greatness. A frequent theme in his work was the fostering of madness, materialism, and misleading knowledge by a flawed modern civilization. His protagonists, who invariably manifest heroic potential, stand in contrast to these negative forces of society and his characters, often Jewish, frequently manifest a sense of alienation or “otherness.” His work also shows a great appreciation for the American dream and a fascination with the uniqueness and vitality of the American experience, and his literary objectives included mixing the high culture of the Europeans with the simple culture of Jewish American immigrants.
Shown with this column is a June 25, 1971 handwritten correspondence to Constance Perin, on his Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies letterhead, in which Bellow expresses delight at the successful reception of a recent production of his play, The Last Analysis, remarking that he has overcome the notion that novelists do not write plays and adding that the victory gratifies his “vengeful Jewish heart”:
By now you know that I’ve been handsomely received by the Times, et al., and I’m delighted for everyone – for the company more than for myself. The fixed idea that novelists don’t write for the stage was too powerful to overcome five years ago; I thought I’d never get around that and it worried me, knowing what T. Mann and Joe W. and the cast had put into the play. These are the victories that gratify my litigious character, my vengeful Jewish heart. I’m so glad the play gave you pleasure. Getting it all back from the butchers is exactly the idea.
The best-selling The Last Analysis was a serious novel in which Bellow criticized naive Freudianism. The play, which he hoped would survive because of its entertaining qualities, was a lighthearted episodic farce about a once successful Jewish comedian restaging his life as a closed-circuit TV show for an audience of psychiatrists at the Waldorf-Astoria. Ironically – and despite the positive New York Times review and the exuberance Bellow expresses in this correspondence – the play proved to be a Broadway flop, closing after only 28 performances.
Also shown with this column is a relatively scarce (given that the play closed so soon after opening) Broadway Playbill.
Perin was a renowned cultural anthropologist and an independent scholar at MIT who specialized in the study of professional work, knowledge, and value systems and how their differences affect the ways that specialists collaborate. Of particular interest, given the context of our letter, is that in her later years she studied the anthropology of theatre productions as a collaborative process.
Bellow was the child of religiously observant Lithuanian-Russian Jews who escaped to America immediately prior to World War I. His mother, wanting him to be a rabbi, saw to it that he received a traditional Jewish education, and his lifelong love for the Bible began at age four when he learned Hebrew. However, he was drawn away from his upbringing by his interest in “expanding civilization” and he rebelled against what he later called the “suffocating orthodoxy” of his religious upbringing.
Bellow ceased religious practice and effectively removed himself from the Jewish community. He objected to being called a “Jewish writer” and always described himself as “writer first, Jew second.” He expressed his basic challenge as “how to combine being a Jew with being an American and a writer” and was particularly critical of Jews who tried to “place” him as too Jewish or not Jewish enough.
Yet at the same time he embraced his Judaism, characterizing himself as “an American of Jewish heritage,” and he described himself as “a religious man in retarded condition” who serves as a guardian of a Jewish tradition under fire from the forces of totalitarianism and nihilistic modernism.
In a 1988 talk, A Jewish Writer in America, Bellow beautifully presented the core of his Jewish gestalt and how, though he rejected Jewish belief and practice, he could not, and never would, erase or ignore his Jewish essence; indeed, such an act would be traitorous:
So, in my first consciousness, I was, among other things, a Jew, the child of Jewish immigrants. At home our parents spoke Russian to each other, we children spoke Yiddish with them, and we spoke English with one another. At the age of four we began to read the Old Testament in Hebrew, we observed Jewish customs, some of them superstitions, and we recited prayers and blessings all day long. Because I had to memorize most of Genesis, my first consciousness was that of a cosmos, and in that cosmos I was a Jew. I suppose it would be proper to apply the word “archaic” to such a representation of the world as I had – archaic, prehistoric. This was my “given” and it would be idle to quarrel with it, to try to revise or efface it.
A millennial belief in a Holy God may have the effect of deepening the soul, but it is also obviously archaic, and modern influences would presently bring me up to date and reveal how antiquated my origins were. To turn away from those origins, however, has always seemed to me an utter impossibility. It would be a treason to my first consciousness to un-Jew myself. One may be tempted to go behind the given and invent something better, to attempt to reenter life at a more advantageous point. In America this is common, we have all seen it done, and done in many instances with great ingenuity. But the thought of such an attempt never entered my mind. Thus, I may have been archaic, but I escaped the horrors of an identity crisis.
Jewish life and identity was almost always a major theme in Bellow’s work, and his often- biographical literary works were, indeed, deeply and consistently infused with Jewish people, Jewish faith, Jewish politics, Jewish legends, and Yiddish words and phrases – but not the Hebrew language. In response to Shai Agnon’s insistence during a 1961 meeting that that “the language of the Diaspora will not last” and that, as a Jewish writer, Bellow should be writing in Hebrew, Bellow resisted Agnon’s arguments, though he respected his motivation: “Without a trace of ill will, he was simply directing my attention to certain chapters of Jewish history. He was sweetly needling me.” (He later mused about asking Agnon “how well the Arabic of Maimonides had been translated into Hebrew.”)
Bellow’s attitude toward Judaism underwent a radical change in the wake of the 1967 Six-Day War, which transformed him from a socialist to a conservative. Much to the surprise of his family, he left for Israel to cover the war as a correspondent for Newsday, explaining that he needed to be involved.
Later, in To Jerusalem and Back: A Personal Account, a thoughtful account of his 1975 trip to Israel, he wrote a broadly sympathetic account of the Jewish state and manifested great affection for Israel’s history and traditions. He did, however, have a decidedly leftist take on Israeli politics, favoring political compromise and the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank.
A harsh critic of multiculturalism – he once famously asked: “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans? I’d be glad to read him” – Bellow maintained the superiority of American and Jewish culture as he actively engaged in the confrontational debates involving Jewish and African-American relations.
Finally, one fascinating cultural anomaly few readers know: Joni Mitchell’s song “Both Sides Now” (the more famous version was covered by Judy Collins) was inspired by Bellow’s 1959 novel Henderson the Rain King.