Saul Bellow’s (1915 – 2005) stature in large measure owes something to the depths to which he plumbed the modern condition. He addressed the disorder of the modern age, with all its horror and darkness as well as its great hope. Though intensely identified with the United States, his heroes are preoccupied with dilemmas arising out of European intellectual and cultural history. Bellow’s fictional world is at once cerebral and sensual. His concern is with the interconnections between art, politics, business, personal sexual proclivities and passions, the intellectual, and the making of culture in modern times. He is heady, like German writer Thomas Mann, revealing the limitations and powers of the self. Few contemporary American writers deal with such weighty issues as masterfully as did Bellow.
Bellow’s honors and reputation document but do not explain his importance, although it will be more clearly seen in the future when some of the main tendencies of American fiction of his era have been fully developed. He is important because he both preserved and enhanced qualities that are present in the great fictional works of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, yet he fully participated in the tumult and uncertainty of the modern era. Though he often opposed the political left and espoused “traditional” cultural positions, Bellow was not primarily a polemical writer. His main concern was not with maintaining social or cultural order but was more spiritual and philosophical in nature. In this, he differed from the group of “New York intellectuals” that centered in the 1940’s and 1950’s on the journal Partisan Review. Although Bellow was for a time friendly with members of this group he took pains to distance himself from it and to stress his essential independence of any creed or ideology, as his paramount concern was for the individual. This theme is especially prominent in his short fiction, whose smaller canvas gives heightened emphasis to Bellow’s stress on the struggle of the individual for self-definition and development against the background of the sundry obstacles the world has in store.
Bellow’s characters have selves and interact with a society and a culture that Bellow created in detail after careful observation. In some of his works, especially Mr. Sammler’s Planet, Bellow’s attitude toward that society and that culture borders on scorn, but his attitude has been earned, not merely stated in response to limitations on his own sensibility. The interaction between self and society in his work occurs against the backdrop of moral ideas. This is not to say that Bellow was didactic; rather, his work is infused with his sophisticated understanding of moral, social, and intellectual issues. In addition to preserving a rich but increasingly neglected tradition, Bellow enriched that tradition. After the exuberant opening words of The Adventures of Augie March, he also added new possibilities to the prose style of American fiction. In short, his work offers some of the benefits that readers in previous centuries sought in fiction—most notably, some ideas about how to be a person in the world—yet it also offers a technical brilliance that Bellow keeps in rein instead of letting it control his work.
Mosby’s Memoirs, and Other Stories
The stories collected in Mosby’s Memoirs, and Other Stories explore characteristic Bellow themes and clearly demonstrate the writer’s moral and aesthetic vision. “Looking for Mr. Green” is set in Chicago during the Depression and recounts the efforts of a civil servant, George Grebe, to deliver relief checks to black residents of the south side. This is the stuff of social protest literature, and Bellow’s story does dramatize the suffering that was endemic at that time, but it is much more than didactic. Bellow avoids a single-minded attack on economic injustice and the resulting inartistic story by, among other things, using a number of contrasts and ironies. For example, two scenes set on the streets and in the tenements of Chicago are separated by a scene at Grebe’s office, and in that scene a philosophical discussion between Grebe and his boss, Raynor, is interrupted by a welfare mother’s tirade. The basic situation of the story is ironic, because it seems odd that anyone would have trouble delivering checks to persons who desperately need them. These persons, however, are difficult to ferret out, and their neighbors will not reveal their whereabouts because they fear that Grebe is a bill collector, process-server, or other source of trouble, and because he is white. This irony vividly illustrates the degree to which the Depression exaggerated the instinct of selfpreservation and widened the gulf between blacks and whites.
Grebe’s name points out several of the contrasts in “Looking for Mr. Green.” Grebes are birds known for their elaborate courtship dances, but George Grebe is a bachelor. More important for the story, grebes live in pairs rather than in flocks and remain in their own territories, but George, because of his job, is forced into society and into territory where he is an alien, not only because he is white but also because he is the son of the last English butler in Chicago and was a professor of classics. This is not to say that he is a stranger to trouble: He “had had more than an average seasoning in hardship.” Despite his troubles, Grebe is shocked by suffering, distrust, and decrepit physical settings.
Oddly enough, these conditions are for him not only a moral problem but also an epistemological one. Raynor, his supervisor, brings up this problem by asserting that “nothing looks to be real, and everything stands for something else, and that thing for another thing.” In contrast, Grebe later concludes that objects “stood for themselves by agreement, . . . and when the things collapsed the agreement became visible.” The physical setting and the social and economic structure in this story are rapidly deteriorating, if not collapsing. Grebe complicates his analysis by asking “but what about need?,” thereby suggesting that because of the Depression the agreement itself is collapsing and perhaps with it reality. Some of the persons he meets want to hasten that collapse. The welfare mother “expressed the war of flesh and blood, perhaps turned a little crazy and certainly ugly, on the place and condition,” and another person advocates an alternate agreement, a plan whereby blacks would contribute a dollar apiece every month to produce black millionaires. Grebe’s finding Mr. Green indicates that he can do something about this obscure world in which appearance and reality are mixed. Near the end of the story he asserts that it “was important that there was a real Mr. Green whom they could not keep him from reaching because he seemed to come as an emissary from hostile appearances.”
The Gonzaga Manuscripts
“The Gonzaga Manuscripts” is a subtle story that traces changes in a young man, Clarence Feiler, and puts those changes in the context of important issues pertinent to the proper functions of literature and to its relation to everyday reality. Bellow carefully delineates the psychological state of Feiler, to whom literature makes an enormous difference, and shows the impingement upon him of Spanish society, which also was the environment of the writer about whom he cares passionately, Manuel Gonzaga. These themes are developed in the context of Feiler’s search in Madrid and Seville for the unpublished manuscripts of poems written by Gonzaga. Feiler learns finally that the poems are lost forever, buried with Gonzaga’s patron.
When Feiler arrives in Spain he is a confirmed Gonzagan, and while searching for the manuscripts he immerses himself in Spanish society and even in Gonzaga’s former milieu. Bellow meticulously paints in the Spanish background by describing the cities, religious processions, political climate, and a representative group of Spaniards. As a result of his immersion Feiler begins virtually to relive Gonzaga’s poems. For example, early in the story Feiler quotes part of a poem:
I used to welcome all
And now I fear all.
If it rained it was comforting
And if it shone, comforting,
But now my very weight is dreadful.
The story ends thus: as “the train left the mountains, the heavens seemed to split. Rain began to fall, heavy and sudden, boiling on the wide plain. He knew what to expect from the redheaded Miss Walsh at dinner.” That is, the rain is not comforting, and he fears that Miss Walsh will continue to torment him.
Feiler maintains his allegiance to Gonzaga, but there is considerable evidence in the story indicating that his allegiance is misplaced. For example, Gonzaga’s friends are unimpressive. His best friend, del Nido, is a babbling mediocrity who sees little need for more poetry, and Gonzaga’s patron has had the poems buried with her, thus denying them to the world. Another acquaintance misunderstands Feiler’s search, thinking that he is after mining stock. One of Gonzaga’s main beliefs is that one needs to take a dim view of human potential; he advocates being little more than a creature and avoiding the loss of everything by not trying to become everything. Even though Feiler himself has few aspirations besides finding the lost poems, he ends in despair. In fact, Gonzaga resembles the writers whom Bellow castigates in “Some Notes on Recent American Fiction” because of their minimal conception of human potential and their concomitant solicitousness for their own sensibility. Bellow’s essay is a defense of a view of literature that Feiler unflatteringly contrasts to Gonzaga’s.
“Mosby’s Memoirs” was published in 1968, two years before Mr. Sammler’s Planet, and, like that novel, is a study in world weariness. Mosby is writing his memoirs in Oaxaca, Mexico, where the fecund land and the earthy existence of the people contrast to his own dryness. His mind ranges back through his life, particularly to recall two friends: Ruskin, a poet who has a theoretical bent of mind, and Lustgarden, who alternates between endlessly elaborated Marxism and piratical capitalism. At the end of the story Mosby is in a tomb that, along with his inability to get enough air to breathe, suggests that he is moribund. Although Mr. Sammler’s Planet depicts a sympathetic character fending off as best he can the horrors of contemporary life, “Mosby’s Memoirs” shows the danger of rejecting one’s era.
Mosby’s critique is conservative: He had worked for Hearst, had shaken Franco’s hand, had agreed with Burnham’s emphasis on managing, even to the point of admiring Nazi Germany’s skill at it. Partly because Lustgarden’s Marxism is not made to appear attractive either, Mosby’s politics are not as unattractive as his attitude toward other persons. He is intolerant and is characterized by “acid elegance, logical tightness, factual punctiliousness, and merciless laceration in debate.” Even more damaging to him is a scene at a concert in which he is described as “stone-hearted Mosby, making fun of flesh and blood, of those little humanities with their short inventories of bad and good.” His attitude is also obvious in his treatment of Lustgarden in his memoirs. Rather than using his friend’s disastrous attempts to make money as a political parable or as an occasion to demonstrate pity, Mosby plans to use them for comic relief, in the process eschewing his “factual punctiliousness” in order to make Lustgarden more laughable.
Him with His Foot in His Mouth, and Other Stories
The stories brought together in Him with His Foot in His Mouth, and Other Stories can be divided into two types: The title story and What Kind of Day Did You Have? (both novella-length pieces) feature powerful, aging Jewish intellectuals trying to come to grips with the course their lives have taken and bridge the world of ideas with the sensate, real world around them. The other three stories in the volume—“Zetland: By a Character Witness,” “A Silver Dish,” and “Cousins”—are cut from the same fabric as “Looking for Mr. Green.” They vividly, almost nostalgically, evoke a past, between the wars and after, and portray the assimilation of Jews in the United States. What is impressive in all of these stories is the wide historical swath they cut; Bellow’s concern here, as elsewhere, is no less than the human condition in the twentieth century.
Herschel Shawmut, the narrator of Him with His Foot in His Mouth, a man in his sixties, is a successful Jewish musicologist. His story, a sort of confession, is addressed to a “Miss Rose” whom he evidently mortally offended with an inadvertent verbal barb years ago. Shawmut confesses to other slips of the tongue as well. As he writes about all the incidents, revealing a certain pattern of personality, he attributes them simply to fate. His confession also reveals that he has been swindled by his own brother Philip, a materialist living a sumptuous bourgeois life in Texas. Philip persuades his naïve brother to hand over all of his hard-earned money (made from his musicological ventures) and form a partnership in a company rife with fraud and other illegal activities. After Philip’s untimely death, Shawmut, hounded by creditors, seeks exile. He is, in the end, living a lonely life in Canada. Through his confessions, Shawmut seems to find some kind of order and the satisfaction of having articulated the nature of his fate, for better or worse.
Victor Wulpy, the older Jewish intellectual in What Kind of Day Did You Have? is a charismatic figure who sweeps a much younger Katrina Goliger, mother of two, off her feet. On the day in question, Wulpy calls Katrina to ask her to come to Buffalo and fly back to Chicago with him for a speaking engagement. Not daring to question this cultural giant, she takes off immediately, cancelling an appointment with a psychiatrist for an evaluation of her psychiatric condition in a fierce battle with her former husband for custody of her children. In the climactic scene of the story, the small Cessna plane they are in seems, in the thick of a winter storm, to be in a fatal dive toward Lake Michigan. In the face of possible death Katrina wants him to say he loves her, but he refuses. “If we don’t love each other,” she then wonders aloud, “What are we doing? How did we get here?” In the end,Wulpy makes his speaking engagement and Trina makes it home, to find her children gone. Soon they return, escorted by Krieggstein, a police officer and a suitor waiting for the passing of the Wulpy phase.
A Silver Dish and Cousins
Bellow’s Jewish wit, evident in all these stories, sparkles in “A Silver Dish” and “Cousins,” both cleverly conceived. In “A Silver Dish,” a sixty-year-old Woody Selbst mourns his father’s death and recalls an incident in his youth. Woody’s mother and father had split up, leaving Woody’s upbringing in the hands of his mother and a Protestant evangelical minister. Woody’s father, “Pop,” returns one day to ask his son a favor.Would he introduce his father to a certain wealthy Protestant, Mrs. Skoglund, who had made money in the dairy business?Woody reluctantly agrees and takes his father to the woman’s home. While she and her suspicious maid leave the room to pray and decide whether or not to comply with Pop’s request for money, Pop steals a silver dish from a locked cabinet. Woody and his father get into a scuffle, and his father promises to put the dish back if Mrs. Skoglund coughs up the money. She does, but Pop, unbeknownst to his son, keeps the dish. When the dish is missed, Woody gets the blame and falls from grace in the eyes of the evangelical crowd—which is exactly the effect his father desired.
In “Cousins,” the narrator, Ijah Brodsky, an international banker, tells the story of his contact with three cousins. The first, Tanky Metzger, is connected to mobs and wants Ijah to use his influence with a certain judge and gain a lighter sentence. The second cousin is Mordecai, or “Cousin Motty,” whom Ijah goes to visit in the hospital after he has been hurt in an automobile crash. Cousin Motty has letters to deliver to Ijah from another cousin, Scholem Stavis. The intellectual in the family, Stavis has ended up, however, driving a cab. All through the narrative are reminiscences, a calling up of the past, a restitching of old relationships. Ijah’s existence seems somehow to be tied to, and defined by, his connection to these cousins.
The Actual, a short, self-contained novella, has many of the traits and characteristics associated with Bellow’s earlier work. In fact, for these reasons it is an excellent introduction to Bellow’s fictional world. Yet, strikingly for a work published in its author’s eighty-second year, it also breaks new ground for Bellow. The hero of The Actual is a man named Harry Trellman, who is at the time of the action semiretired and living in Chicago. Trellman has always been perceived by those he encounters as a bit different from everybody else, standing out from the rest of the crowd. Trellman worked as a businessman in Asia and later served as an adviser to Siggy Adletsky, a tycoon and racketeer who controls a huge financial empire and who is now ninety-two years old. Adletsky finds Trellman valuable because of his wide-ranging knowledge. This is a situation often found in Bellow’s work: the alliance between the shady millionaire and the intellectual.
As a teenager, Trellman had been in love with Amy Wustrin, who had eventually chosen as her second husband Trellman’s best friend in high school, Jay Wustrin. Throughout the years, Harry Trellman had kept firm to the inner image of Amy in his mind even as he went through his varied career and activities. After Jay Wustrin dies prematurely, he is buried in the cemetery plot originally reserved for Amy’s father, who had sold it to him years earlier. Now Amy wants to remove Jay’s body to the burial plot of his own family so that her father, who is still alive at an advanced age, can eventually be buried there. In a limousine provided by Adletsky, Amy and Trellman disinter and rebury the body. Moved by this scene of death and renewal, Trellman confesses to Amy that he has always loved her, that he has what he terms an “actual affinity” for her (hence the title of the story). He then asks her to marry him.
This declaration of love is striking as Trellman, for most of his life, has remained uncommitted and rather inscrutable, not exposing his inner secrets to others. Harry’s privacy is contrasted with the willful self-exposure of men such as Jay Wustrin, who love making a spectacle of themselves. This dichotomy between the public and private man is mirrored by the tensions in Trellman’s relationship with Adletsky, who is concerned only with money and profit-making, yet needs the intellectual-minded, knowledgeable Trellman in order to succeed; equally, Trellman becomes dependent on the financial largesse of Adletsky. Trellman stands slightly outside the world’s network of relationships yet cannot do entirely without them.
In most of his fictions, Bellow’s male protagonists tend to have troubled relationships with women and are often suffering in the aftermath of divorce. The serenity of Trellman’s love for Amy stands in vivid contrast especially to earlier short fictions of Bellow’s such as What Kind of Day Did You Have? and sounds a note of romantic celebration that is basically unprecedented in Bellow’s work.
Other major works
Plays: The Wrecker, pb. 1954; The Last Analysis, pr. 1964; Under the Weather, pr. 1966 (also known as The Bellow Plays; includes Out from Under, A Wen, and Orange Soufflé).
Anthology: Great Jewish Short Stories, 1963
Novels: Dangling Man, 1944; The Victim, 1947; The Adventures of Augie March, 1953; Seize the Day, 1956; Henderson the Rain King, 1959; Herzog, 1964; Mr. Sammler’s Planet, 1970; Humboldt’s Gift, 1975; The Dean’s December, 1982; More Die of Heartbreak, 1987; A Theft, 1989; The Bellarosa Connection, 1989; The Actual, 1997 (novella); Ravelstein, 2000; Novels, 1944-1953, 2003 (includes Dangling Man, The Victim, and The Adventures of Augie March).
Nonfiction: To Jerusalem and Back: A Personal Account, 1976; Conversations with Saul Bellow, 1994 (Gloria L. Cronin and Ben Siegel, editors); It All Adds Up: From the Dim Past to the Uncertain Future, 1994.
American Studies International 35 (February, 1997).
Atlas, James. Bellow. New York: Random House, 2000.
Bellow, Saul. “Moving Quickly: An Interview with Saul Bellow.” Salmagundi (Spring/ Summer, 1995): 32-53.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Saul Bellow. New York: Chelsea House, 1986.
Boyers, Robert. “Captains of Intellect.” Salmagundi (Spring/Summer, 1995): 100- 108.
Cronin, Gloria L., and L. H. Goldman, eds. Saul Bellow in the 1980’s: A Collection of Critical Essays. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1989.
Freedman,William. “Hanging for Pleasure and Profit: Truth as Necessary Illusion in Bellow’s Fiction.” Papers on Language and Literature 35 (Winter, 1999): 3-27.
May, Charles E., ed. Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition. 8 vols. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2004.
Pifer, Ellen. Saul Bellow Against the Grain. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990.
Categories: Short Story