Bellow in his Dream Car

(Dissent, 2010)

Saul Bellow: Letters has just been published by Viking. Edited by Benjamin Taylor, a member of the Graduate Writing Faculty at the New School, the collection constitutes an enthralling coda to Bellow's career. Taylor discussed the book with Scott Sherman via email.

Q: Who invited you to edit the letters?

A: 2006, a dark year in my life, was brightened when Andrew Wylie telephoned one evening to ask, on behalf of the Bellow estate, if I’d be interested in editing the letters. I said I thought I would, and we took it from there.

Q: Had you written on Bellow before?

A: No, I'd never written anything about Bellow, though I'd taught his work a lot over the years, in various settings.

Q: Then why did Wylie approach you?

A: I was asked, as it turned out, because Philip Roth had recommended me to Mrs. Bellow.

Q: Why is Bellow a great novelist?

A: Rather than resorting to generalities, let me give an example. What follows is from the final pages of Henderson the Rain King. Our hero recalls a job he had one summer long ago, on a fairground somewhere in Ontario. For the delectation of the crowd, he and an elderly, worn-out, sweet-hearted brown bear would together ride the roller coaster:

Whatever gains I ever made were always due to love and nothing else. And as Smolak (mossy like a forest elm) and I rode together, and as he cried out at the top, beginning the bottomless rush over those skimpy yellow supports, and up once more against eternity's blue (oh, the stuff that has been done within this envelope of color, this subtle bag of life-giving gasses!) while the Canadian hicks were rejoicing underneath with red faces, all the nubble-fingered rubes, we hugged each other, the bear and I, with something greater than terror and flew in those gilded cars. I shut my eyes in his wretched, time-abused fur. He held me in his arms and gave me comfort. And the great thing is that he didn't blame me. He had seen too much of life, and somewhere in his huge head he had worked it out that for creatures there is nothing that ever runs unmingled.

Q: Did Bellow invent his own style, or did he stitch it together from writers he admired: Joyce, Lawrence, Yeats, Dreiser? And do you agree with Irving Howe's assessment in 1976: "Bellow has brought to completion the first major new style in American prose fiction since those of Hemingway and Faulkner: a mingling of high-flown intellectual bravado with racy-tough street Jewishness, all in a comic rhetoric that keeps turning its head back toward Yiddish even as it keeps racing away from it"?

A: Howe's assessment seems exactly right. I suppose this is what draws me also–that there is no pastiche in the mature work, no impersonation of any forbear. To bring to birth a new sensibility is already a great accomplishment. That's what Cheever did. That's what Alice Munro has done. But the radical achievement, in addition, of a new style is what Proust, Kafka, Joyce, Beckett, and Nabokov brought to pass: an undreamed-of originality.  Bellow's is a name to run alongside theirs.

Q: What is the difference between a "style" and a "sensibility"?

A: Style is a matter of words. Sensibility is what lies beneath them. Or something like that.

Q: Where does Bellow's reputation stand today?  I sense that enterprising young readers are drawn to the works of Philip Roth, and less so to the novels of Bellow. Is his work taught in literature departments?

A: Philip Roth is like the Northern Lights, only more frequent–the living master of the American novel, no doubt. Bellow has been dead for five years now. Letters is the first book (excluding Library of America's multi-volume edition) to appear since Ravelstein in 2000 and Collected Stories a year later, and I think the response, here and in the UK and Europe, will give us a fair indication of how important he is.

Q: But is he taught in literature departments?

A:  I teach him. Jeffrey Eugenides, Gary Shteyngart, Jonathan Lethem, James Wood, and Nathan Englander teach him. If Martin Amis and Ian McEwan taught school, they'd teach him. I have noticed, as recently as this semester, that several of my brightest students at Columbia and the New School bring up Bellow unbidden in class.

Q: In The New York Intellectuals (1987), Alan Wald wrote that Bellow and Isaac Rosenfeld joined a Trotskyist youth group at the University of Chicago in 1933. Wald noted: "Never regarded as political leaders, [they] were seen more as kibitzers and wits." You point out that Bellow left the Socialist Workers Party in 1940. How deep was his commitment to the Left in that period?

A:  He was not really a political animal. Not an Orwell, not a Sidney Hook, not an Irving Howe. "I drove past in my dream car," Bellow liked to say. While it was all but inevitable that a gifted young Jew in those years would be drawn to the left opposition–and particularly in Chicago, which had a considerable Trotskyist network–his deeper attraction was always to the intimacy of fiction. A character in the grip of dialectical materialism would have interested him far more than the materialism itself.

Q:  In the letters he wrote during the composition of The Adventures of Augie March, Bellow expressed a striking degree of confidence in the novel. But when New Yorker editor William Shawn offered him an unprecedented opportunity to reply to Anthony West's dismissive review of the book–a review that Bellow loathed–he declined to do so. As he wrote to New Yorker editor Katharine White: "The confusion is so vast, involved and peculiar that I don't feel brave enough or capable enough to deal with it." Why did Bellow decline Shawn's offer?

A:  I think he knew that public response to one's critics is a mug's game, for starters. And West was pretty much a voice in the wilderness; the overall response to Augie was tremendously enthusiastic, with Lionel Trilling's serious piece in the Griffin (the publication of the Readers' Subscription Book Club) setting the tone.

Q:  In 1956 Bellow told Ralph Ellison: "I’ve never enjoyed writing letters." How many letters did he produce in his lifetime? In their overall quality and reach, are they comparable to the letters of writers you refer to in your introduction: Woolf, Cheever, and Lowell?

A: My guess is that about two thousand letters survive. Seven hundred some odd are in the book as published. The manuscript was longer–much longer. I had to cut eighty thousand words before it could go to press. 

You mention Woolf, Cheever, and Lowell. Yes, he was their equal, though not mad or alcoholic or any of the rest of it. Instead, Bellow's letters build up a picture of unbroken professional drive. And of longing for self-metamorphosis through his art. Bad things happen along the way, of course: friends die, marriages fail, illness menaces. But nowhere do you find the extreme kinds of trouble life visited on those others.

Q:  Bellow's correspondence in the early 1960s is full of references to the literary magazine he briefly edited, the Noble Savage, which he hoped would be as strong and distinguished as the Dial.  How do you rate the Noble Savage?

A: The Noble Savage contained work by such unknown young writers as Thomas Pynchon, Cynthia Ozick, Edward Hoagland, Thomas Berger, and Robert Coover. Established contributors included Ralph Ellison, John Berryman, Harold Rosenberg, Arthur Miller, Josephine Herbst, Nelson Algren, Howard Nemerov, Herbert Gold, and Harvey Swados. Not bad for a magazine that lasted only two years and a little.

Q: The letters reveal the steely discipline he had as a writer. "I learned to organize my daily life for a single purpose," he wrote to a friend in 1980. Elsewhere he referred to his manuscripts as his "frontline defenses against chaos." I also get the feeling that writing was effortless for him. Did he have an easier time at the typewriter than his peers?

A: Well, he did have some very formidable peers. I think he ranked J. F. Powers and John Cheever highest. But Bellow had more language in him than they did. I think it's to his mighty opposite Nabokov that you must turn for the useful comparison. Nabokov had as much language in him, and an entirely different notion of what fiction ought to do. Not surprisingly, those two did not care for each other.

Q: In the early 1970s Bellow devoured the works of Rudolf Steiner and developed a deep interest in Anthroposophy. In his early letters to Steiner's British disciple Owen Barfield, Bellow, normally full of confidence, sounds like a timid graduate student. Why was Bellow drawn to Anthroposophy?

A: Anthroposophy beguiled him in the seventies, much as Reichian therapy had beguiled him in the fifties. It puts me in mind of Yeats's soft spot for Madame Blavatsky's Secret Doctrine, or whatever the hell she called it. Or of the theurgy of the Golden Dawn. Or of James Merrill's devotion to the Ouija Board in our own day. There is a colorful history of great writers being attracted to intellectually discreditable creeds and fads and other such junk.

Q: Bellow was quite close to Ralph Ellison. But there are very few letters to Ellison in the book. Why?

A: Ellison and Bellow did not correspond much after the fifties. I think Bellow grew more and more baffled by his friend's failure to go on from Invisible Man. Or perhaps he understood only too well what Ellison's impediments were: the deep fear of not having another such book in him, a preoccupation with celebrity and the social whirl, inroads of alcoholism, the withering contempt visited on him by the black power movement of the sixties and after, an excessive preoccupation with the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In any case, essays were what we got after Invisible Man. I know that Bellow admired those very much indeed, but they weren't what he'd hoped for, and I think this is the undersong of his eulogy for Ralph, which I've included near the end of Letters.

Q:  In 1983 Bellow referred to Hugh Kenner's review of The Dean's December as "openly anti-Semitic." And when John Updike wrote a tepid review of Humboldt's Gift in the New Yorker, Bellow's friend Samuel Goldberg called to say that Updike was an "anti-Semitic pornographer." Did Bellow (who scooped up most–if not all–of the major literary prizes) truly see anti-Semitism at work in the critical responses to his novels?

A: Against Kenner, the charge of anti-Semitism wasn't in the least paranoiac. Kenner shared T. S. Eliot's view, expressed in After Strange Gods, that it is inadvisable for a civilization to allow Jews too much prominence–exactly the American development Kenner was witnessing in the postwar period. Enough about him. As to Goldberg's charge against Updike, it is scurrilous, and you see in the letter that Bellow does not take it up. Which is not to say that he had any fondness for Updike. That review went on rankling. Another thing to point out here is that the old Protestant hold on American book reviewing had pretty much broken down after the fifties. Many of Bellow's harshest critics were Jews–some of them former friends.

Q: Bellow had several ex-wives and was frequently involved in litigation with them. In a 1978 letter, two years after he won the Nobel Prize, he wrote: "Today I was asked for an inventory of my personal belongings, and I wonder whether the court would hesitate to put them on auction." In this letter, and others like it, did he exaggerate his battles with lawyers and judges?

A: I'll limit myself to Susan, his third wife. The legal aftermath of their divorce, granted in 1968, would consume a decade. Following the decree, she haled Bellow back into court, claiming that at the time of their settlement he had misrepresented his earning power. I gather that she had afterward thought things over and convinced herself–or perhaps was convinced by others–that she'd played a crucial role in the writing of Herzog and was entitled to a better share of the considerable proceeds. Anyhow, in 1978 Susan prevailed in court. The half million dollars Saul had received from the Swedish Academy went neatly to her. Additionally, Bellow was ordered to pay her tremendous legal expenses. His own, of course, were very heavy too. So yes, he was ruined, and not exaggerating when he told people so. There is much more to say about all this, but I haven't the documentation to go further. I expect that Zachary Leader, who is writing the definitive biography, will be in a position to bring to light the whole tale, including a fuller account of Susan's lawyers and of the judge who decided in her favor.

Q: Bellow spent much of his life in the Midwest and New England. A certain antipathy toward New York City rises from the Letters. For example, in a letter to Josephine Herbst in 1961, he observed: "The city, when your friends are writers, can be largely awful." Did Bellow abhor Manhattan?

A: He said on more than one occasion that he'd never won any of his battles in New York, which fails to suggest just how large he loomed here in the imaginations of people he didn't care for. The Partisan crowd needed him; they couldn't be without a great novelist to go along with the great other things–critics, poets, memoirists–that they had. But Bellow wasn't about to be co-opted by an intellectual, to say nothing of an editorial, viewpoint. Position-taking was well and good for the Trillings, figures of fun to him (unfairly, I must say). Philip Rahv he liked a lot. But after the magazine passed to William Phillips and Richard Poirier, he declared the enterprise hopeless. Nor did he have a home at the New Yorker or the New York Review of Books. Another thing: New York was the setting for many post-marital tensions and sadnesses–his former wife Anita and their son Gregory had lived here, as in their turn would the next two former Mrs. Bellows, Sondra and Susan, with sons Adam and Daniel. In later years though, I believe that Bellow spent many happy evenings in the hushed splendor of the Lotos Club, to which he belonged for the last thirty years of his life, I think. Perhaps New York had lost its old menace and at last he could take pleasure in the place.

Q: Ravelstein was published when he was eighty-five. I didn't realize until I read the Letters how infirm Bellow was in his later years: "The surgery is about three weeks behind me now," he wrote in 1996. "My belly, which must have resembled Picasso's stamp collection, has recovered from the surgical bruises." It's remarkable that he finished the book.

A: I had occasion to ask Philip Roth what he thought about Ravelstein when it came out. He said, though I may not have this verbatim: "An eighty-five year old guy, whose health is ruined, has run the equivalent of the Boston Marathon. I'm in awe, is what I think."

Q: In reading through his letters, what surprised you the most?

A: The scale of everything, in sex, love, inspiration, labor.

Q: At the end of his life, Bellow expressed doubts about Augie March. In a letter to Martin Amis in 1995, he declared: "I can't read a page of the book without flinching. It seems to me now one of those stormy, formless American phenomena–like Action Painting." Did he have a higher opinion of Herzog, Mr. Sammler's Planet, and Humboldt's Gift?

A: He did, indeed, and also of Henderson the Rain King, which he regarded as his best. And he was very partial to a handful of stories: "The Old System," "Leaving the Yellow House," "A Silver Dish," "Something to Remember Me By"; these are best for younger readers to start with, especially the latter two.