The authors whose books we read when they are new and we are young are bound to occupy a place in our lives that is different from that of other writers. They are our contemporaries. The air they breathe is the same air that we breathe. The history they experience is our history, too, and if their “take” on it differs in some ways from our own, it is nonetheless the same history. We recognize the arguments, the atmosphere, the very texture of events as familiar territory, for the world that is evoked by these writers is in so many respects continuous with our own. The jokes do not have to be explained.
As we—and they—grow older, however, our relation to these writers undergoes a significant change. We come to expect both more and less from them—more, because of the congruence of our joint experience and the sense of identification it engenders; less, because of our growing sense that, like many things in life we did not fully understand when we were young, they will prove in time to be disappointing. It is then that doubt sets in and we come to see such writers as—well, as writers, to be judged on their merits like other writers, writers who have now slipped out of the enclosed circle of our experience to become public literary figures. We may still read such writers with keen interest, but we no longer grant them a special place in our lives.
For certain intellectuals of my generation—literary, Jewish, liberal (as we then were) but contemptuous of progressive causes, anti-Communist, skeptical of the academy, indifferent to mass culture, enchanted by the life of art and the life of the mind, yet gloomy about what the modern world held in store for us—Saul Bellow was one of the writers who instantly became part of our conversation with ourselves and with others. The anxieties and aspirations that his fiction expressed, like the breakdown and disarray it depicted and the disabused intelligence and humor it flaunted, had an immense personal appeal.
I missed Dangling Man (1944) when it was first published—I was still in high school, reading George Eliot, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and the English Romantic poets for my classes, and novels from the Book-of-the-Month Club for myself—but as an undergraduate I read The Victim (1947) with a feeling of great excitement. I had just begun to read the modern classics, and did not doubt for a moment that the author of The Victim, who was about the age of my older brother, belonged in their company.
For some years thereafter I read every one of Bellow’s subsequent novels as it came out. I gobbled up the advance sections of The Adventures of Augie March (1953) as they appeared in magazines, and rejoiced in the success of the book when it was published. The criticisms that book met with—criticisms that I now think cogent and timely—I ascribed to the kind of family quarrels I was just then getting to be familiar with on the New York intellectual scene. Those criticisms did not, in any case, apply to Seize the Day (1956), which seemed to me to sum up something essential about the life of the time, the heartbreak side of life in the 50’s.
I found Henderson the Rain King (1959) to be something of a detour, an anthropological romance in which the exuberant style that Bellow had forged for Augie March fought a losing battle against the abstract character of an arid allegory. Herzog (1964) was a triumph, however, a novel from which people I knew read out passages to their friends on the telephone. “Listen to this!” we would say, and recite one of Herzog’s wise, crazy letters until we were both convulsed with laughter. (Does anyone do that with novels today?) It was a book that defined our world, and considering what it meant to us, it was a mercy, as Henry James might have said, that it was as good as it was.
Then came Mr. Sammler’s Planet (1970). Nowadays we tend to forget what a bombshell it was—the first novel to give us a searing account of the moral collapse of the city (New York) and the class (the emancipated Jewish middle class) that were fundamental to our existence. It was also, among much else, a book about the failure of liberalism itself in the wake of the 60’s rebellion, the sexual revolution, and the race war. It had taken the measure of the future of bourgeois urban life in America, and pronounced it doomed. A prophetic book, and still in my opinion the most courageous and sagacious of Bellow’s novels.
Mr. Sammler’s Planet divided intellectual opinion, or confirmed the divisions that had already occurred as the result of the 60’s uproar. In other words, it took a political stand. Historically, at least for certain intellectuals of my generation, it remains the most important of Bellow’s novels. Coming at a moment when so much of the American literary world had joined the “movement,” as 60’s radicalism was then called, Mr. Sammler’s Planet stood out as a high-style novel willing to tell the truth about the disasters that had already befallen us as a result of the emancipatory imperatives of that movement. In its refusal to conform to the left-wing pieties that had already swamped the academy, the media, and the whole cultural scene, it mocked what had swiftly become the conventional wisdom. Which, of course, was why the Left decried it. And why, perhaps, Bellow has never written anything like it again.
It was with Humboldt’s Gift, published five years later, that I dropped out of the Bellow fan club. This had nothing to do with politics. I had had my own harrowing experiences with Delmore Schwartz, the poet upon whose ruined life the character of Von Humboldt Fleisher was based, and found that I distrusted the fable that Bellow attempted to make of that life. I could not read the novel as anything but an extended exercise in self-exoneration. It had its extraordinary moments, to be sure—bravura scenes in which Schwartz’s zany, desperate brilliance was authentically conveyed, along with a vivid sense of the melancholy fate that awaited him (he died in a seedy hotel room after years of dissipation and mental illness)—but I could not abide the way the author had contrived to exempt himself from the moral indictments the book so freely brought against others, indeed against almost everyone.
I continued to read Bellow, but the spell was broken. His later books seemed so intent upon settling old scores and trying out new roles—some of them distinctly too metaphysical for my tastes—that I could no longer read them as autonomous literary works. It seemed to me that Bellow was more and more acquiring the smug and apodictic tone of a writer whose celebrity was now a refuge from experience and a barrier to any direct engagement with the world. His later books made this reader, anyway, long for one of Herzog’s letters—irreverent, inspired, combative, and self-mocking—to cut through the fustian and recapture the old magic.
Now comes Bellow’s first collection of nonfiction pieces—essays, lectures, interviews, eulogies, and so forth—called It All Adds Up: From the Dim Past to the Uncertain Future1 Exactly what it does add up to is something of a problem, but this is a book that certainly contains some wonderful things—what might even be called Herzog-type things.
There is, for example, the part of his Jefferson Lectures, delivered in 1977, in which Bellow offers his reflections on a little anthology called The Bitch Goddess Success (edited by Leslie Katz, 1968). Let me quote:
I was saying that I had taken to reading daily in The Bitch Goddess Success because I found it full of helpful suggestions, mantras for meditation. [The composer] Mr. Charles Ives [1874-1954], for instance, in criticizing prize competitions in the arts, says that “a close union between spiritual life and the ordinary business of life is necessary” and that we must keep the balance between ordinary life and spiritual life. Well, this is of course the name of the game. But the maddening fact is that after you have said these obviously true things, you are up against it still. For when Mr. Ives, casting about for an example of the ordinary, says that “a month in the Kansas wheat fields may do more for a young composer than three years in Rome,” you ask yourself when he himself last looked at ordinary life in Kansas. Again, he says: “If, for every thousand-dollar prize, a potato field be substituted, so that these candidates of Clio can dig a little in real life . . . art’s air might be a little clearer.” Then he checks himself slightly by quoting a French moralist: “On ne donne rien si libéralement que ses conseils” [One is never so generous as with advice]. But he has not checked himself in time. Digging potatoes? Kansas wheat fields? The last American artist to try those wheat fields was [the poet] Vachel Lindsay when he went forth to preach his Gospel of Beauty in the days before the First World War. The ordinary business of life in the United States and its great cities is what it is because out in Kansas they aren’t bringing in the sheaves as they did in 1910.
Now, the rhetorical strategy deployed here may have lost some of its luster since it was first used by Bellow in Herzog, but it still holds up, and the point is well made. So are the points he scores against the animadversions of the architect Louis Sullivan (1856-1924), also represented in The Bitch Goddess Success, and these have the additional interest of being rooted in Bellow’s—and Sullivan’s—home ground in Chicago. Indeed, some of the best things in this lecture and the other pieces in It All Adds Up are Bellow’s evocations of the Chicago he has known most of his life.
Yet there is something going on in his Jefferson Lectures, as there is in most of Bellow’s later lectures, essays, and interviews, that remains unacknowledged—something offstage, so to speak, that sparks his indignation without ever being openly confronted and identified. After all, we are not interested in Charles Ives or Louis Sullivan because of their opinions about success. Certainly The Bitch Goddess Success is a silly little book, and while Bellow was right to mock it, his mockery would have been more persuasive if he had taken his audience into his confidence about the sources of the anger it provoked. (Anger, rarely acknowledged as such, is the pervasive emotion in these later pieces.)
The Jefferson Lectures were delivered a year after Bellow was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, and he was clearly still smarting over the fact that, as he tells us, “A kind friend, worried about my soul,” had sent him that silly book—a gesture clearly regarded as an act of rebuke, which it may well have been. This sets Bellow off on a little tirade about what he dubs the “Goddess of Rebukes.” “There was a Goddess of Rebukes, who worked in the shadows behind the Goddess of Success,” he writes. “Less prominent, she was perhaps more powerful and enduring. . . . Make no mistake about it: the Rebuke Goddess is stronger than the Bitch Goddess.” And further:
Many of our intellectuals serve as priests of the Goddess of Rebuke, nagging, scolding, and infecting a vulnerable people with gnawing anxiety and remorse. In so doing they become successful. They can claim that they do not serve the Bitch Goddess. Personally immune to her, they merely refer to her for purposes of rebuke. This was why my considerate friend sent me the handsomely printed little anthology.
Alas, this sounds less like the sardonic comedy of Herzog than like the rage of Von Humboldt Fleisher, which has been (albeit circumspectly) appropriated for a public occasion.
The fact is, moreover, that Bellow is himself no slouch when it comes to serving as a priest of the Goddess of Rebuke, as many of the pages in It All Adds Up eloquently attest. Did the editors and writers who produced Partisan Review in the late 30’s and early 40’s welcome the young Saul Bellow into their circle and help launch his literary career? Yes, indeed, but now the Nobel laureate, secure—or rather, insecure—in his success, feels compelled to treat them with withering condescension.
“Some of the editors,” he writes of Partisan Review, “ had the mentality of Sixth Avenue cigar store proprietors” who just happened to be adept at “importing good things.” “Where else,” he adds, “would you find Malraux, Silone, Koestler, and Company but in Partisan Review?” While acknowledging that the PR circle “then had considerable influence with me,” he nonetheless still insists in a 1990 interview that “I was never institutionally connected with any of these people.”
He also claims that he was a lot smarter about the fallacies of Marxism than the Partisan Review crowd, though he seems to have kept remarkably quiet about it at the time. And his novels have remained fairly quiet about the whole subject of Jewish radicalism, too. “I knew all about Lenin and Trotsky,” he says of his boyhood, and tells the following story:
I remember as quite a small kid being in the street with my father. We met a young man called Lyova walking down the street. Lyova told my father he was going back to Russia. Lyova’s father was our Hebrew teacher, and his mother, Mary, a fat lady with a huge hat, was my mother’s friend. My father said, “That’s a foolish thing you are doing. Don’t go.” He was counseling Lyova not to go, but Lyova must have had some kind of politics. He couldn’t have been older than eighteen or nineteen. But things like that happened every day. Lyova went back and vanished.
Lyova and his generation and their progeny vanished from Bellow’s fiction as well, except as background and atmosphere. The American novelist who was better equipped than any other to write the moral history of Lyova’s intellectual generation in America could not bring himself to create a novel about the subject he still cannot stop talking about in his 1990-91 interviews. It is only one of the losses we are reminded of in the pages of It All Adds Up.
Another is what it has cost Bellow—and us, too, his readers—for him to have become so fixated in recent years on what he calls (after Wyndham Lewis) “the moronic inferno.” This miasma of a degraded popular culture, made worse by the media functionaries who serve as its henchmen and beneficiaries, is certainly a subject that cries out for critical analysis and condemnation, and Bellow is undoubtedly correct in describing it—as he did in the Romanes Lecture he delivered at Oxford University in 1990—as “a mental and emotional counterpart to revolution and world crisis, that is probably a by-product of nihilism.” Yet it trivializes this huge and malevolent phenomenon to reduce it, as Bellow does again and again in his recent utterances, to the level of a “distraction” that impedes the progress of serious writers like himself and deprives him of the readers he feels are rightly his.
“Writers, poets, painters, musicians, philosophers, political thinkers, to name only a few of the categories affected,” Bellow writes, “must woo their readers, viewers, listeners, from distraction.” One knows what he means, of course, but it is nonetheless an odd complaint from a writer who now commands a large public. It is the kind of complaint that had a certain cogency when it was made decades ago by Delmore Schwartz in his essays on “The Isolation of Modern Poetry” (1941) and “The Vocation of the Poet in the Modern World” (1951), for Schwartz was lamenting the fate of a literary enterprise that had no hope of winning anything but a minuscule public and a difficult living. But for a Nobel laureate with a huge and admiring public the world over to persist in this complaint in the 1990’s smacks, at the least, of a certain disingenuousness.
For the truth is that while the “moronic inferno” has certainly gotten a lot bigger and a lot worse since Delmore Schwartz’s day, the status of writers like Bellow—rich, famous, and adored, and showered with literary honors, academic distinctions, and commercial opportunities—has not become endangered. The Romanes Lecture was not, after all, delivered at some obscure provincial seminary.
This is not to say, however, that Bellow does not have real enemies in high places. As I have already indicated, the literary Left long ago inscribed his name on its roster of reputations to be demolished. And from its own political perspective, the Left was right to do so, since virtually everything Bellow has written—or said—is infused by a spirit that is best described as disabused liberalism: a liberalism, now almost extinct, that has stripped itself of precisely the kind of political cant and ideological subterfuge that is still the Left’s principal stock-in-trade.
Does this mean, then, that Bellow is some kind of neoconservative? He has repeatedly made a point of refusing to be labeled as such, and whether his insistence in this matter derives from real conviction or is merely a strategy of self-protection, I think he has to be taken at his word. Between the disabused liberalism that Bellow clings to and the neoconservatism he spurns, the political space may be difficult at times to discern; but it is nonetheless real, if only because it remains a place of intellectual refuge for that dwindling remnant of homeless liberals who identify their survival with a refusal of affiliation.
That this has now become an illusory position, however, based on a distinction without a difference, has been made plain to Bellow—and to the rest of us—by the hits he has lately taken in the public press. For their effect on Bellow’s standing as a writer, these attacks are far more important than the “distractions” caused by the “moronic inferno,” and are not to be confused with them. They represent the kind of political warfare from which no writer in the public eye can now find refuge, and it is part of one’s disappointment with Bellow these days that even in the face of these attacks—which are on much more than himself—he seems, whether for reasons of vanity, fatigue, or disgust, unwilling to respond with the full weight of his intellectual gifts. Which means, in practice, that he has ceded the advantage to his adversaries, and left his natural allies to shift for themselves.
The first of the recent blows was struck in the New York Times by Brent Staples, a young black journalist who now occupies a highly visible position on that paper’s editorial board. Staples has lately established something of a reputation at the Times as a militant advocate of political correctness, particularly on the subject of race. (The New Republic has dubbed him the paper’s “political corrector.”) He has even called for the abolition of the term “political correctness”—not, however, because of any disapproval of the thing itself, but in the interests of establishing PC prohibitions as an accepted norm in public speech.
To judge from what he has lately written about Bellow and about the very different work of Eugene Richards, a photographer who has made a career of documenting the wretched lives of the American underclass, Staples would seem to believe, and have us believe, that any unflattering depiction of blacks, either in words or pictures, is incontrovertibly racist if its author is white. In today’s incendiary atmosphere, where PC prohibitions and self-censorship have indeed become the norm in the media, the academy, and the culture at large, this is the kind of charge that has the power to incinerate reputations, no matter how exalted, overnight.
Thus, when, in December, the Times in its Sunday Magazine featured the chapter called “Mr. Bellow’s Planet” from Staples’s new memoir, Parallel Time, and then, a few weeks later, published a promotional review of the book itself on the front page of the paper’s Book Review, it had the intended effect of branding Bellow a racist. Staples had been a graduate student at the University of Chicago when Bellow taught there. Though never Bellow’s student, he had developed a kind of paranoid fixation on the novelist—an obsession compounded of curiosity, envy, anger, and a remarkable ignorance of the art of fiction. Humboldt’s Gift, which was published while Staples was a student at the university, “was one of the first novels I’d read on my own,” as he writes in Parallel Time, and he read it strictly as a guidebook to what he calls “local geography, people included.” What sparked his anger was the way the character Rinaldo, an underworld type, talks about blacks in the book. Rinaldo’s views, like those of the leading character in Mr. Sammler’s Planet, are taken by Staples to be nothing but a personal editorial statement by Bellow, and hence an expression of racism.
At no point does Staples seem to have noticed that the white characters in Bellow’s novels—and most particularly the Jewish characters, who are far more abundant than blacks—are frequently characterized in even more unflattering terms. Staples reads fiction the way the old literary commissars used to read fiction—and everything else, for that matter—rendering judgments purely on the basis of party-line politics (in this case, of course, racial politics rather than the politics of class).
At the same time, Staples is not above making some politically inspired characterizations of his own, and of an especially nasty sort. His description of the sociologist Edward Shils, another member of the Chicago faculty he did not study with and whose books, as he himself admits, he could not fathom, is amazingly repulsive. And when, after stalking Bellow for months around the campus, he catches up with him on a crowded street, this is the way Staples depicts him: “He moved through the crowd looking downward, hungrily scanning asses, hips, and crotches. . . . The rest of us were a junkyard where he foraged for parts.” It seems that once your subject has been branded a racist, everything is permitted.
Then in March came the literary critic Alfred Kazin’s ruminations on Jews—Bellow among them—in a piece called, in fact, “Jews,” in the New Yorker. For half a century now, Kazin has made a specialty of instructing Jewish intellectuals in America on the correct way to conduct themselves as Jews. I am surprised that some enterprising publisher has not commissioned him to write a book of etiquette on the subject, for it seems to have absorbed him deeply for a long time.
For Kazin, one of the pitfalls of being an educated Jew is the sin of urbane manners. That was, astonishingly enough, the charge he brought against the late Lionel Trilling in New York Jew (1978), and he is still advising Jews to avoid a similar fate. But for Kazin the foremost test of authentic Jewishness, especially for descendants of immigrants, has to do not with manners but with politics: under no circumstances must their politics be anything but liberal or radical. In Kazin’s moral cosmology, a special kind of damnation awaits any Jewish intellectual who strays from the orthodoxies of the Left-liberal mentality. And if, like Bellow, they happen to be writers, it is a bad sign, too, if they fall into the trap of becoming that hateful phenomenon, “a university intellectual.” Worst of all, however, is for such Jews to adopt conservative views. This earns them instant and irreversible opprobrium.
Bellow was indicted in Kazin’s latest piece on all these counts, to which was added, in keeping with the politically-correct character of contemporary liberalism, an implied charge of racism: The trouble, Kazin writes,
is that Bellow is also a university intellectual, loves being in a university, and has moved in the company of the conservative Big Thinkers at the University of Chicago. He has been much involved with the traditionalists Allan Bloom and Edward Shils. Shils even read one of his novels in manuscript. [Heinous charge!] The University of Chicago thrives on absolutes, no doubt because its professors, especially Bellow, think of the city as the last word in philistinism.
This last criticism—about Chicago—is, of course, the sheerest nonsense, and there are many pages in It All Adds Up, as well as in Bellow’s novels, that poignantly refute it. But reality does not count for much in Kazin’s guide to politically-correct conduct for Jewish intellectuals. He goes on: “At [a] party, Bellow gave me a turn. I knew that, like many Jewish intellectuals from the immigrant working class who were forced to their knees before the altar of Marxism during the Depression, he had been moving Right.” And then comes the zinger, which adds racism to apostasy. “My heart sank,” Kazin writes, “when I heard that Bellow once said, ‘Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans? I’d be glad to read him.’”
And then, after all this, Kazin pretends to wonder at what he calls “Bellow’s vehemence about liberals”!
Alas, my heart sank when I read Bellow’s rather feeble response to these assaults in the op-ed piece he wrote for the New York Times shortly thereafter. In that piece he speaks of coming “under attack in the press and elsewhere for a remark I was alleged to have made about the Zulus and the Papuans,” and insists that “Nowhere in print, under my name, is there a single reference to Papuans or Zulus.” And then he goes on to defend the remark he has denied having made by explaining that he “was speaking on the distinction between literate and preliterate societies.”
This is such a transparent cop-out—such an egregious attempt to by-pass the explosive subject of multiculturalism—that one feels embarrassed on his behalf. Bellow is right, very right, in saying that “Righteousness and rage threaten the independence of our souls.” He is right, too, to warn that “We can’t open our mouths without being denounced as racists, misogynists, suprematists, imperialists or racists.” And he is right again to declare that “As for the media, they stand ready to trash anyone so designated.” Yet in his answer to his attackers, he never really engages the central charge that Brent Staples and Alfred Kazin have brought against him, which has little, if anything, to do with distinctions between literate and preliterate societies.
Obviously Bellow is still enough of a liberal, however disabused, to be fearful of the ultimate cultural ostracism that awaits any writer today, no matter how famous, who goes into battle against the radicalization of our culture. In this respect, sadly, he remains very much our contemporary.
1 Viking, 327 pp., $23.95.