Bellow is best known for writing novels that investigate isolation, spiritual dissociation, and the possibilities of human awakening. Bellow drew inspiration from Chicago, his hometown, and he set much of his fiction there. His works exhibit a mix of high and low culture, and his fictional characters are also a potent mix of intellectual dreamers and street-smart confidence men. Among his best known works are The Adventures of Augie March, Herzog, and Humboldt's Gift.
In the 1930s, Bellow was part of the Chicago branch of the WPA Writer's Project, which included such future Chicago literary luminaries as Richard Wright and Nelson Algren. Most of the writers were radical: if they were not card-carrying members of the Communist Party, they were sympathetic to the cause. Bellow was a Trotskyist, but because of the greater numbers of Stalinist-leaning writers he had to suffer their taunts.
In 1941 Bellow became a naturalized American citizen.
During World War II, Bellow joined the merchant marine and during his service he completed his first novel, Dangling Man (1944.) The book was about a young Chicago man waiting to be drafted for the war.
From 1946 through 1948 Bellow taught at the University of Minnesota, living on Commonwealth Avenue, in St. Paul, Minnesota.
In 1948, Bellow was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship that allowed him to move to Paris, where he began writing The Adventures of Augie March (1953). Critics have remarked on the resemblance between Bellow's picaresque novel and the great 17th Century Spanish classic Don Quixote. The book starts with one of American literature's most famous opening paragraphs, and it follows its titular character through a series of careers and encounters, as he lives by his wits and his resolve. Written in a colloquial yet philosophical style, The Adventures of Augie March established Bellow's reputation as a major author.
There were also other reasons for Bellow's return to his home turf of Chicago, where he moved into the Hyde Park neighborhood with his third wife, Susan Glassman. Bellow found Chicago to be vulgar but vital, and more representative of America than New York. He was able to stay in contact with old high school friends and a broad cross-section of society. In a 1982 magazine profile, Bellow's neighborhood was described as a high-crime area in the city's center, and Bellow maintained he had to live in such a place as a writer and "stick to his guns.
Bellow hit the bestseller list in 1964 with his novel Herzog. Bellow was surprised at the commercial success of this cerebral novel about a middle-aged and troubled college professor who writes letters to friends, scholars and the dead, but never sends them. Bellow returned to his exploration of mental instability, and its relationship to genius, in his 1975 novel Humboldt's Gift. Bellow used his late friend and rival, the brilliant but self-destructive poet Delmore Schwartz, as his model for the novel's title character, Von Humboldt Fleisher.
Bellow traveled widely throughout his life, mainly to Europe, which he sometimes visited twice a year. As a young man, Bellow went to Mexico City to meet Leon Trotsky, but the expatriate Russian revolutionary was assassinated the day before they were to meet. Bellow's social contacts were wide and varied. He tagged along with Robert F. Kennedy for a magazine profile he never wrote, he was close friends with the author Ralph Ellison and he rubbed shoulders with Chicago gangsters.
While sales of Bellow's first few novels were modest, that turned around with Herzog and he eventually was in a position not needing to teach for a living. But Bellow continued teaching well into his old age, enjoying its human interaction and exchange of ideas. He taught at the University of Minnesota, New York University, Princeton University, the University of Puerto Rico, the University of Chicago, Bard College and Boston University, where he co-taught a class with James Wood ('modestly absenting himself' when it was time to discuss Seize the Day). In order to take up his appointment at Boston, Bellow moved in 1993 from Chicago to Brookline, Massachusetts, where he died on April 5, 2005, at age 89. He is buried at the Jewish cemetery Shir he harim of Brattleboro, Vermont.
Bellow was married five times, with all but his last marriage ending in divorce. His son by his second marriage, Adam, published a nonfiction work titled In Praise of Nepotism in 2003. In order, Bellow's wives were Anita Goshkin, Alexandra Tsachacbasov, Susan Glassman, Alexandra Ionescu Tulcea and Janis Freedman. In 1999, at the age of 84, Bellow and his fifth wife, Janis, had a daughter (his fourth child).
While he read voluminously, Bellow also had less bookish pursuits; including playing the violin and following sports. Work was a constant for him, but he at times toiled at a plodding pace on his novels, frustrating the publishing company.
His early works earned him the reputation as one of the foremost novelists of the 20th century, and by his death he was regarded by some as the greatest living novelist in English. He was the first novelist to win the National Book Award three times. His friend and protege Philip Roth has said of him, "The backbone of 20th-century American literature has been provided by two novelists—William Faulkner and Saul Bellow. Together they are the Melville, Hawthorne, and Twain of the 20th century." James Wood, in a eulogy of Bellow in The New Republic, wrote:
I judged all modern prose by his. Unfair, certainly, because he made even the fleet-footed—the Updikes, the DeLillos, the Roths—seem like monopode. Yet what else could I do? I discovered Saul Bellow's prose in my late teens, and henceforth, the relationship had the quality of a love affair about which one could not keep silent. Over the last week, much has been said about Bellow's prose, and most of the praise—perhaps because it has been overwhelmingly by men—has tended toward the robust: We hear about Bellow's mixing of high and low registers, his Melvillean cadences jostling the jivey Yiddish rhythms, the great teeming democracy of the big novels, the crooks and frauds and intellectuals who loudly people the brilliant sensorium of the fiction. All of this is true enough; John Cheever, in his journals, lamented that, alongside Bellow's fiction, his stories seemed like mere suburban splinters. Ian McEwan wisely suggested last week that British writers and critics may have been attracted to Bellow precisely because he kept alive a Dickensian amplitude now lacking in the English novel. [...] But nobody mentioned the beauty of this writing, its music, its high lyricism, its firm but luxurious pleasure in language itself. [...] [I]n truth, I could not thank him enough when he was alive, and I cannot now.
Jewish life and identity is a major theme in Bellow's work, although he bristled at being called a "Jewish writer." Bellow's work also shows a great appreciation of America, and a fascination with the uniqueness and vibrancy of the American experience.
Stylistically, Bellow crammed his works with references and quotes from the likes of Marcel Proust and Henry James, but he offset these high-culture references with jokes of the kind comedian Henny Youngman might tell. Bellow interspersed autobiographical elements into his fiction, and many of his principal characters were said to bear stark resemblance to their author.
My problem with the pre-Ravelstein Bellow is that he all too often strains too hard to yoke together two somewhat contradictory aspects of his being and style. There's the street-wise Windy City wiseguy and then-as if to show off that the wiseguy has Wisdom-there are the undigested chunks of arcane, not entirely impressive, philosophic thought and speculation. Just to make sure you know his novels have intellectual heft. That the world and the flesh in his prose are both figured and transfigured.
Wrote Sam Tanenhaus:
But what, then, of the many defects -- the longueurs and digressions, the lectures on anthroposophy and religion, the arcane reading lists? What of the characters who don't change or grow but simply bristle onto the page, even the colorful lowlifes pontificating like fevered students in the seminars Bellow taught at the University of Chicago? And what of the punitively caricatured ex-wives drawn from the teeming annals of the novelists's own marital discord?
Although Tanenhaus goes on to write:
Shortcomings, to be sure. But so what? Nature doesn't owe us perfection. Novelists don't either. Who among us would even recognize perfection if we saw it? In any event, applying critical methods, of whatever sort, seemed futile in the case of an author who, as Randall Jarrell once wrote of Walt Whitman, is a world, a waste with, here and there, systems blazing at random out of the darkness -- those systems as beautifully and astonishingly organized as the rings and satellites of Saturn.
V. S. Pritchett praised Bellow, but found his shorter works to be his best. Pritchett called Bellow's novella Seize the Day a "small gray masterpiece.
Bellow's account of his own 1975 trip to Israel, To Jerusalem and Back: A Personal Account, was criticized by Noam Chomsky in his 1983 book Fateful Triangle: the United States, Israel & the Palestinians. Bellow, Chomsky wrote, "sees an Israel where ‘almost everyone is reasonable and tolerant, and rancor against the Arabs is rare,’ where the people ‘think so hard, and so much’ as they ‘farm a barren land, industrialize it, build cities, make a society, do research, philosophize, write books, sustain a great moral tradition, and finally create an army of tough fighters.’ He has also been criticized for having praised Joan Peters's controversial book, From Time Immemorial, which challenged the conventional history of the Palestinian people.
Although never beholden to any single political school of thought, Bellow gravitated away from leftist politics and became identified with neoconservatives. His opponents included feminists, campus revolutionaries and postmodernists, and he thrust himself into the often contentious realm of Jewish and African-American relations. In Mr. Sammler's Planet, Bellow's portrayal of a black pickpocket who exposes himself in public was criticized as racist. In 2007, attempts to name a street after Bellow in his Hyde Park neighborhood were scotched by local alderman on the grounds that Bellow had made remarks about the neighborhood's current inhabitants that they considered racist.
In an interview in the March 7, 1988 New Yorker, Bellow sparked a controversy when he asked, concerning multiculturalism, "Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans? I'd be glad to read him." The taunt was seen by some as a slight against non-Western literature. Bellow at first claimed to have been misquoted. Later, writing in his defense in the New York Times, he said, "The scandal is entirely journalistic in origin... Always foolishly trying to explain and edify all comers, I was speaking of the distinction between literate and preliterate societies. For I was once an anthropology student, you see." Bellow claimed to have remembered shortly after making his infamous comment that he had in fact read a Zulu novel in translation: Chaka by Thomas Mofolo (an inaccuracy remains in this: Mofolo's novel is in Sesotho, not Zulu).
Despite his identification with Chicago, he kept aloof from some of that city's more conventional writers. Studs Terkel in a 2006 interview with Stop Smiling magazine said of Bellow: "I didn't know him too well. We disagreed on a number of things politically. In the protests in the beginning of Norman Mailer's Armies of the Night, when Mailer, Robert Lowell and Paul Goodman were marching to protest the Vietnam War, Bellow was invited to a sort of counter-gathering. He said, 'Of course I'll attend'. But he made a big thing of it. Instead of just saying OK, he was proud of it. So I wrote him a letter and he didn't like it. He wrote me a letter back. He called me a Stalinist. But otherwise, we were friendly. He was a brilliant writer, of course. I love Seize the Day."
"I feel that art has something to do with the achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos. A stillness which characterizes prayer, too, and the eye of the storm. I think that art has something to do with an arrest of attention in the midst of distraction.
"A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep.
"People can lose their lives in libraries. They ought to be warned.