Odd Man Out

American Dreams: Saul Bellow’s Masterpiece of Lamentation

When Herzog appeared in 1964, it upended our ideas about what novels could accomplish. But for all its revolutionary scope, it was a profoundly conservative book.

07.27.14 9:45 AM ET

Herzog was never just a novel; from the beginning it was a symbol, a crucible, a shibboleth. Even the earliest reviews submitted it to an analysis that extended beyond literary criticism, into sociology, history, and politics. “After the past terrible year,” wrote The New York Timesreviewer, alluding to the Kennedy assassination, Herzog “suggests that things are looking up for America and its civilization.” Alfred Kazin called Bellow’s novel “the book of his generation and mine.” The wide-angle view of Herzog was encouraged by its stunning popular success: 142,000 copies sold in hardcover, 42 weeks on the bestseller list, displacing The Spy Who Came in From the Cold at No. 1—a windfall for an author whose first five novels had put him $10,000 in debt to his publisher.

Given this level of success, it was safe to conclude that Herzog spoke for its age: America in 1964, post-Kennedy assassination, in the early innings of the civil rights movement, at the birth of the ’60s. How else to explain the popularity of a novel so free of plot, so obsessed with existential rumination and recondite philosophy? Surely Herzog had, in some way, captured the zeitgeist. But how, exactly?

The debate continues today, resurgent in the essays celebrating the 50th anniversary of the novel’s publication. As one admirer put it, “When a great novel accurately catches the spirit of a moment and freezes it in unforgettable prose, the novel itself turns into an event in history.” And yet Bellow’s “novel of the 1960s” doesn’t reflect the qualities we now associate with the decade; it lacks the youthful rebelliousness of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the cynical absurdity of Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse-Five, or the freewheeling libidinousness of Portnoy’s Complaint. It is very much a novel of late middle-age, if not a premature old age.

Bellow had already written the great young man’s novel, The Adventures of Augie March, 11 years earlier, and the author of Herzog was 49 years old. Whereas Augie March is packed to bursting with an electric energy, optimism, and broad ambition, Herzog is a much more sober exercise, cautious and searching, melancholy in tone. Bellow does not direct his inquiries outward, into the world, but inward, as he finds himself again and again “aiming at the meaning of life,” which is often inseparable from the meaning of Moses Herzog’s life.

The story unfolds retrospectively, as Herzog reconstructs the failure of his second marriage and his cuckolding at the hands of his best friend, pausing to reflect upon his childhood in Montreal and the doldrums of his academic career. The novel’s youngest character is Madeleine, Herzog’s estranged wife, who often seems better suited to the 1860s than the 1960s. “I believe in God—sin—death,” she declares. She acknowledges that she is “a fanatic about conventional things … You and I have got to marry in the Church, otherwise I quit. Our children will be baptized and brought up in the Church.”

Herzog can’t ignore the outside world—“the ordinary world”—completely, however. It enters, unbidden, as he travels around the northeast and Chicago (much of the novel takes place in transit, in airplanes, commuter trains, taxi cabs, and subway cars). He does not like what he sees. Window-shopping in midtown Manhattan, he finds the new styles “reckless and gaudy … in which middle-aged or paunchy old men would be ludicrous. Better puritan restraint than the exhibition of pitiful puckered knees and varicose veins…” Though he wears an Adlai Stevenson button on his lapel, he composes an angry note to the failed presidential candidate, accusing him of being one of those politicians “who think a good deal and effect nothing.” An afternoon spent observing trials in a New York criminal court makes him physically ill. He can’t stomach the stories of poverty and insensate violence. “What was there in modern, post … post-Christian America to pray for?” he asks. “Justice—justice and mercy? And pray away the monstrousness of life, the wicked dream it was?” Elsewhere he asks:

But what is the philosophy of this generation? Not God is dead, that point was passed long ago. Perhaps it should be stated Death is God. This generation thinks—and this is its thought of thoughts—that nothing faithful, vulnerable, fragile, can be durable or have any true power. Death waits for these things as a cement floor waits for a dropping light bulb.

Like so many of Bellow’s subsequent avatars—Artur Sammler, Charles Citrine, Albert Corde, Abe Ravelstein—Herzog laments the pettiness, cruelty, and fast-paced chaos of modern life. “Are all the traditions used up?” he wails. “Is this the full crisis of dissolution? Has the filthy moment come when moral feeling dies, conscience disintegrates, and respect for liberty, law, public decency, all the rest, collapses in cowardice, decadence, blood?”

Bellow’s latter-day readers have a tendency to confuse his stylistic iconoclasm for political iconoclasm. As a novelist he was revolutionary, showing how fiction could address the most complex questions of philosophy, psychology, science, theology, and history. He understood the unique potential of the novel to connect the highest planes of intellectual thought to ordinary life, at least as it is lived in contemporary America. Yet it is one of the ironies of Bellow’s art that, even as he reinvented the American novel, the philosophical conclusions he drew tended to arise from nostalgia for a lost era—for tradition, morality, cohesion. In this way he was, in the truest and most honorable sense, a conservative. Read today, Herzog is no harbinger of a new age, but the most vivid, eloquent, and challenging celebration of an era that, already by 1964, had almost completely vanished.

Other notable novels published in 1964:

The Rector of Justin by Louis Auchincloss
Little Big Man
by Thomas Berger
A Confederate General From Big Sur
by Richard Brautigan
The Keepers of the House
by Shirley Ann Grau
Sometimes a Great Notion
by Ken Kesey
Last Exit to Brooklyn
by Hubert Selby Jr.
by Gore Vidal

Pulitzer Prize:

No prize awarded

National Book Award:

The Centaur by John Updike

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Bestselling novel of the year:

The Spy Who Came In From the Cold by John le Carré

About this series:

This monthly series will chronicle the history of the American century as seen through the eyes of its novelists. The goal is to create a literary anatomy of the last century—or, to be precise, from 1900 to 2013. In each column I’ll write about a single novel and the year it was published. The novel may not be the bestselling book of the year, the most praised, or the most highly awarded—though awards do have a way of fixing an age’s conventional wisdom in aspic. The idea is to choose a novel that, looking back from a safe distance, seems most accurately, and eloquently, to speak for the time in which it was written. Other than that there are few rules. I won’t pick any stinkers.

Previous Selections

1902—Brewster’s Millions by George Barr McCutcheon
1912—The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man by James Weldon Johnson
1922—Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis
1932—Tobacco Road by Erskine Caldwell
1942—A Time to Be Born by Dawn Powell
1952—Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
1962—One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
1972—The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin
1982—The Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux
1992—Clockers by Richard Price
2002—Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
2012—Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain
1903—The Call of the Wild by Jack London
1913—O Pioneers! By Willa Cather
1923—Black Oxen by Gertrude Atherton
1933—Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West
1943—Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles
1953—Junky by William S. Burroughs
1963—The Group by Mary McCarthy
1973—The Princess Bride by William Goldman
1983—Meditations in Green by Stephen Wright
1993—The Road to Wellville by T.C. Boyle
2003—The Known World by Edward P. Jones
2013—Equilateral by Ken Kalfus
1904—The Golden Bowl by Henry James
1914—Penrod by Booth Tarkington
1924—So Big by Edna Ferber
1934—Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara
1944—Strange Fruit by Lillian Smith
1954—The Bad Seed by William March