Why We Need Saul Bellow Now
Saul Bellow refused to be pinned down—politically or artistically. Maybe that's why we still need him more than ever.
Surely one of the healthier ironies of the United States is that its finest postwar novelist was an illegal immigrant from Canada.
I realize that in pointing this out I risk stoking the moronic inferno of this season’s national seekers of high office, but also, more seriously, of mischaracterizing Saul Bellow’s genius. The shtetl-sprung writer of Russian Jewish parentage, fluent in Yiddish, English, and French, was in many ways the embodiment of multiculturalism. Yet he spent a lifetime struggling against the inherited categories of religion, ethnicity, ideology, and literature. He saw them as mental ghettos from which one struggled to escape, much as he had done from the literal kind.
“Nothing could be more natural to me, the child of immigrants who grew up in one of Chicago’s immigrant neighborhoods,” he said upon receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1976, “than a Slav who was a British sea captain and knew his way around Marseilles.” He was talking about Conrad. About a decade later, with little left to prove but plenty left to say, he took another glimpse in the mirror and dared anyone to challenge what he still saw:
“I never felt it necessary to sacrifice one identification for another. I’ve never had to say that I was not a Canadian. I never had to say that I was not Jewish. I never had to say I was not an American. I took all of these things for granted and in me you see a sort of virtuoso act of integration of all these diverse elements and I feel no particular conflict. I never felt any special discomfort over any of these elements. I’ve taken them for granted because they are part of my history. I think a human being has to be faithful to his unique history. If that history is mixed, scrambled, anomalous, difficult for any outsider less exotic to put together for himself, that’s not my fault… I was faithful to what I was. I live that way and I tried to write that way.”
There is, admittedly, a swaggering and self-congratulatory tone to these remarks. But then, Bellow was delivering them in 1984 in his birthplace of Lachine, Quebec, where the occasion was the renaming of a local library in his honor, so you might say that a little swagger and self-congratulation were in order. Plus, he was telling the truth.
Bellow’s arrival to these shores was complicated. His father Abraham arrived in Lachine from St. Petersburg in 1913, where, in uncharacteristic fashion for the age, he’d been better off than in North America, albeit under fraudulent pretenses. He had used forged documents to sell produce in what was then the Russian capital; he was arrested and imprisoned, but managed to escape before booking passage to Canada. From Lachine, Abraham emigrated to Chicago in 1924, before sending for the rest of the family after he’d set up with relatives in Chicago, and young Saul, then named Solomon, had to be smuggled across the border. Bellow didn’t realize he wasn’t a natural-born citizen until he tried to enlist in the country’s armed forces in World War II. “He became an American, and America never knew it,” Bellow wrote of an Abraham-modeled character in his short story, “A Silver Dish.” So did Saul.
That the city of Al Capone and Bugs Moran produced the writer who reinvented the American novel a century after Twain invented it was perhaps no accident. Rebecca West once likened the city to Leningrad or Moscow, “a high spot… on the monotony of great plains, a catchment of vitality that rejoices extravagantly in its preservation because elsewhere in this region it might have trickled away from its source and been swallowed up in the vastness of the earth.” Much the same can be said of a poor Jewish kid navigating the stockyards and pool halls and rail tracks, whose mother lay dead of cancer and whose father, a schlemiel odd jobber, possessed a singular talent—for failure, as his son witheringly put it. In Chicago in the Twenties, Bellow has said, “there were always two sets of facts, two languages, two codes—there was the beau ideal and there was the hustle.” It was up to Bellow “to find ways to reconcile the Trojan War with Prohibition, major-league baseball and the Old Country as my mother remembered it.”
Except the Old Country as his mother remembered it was not the whole story. Our most democratic novelist was, it so happens, a faraway descendant of an actual aristocrat, a minor but important genealogical tidbit uncovered by Zachary Leader in his exhaustively researched The Life of Saul Bellow: To Fame and Fortune, 1915–1964.
Like most Jewish immigrants’ from Eastern Europe, Bellow’s family tree had snapped and scattered branches. His mother’s grandfather had been the non-Jewish son of a landowning count in Latvia. Nota Imenitov fell for a nice Jewish girl whose parents, unimpressed by his title and fortune, forced him to convert. Nota’s father, decidedly unimpressed by his son’s enlistment in the tribe, disowned the boy, forcing Bellow’s maternal great-grandparents into the role of innkeepers in the Pale of the Settlement. Bellow’s grandfather Moshe ultimately forfeited his well-born name altogether after his parents resorted to an elaborate but all-too-common ruse for evading czarist conscription. They had him adopted by the Gordins, another Jewish family, which claimed him as their only legal son. Thus was Moshe spared a 25-year stretch of mandatory military service that was tantamount to Herod’s law for all second- and third-born Jewish males. The willful choice—in this case of a Gentile—to reject one’s birthright and flout societal expectation, in other words, is partly responsible for Augie March, Eugene Henderson, and Moses Herzog. And Bellow never knew it.
Augie declares in the first sentence of Bellow’s third, fame-making novel, “I go about things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way.” An unbound Nostromo of the New World, Augie gear-shifts seamlessly from the highbrow to the low life. Origin stories didn’t matter; it was what you did with the material they furnished that counted. Everyone’s birthright, as he put it, is “the universal eligibility to be noble,” a concept Christopher Hitchens has called the best working definition we have of the American dream. And so Augie sprinkles his descriptions of mob bosses, con artists, ward healers, and whores, not to mention a megalopolitan industrial landscape, with allusions to the Western canon, the thick volumes of which he’s had to steal from bookshops, much as Bellow did.
“Aeneas-stirred Mediterranean,” “a coal-sucking Vesuvius of chaos,” “a tremendous Canada of light,” “a flatfooted, in gym shoes, pug-nosed woman,” “try out what of human you can live with.” No one wrote like this in 1953. Where had Bellow learned how? From a home life speaking with his mother in Yiddish, a language whose most ordinary conversation, as he fondly recalled in a review of Sholom Aleichem’s The Adventures of Mottel, the Cantor’s Son, zoomed out from the ultramundane to the cosmic. “The Creation, the Fall, the Flood, Egypt, Alexander, Titus, Napoleon, the Rothschilds, the sages, the Laws may get into the discussion of an egg, a clothes-line, or a pair of pants.”
The first working title of The Adventures of Augie March was Life Among the Machiavellians. Machiavellians are what Bellow called “reality instructors,” hard-bitten tutors who shook your head out of the clouds. Augie’s first reality instructor is the cripple William Einhorn, a crooked but beneficent city organizer based on a shopkeeping father of one of Bellow’s childhood friends. Einhorn grasps his true nature after Augie’s near-miss run-in with the law: “You’ve got opposition in you,” he says. “You don’t slide through everything. You just make it look so.”
Bellow had opposition in him for two reasons. The first was that he wanted to be a writer who was Jewish, not a Jewish writer, and for a long while America wouldn’t let him. Kirby Allbee tells Asa Leventhal in Bellow’s second novel, The Victim (1947): “It may not strike you as it struck me. But I go into the library once in a while, to look around, and last week I saw a book about Thoreau and Emerson by a man named Lipschitz.” Five years earlier, Bellow’s friend Alfred Kazin had published On Native Grounds, a work of criticism that accounted for the entire American literary inheritance, from Wharton to Faulkner, and was written with a confidence that dared anyone to deny a New York Jew his cut.
Allbee, the alcoholic, anti-Semitic enemy of promise, embodied a decaying civilization, that of Oswald Spengler, whom Bellow read and admired in his adolescence before being turned off by how the old doomsayer consigned Jews to a pre-modern “Magian” cultural order. (“The decline and fall of everything is our daily dread,” Bellow would say in the Nobel speech.) But Allbee also embodied the civilization of T.S. Eliot, who spent the Twenties capturing the spirit of modernism—Bellow and his friend Isaac Rosenfeld famously redid “Prufrock” into Yiddish as “The Song of Songs of Mendl Pumshtok” (“In the room where the wives are / Speaking of Karl Marx and Lenin”)— and the Thirties trying to escape from his own waste land, formulating the ingredients of a proper “Christian” society.
Eugene Henderson is Bellow’s only WASP protagonist, a war hero millionaire pig farmer from Danbury, Connecticut. He believes it is the destiny of his generation of Americans to “go out in the world and try to find the wisdom of life.” And he does so by traveling to Africa and becoming a rain king. Henderson sniffs the exhalation of his own herd and finds it sour. He mocks Eliot: “Becoming was beginning to come out of my ears. Enough! Enough! Time to have become! Time to be! Burst the spirit’s sleep. Wake up, America!”
“I want, I want, I want” is Henderson’s motto, borrowed from William Blake. Wriggling out of the mind-forged manacles of race, class, or upbringing, the things you had no control over, was the exclusive dispensation of American democracy, and Bellow embraced it with “all its crudities, which nevertheless granted me an equality which I felt was mine by right. I wasn’t going to be ruled off the grounds by those WASP hotshots.”
Nor would he be ruled off the grounds by the up-and-coming Jewish hotshots of the little magazine or the faculty lounge. Philip Roth, no stranger to tribal recriminations for his fiction, conducted a celebrated interview with Bellow when the latter was in his eighties, living in Vermont. He observed that the senior writer “plugged into Jewish aggression and Jews as businessmen,” which was heretical to what they were meant to be plugged into, as determined by the likes of Irving Howe, with his socialist tunnel vision for the Yiddishkeit workers’ paradise of samovars, trade unions, “pushcarts, and so on.”
Bellow’s Jews took it for granted that they, too, could be millionaires, war heroes, bastards, lovers, arrivistes, and Babbitts. Not a few of the cruder characters in the oeuvre were molded in some fashion on his older brother Maury, who became fat, rich, and connected; he invited Jimmy Hoffa to his daughter’s wedding, and wondered if Saul could stash his Nobel money in a offshore tax haven, all the while secretly reading the serious literature he claimed to have no use for. As Bellow saw it, Maury and his ilk were the successors and supplanters of the Allbees and Hendersons of America: real people, sons of immigrants, even if other sons failed to notice their singular achievement.
The second reason Bellow would never be consigned to any procrustean bed had to do with his youthful politics, which imbued him with a paradoxical mix of hopefulness and pessimism, almost in equal measure. As ever, he is his own best tribune: “I remember, in my father’s bleak office near the freight yards, blasting away at Value, Price, and Profit while the police raided a brothel across the street—for nonpayment of protection, probably—throwing beds, bedding and chairs though the shattered windows.” You can’t buy an education like that.
As for the one you could, Bellow made the smart move of falling in with student Trotskyists first at Crane Junior College, then the University of Chicago, then Northwestern, and finally at the University of Wisconsin. The Trotskyists were the outcasts in the Stalinist-dominated communist milieu and belonging to a shunned and anathematized movement was a lot like being a Jew. Also, if “yeshiva egghead who became a tough guy, then faced exile, obloquy and murder,” not to mention read French novels at the front, wrote literary criticism, and kibitzed and manifestoed with the surrealists—if he could make it in Odessa, then what could a Russian Jew from Humboldt Park achieve? The decision to follow Trotsky was as much an aesthetic choice as it was an ideological one. His followers read Joyce, Mann, and Proust; the Stalinists read “palookas like Howard Fast,” to quote Irving Howe.
Bellow very nearly met the Old Man in the flesh. He arrived in Coyoacán, Mexico, a day after the revolutionary died from his ice-ax wound to the skull, inflicted by a Stalinist agent. Augie is granted the audience Bellow was denied, albeit at distance, in one of the most memorable passages of the novel:
“I was excited by this famous figure, and I believe what it was about him that stirred me up was the instant impression he gave—no matter about the old heap he rode in or the peculiarity of his retinue—of navigation by the great stars, of the highest considerations, of being fit to speak the most important human words and universal terms. When you are as reduced to a different kind of navigation from this high starry kind as I was and are only sculling on the shallow bay, crawling from one clam-rake to the next, it’s stirring to have a glimpse of deep-water greatness.”
So much for the idealism. The runaway romanticism of these lines, couched in a slightly overwrought aquatic allegory, begs for bathos. That would come later, after two more books, and two divorces. But Bellow’s work during the Trotskyist phase was imbued with a moral pedantry he’d later come to satirize. His first literary distinction, in 1936, was a third-place award for short story he published in The Daily Northwestern, his college newspaper. It was titled “The Hell It Can’t,” in direct reply to Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here, about the prospect of fascism taking hold in America, a by no means exhausted subject in the age of The Donald. The Very Dark Trees, an early, completed novel which has been lost, featured an “enlightened southerner” who teaches at a Midwestern university and one day, upon returning from class, turns black. His terrified wife locks in him in the basement. Bellow’s friends at the time referred to the book as White No More.
It’s worth considering this allegorical might-have-been debut in light of Bellow’s adult friendship with Ralph Ellison. They shared a loathing of what the former called the “taxonomy business,” the condescending classification of their work and selves according to their minority status. “From his side he saw the Negro as one of the creators of American history and culture,” he wrote of the author of The Invisible Man. “That was okay with me.” He cohabited for a spell with Ellison, a Moroccan-robed dandy who taught him how to brew gourmet coffee, in a comically enormous and partly falling-down 14-room Hudson River mansion Bellow had purchased in Tivoli, a village in Duchess County where Eleanor Roosevelt had been born. Bellow and Ellison both taught at Bard College, still very much a bastion of old blood and tired sensibility. “The presence of a Jew or a Negro in any group is apt to promote a sense of superiority in those who—whatever else—are neither Jews nor Negroes.” So the personal bond, you might say, was forged in mutual opposition to the WASP hotshots who still called the shots.
The Very Dark Trees, at least to judge by Leader’s brief description, stands in marked contrast to Mr. Sammler’s Planet (1970) and The Dean’s December (1982), Late Bellow installments composed after the New Frontier and Great Society had given way to urban decay and white flight. The heavy-handed treatment of these anxieties would earn him fresh accusations of creeping cultural conservatism. In Sammler, for instance, a hulking black hood actually whips out his cock in a Manhattan hallway to intimidate an elderly Holocaust survivor. So much for the pessimism.
By the time he began to write Herzog, he had been cuckolded by Jack Ludwig, a loud, untalented literature professor who was one of Bellow’s closest friends and, not coincidentally, one of his most sycophantic admirers. The other culprit was Bellow’s beautiful, complicated second wife, Sasha, a Bennington graduate whom he’d begun dating when he was separated from his first wife and she was an unhappy secretary at Partisan Review. (All women at Partisan Review were unhappy in their own way.) Bellow contemplated murder as payback for the affair; he told an earlier biographer, James Atlas, that he thought about buying a gun. He then very nearly acted out his fantasy through the medium he more wisely chose for his revenge: a bestseller.
To read Leader is to understand that Bellow was hardly the innocent victim in the failed marriage to Sasha. To read Bellow is get a sense of just how wronged he felt by her betrayal. This is what he did to her as transformed into the man-eating Madeleine in Herzog: “Her face was gay and round, pink, the blue of her eyes was clear. Very different from the terrifying menstrual ice of her rages, the look of the murderess.” In one of Herzog’s many epistolary fits, the murderess becomes queen of the damned: “Will never understand what women want. What do they want? They eat green salad and drink human blood.”
The personal is the world-historical to Moses Herzog, whose nervous breakdown is occasioned as much by the calamity of his household as it is by what Bellow nicely termed the “late failure of radical hopes,” the rubble and ruin brought on by Big Ideas like the ones that galvanized Bellow’s youth. The reaction to modernity had produced the isms of 20th century art and politics, not to mention the “bloody crossroads” at which both pursuits are said to meet. Someone was to blame for all this. Bellow decided it was the eggheads. Herzog was their comeuppance.
Not only was the novel written a state of authorial anger and depression, it clearly drew on years of archival content accumulated by a “Columbus of those near at hand” (Bellow on Augie) and a “connoisseur of the near-nothing” (Bellow on Bellow) who had gone out into the world, Henderson-style, and been somewhat unimpressed by what he found. He had experienced quite enough of what war-ravaged Europe thought of its liberator, America, to know that liberation can often be felt as another form of conquest, and that no amount of human wreckage was sufficient to put a stop to la trahison des clercs. In Paris, for instance, not long after the war ended, he read Sartre on the Soviet Union and said to himself, “Chicago style, ‘This has got to be a con.’ A con on my turf was a shade more venial than a lie.” He consorted with other French Communists and fellow travelers who not only refused to challenge the myths of Moscow but defamed ex-Communists who busy exposing those myths, such as Arthur Koestler and James Burnham, who were disinvited from the International Day of Resistance to Dictatorship and War in 1949 because they did not see fascism as the only practitioner of these undesirable concepts. “One got the impression,” Bellow wrote of these continental leftists, “that they believed that the Atlantic Pact was imposed upon the governments of Western Europe in the same way as Vishinsky [sic] set up a government in Rumania.” And those were the merchants of moral equivalence who at least acknowledged the kind of governments Vyshinsky had imposed.
Augie had been dreamt up and written in its entirety in Marshall Planned Europe. Bellow later recalled, in that interview with Philip Roth, experiencing a sudden rush of nostalgia, while walking past an open hydrant on the streets of Paris, for the rough-and-tumble of his childhood and one friend in particular, a boy called August, who used to shout, “I got a scheme!” The “sunny iridescence” at play in the gushing sidewalk water delivered inspiration just in time. Bellow was suffering from a writerly rut, trying to finish a different third novel about two men in a hospital room, one of them dying and the other trying to keep the first alive. In other words, he abandoned a dead-end European novel for an emancipatory American one after seeing what Europe, the cradle of Big Ideas, had just put itself through. Nor was this mere coincidence. “The French hated us,” he recounted to Roth. “I had a Jewish explanation for this: bad conscience. Not only had they been overrun by the Germans in three weeks, but they had collaborated. Vichy had made them cynical. They pretended that there was a vast underground throughout the war, but the fact seemed to be that they had spent the war years scouring for food in the countryside. And these fuckers were also patriots. La France had been humiliated and it was all the fault of their liberators, the Brits and the GIs.”
All Americans to some extent become temporary conservatives when they travel abroad. But Leader is no doubt correct when he concludes that “under the direct influence of French anti-Americanism, particularly from the non-Communist left, Bellow moved to the right.” The authorial shift, however, would be given fuller expression 16 years later, in comic impulses that run like an electric current through the pages of Herzog. For instance? Well, for instance, poor Moses standing at Woods Hole waiting for a ferry that will take him on a meaningless journey to a place he’ll depart almost as soon as arriving:
“The purity of the air moved him. There was no stain in the water, where schools of minnows swam. Herzog sighed and said to himself, ‘Praise God—praise God.’ His breathing had become freer. His heart was greatly stirred by the open horizon; the deep colors; the faint iodine pungency of the Atlantic rising from weeds and mollusks; the white, fine, heavy sand; but principally by the green transparency as he looked down to the stony bottom webbed with golden lines. Never still. If his soul could cast a reflection so brilliant, and so intensely sweet, he might beg God to make such use of him. But that would be too simple. But that would be too childish. The actual sphere is not clear like this, but turbulent, angry. A vast human action is going on. Death watches. So if you have some happiness, conceal it. And when your heart is full, keep your mouth shut also.”
Here is another aquatic metaphor working overtime, but in lieu of deep-water greatness—the totality of human potential embodied in the fugitive atheist founder of the Red Army— is a surface transparency belying something “turbulent, angry” and mortal, something Old Testament. That’s not to be taken lightly by a man called Moses. And when your heart is full, keep your mouth shut also. Herzog is Augie mugged by reality.
The lure of the ghetto is made stronger by how poorly turned out some of the other prodigal children of immigrants have been since quitting the world of their fathers. Against Egbert Shapiro, the physically repulsive and intellectually pretentious historian who tutors Madeleine and would like to do much more to her, Herzog is unforgiving, carting out all the old opponents to prove his point about canting nonsense:
“[W]e mustn’t forget how quickly the visions of genius became the canned goods of the intellectuals. The canned sauerkraut of Spengler’s ‘Prussian Socialism,’ the commonplaces of the Wasteland outlook, the cheap mental stimulants of Alienation, the cant and rant of pipsqueaks about Inauthenticity and Forlornness. I can’t accept this foolish dreariness. We are talking about the whole life of mankind. The subject is too great, too deep for such weakness, cowardice—too deep, too great. A merely aesthetic critique of modern history! After the wars and mass killings! You are too intelligent for this. You inherited rich blood. Your father peddled apples.”
There was more truth and life in those spoiled and rotten apples peddled by old man Shapiro, Herzog declaims, than in all his pompous son’s showy, seductive erudition. Pushcarts, and so on, had their didactic uses, after all.
Bellow’s own hardboiled aunt once said of his intellectual friends: “Smart, smart, but stupid.” Herzog’s boorish attorney and reality instructor Sandor Himmelstein agrees with this appraisal, although he has the plangent Chicago style. “Somewhere in every intellectual,” he tells his miserable client, “is a dumb prick.” Only Himmelstein comes not to bury Moses, who is “not like those other university phonies” but a mensch struggling to reconcile high-mindedness with the more potent life-force that Moses deplores, the “low-grade universal potato love,” the earthy, mass sentimentality, the false sense of belonging borne of community or people or nation or politics.
Potato love writes History. It’s how Eisenhower beat Stevenson. It’s why the French hate America. It is the weapon the reality instructors deploy to nudge the world in their own dictatorial directions. “Sentiment and brutality,” Herzog says of his Jack Ludwig stand-in, the peg-legged and bushy-haired Valentine Gersbach (the very name suggesting both qualities at once) “never one without the other, like fossils and oil.”
Now here is the problem with radical hopes: They all require an orthodoxy to become reified, and orthodoxies, Bellow found, were cloying at best and totalitarian at worst. He was too feisty, too restless, and too stubborn to be any kind of ideologue other than of himself and his own artistic destiny. “I never enjoyed being a revolutionary,” Joseph says in Dangling Man, the first novel. “No? Didn’t you hate anyone?” he is asked. “I hated, but I didn’t enjoy.”
Hating, not enjoying, is a legacy of the anti-Stalinist disposition, which is near impossible to shake once it’s been acquired. Bellow gave up the substance of his youthful radicalism, but not the style. He favored Chekhov’s injunction that writers “should engage in politics only enough to protect themselves from politics,” while nonetheless seeing commissars and apparatchiks everywhere, especially when his ego and amour-propre were on the line. This often led him into absurdity.
In 1956, he wrote to Granville Hicks from Pyramid Lake, Nevada (site of his first divorce): “The modern world is full of people who declare that other people are obsolete. Stalin and the Kulaks, Hitler and the Jews and Slavs and gypsies, and Trilling and T.S. Eliot and several others have decided that novels are done for historically.” From the genocidal despots of Eurasia to the monarch of Morningside Heights, in one sentence.
When, several decades later, Bellow loosed his notorious crack about there being no discernible “Proust of the Papuans” or “Tolstoy of the Zulus” it was in defense of his late-in-life friend and mentor Allan Bloom, who had advocated a return to the classics as a cure for the radicals follies of the American campus. But it was also Bellow’s way of saying goodbye to his former self all over again. He had studied anthropology as a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, a subject that, at the time, struck him as eminently “democratic…. Everybody is entitled to equal time. They have their culture and we ethnocentrism.” But this was a false dawn. “I learned that what was right among the African Masai was wrong with the Eskimos. Later I saw that this was a treacherous doctrine—morality should be made of sterner stuff. But in my youth my head was turned by the study of erratic—or goofy—customs. In my early twenties I was a cultural relativist. I had given all that up before I began to write Henderson.”
Henderson had come out in 1959. The Proust-less Papuans line came out in 1988, just before the first wave of political correctness, and well before the tsunami of trigger-warnings, micro-aggressions and safe spaces. Bellow took to the op-ed pages to explain himself. Bulgaria hadn’t got a Proust or a Tolstoy either, he wrote; nor, for that matter, had the United States. “Should the White House issue a fatwa and set a price on my head for blaspheming against American high culture?” Coming from the closest thing America had to a living Proust or a Tolstoy, this was perhaps a mite defensive. Still, Bellow was not wrong to detect in the fashionable warriors of multiculturalism the lineaments of everything he’d spent a lifetime fighting. “In any reasonably open society,” he wrote, “the absurdity of a petty thought-police campaign provoked by the inane magnification of ‘discriminatory’ remarks about the Papuans and Zulus would be laughed at. To be serious in this fanatical style is a sort of Stalinism—the Stalinist seriousness and fidelity to the party line that senior citizens like me remember all too well…”
Elsewhere, this geriatric capacity for diagnosing a captive mind served him quite well. At an International PEN Congress in New York, a few years before the Papuan/Zulu affair, he had argued on a panel annoyingly titled, “The State and the Alienation of the Writer,” on behalf of his favorite subject, the American experiment. The Founders, Bellow said, had wisely kept the state away from art and philosophy and the “higher concerns of mankind,” which were allowed to develop on their own. Moreover, science would help tame nature and do away with the scarcity of resources, allowing those higher concerns to better be taken up along more democratic lines. “The material objectives of the Founders had been successfully realized,” he concluded. A modest tribute to the homeland therefore had to transformed into enemy action. Before he was back in his seat, Bellow was interrupted by the moralizing blowhard Günter Grass who rose from the floor to declare that the condition of poor blacks in the South Bronx, which he had just toured, meant that equality and freedom were absent in the United States. It was Paris in ’49 all over again, except Bellow hadn’t even crossed the Atlantic. Grass, he recalled in an essay, “Writers, Intellectuals, Politics: Mainly Reminiscence,” had just “lighted the ideological fuse and out came a tremendous boom, a blast of anger from delegates and visitors.” So Bellow again rushed to his own side, saying that the plight of the inner cities demanded a corrective, and that this could only be undertaken by a rich society—one grown rich by virtue of what the Founders had allowed:
“I added, since this was a PEN conference, that writers in politics hadn’t done at all well. this connection I mentioned Brecht and Feuchtwanger in Germany. Grass protested that he was always being put down in America as a communist.
“You have to hand it to the social visionaries and liberators: They know how to get the high ground and keep it. They are masters also of the equivalence game: You have spoken well of the American system because you are an apologist for it and a stooge; you are not concerned about the poor and you are a racist, to boot.”
Grass’s combination of self-pity and pomposity, his “virtue signaling,” make it a real shame that Bellow died a year before the old German walrus, his own Nobel long since secured, revealed that he had once been a member of Hitler’s Waffen SS. One way to have experienced the 20th century to the fullest was to have been an ex-Trotskyist scolded for racism by an ex-Nazi in Cold War New York.
The typical arc of the ex-radical turned reactionary doesn’t quite apply here, however. Bellow’s thoroughgoing hatred of groupthink and the “taxonomy business” landed him in some counterintuitive positions. Given his rightward lurch in the Seventies and Eighties, it certainly surprised me to find the author of To Jerusalem and Back accepting the Democratic Legacy Award from the Anti-Defamation League by lambasting the tastemakers of the Zionist state for their parochialism. “In Israel,” Bellow said upon accepting the prize, “I was often and sometimes impatiently asked what sort of Jew I was and how I defined myself and explained my existence…. It was their conviction that the life of a Jew in what they call the Diaspora must inevitably be ‘inauthentic.’ Only as a Jew in Israel, some of them told me, could I enter history again and prove the necessity and authenticity of my existence. I refused to agree with them that my life had been illusion and dust. I do not accept any interpretation of history that declares the deepest experience of any person to be superfluous. To me that smells of totalitarianism.” What good was a Jewish homeland if it gave rise to an establishment that simply inverted what the WASP hotshots back home had said about a Jewish writer’s capabilities in America?
Bellow also notably quit the board of the Committee for the Free World, a neoconfab founded to “conduct a battle of ideas in defense of Western values and institutions,” after its monthly bulletin Contentions denounced the awarding of literary prizes to Gore Vidal and Stanley Elkin. Both were “attitudinizing” radical leftists, but both also happened to Bellow’s friends. Vidal, in fact, had been a manorial neighbor near Tivoli and had defended the scrappy Jewish scribbler’s presence amid the buttoned-up Mayflower set of the Hudson Valley. So it was Bellow’s turn to do the defending. He wrote in his resignation letter that he had.
“for some time been struggling with the growing realization that a problem exists: About Nicaragua we can agree well enough but as soon as you begin to speak of culture you give me the willies… [Where] there are politics there are bedfellows, and where there are bedfellows there are likely to be fleas, so I scratched my bites in silence. Your Special Issue, however, is different. I can’t allow the editors of Confrontations [sic] to speak in my name, or with my tacit consent as a board-member, on my own grounds and in my own language. Le mauvais gout mène aux crimes, said Stendhal, who was right of course but who didn’t realize how many criminals history was about to turn loose.”
Bad taste first led to bad art, what another erstwhile American Trotskyist Max Eastman once reprehended as “writers in uniform.” Bellow was too faithful to his calling, and his own spirit, to allow himself to succumb.