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Last Updated: Wednesday, 6 April 2005, 14:36 GMT 15:36 UK
Saul Bellow: An appreciation
By Steve Schifferes
BBC News website

Saul Bellow
The author was considered one of the great American novelists

Saul Bellow is one of the last of the great generation of American novelists who came of age in the immediate post-war years.

It was a time full of hope, yet laden with uncertainties born of the Cold War.

He was also one of a new generation of Jewish writers and critics, born of immigrant parents, whose outlook was shaped by the tension between economic success and cultural dislocation.

But above all, his great strength was his ability to portray the struggles of young men coming of age in America.

Bellow's great autobiographical early novel, The Adventures of Augie March, gives a vivid description of the central character's struggle to escape the bounds of his immigrant community by travelling either physically or socially to another world.

But the sexual, social and financial tensions which pull him back are dramatically portrayed with the use of interior monologue.


And his finally-honed descriptions of the melting-pot city of Chicago are among the best urban writing in the American novel.

The novel needs to be seen in the context of the rapid change in the circumstances of other Jewish writers, playwrights, and essayists like Philip Roth, Arthur Miller, and Lionel Trilling.

They came to prominence in the 1950s questioning the American dream while making their way in it.

Saul Bellow
Bellow's descriptive skills and his ability to get into the inner life of his characters made him the doyen of the American literary scene

In their different ways, Miller's The Death of A Salesman and Roth's Goodbye Columbus both spoke to the existential angst of the aspirational Jew.

But they locate it in different places, with social rather than personal problems.

Bellow, in contrast, located the dilemma within the inner life of his characters.

In his greatest book, Herzog, he recapitulates the Jewish dilemma in the life of Moses Herzog, a university professor who both questions God in a troubled world and comes to terms with him - a modern day Job.

His comic ability, so evident in these two books, was less prominent in his final great book, Humbolt's Gift.

Wealth and fame

It was partly based on the tragic life of Delmore Schwartz, another Jewish writer of great promise who came to a tragic self-destructive end.

Bellow's novels tended to follow his own life, with increasing wealth and fame going along with a more conservative outlook towards life.

They are reflected in Humbolt's Gift in the character of the troubled conservative critic Allan Bloom, whose book The Closing of the American Mind was an attack on politically correct education.

Saul Bellow
Saul Bellow, pictured at his Boston University office in 1997

Bellow's increasingly conservative views on the American culture wars of the 1960s put him at odds with some other Jewish intellectuals who supported the changed, more liberal cultural and sexual climate.

It was no accident that he was based in the mid-West city of Chicago, not in the fetid and more liberal attitude of New York City.

He also got into a series of cantankerous debates on the nature of the Jewish novel with figures like Philip Roth.

Huge gap

His shift pre-figured the move of a later generation of Jewish intellectuals towards the right into the neo-conservative camp.

His heartfelt central characters, however, were all male -and the much-married Mr Bellow was less successful in portraying women.

But in the end, it was Bellow's gift of writing - particularly his descriptive skills and his ability to get into the inner life of his characters - that made him the doyen of the American literary scene.

And the progress of those characters was essentially the story of the evolution of a generation to a central role in American letters.

His passing is in some ways the end of that journey, and leaves a huge gap in the American literary scene.

A look back at Saul Bellow's life

Nobel Prize novelist Bellow dies
06 Apr 05 |  Entertainment
Obituary: Saul Bellow
05 Apr 05 |  Entertainment

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