Biography for Saul Bellow
Saul Bellow, the Nobel Prize-winning author of Herzog and Humboldt's Gift, writes fiction that confronts the modern dilemma of individuals trying to find meaning in their lives despite social chaos. Broadly concerned with defining humane values, Bellow's work is deeply rooted in a sense of Jewish tradition and culture. Bellow was born in Lachine, Quebec on June 10, 1915. His parents were Russian Jews who had immigrated two years earlier, and Bellow was raised in Montreal and Chicago. He studied at the University of Chicago and Northwestern University, from which he earned a bachelor's degree in sociology and anthropology in 1937. He then pursued a year's graduate work in anthropology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He supported himself at the start of his writing career through a succession of editorial and teaching jobs, including a post at the University of Minnesota. After winning a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1948, Bellow took up brief residence in Paris. He then spent a decade in New York, including two years on the faculty of New York University. Bellow returned to Chicago in 1962, where he worked as a member of the faculty of the University of Chicago. Bellow sees humanity in the modern age as deeply torn by the loss of traditional values. His main characters, most of them intellectuals, search for meaning and purpose in their lives, seeking to ground their behavior in some larger system of beliefs. Joseph, the protagonist of Bellow's first novel, Dangling Man (1944), asks a question at the heart of all Bellow's fiction: "How should a good man live; what might he do?" Awaiting induction into the service during World War II, Joseph quits his job and stays home to read books. Alone in his room for days at a time, he ponders the value of friendship and family and comes to question the moral basis of life itself. Finally, to save himself from the futility of his own musings, he actively enlists in the army. In The Victim (1947), Asa Leventhal lives quietly, lest he risk roiling the waters of his personal and professional lives. His domestic peace is soon broken, however, by the illness of his nephew, Mickey, and the frantic pleadings of his sister-in-law, Elena. Moreover, an old colleague, Kirby Allbee, returns to accuse Leventhal in the most scathing and anti-Semitic terms of deliberately plotting his professional ruin. As he faces those sudden pressures, Leventhal must come to terms with his uneasiness over the uncertainties in his life without cutting himself off from human feeling. Like his predecessors in Bellow's fiction, the protagonist of The Adventures of Augie March (1953) ponders the human condition as he seeks to understand his own circumstances. Bellow adapted the picaresque novel (depicting the travels of a rogue hero) to allow Augie to offer his impressions of "the length and breadth of America." Beginning in his native Chicago, which he renders as a modern Babylon, Augie is driven by restlessness outward toward Mexico and finally Europe. An innocent, Augie meets a number of "reality instructors" who seek to indoctrinate him into their own ways of thinking and acting; Augie witnesses and resists political manipulation and sexual perversion. At the end of the novel, married and living in Europe, Augie remains at heart "a traveling man," struggling to achieve a sense of himself in the world. In 1954, the novel won Bellow his first National Book Award. Like Leventhal, Wilhelm Adler, the protagonist of Seize the Day (1956), has ceased trying to find significance in his life; rather, he wishes to find simplicity. At age 44, he has faced divorce and professional failure, and he makes a final, desperate attempt to succeed financially by investing his last $700 in the commodities market. The man to whom he entrusts his savings, however, absconds. Adler's illusions are lost, and he finds release at the funeral of a complete stranger, where he weeps alone beside the corpse. Henderson the Rain King (1959) is a comic fantasy of a trip to Africa. Eugene Henderson, a Connecticut millionaire facing a midlife crisis, seeks an escape from the chaos of his life. In Africa, Henderson encounters two primitive tribes and a series of mishaps that force him to confront his dual fears of living and dying. Henderson returns home, a man reborn. In Herzog (1964), the protagonist has discovered the infidelity of an ex-wife with his one-time friend. Devastated, Moses Herzog spends most of his time lying down, writing letters he never mails to friends and enemies and even to public figures. At last, he decides to murder his ex-wife, Madeleine, and her lover, Gersbach. When he finds himself looking into the bathroom window of Madeleine's house, however, he sees Gersbach bathing Herzog's own daughter. Herzog sees his own traits surviving in the little girl and knows he cannot carry out his revenge. In 1965, Herzog earned Bellow a second National Book Award. Bellow also wrote short fiction, collected in Mosby's Memoirs (1969) and later in Him with His Foot in His Mouth (1984). He also tried his hand at play writing; The Last Analysiswas produced on Broadway in 1964. In Mr. Sammler's Planet (1970), Bellow offers a view of a man poised on the boundary between this world and the next. Arthur Sammler, an octogenarian and a survivor of two world wars who lost his wife in the Holocaust, has grown weary of life's demands. Appalled by the moral chaos he sees as he roams the streets of New York City, Sammler hopes to disengage himself. En route to the hospital to visit his dying nephew, Sammler encounters a pickpocket who physically threatens him and involves him in a succession of events that implicate Sammler in the degradation around him. In the end, Sammler sees that only the humane values of his nephew provide a framework that makes life livable. Bellow received yet a third National Book Award for the book in 1971. In Humboldt's Gift (1975), Bellow concerns himself with the plight of the artist in the modern Babylon. A successful writer, Charlie Citrine feels he must carry on for his deceased friend and mentor, the poet Von Humboldt Fleischer, whom Citrine believes was destroyed by the pressures of materialistic society. (Humboldt is based on Bellow's own friend, the poet and fiction writer Delmore Schwartz.) As Citrine mentally reconstructs Humboldt's life, he attempts to strip his own of those pressures. He receives two posthumous gifts from Humboldt: an absurd play that will probably make a successful film and a model for his own life. Humboldt's Gift won Bellow a Pulitzer Prize in 1976; he received the Nobel Prize for literature the same year. The need felt by a central character to get past appearances to some saving reality is a theme in all of Bellow's fiction, including his novels, The Dean's December (1982) and More Die of Heartbreak (1987). In two subsequent novellas, however, A Theft and The Bellarosa Connection, both published in 1989, Bellow seems to push his usual ponderings into the background, concentrating instead on the warmth and wit of his central characters. More recent works include the novella The Actual (1997) and Ravelstein (2000).