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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Saul Bellow
(b. 1915)

The son of immigrant parents from Russia, Saul Bellow grew up in a Jewish ghetto of Montreal, Canada, where he learned Yiddish, Hebrew, English, and French. In 1924 his family moved to Chicago, a city that often appears in his fiction. After earning a bachelor’s degree from Northwestern University, in 1937 he entered the University of Wisconsin at Madison to study anthropology but left there in December to become a writer. Employed for a brief period with the Works Progress Administration Writers Project, he led a bohemian life until World War II, whereupon he served in the Merchant Marine. After the war, he taught at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis and other schools, traveled in Europe, and lived in Paris for a period of time. Since 1963 he has been a professor at the University of Chicago.

Bellow is usually considered to be one of America’s most important contemporary writers; his work impresses one with its diversity of style, the profundity of its content, and its scope. Bellow published his first novel, The Dangling Man, in 1944; it is a diary of a demoralized man who is left “dangling” with no real purpose as he waits to be drafted. Three years later, Bellow published The Victim, which borrows the technique of the Doppelgänger from Dostoevski’s The Eternal Husband. In this second novel, he depicts the intense psychological battle between the Jew Asa Leventhal and his “double,” the Gentile Kirby Allbee.

In the late 1940s, Bellow became disenchanted with the “modernist” “victim literature” of his first two novels. Detached in tone, these restrained works followed “repressive” Flaubertian formal standards. With The Adventures of Augie March (1953), Bellow broke free from the “modernist” chains that bound him. In contrast to the two morose early novels, this open-ended, picaresque narrative with its flamboyant language, zany comedy, and exuberant hero affirms the potential of the individual, his imagination, and the worth of ordinary existence.

Bellow’s subsequent novels develop the themes of The Adventures of Augie March. Seize the Day (1956) is a dark comedy that depicts the day of reckoning in the life of Tommy Wilhelm, “a loser” who is spiritually reborn at the very end of the work. Henderson the Rain King (1959) is the story of an eccentric, energetic millionaire who journeys to the heart of Africa and experiences fantastic adventures. Herzog (1964), an enormous critical and financial success, depicts the intense psychological struggles of a professor who is on the verge of a mental breakdown as a result of his divorce from his second wife and the betrayal of his best friend. The Dean’s December (1982) confronts more directly than any of Bellow’s other novels political and social problems; Bellow contrasts the near anarchy of the slums of Chicago with the authoritarianism of the Communist world and sees a “moral crisis” in both West and East. Ravelstein (2000) is a meditative and autobiographical novel that explores a variety of subjects but focuses on friendship, memory, and death.

Bellow has also written short stories, some of which are collected in Mosby’s Memoirs and Other Stories and Him with His Foot in His Mouth and Other Stories, a non-fiction book on Israel, To Jerusalem and Back, several plays, and a number of essays, some of which are collected in It All Adds Up. He has received many awards for his writing, including the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1976.

Bellow is a master of narrative voice and perspective; he is a remarkable stylist who can move with ease from formal rhetoric to the language of the street. A great comic writer, perhaps America’s greatest since Mark Twain, he explores the tragicomic search of urban man for spiritual survival in a materialistic world hostile to the imagination and “higher meanings.”

Allan Chavkin
Southwest Texas State University

In the Heath Anthology
Looking for Mr. Green (1951)

Other Works
Dangling Man (1944)
The Victim (1947)
The Adventures of Augie March (1953)
Seize the Day (1956)
Henderson the Rain King (1959)
Herzog (1964)
Mosby's Memoirs and Other Stories (1968)
Mr. Sammler's Planet (1970)
Humboldt's Gift (1975)
To Jerusalem and Back (1976)
The Dean's December (1982)
Him with His Foot in His Mouth and Other Stories (1984)
More Die of Heartbreak (1987)
A Theft (1989)
The Bellarosa Connection (1989)
Something to Remember Me By (1991)

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Nobel e-Museum
Contains a biography and a transcript of Bellow's Nobel Prize acceptance speech.

Perspectives in American Literature
Paul Reuben's site providing a primary and secondary bibliography and suggested avenues for analysis.

Saul Bellow
Information about Bellow's Nobel Prize, a biography, and a literary introduction.

Saul Bellow Society and Saul Bellow Journal
Provides access to the bibliographies of many Bellow-related articles.

Secondary Sources

Allan Chavkin, "The Problem of Suffering in the Fiction of Saul Bellow," Comparative Literature Studies, 21 (Summer 1984): 161-174

David Demerest, "The Theme of Discontinuity in Saul Bellow's Fiction: 'Looking for Mr. Green' and 'A Father-to-Be.'" Studies in Short Fiction, 6 (Winter 1969): 175-186

Marianne Friedrich, Character and Narration in the Short Fiction of Saul Bellow, 1995

Daniel Fuchs, Saul Bellow: Vision and Revision, 1984

Sanford Marovitz, "Back to the Beginning: A Late Look at Bellow's Early Stories," Small Planets: Saul Bellow and the Art of Short Fiction, ed. Gloria Cronin and Gerhard Bach, 2000

Keith Michael Opdahl, The Novels of Saul, 1969