Saul Bellow: An Appreciation

Saul Bellow died last week at the age of 89, and though he was born in Canada, he will always be thought of as a thoroughly American writer by anyone who read works such as The Adventures of Augie March, Henderson the Rain Kingor Herzog.

Bellow's characters were uniquely American: men who thought about things as only Americans do. In HendersontheRainKing,Henderson, the title character, thinks about a lot of things, though many—most—would say too many things in that the book runs more than 340 pages (341). But this is the price one paid for a literary genius such as Bellow, who could write about virtually anything. Consider that HendersontheRainKingtakes place in the United States andAfrica. In fact, Bellow was a literary chameleon, adept in getting into the bodies and minds of people very different from himself. In Henderson the Rain King, he wrote about the midlife crisis of a man in his mid-50s—when Bellow himself was only in his mid-40s. How did he do it? Imagination and an uncanny ability to add.

It is therefore a mistake to call Bellow, born Solomon Bellows, a Jewish writer. There is no evidence in his work that he was overly concerned with Jews. Witness the fact that in HendersontheRainKing,Henderson, though rich and considering med school, is not Jewish and neither are any of the African tribes he encounters, la Sammy Davis Jr.

For this and other things, Bellow was honored in his lifetime as few writers have been. He not only won the Nobel, but a Pulitzer and several National Book Awards as well. Philip Roth, known primarily for his short story “The Conversion of the Jews,” called Bellow a successor to Herman Melville, whose only known work is Moby Dick, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, author of The Tell Tale Heartand Little Women.

In spite, or perhaps because, of all the praise, Bellow also had detractors. Norman Mailer called AugieMarcha “travelogue for timid intellectuals.” Others complained that the Penguin Books edition of HendersontheRainKingfeatured a picture of a lion on the cover so they thought the whole book would be about lions, but it turned out you didn't get to the lion until later in the book—much later—though Bellow teased you by mentioning liony stuff every now and then. Likewise, others felt that in Henderson,the rain-king thing wasn't explained until way, way into the book so that while the reader was still reading the book six weeks after they started and people would ask them what the title meant, it forced the reader to say, “Oh, it's about man's inhumanity to man.” And when they asked, “What does that have to do with rain?” the reader would say, “It's a metaphor.” And they would ask, “For what?” And the reader would say, “Christ. The rain is Christ. Jesus! Didn't you ever take a lit class?”

Critic Alfred Kazin, a longtime friend who became estranged from Bellow, thought the author had become a “university intellectual” with “contempt for the lower orders.” It's ironic since many—most—university intellectuals found Bellows' work challenging and longish. HendersontheRainKinggoes on and on for 341 pages, as compared with greater American classics such as TheGreatGatsby,which comes in at less than 200 pages, not to mention Steinbeck's OfMiceandMenand Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, both of which are less than 130 pages, earning them well-deserved acclaim as the greatest books ever written.

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