In my recently released co-edited volume, A Political Companion to Saul Bellow, the contributors explore the politics and political thought of one of the seminal fiction writers of America. Exploring Saul Bellow’s politics and his thought on race, religion, gender, multiculturalism, as well as other aspects of modernity that pushed him into the conservative camp, these contributors offer fresh insights about Bellow and his works. But perhaps the most interesting chapter of the volume is Gloria L. Cronin’s interviews with Bellow’s three sons–Gregory, Adam, and Daniel–and how they perceived and understood their father and his politics. Given the gaps in age between the three brothers, Gregory (b. 1944), Adam (b. 1957), and Daniel (b. 1964), these accounts offer a progressive and overlapping chronological account of six decades of Bellow’s political evolution.
What we discover is a trajectory from the youthful idealism of Trotskyitism, gender equality, and disaffiliation with his ancestral Judaism to a growing cynicism, misogyny, racial anxiety, and a return to his religious roots. However, Bellow did not become a “neoconservative,” as he is sometimes portrayed, but rather was predominantly concerned about the viability of civilization and high culture in America. It was only in these areas of high culture and the arts that Bellow joined the Political Right.
With the exception of Israel, about which he constantly remained interested, Bellow was aloof from specific political issues. He only cared about politics insofar as it affected the conditions for art and high culture in American intellectual life. That said, it cannot be denied that Bellow became increasingly sexist and racist as he aged. In Bellow’s early years as a writer, we learn that Bellow went to socialist lectures and debates, understood all the subtleties of the viewpoints of the leftist factions, but joined no organized group.
But, like many traditional Democrats, Bellow felt that “the Democratic Party had deserted them rather than the other way around” during the political extremism of the late 1960s. Particularly disturbing to Bellow was the threat of urban violence, particularly from the African-American community. He feared the disintegration of society and the social anarchy that some of the Political Far Left supported, and which pushed him into the conservative camp. As his oldest son, Greg, describes it, “Mr. Sammler’s Planet is the sign of my father turning from the rebellious son into a patriarchal father.” However, this conservatism was one of disappointment rather than glee about the failed promises of the Great Society and refrained from moralistic positions on personal behavior.
If Greg witnessed the transformation of his father from youthful idealism to harden realism, Adam knew his father when he “already very much in his ‘late phase.’” Although he was not religious observant, Bellow was concerned about the fate of Jews and the survival of Israel. But besides these two concrete issues, Bellow was purposely evasive on political questions, as he understood that it was dangerous for him to opine too much about politics, especially when politics and culture merged in the 1980s and 1990s. He largely confined himself to issues of cultural freedom, education, the survival of Jews and Israel, and fighting communism both at home and abroad.
Daniel, Bellow’s youngest son, confirms his brother’s observations that Bellow was most concerned about the fate of Jews, Israel, and anti-Semitism. On the political questions of race and gender, what we realize is that Bellow cared first and foremost about excellence in culture and art as achieved in a meritocracy. Having lived with Ralph Ellison and admired Toni Morrison’s works, Bellow’s opposition to multiculturalism did not steam from a dislike of women and minorities but the fear that it would dilute standards of excellence in the humanities.
Thus, Bellow’s conservatism was one high culture and social order and not of politics and a call for action. It was the individual, not the group, which mattered most to Bellow; and it was the individual’s soul, not his or her material comfort, in which he was deeply interested. For Bellow, American politics was ultimately a farcical activity but one in which citizens could indulge themselves as a free country. And perhaps from his perspective he is right. When one contemplates the highest things in life, politics appear only as a shadow when compared to the brightness of the true, the beautiful, and the good that we find in art, culture, and our families.
Available is the introduction to A Political Companion to Saul Bellow with the following chapters: “Our Father’s Politics: Gregory, Adam, and Daniel Bellow” and “Biography, Elegy, and the Politics of Modernity in Saul Bellow’s Ravelstein”; also see “The Search to be Human in Dangling Man,” “Transformative Love and The Recovery of Tradition in Mr. Sammler’s Planet.”
This essay was originally published with the same title in The Imaginative Conservative on September 8, 2013.