What follows here are three invaluable anecdotal accounts on Saul Bellow’s evolving cultural and political ideology as witnessed by his three sons, especially valuable given there are only inadequate biographical publications. Given the gaps in age between these three brothers, Greg (b.1944), Adam (b.1957, and Daniel (b.1964), these accounts offer progressive and overlapping chronological windows into some six decades of Saul Bellow’s political evolution. They cover Gregory Bellow’s perceptions of his father’s early Trotskyite affiliations and seeming belief circa 1937 in the equality of women, his temporary disaffiliation with his ancestral Judaism, and his later reaffiliation as a non- observant but culturally identified Jew. Following this is the account of his disaffiliation from the Partisan Review crowd and his renowned swing to the political Right during the era of the Civil Rights and Women’s Movements. All three sons recount their father’s steady loss of youthful idealism, growing cynicism, misogyny, racial anxiety and fearfulness about inner city violence. They also explode the dismissive label “neoconservative” as far too simplistic, and provide the first really nuanced picture of a politically complex man whose primary concerns were always for the viability of Civilization and high culture in America.
Already come the mid-sixties many were willing to call Saul Bellow racist and misogynous. This was only intensified by his unfortunate public remarks and through his close collaboration with his culturally conservative Platonist friend Allan Bloom, on Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, (1987). The label “neoconservative” inevitably followed. Critics noted his increasingly virulent anti multiculturalism, and anti-activist politics, as well as his fixedness about traditional curricular matters and the university itself. While he tolerated a tiny few blacks and women as colleagues, the rest of the affirmative action crowd need not bother knocking on the door of the faculty common room. In truth, Bellow felt the Democratic Party had betrayed him and found fellowship with the political Right only in matters of high culture and the Arts. He was not a joiner.
Bellow truly believed in the historical achievement of European cultures, and that he, Isaac Rosenfeld, and Delmore Schwartz had paid the price in learning that the newcomers to the common room had not. Bellow’s lingua franca and or “stairway to the Stars” as Adam puts it, was his total mastery of the traditional European, British, and American literary and intellectual canons, not to mention the Eurocentric history of ideas. As Greg Bellow remarks, he was a typical Jewish snob of the generation that came of age with Hebrew, European languages, Yiddish and English in a family that was cultured, had status, and did not represent the average North American immigrant family. They recount how in his later years Saul Bellow thought American politics was farcical, yet something we could afford to indulge ourselves in as a free country and never put much trust in it. He rarely spoke out publically on specific political issues, and on the rare occasions he did he quickly regretted it. Israeli politics, however, were the exception to his general political contempt and aloofness. He remained vitally interested in the fate of Israel right up to the end. All three sons insist that he was almost never interested in specific political issues, and that ultimately he cared only for politics insofar as it affected the conditions for art and high culture in American intellectual life. That said, few in his family would deny his increasingly virulent sexism and racism. Ultimately, he was, as Daniel puts it, “an old fashioned guy,” refusing to take but a tiny few individual women and African Americans seriously, often angry, nearly always frightened for his safety, and always fuming about uppity women and African Americans seeking political empowerment. As Greg Bellow points out, he finally became his own virulently patriarchal father Avraham and even more patriarchal grandfather Berel Belo.
The following remarks were recorded by interviewer Professor Gloria L Cronin in various recording sessions held in Orem, Utah, New York City, and Great Barrington, Massachusetts between February and September of 2011.
Gregory Bellow Biography
Dr. Gregory Bellow, born April 16, 1944, is the son of Saul Bellow and Anita Goshkin. By his eighth year, his parents’ fifteen-year marriage was over. By then he had lived in Chicago, New York City, upstate New York, Minneapolis, Paris, Salzburg, Rome, and Positano, Italy. He and Anita lived in Forest Hills, Queens, New York during his elementary and high school years. Gregory had regular custodial visits with Saul, who continued to live and vacation around New York State. As Gregory left for college, Anita married a widower, Basil Busacca, a Professor of Comparative Literature at Occidental College in Los Angeles, and she relocated to California. Gregory then began his undergraduate study majoring in psychology at the University of Chicago, where he completed an MA in Social Work in 1968. As the Vietnam war was raging, he secured a commission in the United States Public Health Service at a hospital in San Francisco followed by a postgraduate fellowship in child psychotherapy at Mt. Zion Hospital. In 1981 he completed a Ph.D. writing a theoretical dissertation entitled “The Psychological Functions of The Bi-Polar Self” at The Sanville Institute, Berkeley, CA. He married college classmate JoAnn Henikoff, also a social worker, in 1970, and they settled south of San Francisco where they have remained for forty-five years, raising their two children and working at various clinics and in private practice. Greg and JoAnn are the parents of a Juliet, an academic art historian, and Andrew, a researcher in the field of public health. They are the grandparents of Nora Schulman and Oliver and Lucy Bellow. Dr. Bellow is now retired and is currently writing a memoir about his relationship with his father.
Recording Session Orem, Utah, February 2011
The Politics of the Goshkin Family
My mother, Anita Goshkin, came from a family of committed socialists; Y.P.S.L’s and Wobblies. Anita got her left wing political leanings via Russia from my maternal grandmother, who also insisted on education and upon independence for all her daughters. The household absolutely lived their socialism as the Goshkin kids chipped in to pay for each other’s education, including Anita’s (the youngest) tuition during the Depression.
My mother used to say, “What I like most is to help, to facilitate other people to do what they want to do.” That attitude was the basis of her supporting Saul during the time he developed himself as a writer. She believed in him and in his talent from the outset. Over the course of her career that attitude brought my mother to work at a Planned Parenthood clinic. She taught me about Margaret Sanger before I was ten. She spent the remainder of her career working for organizations she thought to be forms of socialized medicine: H.I.P. [Health Insurance Plan, New York], and Kaiser Hospital after she moved to L.A.
On the other hand, Saul’s grandfather Berel Belo and his father, Abraham Belo, were both Czarist anti-communists after the Russian Revolution. My grandfather Abraham had lived in St. Petersburg illegally, got caught, and was almost sent to Siberia. Yet he was opposed to the Russian Revolution and argued with Saul constantly about his socialist leanings.
Saul was always very knowledgeable about politics. The Humboldt Park neighborhood in Chicago was alive with political debates all through the thirties. They were all immigrants, many of them out of Russia. For the first time whole families could openly speak their minds about their government without fear of imprisonment. Saul had a boyhood friend named Rudy Lapp who was a Stalinist. Rudy had all sorts of stories about Saul and his politics. According to Rudy, Saul went to socialist lectures and debates, understood all of the subtleties of the viewpoints of all leftist factions, but joined no organized group.
Indirectly I was told the following story about Rudy, who had been assigned (by his Stalinist faction) to steal copies of the despised Leon Trotsky’s The History of the Russian Revolution (1930), which were selling like hot cakes at Marshall & Fields. So he went down there and stole the books. Rudy was very angry that I’d been told this story and told me that Saul was a much better book thief than he.
Saul and Anita met commuting to the University of Chicago on the El in the summer of 1935. Anita immediately fell in with Saul’s radical friends in Hyde Park. Saul was, by that time, in the deepest phase of his Trotskyite period, and when they started dating she too began going to Trotskyite circle meetings. She was usually the only woman present. Several members told me that the men were all interested in political theory, but that Anita was very down to earth and all about practical social action.
In 1938 Saul and my mother lived in the Goshkin home for nine months after they got married. The household was saturated with left-wing politics, and social issues were discussed and debated. Soon they were back in Hyde Park. Much later, when Saul was downplaying his radical past, he would say dismissively, “Ah, you know, we didn’t have any money. We were all pals. We just lived together.” But Anita gave me to believe that they lived in some sort of communal group after they moved to Hyde Park. Saul and Anita had a few friends killed who were in the Lincoln Brigade. She would tear up whenever she thought of them. I was not yet born during the Moscow Show Trials that were going on during those years. Saul never said anything to me specifically about them, but years later he would just say, “Stalin was a murderer. Hitler was a murderer.” He would continue to equate Stalin and Hitler unless he was talking specifically about the Holocaust.
It was difficult for me to separate radical political ideology from the rationalizations Saul offered for his chronic sexual infidelity. In later years when I inquired, many people told me that the free love stuff was not ubiquitously done. But Saul and Isaac Rosenfeld convinced themselves that the Trotskyites believed in this and they both practiced it. My mother was for sexual freedom too. She talked the talk, but her few infidelities were in response to Saul’s.
There is a map of Russia cut out of a wartime newspaper from the part that Anita’s family came from, the Crimea. On the top Saul had printed “Long Live the Third International.” But my conclusion is that literature was Saul’s life, not politics.
In 1961 when I went to the University of Chicago with Anita to interview to become an undergraduate, she told me a little about those years. She said, “I need to show you where I sold a hundred Soap Boxes [a socialist publication] an hour in the lobby of the social science building. Can you imagine that Gregory?” I was sixteen at the time, and already a pretty self-defined socialist until I got to college and realized that compared to my mother I really wasn’t very committed to it at all. But in high school I really thought of myself as a socialist. Anita never took a turn to the political right the way Saul did. In her career, her social attitudes, and her politics she stood up for the kind of idealism they once shared.
Politics in Our Household During my Childhood
I first became aware of some of the political climate in the family because the house was always full of magazines: The New Leader, Commentary, and Partisan Review, all Left-leaning publications. Time magazine was verboten because it was edited by the highly influential Republican Henry Luce. In the early 1950s, Saul was friendly with Paulo Milano, a Dante scholar at Queens College who lived nearby. Paulo’s son Andy was going to The Queens School, a school full of red diaper babies that was run by Communists. Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella’s kids went there because they couldn’t go to the schools in the upscale Queens neighborhoods they lived in. There was another black kid named Julius whose father was a postman, and at whose house I would stay for overnights. At this time Saul was still committed to Trotskyite ideals and that included permissive child rearing.
Saul had many political friends, including Mitzi and Herb McClosky, with whom he talked about politics for years and years. Herb and Max Kampelman (a boarder in our house) were involved with Hubert Humphrey, who was mayor of Minneapolis when we lived there in the late 1940s. Max had been a conscientious objector during World War II and had participated in the Minnesota survival studies. Max and Herb remained advisors to Hubert Humphrey during his Washington years.
In 1952 I was eight and we all lived in Queens, New York. My father was in and out of that apartment for a year or so before he finally left for good. During my childhood my relationship with my father was very personal and he remained involved with me. When I grew up, Saul’s politics shifted and we differed. But that never altered the fabric of our relationship. He remained very emotionally present for me.
But my mother’s politics did not shift! In the early 50s when we were at the movies, there was a newsreel announcement about President Truman integrating the military. Anita stood up and applauded and hooted and hollered. She was the only person in the whole movie theater to make a sound and everybody was looking at her. I was only about eight or nine, and I was just mortified with embarrassment.
Their political differences were apparent in 1959 when I graduated from junior high school. When they played the national anthem, my mother refused to stand up. There was Saul standing up with his hand on his heart and Anita sitting next to him in silent protest. He said, “What the heck’s wrong with you?” Bear in mind, this was twenty years after his Trokskyite period. But he had long since abandoned such behavior.
As a child, I was used to having James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison in my home. Ralph, Fannie, Anita, Saul, and I would go out to Long Island fishing. By the sixties I was in College during the upheaval of the Civil Rights Movement. Before that I was already picketing at the Midtown Manhattan Woolworths in New York when I was sixteen or seventeen. I was going regularly to the Ethical Culture Society, participating in the political debates, and attending a high school class called Problems of Democracy. I shared my mother’s socialist politics and what I now consider to be my father’s youthful views. I was thinking about going to college, and I was set on a career as a lawyer for the NAACP. I found a program at Cornell where you could get a B.A. and a law degree in five years. However, Anita insisted I get a general education first and then go to law school if I wished. “I veto this,” she said. She was a tough cookie.
In the mid-1950s, Saul was also quite afraid that he would be called to Washington to testify before the McCarthy hearings. They knew many people who were being called to testify and were both afraid, though neither were ever out a registered communists. But I remember how palpable the anxiety was in the house during the McCarthy era. My parents were definitely Adlai Stevenson democrats. Anita wrote a letter to Adlai Stevenson when he lost the elections telling him how sad she was. He sent back a postcard that Anita was sure he had really signed himself.
The political extremes of the late 1960s deeply affected Saul’s positions on issues that remain at the core of public dialogue even today. You can see their outlines in Mr. Sammler’s Planet, a dark book by any measure. Artur Sammler, Saul’s narrator, is a frightened old Jew living in an urban nightmare. Being surrounded by blacks and danger were not abstractions for Saul and his friend Ed Shils living near the University of Chicago. A student was murdered on the street in Hyde Park during my last year of Social Work School. Everybody started wearing whistles around their necks and blew them when there was violence. Yet he, Ed, and I would walk down to a Chinese Restaurant on the dangerous Sixty Third Street after dark and we never had any trouble.
As for the Vietnam War, his argument was that the United States is a decent country with a benign government and that we should do what they say. He argued that people should not resist the draft. When I said, “This is an immoral war, I’m not going,” he resisted me. He was definitely saying, “Look, this country has given me a pretty good shake in life and it’s not oppressive, it doesn’t throw people in jail for nothing. It doesn’t torture people.” I couldn’t tell you for sure to this very day, whether he was for or against the Vietnam War. But he was definitely against me going to Canada, and he was definitely against me going to jail, which I (aged 24) was pretty committed to doing were I forced to go into the Army. On the war he didn’t change my mind, that’s for damn sure.
Initially Saul was very supportive of the civil rights movement. He was all for the Freedom Rides. He was sympathetic about the three young men who were killed in Mississippi (Schwerner, Chainey and Goodman). I think he was all for the (voting rights) legislation. But Saul turned against the Civil Rights Movement when African Americans started pushing, sometimes violently, for political power. He was not for Black political empowerment and certainly not the form it took in Chicago. Saul really thought there was social anarchy in the city and in the country. He would just rail and rail and rail against Blacks, and it became worse when prominent Blacks made anti-Semitic remarks. Years later we were driving down the street in Chicago, and a black postal worker driving a huge truck cut us off, and Saul sarcastically said, “That’s Black Power for you Gregory.” When Harold Washington became Chicago’s first black mayor in 1983, Saul was just completely beside himself. According to him, Blacks would now own the “city machine,” which they would then turn to their own advantage just the way the first Mayor Daley had turned it to his.
At one point he had moved up to the North Side with his fourth wife, Alexandra. One day when I was visiting them he said to me, “I want you to come to the grocery store with me.” So we walked through two blocks of white neighborhoods and then into four adjacent blocks of black neighborhoods, bought a few bags of groceries, and walked back. He said, “I just wanted you to get the picture—that we’re surrounded by blacks. Chicago is a city that lives in fear. But Saul felt and reacted as if he were under siege. It played a large role in his moving to Boston where he felt way safer. He and I used to walk up Commonwealth Avenue in Boston, and he’d say over and again, “Gregory, this is so much safer than Chicago.” The Dean’s December was essentially about a radicalized white kid. It’s just ghastly, the stuff the young man described and condoned out of misguided radicalism. Those were Saul’s own fears about social disintegration. He would have flipped if he had known that the park in front of his home in Hyde Park is now called Harold Washington Park.
On a visit to Vermont during the 1990s, I heard Saul say to his fifth wife, Janis, “Cancel my subscription to the New York Times. I’ve had enough of Tony Lewis” [a liberal editorial editor]. He also read the Wall Street Journal, so he must have liked that kind of argument better. On the other hand, several years earlier, Saul returned to Chicago after a visit to my family so he would arrive in time to vote for Paul Simon [prolific writer and white Democrat]. After Saul died, Nathan Tarcov, the son of Anita and Saul’s old friends Edith and Oscar Tarcov, told me that Saul and Allan Bloom (a mentor of Nathan’s) felt as if the Democratic Party had deserted them rather than the other way around.
For many years Saul was riding on Allan Bloom’s coat tails and was beloved of the political right. Saul loved Allan. He had loved Ed Shils, his previous mentor, too, but Ed tried too hard to twist his arm. I think Allan was a much subtler and more perceptive person who had a fuller, warmer relationship with Saul. As far as I’m concerned, The Closing of the American Mind (1987) was a joint project between Saul and Allan. Saul really believed in the accomplishments of Western civilization and what American had done with these ideas. He definitely was the defender of the dead white men under attack by the New Left. But there was an aristocratic flavor to Bloom’s book that Saul tacitly acknowledged when we discussed it, a sense that there was a right way to read literature that was at odds with the views towards readers expressed most clearly in his essays. In them and in the novels, at least through Herzog, there is an unmistakable attack on the great thinkers who are characterized as useless in helping a man to live every day in the modern world.
Saul’s early Trotskyism represents the more optimistic and humane side of my father, a side I think got lost when his politics turned to the right. The personal side of his reversal of political sympathies and attitudes was to play itself out in his personal life and in our relationship during the rest of his life. Saul alienated many people, including me, with his racist or sexist remarks. And I did not accept what he said, beginning with the War in Vietnam. While our conflicts over the war passed after I was no longer in danger of having to serve, there were many, many times when he and I would go head to head about gender and race.
I was sympathetic to people who felt they needed a political voice. I’d say, “How can you say these terrible things about people.” We used to fight about whether people who felt themselves disenfranchised were entitled to a political voice and power. I did not win these arguments, but nor did I lose them. When we argued I always felt as if I was trying to be his conscience, or remind him of what I thought his conscience ought to be, or used to be once upon a time. Each of us stood firm and our relationship, which developed into a long cold war, was the major casualty. However, during the several decades this distance prevailed, there were thaws when the deep feeling between us came though over personal and emotional issues.
For Saul, racial matters were all about groups and power, and none of this affected his feelings about individual people. When he was married to Susan Glassman, they had this big fancy apartment in Chicago, and they hired a black woman named Gussie to take care of my baby brother, Daniel. Gussie was raising two kids of her own in the ghetto that was only a short bus ride away. Saul was always kind, gracious, respectful, and sympathetic to her, while Susan didn’t treat Gussie particularly well at all. There were many domestics of all races and colors in the household over the years, especially at the end, of course, when he became so sick. There was even an Indian maid in Montreal when Saul was a kid, and he always remembered fondly how she used to mispronounce tapioca. Saul loved Stanley Crouch and Ralph Ellison, even though he finally fell out with Ralph. With great aplomb, he once introduced me to the dignified Black historian John Hope Franklin, whose office at the Committee for Social Thought was across the hall from his. But activist groups were a different matter. I don’t remember ever saying to him “But, Dad, you know, twenty years ago you were being excluded because you are a Jew,” because he would have argued back vociferously. He felt Blacks did not deserve entry because they had not paid the intellectual price of mastering Western thought and because they did not respect its traditions.
Frequently, it was over tea in the late afternoon that we would argue about politics. Saul always put his finger on the most essential point, and he was articulate no matter how angry he was. He never lost sight of the point, and he would whip people’s asses in arguments because he didn’t get carried away the way his opponents did. My success in arguing with him was that I was making moral points that he could not parry the way he did with logical counterarguments. He would just go on and on about all kinds of terrible social evils and I would say, “I can’t agree with you, Pop. I think these people deserve a place at the table, too.”
But then he was seventy and I was forty—a living fossil of his political attitudes in the thirties, forties, and fifties. Anita and the radical history she represented were parts of his ancient past. I, as a living fossil, was a political thorn in his side who knew when and where to prick him with the thorn of his past. If you had to sum up his defense of the people that didn’t deserve a place at the table, it was because he thought they were “uncivilized,” “under-educated,” on welfare, and not ready to participate in democracy.
As for the women’s movement, there he was full of contradictions. In 1938 he was very proud to tell family members that his wife was an independent woman with a degree. Anita and others have made it very clear to me that at that time, Saul went out of his way to show that he and Anita were equals. But even though Saul was proud of her, his patriarchal father, Abraham, was horrified. My cousin, Lesha Bellows Greengus (whose father Sam would not allow his wife to work outside of the home), exemplified the view towards women prevalent in the Bellow family. Abraham thought that expensive higher education for his bright granddaughters was a waste of money. “They should go to community college,” he would argue. “Why are you paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to educate these girls?” Yet one became a doctor, one a lawyer, and one a designer of beautiful jewelry.
But after women in the 1960s began to clamor for equal power, he downplayed the equality he had touted in the early years of his marriage to my mother, and then he made Anita out as money grubbing because she insisted on alimony. A few years after the divorce, Saul put a note in the alimony check he wrote to Anita saying “Thank God for socialism in one country.” The joke was that if Trotsky had prevailed and there was socialism everywhere, he wouldn’t have to send her any money in a worker’s paradise. But since Stalin won out he had to send her a check. My mother got the joke immediately.
But after women began to put pressure on academia, he would just rail and rail about women, pushy women. He was against affirmative action, and when he was on the board of the MacArthur Foundation, he fought tooth and nail against awards to women or militant blacks. When Mary Ryan, a very well thought of feminist American historian and mother of my niece, won a prize for her scholarship he said, “Well, she was probably the best female candidate.”
Despite the fact that he and his friends had fought so hard for a place at the academic table a generation earlier, he had no tolerance for the pressure Blacks, women, and the young were putting on the academic hierarchies. He, Harold Rosenberg, Alfred Kazin, and dozens of his literary and critical peers had done their homework. They were brilliant and therefore deserved a place. But that did not extend to the next generation’s strivings for recognition. For Saul it was all intermingled with his generational outrage at the thoughtless, radical youth and at family members whom he loved who had wronged him or their parents. Mr. Sammler’s Planet is full of the most crippled women characters you could ever imagine. And they have the undying support of Artur Sammler—except when they assert their will. But the men in the novel are all snotty, rebellious, non-compliant, and selfish.
I believe that book pretty well describes Saul’s true attitude towards women, and I think those attitudes played themselves out over the next thirty years of his life when Saul did a one-eighty in his personal attitudes towards independent women. Though the Goshkins took Saul and Anita in after they had impetuously eloped and had no place to live, he later complained that my grandmother ruled the roost and that she destroyed the men in the family. My Goshkin aunts were both professional women, librarians in fact. My aunt Catherine loved the theater. He complained chronically that the women on my Goshkin side were way too uppity and full of ridiculous cultural pretentions. My cousin from that side of the family, Beatrice Schenk De Regniers, wrote and edited children’s books for a large publishing house. She won the Caldecott Medal and collaborated with Maurice Sendak. But Saul just pooh-poohed her, dismissing her as “such a romantic.”
Now this didn’t mean that he didn’t respect women individually. He did. He chose Harriet Wasserman for his agent. My cousin Lesha Bellows Greengus was his Executor, and frequently gave him financial advice. But as a group, particularly within academia, he was openly hostile towards them. When my daughter, Juliet, became a PhD student, he absolutely refused to discuss intellectual things with her. He just pushed the idea to get married and have a kid before she was thirty. I think he just couldn’t see beyond the fact that she was his granddaughter and didn’t want to accept her as an intellectual. In Boston he lived in a building where there were copies of the Elgin Marbles on the walls. She walked in with him once and said, “Oh, Grandpa, you have the Elgin Marbles in your lobby.” He thought that was cool, but he wouldn’t talk to her about the artists, art, or the ideas that circulated in postwar Paris. Think about it—Matisse was still in Paris when he was there. She would have loved hearing about his friendships with Harold Rosenberg and Clement Greenburg, two of the twentieth century’s most prominent critics of modern art. When she asked him “Tell me about my grandmother Anita” (who had died when she was about 12), all he could say was, “She was a good dancer.” I mean, after fifteen years of marriage that’s all he could find to say about his first wife to her granddaughter.
My cousin Lesha frequently observed Saul and Allan Bloom putting down liberated women. And I watched these sessions also, as Janis, Saul’s fifth wife and a PhD student of Bloom’s, would just sit there and listen as Saul complained about liberated women. Saul basically ignored my wife for thirty-five years. Ten or fifteen years would go by, and he wouldn’t see her and just barely asked after her when we spoke. This probably stemmed from an incident soon after our wedding when Saul was complaining about me to her. JoAnn confronted him and said, “You know I can’t let you complain about my husband like that.” On a visit to Vermont she also criticized how he was going about trying to force Daniel to study for his Bar Mitzvah. Daniel, who was twelve, was supposed to be studying the Torah. He either wasn’t studying, or he wasn’t studying in front of Saul. Saul got mad with JoAnn when, after asking her opinion on how he was acting towards Dan, she made a very mild comment that it might be better if he did it some other way. Basically, I just stopped taking my kids and my wife to visit him. He was no fan of either daughter-in-law and was not shy about voicing his objections to my brothers.
Many have asked me why Saul turned from being a Trotskyite to being a political conservative, if not a neo-conservative. I think at a certain point he came to believe that the idealism of his early years and of the Partisan Review crowd and its socialist utopian beliefs were in error, and that they even turned out to have been destructive. This was partly because their idealism blinded them to the horrors of the Holocaust and to Stalin’s atrocities. He thought the world view of the Partisan Review crowd did not take into account either evil.
He truly feared the disintegration of society and for the future of mankind. In the 1960s, George Sarant, Isaac Rosenfeld’s son, became a Maoist while enrolled at medical school in Hawaii. Saul was just furious at George for turning into such a Lefty. Saul really despised people who were trying to tear American civilization apart, including the nihilists and the Maoists. The conservatism seems to be his standing up against social anarchy. That is understandable enough, but it took a very nasty form. It was just his standing up for the general principles of solid education and a respect for the history of Western thought, positions with which I find myself sympathetic, that he was finally about. It was his solutions to what he took to be personal forms of anarchy that troubled me and plagued our relationship, including the patriarchal mentality in Saul and in Artur Sammler. As far as I’m concerned, Mr. Sammler’s Planet is the sign of my father turning from the rebellious son into a patriarchal father. In personal terms he literally became his own father, the controlling man with whom he had fought for decades. The father-son theme played itself out between us for thirty years. It began with legitimate differences over the Vietnam War, but over the decades I increasingly experienced it as generational. After having been raised by both parents to think for myself and to be independent, I was somehow then supposed to turn into the obedient son to the very authoritarian father Saul became.
As for his being allied with neo conservatism, he would have said, “You’re not getting the complexity. You can’t just slap me into a literal conservative box.” He did see great merit in some of the things conservatives were saying. I don’t know exactly how much of it had to do with Israel, but I suspect a great deal. Eventually Saul broke with the “neo cons” with the publication of Ravelstein. After years of Saul supporting many of their ideas in public, the neo-conservatives thought he had joined them, and they thought that outing Allan Bloom was an act of betrayal. It was their error to think that Saul seeing “eye to eye” on certain issues made him a true believer of neo-conservatism. I think his politics eventually had a lot to do with the disappointment he and Allan shared over the failed promises of the Great Society, but it certainly did not extend to moralistic positions on personal behavior.
Saul also became very disillusioned with the social sciences, and he subsequently said some really snotty things about sociologists, political scientists, and the university itself. In the end Saul just chucked over the whole business of academia and logical forms of thought and trusted his own instincts. But it took him a long time to get there. He really saw Civilization trembling on the brink of chaos.
Saul was a very brilliant though complicated man whose personal solution to chaos was to return to the wisdom of the fathers. But I never saw how going back to personal forms of respecting patriarchal authority was going to solve any of the mess that he and I agreed the world was in. Brilliant or not, I need a better sage than Artur Sammler, a frightened backward looking Jewish man, upon which to base my life and social attitudes. I prefer the Jewish legend of the holy sparks—the idea that God is everywhere—that I learned about in college from David Bakan, who wrote about Freud and the Kabbala. Within the notion that one of those sparks could be in the most unsuspected place, I find a leveling of humanity and a basis of concern for the welfare of others. I never discussed this notion directly with Saul, but it pervades decades of our political differences. I am sure that the father of my youth would be very enamored of such an egalitarian notion. Even the patriarch Saul Bellow became in his later years might have been pleased.
Adam Bellow was born February 19, 1957 to Saul Bellow and Alexandra Tschacbasov. He grew up in New York City and attended the Dalton School and Princeton University, where he majored in Comparative Literature. He also did graduate work at the University of Chicago, Columbia, and NYU. In 1988 he joined The Free Press (Macmillan) as an editor and has spent the last twenty-five years in book publishing. Adam Bellow is known as an editor of serious nonfiction books with a special emphasis on intellectual conservatives. In 1995 he became Editorial Director of The Free Press, and in 1999 he became an Editor at Large for Doubleday (Random House). In 2007 he moved to HarperCollins as VP/Executive Editor and is currently Editorial Director, Broadside Books. Bellow has also written or edited a number of books, including In Praise of Nepotism (Doubleday 2003) and New Threats to Freedom (Templeton 2010). Adam and Rachel Bellow are the parents of Lily and Eden Bellow.
When I was born Saul was in his late forties, and by the time I became old enough to have an adult conversation with him about politics or anything else he was nearly sixty—already very much in his “late phase.” By then he always spoke of his youthful radicalism by dismissing it as a far-off folly. But as I’ve learned from reading the Letters and the Atlas biography, he was a much more radical young man than I had thought. I think he was attracted, like many young, bright Jewish kids, to Leon Trotsky. He was a very romantic figure then: a fighting intellectual with a seriousness about culture, someone who could write articles in the Partisan Review while being at the same time a hard man of action. This was pretty exciting for these young Jewish kids. Saul at that time was very susceptible to this romantic revolutionary image, and long after he outgrew it he remained throughout his life very attached to his old Trotskyite friends from that period, people like Al Glotzer, the historian of the Third International, and Herb Passin from Columbia University.
I’m very proud of who my father was, and I gratefully acknowledge his influence. His main concern was with preserving the freedom of individuals and the variety and depth of human character, which he saw over the course of his lifetime being flattened out and standardized by modern mass society. This outlook, which is essentially literary, led him to astute political observations. But he arrived at them by an unconventional path. He was never really interested in conventional politics, at least not in a partisan way. He was a partisan of Truth and an inspiring exemplar of independence in thought and expression. He had lived too long and seen too much to invest great hopes in politics, which he considered a form of low comedy. Of course this is exactly how a novelist would look at it.
I think you would find that he had more political conversations with my brothers because they were more politically left, Gregory and Daniel both. I think they argued with him more. But he and I didn’t discuss politics per se, although I ended up being closer to him politically than the other two siblings. My over-arching sense of him is that he was interested in individual freedom and the conditions that support culture and the arts—anything that supported an audience for his books, and that permitted him the freedom to write and express himself, which is something that he never took for granted.
Since I was born in 1957, the 1967 Six Day War was really the dawn of my political consciousness. I was aware of the Kennedy assassination and Vietnam and the civil rights movement, but I was too young to have an independent view of these things, and I certainly never discussed them with my father. But I knew that he was very concerned about Israel, and I think maybe that was a way for me to feel connected to him. It wasn’t a thing with a religious basis. Though he’d insisted that I have a bar mitzvah, he wasn’t personally observant. But the fate of the Jews and the survival of Israel were very important to him. A few years later he went to Israel to cover the 1973 war and then produced To Jerusalem and Back (1976). It may have been the first thing of his that I read at the time it was published, so from this I developed a sense of my father as a writer who engaged with real world issues, but in his own very idiosyncratic way. Some of the people he describes in the book I later met—John Auerbach, Dennis Silk. In any case, I patterned myself on him in regards to his views on Israel, and on politics in general. Not that it was always easy to figure out what those were. I was always aware that he was really, really good at not getting pinned down on anything. Let me repeat, he was really, really good at it. And he was never dogmatic about specific issues. I picked this up from him as well. It is the liberal reasonable part, the Talmudic part – the sense that there is probably another point of view.
I wasn’t that interested in politics myself. But the distance between us as father and son was something that I felt I had to bridge by making myself someone with whom he could have a serious conversation. He argued politics with Gregory throughout the sixties while all that was happening; he argued with Daniel in the eighties to correct what he saw as his fashionable leftism. But politics wasn’t my thing. I was interested in literature and books. When he would come to New York we would first go to visit his agent, then have lunch, see a Marx Brothers movie, and end up at the Strand bookstore. This to me was heaven.
I was in college during a kind of politically fallow period of the Jimmy Carter years. We’d finished with the turbulence of the sixties, Vietnam, and Watergate. Jimmy Carter was a genial Democrat, and then Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980. I did not vote for him, and the only thing that I remember thinking was, “Okay, it’s their turn, you know.” I think Saul’s view of Reagan evolved as mine did. I’m also pretty sure he didn’t vote for Reagan either. He probably considered Reagan to be sort of a third-rate actor, though he may have been more aware of Reagan’s record as governor than I was. Ultimately it was Reagan’s anti-communism that drew his approval. In my case it was the Iran Contra uproar, El Salvador and the whole controversy about the Contras. I was twenty-two or twenty-three at the time, and I thought, “Why is it a good thing to have a Leninist revolutionary republic in Central America with Cuban military advisors all over it? Why do we want that? What do we do about it?” Well, I wasn’t sure. But for the Democrats in Congress to harass and hobble Reagan’s efforts to contain the Sandinista revolution was to me irresponsible. Hadn’t they ever heard of the Monroe Doctrine? And that began to move me in a more politically conservative direction. Although for my father and I as Jews it was still very difficult to identify as Republicans, socially and culturally.
Saul’s neo-conservatism is curious and interesting because it is the Jewish third way—a Jewish political compromise. Later when I got into publishing, I met people like Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz. This was a small group of intellectual New York Jews with serious literary interests who had all started off on the Left, and who had all moved to the Right primarily because of issues to do with Israel and anti-communism. They remained somewhat liberal on social issues, at least initially, because they were urbanites and immigrants. They would never have been comfortable with the Southern evangelical base of the modern Republican Party, or even with the Rockefeller Republican types, the patrician business establishment, or the Wall Street business class. Saul didn’t like them either.
As for the sixties and the civil rights and women’s movements, Saul was personally upset by the outburst of irreverent disrespect for professors and for people with deep learning and caring—the tradition itself. For him it was only your mastery of the literary canon that allowed the WASP establishment within the university to tolerate your presence. It was his personal ladder to the stars, his passport of entry into the heritage of Western Civilization, to a literary career, and to the entire world of letters. He understood its value. You know, there is a famous passage by W.E.B. Dubois about being a black man who feels welcomed into the company of Shakespeare and Goethe and Dante, but not in the company of American Society. It was this sentiment that Saul shared. He didn’t care much for the WASP academic establishment, and he equally disliked the disrespectful young radicals and obstreperous feminists. By the 1980s he was a proud reactionary. Earlier he was a little more careful because he didn’t want to alienate everybody entirely. He really wanted to be left alone to write. But he also wanted to put provocative things in his novels about race and urban politics and not really be held accountable for them.
Then there were the years where he famously returned to Chicago to get away from things. He liked the distance it gave him from the Eastern literary establishment, which he held in contempt long before it became fashionable on the Right. But his grounds were purely intellectual—he thought the New York literary press were purveyors not of ideas but of intellectual fashions, just like the garment district. He said to me once, “By the time a new idea reaches Chicago it’s generally so threadbare that you can see right through it.” He also said, “I worked my way through all of the major ideologies of the twentieth century, so you don’t have to do it. You’re exempt.” And he meant everything, Freud and Marx as well.
But he did go through these phases. By the time I became an adult and was able to engage with him, he was pretty conservative in relation to the overall tendency of American elite culture and higher education. He thought the 1960s radicals were the privileged offspring of the richest, most powerful country in the history of the world. He thought the campus revolt and the antiwar movement was superficial and frivolous, just an excuse to break windows and get laid. I think he worried that it would undermine the serious attitude towards culture that he had embraced, and that his own authority as a writer rested on. It was very important to him that there be serious writers, serious readers, serious critics, and serious academics.
In the eighties I went to Chicago for a year as a graduate student in the Committee on Social Thought, where Saul was then still teaching. Allan Bloom recruited me. I had recently graduated from college, and I spent a year working at the New York Daily News as a copy boy, trying to become a writer. I was writing short stories, failing to finish short stories, and rewriting unfinished short stories. Then I went to Africa to visit a friend of mine who was in the Peace Corps. I came home and wrote an exuberant sort of travelogue about my trip. Saul paid me the highest possible compliment when he said, “It’s real writing.” I thought I had found my direction as a writer and decided to go back to school to learn more about history and politics. Bloom proposed to fix me up in that department and he indoctrinated me into the thought of Leo Strauss. In that way I became a philosophical conservative before I became a political one.
Saul’s deepest political concerns always revolved around Israel and the status of the Jews. In those years the fate of Soviet Jewry was a very hot issue. There was much debate about the status of the Palestinian national movement. In those years American Jews did not acknowledge so readily the existence of a Palestinian people with a distinct national identity. Also there was a war of ideas about the status and legitimacy of Israel. He unwisely gave an endorsement to a book written by someone named Joan Peters called From Time Immemorial (1984), which made a now-discredited argument that there is no such thing as a Palestinian people—that there was nobody in Israel when the Jews came. Later on it turned out that she was not much of a scholar, and he regretted going public with his endorsement. That’s one of the things that was consistent in him—he understood that it was dangerous for him to opine too much about politics. During the eighties and nineties, when culture and politics merged, this worried him. In the sixties Saul had gotten into trouble with his literary friends for accepting an invitation from Lyndon Johnson to go to the White House. He was very indignant about this, and I think he purposely withdrew from any public expression after that.
With regard to Saul’s writing the “Introduction” to Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, I don’t think he ever regretted it. Not for a minute. It was his idea that Allan should write such a book in the first place, and he wrote much of it at Saul’s kitchen table in Vermont, sitting up all night drinking coffee and chain smoking cigarettes. Saul made everybody who came to the house read it, and he made Harriet Wasserman, his agent, represent it. Then, of course, it sold a million copies. Saul thought it was very funny that somebody in one of the reviews suggested that there was no Allan Bloom, that Saul Bellow had just invented him. I think Saul did become more vocal politically as a result of his friendship with Allan, and certainly more interested in political philosophy. They taught courses together in which they would read philosophical works as literature, or literary works as philosophy. I took some of these classes. They were really great. Allan was kind of like Milton Berle and even looked like him. He was the Milton Berle of political philosophy. Together they were very, very funny. Saul was always at his best when he found someone who could stimulate a conversation at a high level. He needed a pro like Allan. Allan’s death was even harder for him in some ways than the deaths of his brothers. He was very attached to his brothers, of course, but with Bloom there was a special connection.
In the 1980s Saul withdrew from the Committee for the Free World, a conservative organization founded in 1981, after they used his name on an advertisement about Soviet Jewry. There must have been some blow-back from that because he was very sensitive about it. He felt he was a writer first and that his political opinions were private. But his views were about what you would expect from a neo-conservative Jew of his generation. You get a lot of it beginning with Sammler and even more in The Dean’s December (1982). During the period where he immersed himself in the racial politics of Chicago, he became darker and darker in mood. He took being an urban writer and a social realist very seriously. He did his homework firsthand, visiting the housing projects, the courts, the jails, big urban hospitals and so forth. His problem with liberal academics and with the whole New York literary crowd was that he thought they were in denial. I recall very vividly the speech that he gave here in New York at the PEN Congress in 1976, where he basically got up in front of a room full of writers from all over the world and insulted them. I mean really insulted them, calling them (in effect) political ninnies who should be minding their own business. He was like a bullfighter who was constantly concealing his sword behind his cape. But they knew that they’d been stuck. Then of course he got very inflamed when they attacked him in turn. I went to see him the next day at the hotel where he was staying, and we went to breakfast in the hotel dining room. I could have told him that would be a mistake. We entered the room and everybody was looking at him. He went directly up to Günther Grass who had attacked him the day before. He was sitting at a table with Bill and Rose Styron. Saul went straight up to Grass and shook his finger in his face and said, “That was very bad what you did yesterday.” You could see that he was hurt by what had happened. Then again, he’d asked for it, hadn’t he. So these episodes would happen when he would let something out and there would be consequences.
I think he began fuming in the sixties and he never stopped. He just fumed and fumed. It just built and built and built. I think Allan gave him an outlet for that. The curriculum debates and the cultural wars of the eighties and nineties also provided a legitimate focus for his anger and concern. So he could come out with statements like, “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus, the Proust of the Papuans?” Well—he liked alliteration. He caught hell for saying this—and it was relatively safe because he was talking about culture and literature. He would have been very reluctant to say anything publicly about, say, Harold Washington as the first black Mayor of Chicago, but privately he would say all kinds of things. But again it wasn’t about partisan politics. Politics was something that he considered to be a form of low comedy. Not unimportant, but theater that attracted idiots. In his opinion, politics attracted deformed specimens, people who conducted themselves with no shred of dignity, people who lied and deceived, who were hypocrites, and even corrupt. He was fascinated by monsters of egotism and vanity. For that reason he was fascinated by LBJ. Not because of his politics, but because he was larger than life. Saul told me once that he was thinking about writing a short story about LBJ in retirement. He never did it of course. But he was impressed by the fact that Johnson had in retirement caused an office building to be constructed in Houston or someplace to house his enormous ego. He loved the exchange that LBJ was supposed to have had with a reporter who supposedly asked him a question like, “What do you have for breakfast?” Johnson replied, “What kind of a chicken-shit question is that to ask the leader of the most powerful nation in the world?” What a wonderfully Jewish statement in its way. Saul liked it because it was witty. And he liked Johnson’s bulbous nose and country twang and Elmer Gantry manner.
His social politics ultimately had to do with the cultural homogenization of America. He loved the immigrant rejection of WASP reticence and politeness, their individuality, their eccentricity of speech and dress and the way they made up names for themselves. He used to talk about a man who named himself after Lake Erie. In today’s culture everybody dresses the same, talks the same. They are all plugged into their iPods, twittering, watching American Idol, all standardized, all products of the same mass education and mass culture. When Saul was a young man, America was a very different country of strong regional cultures and powerful accents. The different states were all like foreign countries. That was the America he grew up in. He liked the extreme variety and diversity of it all, and that’s what he saw going out of modern life. But he was not a political man. He was a literary man. And as he aged he was increasingly aware that he was part of a generation that was passing.
I think the years in which I became close to him were the years in which he became most vocal in his conservative views. But he largely confined himself to issues of cultural freedom, education, the survival of the Jews and of the Jewish state, putting down the threat of communism both abroad and at home. He had lived through the Depression and World War II, and it’s sobering to recall that he was born before the American intervention in World War I. What most affected him politically, however, was the era of the great fascist and communist dictators. I remember asking him in college what books I should read. I assumed he would recommend books by Conrad, Flaubert, and Turgenev. Instead he said I should read about the great figures of evil in the twentieth century, these massive biographies of Hitler, Stalin, Mao. He was fascinated with the dictators as human beings, with their banality, their mediocrity, their monstrousness, and by the fear and the terror that they inspired in people. He could not understand why people so easily forgot about all this. This is, I think, one of the curses of longevity. Just as today’s baby boomers are sort of hung up on the sixties. How could he forget?
He also engaged for a period in spiritual exercises. But these too were all in the service of his literary work. He just wanted to be left alone to pursue that. His politics were cultural in the sense that he began to fret extensively about distraction in the modern age. I attended the Jefferson lecture (1977) where he began by talking about Wordsworth’s line, “The world is too much with us.” He was still talking about it ten years later at the Nobel lecture. The big thing for him was contemporary distraction and its negative effects. He understood that it required the forces of collectivization and massification. He read a good deal about this, starting in the 1950s. He was also very interested in the works of Elias Canetti, who wrote about technology and the psychology of crowds. He came of age with the sociology of the fifties and early sixties, which focused on the bad cultural effects of mass society. His own social ideal was probably Greenwich Village in the forties. I don’t think there was another period in his life when he was happier. Everybody was poor and everybody was drunk or high on literature. They were all outrageous, outspoken, bohemian—and he was in his prime. His friends, mentors, brothers, and esteemed editors like Philip Rahv and Pat Covici were all still alive. New York was it as far as he was concerned.
I think he found Paris when he went there after the war too much like Chicago, dark, gloomy, stony, and shuttered. Scarcity in everything. Thrashed by war. He liked London and felt quite at home there, though he was well aware of their tradition of genteel anti-Semitism and keenly resented it. He was a very refined person, but I think he liked to act up when he was in that kind of excessively polite company. I went to London with him a couple of times. Paris too—he took me on a walking tour of his old haunts and tried out his outdated French slang on the waiters at the Café Balzar. He liked London for its dignity and its lingering shreds of Imperialism. But he was ambivalent about the British, and he was always unhappy with his English publishers. I think he felt that he was regarded as an upstart. He used to mock the sociologist Ed Shils for having put on an English accent. Ed had originally come from Oklahoma or some place, and he had turned himself into an Oxford man. But he also loved that about Ed, the power of the imagination to rework yourself. It was all an expression of some inner human power or spiritual capacity.
I never lived with my father growing up. I made brief visits to Chicago, and I traveled with him to foreign countries for a week here and there, but I actually spent more time with him in the country where he went to get away. He was quite a devoted gardener for a city kid. Always very proud of his tomatoes and his homemade blackberry jam, though he could never get it thick enough for my taste. You sort of drizzled it onto your English muffin and then picked the little seeds out of your teeth. For many years there was no TV, and the evening’s entertainment consisted of reading aloud from Shakespeare by the fire. But being in the country didn’t cut him off from world events. When the paper would come around lunchtime we’d pass the sections back and forth and we would talk about things. But it was always very Olympian. He didn’t seem to have an opinion about specific political issues or even individual politicians.
As I’ve said, as a young man he was quite radical, but by the time I came along he had long since outgrown that youthful optimism about politics. He never invested hope in politics. He’d seen too much. He understood that American politics was fundamentally trivial and that that was a good thing because it was a luxury that we were able to afford. He once read me a passage from a book about Maxim Gorky, who after the revolution got up at a meeting of the Soviet writers guild and said, “Is it too much to ask that I should have my herring served to me on a clean plate?” To Saul, this was a great moment. Gorky was one of the literary heroes of the revolution, and he wasn’t at all happy with the outcome. Gorky thought the civility of life had been sacrificed, just lost. Saul identified with this.
As for his travels in Eastern Europe, there was never any sense of his wanting to revisit the Russian homeland. I don’t think he ever went to see the death camps. He wanted to give the Holocaust a wide berth. I think it was very, very difficult for him. But the house was full of that holocaust literary and historical stuff. I remember I went to see him when I was about ten years old, when he was in one of his bachelor periods. He was living alone in Hyde Park. We had breakfast together, and then he went into his study to work, leaving me on my own. Looking for something to read I pulled a book off the shelf called Babi Yar. The title is taken from the name of a ravine in the Ukraine that was the site of the massacre of over 33,000 Jews in 1941. The book was written from the perspective of a young boy, so I was immediately absorbed by it. I got to the middle of the book and I’m going, “Oh my God, this is awful.”
Ultimately he was more interested in people than in politics. He shared with Leo Strauss—another Jewish immigrant who ended up in Chicago—a certain sense of detachment from American society, but also a deep sense of gratitude and appreciation for it. At least here in America we’re not going to be rounded up, he probably said to himself. He was never such a fool that he romanticized the Russian Revolution like so many others of his generation. I think he felt he had a narrow escape there. I don’t think he was ever drawn to Russia. I think his grandfather Berel Belo had a lot of nostalgia for the old country, and maybe even Abraham, his father. Certainly his mother missed her family. But I don’t think, given what Jewish life was like in Czarist Russia, there were any grounds for nostalgia. Plus he knew perfectly well that Tolstoy himself would never have condescended to speak to him.
In many ways people misunderstand him when they call him a conservative. For example, he seems to have had absolutely no issues about homosexuality. Obviously he knew all about that side of Allan’s life and he didn’t care. It made no difference between them and their friendship. His only objection to it was when it became a political movement and a part of the grievance industry. That he thought was narcissistic and silly. He just wanted people to be serious. He didn’t really care what they believed—still less what they did in the bedroom. He was quite shocked when people accused him of outing Allan in Ravelstein, but that was because of the specific people who accused him. Everybody in Chicago knew that Allan was gay. It was not a secret, and Allan himself asked Saul to write about him after he was gone. I think Saul’s critics were concerned that the Straussian enterprise, Allan’s legacy as a teacher, would be damaged by a charge that he was ashamed of his own sexuality. Or conversely that it was somehow an expression of the tortured soul of a closeted gay man.
Allan was, like Saul, someone who had fought his way through all the ideologies of the twentieth century. I was attracted to his radicalism and his humor. He also was a wonderful teacher, and he really liked young people. He was interested in the philosophical errors people made, and he wanted to straighten them out. Allan was a great Platonist and Rousseauean. So was Saul. And love was Allan’s central theme. In contrast, Saul was very pragmatic about love and marriage. For him it was an arrangement, a bargain. He made the same bargain time and again. He would marry a woman to handle the practical side of things while he did his creative work. She was supposed to provide a stable and wholesome domestic environment. She would also perform secretarial duties. As payment for this (in his mind anyway) he would give her a child. But then he would become restless and things would start to fall apart. Then he would move on. That’s how it went. As he got older he became better and better at getting in and out of these situations. He discovered that his little boat would carry him safely to the next port and everything would be okay. And he always kept some options open. Not that he necessarily intended to exercise them, but it gave him comfort that they were there.
The problem with liberals in my view is that they think that human beings can be enlightened, and that we can have a society based on rational principles. I don’t believe that. So I’m not disappointed or upset when people in the heartland of this country talk about “The Rapture.” That’s fine with me, because it’s the same as it was in the sixteenth century. Why should it be any different? Do you think standardized public education is going to change any of that?
I think Saul would have loved the Tea Party as an expression of stubborn adherence to the American creed of cantankerous individualism. He would have seen it as a rebellion against political and cultural conformity, and an assertion of our irreducible right as Americans to think and act with perfect freedom. It is an ethos that says, “Don’t tell me what to do, what to think, how to act, what to say, or how to vote. And get the hell off my lawn!” He would have been especially gratified by their touching faith in books and the seriousness with which they turn to them for guidance, inspiration, and enlightenment.
One of the most interesting things Saul said to me back in the 90s was, “There’s going to be a big revolt against the media.” He called it years before it happened. And I’ve thought about this a long time. I just published a book by a Canadian liberal journalist about the 9/11 truth movement and the broader conspiracist subculture in the United States. He and I had a long series of conversations and debates about it, and I finally prevailed upon him to accept that the media is responsible for this conspiracy stuff. Why? Because the liberal press denies the grain of truth in anything that the right wing believes, and in doing so they bring themselves into discredit so that the average American consumer of news understands this. I think Saul would say that they’ve turned off, and the reason they’ve turned off is that they know on a deep metaphysical level that what they see come across the TV and what they hear on the radio and what they read in the newspaper is a simulacrum of reality. It is not reality. That doesn’t make it a lie, but it does make it a product of the imagination. And so they’re free to discount it. It’s just another narrative. And of course the postmodern academy has done its part in encouraging this. Saul expressed all of this. “People have an instinct for truth,” he explained. “They always know when they are being lied to—even if they don’t really know that they know.” In my opinion it is this spiritual hunger for the truth that has led so many Americans to revolt against political correctness and against the liberal bias of Hollywood and mainstream news media.
Daniel Bellow Biography
Daniel Bellow, the youngest son of Saul Bellow by his third wife, Susan Glassman, was born in Chicago in 1964. Educated first at the University of Chicago Laboratory School, he went on to Northfield Mount Hermon School and Wesleyan University, graduating from the College of Letters in 1987. He pursued a career in daily newspaper journalism, working at The Berkshire Eagle and the Rutland Herald, among others, first as a reporter, then as an editor and editorial writer. In 1996, he married Heather Hershman. They have two children, Stella and Benjamin. As the newspaper business collapsed all around him, he returned to his first passion: studio pottery. His work is sold in finer galleries in the Northeast and at Anthropologie stores from Los Angeles to London.
I grew up in Chicago in Hyde Park, at 5490 South Shore Drive. This was the apartment my parents bought when they thought they could afford it. It was a pretty safe address, although I do remember at age four, that spring of 1968, watching out the back west-facing window of the apartment and seeing the neighborhood burn only twelve blocks away, just past Ellis where the University neighborhood ended. Hyde Park was an island of white privilege in the seething ocean of poverty and hate that is the South Side of Chicago. It’s only gotten worse on every side except for the East where there’s the lake. To the south there’s South Shore. To the west there’s Drexel and Cottage Grove, and to the north there’s Woodlawn. Pop used to like this Chinese restaurant called Tai Sam Yan under the El tracks on 63rd Street. We’d come out of the restaurant at night and it was sketchy, but Pop never acted scared.
In 1978 I was 14 and I moved to New York. It was the punk era and I was going to clubs, sneaking in, and hanging out with the dirt bags at the Central Park band shell. I had so much fun Saul and Susan had to send me away to prep school, to a place called Northfield Mount Hermon, a private boarding school that was founded by the Chicago evangelist D. L. Moody in the 1890s. Without the distraction of New York, I did really well in school. I made the Dean’s list and won the Joseph Allen Prize for excellence in studio art. So I was the kid who went and hid out in the pottery studio rather than going up to Brattleboro to try and get served in the bars. It was the first time in my life where I’d really wanted something that I could only have by working really hard. Dad once famously said, “Well, at least you’ll always have a pot to piss in.” He was the great put down artist of the twentieth century. Once he put you down, man, you were put down. Like Groucho Marx. “It was an honor to be loused up by Humboldt, like being the subject of a three-nosed portrait by Picasso.” He was brilliant that way. I wanted to be a ceramic artist. But my dad, with my brother Adam in a supporting role, just verbally beat the crap out of me until I agreed to go to Wesleyan. I don’t regret doing what I did. I saw a lot and I learned a lot.
We’re a family of trouble makers from way back. Adam makes trouble too. Watch him publishing those books while everybody gets pissed off and he’s vilified in the press. He loves it. I’m filled with admiration for him. I like to make trouble too. Having been a newspaper reporter I’m a much deeper person for having been exposed to a lot of wrong-doing. I helped a lot of people who were getting fucked over, and you know, that’s something to be proud of. The thing to know about my father is that he didn’t give a damn about politics per se. All he cared about was literature and the truth of human relations. If politics could provide insight into this, it was interesting. I was brought up by my mother to despise Mayor Daley as a colossus of big city corruption, intolerance, xenophobia, and “nigger” hatred. Pop regarded Daley as the ringmaster of the great circus of corruption. Of course the city is corrupt. It’s Chicago.
I remember I would get upset over Ronald Reagan coming into office and taking the solar panels off the roof of the White House immediately, and improving the artificial sugar that causes brain tumors in rats. He’d say, “Come on, come on kid. You’re a Chicagoan. Are you going to get upset about this? Of course this is the way it is.” He was always trying to wise me up because I think he would have regarded it as humiliating if any son of his had been a sucker, or a patsy, or naïve. If you read his books, you can see how he understands people and their base desires, their ambitions and greed and foolishness. He tried to teach me how to see things as they are, not in contrast to what I thought they should be.
In 1995 I was working at the Brattleboro Reformer and the paper was sold. The new company sent this little guy named Nick to fire everybody. Nick was the hatchet man, five foot two, big pot belly and a beard. He was like an axe-wielding dwarf. He took me in the conference room and he said, “You’re not really productive enough.” I said, “Fuck you Jack, I write two stories a day, sometimes three. I’m the best reporter at this paper. You just cut my pay by 15 percent, so stick around and watch what 85 percent of me looks like.” So feeling very proud of myself, I went over to my father’s, and I said I had met this dwarf hatchet man, and I told him to stick it right up his ass. I expected him to be proud of me for standing up to the Man, but he just shook his head and said, “Come on, Daniel. This guy’s a clown. He’s the guy that comes to town to fire everyone. You know he has nothing to do with you. You shouldn’t even be moved by him. Just take a step back and look at it for the ridiculous farce that it is.” “Well,” I said, “I’m going to quit.” He said, “Don’t quit. Go and find yourself another job, but don’t quit. You know you need money coming in.” So there he was, the sensible father.
Well, that job just got worse and worse, and then I went and got married and went to Jackson Hole for my honeymoon. When it came time to go back to work, it had snowed three feet in the night, and I called up my editor and I said, “Look, there’s three feet of snow here in Jackson Hole and I can’t be back until Monday.” And he said, “You’re fired.” I got fired on my honeymoon?
Somebody once said being a reporter is like being the horse in one of those horse tales for little girls. You go from one cruel master to another. Every once in a while somebody will take pity on you and give you a warm stable and some oats, but it never lasts. So that was my newspaper career. I don’t think it did me any good to be Saul Bellow’s son in that business either. The newsrooms are filled with these failed mediocrities who believe they have a novel in them somewhere if they could only stop drinking long enough to make it come out. They looked at me, the little prince, and said “Let’s send him to cover the Sewer Board, see how he does.” It didn’t matter that I was good, it didn’t matter that I was fearless, and aggressive. And being an editor is a bore. You know, it’s everybody else having all the fun, and you just sit in your chair and get fat. So I’m much happier doing what I’m doing.
Pop hated the book reviewers. Every once in a while some famous guy’s name would come up in conversation and Pop would make a face like he had swallowed a mouthful of pickle brine and he’d go, “That Stalinist!” It was the worst insult he could level against you.
In the 1930s he had a Trotskyite period, but as Mrs. Oppenheimer told the FBI man, “It was the thirties. Every decent person was a socialist.” We forget in our amnesia that capitalism had utterly failed. Nobody had a job. The whole structure had come crashing down on these boys on the West Side of Chicago. They saw capitalism in ruins everywhere. It was easy for some of them to close their eyes to Stalin’s purges and believe the propaganda coming out of Russia. Pop always brought up Walter Duranty. Again and again, he’d say, “Don’t be Walter Duranty. Be an honest reporter.” Walter Duranty was a reporter for the New York Times who was a Stalinist stooge. He knew the truth about the gulags and the purges in the 20s and 30s and kept it from his readers. He won the Pulitzer Prize, which shows you what good the Pulitzer Prize is. The Times won’t return it. They keep it there in their trophy room. Now what does that tell you about the Times? Pop told me he saw through Stalin as quick as he did Hitler, and he had nothing but contempt for those who didn’t. Once he told me: “I never lined up with anyone. I always thought for myself.”
By the time I was politically aware, the women’s movements, the civil rights movement, the youth revolution, and the Vietnam War had already happened. When I was a kid I liked the hippies. They were for peace and love and justice, and who could argue with that? It was obvious to me that the war in Vietnam was utterly immoral. It was obvious to me that Martin Luther King was a hero, the bravest American that ever lived. But when I was a little kid we didn’t talk much about these things, because why bother talking to a ten year old about politics if you’re Saul Bellow? The older I got the more interesting he became, and the more interested he was in me. He was not a very good daddy to a small boy, you know, but when I grew up and started to have ideas of my own, many of which he regarded as wrong, he undertook to correct them—from up on his high horse. I respected that. I mean he had seen Trotsky’s body in the morgue in Mexico City. He’d been there. Not only did he know his shit, but he was entitled to his opinions. You can’t argue with an apostate, right? It was an unassailable authority. You know, he had once been a true believer, not in a doctrinaire sense, but he did believe in the notion that the world could be a better place. And it was hard to argue with him when he said that certain social mores and graces are what allow civilization to continue, and civilization is something we all need.
He did not think the Sixties were not good for civilization. I guess it all depended where you were standing in the sixties, how you saw them. I mean, I’ve read Slouching Towards Bethlehem, which is a grownup’s take on all the silliness and ignorance on the part of these people who thought they were changing the world. And I think he saw it that way, too. Certainly the scene at San Francisco State, which is repeated in Mr. Sammler’s Planet, together with what I’m pretty sure are some stretchers, did not reflect well on the New Left. On the other hand, Pop loved Allen Ginsberg. He thought he was the fairy son of Whitman. Once when I was about twelve, I told him he was a square, and he took great exception. He appealed to Adam, and Adam said “Squares lack soul.” “Are you going to tell me I lack soul?” he said, fixing me with that bottomless stare. And I said, “No, no, that wouldn’t be fair.”
Once in the kitchen in Saul’s Vermont house, we were talking about Bernie Sanders, the “socialist” mayor of Burlington who is now a US Senator. I was a reporter for The Reformer, and I knew how Bernie would say one thing in Brattleboro and another in White River Junction, so I wasn’t buying this straw man. Pop just went off on this tirade about the political left, saying, “It’s all nihilism, it’s insincerity, it’s hypocrisy.” He wasn’t completely wrong, either, but I said, “Did Abbie Hoffman just walk into the room behind me? I mean, who are you talking to. Don’t you know me any better than that?” He stopped, and on the way out to the car, he apologized. Pop was the best. I’m so proud to be his son.
I always thought of him as a representative from a world that no longer existed. When he was born, there was still a Czar of Russia, and he had kicked Grandpa Abraham Belo’s ass out of Saint Petersburg. So Saul’s early politics were shaped by the notion that the Czar is a bad man and Russia is a state founded on injustice. So when Lenin showed up and said, “I must overthrow it,” a lot of Jews said, “Knock yourself out.” It took Jewish Americans of that generation a while to get over their identification of Lenin with Marx, and their vision of a world where everything is beautiful and peaceful, and where the dictatorship or the proletarian government eventually withers away into liberty, equality, and fraternity. Well, it wasn’t working out that way, but the golden fleece of world socialism, the idea that there could be a better world, was a hard thing to give away, even in the face of mounting evidence that Lenin and Stalin were building a nightmare totalitarian regime that was more complete and thorough going than anything the Czar could have achieved. When Pop saw Stalin persecuting Osip Mandelstam and putting him in prison to be worked to death in Siberia, he put two and two together. Not everybody could do that. Lots of people took Stalin’s Moscow Show Trials at face value. But Pop saw they were a farce. So I grew up hearing that the government of the United States, with all it’s faults, is preferable to Stalinist dictatorship. I think that was his issue with the New Left—anyone who would equate the two was just not serious.
Once he said to me, “Show me where I’ve written something that makes me a reactionary.” Again, I think he stood for the values of an older world, an America where people were really educated so that they could have a real argument, where there was such a thing as high culture, and the American innovation was to make it available to anyone who wanted it. Somewhere in The Adventures of Augie March he talks about a universal eligibility to be noble. There were many cultural and political figures that he thought highly of, people who had had real experiences in the world, people with real souls. Pop believed that America, crass and materialistic as it was, could regenerate, could rediscover its soul through culture. American popular culture is often vulgar and stupid, and Pop thought it beneath contempt. I remember when I used to like the rock group Kiss (there’s a damaging admission), and Pop just rolled his eyes. He never cared about anything but literature and high culture. People are mistaken if they think he cared who the president was. He thought Jimmy Carter was a weakling and schmuck, and that he was dangerous for America when Soviet Russia was run by Brezhnev, a real tough guy. He had seen Neville Chamberlain deceived by Hitler. When Ronald Reagan got elected he was happy because he thought Reagan was a man of character and an anti-communist. I would say, “He deregulated the banks and let the thieves loose in the treasury,” but Pop had lived though the Harding administration so he wasn’t impressed by that argument. He thought Adlai Stevenson was a fool, easy pickings for Mayor Daley. Pop respected strength and savvy in a politician, and when a politician did not display those qualities, Pop considered that he was not fit for office.
When we were all at the dinner table with family, nobody stopped you from talking, but the conversation was at such a high level and went so fast that I just couldn’t follow it. Every once in a while I would ask a dumb question and everyone would laugh. Then my father would explain to me very patiently who the Kaiser Wilhelm was, and the conversation would resume several feet above my head. You had to run to keep up and my legs were just too short. I had to study. He hated to hear me repeat propaganda. Almost to the point of physical violence really hated it. He would say, “No son of mine is going to be ignorant about this. Read this book and don’t talk to me until you’re finished.” So this is how I’m trying to raise my own children.
He took a very keen interest in my literary education and was handing me things like David Copperfield to read when I was ten. He just said, “Oh, you can read that.” I said, “Pop, it’s a huge book and it’s got all these tiny letters in it.” And he would say, “You can read it.” There was nothing better than hearing Pop read out loud. He read me Jack London’s The Call of the Wild when I was six years old. When Adam was a teenager, one summer he read us both the Dudley Fitts translation of The Odyssey. I’ve never had to reread it because I remember it all so well—the Cyclops, Polyphemus, smashing the guys’ heads together. Adam and I after dinner would say, “Pop, what are we reading tonight? Pop, will you read to us?” He read me Joseph Conrad and Kipling too, all of it, The Jungle Books, Kim, the lot. He hated Hemingway. The whole first paragraph of Augie March is a declaration of war on Hemingway and his literary style and his emotional constipation. So I too hate Hemingway. I’m capable of admiring Hemingway’s style because it’s impossible to escape its influence. But Pop thought he was just a megalomaniacal pig and worse, an anti-Semite.
Pop was always talking about African Americans. All the time. Also the Holocaust, Zionism, and Black-Jewish relations in the cities. He was at his most conservative when he talked about the Jews, and anti-Semitism in all its colors, British, French, Russian, Arab. But he was never boring, like everybody who now writes for Commentary, and he wasn’t always predictable. For instance, when Menachem Begin became prime minister of Israel, he remembered him as the pimply terrorist who blew up the King David Hotel.
I went to Morocco my senior year of high school, lived with a Moroccan family, and I brought back a full report. Pop received it without preconceptions, and he never tried to put any political grid on my experience. I wonder what he would have made of the Arab Spring. To see the Syrians who’ve lived all their lives under this awful dictatorship acting with such courage is a big, big deal.
I went to see the film El Norte, in which the camposinos are monstrously oppressed and go to the North and get totally hosed by the capitalist system. I was about seventeen years old, and I came back and I said to Pop, “How can you countenance this world where things are this way?” And he said, “Well, what do you want me to do about it? You know that Guatamala has a military dictatorship. What am I supposed to do?” He gave me that response a lot. “What do you want from me? You know, I didn’t make this world.” I said, “Yes, you did! You’re a big important figure. You ought to be able to do something about this shit.” He’d spread his hands in this “what can I do” gesture.
Back in the mid to late 90s I remember asking him about some political issue de jour. I forget now what it was. But he just said, “Ugh, I don’t care about that.” He just sort of shut me down as if to say, “That’s not what you should be thinking about.” He was too busy thinking of higher matters. I had lots of great professors in college, but he was the greatest of them all. I think Allan Bloom was a big political influence on Pop just because they got along like such a house on fire. And they agreed about so much already. Bloom was actually more learned in many of these things. Pop probably read Plato’s Republic in college and never cracked it again until he met Allan. I think that Bloom’s influence was just to deepen Pop’s views and keep him company. Bloom was one of the most brilliant men you could ever meet. And such a forceful arguer. He argued and he spoke like he wrote, except he was always sucking his Marlboro down, you know, and going, “Arrr, arrr, arrr.” That was the sound of his brain working and deciding what to say next. I would come in there with my half-assed ideas and would just be so utterly defeated in an argument with Allan Bloom. It happened again and again. Adam especially loved that when he was Allan’s student.
My brother Adam is doing a lot writing about the Tea Party people. I think he is going to get fleas from lying down with dogs. Adam and I agree on the most important things, those which we learned from our father. Adam expressed his view of the world to me very succinctly one day. He said, “The world is run by gangs of bullies, and these gangs of bullies are in competition with each other. And the rest of us just have to live here.” So I think that Adam believes that these are the people who have been Nixon’s silent majority, who have been ignored by the government, which has mostly catered to minorities and labor constituencies. These conservatives feel like they’re being ignored and that the world is changing all around them. So they are confused and frightened and angry. Adam likes the fact that the constituency is speaking up and making an uproar. He thinks it’s healthy. He and I both like trouble, like our father. I think these are people whose parents were Wallace Democrats and whose grandparents were Klansmen. They don’t like it that the United States is becoming so black, so Hispanic, so secular, so tolerant of what they regard as deviance. They’re losing out and they’re pissed off, so they’re susceptible to manipulation by the Koch Brothers of the world, who don’t give a damn about them or their concerns.
As for Saul’s attitudes toward women and blacks, my cousin Lynn used to say, “Nothing scares a man of our fathers’ generation like a woman with a college degree and a diaphragm.” I think it’s true, that he was just old fashioned. I think he thought feminism was unsexing women, taking away the things about them which make them special. He was very shrewd in his judgments of individual women, well, some individual women, and their motivations in doing the things they did.
As for blacks, Pop had lived with Ralph Ellison. There is this story that I tell my wife and children again and again and I never get tired of telling. Saul and Ralph are at dinner at Gore Vidal’s house. Gore Vidal is running America and its government up one wall and down the other. Finally Ellison says, “Gore, I don’t know what your problem is. You’re rich, you’re white, you’re pretty. I don’t know what you have got to complain about.” So in our house whenever somebody protests too much we say, “I don’t know what his problem is. He’s rich, he’s white, he’s pretty.” Pop had enormous respect for Ellison and for Ellison’s work. Too bad Ellison could only squeeze one book out of his head. But it’s a hell of a book, and if Pop were here he’d tell you it’s a hell of a book, and that Ellison was a hell of a guy. He also had this great friend named Stanley Crouch, who wrote “Notes of a Hanging Judge.” Stanley’s a tough critic and a marvelously expressive guy. Pop got a big kick out of him. Again, this is a generational thing. I love black people, have big sympathy with black people. I grew up in a different Chicago than Pop. My mother dated Richard Hunt. I kissed Myrna Everett in first grade. I’m a different person from my father. In his world blacks and whites were segregated. And Chicago, don’t kid yourself, was just as segregated as Mississippi. Chicago wasn’t as loud about it, but black people kept to themselves, and Saul certainly didn’t grow up with any black people. He didn’t like multi-culturalism, and he said it wasn’t conducive to producing great writers. It probably isn’t. Pop was all about the meritocracy. All he cared about was excellence. He thought Toni Morrison deserved that Nobel Prize she got. I read her books when I found them in his house. The books would be on their faces on the ottoman. He read them all.
Pop did mellow with age. Certainly toward me. But he never made it up with Greg. That argument only pretended to be about the Vietnam War. Really it was about Pop and Greg. Sometimes Pop’s opinions had less to do with his political views and more to do with the person he was talking to. He was a great chain yanker. He liked to dig a pit and cover it with branches so you’d come walking along, whistling away, and fall right in it. Then he would stand there at the edge and watch you as you sort of thrashed around. He liked that.
My view is that the government has a legitimate role in protecting the people from the depredations of corporations who will market aspartame and put it in every soda and every piece of gum that my kids eat. The government has been bribed, bought off, deceived. I think it’s monstrous, a gross injustice, and I devoted twenty years of my life fighting these people as a journalist. The one regret I have is that I didn’t do enough. Pop loved all this. He thought my ideals were a bunch of misty bullshit, but he liked to watch me make trouble. When I worked for The Reformer, he read my stories every day. If a couple of days went by and I didn’t have a byline in the paper, he’d call me up and say, “Are you alright, is everything okay, you sick?” Once he said to me, “I’ve been watching you and you’re very interesting.” You don’t join the organizations. You are not a joiner. You’re a cat who walks by himself. You’ve staked out this place at the very margin of society and you just watch it. And you’re making up your own mind. So I’m very proud of you.” That was the greatest conversation we ever had. Boy, I miss him. I am sorry that I didn’t have more time with him in the years that we really understood each other.
His wife Alexandra had the most influence on him politically. She grew up in communist Romania. Her parents were high officials. In 1957 she came to the United States to study mathematics at Yale. She is a pioneer in probability theory, my beloved ex-stepmother. Eventually she decided not to go back to Romania and Ceaucescu’s government stripped her mother of high political office as Minister of Health. She became a non-person. It wasn’t easy to destroy someone like that who had hundreds of friends and people whose brain tumors she had cured. Florica Bagdasar was her name. She was a great, great doctor. But she was persecuted for thirty years for what Alexandra did. Alexandra taught us what it was to live under communism. She wasn’t doctrinaire. All she had to do was tell stories of what happened when the Nazis came, and then the Soviets. I think she was a really big political influence on Pop and his thinking.
As for my mother’s politics, one day there was a copy of Time magazine with Ronnie and Nancy on the cover. She turned it over on the table and said, “I can’t stand to look at them. They just represent wealth and privilege without conscience.” She was more of an influence when I was younger, but I came to appreciate my father’s view of the world, and I’ve largely adopted it as my own. Adam said it well. There’s a spiritual legacy? When I was down in New York staying with Adam this summer, Adam said the cats had ruined his brand new arm chair by sharpening their claws on it. I’m allergic to his cats so I said, “You know, your ex-wife really stuck with you with these cats. You know it’s time for you to put them in the cat carrier and bring them up to Boston, leave them on her porch. Ring the doorbell and tell her, ‘Here are your cats. It’s time for you to have custody of them!’ ” And he said, “You know, I really should. You sounded just like Pop just now! For a minute it could have been him sitting here.” I think we all feel like he never really left, even though he was such a pale shadow of his former self when he departed. But he was truly Pop when he was saying something particularly wicked. You grow up with it and you think it’s normal, but I’ve never met anybody like him. I’ve met lots of cool, accomplished, and famous people. I’ve never met anyone who could touch him.
 Young People’s Socialist League; IWW, or Industrial Workers of the World international union, which at its peak in 1923 boasted a membership of 300,000 workers.
 Abraham Lincoln Brigades often made up of Communist Party volunteers from the United States who were engaged as the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War. After WW II during the “red scare” in the United States, these people were thought to be security risks.
Available is the introduction to A Political Companion to Saul Bellow with the following chapter: “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,” and “Fathers and Sons: Saul Bellow’s Politics and Political Thought.”
This was originally published with the same title in A Political Companion to Saul Bellow (University of Kentucky Press, 2013).