Saul Bellow’s Political Thought

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This volume looks at the political thought and milieu of one of the great, if not the greatest, American writers in the second half of the twentieth century: Saul Bellow. Not only does Bellow confront some of the major political themes of his and our time – religious identity, race relations, and multiculturalism – but the evolution of his own political thinking from Trotskyism to neo-conservatism reflects some of the significant changes in mainstream American political thought and politics itself. In this sense, Bellow’s own political thought in his novels, short stories, and essays captures the general political shift in mainstream America from liberalism to conservatism. A closer look at Bellow’s works therefore is a closer look at America’s own political evolution.

It is also important to note that Bellow’s political thought was fundamentally rooted in philosophical and religious concerns about alienation, spirituality, and the nature of modern civilization. For Bellow, the disorienting nature of modern civilization with its materialism and misleading knowledge were to be recognized and sometimes resisted by his heroes who are often alienated and suffering from spiritual emptiness. Overwhelmed by the sheer abundance that modern civilization offers in material and sexual gratification, these Bellovian heroes struggle to find spiritual meaning either in themselves, in religious and intellectual traditions, or in embracing a flawed but potentially beautiful world. The quest of cultivating individuality and to discover meaning in a world that continues to become more homogenous and that continually drives out private life was one, if not the primary philosophical occupation in Bellow’s writings.

In Bellow’s world, European-trained and tradition-bound intellectuals are paired alongside wise-guy thugs and business conmen, creating a comic style that combines the high and the low: penetrating philosophical insights are juxtaposed with street slang and bawdy jokes. The mixture of these classes of people in Bellow’s world creates a fertile, imaginative space where we recognize not only the shallowness and distraction of the street and finance but also the dangers of intellectual solipsism and spiritual isolation. Like Charlie Citrine in Humboldt’s Gift, the world may keep “us from the large truth”; but, also like Harry Trellman in The Actual, our intellect and ideas can cut us off from humanity.

Although he bristled at being called a “Jewish writer,” Bellow heroes are often Jewish which allows him to play their tragic sense of history against American optimism. In some works, like The Adventures of Augie March and Henderson the Rain King, Bellow accents the American ethos of exploration, restlessness, and enthusiasm, while in other novels, such as The Victim, Mr. Sammler’s Planet, and Herzog, Judaism plays a defining role in the protagonists’ identities of resignation and a return to a religious tradition. But in all of his novels, Bellow not only criticizes aspects of American life, but also shows a genuine appreciation of it: an endless fascination with the uniqueness and vibrancy of this country.

 

Saul Bellow was born on June 10, 1915 in Lachine, Montreal to parents who had immigrated from St. Petersburg in 1913. However, he was raised in Humboldt Park, Chicago, after his family had moved there in 1924. As a first-generation American Jew, Saul attended Hebrew school, in addition to the Chicago public schools. When he was eight, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and therefore had to spend several months in isolation at a hospital ward. During this time he had created an imaginary world for himself and encountered Jesus and the New Testament, but refused to tell his family about it for fear of their scorn. Later, his mother died when he was seventeen. These two events – his mother’s death and his bout of tuberculosis – left him permanently scarred with a fear of death.

After graduating from high school in 1933, Bellow entered the University of Chicago and then transferred to Northwestern in 1935 to study anthropology under Melville J. Herskovits. He graduated with a B.A. with Honors in Anthropology and Sociology from Northwestern in 1937 and travelled to New York with plans to study at New York University. Instead, he returned back to Chicago that Christmas and married his first wife, Anita Goshkin, where they lived in Ravenswood. During this period, Bellow began working on Dangling Man as well as working a variety of jobs, including at the Chicago branch of the Works Progress Administration Writer’s Project. Although outnumbered by Stalinist-leaning writers, Bellow embraced Trotskyite communism as his brand of politics.

In 1940 Bellow was called up for military service and entered the Maritime Camp at Sheepshead Bay; and in 1941 he became a naturalized US citizen. In 1942 Bellow’s short stories, “Two Morning Monologues,” and “The Mexican General” appeared; and in 1944, Dangling Man was published as well as his first son, Gregory, was born. He taught at the University of Minnesota in 1946-48, with The Victim being published in 1947. Bellow was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1948, which he used to live and work in Paris in 1948-50. By 1950, he returned to New York City to teach part-time and published several short stories, such as “Looking for Mr. Green,” “By the Rock Wall,” and “Address by Gooley McDowell to the Hasbeen’s Club of Chicago.”

In 1952 Bellow received a creative writing fellowship at Princeton University; and the following year his break-out novel, The Adventures of Augie March, was published. In 1956 Bellow published Seize the Day and married his second wife, Alexandra Tschacbasov, in 1956. They had a son, Adam. Their marriage ended in divorce in 1960, with Henderson the Rain King appearing the year before. During this period, Bellow embarked on a lecture tour in Europe to recuperate from the breakup of his second marriage.

By 1961 Bellow had married Susan Glassman with his third son, Daniel, being born from this marriage. In 1962 he joined the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago and published Herzog in 1964. His play, “the Last Analysis,” opened on Broadway but quickly failed. In 1968 Bellow published his first short story collection, Mosby’s Memoirs and Other Stories, and divorced Susan Glassman that same year. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1969.

During the 1970s, Bellow published several short stories as well as the novels, Mr. Sammler’s Planet in 1970, Humboldt’s Gift, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize, in 1975, and his nonfiction account, To Jerusalem and Back, in 1976. He also married his fourth wife, Alexandra Tulcea in 1975, a marriage which would later end in divorce in 1985. It was also during this decade that Bellow walked out at San Francisco State College in 1970, after he had been booed and catcalled off the stage by student radicals and an unprotesting faculty, as well as received his Noble Prize in literature in 1976.

Bellow continued to publish novels for the next two decades: The Dean’s December in 1982; More Die of Heartbreak in 1987; A Theft and The Bellarosa Connection in 1989; The Actual in 1997; and Ravelstein in 2000. He also published a collection of short stories, Him with His Foot in His Mouth in 1984; Something to Remember Me By: Three Tales in 1991; and Collected Stories in 2001. He also continued teaching at a variety of institutions, such as Yale University, Bard College, and Boston University. Bellow married his fifth wife, Janis Freedman, in 1989 and had a daughter, Naomi. On April 5, 2005, Saul Bellow died in Brookline, Massachusetts.

Besides being awarded the Noble and Pulitzer Prize, Bellow has also been awarded the National Medals of Art in 1988 and the National Book Award three times (1954, 1965, 1971). With Philip Roth and Eudora Welty, Bellow is one of three living writers to have their works published by The Library of Congress (in 2003). His place in American letters is well-secured and it will take several years to unravel his impact not only in literature but in politics, philosophy, religion, and American studies. Our hope is that this volume will begin this task.

 

This volume is targeted at a diverse audience of scholars interested in literature, philosophy, intellectual history, religious studies, and the social sciences. Although there are a few articles that focus on a particular aspect of Bellow’s political thought, there does not exists a work that explores the range of his political thinking and the social and political milieu in which he was situated. This volume will fulfill this void in the literature about Saul Bellow, with the understanding that not every work of his will be analyzed in this book. Given the number of novels, short stories, essays, and works of non-fiction that Bellow produced, we have restricted ourselves to what we think are key developments in Bellow’s personal life and political thought as opposed to chasing down and analyzing every sentence he had written. By having some of the foremost known scholars on Bellow participating in this project, we hope that this volume will engage scholars from a variety of specialties and perspectives. We hope this volume serves as a valuable resource to scholars and students of Saul Bellow as well as members of the general public with an interest in his works and politics.

In the first chapter, “Trotskyism in the Early Works of Saul Bellow,” Judie Newman looks at the early writings of Bellow, including Dangling Man and his short stories “Two Morning Monologues,” “Mr Katz and Mr Cohen,” and “The Mexican General.” What we discover is that during this period Bellow’s own thinking evolves from Trotskyism to social democracy. However, Bellow, in his later years, reflects in Mosby’s Memoirs upon the naivety of his political youth. Yet he also recognizes that these formative experiences will never leave him and, as a consequence, he will always be engaged with a political dialogue with the Left, even when he may disagree with them.

In the second chapter, “Bellow as Jew and Jewish Writer,” the late Ben Siegel traces the history of Bellow’s early politics of Jewish identification, disaffiliation, and subsequent re-affiliation. Siegel shows how Bellow’s feelings gradually changed after the Holocaust and then again during the 1960s and 1970s. Siegel concludes with a discussion about Bellow’s revelations about his Jewish emotional code, his use of biblical allusions, and his uncomfortable feelings about becoming the “gold standard” for Jewish-American writing.

The third chapter, “Saul Bellow and the Absent Woman Syndrome: Traces of India in ‘Leaving the Yellow House,’” explores Bellow’s misogynist reputation. Contrary to the popular perception, Michael Austin argues that Bellow did portray strong female characters. By comparing the two characters, Hattie and India, Austin reveals that the Bellow is able to breakdown the traditionally-defined roles of masculine and feminine and is more open to the complexities inherent in human relationships and roles than his critics claim.

In “The Politics of Art: The Colonial Library Meets the Carnivalesque in Henderson the Rain King,” Daniel K. Muhlestein explores the role that colonial politics, specifically race, play in Bellow’s novel. Although the novel at first glance appears to reinforce the racist ideologies of colonial politics, it actually subverts these perspectives through the carnivalesque and grotesque elements in the novel. Adopting the theory of Bakhtin in his analysis of the novel, Muhlestein contends that these comic elements undermine the ideological discourse of colonial politics, thereby revealing the limitations of such views.

In the fifth chapter, Carol R. Smith, “The Jewish Atlantic – The Deployment of Blackness in Saul Bellow,” continues Bellow’s understandings of race with an examination of Henderson the Rain King, Humboldt’s Gift, and Mr. Sammler’s Planet. In these works, Smith argues, Bellow conceives of America in the liberal humanist tradition of the Enlightenment and as the place of refuge from lands of oppression. However, the presence of African-Americans underscores the racial understanding of this liberal humanist tradition as white assimilation. The implication is that Bellow’s commitment to this liberal humanist tradition creates complication, as he himself recognized, with the continual presence of African-Americans in this country.

Victoria Aarons in “’Washed up on the Shores of Truth’: Saul Bellow’s Post-Holocaust America” examines the presence of the Holocaust in Bellow’s works The Victim and Mr. Sammler’s Planet. For Bellow, the Holocaust exposes not only the moral bankruptcy of modern civilization, but it is also the failure of the intellect to imagine a world where ideas and culture can be regenerative. In other words, the Holocaust reveals a failure of reason and demonstrable proof that humans are capable of unlimited forms of pathological justification. In both novels, New York City becomes the living graveyard of a war-torn Europe that is teetering on despair.

In the seventh chapter, “Mr. Sammler’s Planet: Saul Bellow’s 1968 Speech at San Francisco State University,” Andy Gordon discusses the relationship between the fictional event in the novel and the actual event at San Francisco State. By the late 1960s, Bellow is now seen as the defender of a cultural conservatism against the New Left of student protest and multicultural politics. Gordon ultimately concludes that the New Left personified here as Floyd Salas, was not nearly as destructive or threatening to western civilization as Bellow had made him out to be.

In chapter eight, “Biography, Elegy, and the Politics of Modernity in Saul Bellow Ravelstein,” Willis Salmon illustrates how the actual friendship between Allan Bloom and Saul Bellow is shown in the novel to be an intellectual response to the cultural Left’s political correctness. Whereas Ravelstein represents the philosophical and intellectual tradition of the western tradition, Chick embodies the literary and aesthetic values of civilization. The novel’s elegiac mode is a type of appeal to see how one can contribute to western tradition and see that tradition can continue.

Chapter nine comprises a series of interviews with sons, Gregory, Adam, and Daniel Bellow. In these interviews, Gloria L. Cronin examines different periods in their father’s life and how his politics had evolved over the years. From the early years of the Partisan Review to his latter views of neo-conservatism, Cronin is able to elicit from these interviews fascinating and telling details about Bellow’s life, politics, and political thought.

The final chapter is a bibliography composed by Gloria L. Cronin that reviews the major secondary criticism of Saul Bellow’s works with a focus on his politics and political thought. Here we see Bellow’s evolution from Trotskyite communism to neo-conservatism, with several articles dealing with his views on class, race, and gender as well as Israel, American Jews, and the Holocaust. Including books, dissertation, articles, and reviews, this is an excellent resource for scholars who want to explore more about Bellow’s own political thinking.

 

Ultimately what we will discover is that the genius of Saul Bellow is such that neither his work nor his biography can be reduced to a purely political investigation; rather, as Andrew Gordon writes in this volume, “the proper subject matter of the writer [Bellow] was not politics but the soul.” Bellow’s political thought is not one of a political scientist or philosopher but as an artist who is wary of abstractions in favor of the concrete and of the complexity of life. From these chapters we see a Bellow who is sensible, skeptical of public life, and hopeful of the values of civilization continuing. Although he may at times be naïve, sexist, and racist, Saul Bellow rejects the tragic conception of life for one of love, decency, and contemplation.

Again, we hope that this volume will introduce a broader conversation about Saul Bellow’s political thought in both the academy and among the public. We do not claim that this is the definitive account of Bellow’s political thought; rather, we think it is the beginning of our exploration of it. We look forward to future books, articles, and essays on this topic. But for now, let us seize the day.

Available is A Political Companion to Saul Bellow with the following chapters: “Our Father’s Politics: Gregory, Adam, and Daniel Bellow” and “Biography, Elegy, and the Politics of Modernity in Saul Bellow’s Ravelstein”; also see “The Search to be Human in Dangling Man,” “Transformative Love and The Recovery of Tradition in Mr. Sammler’s Planet,” 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).

Lee Trepanier and Gloria Cronin

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Lee Trepanier is a Professor of Political Science at Saginaw Valley State University and Gloria Cronin is a Professor of English at Brigham Young University.