In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Saul Bellow

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies
  • Biographies, Memoirs, and Personal Reminiscences
  • Journals
  • Archives and Manuscript Study
  • Interviews
  • Correspondence
  • Reception
  • Historical and Cultural Contexts
  • Bellow and Other Writers

American Literature Saul Bellow
by
Allan R. Chavkin
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 July 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0213

Introduction

Over a career of six decades, Saul Bellow (1915–2005) published novels, short stories, essays, and plays that attracted immense attention from the public and the literary establishment. The value of his creative work was recognized with numerous awards, including three National Book Awards, a Pulitzer Prize, and the Nobel Prize for Literature. The fourth child of Jewish parents who immigrated from Russia, Bellow spent the first years of his life in Lachine, Canada, before he and his family moved in 1924 to Chicago. After graduating from Northwestern University in 1937, he spent a semester at the University of Wisconsin studying anthropology but quit his graduate study to become a writer. In 1938 Bellow married the first of his five wives. In 1944 he published his first novel, Dangling Man, a novel of existential alienation. Three years later he published The Victim, a novel about anti-Semitism, but it was his next novel, The Adventures of Augie March (1953), that catapulted Bellow from relative obscurity to being regarded as one of the most important living American writers. This long picaresque novel was narrated by its larky eponymous hero in a vivid, colloquial style. Herzog (1964) secured his reputation as one of America’s foremost writers. With its complex style that captures the interior life, the novel was a surprising bestseller. The publication of Humboldt’s Gift (1975) was probably instrumental in his being awarded the Nobel Prize the following year. In this complicated novel with its inextricable blending of high and low culture and many flashbacks, the narrator ruminates on widely divergent subjects and describes his comic involvement with a variety of colorful people, especially the poet Von Humboldt Fleisher, modeled on Delmore Schwartz, and the gangster Rinaldo Cantabile. Bellow continued to publish for the next twenty-five years, but like John Updike and some other white male writers of his generation, Bellow’s reputation was hurt to some extent by critics upset by his white masculine-centered orientation. His popularity with the public and with critics is less than it was at the high point of his career in the decades of the 1960s and 1970s, but he is still regarded as one of the major 20th-century American writers. His fiction is known for its unique narrative voice, its ability to portray the intricacies of human consciousness, its metaphysical speculation, and its comedy.

General Overviews

Despite the massive amount of criticism on Bellow, no single study examines all of his work. Malin 1969 is organized according to five key topics; this early study does not include commentary on works after Herzog. Porter 1974 examines the novels chronologically through Mr. Sammler’s Planet. Rodriguez 1981 examines the novels chronologically through Humboldt’s Gift but has deliberately eschewed any specific critical methodology. Wilson 1985 examines the works chronologically through The Dean’s December and in contrast to Porter and other critics argues that the novels are not affirmative but dark. Glenday 1990 argues that critics have overemphasized Bellow’s humanism, while Kiernan 1989, examining all of Bellow’s work through More Die of Heartbreak, sees modest affirmations emerging from his short stories and novels. With chapters on all of the novels except for Ravelstein, Pifer 1990 argues that Bellow’s heroes are torn between religious faith and reason, but ultimately choose what Sammler calls “God Adumbrations.” Bradbury 1982 and Hyland 1992 have written brief but excellent books that provide good overviews. Bradbury 1982 examines the novels through The Dean’s December, while Hyland 1992 discusses all of the novels with the exception of Ravelstein and also examines the short stories and the novellas A Theft and The Bellarosa Connection. Connelly 2016 uses a dictionary format with entries on major topics in Bellow’s canon.

  • Bradbury, Malcolm. Saul Bellow. London and New York: Methuen, 1982.

    E-mail Citation »

    Brief but lucid book in which Bradbury discusses in chronological order Bellow’s novels from Dangling Man through The Dean’s December. Argues that Bellow with his belief in the self is not a postmodernist, and that after his first two novels with their somber outlook, comedy informed his work.

  • Connelly, Mark. Saul Bellow: A Literary Companion. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2016.

    E-mail Citation »

    Very useful work that is unique in Bellow scholarship. The work is organized alphabetically and includes detailed summaries of Bellow’s works, entries on fictional characters, important people in Bellow’s life, and key topics. Also included are selections from Bellow’s interviews that are organized by topics, lists of further reading, an appendix with a list of research topics, and a detailed bibliography.

  • Glenday, Michael K. Saul Bellow and the Decline of Humanism. London: Macmillan, 1990.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-349-10774-2E-mail Citation »

    Claims that critics have overemphasized Bellow’s humanism; in fact, Bellow’s protagonists are unable to find humanist enlightenment in contemporary society.

  • Hyland, Peter. Saul Bellow. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-349-22109-7E-mail Citation »

    After the opening chapter which provides an overview of Bellow’s life and career, discusses the novels chronologically, according to the decade in which they were published, as for example “Novels of the Forties.” There is a chapter on the short stories and a concluding chapter on Bellow’s literary status. The writing is clear and insightful.

  • Kiernan, Robert F. Saul Bellow. New York: Continuum, 1989.

    E-mail Citation »

    In lucid prose analyzes all of Bellow’s fiction, including his short stories, with the exception of work that was published after More Die of Heartbreak in 1987. A thorough and perceptive book.

  • Malin, Irving. Saul Bellow’s Fiction. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1969.

    E-mail Citation »

    After examining in the first chapter “Two Morning Monologues” as an introduction to Bellow’s fictional universe, explores in subsequent chapters Bellow’s themes, characters, images, styles, and the novel Herzog. There is a short final chapter which concludes that Seize the Day is Bellow’s greatest achievement.

  • Pifer, Ellen. Saul Bellow Against the Grain. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990.

    E-mail Citation »

    Presents readings of Bellow’s novella A Theft and all of his full-length novels with the exception of his last novel Ravelstein. Argues that Bellow’s heroes are conflicted as they wrestle with the claims of faith and reason with the former gaining the upper hand, and Bellow becoming disenchanted with materialism and rational thought. Illuminating discussion of Seize the Day in conjunction with “Mosby’s Memoirs.”

  • Porter, M. Gilbert. Whence the Power? The Artistry and Humanity of Saul Bellow. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1974.

    E-mail Citation »

    Places Bellow’s work in the tradition of American transcendentalism with its emphasis on the affirmative tone of celebration. Examines the novels chronologically from Dangling Man through Mr. Sammler’s Planet.

  • Rodriguez, Eusebio L. Quest for the Human: An Exploration of Saul Bellow’s Fiction. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 1981.

    E-mail Citation »

    Discusses each of the novels from Dangling Man through Humboldt’s Gift. The protagonists are in search of the human. Explanations of the influence of Wilhelm Reich on Seize the Day and Henderson the Rain King are illuminating.

  • Wilson, Jonathan. On Bellow’s Planet: Readings from the Dark Side. Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1985.

    E-mail Citation »

    Presents readings of Bellow’s novels from Dangling Man through The Dean’s December. Argues that contrary to what many critics believe, Bellow’s novels do not affirm life. In Bellow’s dark novels, the world is a hostile place, and his protagonists are dangling men who act contrary to their ideas and values.

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