Saul Bellow, Jewish Literature, and Democratic Civilization

April 22, 2015 | Ruth Wisse
About the author:

Reviewing the first volume of Zachary Leader’s new biography of Saul Bellow, Ruth Wisse discusses the novelist’s debt to earlier Jewish writers and the political implications of his fiction:

In fact, one of the prototypes for [the title character of The Adventures of Augie March] may have come to Bellow early on when his father read the Yiddish works of Sholem Aleichem aloud to his family. Often likened to Huckleberry Finn, Augie may be more similar to [a Sholem Aleichem character:] Motl Peysi, the Cantor’s Son. When Motl’s father dies in the opening chapter, the boy exults, “I am lucky, I’m an orphan!” and describes how adults who would otherwise have punished his mischief protect and nurture him now that he is fatherless. Similarly, fatherless Augie is adopted by a succession of guides and guardians who engender in him none of the guilt that oppresses Bellow’s filial protagonists. Motl’s adventures circa 1906 take him from Europe to America, while Augie’s take him in the opposite direction, into postwar Europe. And yet Augie confronts the devastation of his people without any apparent Jewish awareness. Bellow released his hero from both familial and Jewish duty. . . .

In the years that followed [the publication of Herzog in 1964], Bellow’s critics condemned him for his insistence on civilization, which offended those whom his “reactionary” and “bourgeois” civilization allegedly oppressed. His anti-radical wit enraged the radicals. The pipsqueaks of forlornness objected to his easy optimism. Already the appearance of this biography, which ends with Herzog, is being used in some quarters as an excuse for reviving attacks on the fearlessly confrontational Bellow of Mr. Sammler’s Planet, published in 1970.

This proves, if proof is needed, how much Saul Bellow matters to our democratic society, which ignores its own fragility when it is not fortified by reminders of what individual freedom requires. Bellow believed that the novel was best equipped to deliver those reminders, and that he was destined to write them.

Read more on Commentary: