While the novelist Saul Bellow once referred to the phrase “Jewish writers in America”—often used to include himself, Bernard Malamud, and Philip Roth—as “a repulsive category,” he remained unwavering in his commitment to the Jewish people. Cynthia Ozick, reviewing a collection of Bellow’s letters, writes about why his work endures, and about his place as a Jewish writer:
[T]here was personal warmth and varying degrees of literary admiration for his confederates in the triumvirate he parodied as “Hart, Schaffner & Marx,” a quip that has survived the decades. What reluctantly united all three—Bellow, Roth, Malamud—was a concept imposed on them by the celebrity-sloganeering of the journalists: “American Jewish writers.” But the link was both superficial and specious: each invented his own mythos and imagined his own republic of letters. It was not the complexity of heritage Bellow was resisting in his tailor-made mockery, but its reduction to a narrowing palliative, nowadays fashionably termed “identity.” . . .
[W]hen, not yet out of their teens, Bellow and Isaac Rosenfeld dissolved the solemn ironies of T.S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” into a hilariously lampooning Yiddish ditty, it may have marked the signal moment when writers born Jewish and awakened into America would refuse to be refused by Western history.
Bellow’s capacity for what might (in quick march) be called Jewish intelligence summoned deeps far beyond where the journalists could follow: the literary talent that rose up, in puzzling if impressive flocks, out of what appeared to be a low immigrant culture. Bellow was distinctive in transcending—transgressing against—the archetype of the coarse and unlettered ghetto greenhorn. The greenhorns in their humble trades were aware that they were carriers of a moral civilization. (“You are too intelligent for this,” [the title character of Herzog] protests to his vaporously over-theorizing friend Shapiro. “Your father had rich blood. He peddled apples.”)
Though he had repeatedly declared himself, as an American, free to choose according to will or desire, Bellow also chose not to be disaffected. He was in possession of an inherited literacy that few novelists of Jewish background, writers of or close to his generation, could match, however sophisticated otherwise they might be. His range spanned an inclusive continuum . . . ; Western learning and literature had also to mean Jewish learning and literature. He was at home in biblical Hebrew, was initiated into the liturgy from early childhood, and read and spoke (always with relish) a supple Yiddish.