Zachary Leader, having recently completed the second volume of his two-volume biography of Saul Bellow, discusses with his interviewer Robert Siegel the role of Jewishness in the Nobel Prize-winning author’s work and thought:
I think [Bellow] viewed [being Jewish] as an indelible fact of his life. Certainly for the first half of his life, a major part of his struggle was to gain the position of a writer who was not a hyphenate, who wasn’t limited by his background. He said, “I never felt it necessary to sacrifice one identification for another. I’ve never had to say that I was not a Canadian. I never had to say that I was not Jewish. I never had to say I was not an American.” But early on, being designated a Jewish-American writer was seen as a sort of ghettoizing. He didn’t want to be in the suburbs of literature. . . .
In the early part of his life, [Bellow] felt that the literary and academic establishment he wished to enter was dominated by WASPs and that he was at a disadvantage because of his Jewish background. There’s a famous story about when he finished as an undergraduate at Northwestern University: he asked whether he should do graduate work in English, and the head of the department said, “I don’t think it is a good idea. It isn’t your language [Bellow was born in Canada and wrote in no other language], and people would find it hard to give you the authority that you would need as a professor of English. Why don’t you do anthropology?” He did go on to study anthropology in Wisconsin. So the anti-Semitism part was there from the start.
And in the literary establishment, though it’s true that New York Jewish intellectuals were a power in the literary world, there were also the gentlemanly Southern Agrarians and the notion of New England WASP-dom. He felt he had to struggle to gain his position against anti-Semitic feeling.
Leader concludes the interview by noting that the current literary establishment has again excluded Bellow, thanks to what Bellow’s friend Allan Bloom famously called the “closing of the American mind”—in a book with a foreword written by Bellow himself.