Does Saul Bellow (1915-2005) need an introduction? Nobel laureate, three-time National Book Award winner, famed for his capacious mind and his profoundly idiosyncratic, sky-reaching prose, a lifelong generator of personal and public controversy, Bellow was also the unrivaled paragon, during his life and after his death, of American Jewish letters. This, notwithstanding his own caustic quip on the subject in 1969: "This tendency to turn [Bernard] Malamud, [Philip] Roth, and me into the Hart, Schaffner & Marx of American literature is ridiculous."
The clever reference to a men's haberdasher aside, there can be no doubt that, whatever other roles he played, from the beginning of his literary life Bellow was deeply concerned with the fate of the Jews and affairs of the Jewish mind. Or was he? Readers of the massive new collection of the novelist's letters might be forgiven for wondering in what sense Bellow was a Jewish writer at all. Yes, throughout the early correspondence, Yiddish words and phrases (and even Hebrew ones) are copiously sprinkled amid the lavish brilliancies of his private prose. And yes, many if not most of the letters pass back and forth between Bellow and other Jews, and they are often devoted to discussing (and dissecting) still other Jews. But until almost his fortieth year, at least in this collection, Bellow scarcely mentions his religious and cultural origins in any overt manner, let alone any issue of Jewish public affairs.
There is, of course, no obligation on an artist to vaunt his ethnic background or affiliations or thoughts. But it does seem puzzling that the author of so much foundational work in the genre of Jewish-American fiction should be so reticent—or so cagey—on the subject. Consider this passage from a 1950 letter to his editor Monroe Engel, outlining his thinking about his major work-in-progress, The Adventures of Augie March (the Jewishness of whose eponymous hero would likewise go all but unmentioned in the resultant novel):
My own figure for the shape of the book is that of a widening spiral that begins in the parish, ghetto, slum, and spreads into the greater world, and there Augie comes to the fore because of the multiplication of people around him and the greater difficulty of experience.
Behind these words lurks the answerless question of assimilation, one of the most fruitful subjects in all of Jewish literature—not just American, and not just contemporary. And yet no hint of that issue is so much as breathed. One can posit a number of more or less innocent reasons for this: that Bellow, himself fully immersed in Yiddishkeit, felt the subject needed no extended treatment, or that for him the specific situation of American Jews was a matter of purely private interest. But such considerations hardly deterred other Jewish writers of the time, starting with his colleagues in the "triumvirate." Whence Bellow's reticence?
And, no less intriguing, whence his later volubility? For there is no question that, once the subject of the Jews does enter his letters, he worries it with all the considerable power of his intellect and personal magnetism—not to mention his vanity and thin-skinned narcissism. In the late 1970s, during the administration of Jimmy Carter, Bellow signed a public statement protesting the policies of then-Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin. When the statement and its signatories came under criticism, he aired his petulance in a letter to Leon Wieseltier:
You put your name to a document and get a free bathysphere ride through the oceans of Jewish opinion and emotion. . . . Begin was awful on his last trip here. . . . It isn't so much that he's wrong on the issues, he's not; but he doesn't know how to lead the discussion. And imagine the Jews being outdone by a Carter. What can explain that but hysteria and disorder in the Jewish ranks.
The younger Bellow would not, one suspects, have mixed himself up in the contorted internal politics of his fellow Jews. But here, in a letter written nine years after he had rejected the mantle of "Jewish writer," his attention appears to have been captured in a new way by the Jews, an irritating human species with whom he shares a half-exasperated, half-solicitous, wholly undeniable bond. It is almost as if he were beginning to feel responsible for them. This new attitude would become all the more salient in a grudging but real confession of personal dereliction nine years later:
It's perfectly true that "Jewish Writers in America" (a repulsive category!) missed what should have been for them the central event of their time, the destruction of the European Jewry. . . . We (I speak of Jews now and not merely of writers) should have reckoned more fully, more deeply with it. . . . I was too busy becoming a novelist to take note of what was happening in the Forties.
Thus Bellow wrote to Cynthia Ozick in 1987, responding to her novel The Messiah of Stockholm. In still later years, as both his correspondence and his books testify, he would do more to reckon "more fully, more deeply" with the Jewish fate.
Explicitly or implicitly, Saul Bellow wrote some of the most profound treatments in fiction of the Jewish experience in the modern world: consider only The Victim (1947), Mr. Sammler's Planet (1970), and the stories "Cousins," "The Bellarosa Connection," and "Something to Remember Me By." At the same time, he never ceased struggling against being pigeonholed artistically. A student almost unsurpassed of "human beings, some of whom happen to be Jews," he resisted, at first fiercely, later resignedly, the narrowing impulse of literary gatekeepers to put him safely away in a box, whether socioethnic or, when he dared to question the pieties of multiculturalism, political. Was he wrong? Even in pluralist America, it seems, you can't have things both ways—not even if you possess the skill, stamina, and boundless determination of a Saul (né Solomon) Bellow.
Sam Munson is the author of The November Criminals, published recently by Doubleday. Read his feature on Gary Shteyngart and contemporary Russian-Jewish writers here.
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