Author Depicted Men’s Spiritual Crises

Times Staff Writers

Saul Bellow, the Nobel Prize-winning giant of American letters whose erudite writing portrayed men in the throes of profound spiritual crisis in a dangerous, even brutal world, died Tuesday. He was 89.

Bellow died at his home in Brookline, Mass., said his lawyer and longtime friend, Walter Pozen, who added that the author had been in failing health for some time but was mentally sharp to the end. Bellow’s wife, Janis, and their young daughter, Naomi Rose, were with him when he died.

Widely regarded as one of the most important novelists and thinkers of the post-World War II era, Bellow also won three National Book Awards and a Pulitzer Prize.


“The backbone of 20th century American literature has been provided by two novelists -- William Faulkner and Saul Bellow,” novelist Philip Roth said Tuesday. “Together they are the Melville, Hawthorne and Twain of the 20th century.”

Novelist, critic and essayist Cynthia Ozick said Bellow was “a fearless writer and a genius.”

“He dealt with ideas, where most American authors are afraid of ideas,” Ozick told The Times on Tuesday. “His language was both mandarin and the language of the street, together. Before him, we’ve had one or the other, but not both at once.”

In awarding him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1976, the Swedish Academy cited his “exuberant ideas” and added that his work displayed “flashing irony, hilarious comedy and burning compassion.”

His typical hero, the academy said, is one “who keeps trying to find a foothold during his wanderings in our tottering world, one who can never relinquish his faith that the value of life depends on its dignity, not its success.”

More than a quarter of a century after his Nobel, Bellow was still considered at the top of the literary heap. All told, he wrote 10 novels, as well as novellas, short stories, plays, literary criticism and nonfiction. He was writing impressively well into his later years, most notably in the novel “Ravelstein,” which was published in 2000 when he was 85.


Many of his books are considered autobiographical, and the dominant characters have Bellow’s own characteristics. They generally live amid the clamor of cities like Chicago and New York. Ambition, money, success, sexual conquests and death are the dreams and nightmares that haunt them. And, in the way he treated those themes, he became known as “a man’s writer.” Yet, as Morris Dickstein, an English professor at City University of New York, said: “Bellow was important for the way he broke with the hard-boiled Hemingway-style tradition in American literature for one that was more interior, reflective and psychological.”

Speaking of Bellow’s characters, Ozick said Tuesday: They “were true presences, each one utterly idiosyncratic. His physical descriptions were so original. He once described somebody’s head ‘coated with flour.’ It was a metaphor for white hair.”

In novels like “The Adventures of Augie March,” which many consider his masterpiece, and other works, Bellow explored monumental themes, from identity and fulfillment to morality.

In “Augie March,” the title character drifts from job to job, dreaming up ever more grandiose schemes for making it big in the world without compromising his optimistic vision.

In “Herzog,” Moses Elkanah Herzog, a cuckolded English professor, frantically tries to shore up his disintegrating life.

Charles Citraine, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author and narrator of “Humboldt’s Gift,” faces his career in a free fall but finds some measure of peace through meditating on the life and death of his friend Von Humboldt Fleischer.


In “Henderson the Rain King,” Eugene Henderson is a millionaire’s son, violent in both love and hate who is squandering his life with drink while trying desperately to understand the voice in his head that proclaims, “I want, I want, I want.”

“One of the key themes of his fiction,” critic Alfred Kazin wrote early in Bellow’s career, “ ... is the attempt of his protagonists to get a grip on existence, to understand not themselves (they know that this is impossible) but the infinitely elusive universe in which, as human creatures, they find themselves.”

But for all the difficulties his characters face, much of Bellow’s fiction is doggedly optimistic, a reproach to the prophets of the wasteland who proclaim life’s absurdity.

In his Nobel acceptance speech, Bellow criticized modern writers for their limited view of mankind, commenting that the essence of our condition was revealed in what Marcel Proust and Joseph Conrad termed “true impressions.” Although they may be fleeting, Bellow said, the impressions connect us to the fact that “the good we hang onto so tenaciously -- in the face of evil, so obstinately -- is not illusion.”

In his view, modern writers should aim for a “broader, more flexible, fuller, more coherent, more comprehensive account of what we human beings are and what this life is for.”

The writer was born Solomon Bellow on June 10, 1915, in Lachine in the Canadian province of Quebec, the youngest of four children of Abraham and Liza Bellow, Russian Jews who had emigrated from St. Petersburg. Abraham Bellow was an onion importer in Russia. But in the slums of Montreal, where Saul grew up, the elder Bellow failed at a variety of moneymaking schemes, including bootlegging. The family’s poverty was dire.


Saul nearly died at the age of 8 when he developed peritonitis and pneumonia after undergoing an emergency appendectomy. Doctors feared the onset of tuberculosis and kept the boy hospitalized for six months.

Soon after he left the hospital, the family moved to Chicago, where a relative had offered Saul’s father a job. For young Bellow, the move was auspicious, because he would always consider himself a Chicagoan. During his illness and recuperation, Bellow became a voracious reader who devoured the classics and works by more contemporary authors such as Sherwood Anderson and Theodore Dreiser. He also learned several languages, including English, French, Hebrew and Yiddish.

His mother, who wanted him to be a rabbi or a violinist, died when Bellow was 17. The next year he graduated from high school and enrolled at the University of Chicago, but transferred to Northwestern University. He graduated in 1937 with honors in anthropology and sociology and won a scholarship for graduate study in anthropology at the University of Wisconsin.

Fueled by his avid reading and intellectual bent, Bellow set out as a teenager to become a serious writer. His interest in anthropology and sociology in college was more a sign of expedience, considering the anti-Semitism found in many leading English departments at the time.

Despite his graduate scholarship, Bellow dropped out to pursue his writing. Over the next several years, he worked on short stories, first publishing in the Partisan Review in 1941.

While a merchant seaman during World War II, Bellow wrote his first novel, “Dangling Man,” the diary of a draft-eligible young Chicagoan who falls into a deep depression while pondering the meaning of life and freedom. He snaps out of his malaise and renounces his troublesome freedom by going to the draft board and enlisting.


The book was published in 1944. Writer and critic Edmund Wilson called it “one of the most honest pieces of testimony on the psychology of a whole generation.”

“The Victim,” Bellow’s next novel, was his effort to address anti-Semitism and Jewish guilt. In this work, the main character, Asa Leventhal, is confronted by an acquaintance, a Gentile, who claims that Leventhal was the cause of him losing his job. The novel was published in 1947 when Bellow was teaching English at the University of Minnesota.

A year later, Bellow was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, which freed him to work on his next book while living in Paris. He began writing “The Crab and the Butterfly” but never finished it.

More important, he started work on what would become “The Adventures of Augie March,” which Roth on Tuesday said “remains the most inspiring American novel I’ve ever read.”

“Nobody has topped Bellow at writing a novel about a city-bred American and probably nobody will,” he said.

At a time when Jewish authors were still categorized as immigrant and ethnic artists, Bellow forced his way into the major ranks of American literature. Though his prose and subject matter reflected his roots, he sought to be viewed less as a Jewish writer than as a writer who happened to be Jewish.


But he was also fully aware of the biases he had to overcome. And those realizations had a profound effect on him.

“It was made clear to me when I studied literature in the university that as a Jew and the son of Russian Jews, I would probably never have the right feeling for Anglo-Saxon traditions, for English words,” Bellow told an interviewer some years ago. As Roth noted in an article for the New Yorker in October 2000, the literary establishment of mid-20th century America gave Bellow the feeling that “a son of immigrant Jews was unfit to write books in English.”

“These guys infuriated him,” Roth added.

It may have been that fury that led Bellow to open his third novel, “Augie March,” this way: “I am an American, Chicago born.”

Roth said that the use of those words, flatly stated without apologies or hyphenation, was “precisely the bold stroke required to abolish anyone’s doubts about the American writing credentials of an immigrant son like Saul Bellow.”

A dynamic and exuberant work, the book marked a break from the spare, correct style of Bellow’s earlier novels, which the author later viewed with disdain.

Augie is a wanderer who seeks a worthwhile fate while staying within the boundaries of what he calls the “axial lines of life,” which offer: “Truth, love, peace, bounty, usefulness, harmony.”


While facing challenges to his freedom, optimism and idealism, Augie stands firm, which underscores the book’s overall affirmative vision.

As Augie concludes when he doesn’t get the fate he ultimately imagined: “Columbus, too, thought he was a flop, probably, when they sent him back in chains. Which didn’t prove there was no America.”

Bellow pointedly used everyday speech in his writing, as a way to distance himself from the literary establishment. “Why should I force myself to write like an Englishman or a contributor to the New Yorker?” Bellow told the Paris Review some years ago.

In “Augie March,” Bellow made the lives of Jews a subject for mainstream American literature.

He did this, critic Joan Acocella wrote in an essay in the New Yorker, by “decontextualizing” his characters from the Jewish experience. She said that anti-Semitism, which was central to Bellow’s early novel “The Victim,” “is mentioned only in passing in ‘Augie,’ nor is there any effort to make the Jews [in ‘Augie March’] seem more high-minded or likely to suffer than anyone else.”

Dickstein, the City University of New York professor, said the author was successful in this effort: “Bellow transformed Jewish literature into American literature.”


“The Adventures of Augie March” thrust Bellow into the literary limelight and earned him the National Book Award in 1954.

“Seize the Day,” a tragic, tightly controlled novella published in 1956, came next. Its hero, middle-aged Tommy Wilhelm, is still trying to win his father’s approval and find his own identity by attaining what his father admires most -- wealth. The book concludes with Wilhelm weeping at the funeral of someone he did not know.

Critics regard “Seize the Day” as Bellow’s least optimistic major work, but critic Barbara Gitenstein saw affirmation in Wilhelm’s despair: “The beauty of humanity is not revealed in the predatory stalking for materialistic gain but rather in the prayer over the corpse of a stranger.”

In 1959 Bellow published “Henderson the Rain King,” which was another hit with critics. Norman Podhoretz called it “endlessly fertile in invention and idea” and “the most brilliantly written novel” in years.

Bellow loved the book and said Henderson, “the absurd seeker of higher qualities,” was the character most like himself. “What Henderson is really seeking,” he said, “is a remedy to the anxiety over death.”

In 1964, Bellow published “Herzog,” viewed by many as his most personal novel. It earned him a National Book Award in 1965.


Like Bellow, Moses Elkanah Herzog is a Jewish university professor who grew up poor in Montreal and lost his mother while young. A comical, brilliant, sometimes pathetic figure, he is an intellectual with severe marital and money troubles that combine with his reflective nature to push him almost to insanity.

Much of the book concerns Herzog’s frantic letter-writing to friends and enemies, the famous and the obscure, the living and the dead. And in those letters Bellow displays, perhaps more than anywhere else, the staggering range of his erudition.

“It seems to me that Bellow has written his best book,” Kazin wrote, “and incidentally the book of his generation and mine.”

In the New York Review of Books, V.S. Pritchett wrote that Bellow was now “the most rewarding of living American novelists.”

Six years later Bellow published “Mr. Sammler’s Planet,” the tale of a cultured Holocaust survivor who faces the physical and spiritual violence of contemporary New York City. The novel is an indignant depiction of a contemporary world that appears to be coming apart at the seams and moves from action to reflection as Sammler attempts to make sense of it all. The novel won Bellow his third National Book Award in 1971.

As he would say at various times about many of his books, Bellow called “Mr. Sammler’s Planet” his favorite work.


“I had a high degree of excitement writing it ... and finished in record time,” he told Life magazine years ago. “It’s my first thoroughly nonapologetic venture into ideas.”

“Humboldt’s Gift” took Bellow eight years to write and won him a Pulitzer, although he had written in the 1975 novel that “the Pulitzer is for the birds -- for the pullets. It’s just a dummy newspaper publicity award given by crooks and illiterates.”

Bellow would describe “Humboldt’s Gift” as a “comic book about death.”

“It is a crazy novel, deeply in earnest,” critic Bruce Cook wrote in the National Observer, calling it a “meditation on mortality and immortality that is interrupted intermittently and hilariously with farcical action.”

In his 2000 biography of Bellow, writer James Atlas wrote that “Humboldt’s Gift” marked “the inauguration of Bellow’s late style [of writing] ... exuberant and freewheeling.”

In 1976, Bellow became the seventh American to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

After winning the Nobel, Bellow continued his prolific output with books that included “To Jerusalem and Back: A Personal Account” (1976), “The Dean’s December” (1981), “Him With His Foot in His Mouth & Other Stories” (1984) and “More Die of Heartbreak” (1987). His work from 1987 on mainly consisted of shorter works -- the novella “A Theft” was published in 1989 -- and a collection of short stories, “Something to Remember Me By,” which was published in 1991. His most substantial work during this period was “Ravelstein.”

Its publication created a furor for Bellow. In the book, Ravelstein, a closeted homosexual, dies of causes associated with AIDS.


The character, as Bellow freely admitted, was based on Allan Bloom, the conservative philosopher and author of “The Closing of the American Mind.” Bloom, a close friend of Bellow’s, died in 1992 of what was reported as liver failure.

Many critics saw “Ravelstein” as an “outing” of Bloom, a charge Bellow repeatedly and heatedly denied, noting in Time magazine: “Writing a novel in some ways resembles writing a biography, but it really isn’t. It is full of invention.”

Over the years, Bellow became more critical of the mainstream of intellectual and political thought in the United States. He abhorred political correctness and cultural relativism. He dealt with a variety of social issues in his essays and through lectures. “It All Adds Up: From the Dim Past to the Uncertain Future,” a collection of his essays, is considered his best nonfiction work.

“Since the 1960s,” Atlas wrote in his biography, “Bellow has become increasingly identified with the neoconservatives who ... had fled the ranks of liberal intellectuals. Bellow was no ideologue.”

In the Times Literary Supplement, Julian Symons observed years ago:

“In the United States, Saul Bellow has, for the past 20 years and more, been saying unpopular things about American culture in general, and about the relationship between the society and its literature in particular.

“When he says American intellectuals are becoming more and more alike, and ‘often as philistine as the masses from which they have emerged,’ he has to be listened to.”


Other critics found Bellow’s positions shrill.

In reviewing “Saul Bellow: A Biography of the Imagination” by Ruth Miller for the Los Angeles Times in 1991, novelist Joyce Carol Oates wrote that Bellow “has grown increasingly reactionary; his diatribes against the current state of literature, indeed of humanity in general, are well-known.” She said it was as if Bellow “fears the emergence of voices and visions distinct from his own.”

In May 1993, Bellow gave up his long teaching association with the University of Chicago for New England and a teaching post at Boston University. He told a Chicago Tribune reporter that he wanted to be closer to his other home in Vermont.

Bellow, who was handsome and dapper, was married five times. In the late 1980s, he wed Janis Freedman, a former student with a PhD in humanities who was more than 40 years his junior. He became a father again at the age of 84 with the birth of their daughter.

In addition to his wife and daughter, he is survived by three sons from previous marriages, Gregory, Adam and Daniel, and six grandchildren.

A private funeral and a public memorial are being planned, Pozen said.

Daniel Akst contributed to this coverage while a member of The Times’ staff.



Selected works by Saul Bellow


Dangling Man, 1944

The Victim, 1947

The Adventures of Augie March, 1953

Henderson the Rain King, 1959

Herzog, 1964

Mr. Sammler’s Planet, 1970

Humboldt’s Gift, 1975

The Dean’s December, 1981

More Die of Heartbreak, 1987

Ravelstein, 2000

Volumes of short stories

Mosby’s Memoirs, and Other Stories, 1968

Him with His Foot in His Mouth, and Other Stories, 1984

Collected Stories, 2001


The Wrecker, 1954

The Last Analysis, a Play, 1964

Under the Weather, 1966

Nonfiction and novellas

Seize the Day, 1956

Like You’re Nobody: The Letters of Louis Gallo to Saul Bellow, 1961-1962, plus Oedipus Schmoedipus, the Story That Started It All, 1966

The Portable Saul Bellow, 1974

To Jerusalem and Back: A Personal Account, 1976

A Theft , 1989

The Bellarosa Connection, 1989

Something to Remember Me By: Three Tales, 1991

It All Adds Up: From the Dim Past to the Uncertain Future, 1994

The Actual, 1997

Novels, 1944-1953, 2003

Los Angeles Times



Excerpts from Saul Bellow’s work

The Adventures of Augie March

I am an American, Chicago born -- Chicago, that somber city -- and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record for my own way: first to knock, first admitted: sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes not so innocent. But a man’s character is his fate, says Heraclitus, and in the end there isn’t any way to disguise the nature of the knocks by acoustical work on the door or gloving the knuckles.


... My own parents were not much to me, though I cared for my mother. She was simple-minded, and what I learned from her was not what she taught, but on the order of object lessons. She didn’t have much to teach, poor woman. My brothers and I loved her....

Humboldt’s Gift

The book of ballads published by Von Humboldt Fleisher in the Thirties was an immediate hit. Humboldt was just what everyone had been waiting for. Out in the Midwest I had certainly been waiting eagerly, I can tell you that. An avant-garde writer, the first of a new generation, he was handsome, fair, large, serious, witty and he learned. The guy had it all....

... Now as to Humboldt’s actual death: he died at the Ilscombe around the corner from the Belasco. On his last night, as I have reconstructed it, he was sitting on his bed in this decayed place, probably reading. The books in his room were the poems of Yeats and Hegel’s Phenomenology. In addition to these visionary authors he read the Daily News and the Post. He kept up with sports and with night life, with the jet set and the activities of the Kennedy family, with used-car prices and want ads. Ravaged as he was he maintained his normal American interests.

Seize the Day

When it came to concealing his troubles, Tommy Wilhelm was not less capable than the next fellow. So at least he thought, and there was a certain amount of evidence to back him up. He had once been an actor -- no, not quite, an extra -- and he knew what acting should be. Also, he was smoking a cigar, and when a man is smoking a cigar, wearing a hat, he has an advantage; it is harder to find out how he feels.


Moses (Herzog) knotted his tie in the back seat. The cabbie turned around to look. He studied him.

“Where to, sport?” “Downtown.” “You know, I think I got a coincident to tell you.” They ran eastward toward Broadway. The driver was observing him in the mirror as he drove. Herzog also bent forward and deciphered the name beside the meter: Teodoro Valdepenas. “Early in the morning,” said Valdepenas, “I seen a guy on Lexington Avenue dressed like you with the exact same model coat. The hat.”


“Did you see his face?”

“No ... the face I didn’t see.” The taxi rattled into Broadway, and sped toward Wall Street.

“Where, on Lexington?” “Like the sixties.”

“What was the fellow doing?” “Kissing a broad in a red dress. That’s why I didn’t see his face. And what I mean kissing! Was it you?” “It must have been me.”

Los Angeles Times