Saul Bellow chastised America for its own good
Saul Bellow was too cornucopian a writer to need anyone else's words. But just maybe the prose master with the street-kid defiance would accept the poet's epitaph hoped for by Robert Frost: "I had a lover's quarrel with the world."
For all the highs and lows, the eloquence and vulgarisms, the comedy and pain, Mr. Bellow was on the side of humanity he often had to chastise for its own good. A would-be biographer once compared him to Frost's "Drumlin Woodchuck" - "As one who shrewdly pretends/That he and the world are friends."
But pretense was in short supply with Bellow. The real-life storms over his alleged politically incorrect remarks were weathered rather than explained away.
Amidst the tributes following Bellow's passing Tuesday, what comes to mind is a character in which he said he saw himself, Henderson, in a watershed novel, "Henderson the Rain King" of 45 years ago. Henderson is an American who goes to the Africa of Bellow's imagination for salvation. He's ill when he leaves. But it's just some disease, he says, "Otherwise I'm well." At the time British novelist John Wain wrote, "Mr. Bellow writes with such energy that to read him is like clinging to the rigging of a China clipper in a high sea.... [He] is deliberately not supplying any answers. He is supplying questions."
Three decades later there's an echo in "More Die of Heartbreak" (than by nuclear radiation, says a character). It deplores a time when "love is replaced by Health, and Health is obtained by anatomical means." A key line is "what is sent forth by the seer affects what is seen."
Bellow continued writing into the 21st century, garnering more honors than any other US writer (though this all-American was born in Canada).
But the stats - a Nobel, a Pulitzer, a Presidential Medal, three National Book Awards - tell only part of the story. And so do the evocative titles: "Dangling Man," "The Victim," "The Adventures of Augie March" (his breakthrough bestseller), "Seize the Day," "Herzog," "Humboldt's Gift" (based on Bellow's poet friend, Delmore Schwartz), "The Dean's December," "Him With His Foot in His Mouth," "The Last Analysis" (a play that didn't last long even with the help of players like Sam Levene), "Ravelstein" (inspired by another friend, scholar Allan Bloom).