But at the same time, the letters reveal the organic origins of the street-smart intellectual style that he first introduced in “The Adventures of Augie March” and perfected in “Seize the Day” and “Henderson the Rain King.” “Augie March” was a liberating experience for him, though in a later letter he calls it “one of those stormy, formless American phenomena.” This was the book where he learned to generate energy, and often humor, from linking high and low language – but the impulse to do so was there from the start.
In the very first letter of the collection, written in 1932 when Bellow was not quite 17, you see him trying on elevated diction for comic effect, then puncturing the bubble. “I am thinking, thinking, Yetta,” he writes to a girlfriend who is apparently slipping away, “drifting with night, with infinity, and all my thoughts are of you. But my thoughts of you are not altogether kind, they sting, they lash. Or shall we talk business?”
Later examples provide some of the best laughs in the book. Bellow writes to Alfred Kazin that on hearing that Kazin would not be coming to the University of Minnesota, “the lady instructors and female assistants set up a cry like Milton’s Syrian damsels over the limbs of Osiris.” Even, or especially, in the face of illness and death, this humor of high and low is a refuge. “I have death on my mind, today,” he writes in July 1968. “S.S. Goldberg is ill, John Steinbeck is in the Southampton Hospital, Jean Stafford has just been released from same. So we, here, are feeling the wing. But in this weather it is more cooling than anything else. The Angel of Death, floating over the house, brings air-conditioning.”