Saul Bellow's letters may not be stylistic gems - but they reveal much about the man who wrote them.
In "Herzog," his sixth novel, Saul Bellow created one of American
literature's most passionate letter writers. Betrayed by his wife
and a close friend (in much the same way Bellow himself had been
betrayed), the suffering, cuckolded Herzog crisscrosses the country,
holing up at last in a ramshackle cottage in western Massachusetts.
Along the way he writes a series of letters - some on paper, some
in his mind - that reach a climax in his Berkshires retreat.
"Hidden in the country, he wrote endlessly, fanatically, to the
newspapers, to people in public life, to friends and relatives and at
last to the dead, his own obscure dead, and finally the famous
Bellow himself often claimed to be a poor correspondent. "I often
wonder why I balk so at letter writing," he writes in 1953.
"I've never enjoyed writing letters," he writes to Ralph
Ellison, and (again to Ellison), "Drop me a line sometime to say
how things are coming. It doesn't have to be a full-scale letter.
I'm incapable myself of writing one."
Not surprisingly, Bellow's letters are less polished than the work
he intended for publication. Each section of Saul Bellow: Letters is
preceded by an excerpt from a novel or essay that sheds light on the
time period, and it is striking to see how much more nimble these
excerpts are than the letters they introduce. Bellow once said it was
not unusual for him to rewrite a sentence 10 times, and he found his
own standards for publication hard to attain. At least three novels
mentioned in the letters - "Rubin Whitfield," "The Very Dark
Trees," and "The Crab and the Butterfly" - were destroyed or
set aside after he finished them.
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 …