Saul Bellow Reconsidered
Cusac, Anne-Marie, The Progressive
I had an unfortunate introduction to Saul Bellow. In 1988, as a college senior, I took a contemporary novels course with one of my favorite professors, a discerning, fervent, word-loving Shakespeare expert.
The course had filled with friends, most of us young women, and I remember groups talking with passion at lunch about Italo Calvino, Iris Murdoch, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Mr. Bellow had stiff competition that semester.
We had to wait for his latest novel, More Die of Heartbreak. The book was available only in hardcover, and on back order. The professor altered the syllabus because of the delay. When the book finally came in, so did the high expectations reserved for the long awaited.
Within days, More Die of Heartbreak led a friend of mine to approach some of us outside of class. She said that the book was unfair, that it was blaming Uncle Bends troubles on women in general and on Matilda, the beauty he secretly marries, in particular. "Uncle Benn was a woman-battered man," says the narrator. Alerted, we read and criticized. We came to class ready to battle. My friend raised her hand. She pronounced the criticism that some reviewers of More Die of Heartbreak were also making: misogyny.
Bellow dealt with the criticism by saying that women would better understand his work. "A woman is more likely to see the truth of what I've said," he told the London Sunday Times.
Bellow's ideal woman reader hadn't enrolled in our class. The professor responded to the insurrection by agreeing with us. The novel, written more than ten years after Bellow received the Nobel Prize for Literature, was not his best, she said. We should read his early books.
In the weeks after Bellow died, I thought repeatedly of our successful, and rather-too-easy, defeat of More Die of Heartbreak as I read through Bellow's obituaries. According to an unscientific database scan, 380 news articles and obituaries appeared in the thirteen days between his death on April 5 and April 18, the day of this writing.
As a comparison, I looked also at the number of articles about Robert Creeley, who died March 30. He, like Bellow, happened to pass away at a hot news time, competing with the deaths of Terri Schiavo and the Pope. Creeley, an author of more than sixty books and a prime mover in the shift of a once-radical poetic style to the mainstream, received forty-nine mentions between March 30 and April 18.
I then looked at the number of articles devoted to Bellow's fellow Chicagoan and important poet Gwendolyn Brooks in the thirty days after her death on December 3, 2000. Brooks was mentioned in 224 articles, many of them as part of end-of-the-year death roundups.
The obituaries described all three of these writers as "great," but none Anne-Marie Cusac is the investigative reporter of The Progressive. more frequently so than Bellow, who received hyperbolic and simultaneously meaningless accolades such as this one from the London Independent:. "Saul Bellow was the finest novelist of his generation in an age when novels mattered." In a goofy bit of praise, The New York Times reported that, "like their creator, Mr. Bellow's heroes were all head and all body both." The New York Times credited Bellow with "breathing life" into the novel, and others also implied that he saved the novel.
But, like many members of my generation, I am suspicious about claims that whole genres are threatened or dying and that one person can be the savior. I also believe that placing the word "great" upon an author or a work of art can dull our capacities for close reading and careful evaluation.
Ironically, the journalists grasped for the word "great" to describe a member of a generation that was peculiarly preoccupied with its own greatness and talked about it incessantly. However, it is true that few writers can compose a long sentence as energetic and encompassing as could Bellow. …