Saul Bellow's Favorite Thought on Herzog? the Evidence of an Unpublished Bellow Letter

By Cohen, Mark | Notes on Contemporary Literature, September 2008 | Go to article overview

Saul Bellow's Favorite Thought on Herzog? the Evidence of an Unpublished Bellow Letter


Cohen, Mark, Notes on Contemporary Literature


Despite the decade-long effort of Saul Bellow's biographer, James Atlas, to collect the letters Bellow sent to "wives, friends, lovers, enemies, writers he admired and writers he detested, teachers, students, disciples, [and] fans," the job will likely never be complete ("The Last Time I Saw Saul: Bellow's Biographer Says Goodbye." New York [18 April 2005]: 18). There will probably always be an unknown and unlikely Bellow letter, such as the one he wrote to me on September 3, 1983.

Given Bellow's large body of work, and the enormous freight of critical writings devoted it, the most to be expected of newly uncovered letters is confirmation, not illumination. But such confirmation can be valuable to scholars interested in Bellow's views of his own work. Critics must find a way to assess the value of Bellow's many comments on his writings--comments prompted by dogged interviewers since at least the early 1950s (Cronin and Siegel). The Viking critical edition of Herzog attests to the importance of the author's views. That volume includes one Bellow interview and three Bellow essays in addition to the scholarly reviews (Herzog: Text and Criticism, Ed. Irving Howe [NY: Viking, 1976]:345-88). Evidence that Bellow found one of his own remarks especially revealing could direct scholars to an insight that might otherwise be overlooked.

For more than ten years I overlooked such evidence. That is how long I owned Conversations with Saul Bellow before noticing that it contains an interview that records Bellow's delight in realizing something important about Herzog, and that Bellow offered the same insight in the letter he wrote to me.

The Bellow interview

On March 12, 1983, three interviewers spent two hours with Bellow discussing various aspects of his work. The interview was published the following year in TriQuarterly (Gray 199) During the course of the interview Bellow had this to say about Moses Herzog:

   He has received an utterly useless education and breaks
   down as soon as he faces a real crisis. Simply doesn't know
   what to do.  He starts to drag books from the shelves to see
   what Aristotle advises, or what Spinoza has to say. It's a
   joke. To his credit, he quickly understands this. His
   blindness ends when he begins to write letters. By means of
   these letters the futility of his education is exposed. On Job's
   dunghill, and scraping himself with a potsherd, he
   recognizes (with joy!) how bad an education he has had.
   And this was what I was after in my book.... Herzog is thus
   a negative Bildungsroman. It goes in reverse (Gloria L.
   Cronin and Ben Siegel, eds. Conversations with Saul Bellow.
   [Jackson:UP of Mississippi, 1994]:213-214). … 

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Saul Bellow's Favorite Thought on Herzog? the Evidence of an Unpublished Bellow Letter
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