Saul Bellow's "An Exalted Madness" and "Zetland: By a Character Witness"

By Chavkin, Allan; Chavkin, Nancy | Saul Bellow Journal, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview

Saul Bellow's "An Exalted Madness" and "Zetland: By a Character Witness"


Chavkin, Allan, Chavkin, Nancy, Saul Bellow Journal


In Saul Bellow's papers at the Special Collections Research Center at the University of Chicago Library, we discovered two versions of an unpublished short story, both entitled "An Exalted Madness," which we will argue are useful in helping one to understand "Zetland: By a Character Witness," a short work that critics of Bellow's fiction have neglected. (1) The story is based on Bellow's beloved friend and fellow writer Isaac Rosenfeld, a "sort of literary Doppelganger" whom Bellow considered a rival (Cook 13). As Phillip A. Snyder notes, it is a "dramatic monologue whose context remains mysterious, beyond the reader's power of decisive inference, because it is told without introduction or conclusion and raises in our minds some significant contextual questions" (216). One of the few Bellow scholars to comment on the story is Robert Kiernan, who provides a useful summary of the work; within that summary he reveals a common interpretation of the work that assumes that "Zetland: By a Character Witness" is not really a story at all but a mere character sketch, a view with which we disagree. Kiernan writes:

   "Zetland: By a Character Witness" is the shortest story in Him with
   His Foot in His Mouth--arguably a character sketch and not a story
   at all. Narrated anonymously by a boyhood friend of the title
   character, it describes Zetland's Russian Jewish family, his
   precocious reading and intelligence, and his growing to manhood in
   Chicago in the late 1920s. A few other facts of Zetland's life
   manage to penetrate the narrator's heady evocation of atmosphere.
   Zetland's marriage to a young woman named Lottie brought in its
   wake a fellowship to Columbia University and relocation on New York
   City's West Side, where Lottie supported them while Zetland studied
   symbolic logic. During a recurrence of some childhood illnesses,
   Zetland read Moby Dick, which inspired him to abandon the study of
   philosophy for the richer emotions of art and poetry. A last
   paragraph records that the Zetlands moved to Greenwich Village in
   1940, where they were identified with avant-garde literature and
   radical politics until the advent of World War II, at which point
   Zetland sought to enter military service. (201)

"Zetland: By a Character Witness" was originally published in 1974 in Philip Rahv's Modern Occasions 2, where it is described as part of a new novel on which Bellow is working. The work was reprinted without substantial change and without being described as part of a novel in progress in Bellow's Him with His Foot in His Mouth and Other Stories in 1984. It was reprinted in 2001 in his Collected Stories, again without significant revision and again without being described as part of a novel in progress.

This short work is the only published form that Zetland appears in. And the precise relationship of the two undated versions of "An Exalted Madness" to "Zetland: By a Character Witness" remains problematical. One risks unexalted madness if one seeks for certainty in solving this mystery. One can say that the two versions of "An Exalted Madness" and "Zetland: By a Character Witness" do focus on some of the same subjects and occasionally the phrasing is remarkably similar.

While the genetic history of the three works in question is unknown, we can present a brief summary of Bellow's attempts to write about Zetland, which can provide the context for thinking about these two unpublished versions of "An Exalted Madness" and their relationship to "Zetland: By a Character Witness." James Atlas, in his biography of the author, mentions that for years "Bellow had struggled to write about his dear friend Isaac Rosenfeld, under the name of Elias Zetland" but in the end published only the short work "Zetland: By a Character Witness" (428). Bellow probably began writing in earnest about Zetland after Isaac Rosenfeld suddenly died in 1956 at the age of 38 from a heart attack. …

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