Saul Bellow: Letters

By Wisner, Geoff | The Christian Science Monitor, November 9, 2010 | Go to article overview

Saul Bellow: Letters


Wisner, Geoff, The Christian Science Monitor


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

dead."

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 who is apparently slipping away,

"drifting with night, with infinity, and all my thoughts are of

you. …

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