Academic journal article Saul Bellow Journal

The Dean's December and Saul Bellow's Novels of Contemplation

Academic journal article Saul Bellow Journal

The Dean's December and Saul Bellow's Novels of Contemplation

Article excerpt

While reviewing the outset of his career as a writer, Saul Bellow once remarked that Dangling Man (1944) was his baccalaureate degree, The Victim (1947) his master's degree, and The Adventures of Augie March (1953) his doctoral degree. That academic metaphor has a certain degree of truth. Bellow honed his craft in the first two books, and then Augie March brought him into the forefront of post-World War II American novelists. However, he became a novelist of a very different kind; indeed, some wonder if he was a novelist at all. He clearly did not fit into what F. R. Leavis once called "The Great Tradition," referring, for example, to the novels of George Eliot and Charles Dickens. No, Bellow was a fiction writer of quite a different bent. He seemed less interested in narrative for its own sake and didn't appreciate the usual kinds of plot that novelists concoct and readers expect. In Dangling Man, we can see where Bellow's real interests lay from the beginning of his career. In The Dean's December, we can also see the seeds planted by his first novel's coming to fruition. (1)

One must concede that Dangling Man hardly has a plot. It is the story of a young man, as Bellow was when he wrote it, waiting to be drafted during the second World War. Knowing he could be called upon for duty at almost any moment, the protagonist thinks it is useless to try to acquire a job with long-term prospects. Because of this, he spends much of his time reading and thinking about the human condition and his place in the scheme of things. Dangling Man thus presents the precursor for many of Bellow's later protagonists, preeminently Herzog. The letters Herzog writes throughout the novel that bears his name baffle many. They are addressed to almost everyone under the sun, as well as to those no longer under the sun: He even writes to God. Although the book does have a plot of sorts, it ends leaving readers up in the air, wondering if Herzog will finally marry his lover, Ramona. It is not the plot, however, but, the protagonist and his various conflicts and preoccupations that the book is primarily concerned with.

Herzog busies his overactive mind, trying to find out, first of all, who and what he really is. He also tries to understand his relationships with his first wife, his second wife, Madeline, and his best friend, Valentine Gersbach, who has carried the daughter belonging to Herzog and Madeline off to Chicago. At one point, Herzog seems determined to kill Gersbach and flies to Chicago with that purpose in mind. But after surreptitiously observing Gersbach bathing the little girl with very conspicuous, fatherly tenderness, Herzog finds that he cannot pull the trigger and leaves the scene. After the police discover his revolver, he is arrested, and his brother bails him out, giving Herzog strong advice to take a good rest. Hence, the book ends with Herzog at his home in the country, lying in a hammock, determined not to utter a single word, even though he knows that Ramona is on her way to have dinner with him that very evening.

That is not much of a plot. But that is not what the book is about. It is about Herzog--a man thinking and struggling to sort life out as well as he can. His closest fictional relative in the Bellow canon is Henderson, the protagonist of Henderson the Rain King (1959), who travels all the way to darkest Africa in search of many of the things that Herzog is searching for, particularly satisfaction for his insistent yearning: "I want! I want!" (286). Henderson's adventures are far more colorful than Herzog's, but readers will miss the point of the novel if they focus on the adventures rather than on the mind of Henderson and his attempts to grapple with the perceptions of reality that confront him.

Perceptions of reality--and especially the unreality that burdens and clouds perceptions--are essentially what interest Saul Bellow. (2) His task as a writer, therefore, has been to penetrate into what is--to focus as clearly as possible on the very reality that T. …

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