Academic journal article Saul Bellow Journal

Saul Bellow's Cultural Mediation

Academic journal article Saul Bellow Journal

Saul Bellow's Cultural Mediation

Article excerpt

The central theme of Jewish writing in America is assimilation. As thousands of Jews left the tradition-entrenched Old World of Europe and immigrated to the American New World, they were confronted with modernity. This move became the unifying myth for Jewish writers and how they reconciled those competing worlds became their theme. Some chose to in vest wholly in American culture and became freethinkers while others chose to blend the two worlds in their lives and became translators between both. Saul Bellow became just such a translator.

Murray Baumgarten writes about the complexity of this decision in his book City Scriptures. He suggests the informing myth for the Jewish writer is that of the social outcast rising out of the shtetl, occupying a place in the urban community and moving toward an ethnic and individual identity. The Jewish writer, while escaping from the traditional beliefs and politics of the countryside, also seeks the possibility of weaving that tradition into the tapestry of modernity. "An awareness of the place of Yiddish in the work and life of modern Jewish writers should help to clarify their role in the history of western modernization, as well as to reveal some of the rhetorical sources and linguistic riches of their narrative fiction" (11). For Baumgarten, the Jewish protagonist in literature is often either a freethinker or a pariah. The freethinker throws his arms wide to release the political and religious traditions of the past. He no longer wants guidance or protection from those rituals. He no longer seeks wisdom in their tenets. That language no longer speaks to him or for him. Instead, the freethinker embraces the dominant culture where "Learning its codes and employing its languages, the freethinker could buy an entrance ticket to European culture" (Baumgarten 15). The conscious pariah, on the other hand, accepts his dual cultural citizenship, even though this means neither will be particularly strong. The synagogue and the library will compete for the right to be the temple of truth. By its very nature, this dual citizenship leads to some difficult questions: How will a Jewish man live inside his religion in a place that is disinterested in it at best? How will the old traditions continue to captivate the younger generation who can now speak English, who swing in the Jazz Age, who curse the 1919 Chicago White Sox, and praise Babe Ruth rather than Joshua the son of Nun, who led the Israelites into the Promised Land? The pariah is in both camps. Like Daniel from the Hebrew Bible, who, in exile, was trained in Babylonian literature yet devoted prayers to his God and received visions, the modern Jew who continues in the way of the Patriarchs finds himself straddling two cultures and has to find a home among strange gods.

That home is found by taking the heroes and heroines out of the context of the Hebrew Bible and placing them in the shtetl and the urban environment of modern Yiddish poetry. Baumgarten writes that the triumph of Yiddish is the mixing of the sacred tongue with secular linguistics--it "stakes out its own territory in modern Western literature, culminating in an unusually wide range that encompasses folk and high culture" (57).

For Jewish pariahs to reconcile their diverse dichotomies within themselves (high and low; country and city; Jewish and secular) it is not surprising that many became artists and intellectuals. This was the case with Saul Bellow and his protagonist in The Adventures of Augie March. While Bellow did have a Jewish heritage, Augie has none. The fact that Augie is a Jew has little power over him and from Bellow's extensive use of Western myths and European historical figures it is clear whose cultural traditions Augie takes part in. He wants to be considered an American, as opposed to a Jewish-American, and announces from the beginning, "I am an American, Chicago born" (Bellow, Augie March 3). Indeed, he is a bastard born to a feeble-minded woman, nearly an orphan, a boy without the traditions of the synagogue but conversant with Chicago streets, going "free-style" through neighborhoods and parental figures. …

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