Saul Bellow, Jew

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THE JEWISH INTELLECTUAL ESTABLISHMENT HAS NEVER known quite what to do with Saul Bellow. Unlike, say, Philip Roth, whoseJewish identity was always at the core of his persona (from the scandal of Portnoy or even earlier of "The Conversion of theJews" and "Eli, the Fanatic" to the solid concern with Jewish people and Jewish values in his recent autobiographical or quasiautobiographical novels). Saul Bellow has been equivocal and some what mysterious. Beginning his career with brilliant translations from Yiddish literature, something in Bellow wasJewishly both authentic and troubling. Most of his Jews were unpleasant, but then, most of his other characters were unpleasant, too. His close friends were almost allJewish intellectuals and he regularly skewered them in his many powerful books. But what did and what does Saul Bellow really think about being Jewish? We now have the voluminous and powerful, if somewhat hostile, biography by James Atlas (Random House, 2000), who employs correspondence, diaries, and interviews to make it possible now for us to answer this question, at least approximately.

I should say at once thatJames Atlas was a kind of unofficial student of mine in his early life, close to young people to whom I taughtJewish thought regularly. We had, and have, mutual friends, and I have admired his abilities since he was a teen-ager. I also admire this biography, Bellow: A Biography, despite its bitter revelations about the moral and personal weaknesses of its subject. I have also known Bellow himself for decades, never well, and for some time hardly at all. We spent several New Year's Eves together at the home of a close mutual friend with whom, as with so many others, Bellow broke, after picturing his childhood friend as a pimp and a crooked lawyer. I have been saved from being unmasked in a Bellow novel, partly by distance and partly because he regularly talked to me in Yiddish, a language I speak very poorly and understand less well than I claim. In any case, Bellow has long exhausted the repertoire ofJewish professionals whom he satirized and sometimes demolished. Surely he did not need another intellectually pretentious rabbi to ridicule or even to examine.

Jewishness is one ofJames Atlas's major themes. He describes again and again what beingJewish means to Bellow, beginning with the latter's denial that, in the final analysis, he was aJewish writer at all, though clearly the milieu of his work is heavily Jewish in tone and in detail.

For an earlier generation of Jewish-American writers, "'Jewish' equaled ghetto," as Alfred Kazin trenchantly put it. For Bellow, it was both a limiting identity and a source of inspiration. "That's how I view my own Jewishness. That's where the great power of it comes from. It doesn't come from the fact that I studied the Talmud, or anything of that sort. I never belonged to an orthodox congregation. It simply comes from the fact that at a most susceptible time of my life I was wholly Jewish. That's a gift, a piece of good fortune with which one doesn't quarrel." Yet once he had achieved great fame and become the object of a flourishing academic industry, Bellow strenuously repudiated the notion that he was a "Jewish" writer. He was "an American, a Jew, a writer by trade"-a triadic identity that echoed (perhaps unconsciously, given its author's views) Eliot's celebrated definition of himself as a royalist in politics, a Roman Catholic in religion, and a traditionalist in literature. (Many years later, when a reporter asked him if he had won the Nobel Prize as a Jewish writer or as an American writer, Bellow replied tartly, "I believe I won it as a writer.") (128)

Bellow early on felt himself hemmed in by the antisemitism of the American literary establishment at the universities and publishing houses that he frequented. He began publishing in the 1940s, when the New York Jewish crowd was just beginning to confront the legacy of Mandarins like T. …