About Saul Bellow

By Ferris, William R. | Humanities, November/December 2000 | Go to article overview

About Saul Bellow


Ferris, William R., Humanities


WITH THE ADVENTURES,OFAUGIE MARCH IN 1953, A NEW VOICE EMERGED ON THE AMERICAN

literary scene. Saul Bellow won the National Book

Award for Augie March in 1954, and in a career of nearly

six decades would gather countless others writing

Honors-- a second National Book Award for Herzog

in 1964, a Pulitzer price for Humboldt's Gift in 1975,

the Nobel Price for Literature in 1976.

Writer James Altas traces Bellow's journey in a review

biography that grew out of research funded by

HEH. Atlas talks about his experiences with

NEH Chairman William R. Ferris.

James Atlas with newly published biography.

James Atlas with newly published biography.

--@Robert alan Mayer

WILLIAM R. FERRIS: In the introduction to your biography you say, "To write a biography of Saul Bellow would be in a sense to write my own autobiography a generation removed." In what ways is the Bellow biography your own autobiography?

JAMES ATLAS: I was very drawn to the connections between Bellow's life in Chicago and the fact that he had grown up in a neighborhood that my parents grew up in. I grew up reading Bellow. As a cultural anthropologist, I was very much drawn to this Chicago Jewish world of immigrants who had come over from Russia and tried to make their way in America, which was Bellow's theme. I grew up in Evanston, a suburb just north of Chicago, and I was looking at all this one generation removed. I had a deep affinity with him.

Other biographers, such as Richard Ellmann, with whom I studied at Oxford-the great biographer of Joyce and Yeats-or Leon Edel, with Henry James, are more removed from their subjects. In other words, I don't think that biography mandates a close autobiographical connection between subject and biographer, but with Bellow it was there for me.

FERRIS: In a New Yorker article a few years ago, you wrote that you have a weakness for the kind of story in which a person has false starts and years of failure. What was compelling about Bellow that made you want to write about him?

ATLAS: That is something that has interested me for a long time. I think we have in America this Horatio Alger fantasy of advancement and self-improvement; in my experience, both personal and as an observer of the human theme, it is a bumpier road than that. With the poet Delmore Schwartz, who was my first biographical subject, the tragedy was built into the narrative of his life.

He was tremendously promising at the age of twenty-three; T.S. Eliot was saying he was the great hope of American poetry. And within three decades, he had died alone in a fleabag hotel in midtown Manhattan.

With Bellow, you have this outwardly optimistic trajectory from his childhood in the slums, first in Montreal and then Chicago, to his rapid ascendancy through the ranks of New York literary life and his crowning achievement of the Nobel Prize. I thought, "Where's the failure in this?" But when I began to look at his life more closely, I discovered what a tremendous struggle it had been to make his way as an artist, both to support himself and to gain recognition, but also to find his voice.

There was his friend, Isaac Rosenfeld, Bellow's closest friend, who also wanted to be a great writer. They were comrades at Tuley High School, literary cronies, both of whom had a dominating ambition to rise in the world. Rosenfeld fell by the wayside, dying of a heart attack at the age of thirty-eight alone in a room in Chicago. So I had a drama in their divergent fates that I could write about, and that helped speed me on my way-if you can call taking a decade to write a book being sped anywhere.

FERRIS: Do you think your own early desire to write novels gave you insight into Bellow's creative process?

ATLAS: The truth is, fiction is valued in our society at this moment as the great literary art, and everyone finishes up wanting to write novels. …

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