Commentary Magazine


The Adventures of Saul Bellow:
Progress of a Novelist

With the publication of Henderson the Rain King (Viking, $4.50), Saul Bellow confirms one’s impression that he is just about the best novelist of his generation. The new book has faults; it is uneven, it is sometimes diffuse. And besides the liability of its real faults, it makes its appeal to literary qualities which, although very much in the American tradition, Serious Readers have learned during the last decades to scorn. For much of its length Henderson is a “romance” rather than a “novel.” It forfeits some of the virtues of the novel (realism, plausibility, specificity), but gains some of the virtues of romance (abstraction, freedom of movement, extreme expressions of pathos, beauty, and terror). The book is sometimes farcical, melodramatic, zany—qualities that Serious Readers know, know all too well, are inferior to Realism and Tragedy. But Henderson has realism and tragedy too, although not so much as some of Bellow’s other writings.

Bellow has chosen a fertile subject—a demented American aristocrat at loose ends and in search of his soul. This is a subject which, before Henderson the Rain King, few if any American novelists had thought of using, except at the relatively low level of imaginative intensity that characterizes the polite novel of manners. In the brutal, loony, yet finally ennobled Henderson we have a character who for dire realism and significant modernity far surpasses in dramatic intensity the frustrated aristocrats portrayed by writers like Edith Wharton and J. P. Marquand. It is interesting, by the way, that of the few reviewers of Henderson I have read, none mentioned the patrician heritage of the hero, although this heritage is of cardinal importance in understanding him. It is as if the reviewers still regard “an aristocrat” as nothing but a walking collection of manners and therefore unsuitable for portraiture in anything but a novel of manners. Yet even in democratic America the well-born may receive as part of their birthright a certain dynamism, a distortion of character, a tendency to extreme behavior, or other qualities not easily expressed by a novel of manners.

One praises Henderson the Rain King in spite of the fact that in some ways it is not up to the high level Bellow set in The Adventures of Augie March and in the short novel Seize the Day, the best single piece Bellow has written. It is a thinner brew than Augie (but what novel isn’t?) and less sustained and concentrated in its impact than Seize the Day. After the wonderful first forty pages or so, during which we see Henderson on his home grounds, Connecticut and New York, there is a distinct falling off. We doubt whether Bellow should have sent him off so soon to Africa, where most of his adventures occur. We perceive that the author is not always able to make his highly imaginative Africa into an adequate setting for his hero. We fear that Bellow is in danger of confusing Henderson with another pilgrim to Africa, Hemingway. We feel that the book wanders uncertainly for a bad hour or so in the middle. But then it begins to pull itself together again, overcomes the threadbare plot, and triumphantly concludes in a mad moment of tragi-comedy.

The book’s shortcomings, along with certain qualities that strike me as real virtues, have led some Bellow devotees to put Henderson down as a failure or at best a misguided lark in a never-never land (if Augie is Bellow’s Huck Finn, is not Henderson his Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court ?). But these adverse judgments are wrong. Bellow still works in a comic tradition that is greater than farce or the comedy of manners. He has not only farce and wit but also humor—a richer thing, being permeated with realism, emotion, and love of human temperament. His imagination is fecund and resourceful. His tradition, at a hazard, includes, besides the naturalistic novel, Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, Joyce, and Yiddish humor.

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Over the years Bellow’s writing has shown a great deal of flexibility and power of development. He did not start off with the big Thomas Wolfe attempt at an autobiographical first novel. He saved that subject until his third book, Augie March, and by doing so possibly avoided the fate of many young writers who have a special story to tell, such as that of being brought up in an immigrant family in an American city, but who find that after the story has been told, they have nothing else to say. True, Bellow’s first novel, Dangling Man, was ostensibly autobiographical and in some of its passages it caught the experience of a young intellectual in the uncertain days of our involvement in World War II. Yet the story was told with so much reticence as to give a thin, claustral quality to the whole. Bellow’s second novel, The Victim, was one of those books published in the years just after the war that seemed to promise a resurgence of American writing (and yet how many new writers of those days have failed to fulfill themselves!). As compared with Dangling Man, The Victim was notable for its increase in objectivity and drama, and for its picture of the complicated relations between a disorderly, drunken, middle-class Gentile and a hapless but morally self-directing Jew in search of a precarious status. Here Bellow was dealing with what was to be his favorite theme—the impulse of human beings to subject others to their own fate, to enlist others in an allegiance to their own moral view and version of reality. In The Victim it is the Jew Leventhal who must resist the attempt of the anti-Semitic Allbee to involve him in his fate. This theme gets its fullest treatment in Augie March, but finds its ultimate significance in Seize the Day.

The Adventures of Augie March first acquainted us with the formidable music Bellow can make when he pulls out all the stops. Like many other fine American books, it astonishes us first as a piece of language. There are the rather dizzy medleys of colloquial and literary words. For example, Grandma Lausch, the picturesque tyrant of the family in which Augie is brought up, is said to be “mindful always of her duty to wise us up, one more animadversion on the trusting, loving, and simple surrounded by the cunning hearted and the tough.” “Not,” says Augie, “that I can see my big, gentle, dilapidated, scrubbing, and lugging mother as a fugitive of immense beauty from such classy wrath.” There is no doubt that Augie, who tells the whole story in the first-person, is right in describing himself as “gabby.” A wayward adolescent, almost a juvenile delinquent, he sometimes seems to resemble Marlon Brando. But he is not sullen and inarticulate in the modern style of American youth—far from it. Like any Rabelais, Whitman, Melville, or Joyce, he loves to catalog things, such as the people in the Chicago City Hall: “bigshots and operators, commissioners, grabbers, heelers, tipsters, hoodlums, wolves, fixers, plaintiffs, flatfeet, men in Western hats and women in lizard shoes and fur coats, hothouse and arctic drafts mixed up, brute things and airs of sex, evidence of heavy feeding and systematic shaving, of calculations, grief, not-caring, and hopes of tremendous millions in concrete to be poured or whole Mississippis of bootleg whisky and beer.”

Augie is a real poet and lover of the tongue which his immigrant race has only just learned to speak. He loves to explore its resources. And we don’t complain much if he is sometimes a bit on the flashy side, a little pretentious and word-besotted in the language he hurls at our heads. Often he is perfectly simple and as appealing as Huckleberry Finn, whom he sometimes reminds us of, while he is still a boy and beset by odd illustions. If Mark Twain had been willing to use the four-letter word, he might have made Huck say, as Augie does, “I understand that British aristocrats are still legally entitled to piss, if they should care to, on the hind wheels of carriages.”

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Augie is hard to characterize, and of course that is the point about him. He declines the gambit of the young man in an immigrant family; he does not have the drive to succeed or establish himself in a profession. Believing that to commit oneself to any sort of function in the going concern of society is a form of death, he remains unattached and free, although to what end we never fully learn. He is a little of everything: a student, a petty thief, adopted son, tramp, lover, apprentice to assorted people and trades, a would-be intellectual in the purlieus of the University of Chicago, a suppositious Trotskyite, an eagle tamer, a merchant seaman. He is protean, malleable, “larky and boisterous,” vain, strong, vital, and also a bit of a fall-guy, in fact “something of a schlemiel.” The plot of Augie March is that of Whitman’s Song of Myself—the eluding of all of the identities proffered to one by the world, by one’s past, and by one’s friends. Augie calls himself “varietistic,” just as Whitman says, “I resist anything better than my own diversity.” “What I assume, you shall assume,” writes Whitman. And Augie reflects on “what very seldom mattered to me, namely, where I came from, parentage, and other history, things I had never much thought of as difficulties, being democratic in temperament, available to everybody and assuming about others what I assumed about msyelf.” Augie remains elusive and diverse. His fate is not that of any of the memorable people he knows: Grandma Lausch, his brother Simon, Mrs. Renling, Einhorn, Sylvester, Clem Tambow, Mimi, Thea, Stella.

Not that Augie is entirely happy about himself, or sure in his own mind that varietism and freedom from ties will lead him to individual autonomy. Bellow seems to leave him wavering as the novel draws to a close. At one point Augie calls for autonomy, for the unattached individual—”a man who can stand before the terrible appearances” without subjecting himself to any of them. He wants to take the “unsafe” road and be a “personality” rather than take the safe road and be a “type.” He resists being “recruited” to other people’s versions of reality and significance. And yet Augie strikes us as being puzzled, as we are, by the questions: What is his personality, what is his version of reality and significance? At any rate we find him wishing that his fate “was more evident, and that I could quit this pilgrimage of mine.” At the end he is married and in Paris, “in the bondage of strangeness for a time still,” yet oddly wishing that he could return to the States and have children. But even the idea of paternity is not allowed to thwart his desire for unattached selfhood. Where, he asks, is character made? And he answers that “It’s internally done . . . in yourself you labor, you wage and combat, settle scores, remember insults, fight, reply, deny, blab, denounce, triumph, outwit, overcome, vindicate, cry, persist, absolve, die and rise again. All by yourself! Where is everybody? Inside your breast and skin, the entire cast.” But all this sounds less like an autonomous personality than a man far gone in solipsism and illusion. Augie’s concluding words belie the “oath of unsusceptibility” he has taken. At the end he exclaims, “Why I am a sort of Columbus of those near-at-hand and believe you can come to them in this immediate terra incognita that spreads out in every gaze.” Augie’s wish that people could “come to” each other entirely without any ulterior motive or aggression is praiseworthy, but we share his doubts that they ever can.

“A man’s character is his fate,” Augie says at the beginning and end of his story. But the question, What is his character? is not answered. The idea of character in Augie March is contradictory. Bellow is, from one point of view, in the line of the naturalistic novelists (Norris, Dreiser, and Farrell—who have also written about Chicago), and he therefore conceives of character deterministically as the product of heredity and environment. “All the influences were lined up waiting for me,” says Augie. “I was born, and there they were to form me, which is why I tell you more of them than of myself.” On the other hand, as I said above, Bellow follows the Whitman tradition, which believes that character is the autonomous self, the given transcendent fact which no amount of natural conditioning can fundamentally change. The naturalistic account is incomplete because it tries to describe only what produces character; the transcendentalist account is vague, however liberating and inspiring it may be. A logical difficulty or a moral or metaphysical anomaly doesn’t necessarily spoil a fiction. And in fact it strikes me that it is exactly Bellow’s mixture of attitudes toward character that makes his novel such a rich experience.

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What Augie fears is the death of the self, and his judgment of the contemporary world is that it is terribly resourceful in its stratagems for destroying the self. In Seize the Day Tommy Wilhelm comes to understand the death of the self in a harrowing scene in a funeral parlor, a scene more profound and moving than anything the bumptious Augie undergoes. Wilhelm, middle-aging, an unemployed salesman, separated from his wife and two children, is on the ebb tide of his fortunes. The scene is in and about a hotel on Broadway and not the least value of the story is the accuracy with which Bellow has reproduced the bleak gerontocracy which has gathered there from all parts of New York and Europe—the “senior citizens,” as our culture calls them, the forlorn octogenarians, the wistful widowers, the grimy, furtive old women. One of the aged is Wilhelm’s father, a retired doctor with a professional sense of success and rectitude, who regards his hesitant romantic son as “a slob.” Malleable like Augie, but less resilient, Wilhelm allows his career to be spoiled at the outset by putting himself under the guidance of Maurice Venice, who promises to get him a job as a movie star but turns out to be a pimp. He has lost, or given up, his job as a salesman of baby furniture, and now is at the mercy of the recriminations directed at him by his father and his wife. Of course, they have their point, but Wilhelm is not entirely wrong in thinking that there is something sinister and inhumanly aggressive in their nagging insistence that (as Augie would say) he allow himself to be recruited to their versions of reality.

But in trying to escape from his father and his wife, Wilhelm comes under the influence of Dr. Tamkin, who, whatever else we may think of him, is certainly one of Bellow’s most glorious creations. Reminiscing, Augie March had exclaimed, “Why did I always have to fall among theoreticians!” It is a poignant question, suggesting that in a world where no one is certain about truth, everyone is a theoretician. And to the fastest theorizer goes the power; he is the one who can “seize the day.” Dr. Tamkin, investor, alleged psychiatrist, poet, philosopher, mystic, confidence man, is one of the fast talkers. He is an adept in the wildly eclectic world of semi-enlightenment and semi-literacy which constitutes the modern mass mind when it expresses itself in ideas, the crazy world of half-knowledge, journalistic clichés, popularized science, and occultism, the rags and tatters of the world’s great intellectual and religious heritages. Bellow is a master at describing this state of mind, and a sound moralist in suggesting that a Dr. Tamkin would be less reprehensible if he were merely greedy and materialistic, like the characters in naturalistic novels—but, no, he must also be a mystic, a psychiatrist, and a theoretician. And so Wilhelm, the well meaning, not too bright ordinary man, is all the more bewildered and devastated when the seven hundred dollars he has given Tamkin to invest in lard is lost and he is ruined.

Wandering the streets in search of Tamkin, who seems to appear and disappear in the crowds like a ghost, Wilhelm is jostled by a group of mourners into a funeral parlor where, standing by the coffin of a man he does not know, he weeps uncontrollably for his own symbolic death, the death of the self. In this scene we have in its deepest expression one side of the meaning (as I understand the difficult idea) of Augie’s apothegm: “Well, given time, we all catch up with legends, more or less.” The same idea is expressed in the odd English of the somewhat incredible King Dahfu in Bellow’s new novel: “The career of our specie is evidence that one imagination after another grows literal. . . . Imagination! It converts to actual. It sustains, it alters, it redeems! . . . What Homo sapiens imagines, he may slowly convert himself to.” But the human power of actualizing the imaginary is a two-edged sword, which can destroy as well as redeem. We can be destroyed if, as in his moment of final anguish and illumination Wilhelm understands he has done, we allow ourselves to be recruited to, allow ourselves to become actualizations of, other people’s versions of reality. Yet catching up with the legend or realizing the imaginary can also be liberating and redemptive. So we gather at the moment when Wilhelm catches up with the legend of his own death—a legend that has been entertained by himself and by those he has known—while he gazes, with the great revelation, at the stranger in the coffin.

Thus it appears that although Bellow’s insistence on being free is not a complete view of human destiny, neither is it simply a piece of naivety or moral irresponsibility, as has sometimes been suggested. He believes that if we ever define our character and our fate it will be because we have caught up with our own legend, realized our own imagination. Bellow’s fertile sense of the ever-possible conversion of reality and imagination, fact and legend, into each other is the source of the richness and significance of his writing. He differs in this respect from the traditional practice of American prose romance, which forces the real and imaginary far apart and finds that there is no circuit of life between them. (On this point see my book, The American Novel and Its Tradition.) Bellow differs, too, from the pure realist, who describes human growth as a simple progress away from legend and toward fact, and from the naturalistic novelist, who conceives of circumstance as always defeating the human impulse of further thrusts toward autonomy. Which is merely to say that Bellow’s sense of the conversion of reality and imagination is something he shares with the greatest novelists.

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Bellow gives the light treatment to some of his favorite themes in Henderson the Rain King, although there are tragi-comic moments which for the extreme expression of degradation and exaltation surpass anything in the previous books. With a fatal predictability, the conventional reviewers, often in the midst of encomia, have reproved Bellow for “descending” to farce, as well as to melodrama and fantasy. It does no good to ask where writers so different as Mark Twain, Dickens, Molière, Joyce, and Aristophanes would be without farce.

This is Bellow’s first novel with no Jewish characters (although we hear at the beginning of a soldier named Nicky Goldstein, who told Henderson that after the war he was going to raise mink; with characteristic sensibility, Henderson decides on the spot that he will raise pigs). Perhaps in selecting for his hero a tag-end aristocrat, Bellow is responding in reverse to Henry Adams’s statement at the beginning of the Education that as a patrician born out of his time he might as well have been born Israel Cohen. At any rate we find Henderson ruefully reflecting that despite the past eminence of his family, “Nobody truly occupies a station in life any more. . . . There are displaced persons everywhere.” As Henderson at fifty-five freely admits, he has always behaved “like a bum.” His father, though, had been an impressive example of rectitude; he had known Henry Adams and Henry James; the family eminence goes back at least to Federal times. His father had followed the traditional life of public service. He had written books of social and literary criticism, defended persecuted Negroes, and in general regarded it as his inherited duty to help guide the national taste, opinion, and conduct in his day.

As for Henderson himself, he cheerfully admits that he is one of the “loony” members of the family—like the one that “got mixed up in the Boxer Rebellion, believing he was an Oriental” or the one that “was carried away in a balloon while publicizing the suffrage movement.” Yet he still affirms—to the point of rainmaking for the parched inhabitants of Africa—the “service ideal” that “exists in our family.” Like Wilhelm in Seize the Day, he has faced death, not in the war but while gazing at the soft white head of an octopus in an aquarium. “This is my last day,” he thought on that occasion. “Death is giving me notice.” But Henderson is strong, brutal, willful, with great stature and a big belly. Very much a creature of his time, he “seeks wisdom,” believing that earlier generations have performed all the more practical tasks—”white Protestantism and the Constitution and the Civil War and capitalism and winning the West,” all these things have been accomplished. But, he goes on, “that left the biggest problem of all, which was to encounter death. We’ve just got to do something about it . . . it’s the destiny of my generation of Americans to go out into the world and try to find the wisdom of life.” True, Henderson is often retrospective. He has moments of family nostalgia and piety, when he tries to get in touch with his dead father and mother. For this purpose he goes to the cellar and plays a violin (a genuine Guarnerius, of course) that had belonged to his father. He croons, “Ma, this is ‘Humoresque’ for you” and “Pa, listen—‘Meditation from Thaïs.’” As we see, Henderson is not only musical but occult. He is “spell-prone . . . highly mediumistic and attuned.”

But Henderson does not find fulfillment in such activities. He is bored and dissatisfied with his disorderly wife. Like most moderns he loves and pursues “reality” and yet he is just as strongly drawn to the mythic and the magical. He is alternately depressed and exalted by his inchoate notions, in describing which Bellow shows himself again to be an inspired interpreter of the eclectic, semi-literate mind of contemporary culture. Henderson needs new realms to discover, new opportunities of service and redemption. And so he is off to Africa, an Africa which is sometimes that of fantasy (“those were wild asses maybe, or zebras flying around in herds”) and sometimes that of Sir James Frazer and Frobenius.

He finds in Africa that there is a curse upon the land. A terrible drought is killing the cattle of the first tribe he encounters, for although the cistern is full of water, the water is infested with frogs, which frighten the cattle away and which the natives have a taboo against killing. Henderson improvises a grenade to blow up the frogs, but blows up the whole cistern too. This is unfortunate because things had been going well for him. For example, Henderson had been absorbing animal magnetism from the natives, as when he ceremonially kisses the fat queen’s belly: “I kissed, giving a shiver at the heat I encountered. The knot of the lion skin was pushed aside by my face, which sank inward. I was aware of the old lady’s navel and her internal organs as they made sounds of submergence. I felt as though I were riding in a balloon above the Spice Islands, soaring in hot clouds while exotic odors rose from below.”

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But it is with the next tribe, the Wariri, that his most significant adventures occur. Here Henderson performs the ritual of moving the ponderous statue of the Rain Goddess, whereupon he is made Rain King, stripped naked, flayed, and thrown into the mud of the cattle pond, in the midst of the downpour he has summoned from heaven by his act. Humiliated, abject, yet gigantic, triumphant, visionary, an Ivy-League medicine man smeared with blood and dirt, Henderson dances on his bare feet through the cruel, hilarious scene. “Yes, here he is,” cries our hero, “the mover of Mummah, the champion, the Sungo. Here comes Henderson of the U.S.A.—Captain Henderson, Purple Heart, veteran of North Africa, Sicily, Monte Cassino, etc., a giant shadow, a man of flesh and blood, a restless seeker, pitiful and rude, a stubborn old lush with broken bridgework, threatening death and suicide. Oh, you rulers of heaven! Oh, you dooming powers! . . . And with all my heart I yelled, ‘Mercy, have mercy!’ And after that I yelled, ‘No justice!’ And after that I changed my mind and cried, ‘No, no, truth, truth!’ And then, Thy will be done! Not my will but Thy will!’ This pitiful rude man, this poor stumbling bully, lifting up his call to heaven for truth. Do you hear that?”

There ensue several lengthy conversations on life and human destiny between Henderson and the philosophical King Dahfu—a somewhat pathetic monarch whom we often see surrounded by his demanding harem of naked women. He has read books like William James’s Principles of Psychology and believes that when he dies his soul will be reborn in a lion, the totem animal of the tribe. Like the naturalistic novelists, Bellow is fond of characterizing people by analogies with animals. But Bellow, like Swift, follows the greater comic traditions of animal imagery. Tommy Wilhelm caricatures himself as a hippopotamus, yet the effect is to make him more human, more understandable, more complicated, rather than less so.

What might be called Bellow’s totemistic style of comedy and character drawing gets a full workout in Henderson. A raiser of pigs and a self-proclaimed bum, Henderson has thought of himself as a pig. King Dahfu believes that what Henderson needs is rehabilitation in the image of the lion totem, and he therefore puts our hero through a course of what can only be described as lion-therapy, complete with psychiatric terms like “resistance” and “transference.” This takes place in a cage under the palace, where the king keeps a magnificent lioness. The therapy consists in repeated exposure to the lioness, first getting Henderson to try to quell his fears of her and finally getting him to imitate the lioness, on his hands and knees, growling and roaring, so that by sympathetic magic he can absorb lion-like qualities. The scene in which he is finally able to roar satisfactorily, though still terrified, is a great comic moment. The king and the lioness watch Henderson “as though they were attending an opera performance.” Henderson describes the roar he lets out as one which “summarized my entire course on this earth, from birth to Africa; and certain words crept into my roars, like ‘God,’ ‘Help,’ ‘Lord have mercy,’ only they came out ‘Hoolp!’ ‘Moooorcy!’ It’s funny what words sprang forth. ‘Au secours,’ which was ‘Secoooooor’ and also ‘De profoooondis,’ plus snatches from the ‘Messiah’ (He was despised and rejected, a man of sorrows, etcetera). Unbidden, French sometimes came back to me, the language in which I used to taunt my little friend François about his sister.” In this abject, ridiculous, and yet eloquent roar we are impressed with the full pathos, the utter humiliation, and also the odd marginal grandeur of Henderson. After this he writes a letter to his wife directing her to apply for his admission to the Medical Center, signing the application “Leo E. Henderson” (although his name is Eugene). For now he is resolved to become the M.D. he has always dreamed of being since, as a boy, he had been inspired by the example of Sir Wilfred Grenfell. Of course the letter never arrives.

Henderson escapes from the Wariri after King Dahfu has been killed trying to capture the lion who is his father. One need hardly bother about the plot—the conniving witch doctor, the escape from prison, the hazardous flight of Henderson. It is all pleasant enough in the reading.

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But the end is magnificent. Here we have Henderson walking around the blank, wintry airport in Newfoundland, where his plane has put down for refueling. He is paternally carrying in his arms an American child who speaks only Persian and is being sent alone to Nevada. He remembers how his own father had been angry at him once when he was a boy and how he had hitchhiked to Canada, where he had got a job at a fair. His task was to accompany and care for an aged, toothless, and forlorn trained bear who was ending his days of performing by taking rides on a roller-coaster, though paralyzed by fear and vertigo and occasionally wetting himself, for the delectation of the crowds who watched from below. “We hugged each other, the bear and I, with something greater than terror and flew in those gilded cars. I shut my eyes in his wretched, time-abused fur. He held me in his arms and gave me comfort. And the great thing is that he didn’t blame me. He had seen too much of life, and somewhere in his huge head he had worked it out that for creatures there is nothing that ever runs unmingled.” Henderson the boy is long dead; Henderson the lion has disappeared, so has Henderson the pig. Henderson the bear remains, “long-suffering, age-worn, tragic, and discolored.” Still a rather preposterous clown, he has nevertheless achieved a certain nobility by his way of “mingling” in the common fate of creatures. Will he remain Henderson the bear? Not if he can live up to the declarations of freedom and growth he made earlier in the book. “I am Man . . . and Man has many times tricked life when life thought it had him taped.” And, though saddened, he had agreed with King Dahfu that “Nature is a deep imitator. And as man is the prince of organisms he is the master of adaptations. He is the artist of suggestions. He himself is his principal work of art, in the body, working in the flesh. What miracle! What triumph! Also, what disaster! What tears are to be shed!”

The king’s words strike Bellow’s “note.” His main characters—Augie, Tommy Wilhelm, Henderson—are adept at imitation and at adaptation. They are different, to be sure. Augie remains young, strong, charming, yet emotionally soft. Wilhelm is wistful, unstable, romantic. Henderson is wild, brutal, a clown. But they are all malleable, emergent, pragmatic, and protean; they love freedom, development, pleasure, and change. They seek both natural and transcendent experiences that are expressive of their way of life.

What is so far chiefly missing in Bellow’s writing is an account of what his heroes want to be free from. As Bellow is always showing, their very adaptibility lays them open to forms of tyranny—social convention, a job, a father, a lover, a wife, their children, everyone who may want to prey upon them. And all of these forms of tyranny, fraud, and emotional expropriation Bellow describes brilliantly. But only in Seize the Day is there a fully adequate, dramatically concentrated image of what the central figure is up against—the institutional, family, and personal fate that he must define himself by, as heroes in the greatest literature define themselves. Augie March is prodigiously circumstantial, but the circumstances are never marshaled into a controlling image, and Henderson is bundled off to Africa before we see enough of him in his native habitat to know fully, by understanding the circumstances of his life, what his character and his fate are. But who can complain when, once he is in Africa, we see him in episodes which make us think him the momentary equal, for tragi-comic madness, for divine insanity, of the greatest heroes of comic fiction?

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