Commentary Magazine

Bellow’s Progress

On the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of The Adventures of Augie March, the Library of America has made Saul Bellow the first living novelist to be admitted to its literary pantheon. The anniversary volume includes not only that breakthrough 1953 work but the two lesser known novels that preceded it, Dangling Man (1944) and The Victim (1947).1 It thus offers a fitting occasion to ask how he got here from there.

Bellow has not exactly disowned his two earliest novels, but he has made it clear that they were apprentice efforts, and that only with Augie March did he begin to command the voice for which he is renowned. The difference between the first two and the third stems in part from his evolving attitude toward his own Jewishness. In his 2000 biography of the novelist, James Atlas records that during his senior year at Northwestern University, Bellow had sought career guidance from the English-department chairman, and was told to forget about trying to make a profession in the field: “You weren’t born to it.” Although other intellectual disciplines might be suitable for Jews to pursue, English literature was the preserve of those who had some native claim to it.

Evidently, the encounter helped spur the young Bellow to demonstrate his ability to wield the language as deftly as anyone going, and the result was an early prose style chiseled to “a Flaubertian standard.” Only after he had proved his mastery of the high literary mode could he begin to write in his own distinctive idiom.

This is not to say that Dangling Man and The Victim are mere training exercises. If the Bellow style had yet to acquire its racy comic ease, the Bellow mind—the most formidable intelligence since Melville’s to turn its attention to writing American novels—was already engaged. From the opening paragraph of Dangling Man, the reader is in the presence of a voice that claims the authority of irrepressible feeling and penetrating thought.

Bellow’s protagonist, Joseph—he appears without surname and without even an identifying initial—is keeping a journal while waiting for the military bureaucracy to approve his induction into the wartime army. His wife, Iva, has taken over the role of breadwinner, giving him the leisure to pursue his solitary mental life. Thus dangling between peace and war, Joseph kicks around Bellow’s Chicago, which already in this first work has the novelist’s trademark on it: a Hyde Park rooming-house with a skulking alcoholic neighbor who flings his empties out the window and declines to shut the door when using the communal toilet; a beanery that used to hum with high-minded talk but now is dismally quiet; the house of a prosperous sibling whose fancy trappings reproach Joseph for his unworldly fecklessness even as they incite him to open disdain; the apartment of a kittenish young woman up the street who sets Joseph’s blood to boil; a butterfly he spies on a March day, “out of place both in the season and the heart of the city, and somehow alien to the whole condition of the century.”

Even though Joseph will soon enough join the faceless millions in uniform whose sole thought is to avoid being pierced, splintered, or blown up, he refuses to be deterred from the essential concern of his life: “I must know what I myself am.” The political life, the life of the citizen who takes part in the general tumult of his time and place, he sees as unspeakable irrelevance. Nor has the war with all its mass horror changed the essential terms of the human arrangement: death has always been there, waiting for everyone. Real life is still to be had strictly on terms the individual sets for himself.

In the end, inevitably, there is an explosion. A confrontation with an officious bank employee leads to a bitter argument with Iva, a tirade against Joseph’s drunken neighbor, and a narrowly averted brawl with his landlord, a retired army captain. Giving up, Joseph enlists. “Perhaps the war could teach me, by violence, what I had been unable to learn during those months in the room.”

If in such sentiments the deep thinker seems preposterously obtuse, speaking of war as if it were some especially challenging post-graduate tutorial, arranged for his benefit, Joseph’s sense of what is at stake, Bellow suggests, is not entirely fatuous: the freedom to follow one’s thoughts wherever they lead, to become whatever one wishes, is not negligible, and might just be the essential thing. It might even be the thing the war itself is ultimately about. Welcoming his submission to the hard rule of a mass life confronting mass death, Joseph celebrates with ironic zest: “Long live regimentation!” At least his wearisome dangling days are over.



Joseph is an early prototype of a whole succession of big-time reasoners in Bellow’s work (the best known of whom is surely the eponymous hero of the 1964 Herzog), each of them destined to find out the hard way what true seriousness means. In The Victim, Bellow introduced a different but no less characteristic theme: the lurking menace of the city—New York, in this case—where the individual is threatened by the overwhelming human multitude, and associates from business acquaintances to blood brothers can turn mortal enemies.

Dominating the moral landscape of The Victim is the barrier between Jew and Gentile, so knife-edged in Bellow’s rendering circa 1947 as to be all but unthinkable today. Asa Leventhal, an editor at a Manhattan trade magazine, finds himself hounded by the hard-drinking down-and-out Kirby Allbee, who emerges like an avenging apparition from an evening crowd and proceeds to blame Leventhal for all that has gone wrong with his life.

In an incident that Leventhal can barely remember, Allbee claims to have gone out of his way to set up a job interview that Leventhal botched so badly as to get himself thrown out by Allbee’s boss and, not long afterward, Allbee himself fired, punished for Leventhal’s churlish behavior. Worse, Allbee is sure that Leventhal went into the interview with the express intention of disgracing him for having drunk too much at a party and launched into a harangue on the perfidiousness of Jews. Even now Allbee cannot stop talking about the Jews, not even when the conscience-stricken Leventhal, troubled by the thought that he may inadvertently have caused Allbee’s skid into alcoholism and poverty, takes the poor slob into his home and tries to help him back on his feet.

This bizarre pas de deux takes place against the backdrop of a teeming urban life, conjured up in the novel’s superb opening lines. (It begins: “On some nights New York is as hot as Bangkok.”) For a man like Leventhal, accustomed to a steady round and intent on keeping his feet in the roiling city, it is radically disorienting to have to imagine his way into the lives of other human beings, especially “the lost, the outcast, the overcome, the effaced, the ruined.” Yet just when he is about to dismiss Allbee’s hectoring importunity, he has a vision of the Gentile’s descent from a comfortable existence not unlike his own, and is washed by fellow feeling. At one point, Allbee launches into a loony gloss on the New Testament injunction to love your neighbor as yourself. This, indeed, is Bellow’s motif in The Victim, as well as the exacting yardstick by which he measures his characters. But he understands all too well that there is such a thing as an excess of compassion, and that it can sink you.

Behind the madcap story looms the Holocaust. Bellow mentions it but once, when Allbee taunts Leventhal with the Jews’ alleged reputation for timid prudence, for staying out of the way of trouble; Leventhal replies, heartsick and angered, “Millions of us have been killed. What about that?” The unanswered question rings in the mind like the distant blows of a hammer, only to strike again when, years later, Leventhal encounters Allbee for a final time. They meet in a crowded theater. Elegantly dressed, Allbee has on his arm a well-known actress, past her prime but still beautiful. He has reached an accord, he tells Leventhal, with the powers that run things, and is no longer angry at the world. As he hurries back into the theater, Leventhal calls after him, “Wait a minute, what’s your idea of who runs things?”

Allbee has gotten over his suffering; the victim has found another victim, and has come to terms with those mysterious governing powers. He knows his place among the millions. Leventhal, tormented by the particular six million, is unwilling to make his peace. There is no doubt who Bellow intends us to think is the better man, even if the lesser man has the wisdom of the world on his side, and will clearly have the easier time of it.



And then came The Adventures of Augie March, the book in which Bellow at last set himself squarely against the accommodating wisdom of the world even as he presented that world more enticingly than ever before. The novel shows Bellow in an altogether venturesome mode. Taking traditional literary vessels—Romantic autobiography and the Bildungsroman as worked by Rousseau, Goethe, Flaubert, and Tolstoy—he filled them to the brim with rumbustious life from the old neighborhood of Chicago’s Jewish west side, then poured and poured until they overflowed with reclusive millionaires, wacky scientists, Trotskyists, union goons, clueless highbrows, daring hobos, rich girls with schemes for a vivid life, poor girls with schemes for getting rich, and other American types from sea to shining sea.

In language, style, and vision, Augie March is at once unabashedly Jewish and wholly American; it is impossible to say where the one leaves off and the other begins. The novel opens, famously, with “I am an American, Chicago born,” and closes with Augie’s declaration that he is “a sort of Columbus of those near-at-hand.” Through Augie, Bellow intended nothing less than to reveal the thrilling vastness of the nation to Americans themselves, who may never have suspected the richness of its underbelly existence, or who had turned away from it in distaste and horror.

Unlike Joseph in Dangling Man, Augie embraces the freedom to recoil from the life that others are living—as well as from their efforts to get him to join them—and to make himself what he wants to be. True, since he has an agreeable disposition, he does allow himself to be talked into all sorts of things; but he is at heart an oppositionist who will not lop off some essential part of his nature to fit someone else’s idea of what he ought to be.

Augie will need that refractory stubbornness, because almost everyone does know what is best for him. Grandma Lausch, the old harridan who boards with the Marches—Augie, his mother, and his two brothers, one an idiot, their father having skipped out long ago—exercises a sour tutelage over the boys, schooling them in the caginess and outright flim-flam required for urban survival. The Renlings, purveyors of gilt-edged sporting goods to the nobs in the North Shore suburbs, hire the young Augie to work in their store and proceed to “glamorize” him, dressing him up, paying for his riding lessons, insisting he take night courses at Northwestern, wiping out any hint of his unseemly provenance. When he bolts for Einhorn’s poolroom, the toughs there sing the delights of the criminal life; Augie tags along until Einhorn himself, a crippled neighborhood magnate, warns him of the grief he is letting himself in for. Soon he becomes sidekick to a would-be smuggler of human cargo from Canada; when the smuggler gets caught, Augie has to hop freights from Buffalo back to Chicago and endure a beating from his brother Simon. Then he takes to stealing books for an intellectual clientele and winds up reading them himself, creating a serious cash-flow problem but transforming his life.

If criminality is not Augie’s dish, reading discloses a world of spiritual possibility. The results make themselves felt in his prose style, flecked with allusions to the titans of mind and action alike. Socrates and Alcibiades become as real to him as the bagmen and scroungers he grew up among:

If you want to pick your own ideal creature in the mirror coastal air and sharp leaves of ancient perfection and be at home where a great mankind was at home, I’ve never seen any reason why not. Though unable to go along one hundred percent with a man like the Rev. Beecher telling his congregation, “Ye are Gods, you are crystalline, your faces are radiant!” I’m not an optimist of that degree, from the actual faces, congregated or separate, that I’ve seen.

Being an American, Augie figures out, even one from the dirt-end of town, enables one to be a Greek sage or warrior, or to cultivate any other strain one happens to share with one’s distinguished predecessors.



While still in the process of writing Augie March, Bellow referred to it as a study of “the Machiavellian dialectic in American society.” By Machiavellianism he meant something more than the common notion of ruthless skullduggery—though that was part of it. In The Prince, Machiavelli had undertaken to liberate mankind—Bellow once called this “the biggest jailbreak ever”—from the confining morality of the Bible and classical moral philosophy. Whereas Moses and Plato and Jesus and Aristotle held men back from pursuing their “natural and ordinary desire to acquire” wealth, power, renown, or sexual pleasure, Machiavelli told them to grab all they wanted of whatever they wanted in the only life they were ever going to have. In a letter to his editor, Bellow said that “the greatest Machiavellian of them all” in his novel-in-progress was Augie’s brother Simon, who wants to shine with distinction, to stand apart from the crowd, and to savor all the perquisites attending such a position.

As a boy, indeed, Simon considers himself fashioned for a rare and noble fate—for “What did Danton lose his head for, or why was there a Napoleon, if it wasn’t to make a nobility of us all?” In time, however, his ambition decays into crassness. Simon works like a dog, ever angling for the main chance. When he marries into a rich family, he coaxes Augie into following his example. At first Augie obliges: he woos Simon’s wife’s cousin, curries favor with her elders, labors in Simon’s coalyard. But the deal is inevitably queered, the family romance is off, and the brothers part ways, Simon to chase money and skirt, Augie to discover “the axial lines of life” where energy, nobility, and love converge, and where he will at last meet a fate good enough for him.

Augie March’s life is anything but an august march, a ceremonious processional. It is a wild career. But it proves to be the life he wants, and his triumph at the end represents Bellow’s imagination at its most joyous and avid. Augie does become nothing more or less than himself, and in so doing makes the reader want to hug America, and Bellow too.

In fact, many readers did just that. The critical reception of Augie March was a nearly unanimous whoop and halloo of delight—Delmore Schwartz in Partisan Review thought the novel better than The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Lionel Trilling wrote to Bellow’s editor that “it’s Saul’s gift to see life everywhere,” and the novel won the National Book Award. But there were some dissenters. The English author V.S. Pritchett lamented Bellow’s “self-intoxicating style,” while, closer to home, Norman Podhoretz, despite words of praise for the novelist’s premonition of “what a real American idiom might look like,” had similar reservations: “The feeling conveyed by Mr. Bellow’s exuberance is an overwhelming impulse to get in as many adjectives and details as possible, regardless of consideration of rhythm, modulation, or, for that matter, meaning.” As for Augie himself, Podhoretz dismissed him as a cartoon character who comes up grinning preposterously after being pancaked by anvil after falling anvil.

There is something to this. Augie March does occasionally verge on an overload of oddball rhetorical inventiveness, of descriptive coloration, of picaresque incident. But, to my mind, if Bellow errs on the side of richness, he does so in the manner of a picture by Hogarth. Augie is something like a naturalistic novel, but its naturalism has been given a comic soaking in rainbow dyes—as if Theodore Dreiser and Stephen Crane had fallen under the influence of Rabelais, another writer who loved to pile up words in fantastic heaps and who thereby honored language as evidence of a bountiful Creation. If I were pressed to name the one serious disappointment of Bellow’s book, it would not be the language, or the portrait of Augie, but rather the portrait of the woman he marries, the dimly conceived Stella, scarcely more real than her namesake in Jacques Offenbach’s opera The Tales of Hoffmann. Amid so much success, it is a forgivable flaw.



Bellow trumpeted, not without justice, the pleasure he had taken in writing Augie March, which spilled out of him in an exhilarating spontaneous gusher: all he had to do, he declared, was to stand there with buckets to catch it. But what happens to America when everyone, following Augie’s example, just wants to be himself?

The ascent to pre-eminence in American culture of the superb spontaneous self was hardly Bellow’s doing alone. In the 1940’s, “third-force” psychologists—that is, neither Freudian nor behaviorist—were preaching the salutary release of hitherto suppressed vital energies, which would swell gloriously if only one lived in accordance with his true self. Carl Rogers, spearhead of the human-potential movement, insisted that previous psychotherapy had been wrong to focus on curing neurosis and promoting tiresome normality; the real task was to “assist the individual to grow,” in whatever direction gave him the most pleasure. Abraham Maslow plugged the wonders of “self-actualization,” of becoming “fully human.” A more sober student, the Harvard sociologist David Riesman, distinguished in The Lonely Crowd between the other-directed man, who wants what “the crowd” wants, from the inner-directed man, who lives according to his own lights. And then there was Wilhelm Reich, who pronounced the ultimate goal of all human striving to be the orgasm of primordial shattering intensity, which only a paltry few had ever known. While writing Augie March, Bellow had sought the benefits of Reichian therapy, and even kept his own orgone accumulator, a box that was large enough for a man to sit in and that gathered life-giving emanations from the erotically juicy atmosphere.

Other serious artists likewise found in the new expressive freedom a means of discovering their brilliant singularity. The poet John Berryman, a friend of Bellow’s who praised Augie March in the New York Times Book Review, went from composing a very proper sonnet cycle in the late 1940’s to pouring out The Dream Songs in the 1960’s, immersed in the bottomless personal sorrow of his alcoholism while devising a variegated diction and many-angled syntax that took in solemn thought, passionate rant, fierce keening, and monkeyshines. Robert Lowell followed a similar track, from the imposing turgidity of the early collections Lord Weary’s Castle and The Mills of the Kavanaughs to the casual, free-flowing frankness about his own manic-depression and marital woes that began with Life Studies and For the Union Dead. Perhaps the two finest poets of their generation, Berryman and Lowell came to write about their own naked lives in a language distinctively American, and clearly their own.

For still others, though, the new freedom meant license to scrawl and spew. Jackson Pollock spattered paint with the formal mastery of a happy drunk urinating in the snow—which did not stop anyone from hailing him as our foremost painter. Allen Ginsberg cultivated a demonstrative homosexuality and a no less demonstrative affinity for drugs; Jack Kerouac boasted that he had written the novel On the Road (1957) in three weeks. Pollock, Ginsberg, and Kerouac had their myriad epigoni and worshipers, confirming the judgment of the hipster writer Hunter S. Thompson that when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro; Thompson might have added that they take over the business, and make out like bandits.

Bellow himself came to view the culture he had unwittingly helped to unleash with mounting fear and loathing. Although Henderson the Rain King (1959)—the tale of a much-battered Connecticut millionaire who heads off to Africa in quest of primal adventure and wisdom—continues to partake of the spiritual ebullience of Augie March, a decade later Bellow had turned grim with disgust. Artur Sammler, the hero of Mr. Sammler’s Planet (1970), is a Holocaust survivor living in New York who casts a cold eye—his other was blinded by a Nazi rifle butt—upon the current rage for noble savagery: “Millions of civilized people wanted oceanic, boundless, primitive, neckfree nobility, experienced a strange release of galloping impulses, and acquired the peculiar aim of sexual niggerhood for everyone.” The cult of noble energy, in which a solid man like Augie could find his spiritual destiny, had been overrun by hellbent barbarian hordes.

It is Artur Sammler himself who is the noble figure in this new world; in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. Sammler’s austerity, refinement, sadness, and composure, polar opposites to Augie’s ease, eagerness, brio, and affability, are the necessary stays against encroaching chaos and nihilism. This message, in 1970, did not go down well. The reception of Sammler, Bellow’s second masterpiece, was tepid to hostile—too many in the literary world approved of even if they did not actually participate in the cult of the unencumbered self—and Bellow’s stock promptly fell.

He soldiered on, assuming the Samuel Johnson role of defender of civilization. There would be no more exuberant Augies in the Bellow oeuvre. But the loss began to be felt: as his heroes came to resemble more and more nearly Bellow himself, his fiction grew increasingly abstract, as though he had lost interest in life except for the argument he was conducting against the despoilers of civilization.

The despoilers were, and are, real enough. The Dean’s December (1982) measures the barbarism of Chicago, where thugs from the black underclass run a virtual terror regime beyond the reach of justice, against that of Ceaucescu’s Romania, and does not find Chicago wanting. In More Die of Heartbreak (1987), the heroic botanist Ben Crader, who sees deeply into the ways of nature, speculates that AIDS might well be condign punishment for the behavior that is its precursor, a literal plague responding to the moral plague of diabolical sexuality.

Not until his most recently published novel, Ravelstein (2000), did Bellow relax the severity of his judgment. The narrator, Chick, reveres his friend Abe Ravelstein not only as a brilliant scholar and teacher but as a man in possession of a rare beauty of mind and heart, despite Ravelstein’s inability to master his fevered sexuality (he is a ravenous homosexual who has been struck down by AIDS). Ravelstein is altogether Bellow’s most complicated moral portrait, a wintry summation of a lifelong effort to capture in fiction everything it means fully to realize your own nature. For a moralist disillusioned with the unforeseen consequences of his most successful early work, this final twist of the screw is a remarkable achievement—and, I think, an enduring one. In the end, Bellow’s tender, unquenchable, inconsolable love for the singular being who carves out his destiny, even if it is lightning-scarred and bound to shatter, even if it comes conjoined with lethal moral failure, may be the reason his work will be read and reread long after the imperial selves of our time have been justly forgotten.



1 Novels 1944-1953, 1,035 pp., $35.00.


About the Author

Algis Valiunas writes on culture and politics for COMMENTARY and other magazines. His "Goethe’s Magnificent Self" appeared in January.

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