To the Editor:
Reading Saul Bellow with a generational sensibility, as Hilton Kramer does in “Saul Bellow, Our Contemporary” [June], gets at the essence of Bellow’s greatness as an American writer, but also reveals one of his limitations as a specifically Jewish writer.
Saul Bellow’s generation of American Jews will remain unique. Their parents were European immigrants, and they themselves were the first sizable generation of Jews, or at most the second, to speak with American accents, and thus to be assimilable Americans. None of this can or will be repeated on anything approaching the scale it enjoyed throughout the middle of this century. The tension between Americanness and Jewishness proved remarkably fertile, intellectually speaking, and out of that generation came a number of first-rate writers and thinkers.
Then where is the limitation? One might begin by asking where Bellow’s successors are. Writers of his generation had the opportunity—and the gifts—to give rise to something epochal: to replace the dying literature of Yiddish Europe with a Jewish literary culture on these shores. It may be too early to tell, but it appears that they did not. Their literary culture seems to be dying with them. One could blame this on succeeding generations, but it seems at least equally true that Bellow and his contemporaries set a bad example in one regard. As writers they concentrated almost solely on their historical moment as Americans, giving only short shrift to the other side of the equation, the culture that could transcend their historical moment—that is to say, their Jewishness. A common Jewish culture was the one thing that the next generation of young Jewish writers and critics could have built upon. Thus, the fact that writers of Saul Bellow’s generation thought so little of their faith means that they may always be Hilton Kramer’s contemporaries, but never mine.
Creating epochs is a difficult business, not something that we require of our writers, nor anything Saul Bellow apparently set out to do. But when one generation so easily dismisses its Jewish self, the effects of that decision ramify long after.
To the Editor:
In his only play, The Last Analysis, Saul Bellow’s protagonist, Bummidge, in the end is crucified on stage, with a difference: he is nailed to the cross with outsized staples. What are we to make of the fact that a man named “Staples,” writing in the politically-corrected New York Times, accuses Bellow of racism in a style and context which Hilton Kramer believes have the intent and power to “incinerate” Bellow’s reputation? For sure, it is an oddity—I suppose one has to rule out spoof—worthy of Bellow’s cockamamie contemporary planet. . . .
After reading Mr. Kramer, John Ellis, and Joseph Epstein on the betrayal of . . . our finest current writer by the once-proud Times. . . , one wonders why decent and cultured people still subscribe to it.
Robert Greer Cohn
To the Editor:
I was surprised by Hilton Kramer’s critique of Saul Bellow for not taking more forceful stands on various political issues and for not incorporating such themes into his fiction.
One may first ask: is it not enough that Bellow is a great novelist? Must he also make political statements in his fiction? And must we also expect him to participate in public affairs?
Secondly, Bellow has in fact incorporated important sociopolitical themes into his fiction and has given numerous indications of where he stands regarding the trends and values which emerged during the past three decades and which rightly trouble Mr. Kramer, most readers of COMMENTARY, as well as this writer.
Mr. Sammler’s Planet is not Bellow’s only novel critical of the ethos of the 60’s and the adversary culture. These critical themes were already present in Herzog, which portrayed many trends which became more pronounced in the years to follow.
Mr. Kramer suggests that after Sammler and Humboldt’s Gift, Bellow became a writer “whose celebrity was now a refuge from experience and a barrier to any direct engagement with the world.” This is not so, as illustrated most forcefully by The Dean’s December (1982), to which Mr. Kramer makes no reference—a particularly serious omission in the context of his article. It is a novel which pulls no punches in examining certain aspects of the radical malaise in America, and especially what has come to be called political correctness, and liberal hypocrisy regarding race relations. It is a very courageous book, especially given the sensitivity of the race issue, and one that most certainly cannot be characterized as representing an avoidance of “direct engagement with the world.” An engagement with the world, incidentally, was also in evidence in Bellow’s nonfiction book, To Jerusalem and Back (1976), also not mentioned in the article.
A careful (or even hasty) reading of Bellow’s fiction and nonf iction hardly gives the impression of a writer seeking a space between “disabused liberalism” and neoconservatism. But even if this were the case, we must be careful to avoid demanding from kindred spirits our own brand of political style or level of combativeness, which has its place and uses, and which Mr. Kramer admirably exemplifies.
University of Massachusetts
Hilton Kramer writes:
It is difficult to know exactly what, in this context, Mark Miller means when he speaks of “a common Jewish culture” in the United States. (Does a “common Jewish culture” even exist in Israel today?) Among Jews in America, the very words “Jewish culture” mean different things to Jews of different generations, backgrounds, education, and experience. Some Jews are religious, but most—in my experience, anyway—are not. Yet we remain Jews, all the same. We are felt to be Jews, and we are believed to be Jews—by ourselves and by others. And among those Jews who are religious, there are now so many ways of being religious that even religious Jews find it difficult to agree on what, apart from their identity as Jews, they share in the realm of religious belief. But I notice that Mr. Miller does not mention religion. He prefers the word “faith,” which is no doubt less restrictive in the range of choices it offers.
As for what “a Jewish literary culture” written in English in the United States at the end of the 20th century would be likely to consist of, Mr. Miller does not say—and I cannot say, either. He should be more explicit about what he imagines this “Jewish literary culture” of the future would look like. He should not, in any case, expect Saul Bellow—or me, either, for that matter—to meet a standard that so far seems to exist only in his own imagination and desire.
If, as Mr. Miller suggests, “the tension between Americanness and Jewishness” has now been—for some of us, at least—radically diminished, as I believe it has, I welcome and applaud this development. It was to achieve such a relaxed level of tension in their lives and in the lives of their children—in other words, democratic freedom—that my parents immigrated to this country. I do not look back with nostalgia on the sufferings of the past, no matter what they may have contributed to Jewish cultural tradition. Nor should we forget that many of the Jewish immigrants of my parents’ generation came to America in order to escape the restrictions of the Jewish traditions upon which they were raised. Would not that, too, have to be taken account of in any attempt to create a “Jewish literary culture” in the future?
I am amused by Robert Greer Cohn’s reminder of the use to which “staples” are put in The Last Analysis, but only perplexed by Paul Hollander’s benevolent misreading of my essay on Bellow.