As I walked by the river with uneven feet I missed you.
y mother, the writer Bette Howland1, was a close friend of Saul Bellow’s for more than 40 years. He took to her, she told Bellow biographer Zachary Leader in 2008, “since I’m from Chicago . . . and actually I can write.” Bellow was a literary father to Bette (she was 24 and he was nearing 50 when they met at a writer’s conference on Staten Island in the summer of 1961) and an occasional lover. He mentored her and helped nurse her through a defining illness; she ruthlessly critiqued his manuscripts and dispensed cherished praise.
Soon after the publication of Leader’s The Life of Saul Bellow: To Fame and Fortune, 1915–1964, I discovered among my mother’s possessions a cache of letters and postcards from Bellow, 18 of each, dating from 1961 to 1990. These missives, from all over the world—Jerusalem, Athens, Tokyo, Ethiopia—were thought to have been lost, and they have never been published in whole or part. They tell a shared story of difficult apprenticeship in the City of Broad Shoulders and Hard Knocks, a story fueled by passion and ultimately graced by friendship.
hicago. Steam blooming in the frigid air above cracked tar roofs stretching beyond the horizon. (The view from my mother’s apartment in Hyde Park, circa 1970.) A scene of desolation for anyone familiar with the mean streets below. Yet this rocky Ithaca bred writers fit to slay monsters. Theodore Dreiser, Richard Wright, James T. Farrell. The estimable, indefatigable Bellow first and foremost: He published The Dean’s December, arguably his masterpiece, seven years after he won the Nobel Prize. What other writer could say as much?
Chicago, or the poverty and loneliness she knew there, nearly destroyed my mother: Alone one day in Bellow’s apartment while he was overseas, she almost succeeded in taking her life. Bellow’s letters suggest that this event—obscured in my mind by the chaos of those early years, and in my mother’s by another sort of oblivion—occurred around the end of September 1968. This was the year Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were slain and my grandfather drove us boys through the burning ghettoes “so we would remember.” The year Bette and my brother Frank and I scraped six dollars in nickels, dimes, and quarters from a thick mass of blood congealing in the interior stairway of our apartment building on North Sheridan. We needed the money.
In a letter dated July 24, 1968, having received an “authentic” message about my mother’s depression from his friend David Peltz, Bellow wrote:
We are friends, and no friend would let you lose this year—not this year. . . . As for writing (your writing), I think you ought to write, in bed, and make use of your unhappiness. I do it. Many do. One should cook and eat one’s misery. Chain it like a dog. Harness it like Niagara Falls to generate light and supply voltage for electric chairs.
Ever the dutiful student—Bette represented Chicago and placed fifth in the National Spelling Bee in 1950—she proceeded to feed, kill, and make a charred offering of her ferocious depression. Her first book, W-3, narrates her incarceration in the asylum to which she was remanded by the state of Illinois for the crime of attempted suicide.
Bellow’s letters show that Bette nourished him, too. He begins coolly—“I see that you are something, and my sympathy goes out to you,” (August 25, 1961); “you are a considerable someone, whatever you achieve” (April 15, 1967)—but warms up considerably. From the luxurious isolation of “Villa Serbelloni, Bellagio, Lago di Como,” Bellow writes: “I think of your titties and such and feel horribly deprived” (June 7, 1969).
Plato teaches that the love of a beautiful body—and my mother was a looker—is the first rung on the ladder of Eros; Bellow knew that ladder up and down. He was, of course, frequently unsure of his footing, a feeling he expresses in cosmic and comic terms. In a letter from London dated January 17, year unspecified, he offers this striking assessment of his own appearance:
I am sobering up, or simmering down, whichever you may prefer, and the look of me when sober is steady, elderly, pale, and aware of being in the telescopic sights of a disinterested marksman. Up there.
n June 7, 1967, Bellow wrote from the Hotel Grande-Bretagne in Athens that he would leave for Israel that night to observe the Six-Day War: “Odd that the Jews should turn out to be such fighters. Centuries of training in family quarrels and in the synagogue, I guess.” That August, he mailed Bette this note:
(The end of a story by Hans Unchristian Andersen—145 OLD STONE H’WAY, SPRINGS, EASTHAMPTON, NY.)
And so, Bellow, having survived the War, and Bette, having survived the Corporation of Yaddo [a retreat for artists], dropped through two holes in the universe never again to meet in all eternity. Eternity is not a word that impresses the Void, for it is after all The Void.
They were perfectly wretched ever after.
But The Void would wait. Bellow died in 2005, and Bette, already suffering from multiple sclerosis and dementia, was struck by a pickup truck in August 2014 while walking home from the grocery store. The blow lacerated her scalp and laid her out cold, and now her words scatter like vegetables bouncing on asphalt.
It is a marvelous fact that the Ancient Greek word séma means “sign,” “portent,” and “tomb.” “There are always some who have to be dug out,” Bellow wrote Bette on July 8, 1968, on a postcard from Canterbury featuring William of Gloucester. This William, the printed description informs us, was “buried beneath a fall of earth [and] dug up alive.” Just so, I dig to unearth a past, Bellow’s and Bette’s. Everywhere my spade hits the hard, deadly, life-giving, high-tension cable called Chicago.
“Zurich is a lovely place,” Bellow wrote from the Hotel zum Storchen on June 14, 1970. “If Joyce et al thought this was exile they didn’t know Chicago.” Bellow’s descriptions of his raw and beloved city are legendary. Bette, too, wrote knowingly—tenderly—about Chicago: its heat and stench, muggers and perverts, and especially its downtrodden citizens. In her 1978 book, Blue in Chicago, she described our Sheridan Road neighborhood as follows:
There is more than urban poverty in Uptown. The population is largely Appalachian, American Indian, and they bring a special rural desolation. The streaked grime—melting snow—characteristic of the bricks of Chicago in winter, can be seen here even on the faces. Mexican, Korean, black, Puerto Rican, pensioned-off Jew: They get along more or less without racial strife. To tell the truth, that’s the least of their worries.
On the same page, we learn:
The most popular volume in the branch library was the medical dictionary. You had to ask. It was kept under lock and key in a glass case. Customers coughed behind their hands, trying not to look worried about their health. As if their troubles weren’t plain enough.
That’s just it: Chicago was Worry. It was Trouble, the kind that always leaves scars.
Bellow knew it, too. “Dear B—,” he wrote from Jerusalem in June of 1970, “One could do worse. One does do worse. Only I’d feel like a traitor deserting so much trouble.” What did this Jewish Odysseus (from odussasthai: “to cause pain to oneself and others”) owe Chicago? Nothing less, I’d say, than a sense of reality. Oceans away, the Windy City attracted and repulsed him, and remained the basic measure of all his experience. In a postcard from Tokyo picturing sumo wrestlers (May 5, 1972), he marvels:
[Dave] Peltz is out Peltzed here. Chicago is out Chicagoed by Tokyo. Three times bigger, crimeless, stinkier . . . and kinkier. As for me, I go on scribbling and talking. My paradise will be musical and wordless.
Bette also chose a life of wordy purgatory. But she left behind the crime, the stink, and the kink around 1975—left the city for good, except for a brief stint teaching for the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought in the ’90s. And perhaps not altogether for good, as Bellow seems to have sensed. His last letter to Bette (from Vermont, July 10, 1990) captures the meaning of Chicago for both of them, and reveals something essential in their relationship as well. “We’re going to be back in Chicago in October,” he wrote of himself and his wife, Janis, “and you might think seriously about visiting your old life-giving turf. Like Lady Antaeus.”
Antaeus—speaking of sumo fighters—was in Greek mythology a mugger who forced travelers to wrestle and then took their lives. (He would have been at home on the West Side, along Division Street, where my mother grew up.) He was unbeatable as long as he remained in contact with the earth, thus becoming a conduit for deep chthonic powers.
Now Bellow had primal power in spades, and it flowed up from the steaming Chicago ground and through his fingertips onto paper and other surfaces. He was a deadly Lord for many a Lady. The first time Bette laid eyes on him, at that conference on Staten Island, she recognized him as a special kind of executioner—another sort of disinterested marksman. “In his sports shirts, short-sleeved, open at the neck,” she wrote not long ago in “Herzog’s Bellow,” an unpublished manuscript, “his grizzled chest inspired, I imagine, somewhat the same sympathies the hunter must feel for his tough, wily, old big game.” More than imagine, in fact. For in his first, cool letter to her, dated August 25, 1961, Bellow regrets their having started off with “the wrong sort of bump.”
About this, let me say two things. First, you had to see him in his cocked hats and dapper overcoats. Plato knew that sexuality and intelligence are almost identical twins, which is to say Plato might as well have known Bellow. Bellow told me a decade before he died, “my flesh abides.” It did indeed.
Second, and more important: Lady Antaeus was herself a killer. She was, after all, from Chicago, Slaughterhouse to the World, Sinclair’s Jungle. And she was also hunting big game—much bigger than Bellow first reckoned: a real life in literature, paid for in blood. Spelling bees were kid stuff: She wanted to do something with the letters.
ne of my mother’s favorite words is (was) ardor. She typed more than a hundred words a minute, firing her Selectric day and night through my childhood like a machine gun. Her ardor finally began to penetrate Bellow’s armor. “Dear Bette,” he wrote on April 15 1967,
I had been thinking of you, and when your letter came it stirred me to think some more. How to put it: I have been feeling what you are. With all my experience and training as a writer I apparently remained an amateur in sympathy because I’ve rarely had such affectionate appreciation from anyone.
Still wooden and guarded here, Bellow eventually came to recognize Bette’s deep kinship with him by the battle scars she showed and spoke of—“with advantages,” as Shakespeare’s Henry says.
On July 24, 1968, Bellow—himself no stranger to divorce—wrote: “I thought it unkind—horrible—that your husband would not take the boys in August but tried to bargain with you, taking advantage of your illness.” On September 18, he began a letter from Bellagio with muffled concern: “Are you well—comfortable, working?” That same day, a more insistent postcard:
She must have replied with alarming news, judging from his vehement admonishments of September 23:
I’ve just read your letter. It’s very distressing. Now please don’t leave Chicago before I return. We’ve got some things to talk about. Lunatics to the right, lunatics to the left. But stand by a bit. Good God, no one should live so badly. It’s totally unnecessary.
In Twilight of the Idols, Friedrich Nietzche wrote, “From the Military School of Life. —What does not kill me makes me stronger.” For Bellow, it sufficed to learn this lesson vicariously. He writes in a postcard from Lisbon (c. 1970?):
Everyone has his own way of committing suicide. Having discovered my own way, I shall now refrain. I am ready to go straight.
Your reformed friend,
But Bette had the steel to test Nietzsche’s dictum on herself, in Bellow’s home no less. She calmly called the police immediately after swallowing the pills, then passed out. What does this signify? Who did the Lady Antaeus lay hands on here? Herself or Bellow? Reading these letters today, it’s hard to tell.
o leave it at that would be unjust both to Bette and Bellow. Bette achieved literary escape velocity chasing Bellow’s star, eventually winning a MacArthur Award—although she never again achieved the heights of her previous work. (Perhaps she never should have left Chicago.) As for Bellow, you will already have gleaned that he began to inspect himself in the mirror of her character. In a letter dated September 7, year and place unknown, he wrote:
How different life would be if it were all as clear to me as it seems to be to you. And I love you for saying it to me. I am beginning to behave as if it were true, and it doesn’t feel false at all. Perhaps I can come up to the mark.
In the same letter, Bellow speaks of “the disorderly, fertile spirit put in order by painful self-discipline”—a condition in which things become clearer, and some measure of self-knowledge is available. And in his London letter of January 17, Bellow confesses that the disinterested marksman “reminds me of duties unperformed”:
When I think of these, I can see that I have planned poorly, if at all. Merely counting on spontaneity or luck, as I have usually done, will no longer do. So before being knocked off, can I expect to do a little better.
That is the question.
Yours ever, Saul
As far as I can tell, Bellow’s and Bette’s relationship finally lost its frenzy, mellowed, and settled on the higher rungs of Plato’s Ladder of Eros. Or, if you prefer Aristotle, they discovered in themselves and each other the compatible virtues of genuine friends. Consider this lovely passage from Bellow’s 1970 letter from Zurich:
Running water, very clear and green, with swans in it, has a therapeutic effect on me. And as I walked by the river with uneven feet I missed you. I thought how grand if Bette were only here. My heart has not turned to cinders—quite. Apparently I have a valued connection still and given green pastures etc. I experience love again. In Chicago my preoccupations are aggressive.
It’s all here, the fierce love and the incinerating strife, but expressed with lucid equanimity. A sprout from the ashes. This is the quiet friendship of aging veterans.
oday Bette is no longer fit to fight, or to grip things with her words. The past slips through her arthritic, twisted fingers. She recently became a great-grandmother, and I a grandfather. In the thrust of her jaw I can see my great-grandmother, Bubba, “a little old lady, shrunken with age, gazing from between shoulders hunched with arthritis.” She lived in the same building as we did, 5050 North Sheridan, in an apartment just a few floors up from us. Bette captured the setting in Blue in Chicago:
A drizzle of soot from the open window, the curtains struggling and fluttering. A row of pickle jars on the sill, filled with cloudy water; sprouting sweet potatoes, wandering Jew—the thin strings of roots reaching in all directions—a cracked avocado pit thrusting up one scrawny shoot. No power on earth could keep those windows clean. Chicago lies before us in all its unfinished business. Brightness falls from the air.
1 She has written three books – W-3 (Viking, 1974), Blue in Chicago (Harper and Row, 1978), Things to Come and Go (Knopf, 1983) – as well as several short stories and essays. Her published work in Commentary includes “Public Facilities – A Memoir” (February 1972), “Blue in Chicago” (August 1972), “To the Country” (November 1973), “Golden Age” (April 1975), “The Life You Gave Me” (August 1982), and “The Escape Artist” (May 2006).