Saul Bellow: Letters

Saul Bellow’s letters may not be stylistic gems – but they reveal much about the man who wrote them.

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    Saul Bellow: Letters
    Edited by Benjamin Taylor
    Viking
    570 pp., $35
    View Caption

In “Herzog,” his sixth novel, Saul Bellow created one of American literature’s most passionate letter writers. Betrayed by his wife and a close friend (in much the same way Bellow himself had been betrayed), the suffering, cuckolded Herzog crisscrosses the country, holing up at last in a ramshackle cottage in western Massachusetts. Along the way he writes a series of letters – some on paper, some in his mind – that reach a climax in his Berkshires retreat. “Hidden in the country, he wrote endlessly, fanatically, to the newspapers, to people in public life, to friends and relatives and at last to the dead, his own obscure dead, and finally the famous dead.”

Bellow himself often claimed to be a poor correspondent. “I often wonder why I balk so at letter writing,” he writes in 1953. “I’ve never enjoyed writing letters,” he writes to Ralph Ellison, and (again to Ellison), “Drop me a line sometime to say how things are coming. It doesn’t have to be a full-scale letter. I’m incapable myself of writing one.”

Not surprisingly, Bellow’s letters are less polished than the work he intended for publication. Each section of Saul Bellow: Letters is preceded by an excerpt from a novel or essay that sheds light on the time period, and it is striking to see how much more nimble these excerpts are than the letters they introduce. Bellow once said it was not unusual for him to rewrite a sentence 10 times, and he found his own standards for publication hard to attain. At least three novels mentioned in the letters – “Rubin Whitfield,” “The Very Dark Trees,” and “The Crab and the Butterfly” – were destroyed or set aside after he finished them.

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But at the same time, the letters reveal the organic origins of the street-smart intellectual style that he first introduced in “The Adventures of Augie March” and perfected in “Seize the Day” and “Henderson the Rain King.” “Augie March” was a liberating experience for him, though in a later letter he calls it “one of those stormy, formless American phenomena.” This was the book where he learned to generate energy, and often humor, from linking high and low language – but the impulse to do so was there from the start.

In the very first letter of the collection, written in 1932 when Bellow was not quite 17, you see him trying on elevated diction for comic effect, then puncturing the bubble. “I am thinking, thinking, Yetta,” he writes to a girlfriend who is apparently slipping away, “drifting with night, with infinity, and all my thoughts are of you. But my thoughts of you are not altogether kind, they sting, they lash. Or shall we talk business?”

Later examples provide some of the best laughs in the book. Bellow writes to Alfred Kazin that on hearing that Kazin would not be coming to the University of Minnesota, “the lady instructors and female assistants set up a cry like Milton’s Syrian damsels over the limbs of Osiris.” Even, or especially, in the face of illness and death, this humor of high and low is a refuge. “I have death on my mind, today,” he writes in July 1968. “S.S. Goldberg is ill, John Steinbeck is in the Southampton Hospital, Jean Stafford has just been released from same. So we, here, are feeling the wing. But in this weather it is more cooling than anything else. The Angel of Death, floating over the house, brings air-conditioning.”

Bellow was often pegged as a “novelist of ideas” for the way his characters brood and rage over the big issues of their day. In his letters he regularly denied it. “I have ever been unideological,” he writes to Leslie Fiedler. “I have sophisticated skin and naïve bones.” He objects to the way that American books (his own included) “pant after meaning.... [T]hey exhort and plead and refine, and they are, insofar, books of error. A work of art should rest on perception.” And again, “Writers can only try to demonstrate; in close detail; without opinion.”

Bellow’s major characters – Henderson, Herzog, Mr. Sammler, Dean Corde – are certainly preoccupied with the great issues. But as Taylor points out in his introduction, thinking only gets Bellow’s heroes so far. “He shows the comic inefficacy of ideas when brought to the test of experience. Scratch these intellectuals and you find flesh-and-blood, struggling, bewildered human beings.”

These letters, too, reveal such a man. They shed some light on Bellow the writer, but much more on Bellow as a person. He saw letters as gifts, and was touchingly grateful to receive them. “I send you a mere booklet,” he wrote to an old friend in 1989, “and you answer with a personal letter, a really valuable communication in the old style. I sometimes think I write books in lieu of letters and that real letters have more kindness in them, addressed as they are to one friend.”

Geoff Wisner is the author of “A Basket of Leaves: 99 Books that Capture the Spirit of Africa.”

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