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Saul Bellow: Letters

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

By Geoff Wisner / November 9, 2010

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

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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.”

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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.

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?”

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