Saul Bellow (Shlomo Bellous) - biography
Saul Bellow (June 10, 1915 – April 5, 2005) was a Canadian-born American writer. For his literary contributions, Bellow was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, the Nobel Prize for Literature, and the National Medal of Arts. He is the only writer to have won the National Book Award three times, and the only writer to have been nominated for it six times.
In the words of the Swedish Nobel Committee, his writing exhibited "exuberant ideas, flashing irony, hilarious comedy and burning compassion... the mixture of rich picaresque novel and subtle analysis of our culture, of entertaining adventure, drastic and tragic episodes in quick succession interspersed with philosophic conversation, all developed by a commentator with a witty tongue and penetrating insight into the outer and inner complications that drive us to act, or prevent us from acting, and that can be called the dilemma of our age." His best-known works include The Adventures of Augie March, Herzog, Mr. Sammler's Planet, Seize the Day, Humboldt's Gift and Ravelstein. Widely regarded as one of the twentieth century's greatest authors, Bellow has had a "huge literary influence."
Saul Bellow was born Solomon Bellow in Lachine, Quebec, two years after his parents emigrated from Saint Petersburg, Russia. Bellow celebrated his birthday in June, although he may have been born in July (in the Jewish community, it was customary to record the Hebrew date of birth, which does not always coincide with the Gregorian calendar). Of his family's emigration, Bellow wrote:
“ The retrospective was strong in me because of my parents. They were both full of the notion that they were falling, falling. They had been prosperous cosmopolitans in Saint Petersburg. My mother could never stop talking about the family dacha, her privileged life, and how all that was now gone. She was working in the kitchen. Cooking, washing, mending... There had been servants in Russia... But you could always transpose from your humiliating condition with the help of a sort of embittered irony. ”
A period of illness from a respiratory infection at age eight both taught him self-reliance (he was a very fit man despite his sedentary occupation) and provided an opportunity to satisfy his hunger for reading: reportedly he decided to be a writer when he first read Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin.
When Bellow was nine, his family moved to the Humboldt Park neighborhood of Chicago, the city that was to form the backdrop of many of his novels. Bellow's father, Abraham, was an onion importer. He also worked in a bakery and delivered coal and as a bootlegger. Bellow's mother, Liza, died when he was 17. He was left with his father and brother, Maurice Bellows. Maurice later married Joyce Bellows and they gave birth to Holly and David Bellows. His mother was deeply religious, and wanted her youngest son, Saul, to become a rabbi or a concert violinist. But he rebelled against what he later called the "suffocating orthodoxy" of his religious upbringing, and he began writing at a young age. Bellow's lifelong love for the Bible began at four when he learned Hebrew. Bellow also grew up reading William Shakespeare and the great Russian novelists of the 19th century. In Chicago, he took part in anthroposophical studies.
Education and early career
Bellow attended the University of Chicago, but later transferred to Northwestern University. He originally wanted to study literature, but he felt the English department to be anti-Jewish; instead, he graduated with honors in anthropology and sociology. It has been suggested Bellow's study of anthropology had an interesting influence on his literary style, and anthropological references pepper his works. Bellow later did graduate work at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Paraphrasing Bellow's description of his close friend Allan Bloom John Podhoretz has said that both Bellow and Bloom "inhaled books and ideas the way the rest of us breathe air."
In the 1930s, Bellow was part of the Chicago branch of the Works Progress Administration Writer's Project, which included such future Chicago literary luminaries as Richard Wright and Nelson Algren. Most of the writers were radical: if they were not card-carrying members of the Communist Party USA, they were sympathetic to the cause. Bellow was a Trotskyist, but because of the greater numbers of Stalinist-leaning writers he had to suffer their taunts.
In 1941 Bellow became a naturalized US citizen.
During World War II, Bellow joined the merchant marine and during his service he completed his first novel, Dangling Man (1944) about a young Chicago man waiting to be drafted for the war.
From 1946 through 1948 Bellow taught at the University of Minnesota, living on Commonwealth Avenue, in St. Paul, Minnesota.
In 1948, Bellow was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship that allowed him to move to Paris, where he began writing The Adventures of Augie March (1953). Critics have remarked on the resemblance between Bellow's picaresque novel and the great 17th Century Spanish classic Don Quixote. The book starts with one of American literature's most famous opening paragraphs, and it follows its titular character through a series of careers and encounters, as he lives by his wits and his resolve. Written in a colloquial yet philosophical style, The Adventures of Augie March established Bellow's reputation as a major author.
Return to Chicago
Bellow lived in New York City for a number of years, but he returned to Chicago in 1962 as a professor at the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. The committee's goal was to have professors work closely with talented graduate students on a multi-disciplinary approach to learning. Bellow taught on the committee for more than 30 years, alongside his close friend, the philosopher Allan Bloom. There were also other reasons for Bellow's return to Chicago, where he moved into the Hyde Park neighborhood with his third wife, Susan Glassman. Bellow found Chicago to be vulgar but vital, and more representative of America than New York. He was able to stay in contact with old high school friends and a broad cross-section of society. In a 1982 profile, Bellow's neighborhood was described as a high-crime area in the city's center, and Bellow maintained he had to live in such a place as a writer and "stick to his guns."
Bellow hit the bestseller list in 1964 with his novel Herzog. Bellow was surprised at the commercial success of this cerebral novel about a middle-aged and troubled college professor who writes letters to friends, scholars and the dead, but never sends them. Bellow returned to his exploration of mental instability, and its relationship to genius, in his 1975 novel Humboldt's Gift. Bellow used his late friend and rival, the brilliant but self-destructive poet Delmore Schwartz, as his model for the novel's title character, Von Humboldt Fleisher.
Propelled by the success of Humboldt's Gift, Bellow won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1976. In the 70-minute address he gave to an audience in Stockholm, Sweden, Bellow called on writers to be beacons for civilization and awaken it from intellectual torpor.
The following year, the National Endowment for the Humanities selected Bellow for the Jefferson Lecture, the U.S. federal government's highest honor for achievement in the humanities. Bellow's lecture was entitled "The Writer and His Country Look Each Other Over."
Bellow traveled widely throughout his life, mainly to Europe, which he sometimes visited twice a year. As a young man, Bellow went to Mexico City to meet Leon Trotsky, but the expatriate Russian revolutionary was assassinated the day before they were to meet. Bellow's social contacts were wide and varied. He tagged along with Robert F. Kennedy for a magazine profile he never wrote, he was close friends with the author Ralph Ellison. His many friends included the journalist Sydney J. Harris and the poet John Berryman.
While sales of Bellow's first few novels were modest, that turned around with Herzog. Bellow continued teaching well into his old age, enjoying its human interaction and exchange of ideas. He taught at theYale University University of Minnesota, New York University, Princeton University, the University of Puerto Rico, the University of Chicago, Bard College and Boston University, where he co-taught a class with James Wood ('modestly absenting himself' when it was time to discuss Seize the Day). In order to take up his appointment at Boston, Bellow moved in 1993 from Chicago to Brookline, Massachusetts, where he died on April 5, 2005, at age 89. He is buried at the Jewish cemetery Shir HeHarim of Brattleboro, Vermont.
Bellow was married five times, with all but his last marriage ending in divorce. His son by his second marriage, Adam, published a nonfiction book In Praise of Nepotism in 2003. Bellow's wives were Anita Goshkin, Alexandra Tsachacbasov, Susan Glassman,
Alexandra Ionescu Tulcea and Janis Freedman. In 1999, when he was 84, Bellow had a daughter, his fourth child, with Freedman.
While he read voluminously, Bellow also played the violin and followed sports. Work was a constant for him, but he at times toiled at a plodding pace on his novels, frustrating the publishing company.
His early works earned him the reputation as one of the foremost novelists of the 20th century, and by his death he was widely regarded to be one of the greatest living novelists. He was the first novelist to win the National Book Award three times. His friend and protege Philip Roth has said of him, "The backbone of 20th-century American literature has been provided by two novelists – William Faulkner and Saul Bellow. Together they are the Melville, Hawthorne, and Twain of the 20th century."