Saul Bellow Biography

Born Solomon Bellows, June 10, 1915, in Lachine, Quebec, Canada; died April 5, 2005, in Brookline, MA. Author. Saul Bellow was one of the greatest American novelists of the second half of the 20th century, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, the Pulitzer Prize, and three National Book Awards. His self-doubting, searching heroes and anti-heroes, often enhanced versions of himself, searched for meaning before learning to live with spiritual unease. His works were serious and philosophical, yet cleverly comic, skeptical, and full of energy. He made his hometown, Chicago, the center of many of his novels, and his work reflected both his Jewish heritage and a middle-American sensibility. His 1953 breakthrough novel, The Adventures of Augie March, began with one of the most celebrated opening lines of 20th-century American literature: "I am an American, Chicago born—Chicago, that somber city—and go at things as I have taught myself, freestyle, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent."

Bellow was born Solomon Bellows in the small town of Lachine, Quebec, to parents who immigrated from St. Petersburg, Russia. His mother, Liza, wanted him to be a rabbi or a violinist, but he claimed he was inspired to be a great novelist by reading Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe while in the hospital at age eight. The next year, his family moved to Chicago, where his father, Abraham, worked as a baker and coal deliveryman. Bellow started writing in elementary school with his friend Sydney J. Harris, who became a Chicago newspaper columnist.

Bellow went to the University of Chicago in 1933, then transferred to Northwestern University to save money. He majored in anthropology and sociology, subjects that informed the deep curiosity about the human condition reflected in his novels. He went to graduate school at the University of Wisconsin for anthropology, but dropped out and began writing biographies for the federal government's writer's project in Chicago. He moved to New York City to write fiction, and joined the merchant marine during World War II. While in the service, he finished his first novel, Dangling Man, published in 1944 and styled as a journal kept by a young man from Chicago who was waiting to be drafted. His second novel, The Victim, about anti-Semitism, came out in 1947. Both attracted some favorable reviews, but later critics and Bellow himself regarded them as early, lesser experiments.

The idea for The Adventures of Augie March, the novel that made Bellow famous and won him his first National Book Award, came to him while he was studying in Paris on a Guggenheim Fellowship awarded to him in 1948. He was walking through the city when he remembered a childhood friend who was always talking wildly about an exciting new scheme. He imagined a novel told in that friend's voice, and knew he had to write it. Augie March, released in 1953, "announced a brand-new voice in American fiction, jazzy, brash, exuberant, with accents that were both Yiddish and Whitmanian," Mel Gussow and Charles Mcgrath wrote in Bellow's New York Times obituary.

Bellow's next major work, 1959's Henderson the Rain King, told the story of a millionaire violinist and pig farmer who travels to Africa, searching in vain for a meaning in his life. Bellow said that book found him in full use of his literary powers, and that Henderson was the character who was most like himself. "Fiction is the higher autobiography," he said (as quoted by Gussow and Mcgrath in the New York Times ), and many of his characters were thinly veiled, slightly mythologized versions of him and his friends and enemies. The title character of his 1964 novel Herzog, for instance, endures another man seducing his wife, much as Bellow himself found that his second wife had cheated on him with a friend of his. Not that Bellow was usually a heart-broken guy; he was more of a heartbreaker, veteran of many love affairs, married five times and divorced four.

Herzog won Bellow his second National Book Award, while 1969's Mr. Sammler's Planet won him his third. His last great success, the 1975 novel Humboldt's Gift, depicts a Pulitzer-Prize-winning writer named Charlie Citrine who is coping with the death of his mentor, the title character, based on Bellow's friend, the poet Delmore Schwartz. The novel proved prophetic: it won Bellow the Pulitzer Prize. The Nobel Prize in Literature followed in 1976.

Critics tend to view Bellow's work after the Nobel as minor compared to his earlier achievements; they felt it was less energetic and too full of laments about decay in the culture and in his beloved Chicago. His novels of the 1980s, one critic said, are interesting mostly for a softer view of relationships between men and women than his early novels, which were sometimes criticized as hostile to women. Meanwhile, in 1989, he married his last wife, Janis Freedman, a graduate student almost 50 years younger than him; they had a daughter, his fourth child, when Bellow was 83.

Bellow taught college students for most of his career, though his financial success made it unnecessary. He explained that writing can be a lonely profession, and he prized the human contact and the chance to talk about books that teaching provided. In 1993, he left the University of Chicago to teach at Boston University, sad that most of his Chicago friends had died. He published his last novel in 2000, Ravelstein. Again, the main character was based on a friend of his: Allan Bloom, the University of Chicago professor whose angry defense of traditional western literature and thought, The Closing of the American Mind, had created a sensation in the late 1980s. Ravelstein, too, attracted attention, thanks to its vivid portrayal of the flamboyant, openly gay Bloom and its affecting account of male friendship.

"If Bellow is not held to rank with Hemingway and Faulkner among modern American literary titans, he is very close," the London newspaper the Independent declared when he died. "More than either of them, he was fascinated by both the intellectual and material worlds, happy to yoke abstractions with immediate actualities. Bellow depicted with equal richness the world of ideas and the people who create it." Bellow died on April 5, 2005, in Brookline, Massachusetts, of natural causes; he was 89. He is survived by his wife, Janis; their daughter, Naomi Rose; Gregory, Adam, and Daniel, his sons from previous marriages; and six grandchildren. Sources: Entertainment Weekly, April 15, 2005, p. 14; Independent (London), April 7, 2005, p. 40; New York Times, April 6, 2005, p. A1; Washington Post, April 6, 2005, p. A1.

Erick Trickey

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