“This Caring or Believing or Love Alone Matters”
When urged to write his autobiography, Saul Bellow used to say there was nothing to tell except that he’d been unbearably busy ever since getting circumcised. Busy with the making of novels, stories and the occasional essay; with romance, marriage, fatherhood, divorce, friendship, enmity, grief; with the large-scale events of history and small-scale events of literary life; with the prodigious reading habit and dedication to teaching that saw him into his later eighties. Busy, not least, corresponding. The great authors are not all so good at letters; indeed, you could make a considerable list of figures of the first rank who were perfunctory correspondents. It would seem to be a separate gift, as mysterious as the artistic one. Looking over the best letter writers in our language of the last century—Virginia Woolf, D. H. Lawrence, Hart Crane, Katherine Anne Porter, Evelyn Waugh, Samuel Beckett, John Cheever, William Maxwell, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, Flannery O’Connor, James Merrill—one finds every sort of personality and no common denominator. Some kept diaries, others did not. Some were prolific, others produced relatively little. The most one can say is that each led a rich additional life in his or her correspondence, rich enough to have become a part of literature itself.
Four generations—the one before him, his own, and the two following—are addressed in Bellow’s tremendous outflow, an exhaustive self-portrait which is, as well, the portrait of an age. His correspondents are a vast company including wives, sons, friends from childhood, fellow writers, current and former lovers, current and former students, admiring and disadmiring readers, acolytes asking him to read what they’d written (he nearly always did, it seems), religious crackpots, autograph hounds (hundreds), obsessive adulators, graphomaniacs and seriously insane people.
It will come as no surprise to readers of Bellow’s novels and stories that he can in his letters be instantly dramatic as well as very funny. Here are a few instances from the Alfred Kazin file. First, Paris, January of 1950: “And of this I am sure: that he [Stendhal] would do as I do with his copy of Les Temps Modernes, that is, scan the latest sottises, observe with brutal contempt the newest wrinkle in anguish, and then feed Simone’s articles on sex to the cat to cure her of her heat and give the remainder to little G[regory] to cut dollies from; he can’t read yet and lives happily in nature.” Then there is this from Martha’s Vineyard, summer 1964: “We’ve seen a bit of Island Society. Styron is our leader, here in little Fitzgeraldville. Then there is Lillian Hellman, in whom I produce symptoms of shyness. And Phil Rahv who keeps alive the traditions of Karl Marx. I’m very fond of Philip—he’s mishpokhe—and he gives us a kind of private Chatauqua course in Hochpolitik from which I get great pleasure. Why can’t we forgive each other before we become harmless?” And from West Brattleboro, Vermont, summer 1983: “That I’ve become an unforthcoming correspondent is perfectly true; I take no pleasure in these silences of mine; rather, I’m trying to discover the reasons why I so seldom reply. It may be that I’m always out with a butterfly net trying to capture my mature and perfected form, which is just about to settle (once and for all) on a flower. It never does settle, it hasn’t yet found its flower. That may be the full explanation.”
Despite the comradely tenor of these excerpts, relations with Kazin were far from easy. Reading the file through, one encounters Bellow as often outraged as affectionate. Yet in the aftermath of renewed hostilities between them, he dispatched this in the summer of 1982:
A happy birthday to you, and admiration and love and long life—everything. Never mind this and that, this and that don’t matter much in the summing up.
Love from your junior by five days,
With others of his generation, relations were less volatile. John Cheever he loved, delighting in their differences of style and heritage. On both sides the letters are courtly, of the great-man-to-great-man kind, yet abundantly tender. Here is Bellow’s reply to Cheever, who had asked him to read page-proofs of Falconer: “Will I read your book? Would I accept a free trip to Xanadu with Helen of Troy as my valet? [ . . . ] I have to go to New York this weekend, and also to Princeton to see my son Adam playing Antonio, the heavy in The Tempest. [ . . . ] I would like to see you too, but don’t know when I will be free from this mixture of glory and horror.” (He had just won the Nobel.) Or his riposte, two years later, to Cheever’s solicitation of names of writers to be honored by the American Academy of Arts and Letters: “I perish of greed and envy at the sight of all these awards which didn’t exist when we were young and mooching around New York.” To Cheever’s specific request for names of critics to honor, Bellow responds: “There are no critics I could nominate for anything but crucifixion.” And this, finally, written in December 1981, after Bellow learned how gravely ill Cheever was: “Since we spoke on the phone I’ve been thinking incessantly about you. Many things might be said, but I won’t say them, you can probably do without them. What I would like to tell you is this: We didn’t spend much time together but there is a significant attachment between us. I suppose it’s in part because we practiced the same self-taught trade. Let me try to say it better—we put our souls to the same kind of schooling, and it’s this esoteric training which we had the gall, under the hostile stare of exoteric America to persist in, that brings us together. Yes, there are other, deeper sympathies but I’m too clumsy to get at them. Just now I can offer only what’s available. [ . . . ] When I read your collected stories I was moved to see the transformation taking place on the printed page. There’s nothing that counts really except this transforming action of the soul. I loved you for this. I loved you anyway, but for this especially.”
Writing to Ralph Ellison, with whom he shared digs and the early struggle for recognition, he is larky, freewheeling. Here he writes from the University of Puerto Rico, where he was spending the spring term of 1961: “I keep going [ . . . ] and drift with the stray dogs and the lizards and wonder how many ways a banana leaf can split. The dog population is Asiatic—wandering tribes of mongrels. They turn up in all the fashionable places, and in the modern university buildings, the cafeterias—there’re always a few hounds sleeping in a cool classroom, and at night they howl and fight. But with one another, not with the rats, another huge population, reddish brown and fearless. You see them in vacant lots downtown, and at the exclusive tennis club at the seashore. I won’t be surprised to see them at the crap table, watching the game. Then there is the mongoose clan. They eliminated the snakes, but now no one knows what to do about their raids on the chickens. So much for the zoology of this place. The island is beautiful. The towns stink. The crowds are aimless, cheerful, curious and gaudy. Drivers read at the wheel, they eat and they screw while driving.”
The letters to John Berryman sound a different note. Fragility of life and arduousness of art are the preoccupations. In October 1963, with unforeseeable national tragedy waiting in the wings, Bellow’s mood is already dark: “I can’t say that all is well with us. My lifelong friend Oscar Tarcov was carried off by a heart attack on Wednesday. I feel I’d rather die myself than endure these deaths, one after another, of all my dearest friends. It wears out your heart. Eventually survival feels degrading. As long as death is our ultimate reality, it is degrading. Only waiting until Cyclops finds us.” Their friendship was rooted in literary fellow feeling; such pleasure as there is comes from mutual awe. Bellow writes in the spring of 1966: “You have extended my lease on life with these poems. Nothing more stable than inspired dizziness. The poet’s answer to the speed of light and the Brownian motion of matter. We have no holy cities, maybe, but we do have Dream Songs.”
In letters to the next generation—to Philip Roth, Cynthia Ozick, and Stanley Elkin among others—one encounters a man reluctantly accepting the role of senior eminence, though scarcely at home with it. What’s most striking is how differently he responds to each of the three. To Roth in December 1969, thanking him for a letter about Mr. Sammler’s Planet: “Your note did me a lot of good, though I haven’t known what or how to answer. Of course the so-called fabricators will be grinding their knives. They have none of that ingenuous, possibly childish love of literature you and I have. [ . . . ] There aren’t many people in the trade for whom I have any use. But I knew when I hit Chicago (was it twelve years ago?) and read your stories that you were the real thing. When I was a little kid, there were still blacksmiths around, and I’ve never forgotten the ring of a real hammer on a real anvil.”
And in the autumn of 1974, responding to Roth’s essay “Imagining Jews”: “I was highly entertained by your piece in the New York Review. I didn’t quite agree—that’s too much to expect—but I shall slowly think over what you said. My anaconda method. I go into a long digestive stupor. Of course I am not a Freudian. For one fierce moment I was a Reichian. At this moment I have no handle of any sort. I can neither be picked up nor put down.” Finally this, twelve years later: “I want to thank you again for looking after me in London. As you realized, I was in the dumps. [ . . . ] The Shostakovich quartets did me a world of good. There’s almost enough art to cover the deadly griefs with. Not quite though. There always are gaps.”
Writing to Ozick, Bellow’s theme is history, as here in the summer of 1987: “I was too busy becoming a novelist to take note of what was happening in the Forties. I was involved with ‘literature’ and given over to preoccupations with art, with language, with my struggle on the American scene, with claims for the recognition of my talent or, like my pals of the Partisan Review, with modernism, Marxism, New Criticism, with Eliot, Yeats, Proust, etc.—with anything except the terrible events in Poland. Growing slowly aware of this unspeakable evasion I didn’t even know how to begin to admit it into my inner life. Not a particle of this can be denied. And can I really say—can anyone say—what was to be done, how this ‘thing’ ought to have been met? Since the late Forties I have been brooding about it and sometimes I imagine that I can see something. But what such broodings amount to is probably insignificant. [ . . . ] I can’t even begin to say what responsibility any of us may bear in such a matter, in a crime so vast that it brings all Being into Judgment.”
With Stanley Elkin, he is more intimately reminiscent, more deeply revealing. This from spring 1992: “When I was young I used to correspond actively with Isaac Rosenfeld and other friends. He died in 1956, and several more went in the same decade, and somehow I lost the habit of writing long personal letters—a sad fact I only now begin to understand. It wasn’t that I ran out of friendships altogether. But habits changed. No more romantic outpourings. We were so Russian, as adolescents, and perhaps we were practicing to be writers. Isaac himself made me conscious of this. When he moved to New York I wrote almost weekly from Chicago. Then, years later, he told me one day, ‘I hope you don’t mind. But when we moved from the West Side’ (to the Village, naturally) ‘I threw away all your letters.’ And he made it clear that he meant to shock me, implying that I would feel this to be a great loss to literary history. I felt nothing of the sort. I was rid of a future embarrassment.
“But it wasn’t a good thing to be cured of—the habit of correspondence, I mean. I’m aware that important ground was lost. One way or another it happened to most of the people I knew—a dying back into private consciousness and a kind of miserliness.”
But the formidable letters written in maturity and old age belie Bellow’s reiterated claim to have lost the art. The disappearance of those young letters to Rosenfeld is a misfortune for which there are hundreds of compensations, early and late. “It is extraordinarily moving to find the inmost track of a man’s life and to decipher the signs he has left us,” Bellow wrote. Herein are seven hundred and eight letters charting his inmost track and granting the nearest view we shall have of him.
“He had pledged himself to a great destiny,” his old friend and enemy Kazin wrote. “He was going to take on more than the rest of us were.” Bellow’s career, among the longest in American literary history, does indeed seem outsize—in ambition, learning, vision, bravura, fulfillment. In freedom. The letters collected here bear witness to all he was, but the autobiographical narrative they sketch is overwhelmingly an artist’s story. His struggle to write the next page of fiction is, for better or worse, what matters most on any given day. A journey through the Bellow archive reveals how much was taken on, and how much accomplished. The hundred and forty linear feet at Regenstein Library, University of Chicago, include manuscripts, notebooks, address books, appointment books, incoming mail, carbons and (later) photocopies of outgoing mail, photographs, newspaper and magazine clippings, personal objects and so on. Some items: A hectoring letter from his aged immigrant father, dated September 23, 1953, the month in which Bellow’s early masterpiece The Adventures of Augie March was published: “Wright me. A Ledder. Still I am The Head of all of U. Signed, Pa.” A letter from John F. Kennedy dated September 8, 1961: “I am hopeful that this collaboration between government and the arts will continue and prosper. Mrs. Kennedy and I would be particularly interested in any suggestions . . .” etc. A legal instrument certifying that one Saul Bellow, being duly sworn on oath, deposes and says that his naturalization as a U.S. citizen was effective on August 3, 1943, at Chicago, Illinois, as attested by Certificate of Naturalization No. 5689081. (He had arrived from Quebec with his family on July 4, 1924. In other words, the leading American novelist of his generation, who dramatized like no one else American low-street cunning and highbrow foolery, who sought to itemize every particular of the American urban clamor, was not officially American till he was close to thirty years old.)
Also, from the early 1980s, an old-fashioned calling card on which is written, in a spidery hand, “Shall call at your hotel tomorrow Friday at 5:00 P.M. in the hope of seeing you. Sincerely, Sam Beckett.” They did indeed meet the following afternoon in the bar of the Hôtel Pont Royal, 7 rue de Montalembert, Saint-Germain-des-Prés. The living embodiment of modernism was eager to meet the great quarreler with modernism. In the event, little was said. Their encounter resembled Proust’s famous meeting with Joyce. After the halting exchange of civilities, Proust had asked Joyce’s opinion of truffles, and Joyce allowed as he liked them and so on, miserably. A number of versions of the meeting were later reported, most of which sound embroidered. Whatever was said, one thing is clear: Those mighty opposites had no wish to meet again.
Neither did Bellow and Beckett. Had he read Dangling Man, Bellow’s first published novel, Beckett would have come upon this quick bit of dialogue—
“If you could see, what do you think you would see?”
“I’m not sure. Perhaps that we were the feeble-minded children of angels.”
—and might have wondered if he, Beckett, had written the lines, for they could as well have been spoken by Vladimir to Estragon in Waiting for Godot or by Nag to Nell in Endgame. But Beckett, that good and generous man, was likely responding to everything in Bellow antithetical to himself: an unfazed humanistic faith and, beyond that, a faith in things beyond the grave. The last ditch, the final straw, the end of the line, the fin de partie—all these ways of thinking, all these metaphors for nullity, were anathema to Bellow’s fundamentally buoyant, bright-hearted imagination.
A photo from his bar-mitzvah year shows a handsome compact boy in knickerbockers, kneesocks and spectators, smiling mildly into the camera. The day is sunny, the season leafy. In one hand he holds an open book. Harder to see, tucked under an arm, is a second book. No time to waste, what with all there was to read: Tocqueville, Stendhal, Balzac, Dostoyevsky, Marx, Flaubert, Durkheim, Tolstoy, Weber, Conrad, Frazer, Dreiser, Malinowski, Boas, Wyndham Lewis, D. H. Lawrence. This “superior life,” as he calls it in Humboldt’s Gift, this insatiable book-hunger, was from childhood the necessary complement to “bread-and-butter, meat-and-potatoes, dollars-and-cents, cash-and-carry Chicago.” Alongside the Division Street world of peddlers, tailors, greengrocers, fishmongers, butchers, ganzer machers, touts and shnorrers was this lavish invitation to otherness, this superabundant hospitality of books. “I had a heart full of something. I studied my favorite authors. I rode the bobbling el cars reading Shakespeare or the Russians or Conrad or Freud or Marx or Nietzsche, unsystematic, longing to be passionately stirred.”
Bellow’s bookishness has inclined critics to sum him up as a novelist of ideas. True, his protagonists are intellectuals—but intellectuals who discover how feeble their learning is once real life has barged in. 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. In Herzog, for example, Bellow dramatizes the sad hilarity of a scholar no more able to finish his magnum opus, The Roots of Romanticism, than Mr. Casaubon in George Eliot’s Middlemarch could finish his Key to All Mythologies. But when Moses Herzog undergoes the additional humiliation of being cuckolded by his best friend, the block lifts. He finds he can write—not, however, about Romanticism. What he manically scribbles is letters. Not the stamped-and-mailed kind collected here. No, it’s unsent letters that save Herzog, epistolary furor transmuting the failed Romantic scholar—by one of Bellow’s beautiful reversals—into the article itself, a genuine Romantic. Let others dabble in nihilism as they please; for Herzog life remains what it had been for Keats—the vale of soul-making. The thing he’d attempted to tackle at second hand Herzog now knows originally, without mediation, as a birthright. His humiliation becomes the groundwork for revelations of the Sublime. Letters are dispatched to an ever more sacred company. Here, for example, is Herzog writing to his childhood friend Shapiro: “But we mustn’t forget how quickly the visions of genius become the canned goods of intellectuals. The canned sauerkraut of Spengler’s ‘Prussian Socialism,’ the commonplaces of the Wasteland outlook, the cheap mental stimulants of alienation, the cant and rant of pipsqueaks about Inauthenticity and Forlornness. I can’t accept this foolish dreariness. We are talking about the whole life of mankind. The subject is too great, too deep for such weakness, cowardice—too deep, too great, Shapiro.” And to Morgenfruh, a social scientist fondly remembered from graduate-school days: “Dear Dr. Morgenfruh, Latest evidence from the Olduvai Gorge in East Africa gives grounds to suppose that man did not descend from a peaceful arboreal ape, but from a carnivorous, terrestrial type, a beast that hunted in packs and crushed the skulls of prey with a club or femoral bone. It sounds bad, Morgenfruh, for the optimists, for the lenient hopeful view of human nature.” And here to God, in whom Herzog (like his maker) involuntarily believes when he feels life beating against its boundaries: “How my mind has struggled to make coherent sense. I have not been too good at it. But I have desired to do your unknowable will, taking it, and you, without symbols. Everything of intensest significance, especially if divested of me.” Finally, and most movingly, to his long-dead mother: “The life you gave me has been curious, and perhaps the death I must inherit will turn out to be even more profoundly curious. I have sometimes wished it would hurry up, longed for it to come soon. But I am still on the same side of eternity as ever. It’s just as well, for I still have certain things to do. And without noise, I hope. Some of my oldest aims seem to have slid away.”
You love Moses Herzog for blindness, for haplessness, for thrashing around. At length, you love the feeble-minded child of angels for having come into his own. All that letter writing has delivered him to silence. At the book’s climax, while a hermit thrush sings his evening song, Herzog’s self and soul chat amiably, inwardly: “But what do you want, Herzog?” “But that’s just it—not a solitary thing. I am pretty well satisfied to be, to be just as it is willed, and for as long as I may remain in occupancy.” He fills his hat with flowers: rambler roses, day lilies, peonies. “At this time he had no messages for anyone. Nothing. Not a single word.” Resentment, rage, hatred, jealousy, self-pity—all are transfigured into natural piety. And such piety, in Bellow’s mimetic art, has the last word, however bad the news from Olduvai Gorge.
Novels and stories draw their strength from the humility of the emotions, not from the grandeur of big ideas. Their abiding power is a belief—always difficult to sustain—in the existence of others. “This caring,” says Bellow, “or believing or love alone matters.” Let one instance, taken from Humboldt, stand here for hundreds. The scene is the old Russian Bath on Division Street: “Mickey who keeps the food concession fries slabs of meat and potato pancakes, and, with enormous knives, he hacks up cabbages for coleslaw and he quarters grapefruits (to be eaten by hand). The stout old men mounting in their bed sheets from the blasting heat have a strong appetite. Below, Franush the attendant makes steam by sloshing water on the white-hot boulders. These lie in a pile like Roman ballistic ammunition. To keep his brains from baking Franush wears a wet felt hat with the brim torn off. Otherwise he is naked. He crawls up like a red salamander with a stick to tip the latch of the furnace, which is too hot to touch, and then on all fours, with testicles swinging on a long sinew and the clean anus staring out, he backs away groping for the bucket. He pitches in the water and the boulders flash and sizzle. There may be no village in the Carpathians where such practices still prevail.”
Franush appears and vanishes, yet he is immortal, a datum nothing can unmake.
From the Fifties, the population of what Bellow called “my Dead” steadily grows, of course. Inevitable in the collected letters of a long life: more and more loved ones nowhere certainly but in the safekeeping of memory. After seventy-five, you look in vain for survivors from the older generation; after eighty-five, only remnants of your own survive. Like Rob Rexler in “By the Saint Lawrence,” his last story, written at the age of eighty, Bellow no longer sees death as the ugly intruder. The metaphor has changed. Now death is the universal magnetic field, irresistible, gathering us in. Yet now, as never before, the ecstatic sense of being alive—and the hallucinatory vividness of those who are gone—bear down on Rexler with blessings. He recalls his earliest encounter with death: In Lachine, at the level crossing of the Grand Trunk, a man had been killed by an oncoming train. Standing up on the running board of Cousin Albert’s Model T for a better look, Robby sees organs in the roadbed. Aunt Rozzy, when Albert and Robby come home to tell her, lowers her voice and mutters something devout. Remembered in old age, the long-ago day is suddenly possessed as much more than a memory. Everything that happened then seems also to be happening now. Elderly Rob Rexler becomes young Robby stroking Cousin Albert’s close rows of wavy hair, as Albert fiercely pushes the hand away. “These observations, Rexler was to learn, were his whole life—his being—and love was what produced them.”
A sentence of fiction like that is art of the highest order. Bellow’s letters are the other side of the tapestry, hitherto unseen: tangled, knotty, loose threads hanging, reverse of the radiant design. He called his novels and stories “letters-in-general of an occult personality.” The letters-in-particular here collected reveal the combats, the delights, the longings—the will, the heroic self-tasking—that gave birth to such lasting things.
This piece originally appeared as the introduction to Saul Bellow: Letters from Viking Press, a division of Penguin, U.S.A., and was reprinted with the permission of the author and publisher.