Chicago has a tradition of naming landmarks after the famous—and the infamous. This is evidenced not only by tributes to great presidents and civil rights leaders but also the city’s Hugh Hefner Way and Balbo Street, which commemorate the founder of Playboy Enterprises and a facist aviator who had ties to Mussolini, respectively. But so far, the city has yet to commemorate one individual seemingly deserving of such an honor —the late American novelist Saul Bellow, professor emeritus on the Committee on Social Thought at the University, Nobel laureate, and winner of the Pulitzer Prize.
A proposal to name a Hyde Park street or landmark after Bellow, submitted by Richard Stern, professor emeritus of English Literature at the University and a long time friend and colleague of Bellow’s, was turned down this summer by Fouth district Alderman Toni Preckwinkle. In her letter to Stern, Preckwinkle said that she had once heard Bellow on the radio and did not affirm his view on race.
“She had heard him on NPR, I think one of his earlier Jefferson lectures,” Stern said. “Some of the things he had said distressed her.”
“I wrote her back and told her that he was no more racist than you or I. That is, he did not discount people because of their race,” Stern continued. “Also, he was a great man and we named other streets and plazas after people who had their faults. Every human being has his weaknesses and Bellow had his.”
Preckwinkle declined to comment on the decision.
Although Stern said that he hoped Preckwinkle will reconsider her decision in the future, he does not plan to pursue the issue.
“If these efforts result in something getting named after Bellow, then I’ll be pleased. But people ask me what I’m going to do about this now, and I say that this isn’t my career. I’m not here primarily to do this,” he said.
Even during his lifetime, Bellow stirred up controversy with his commentary on multiculturalism. In a 1988 interview with The New Yorker, Bellow remarked, “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans? I’d be glad to read him.”
The comment elicited criticism from those who saw the statement as biased in favor of Western literature and arts. Bellow later said that the statement was taken out of context, and that the comment highlighted the distinction between literate and preliterate societies.
“A man like this is always making remarks that may express a small part of himself, but surely not all of it,” Stern said, in The New Yorker interview. “He hated when people thought he was a racist, because that’s not who he was at all. A man whose view of the world is basically comic is going to approach life through wit.”
Bellow first came to the University in the early 1960s, spending three decades in Hyde Park before moving to the Boston area. During his stay in Chicago, Bellow developed a complex relationship with his surrounding community. He particularly feared the demographic shift in Hyde Park from European immigrants to blacks, Stern said.
“He was not a big man, but he was a strong man. There was a time when we were living in Hyde Park, and he wasn’t married at this time and would often go out alone. He used to become a bit more fearful of going out at night,” Stern recalled.
Stern also said that personal incidents led Bellow to develop a fearfulness toward racial minorities, relating Bellow’s reaction to an admiring University student’s attempts at catching glimpses of the famed writer.
“Brent Staples [the New York Times editorial columnist] came here as a young black student, fascinated by Bellow. Apparently he used to stalk him or follow him around,” Stern humorously related.
“He was a tall fellow and he wore a huge afro and wild clothes. And Brent was offended, thinking that Bellow feared him because of his race. But the truth is, anyone would be afraid of someone following them around, looking at them from behind with piercing eyes.”
In his writing, Bellow voices a recurring concern over what he understood as a nationwide decline in the quality and rigor of liberal arts education.
“[W]hile you could get an excellent technical training in the U.S., liberal education had shrunk to the vanishing point,” reflects Chick, a character in Bellow’s Ravelstein, a biographical novel released in 2000 about the U of C academic Allen Bloom.
Elsewhere in the novel, Bellow writes that “Ravelstein went for classical antiquity. He preferred Athens but he respected Jerusalem greatly.” Deep veneration for the Western canon similarly informed Bellow’s own work as an academic and a writer.
“I think Bellow became someone more conservative in his politics than I was. And he used to kid me about certain more liberal trends and I used to kid him about his stuffiness,” Stern said.
Within the parameters of his intellectual conservatism, however, Bellow found the space to consider the less privileged compassionately and sympathetically—the person he once termed “the man in the street, our ‘normal’ commonplace contemporary.”
“But it wasn’t just stuffiness,” Stern continued. “His views were far more complicated than those held by other people with similar views. Bellow had enormous sympathy for people in the ghettos. He used to go around with an assistant sheriff—a black man—who used to show him some of the conditions in Hyde Park. So Bellow was a man with deep human sympathy and compassion.”
While Bellow held fast to his views on Western culture during his lifetime, he also allowed his protagonists the room to come to new understandings of others and themselves.
In his 1969 novel Mr. Sammler’s Planet, which won the Nobel Prize in Literature, Bellow’s alter-ego protagonist confesses, “I am more stupid about some things than about others; not equally stupid in all directions; I am not a well rounded person.”
And although readers today can only infer his response to these latest criticisms, Bellow did not expect himself to find the answers to the numerous questions raised in his writings despite his prolific output as a writer and his lifelong dedication as a reader.
“As you know, we all have our moments when we’re less articulate, or when we joke rather than think through things,” Stern said.
“But I hope to name something after Bellow, some place a young person might come across, who would then be led to his books,” he said. “And that life would be enlarged and enriched, so much more than if that young person had not read him at all.”