University academics gather to remember Saul Bellow

By Zach Werner

Nearly 300 people congregated in Rockefeller Chapel on Tuesday to honor Saul Bellow, a man they knew as a friend, father, teacher, and who some considered one of the most significant writers of his generation.

“What a kick Saul would have gotten from this afternoon,” said Richard Stern, friend and fellow novelist, to the chapel filled with “people who remember him in the streets, the classrooms, and the living rooms of Hyde Park.”

Indeed, many of those who best knew Bellow, who died on April 5 at age 89, returned to remember him on his campus and in his city.

Mayor Richard M. Daley praised Bellow for having “understood Chicago like no one else” and thanked him for “inspiring Chicago to be the world-class city it is today.”

Daley said he befriended Bellow on the campaign trail, when the Nobel Prize winning author lent him his support but also stole the show with his entertaining wealth of Chicago lore. “I had to remind him that it was, well, my campaign,” Daley said, smiling.

Together, the seven additional speakers united the various strands of Bellow’s life by interweaving anecdotes with eloquence.

Stern said he remembered the astonishment he felt while dining with Bellow and discussing the latest draft of his new novel. “I could hardly believe so wonderful a creation could come from someone with whom I was having a hamburger,” he said.

Later, Stern put everything in perspective: “Bellow helped invent this city, he helped build it as much as Mies van der Rohe and the various mayors and his conception will last the way Dickens’ London will last.”

Author Eugene Kennedy explained that the name ‘Saul’ means ‘asked of.’

“What was asked of him was to make the unbearable bearable for the rest of us,” Kennedy said, lauding Bellow’s resilient optimism in the face of turmoil.

The oldest of Bellow’s four children, 61-year-old son Gregory, said his father flourished in the relentlessly intellectual Committee on Social Thought, where he was the Raymond W. and Martha Hilpert Gruner Distinguished Service Professor and taught from 1962 to 1993.

“Minds like yours and mine and my father’s have little to gain from the didactic model I call head down and pencil up,” he said. “To perpetuate my father’s spirit, all we have to do is to keep asking questions.”

Pulitzer Prize winning author Jeffrey Eugenides introduced himself from a unique vantage point as “the guy who never knew Saul Bellow.”

Nonetheless, “the idea that a major writer like Bellow hadn’t given in,” to popular literary despair thrilled Eugenides and inspired him to move to the city that Bellow had immortalized in novels like The Adventures of Augie March.

The service also featured musicians from the Lyric Opera Center for American Artists, who performed Bellow’s favorite pieces from Mozart’s “Le nozze di Figaro” and Handel’s “Giulio Cesare.”

At a reception in the Quadrangle Club following the service, Bellow’s son Daniel said he has found comfort in his father’s books since his death.

“All his books seem to me now like a message in a bottle,” he said. “As I’ve been rereading his works, especially the later ones, I read them with an eye because I had lines tried out on me at the dinner table. The line between himself and his literary persona was blurry. Some people woke up to find themselves the subject in a book.”

Becoming one of Bellow’s characters was a possibility that even frightened the mayor, who joked, “I was always worried about that,” in an interview at the reception.

To conclude the service, Rabbi William Hamilton introduced an organ postlude of the traditional Jewish Yigdal.

“As we seek comfort,” Hamilton said, “It is fitting to finish in a place where Saul found such comfort, the Bible’s first psalm.”