Bellow must be remembered and revered

By Phoebe Maltz

I went to the University of Chicago for many reasons. I wanted to be forced to learn more math and science than I would voluntarily have subjected myself to at another school. I wanted to make up for the years I spent watching Designing Women and figured that a few years of Aristotle and Adam Smith might be just the thing. I wanted to live in a large city with decent public transportation but did not wish to spend college in NYC, where I grew up. But really, I went to this school because of Philip Roth. Chicago via Roth just sounded so intense, so bleak, with such harsh winters, and, as far as I knew, was a school without butt-shorts.

Well, I’ve discovered that the U of C does, in fact, have butt-shorts (I even, ahem, bought a pair) but I’ve also learned that Roth isn’t the novelist who best captures the University. That would be Saul Bellow, whose recent death at the age of 89 (fun tidbit: he had his last child at 84) ought to give him a place in the paper of the University with which he is most commonly associated, and which he describes so vividly in his novels.

I’m not the first U of C student to write on Bellow, so before launching into my own take, I must turn to what’s already been said by New York Times columnist David Brooks, A.B.’ 83, and novelist Philip Roth, A.M.’ 55. Brooks and Roth, looking primarily at Bellow’s 1953 novel, The Adventures of Augie March, both see Bellow as significant in his redefinition of what it means to be an American, in his refusal to let his own Jewish (not to mention Canadian) background hold him back.

Brooks writes that “contact with European seriousness only made more acutely aware of his own Americanness, as it has with so many others…Attracted by the rarefied but often anti-Semitic world of high culture, he had that Jewish instinct to want entry into that world and yet not want it at the same time. Out of that tension between European elitism, which stoked Bellow’s ambition, and America’s leveling democratic shtick, which was in his bones, emerged Bellow’s manic conception of the American dream.”

Odd, though, that Brooks—a columnist who has written about the immorality of casual sexual relationships, and who encourages women, at least, to start families as soon as possible—writes, approvingly: “Bellow’s best America would be a Times Square version of a German university, with intellectual rigor on one side and scrambling freedom—sex included—on the other.”

In a 2000 New Yorker essay, Roth, in turn, praises Bellow’s “assertive gusto,” which, Roth argues, permitted Bellow to transcend his background. “It may well have been the precious gift of an appropriate fury that launched him into beginning his third book not with the words ‘I am a Jew, the son of immigrants’, but, rather, by warranting that son of immigrant Jews who is Augie March to break the ice with the Harvard-trained professors (as well as everyone else) by flatly decreeing, without apology or hyphenation, ‘I am an American, Chicago born.'”

Interesting, then, that Roth—whose novels tend to be beginning-to-end explorations of or laments on being “a Jew, the son of immigrants”—should congratulate Bellow for not beginning his novel with identity crisis or hyphenation.

Roth also highlights the fabulous end of Augie March: “Look at me, going everywhere! Why, I am a sort of Columbus of those near-at-hand.” Funny Roth should cite this line, when his own character Alex Portnoy, in a novel written a while after Augie March, felt he had to sleep with women from the American heartland in order to conquer America, that simply being born in this country or spending much of one’s life here wasn’t enough.

The first and last lines of Augie March moved me like nothing else I’ve ever read. Saul Bellow knew what it means to be American, and that one is no less American for being born in a city and to non-WASP parents. He understood why “American” is unlike any other nationality, why the technicalities and hyphens don’t so much matter, and yet need not be entirely discounted. Bellow makes for a refreshing post-Roth read, in his insistence to go “free-style” rather than just ruffle some feathers or bemoan one’s background. As an undeniably urban writer who captures American cities—especially Chicago—in a way that makes them sound perhaps more fascinating than they really are, Bellow should be a must-read for anyone who’s spent too much time poring over Brooks’s odes to the clean exurban lifestyle. I have no doubt that Bellow’s relevance lives on.