October 12, 2007

Racing to conclusions

The City of Chicago has a tradition of honoring great Chicagoans with street names, statues, and other memorabilia. If Fourth Ward Alderman Toni Preckwinkle has her way, the late U of C professor Saul Bellow, one of the most revered writers in American literature, will be denied any such honor because Preckwinkle deems some of his remarks racist.

In other words, one individual alderman—who did not return calls from the Maroon or other Chicago media—is standing between Bellow’s admirers and their goal of honoring the great writer by making his name a part of the city. As alderman of the ward where Bellow would be honored, Preckwinkle is entitled to block this effort—regardless of her familiarity with Bellow or his work.

Bellow, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1976, is considered one of the best writers of the 20th century. A true Chicagophile, much of his writing was inspired by the city, its neighborhoods, and the University, where he taught for the Committee on Social Thought for over 30 years.

His literary achievements are beyond dispute, and he was a brilliant, reflective man whose views on anything wouldn’t fit on a bumper sticker. The label “racist” is a disservice to his legacy.

The source of much of the fuss about Bellow’s views on race lies in a quotation he made in a 1988 interview with The New Yorker: “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans? I’d be glad to read him.” But this quote must be understood in the context of the “Great Books” battles that have shaped the University’s history. The architects of the University’s core curriculum were individuals who believed that students should read the best thinkers and writers in the Western tradition.

Whatever the merits or flaws of the “Great Books” approach to education, it is a serious idea and deserves to be treated as such. Likewise, admirers and critics of Bellow should discuss his work and his views, but they should also be united in their recognition of his contribution to literature and to the University of Chicago.