The world’s largest collection of Nobel laureate Saul Bellow’s personal papers is now accessible for research in the Special Collections Research Center in Regenstein Library.
The collection comprises manuscripts, Rolodex record cards and personal correspondence. According to Processing Archivist Ashley Gosselar, scholars may use these documents to research Bellow’s career as a writer and professor who spent three decades at the University of Chicago.
These papers also give researchers a glimpse of Bellow as an engaged thinker who fostered many personal relationships with his intellectual contemporaries, Gosselar said. Bellow’s epistolary network rapidly grew after he won the Nobel Prize and the Pulitzer Prize in the same year, 1976.
“That really is what an archive of personal papers is like: you’re going to get great insight into Bellow as a human being in addition to Bellow as a writer,” Gosselar said. “One could conceivably come to this collection without any interest in Bellow and spend days going through his correspondence because of one’s interest in other thinkers and writers of the 20th century.”
The archival work was sponsored by a gift from Robert Nelson (A.M. ’64) and Carolyn Nelson (A.M. ’64, Ph.D. ’67) according to a University press release. Gosselar said she spent around a year reviewing and organizing the collection, in addition to writing the online guide for its voluminous contents.
The collection physically fills 254 boxes and spans 90 years. Some of the collection’s highlights include letters exchanged with Invisible Man author Ralph Ellison, who lived with Bellow in the late 1950s.
“It’s just a folder, but the letters are lengthy, and Ralph discusses his thoughts about writing,” Gosselar said. “There are these nice personal asides about housework and maintenance, things like, ‘Oh, I bought a rake.’”
Since Bellow was not only a prolific author but also a relentless editor, a large portion of the collection consists of his manuscripts, Gosselar said. Bellow typically began his works longhand in notebooks, then worked from multiple typescript drafts.
“Some of the drafts were for writings never published, so there is room for discovery,” Gosselar said. “It’s an opportunity for researchers to see how his work evolved and what his creative process was like.”
According to Gosselar, the collection of Bellow’s works coincides with a resurgence in Bellow’s literature. In 2011, the Chicago Public Library chose Bellow’s novel The Adventures of Augie March as its “One Book, One Chicago” selection. In summer 2017, playwright and director David Auburn, a visiting fellow at the UChicago Neubauer Collegium, will write a stage adaptation of the same novel to be premiered at the Court Theatre.
“Thinking even bigger picture, as President Obama was getting ready to leave office, he gave an interview with The New York Times about books which were important to him during his presidency,” Gosselar said. “He cited Bellow’s fiction, because for him the story of the immigrant outsider that Bellow’s work so often portrays provides very relevant insight into the longings of the outsider in American culture.”
Special Collections is open to the general public, not just UChicago students and faculty. Because a guide to Bellow’s documents is published online, people interested in accessing his papers can request specific papers for perusal at their convenience in Special Collections.