October 19, 2007

Letter to the Editor

Bellow not all he’s built up to be

Your report (“Alderman Denies Bellow Recognition,” 10/12/07) seems to suggest that Professor Richard Stern wished to have an entire street in Hyde Park named after Saul Bellow, which I doubt any individual alderman can do on his own. Most people in Hyde Park would strongly oppose any such change anyway. I imagine what Professor Stern actually wished was to have a couple of blocks on 59th Street, where Bellow had an office, or Dorchester Avenue, where Bellow lived for several years, named “The Honorary Saul Bellow Way.” This is a common enough practice. Just take a look at the sign at 55th Street and Kimbark Avenue or 59th Street and Stony Island Avenue. Alderman Preckwinkle had good reasons to not agree, but I’m sure if a petition with several hundred names were sent to her she might reconsider if there is no equal opposition. (I, for one, will sign to oppose.)

Bellow’s offensive remarks were not made in the context of the so-called “Great Books” curriculum at the U of C. The issue at hand was the presumed dilution of “standards” due to an attempt to introduce diversity” or “multi-culturalism” in the curriculum. At issue was the question of who gets to define “greatness”: “Great men” like Alan Bloom and Saul Bellow, or lesser human beings who don’t necessarily read only Plato and Aristotle but may also turn to Ghazali or Shankaracharya?

I was at the university from 1961 to 2001. I do not recall Saul Bellow taking any public position on any issue that concerned life in Hyde Park or the campus as a whole—The only exception might have been an attempt to save a pub where Edwardo’s is now. Urban renewal, hounding out of the poor and racially discriminated, the Vietnam War, anti-war protests on the campus—I don’t recall Bellow ever making his thoughts known on such issues. Any number of other faculty members did, as files of the Maroon will show. The only time Bellow might be said to have taken a public position on a political issue was when he wrote To Jerusalem and Back, a book in which Palestinian Arabs have the same significance as blacks do in his Chicago books.

As for Profesor Stern’s wish to have a place where “a young person might come across” Bellow’s name and then “be led to his books”—it can be easily met by having a couple of benches on University Avenue bear a plaque with Bellow’s name. Personally, I would prefer a bench named after Hanna Arendt.

C.M. Naim

Professor Emeritus SALC