by Daniel D. Stuhlman
Not an Article About Saul Bellow (1915-2005)
When I heard on April 5, 2005 that Saul Bellow had died I thought he would be a topic for my April column. I started to read articles about him on the Web and through JSTOR. The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, and other newspapers published long laudatory obituaries of this Nobel Prize (1976) winning author. 1 There are even sites that are bibliographies of his works, works about him, and commentaries on his works. Examples are: http://www.csustan.edu/english/reuben/pal/chap10/bellow.html by Paul P. Reuben, 2 http://www.fantasticfiction.co.uk/authors/Saul_Bellow.htm has reproductions of the front covers of his books, and there is even an official Saul Bellow web site: http://www.saulbellow.org/NavigationBar/titlepage.html. 3 A Google search on "Saul Bellow" produced 628,000 hits.
Philip Roth has said of him, "The backbone of 20th-century American literature has been provided by two novelists-William Faulkner and Saul Bellow. Together they are the Melville, Hawthorne, and Twain of the 20th century."
With all the acclaim in the literary world for Bellow one would think, the Jewish world would sing praises of his work. It didn't. There are surprisingly few serious critiques of his work among the Jewish intelligentsia. 4 He was largely ignored by the Jewish community. He was born Solomon ( Shlomo, nicknamed 'Sollie') Bellows in Lachine, Quebec, shortly after his parents had emigrated from St. Petersburg, Russia. He was the youngest child and the only one born on this side of the Atlantic. The family moved to Chicago when he was nine. He received a traditional Jewish education, learning Hebrew and Yiddish, as a child. His mother wanted him to be a rabbinical student. Very early he had a love for reading and decided to become a writer. Chicago became the backdrop for many of his stories and the source of ideas for his Jewish characters, but Saul withdrew from the Jewish community. As much as Saul withdrew, his older brother, Samuel Bellows (1911-1985), became attached to the Chicago Orthodox Jewish community. His brother was one of the moving forces behind Hebrew Theological College, Ida Crown Jewish Academy, and other institutions. In his memory, the children of Samuel Bellows (The brothers had different last names.) established a kollel. Their mother died in 1924 at age 46. She never saw the success of Saul in literature or Samuel in the business world.
His book, To Jerusalem and Back, published in 1976 approaches Israel as an outsider. The journey on the plane toward Jerusalem still bothers me. He is on a plane with Hasidim going to Israel for the funeral of their rebbe. The hasid sitting next to him has a discussion in Yiddish about the fact Bellow is not eating kosher food (p. 2-5). The hasid can't understand why Bellow does not want kosher food, while Bellow can't understand that the hasid not only does not recognize the name Einstein but does not even know what mathematicians are. One hasid even offers Bellow $25 to eat only kosher food. This scene is not told through the eyes of one of his characters. This is a documentary of the author's journey.
I didn't think I had anything to add to all the newspaper and magazine accounts of Saul Bellow. He was removed from the Jewish community. Many of his own struggles with people were played out in his characters, but he never denied his Judaism. Perhaps this story I heard in shul last Shabbat will show how he did try to return.
Shael Bellows, a nephew, told me this story. He flew to Boston for the funeral. After landing at Logan Airport he rented a car for the two hour drive to Vermont. He had no idea of what to expect at the funeral. He did not know if the funeral would be according to Jewish tradition or secular. Bellow had been living in Brookline, MA, which has a large observant community. Vermont was the location of his summer home. The funeral was at the graveside. Attendance was small. There were no reporters. Shael noticed that the rabbi looked Orthodox. The rabbi announced that in the previous few years while in Brookline, Bellow and he had become friendly. The proceedings started with the rabbi reading from the instructions of Bellow himself. Bellow remembered his mother, who had died at a young age. Bellow went through most of his school years without his mother. He knew that Judaism was very important to her and she never saw the success of her children. In deference to her memory, he wanted his funeral to be in strict accordance to Jewish tradition. This included having the funeral procession follow the hearse and pausing seven times. He wanted family members to throw the first and last dirt on the grave and only members of the Jewish faith put dirt on the grave.
The newspaper obituaries said that a public memorial will be planned.
As a librarian I have respect for all writers. Bellow has contributed more that his share to the American-Jewish literary scene. He was not controversial or scandalous. He was also a professor of English at several universities. I am not a literary critic or someone who likes to review works of fiction. Fiction can teach us a truth that non-fiction can not. Fictional characters may speak words in our heart that we can't say aloud.
Perhaps the best way to end this column is to use the words of Augie March, a character in Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March --
I am an American, Chicago-born-Chicago, that somber city-and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent. But a man's character is his fate, says Heraclitus, and in the end there isn't any way to disguise the nature of the knocks by acoustical work on the door or gloving the knuckles.
1. One site that lists the obituary references is:
2. Full citation: Reuben, Paul P. "Chapter 10: Late Twentieth
Century: 1945 to the Present - Saul Bellow." PAL: Perspectives in American Literature-
A Research and Reference Guide.
3. Full citation: Cronin, Gloria L. and Hall, Blaine H.
Saul Bellow : an annotated bibliography & research guide. Last updated July 30, 2003.
Dr. Cronin is a professor of English at Brigham Young University. One of her areas
of interests is Jewish-American literature.
4. Judaism Winter 1979 (vol. 28; no. 1) was devoted to Jewish writers
of the past and present. There were two articles on Saul Bellow; "Saul Bellow and the
Moral Imagination," by Irving Halperin and "Bellow's Jerusalem: The Road Not Take," by
Irving S. Saposnik. Even though the bibliographies list many articles on Bellow
and analyzing his work, I still have the feeling that he was largely ignored in
the Jewish community and in Jewish literacy circles.
2. Full citation: Reuben, Paul P. "Chapter 10: Late Twentieth Century: 1945 to the Present - Saul Bellow." PAL: Perspectives in American Literature- A Research and Reference Guide.
3. Full citation: Cronin, Gloria L. and Hall, Blaine H. Saul Bellow : an annotated bibliography & research guide. Last updated July 30, 2003. Dr. Cronin is a professor of English at Brigham Young University. One of her areas of interests is Jewish-American literature.
4. Judaism Winter 1979 (vol. 28; no. 1) was devoted to Jewish writers of the past and present. There were two articles on Saul Bellow; "Saul Bellow and the Moral Imagination," by Irving Halperin and "Bellow's Jerusalem: The Road Not Take," by Irving S. Saposnik. Even though the bibliographies list many articles on Bellow and analyzing his work, I still have the feeling that he was largely ignored in the Jewish community and in Jewish literacy circles.
Librarian's Lobby Stuhlman Management Consultants Stories by Stuhlman Newsletter of Judaica Library Network of Metro Chicago BYLS Press
©2005, 2006 by Daniel D. Stuhlman.
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Last revised January 11, 2006