By Joyce Carol Oates
Originally published in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, March 24, 1991
Artists are navigators of interior landscapes. Biography is a matter of externals, where historical fact is laced with conjecture, the intention being the creation of what might be called the "biographical subject"—like a character in a novel, and, like a character in a novel, sometimes fictitious.
Where an artist is the subject of biography, the interior and the exterior landscapes are often at odds. Does one know more about Emily Dickinson from reading a massive biography about her, or from reading her poetry? Does the virtual mountain of facts provided about William Faulkner in the biography by Joseph Blotner contribute to, or subtract from, our knowledge of Faulkner's genius?
And where the subject is so idiosyncratic a writer—a writer of "voice," as Saul Bellow—can any biography hope to capture the man's inimitable spirit half so well as a few pages of his most representative prose?
Ruth Miller, currently adjunct professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and a friend of Bellow's since 1938, acknowledges these problems. She carefully states in her introduction that she has focused her scrutiny upon the writer's books—the "patterns" she has found in the books—and that "knowing the man has never helped me figure out how this can be the Bellow on whom nothing is lost"—this quiet, still, diffident man whose hands "have never held a heavier burden than a pen."
By the end of the biography, after she has taken us through a meticulous examination of Bellow's work, including public lectures and uncollected essays, Miller concludes, somewhat modestly, that Bellow's special value for his readers is his ability to speak their "secrets" openly: He is a sort of "proxy" of the spirit, a memorialist of a rapidly fading America.
No doubt this is true, but how does it distinguish Bellow from numberless other writers and poets of our time? Given the onslaught of violently negative reviews Bellow has received in the course of his career, from Dangling Man (1944) through More Die of Heartbreak (1987) and the novels A Theft and The Bellarosa Connection (both 1989)—and Miller gamely, perhaps a bit impishly, seems to cite them all—how did he emerge as so publicly honored a man of letters, winner of three National Book Awards, the Nobel Prize and a belated Pulitzer Prize?
A consideration of the unique artistic merit of Bellow's best work, as well as a convincing portrait of the living man as witnessed by others, is beyond the workmanlike range of this biography, which presents a Bellow who is still, watchful, passive and rather dull, an endlessly self-absorbed and progressively self-pitying character who "sits motionless at a table, with only his pen moving back and forth across the page" while other men and women "walk steadily to and from their business." This Bellow emerges tired, embittered, obsessed with his past "before books defeated him and institutions failed him and the dishonesty and wickedness of men in action debased him."
No wonder Bellow denied saying many of the things that Miller remembers him as saying, and, after having cooperated with her for the 13 years she worked on this project, refused to allow her to quote directly from material in his archive at the University of Chicago. Bellow even initiated legal action to prevent the book's publication in its original form.
Saul Bellow was born in 1915, in a suburb of Montreal to which his parents had emigrated from St. Petersburg in 1913. In 1924, the family moved to Chicago, and Bellow's great subject was given him—the gritty splendor and drama of this most American of cities, memorably recorded in the much-acclaimed The Adventures of Augie March (1953) and in the most lyric passages of Herzog (1964), Humboldt's Gift (1976) and "Him With His Foot in His Mouth" (1984).
From the first, Bellow was a brilliant, restless, intense personality, born to be a "performing creature," by temperament an artist—"unstable, stubborn, and nervous." And he has long been one whom grudges nourish. (For instance, all his life, Bellow has been derisive of what he calls the "academy"—though he has been associated with the University of Chicago for decades—because, when he applied for graduate studies in English at Northwestern, in 1936, he was rejected since "as a Jew, and the son of Russian Jews, he would probably not have the 'feeling' for Anglo-Saxon literature."
Indeed, Bellow's most spectacular commercial success, Herzog, which despite its erudition was a best seller for more than a year, was written out of the humiliation and rage that Bellow felt over the breakup of his second marriage. And Humboldt's Gift, the flamboyantly comic novel that may have precipitated Bellow's Nobel Prize, was written partly to eulogize his tragic friend Delmore Schwartz and partly to defend himself against Schwartz's indictment of Bellow as a charlatan. (Von Humboldt Fleisher is Charlie Citrine's shadow-self, mocking his pretensions, yet, in the end, providing Charlie with the "gift" of a fantastical unpublished manuscript that yields further fortune.)
One of the strengths of Miller's analytic approach is her exegesis of the progress of the writer's imagination: its convolutions, compulsive repetitions, variations and growth. She leaps ahead of chronological sequence to show how patterns, even tics of speech, recur from book to book over a period of 45 years: The young Bellow's sense of isolation and stubborn individualism is reiterated in such troubled, misanthropic figures as Arthur Sammler of the didactic Mr. Sammler's Planet (1970) and Albert Corde of the embittered The Dean's December (1982). The focus of Bellow's art always has been the self in opposition to society, but also in estrangement—unwilled, lamented—to his own family, whom he seems to have loved deeply, while never feeling that they understood him or approved of his "scribbles." As late as 1985, Miller reports, Bellow was tormented by such familial rejection: "When had he never not been isolated?"
Saul Bellow: A Biography of the Imagination certainly helps to explain the extreme conservatism and air of angry reproach in Bellow's public utterances since approximately 1970. Unlike the young, vigorous, tolerant Augie March, Bellow has grown increasingly reactionary; his diatribes against the current state of literature, indeed of humanity in general, are well known. Women's studies, African-American studies, gay and lesbian writing, experimental art, Third World literature, above all the "academy" and "intellectuals"—all have drawn Bellow's scorn in recent years, as if, garlanded with awards as he is, he yet fears the emergence of voices and vision distinct from his own.
This political stance has endeared Bellow to the cultural right, but alienated younger and more liberal readers, who would be well advised to read Bellow's early work, as well as the free-wheeling Humboldt's Gift. Though lacking the complexity and certainly the livingness of a biography informed by interviews, this study is nonetheless valuable as a means of understanding Saul Bellow in his own, interior terms.
Miller is to be commended for her diligence in so assiduously interpreting Bellow's fiction and for her diplomacy in interpreting Bellow's life—a difficult balance between youthful adulation and adult objectivity, a fellow writer's respect and an impartial witness's ambivalence.