Tuesday October 26th, 2010

A Lion’s Letters

Saul Bellow: Letters edited by Benjamin Taylor
Viking, 608 pp., $35.00

Saul Bellow: Letters may be the last of the great literary letter collections. The phone and the Internet have probably done them in, though perhaps the letters of another generation or two, or the letters of a few more writers of Bellow’s generation, will still emerge. The letters of major writers cannot help being works of art, even if it is difficult to study them as such.

In 50 years, maybe we’ll see the selected e-mails of a writer born in 1977, or the complete text messages of a writer born in 2010. The growth of postage and publishing led to the classic letters of Samuel Johnson, Stendhal, John Keats, and Oscar Wilde. With increased interest in both historical preservation and literary celebrity, the 20th century was the golden age of literary letters, producing essential and endlessly readable collections by Thomas Mann, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, Flannery O’Connor and extended letter-writing relationships like those between Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger, Walker Percy and Shelby Foote, Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray, and Wallace Stevens and José Rodriguez Feo. Bellow’s wise, honest and often very funny missives stand up with the best of the above.

Letters are often wrongly dismissed in the academy as worthless gossip, but the letters of great writers can be windows on to minds and social milieus once vibrant and alive, now long gone; arguments and issues from the past; literary craft; personal triumphs and tragedies; reminders of the teachings of Ecclesiastes (all is vanity); and insight into how smart people thought about peculiar situations in which they found themselves.

In the 1960s, the audio quality of long distance telephone calls improved and those calls became more routine, signaling the beginning of the end of the personal letter. Just as this early digital development was taking place (its long-term implications as yet unclear), Bellow published a paean of sorts to the dying letter, Herzog (1964), considered by many his finest novel. While Moses Herzog composed philosophical, unsent letters to friends and dignitaries, Saul Bellow: Letters contains missives that were sent to those Bellow usually knew well, such as Philip Roth, Ralph Ellison, Albert Glotzer, John Berryman, Alfred Kazin, Edmund Wilson, James T. Farrell, Robert Penn Warren, Saul Steinberg, Richard Stern, Leon Wieseltier, and Cynthia Ozick. There are also wonderful letters to other people in his life, such as agents, editors, wives, ex-wives, children, relatives, old friends, and former classmates.

The letters begin in 1932, when Bellow was 17, and end in 2004, when he was 89 (he passed away in 2005). The volume has been expertly edited by novelist and essayist Benjamin Taylor, with detailed explanatory notes. Bellow grew up in Quebec and Chicago speaking Yiddish at home, and throughout the book he often employs Yiddish phrases (always translated at the bottom of the page, making the collection double as a Yiddish phrasebook). He kept up a diverse correspondence with those older, younger, and about the same age as himself. When he was in his fifties, he took up the study of the work of Owen Barfield, with whom he used a reverent tone. But he was not afraid to write a scalding letter to William Faulkner regarding Faulkner’s post-war support for Ezra Pound. Bellow was encouraging to younger writers and relaxed with his contemporaries, such as John Cheever and Ralph Ellison. The letters to Ellison, who sometimes lived in Bellow’s Tivoli, New York, house when he taught at Bard, are among the best. He tells Ellison in 1957, “the new kid [Bellow’s son Adam] is beginning to sit up and take notice. He seems to have a sense of humor. Having survived the birth trauma he finds life a laughing matter. So should we all.”

Bellow has often been criticized for using the lives of his friends as grist for the fiction mill, and so he did: Chanler Chapman, Delmore Schwartz, Jack Ludwig, and Allan Bloom all were transformed into unforgettable characters. In 1970, Bellow traveled to Africa with David Peltz, whom he had known since 1929. Bellow wrote about the trip to prominent sociologist Edward Shils:

In Nairobi, Peltz and I seem to have acquired an interest in a beryllium mine. Of course, it is mere playfulness for me. I did it in a carnival spirit. Peltz I think is very earnest about it. In any case, it absorbed and amused me for a while and helped clear my mind of shadows.

By 1974, Peltz was upset that Bellow used an anecdote from his life in Humboldt’s Gift. Bellow wrote in response:

Writers, artists, friends are not the Chicago Title and Trust Company or the Material Supply Corp. These aren’t questions of property, are they? It might even make you happy that in this world writers still exist. . . . Your facts, three or four of them, got me off the ground. You can’t grudge me that and still be Dave Peltz. Now, David the nice old man who wants his collection of memory-toys to play with in old age is not you!

Thus did Bellow attempt to explain, or exonerate, himself, but of course, his true exoneration came from the power of his imagination.

Bellow was a keen judge of young talent, writing recommendation letters for Bernard Malamud, James Baldwin, and Louise Glück, among others. Later in life, he befriended younger writers like Martin Amis, Christopher Hitchens, and Stanley Crouch, the last of whom he wrote an appreciative letter after the publication of his first book. Bellow recognized the talent of a 24-year-old Philip Roth in 1957, recommending that Roth contact his agent. He would nominate Roth for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2000. Bellow also nominated Robert Penn Warren for the prize and nominated Teddy Kollek, longtime mayor of Jerusalem, for the Nobel Peace Prize. All of those recommendation letters are in this collection. (All the Nobel letters were for naught. Bellow himself won the literature Nobel in 1976.)

Bellow was married five times, and some of the letters to the ex-wives of these “numerous and preposterous marriages” (as he would later write to a grand-niece) are excruciating, yet often illuminating, and should be at least partly exculpatory for Bellow in the historical court of opinion. He had a hard time with the relationships, and what he went through (child visitation issues and so on) often seemed overwhelming and barely manageable when combined with his other work and achievements.

It is possible to trace in these letters the path of Bellow’s alleged cultural conservatism, which is really more like horror at the nonstop assault on the mind that nobody, Bellow included, could have foreseen. He wrote to Lionel Trilling in 1952:

Are most novels poor today? Undoubtedly. But that is like saying mutilation exists, a broken world exists. More mutilated and broken than before? That’s perhaps the world’s own secret. Really, things are now what they always were, and to be disappointed in them is extremely shallow. We may not be strong enough to live in the present. But to be disappointed in it! To identify oneself with a better past! No, no!

Richard Poirier wondered why (in his review of James Atlas’ hit job of a biography, which Bellow, in a letter to Richard Stern, compared to “the towel with which the bartender cleans the bar”) Bellow was so hostile to Trilling. The answer is here, in a letter to Granville Hicks:

the modern world is full of people who declare that other people are obsolete. Stalin and the Kulaks, Hitler and the Jews and Slavs and gypsies, and Trilling and T.S. Eliot and several others have decided that novels are done for historically. So that one Hegelian posse or another is always riding hard on the heels of practically everyone. Possibly college professors are excepted.

What Bellow did for the good ol’ mainstream literary novel (I say that with the utmost love for the ol’ thing) cannot be underestimated. Bellow seemed to keep in mind that the novel, if properly executed, was in its purest form a sort of panopticon for the study of all social classes, and his genuine interest in the diversity of human experience, including that outside the necessarily narrow sliver of his own, is part of what enabled his achievement. Yet he was clearly deeply affected by the upheavals of the 1960s. He wrote to Daniel Fuchs in 1974, of his 1970 National Book Award-winning Mr. Sammler’s Planet: “Sammler isn’t even a novel. It’s a dramatic essay of some sort, wrung from me by the crazy Sixties.” Of course, it is a novel — a relentless and still very contemporary one — but by denying its novel-ness, Bellow was simply making the point that the Sixties were so crazy he could hardly write fiction that measured up. And yet he did. (I am a heterodox Bellowphile. Mr. Sammler’s Planet and Henderson the Rain King, often ranked in the middle of his oeuvre, are my favorite books by him.)

By 1968, he’d written to Peltz that “the great men are gone, though; we having nothing but punks.” The context of this statement was his pining for P.T. Barnum: if “Barnum were alive,” Bellow wrote, “he and I could make a really great show of this” (referring to a conflict with an ex-wife). Bellow was often ready to make a joke of his highbrow lamentations.

In 1987, he wrote to Karl Shapiro:

Democrat that I am, I write for everybody but as you well know not everybody gives a damn. Grateful for what I can get, I absolve one and all. We weren’t brought up, you and I, to feel superior. The idea of giving the entire USA a Rorschach test in the arts is horrifying. Still, the fatal facts (for example, that our souls are gasping for oxygen) can’t be covered up.

Bellow’s conservatism is often overplayed, partially in an attempt to fit him into the narrative that saw several Trotskyites (which he was) of his age group later become Neocons (which he was not) or something approximating “conservative” (which he was in some ways). But what thoughtful person is not, in our moment of Jersey Shore (a stand-in for all cultural nightmares) a bit of a cultural conservative a la Bellow? Bellow always loved good books and, despite becoming a snappy dresser, never disowned his roots. He wrote in 1948 to one friend about a mutual friend, who had grown up in Newark and seemed to change in Paris, “the man we bring forth has no richness compared with the man who really exists, thickened, fed and fattened by all of the facts about him, all of his history.” The Tea Party, with its all-in, doubled-down bet on American amnesia, would not have suited Bellow.

In 1992, he acknowledged to Stanley Elkin that, “The people I love – the great majority of them are unknown to me.” In the sentence before that he wrote, “I have trouble with thank-you notes or letters of recommendation and so I prefer to think of the pages of fiction that I write as the letters to the very best of non-correspondents.” Consider this review a thank-you note from a non-correspondent.

Paul Devlin is a Ph.D. student in English at SUNY Stony Brook. His work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, the Daily Beast, Slate, The Root, and the New York Times Book Review.

Mentioned in this review:

Books by and about Saul Bellow:

Saul Bellow: Letters
Mr. Sammler’s Planet
Henderson the Rain King
Humboldt’s Gift
Bellow: A Biography

Letters collections:

Selected Letters of John Keats
Letters of Thomas Mann, 1889-1955
Ernest Hemingway Selected Letters 1917-1961
Selected Letters of Marianne Moore
The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor
Letters of Wallace Stevens
Secretaries of the Moon: The Letters of Wallace Stevens and José Rodriguez Feo
The Correspondence of Shelby Foote & Walker Percy
Trading Twelves: The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray