Of course, US literature is rich, a pun playing on the idea that the country is prosperous and the literature is manifold. But we offer it not only as a pun but as a causal relation. The literature is rich partly because the country happens to be also. Few would be likely to claim that 19th century American literature could be seen as so significant as English, French or Russian fiction, but in the 20th it could be argued that US letters are as important as any other nation's. In the 19th-century the US offered Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, James, Twain, Whitman, Dickinson, Thoreau and Emerson. Yet the 20th offers Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Faulkner, O'Neill, Williams, Albee, Miller, Mailer, Bellow, Updike and Roth in just a burgeoning list. The wealth that was transferred to the States in the 20th century manifested itself in a literature equally abundant. In this short essay, we will offer a few words on how Saul Bellow (though Canadian born ) represents this economic comfort. Bellow was chiefly a Chicago figure, but much of Herzog is set in New York and up-state, while the events of Seize the Day take place mainly in New York, while other incidents refer to California. Bellow is a writer closer to East Coast Jewish figures like Mailer and Roth rather than to Midwestern novelists like Marilynne Robinson and Willa Cather. Bellow is a novelist suggesting cosmopolitan ease rather than regional specificity as we see that the geographic is also a state of mind, not only an issue of place. Though Chicago happens to be in the Midwest, Bellow's work gives us far less a sense of regional limitation than national growth, and thus seems more East Coast and beyond than specifically Midwestern, an area that suggests Prairie fields and isolation, the farming of the land and tilling with and toiling with the soil. Thus Marilynne Robinson would seem to us quintessentially Midwestern as Bellow would not. When she says in Paris Review that she used to bake pies for people in the past but doesn't any more, this is a Midwesterner speaking. If one couldn't hear it from the mouth of Bellow that isn't just because of lazy assumptions about gender, it also says something about our perhaps no less lazy relationship with geography. New York might be the Big Apple, but it is in the Midwest we would expect to find someone baking pie. What we often see in Bellow's work is an interest in money and the accoutrements it buys: in a share of that pie. This suggests an East Coast wealth rather than a Midwestern austerity.
Bellow is the quintessential post-war American writer of having plenty, a period when America could claim to be the richest, most important and most influential country in the world. Other nations had fought in WWII and avoided defeat, but the US was the only country that could claim to have won the war: to have the wealth to dictate terms to other nations. Breton Woods and the Marshall Plan reinvigorated Europe and Japan, but it did so on American terms: Communism mustn't spread and free trade deals were necessary. Whether it was Coca Cola or rock 'n' roll, there was a sense that America was on everybody's minds long before Le Monde's Jean-Marie Colombani famously proposed after 9/11 that we are all Americans. Bellow captures something of that mindset in an American awareness of its presence on the world stage, shows a flair for the theatrical boastfulness of his characters, and observes astutely the material specifies of someone's life. 'Even the telephone in my second-story room is a French instrument with a porcelain mouthpiece blue and white Quimper. Deirdre had bought it on the Boulevard Haussmann..." (The Bellarosa Connection) "A witness was sworn, a solid-looking man of thirty-five or so, in a Stylish grey summer suit, of Madison Avenue cut." (Herzog)
Whether setting his novels in Chicago (Humboldt's Gift, Herzog and The Dangling Man) or New York (The Victim, Seize the Day, and Theft), and sometimes in a combination of both cities, Bellow invokes a big-city mindset and loosely East Coast sensibility. In Bellow's work, this isn't uncomplicated. In Paris Review he says, "I think I was lucky to have grown up in the Midwest, where such influences are less strong. If I'd grown up in the East and attended an Ivy League university, I might have been damaged more badly. Puritan and Protestant America carries less weight in Illinois than in Massachusetts. But I don't bother much with such things now." Bellow's background itself is hardly simple. He was born in Quebec in 1915, two years after his parents emigrated from St Petersburg. His father was from Vilnius. Yet what we find in Bellow isn't quite an immigrant sensibility either, and what we mean by such generalisations is to say Bellow is not only an urban writer but an urbane one too. A figure comfortable with high-brow referencing offset by low-life acquaintanceship, Bellow in Humboldt's Gift mixes the underworld with an old-world awareness of deep values. Here we have Charlie Citrine who has on one side an old mentor who believes in the basic values of art and on the other a gangster Rinaldo who wants to pull him in the direction of money. The setting is clearly Chicago, and people have talked of the novel as a roman a clef. But Bellow believes when asked about the importance of place and realism in his work, that "the realistic tendency is to challenge the human significance of things. The more realistic you are the more you threaten the grounds of your own art. Realism has always both accepted and rejected the circumstances of ordinary life. It accepted the task of writing about ordinary life and tried to meet it in some extraordinary fashion." (Paris Review)
Part of that extraordinariness is capturing the reality of an America in terms that can seem hyperbolised but that suggests the exaggerated features of American life itself. Describing "life", one character in A Theft says "you have no idea really how wild and how mixed, or how much territory it takes in. The territory stretches over into death. When I'm drunk with agitation and it is like being drunk there's one pulse in me that's a death-beat pulse, and it tempts me to make out with death." Wealth is part of this 'exaggeration', a tautologically exaggerated sense of extravagance, where affairs needn't come on the cheap and needn't demand the local. "When he went off to South America on business, she learned from Etta Wolfenstein that he had taken a Washington secretly with him for assistance and (knowing Teddy) everything else. To show him what was what, Clara had an affair with a young Jean-Claude just over from Paris..." Bellow gives a proper twist to the idea of International Affairs.
Perhaps the realism resides in the detail and the art in the description. It is no surprise when Bellow mentions just afterwards in the Paris Review the importance of Flaubert. Bellow is famous for the texture of his sentences, and few people writing on him avoid a passing mention about the prose style. James Wood said of Bellow on his death, "people disagreed about Bellow's final stature, but no one really disagreed with the quality of the prose." (Guardian) There is in Bellow a hyperbolic realism, an insouciant style that can pile up realist coordinates within the one paragraph. Here are a couple of examples from A Theft, the first as dialogue, the second as narration. "He thinks no more about going to Iran than I do about Coney Island. The Shah likes to talk to him. He sent for him once just to be briefed on Kissinger." "The children were sent to good schools. Clara had studied Greek at Bloomington and Elizabethan-Jacobean literature at Wellesley. A disappointing love affair at Cambridge led to a suicide attempt. The family decided to bring her back to Indiana. When she threatened to swallow more sleeping pills they allowed her to attend Colombia University, and she lived in New York under close supervision." For Bellow, the world is his descriptive oyster, and this we feel is vital to an East Coast sensibility missing from other areas of American fiction, like the bible belt aesthetics of O'Connor and Welty; the rust belt aesthetics of Carver and Dubus. Carver's characters seem shell-shocked by relocation; Bellow's invigorated by peripatetic freedom. It might seem here that Clara is being knocked from pillar to post, but these are pillars of wisdom and status. Not everybody can have their life collapse and end up at Columbia.
It isn't that poverty is absent from Bellow's work. Sometimes it is abundantly evident as in The Adventures of Auggie March, the mother sewing buttonholes at a coat factory; his father driving a laundry van. In Seize the Day the central character is potentially well enough off but a bad head for business leaves the novella moving towards ever greater anxiety as the central characters looks like he will lose a lot of money on the stock exchange. But that prose style Wood talks about is gold-plated, an anti-Hemingwayesque approach to language that indicates a pound for every description; the idea that observation is something money can buy. In one passage from More Die of Heartbreak, the narrator says: "All those abandoned industries awaiting electronic resurrections, the colossal body of the Rustbelt, the stems of the tall chimneys nowadays bearing no blossoms of smoke. One of your privileges you were very rich was to command a vast view of this devastation." The comment is viewed through a character who is looking out from a penthouse duplex but it is also there in the prose of the writer. Carver's characters would rarely be able to suggest the material comforts of such a view and thus Carver couldn't easily offer such an observation.
Martin Amis quotes the above passage in an essay on More Die of Heartbreak and few (though there are many admirers) have defended Bellow more assertively than the English writer, calling Augie March "the great American novel. Search no further." (The War Against Cliche) Amis's admiration makes general sense if we accept that no writer more than Bellow sits atop American supremacy, with Bellow the figure who represents more than most the wealth the US has accumulated as prose style. There is in Bellow's sentences a slangy, yet elevated English that suggests English prose ought to give way to a more energised Americanised idiom. Amis's own father Kingsley missed the power shift involved, saying "Bellow is a Ukrainian-Canadian, I believe. It is painful to watch him trying to pick his way between the unidiomatic on the one hand and the affected on the other." (Amis and Son) However, Bellow's confidence, a sort of post-war democratic assurance, indicates that one needs to be at home everywhere; better the wealth and comfort comes from a melting pot than stewing in one's own juices. Kingsley Amis's remark is that of a man who knows from whence he came; Bellow often suggests a man who knows where he is going. When asked about teaching at Princeton for a year, he said, "I wasn't overwhelmed by the Ivy League. I was curious about it. I had heard of these Ivy-college compounds for class and privilege. I didn't assume a posture of slum-bred disaffection." (It All Adds Up) In such a remark we see less the privilege of snobbery but the paradoxical luxury of a functioning democracy, a notion (however fallacious) that America is a country where you not only make it but in the making of yourself have the confidence to refuse the notion of having betters. It is perhaps the US's gift to the world, even if it too often fails in passing it on to any but the most assertive. Yet it is a gift nevertheless. When we talk of Bellow's East Coast aspect, the sentences soaked in money, we are also acknowledging a socio-economic and psychological salubriousness that is more than an individual's bank account. Bellow is the self-made writer, perhaps why Amis admire him so completely since Amis was famously the son of Kingsley. When asked about mentors, Bellow said, "I would like to have had some, and some people came forward in that role; but I had trouble accepting them." (It All Adds Up) If the US insists that it is the country of the man who makes himself and makes his own way, few writers represent that status aesthetically more than Bellow.
© Tony McKibbin