The struggle to force language to accept its own power is what molds the idea of becoming a writer that most of us have when young. There is a moment in time when that struggle is felt most profoundly and intimately. It may be the first conscious encounter with a literary “classic”; or it may be when the world is made recognizable by an author one never before heard of. For me, it was not reading A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man or The Sound and the Fury that turned the world upside down, although my first encounters with Joyce and Faulkner had a most profound effect. It was reading The Adventures of Augie March, the novel that gave me my first literary hero. Augie is now 50 years old, and it may be that I am writing this not only to acknowledge a debt to that heroic plebeian but as a birthday card to my past. I obviously owe more to Saul Bellow, Augie’s creator, than I do to Augie. Yet I prefer to think my primary debt is to a character in a novel who, in announcing to the world “I am an American,” assumed the role of writer for me and any number of other young men back in 1953. Bellow may not have intended Augie to be a writer (although the novel suggests that he did), but by telling the story of his adventures he allowed the reader to impose the role on his hero.
The Adventures of Augie March, like most Bildungsromans, has no real plot. Its appeal was, and is, to what Irving Howe termed the “mingling of high-flown intellectual bravado with racy-tough street Jewishness.” At its center is Augie, an offspring of immigrants who, with a voice that achieves a singularity seldom found in fiction, succeeds in possessing America by seizing its language for his own. Augie is something of a Luftmensch–but an urban Luftmensch, an American Luftmensch, receptive not only to experience but to what gives all experience meaning, the power of language. During the course of his adventures Augie tries on professions like a bum searching for a well-fitting suit off the rack or a writer searching to pad a book-jacket blurb. He trains eagles, bodyguards Trotsky in Mexico, is a merchant marine sailor during the war. But his true profession is as a connoisseur of the language, a guardian of the temple of words from which the urban immigrant was once so rudely excluded. Here both Augie and Bellow’s novel achieve distinction. For few American novels, before or since, have more firmly stamped the language than The Adventures of Augie March.
Its opening is as striking as any postwar American novel can boast of. Invisible Man begins more dramatically, but Augie’s very simplicity makes this an opening that is both superbly complex and profoundly moving:
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.
I was 20 when I read these sentences–a young 20, I should add–and fell in love not only with the language of an urban American writer but with the exhilarating sense that even a plebeian Bronx cripple might aspire to the world of “literature.” Like Augie, I was a product of the city. Yet while I had already read James T. Farrell and Meyer Levin, Bellow was the first writer to tell me that as long as one remained faithful to the language of urban America one still had a chance at becoming a writer. It is the flavor of Augie’s language, what in Yiddish would be called tam, even more than his Chicago that is Augie’s most profound urban secret.