Wrestling With Augie March

Wrestling With Augie March

Editor’s Note: With Leonard Kriegel’s meditation on Saul Bellow’s 1953 novel The Adventures of Augie March, we introduce a series of occasional essays revisiting classic works of literature, history and criticism.


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.

During a lifetime of reading I have loved few novels more on first reading. Yet whenever I pick Augie up, to meet his exuberant embrace of the world once again, I find myself wishing that Bellow had been more honest. It would have been even better if he had allowed Augie to confess from the novel’s onset that he was not merely a Chicago-born American but that he always intended to be the writer whose memoir we are reading. Would that admission have damaged the rhythm of Bellow’s prose or lessened Augie’s grandeur? I doubt it. Perhaps I might then have thought of him as being as trustworthy as he is bold. Augie is the writer-in-training who lives a compulsively experiential life, for the best training for the literary craft turns out to be life lived as completely and thoroughly as possible. Living is Augie’s university; what adolescents used to sneer at as “the school of hard knocks” is his Harvard and Yale. The sheer density of experience–living actively and consciously–is what offers him validation. What better preparation for the writer’s life can one ask for?

Augie’s adventures provide the reader with the full measure of what he possesses, an urban world that is as fresh as it is intimate. Yet his greatest possession is his immense receptivity to experience. Had he opened the book by announcing, “I am a writer,” it probably wouldn’t have had the power of “I am an American.” Each line frames ambition and each is different from “I am an accountant” or “I am a physician.” It is experience that links Augie’s life to the reader’s. Even fifty years later, what remains striking about his adventures is that they should still evoke so strong a sense of envy in us. That is why Augie is the embodiment of the writer. To this day, he hammers at the pulse of memory and desire like a smart club fighter joyfully pounding a heavy bag because he finally has been given a shot at the one big payday we all dream of. He keeps himself from thinking too much about what he is pursuing with dedication and passion. Like fighters, writers pound at the world–only with words, not fists. Armed with a gloriously urbanized speech, Augie is the writer seeking to transform the world until he succeeds in making of ambition a form of discipline.

The hunger for what has been lost is what one increasingly responds to in books as one grows older. A life reconstructed in imagination is more rooted than a life that is merely lived, and that is as true of Augie March as it is of Proust or Hemingway. As events command memory, they become meaningful. And for Bellow’s protagonist their meaning is that they connect him to what makes him Augie March. The past is not made simpler through memory; it is simply made more focused. Distilling the past through his imagination allows Augie to realize that what is called “reality” has very little to do with whether or not a moment in his life is successful. It has to do, rather, with how well that moment has been embedded in the writer’s eye. Success is just one of the many debts the writer must work through to get to the truth of the past. What happened is rarely as important as why it happened.

When I first met Augie I envied his conviction that destiny must reflect the meaning of one’s life. Only a man convinced of his own singularity and of the power of his presence can be vain enough to believe that it is his experience that moves the universe. Augie isn’t passive, but he is quietly audacious. Whether he is serving as one of Trotsky’s bodyguards or hunting eagles with the lovely if slightly crazed heiress Thea Fenchel, he is conscious of the primacy of his experience. And he needs that experience the way a thirsty man needs water. It is what marks him as an American. Receptive to the world, he is immodest enough to expect the world to be equally receptive to him and his needs. Able to absorb experience, he offers himself as the “new man,” Rousseau’s blank slate transformed into flesh. Because he is imbued with the energy of urban rather than agrarian America, he is able to stand de Crèvecoeur’s hallowed agrarian version of the American new man on its head. Jefferson would have disliked him, yet he also would have realized that Augie was as “new” a man as twentieth-century America could ask for. Each experience tempts not only his innocence but his receptivity to life.

Although he boasts of being “Chicago-born” Augie is as unlike the 1930s street tough James T. Farrell immortalized in Studs Lonigan as one could possibly be. Not only is he smarter than Studs, he isn’t afraid of using his intelligence. A child of a still-immigrant urban America, he assumes that anyone who has been molded by the city is tougher than small-town protagonists who line the nation’s literary past like wax figures in Madame Tussaud’s. The receptivity to experience is the only constant in urban man’s life, the one quality Augie considers essential to his sense of self. If he lived in the Soviet Union he would have been labeled–accurately–a “rootless cosmopolitan.” For that is what he is. Chicago is his home, but the willingness to roam feeds his desire to learn from the chaos surrounding him. He glories in urban life because it is chaotic and rootless, and because it allows him to be the sole judge of what he can do with his life.

Bellow was still a political liberal when he wrote Augie. He may even still have thought of himself as a man of the left (although James Atlas suggests in his biography that Bellow’s politics were always the product of the times rather than of any deep-rooted political conviction). It was probably inadvertent, but the novel is as powerful a defense of free-enterprise self-assertion as an American novelist has given us. From Augie’s perspective, the world exists to teach him how to devote his daring to the pursuit of success and self-discovery. It doesn’t matter where he serves as life’s pupil, whether in the poolroom of the wheelchair-bound Einhorn or drifting in a lifeboat in the Atlantic after his merchant ship has been torpedoed. His task remains to keep faith with a vision of himself as the American in search of the world, as much Columbus as modern life will permit. Capable of stretching the truth, Augie is no liar. He doesn’t need to embroider experience; pursuing it is reward enough. Ultimately, he is precisely what he tells us he is in the novel’s opening: Chicago-born, the American in quest of the independent self.

Augie is also one of a handful of literary characters who have assumed so powerful and meaningful a presence in my own life that I was to measure self as well as ambition against their example. His adventures may be fiction, but they aren’t fictitious to a man raised in the same sort of urban world he was raised in. Is it any wonder that to this day I think of Augie just as I did when I first read the novel fifty years ago, as my rival in the pursuit of reality? Even back then, however, Augie pressed me against my own shortcomings, made me feel small, diminished. Obsessed by the trauma of having lost my legs to polio at 11, I envied the breadth of his world, envied how he sucked up experience like a vacuum of the soul’s ambition. I, meanwhile, was a gimp measuring himself against a character in a novel able to absorb all that life offered because he knew it was the only way he could make his way in the world.

At 20, I still told myself that it was only natural to focus on the price one had to pay to survive as a cripple in the America of 1953. Cripples weren’t expected to be heard or seen then. The assumptions I made about the world–that it was hostile and unforgiving and that if I wished to have a life I would have to hurl myself against its indifference like a battering ram–had largely been borne out before Augie appeared on the scene. Not that I was bitter. At 20, I was far too busy experiencing the joy of being able to move by myself from place to place, even on braces and crutches, to feel bitter. And it was still easy to console myself for loss. I could thank a God I claimed not to believe in or thank fate or my lucky stars for possessing so rich an interior life. Dreams do not change merely because the body does. Yet it grated on me to discover that I wasn’t as receptive to the sheer variety of experience as Augie was. And it infuriated me to discover that he could meet the world so openly, whereas I was irritated at that receptivity to experience.

It was that, along with the language, that made me fall in love with the novel. Here I was, a cripple thirsting for vengeance. And here was Augie, the American chasing after self-exploration. I furiously wanted to get even with the virus that had crippled me, whereas Augie views his body as if it is the property of some casual acquaintance. In the quest for experience he refused to be trapped by flesh, bone and muscle, whereas I am enraged to this very day (a man now closing in on 70) by the bodily grace I was forced to surrender at 11. Illness formed my angle of vision; health formed Augie’s. That is most infuriating. It doesn’t matter that I know there is a point in life when a man should simply call it quits with the disasters of the past. I was unable to do that when I met Augie; I am still unable to do it. Unlike Augie, I am still obsessed by what happened to me–not by the pain but by the need to accept the experience and get beyond it. A cripple’s Cartesian syllogism: It happened to me, therefore I am.

On the verge of my biblical three score and ten, I am in thrall to old adolescent fantasies of getting even. Like Augie’s mentor, the crippled poolroom philosopher William Einhorn, I hate being neither the master of my fate nor the captain of my soul. Einhorn, Augie says, is the first superior man he has known. But why should that comfort me? I must still cry “I want!” to an indifferent world–and what I want is everything that Einhorn and I don’t have, what I haven’t had since I was 11. I don’t care how childish or adolescent it is, and I don’t care if I sound like a child ogling Santa Claus in Macy’s as he checks his Christmas list. I want to walk on the beach, to fuck on top, to climb a mountain (it doesn’t have to be Everest; any mountain will do). Above all, I want to rid my life of each and every “I want” that stains it like some lingering Rorschach nightmare.

Unlike Augie, I was blindsided when young. Like him, I focused on my own coming-of-age. Only, like Einhorn, struggling with the life of the cripple taught me that I had to compensate for what I had lost. I was too busy trying to tough life out to understand what Augie was trying to show me–that experience embodies its own definition and that experience remains its own finest moment, all experience and every experience. Maybe the desire to write originated in the body’s need for vengeance. Yet not even that, if true, negates the experience of being crippled. “I couldn’t take it, and I took it,” Einhorn tells Augie, in the most powerful portrait of a cripple any American writer, cripple or normal, has given us. With an urban whiff of reality that speaks of all that sustained illness can do to one’s soul, Einhorn wants Augie to understand the daily humiliations that life imposes on the cripple. His anguish is more moving, more real, than Ahab’s celebrated metaphysical rage. Einhorn is not only tougher and nastier than Melville’s sea captain, he is a truer cripple. Like most cripples, he has little interest in the nature of evil, and he doesn’t care whether what has been done to him possesses metaphysical meaning. It’s bad that it happened, worse that it happened to him!

When I read Augie March I still dreamed of a miraculous recovery that would allow me to box and play ball again. Only, what Einhorn says to Augie is useless to those who dream of miracles. I admired Einhorn and I envied Augie. Yet I hated Augie too. I hated how he made me feel less than I was. No amount of rhetoric about courage (necessity is the only mother of what we call “courage”) would change that. The prospect of being a writer couldn’t take the place of dead legs for a 20-year-old searching for the prowess stolen from his body nine years earlier.

As a writer, illness gave me a subject. As a man, it denied me a chance at the life I dreamed of. The ugly dream of becoming beautiful, but their dreams don’t make them beautiful. The stupid dream of becoming smart, but their dreams don’t make them smart. Augie took a life from his dreams because he could look at those dreams as he looked at the world–from a skeptical, urban distance. The willingness to distance himself from his experience made him a better man than I was. And it tells why I envied him then and why I still envy him today. Augie brought all his baggage to his life as well as to art. But what excuse do I have for the limited perspective I have allowed illness to impose on me? A rose is a rose and a gimp is a gimp. So what? A writer should be able to do more than trace the reasons why he searches for revenge.

If Augie were an actual person rather than a character in a novel, he would be Bellow’s age, well into his 80s. Compared with a man in his 80s, those knocking on the door of that biblical three score and ten are mere striplings. But who wants to approach that biblical allotment still dreaming of playing baseball or making love on top or running with his 2-year-old son (himself a man of 40 now) into some fantasized landscape of the mind? There should be statutes of limitation on our fantasies as well as on our crimes and misdemeanors. Other than the rage and anger they inspired in me, my dreams have been almost embarrassingly ordinary. And what is ordinary shies away from what is weird. Yet even approaching my biblical allotment, the dreams keep coming and the fantasies keep reminding me of what I have lost. I should be better, I tell myself, than the illness that struck me down. I should write about other things. Only I’m not better and I don’t write about other things, because the virus that crippled me also, in its perverse way, created me. In a sense, it owns me, just as the need for experience seems to own Augie. Illness is why I write and illness defines my life. Other realities stain that life, but I have avoided writing about them. Why don’t they count too? Why don’t they feed my rage and anger the way the daily struggle with what polio left in its wake does? Why can’t I write about ordinary life and ordinary love, ordinary jealousy and ordinary scheming? Why can’t I hunt eagles in Mexico with rich, pampered Thea?

Fifty years after we first met I still love Augie for the gifts Bellow endowed him with. Bellow has said that the novel “got out of hand,” but I couldn’t disagree more. In its language as well as in the protagonist Bellow created, it remains one of the truly memorable achievements in American fiction. Augie lives not only for the moment but in the moment–and that is his strength and glory. Yet that also explains why, in the midst of the admiration I feel for him, I still hate him. I hate him because he isn’t Einhorn; I hate him because he isn’t superior the way we cripples deceive ourselves into believing we are superior as we echo Einhorn’s “I couldn’t take it, and I took it.” Augie isn’t interested in taking it, although he admires the crippled poolroom philosopher. Unlike most Luftmenschen, he is practical. His world may look normal and steady, but he’s smart enough to realize that it’s gone askew. Experience has taught him caution, and caution shortchanges all those who insist on searching for the boundaries of their lives. And through each experience, Augie remains both judge and jury of the reader’s emotions. The reader wants his approbation as he seldom wants the approbation of fictional characters. Would Augie, I wonder, empathize with my growing fascination with the crippled god Hephaestus? Like Einhorn and me, Hephaestus can’t stand the thought of what being crippled has done to him. Not only is he the great artisan of Greek myth, he is also, even if grudgingly, the god who must willingly serve the other gods. It is he who must create the shield of Achilles–and that rankles me, but not because I have a problem with what he does. The smith’s job is to create shields and weapons, and it does not matter whether one is a smith on earth or on Olympus. God or mortal, the smith is supposed to give meaning to metal. But that this godly gimp must create so magnificent a shield for such a self-centered, tiresome ass as Achilles makes me want to scream. Why not create the shield for himself? It’s the work of his hands, his talent. Why glorify Achilles? Like metal grinding on concrete, such an injustice grates against my urge to call Hephaestus brother.

The writer must make his peace with bad bargains; the cripple doesn’t. Augie accepts the limitations of experience, and even eventually comes to enjoy them. I can’t accept them, because I have never had the experiences I want. And I never will have them. If there are times when we must make sense of bargains that aren’t worth making sense of, that’s not of much help to those of us trying to accept that we are Einhorns, not Augies. The experience that tells me what to write about is more limited than what Bellow has given his plebeian hero. One would have preferred other gifts–Sugar Ray Robinson’s fists, Sandy Koufax’s left arm, Ted Williams’s batting eye. Yet like Augie, I tell myself that one must learn from what has shaped one. Like him, too, I still want to “go at things as I have taught myself,” “first to knock.” The issue most of us must face is rarely as simple as the right to serve as one’s own Columbus. As Augie says, even when Columbus was sent back to Europe in chains it didn’t “prove there was no America.” Yet shouldn’t experience have taught him, as it taught me, that limitations are just as likely to define life as ambition? Who, after all, has ever complained of his Hephaestian heel?

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