During his lifetime, Saul Bellow was the most celebrated of American writers: In addition to the Nobel Prize, he won the National Book Award three times, as well as the Pulitzer. In 1964, his novel Herzog was a huge—and hugely unexpected—bestseller, and from then until the turn of the century a Bellow novel landed on the bestseller list roughly every half-dozen years. But now, a decade after his death, Bellow has faded from readers’ consciousness, in spite of the aggressive publicity campaign conducted by his British fans, including James Wood and Martin Amis.
The withering of Bellow’s reputation is partly the result of academic fashion: Professors now ignore his work, believing it to be a swamp of white male privilege tinged by racism and sexism. These charges are wrongheaded: Bellow had a firmer grasp of social reality than most of his contemporaries; his work did not exclude otherness, but instead engaged with it. In his college years at Northwestern, Bellow was a student of the pioneering anthropologist and African-Americanist Melville Herskovits, and it showed. His novel The Dean’s December offers a worried, somber, detailed portrait of inner-city Chicago. Bellow’s working-class Jewish childhood in Montreal and Chicago, conducted in a mixture of Yiddish, English, and French, readied him for a multicultural world. In Henderson the Rain King, his title character finds enlightenment in Africa, not his native Connecticut.
There’s a strong case to be made that Bellow is the central American novelist since Cather and Faulkner. He had a rich comic sense—he might be the funniest of our major writers—but comedy, for Bellow, was the road to moral seriousness. He was an intellectual who refused to traffic in that deadliest of genres, the novel of ideas. He was willing to let his characters stretch out, even take over his novels, especially in Humboldt’s Gift and his last book, the masterful Ravelstein, a roman à clef about Allan Bloom, his friend and colleague at the University of Chicago.
Bellow’s generous way with his characters sometimes led to charges of looseness. Philip Roth once observed that something happens halfway through a Bellow novel: The plot goes astray, the structure slackens. This was not because Bellow got distracted. He revised his work compulsively and, when he wanted to—as in Seize the Day and Mr. Sammler’s Planet—could produce a superbly organized piece of fiction. His short stories, too, are often perfect, faux-casual in Chekhov’s manner. (“It came out of him like a watermelon seed,” Bellow’s son Adam said about one of his father’s late marvels, the story “By the St. Lawrence.”) But for the most part, Bellow chose looseness. He practiced what the film critic Manny Farber called “termite art”—deliberately unkempt, chewing away in several directions at once—instead of constructing the too-polished plaster-of-Paris classic (“white elephant art,” in Farber’s term). Bellow disliked writing that aimed self-consciously at greatness, the grand poise of a Thomas Mann or André Malraux.