On the Seventh Anniversary of Saul Bellow’s Death
When Saul Bellow died at the age of 89, some seven years ago, this April 5, I felt as if my brother had died. Although we were contemporaries in many ways other than the chronological, at the time of his death, I was not surprised. He had outlived his Biblical three-score-and-ten by some nineteen years. But when it came, I suffered a pang of deep sorrow and shed a tear as though a brother had died—and indeed in many ways he was a brother.
ln 1971, when I was teaching in the English Department at Los Angeles Harbor College in Wilmington, I wrote to him to express my solidarity with his brave and lonely stand against what would then go on to become the beginning of a plague that spread from academia to the workaday world--political correctness (See: Mr. Sammler's Planet (1970))—and was happily surprised when I received a two-page, long-hand reply, thanking me (“I was quite high about [ your letter!”]. With a sense of having received a precious object, I filed it away with my other correspondence. Years later, the pale blue ink of his rapid, elongated scrawl had faded to scarcely readable lines, so much so that I found most of them hard to decipher. An attempt to up the ante of legibility to a deeper black on my home copier failed. So I can only cite some of those lines that are still legible and that give one a sense of the Bellow behind the books, a live, warm human being who always managed to come through in them. He says that he “avoided polemics” (i.e., the turmoil then going on in the universities, the University of Chicago, where he was then teaching being no exception.); that ”polemics” were for him “infra dig," beneath contempt.
But indignation [he goes on] finally got the better of me. Perhaps I needed energy, withdrawal from [my] aggressive sources. Now that I've tasted blood, I may go at a few throats. Nothing now is revolutionary except common sense, Seichel. [the Yiddish approximation of something that can never be its equivalent. There's never been more low-grade lunacy. We are witnessing a world-wide mental disaster
In a PS, which he didn't bother to note as such, he asks: "Where [his italic] is Wilmington, California?" He had noted the address on the college stationary I had written my letter on. I thought: Indeed, where is Wilmington?'--Wilmington, Delaware? Hardly!”--a warm Bellow touch--the “innocent” Augie March on his way to acquiring yet another fragment of useless, factual knowledge, distinct from what he had gained from experience.
No matter how many aspects of a man, from adolescence through Kafkian Joseph waiting to be drafted in Dangling Man (1944), through The Victim (1947) and its character's encounter with anti-Semitism, through the bumbling but loveable Herzog in the novel of that name, through the post-war Charles Citrine, writer protagonist, in Humboldt's Gift ( 1975), through a college Dean slogging after his astronomer wife in the depths of a gloomy Romanian winter (The Dean’s December) (1982)--Bellow's protagonists have always been variations on a single theme, the assault of reality on a character’s innocence, usually in the form of wise or vicious “reality instructors,” older father figures (Einhorn in Adventures of Auqie March (1953); small time Mafioso gangsters (Rinaldo Cantabile in Humboldt's Gift (1975).
Bellow, too, was a “reality instructor"; he transmuted his growth from *radical innocence' to “seichel”---even when he was at his most formidably intellectual. And when that “herd of independent minds” on campuses was too much for him, he went "for a few throats”--in the form of those well- targeted and brilliant novels.