Wednesday, August 10, 2011

800 Words: What Bellow Didn't Know

Let's imagine it's 1952. You're one of those pontificating New York Jewish literary types whom Woody Allen would accuse of working for a magazine called "Dissentary." It would be a particularly exciting time to be a Jewish-American bookworm. Norman Mailer was the Young Turk of American Letters who published The Naked and The Dead in 1948. The English publication of Gimpel the Fool in 1950 gave Isaac Bashevis Singer a huge audience of Jews and non-Jews. In 1951 J.D. Salinger released Catcher in the Rye,and made a literary splash that dwarves any book by a goyish author since the 1920's. Just this year, Bernard Malamud reached literary celebrity with the publication of The Natural.

But if you wanted a novel that is simultaneously about Jews and America, you still have to wait another year. Mailer is much too ambitious to write about Jewishness. Isaac Bashevis Singer is an auslander who makes no claims to Americanness. J.D. Salinger made his fame by writing about boarding school - the least Jewish institution in America. And Malamud was writing about everyman American lowlives.

Saul Bellow was the first Jewish writer, perhaps the first American writer of descent east of Germany, to lay claim to American high culture as his own. The Adventures of Augie March isn't just about Jews, it's about Jews that are fully American. The first words of Augie March say all that need be said, "I am an American." And for the next six-hundred pages, we follow the adventures of a Chicago-born Jew through the melting pot of South Side Chicago - a world populated by immigrants of every country, creed, and class. And these adventures ring to our ears as American as anything in Huck Finn. It was a victory not only for America's Jews, but for all America's immigrants.

The nature of Augie March's achievement gave Bellow moral as well as intellectual authority. When Bellow spoke about politics, his words carried a moral weight which Mailer's all-too-frequent pronouncements often lacked. In the grief that followed the Kennedy assassination it was Herzog, not An American Dream, that remained on the best-seller list for an entire year. With its laundry list of broadsided swipes at intellectuals both famous and obscure, Herzog's success with critics and public alike could be viewed with amazement unless one sees Moses Herzog as a standin (or a Kaddishzogger) for an America that buried Camelot. At the same time that Moses Herzog stared down the second half of his life, wondering what happened to all his promise and potential, an entire generation of Americans faced the same question. The postwar generation, born into hardship and nurtured by struggle, returned from Europe morally ready to assume the mantle of the world. Yet by the mid-60's crumbled the edifice of an America built upon merit. With Kennedy assassinated and the civil rights movement insistent upon being heard, America could no longer pretend that it approached the world from a standpoint of moral strength. The realization was shattering, and like Herzog, the country was "overcome by the need to explain, to have it out to justify, to put in perspective, to clarify, to make amends." Surrounded by an intellectual world whose pendulum was pointing towards nihlism, Herzog attempted to swim against the current and answer that 'the light of truth was never too far away, and no human being is too negligable or too corrupt to come into it.'

It was a very democratic sentiment, and would have fit perfectly with an America that journeyed on the same path as Moses Herzog. Only America stopped before Herzog's last step - it never made amends, at least not in Bellow's lifetime. And so like many Americans, Bellow became more and more conservative as he aged, his bitterness ever more acidic from an America grown fat on its cynicism.

But was Bellow right? Had America so convinced itself of its own moral torpor that its cynicism became exaggerated and disproportionate? Furthermore, was America so disaffected by its illusions that it would follow any false prophet? These were certainly the arguments of Mr. Sammler's Planet. It's not uncommon to for readers of a certain age to talk of Mr. Sammler's Planet as nothing short of a betrayal. Bellow, once the left-wing idol who but for an ill-placed axe would have met Trotsky in Mexico an hour after the revolutionary's assassination (an occasion lifted with almost complete fidelity for Augie March), painted a portrait of late 60's New York held hostage by the twin 'registrar(s) of madness': urban crime and student radicalism. Sammler, himself both a Holocaust Survivor and a murderer, views America through the eyes of a man who once saw much worse, and yet sees signs of the same decline into fascism at every juncture. The famous opening - in which a black man whom Sammler observes pickpocketing follows Sammler to his apartment building, whereupon the pickpocket exposes himself in an elevator - is eerily suggestive of most urban dweller's racist fears even as it crosses a disturbing line into racist charicature. There can be no doubt, the scene is racist with a capital 'R', and sadly all the more brilliant for it. In the pervading atmosophere of Teacher's Union strikes, the note it struck about black-Jewish relations was all too vivid.

And then came The Dean's December. If Herzog was Bellow's 'having it out' with America and Mr. Sammler's Planet was Bellow's betrayal, then The Dean's December was Bellow's autopsy. The book follows Albert Corde, dean of the University of Chicago school of journalism, into Bucharest with his Romanian wife to visit her dying mother. Corde, intimately familiar with the horrors of the modern urban city, meditates on the decline of the Soviet ideal alongside the decline of the American ideal. Once again, the results rule in favor of America, but not by much. Corde notices what he terms the 'fantasmo imperium' of Soviet life - governance where transparency is impossible and the rules by which people live completely unwritten. It causes him to speculate that conditions in America are not as different as they sometimes seem. Corde is disgusted by the hopelessness of the urban underclass, the constant urban presence of grisly murder, and the failure of intelligent people to address it meaningfully. It is not only the failure of the university, or even of the city, but the failure of Bellow's America. The America of Augie March was a place of egalitarian ideals. The trust was shared between all links of society that each would strive on the best terms to achieve a country for which all could take pride. Like Bellow, Corde found the occasion to speak out about such failures in print, and both were widely reviled for it.

Bellow was no seer, just a great writer who pioneered a trail for places where no writer dared go before him. It's quite probable that Bellow casted his blame in the wrong directions, but Bellow never saw himself as an establishment figure blaming the plebes for their plights. He was an American immigrant from the Chicago slums who blamed his peers for failing to achieve the path he thought he had helped to set for them. Bellow thought of himself as living proof that the America of immigrant dreams was possible. When the country failed to follow him, he took it as a personal offense.

But death was not kind to him. He managed to die just as the hollowness of the neo-conservatism he embraced was exposed. If Bellow managed to live as long as fellow Chicagoan Studs Terkel, I'd like to think that we might have seen a new Bellow novel reembracing American potential. Perhaps we could even plot it. It would be told through the eyes of an old University of Chicago professor long calcified into cynical hopelessness at the state of his university, his city and country. He meets a younger half-black UChicago law professor with the ability to explain race to race as no figure on the South Side ever had; meeting comically blusterous antagonists of towering stupidity at every turn, and managing to turn the ill will of every one of them into adulation. All the while, beneath this young professor's charisma would be an unresolvable enigma. This young professor is a man without qualities who becomes the very thing others most prize in their company - perhaps the last Invisible Man, unable to define himself without others' definitions. Hearing the approbations of professors who have long been his rivals, this older professor steels himself to resist the charms of the younger figure, and yet finds himself looking upon him with the same worshipfulness as colleagues he's hated for decades in spite of his best efforts to see bad in the younger man. He would bemusedly think to himself that people like this professor could be the last best hope in decades for the resurrection of the university as a worthwhile place, and perhaps by extension, of America itself.

Saul Bellow lost faith in America because the America of which he dreamed never materialized in his lifetime. But the America of which he dreams is not quite dead yet, and has just been granted greatest lease on life it's had since the era of Augie March. He may be remembered as a writer who lost his faith, but never as one who lost his commitment. The later novels were works of a spurned lover, enraged at finding his noblest impulses unmatched. But there soon may come a time when an America exists again which Bellow could have looked at without disappointment, perhaps even with approval.

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