1971 -- Mr. Sammler’s Planet

In 1968, in response to a letter admiring his short story, “The Old System,” Saul Bellow speculated that his correspondent belonged to a minority group:

It was kind of you to write. A few people responded to it as you did. Most, I suppose, don’t know what to make of it. Afraid it may not be the THING? Afraid of being Square? Worried that Susan Sontag might not like it? To this we seem to have come.

Bellow was writing Mr. Sammler’s Planet at the time, and many critics found in it a similar sort of mood. It was the third of Bellow’s NBA winners, these written over a seventeen-year span but their heroes aging at a faster rate. As the buoyant Augie gave way to the messed-up, middle-aged Herzog, so he yielded to the seventy-something Sammler, an Old World scholar poking his furled umbrella at the shrill, left-leaning and new-loving Sixties. Sammler gets out of bed on the wrong side in Bellow’s opening paragraphs, perching there hopelessly and pretty much permanently:

You had to be a crank to insist on being right. Being right was largely a matter of explanations. Intellectual man had become an explaining creature. Fathers to children, wives to husbands, lecturers to listeners, experts to laymen, colleagues to colleagues, doctors to patients, man to his own soul, explained. The roots of this, the causes of the other, the source of events, the history of structure, the reasons why. For the most part, in one ear and out the other. The soul wanted what it wanted. It had its own natural knowledge. It say unhappily on superstructures of explanation, poor bird, not knowing which way to fly.

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