Saul Bellow: Letters

Saul Bellow was a great man of letters in both senses of the word. Over a long lifetime—he died in 2005 at the age of ninety—he dispatched thousands of epistolary missives (lamenting all the while that he was a terrible correspondent), and he was a master of the genre. Not unlike Moses Herzog, the fevered letter-writer of his eponymous—and to my mind, best—novel, "he wrote endlessly, fanatically, to the newspapers, to people in public life, to friends and relatives and at last to the dead, his own obscure dead, and finally the famous dead"; but Bellow drew the line at the famous dead—no letters to Nietzsche or the French theologian Teilhard de Chardin, both one-way correspondents of Herzog—and he wrote no letters to "his own obscure dead," though they were often in his thoughts. As he got older, he looked backward more than forward: to his classmates at Tuley High School in Chicago; to his parents; and to the odd assortment of teachers and merchants and relatives who richly populated his childhood in the Jewish-immigrant neighborhood of Humboldt Park where he grew up—characters like Uncle Benjy, who had a pet shop: "Why is it so sad that Benjy should sell puppies and birds?" he asked one of his old classmates.


I must declare at the outset that two of the letters in this plump and totally engaging volume (both genial in tone) are addressed to me; and also that scattered throughout are a few references (alas, not flattering) to the biography of Bellow over which I labored for more than a decade. But I suppose—it's a stretch—these references could be seen in a positive light. As Charlie Citrine says of the abusive poet Von Humboldt Fleisher in Humboldt's Gift: "To be loused up by Humboldt was really a kind of privilege. It was like being the subject of a two-nosed portrait by Picasso, or an eviscerated chicken by Soutine."


Bellow complained endlessly about what a chore it was to keep up with his correspondence, especially after he became famous. "These days letters come hard for me…." "I've never enjoyed writing letters…." Perhaps not; but he did answer most of his mail, and it gives off a heat of exuberance, energy, wit, and a pure joy in writing for its own sake. There's also plenty of pain, as in this letter to Edward Shils, his colleague at the University of Chicago, where he describes the titanic alimony struggle with his third wife, Susan Glassman, that nearly landed him in jail:

I had always thought myself quite sturdy and resistant to knocks, but it often seems that I am not quite so strong as I had believed. I wake in the night, and do not feel very strong. I sometimes find myself praying. Not for favors of any sort, not even for help, but simply for clarification. I am not especially apprehensive about dying. What does distress me is the thought that I may have made a mess where others (never myself) see praiseworthy achievements.

It is a temptation—and perhaps a cliché—to lament the end of the epistolary art. In an age of email and technological gadgetry that has shortened our attention span to minutes if not seconds, the time required to sit down and write a letter, even a dashed-off note (what Henry James called "the mere twaddle of graciousness") is simply no longer there. On my shelf are six volumes of Virginia Woolf's letters amounting to well over two thousand pages, and four volumes of James's letters, the last of which numbers 838 pages, as if its editor, the diligent biographer and keeper-of-the-Jamesian flame Leon Edel, was determined to cram in (like the increasingly cramped words on a holiday post card) as many as he could before running out of space. What these volumes hold are not just letters: they are gems of prose by masters of the English language. Bellow is the last in the line of literary correspondents. There's no point in being elegiac: new ways of recording experience and, for the biographer, pulling back the curtain to find out what really happened (or what the subject thinks happened) are fast evolving. Twitter and Facebook and YouTube have superseded the typed or handwritten letter, just as those means of communication rendered obsolete the quill. In the future, biographers will amass their evidence out of different materials. But the day in which nearly six hundred pages of letters—a fraction of those Bellow wrote—can be assembled and published in a book is over. There will be no more collections of letters like this.


In his book Literary Biography, Edel wrote: "The letters are a part of the novelist's work, of his literary self, a part of his capacity for playing out personal relations as a great game of life." They have leitmotifs, thematic repetitions. For Bellow, one of those themes—a major one—was resentment. He was, as even he admitted, "a born slightee," convinced that he was besieged by "gangsters of the pen," "detractors," "enemies." Waiting for Henderson the Rain King to come out, he wrote the novelist Josephine Herbst: "The sharpshooters are oiling their guns."


But he was generous, too, praising other writers and expressing unself-conscious affection for the people in his life—especially his past life. "The love I have for you is something literal brotherhood never gave me," he writes his Tuley friend Sam Freifeld (who he derides in other letters; but such is human nature). And funny! Stuck in Chicago on a frigid winter day, he writes a girlfriend: "What is that Eliot line in 'Journey of the Magi'? 'A cold coming, we had of it.' Well! It's all cold, and no coming." Mired in domestic troubles, he crabs to a literary acolyte: "I've been on the road to make money to pay taxes and also legal fees, as well as accountants and wives, and children's tuitions and medical expenses. The patriarchal list should go on to include menservants and maidservants and camels and cattle. I'd be lucky to get into the end of the procession, among the asses." When not lamenting his general cluelessness ("I always made a special point of seeming to be intensely practical and competent because I had no grasp of real life"), he slipped in wise axioms: "We all carry the same load of unwashed plates from life's banquet."


The most surprising discoveries are the love letters to Maggie Staats, the great love of his life. They met when she was twenty-four and he was fifty-one—a gap that in our prudish era might be considered age-inappropriate. But these letters, some of which I hadn't seen before, reveal a side of Bellow that's hard to discern from the pitiless depiction of women in his fiction, his numerous marriages, and his "womanizing." There is a tenderness in their baffled tone, a sense of deep confusion about the intensity of his feelings. Signed "Y D" [your darling], they show him at his most vulnerable. "It's dreadful how I miss you," he writes: "All the oldest, worst longings are stirred up—some seem very old, wild, peculiar, something like wrinkled furies along the line of marsh." Bellow wasn't always swaggering from one bed to another; sometimes he was just scared.


The editor of this volume, Benjamin Taylor, has done a good job. His selection is judicious, and assembling a literary life's worth of letters in even a book of this size could not have been an easy task. There are some editorial oddities. Given the vast trove from which to select, why does Taylor interlard them with speeches, testimonies, eulogies, Nobel Prize nominations (of Philip Roth and Robert Penn Warren)? These belong in a biography. There are also some flat-out errors. I don't suppose it makes any difference now, but Rust Hills, the fiction editor of Esquire, who died two years ago, narrowly averted having to read that he died in 1983. And the paucity of footnotes is frustrating. Taylor identifies some people referenced in the letters, and not others. Who, for instance, are "Vic and Johnny," with whom Bellow eats goose in Chicago on Thanksgiving of 1947? And who's "Dr. Nuehl," referred to in passing? Four psychiatrists I know about. Is this a fifth? Also, it's news to me that Bellow was "taken in custody by the State Police" in Maryland. What was that all about? "Herzog is like Old Man River, he don't say nothing," Bellow frets to Richard Stern when he's stuck in the novel. Neither does Taylor. He doesn't have to apologize for Bellow's foibles and misadventures, but at least he could explain.


In a letter to Mel Tumin, one of his Chicago "band of boys" (an echo of Shakespeare's "band of brothers" in Henry V?), Bellow wrote: "Only some of us have had the sense to realize that the man we bring forth has no richness compared with the man who really exists, thickened, fed and fattened by all the facts about him, all of his history." We can never know all the facts, of course, but these letters bring us closer than ever to the man.

James Atlas, the biographer of Delmore Schwartz and Saul Bellow, is president of the independent publishing company Atlas & Co.

April 23: " 'A job,' the woman repeated again, smiling, as if I hadn't heard her. 'Would you like one?' "

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