Drawing upon a vast body of original research, including Bellow’s extensive correspondence with Ralph Ellison, Delmore Schwartz, John Berryman, Robert Penn Warren, John Cheever, and many other luminaries of the twentieth-century literary community, Atlas weaves a rich and revealing portrait of one of the most talented and enigmatic figures in American intellectual history.
Detailing Bellow’s volatile marriages and numerous tempestuous relation-ships with women, publishers, and friends, Bellow: A Biography is a magnificent chronicle of one of the premier writers in the English language, whose prize-winning works include Herzog, The Adventures of Augie March, and, most recently, Ravelstein.
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I was, in 1937, a very young, married man who had quickly lost his first job and who lived with his in-laws. His affectionate, loyal, and pretty wife insisted that he must be given a chance to write something."
But what? In "Starting Out in Chicago," originally delivered as a Brandeis commencement address in 1974, Saul Bellow provided a memorable portrait of his beginnings as a writer. If the year is wrong--it was 1938, just a year before the outbreak of World War II in Europe--the details are painfully accurate. This brief memoir, more than anything else he ever wrote, captures the early stage of that momentous confrontation in which "American society and S. Bellow came face to face." He was twenty-two years old.
The job he'd lost was a stint in his older brother Maurice's coalyard, and he was fired for absenteeism. Maurice, not unreasonably, expected his brother to keep regular hours; Bellow had other ideas about how to spend his time: He wanted to write.
His in-laws' apartment on North Virginia Avenue in the Northwest Side neighborhood of Ravenswood was drab and anonymous, one of the thousands of identical brick dwellings that sprawled mile upon mile across a dull, orderly grid of streets. While his wife, Anita, attended classes at the School of Social Service Administration at the university, Bellow sat at a bridge table in the back bedroom:
My table faced three cement steps that rose from the cellar into the brick gloom of a passageway. Only my mother-in-law was at home. A widow, then in her seventies [actually, her mid-sixties], she wore a heavy white braid down her back. She had been a modern woman and a socialist and suffragette in the old country. She was attractive in a fragile, steely way. You felt Sophie's [Sonya's] strength of will in all things. She kept a neat house. The very plants, the ashtrays, the pedestals, the doilies, the chairs, revealed her mastery. Each object had its military place. Her apartment could easily have been transferred to West Point.
Lunch occurred at half past twelve. The cooking was good. We ate together in the kitchen. The meal was followed by an interval of stone. My mother-in-law took a nap. I went into the street. Ravenswood was utterly empty. I walked about with something like a large stone in my belly. I often turned into Lawrence Avenue and stood on the bridge looking into the drainage canal. If I had been a dog I would have howled.
American writers are largely self-made. William Faulkner emerged out of the somnolent town of Oxford, Mississippi; Ernest Hemingway was brought up in the bland suburb of Oak Park, just a few miles from Ravenswood; Sinclair Lewis hailed from Sauk Centre, Minnesota. They simply "materialized somehow," as Bellow put it. But even by the folkloric standards of American literature, Bellow's remoteness from the centers of culture was extreme. "Bernanos, the French religious novelist, said that his soul could not bear to be cut off from its kind, and that was why he did his work in cafés," Bellow noted enviously: "Cafés indeed! I would have kissed the floor of a café. There were no cafés in Chicago. There were greasy-spoon cafeterias, one-arm joints, taverns. I never yet heard of a writer who broughthis manuscripts into a tavern."
Over the years, he collected a virtual anthology of disparaging observations that visitors had made about the city: Oscar Wilde found the Water Tower, one of the few buildings to survive the great Chicago fire of 1871, an offense against good taste; "he was amazed that people could so abuse Gothic art." Rudyard Kipling was appalled by the Palmer House, "a gilded and mirrored rabbit-warren crammed with people talking about money and spitting about everywhere." Edmund Wilson was oppressed by the canyons of La Salle Street: "In the morning, the winter sun does not seem to give any light: it leaves the streets dull. It is more like a forge which has just been started up, and is beginning to burn red in an atmosphere darkened by coal-fumes."
It would have been hard to deny the truth of what they saw: Culture in Chicago was a marginal enterprise. Dominated by the brute forces of industry, by stockyards and farm-machinery works and automobile assembly lines, it was the city, in Sandburg's famous line, of "big shoulders." Yet it was also true that Chicago possessed an indigenous literature. In the decades just before and after 1900, novels by Chicago writers crowded the shelves: Frank Norris's The Pit (1903), about wheat speculators on the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade; Willa Cather's The Song of the Lark (1915), about a young lady from Nebraska who came to study music in the city; Upton Sinclair's The Jungle (1906), a raw depiction of the harsh existence of a Lithuanian immigrant family in the South Side stockyards; Theodore Dreiser's Frank Cowperwood trilogy, based on the career of Charles T. Yerkes, the Chicago railroad financier; the works of Sherwood Anderson. The Chicago Renaissance was a fact. "Find a writer who is indubitably an American in every pulse-beat, snort and adenoid, an American who has something new and peculiarly American to say and who says it in an unmistakable American way," H. L. Mencken declared, "and nine times out of ten you will find that he has some sort of connection with the gargantuan and inordinate abattoir by Lake Michigan."
What nineteenth-century Paris had been to Lucien de Rubempré, the hero of Balzac's Lost Illusions, twentieth-century Chicago was to young men and women from Terre Haute or Valparaiso: "the place," wrote Bellow, "the incredible, vital, sinful, fascinating big city." If there were no cafés, there was still a tremendous concentration of vivid private experience--evidence, Bellow contended in his memoir, "that the life lived in great manufacturing, shipping, and banking centers, with their slaughter stink, their great slums, prisons, hospitals, and schools, was also a human life." Milton Friedman, who brought honor to the university by winning a Nobel Prize in economics in 1976 (the same year that Bellow won in literature), has speculated that the city's reputation for nurturing literary and intellectual talent can be traced to the same geographical centrality that made it a great industrial power. Chicago, Friedman noted, was "a new, raw city bursting with energy, far less sophisticated than New York, but for that very reason far more tolerant of diversity, of heterodox ideas." New York looked east, to the Old World. Chicago looked west, to the frontier--in effect, inventing its own frontiers.
This energy was the catalyst of Bellow's art. In his hands, the city would become a character in its own right, the center of both his life and his work. The shelf of books he produced over the course of a career sustained for more than half a century was to make "Bellow's Chicago" as familiar a locale in literature as Joyce's Dublin. It wasn't an achievement that his circumstances preordained; the absence of encouragement, of community, of any plausible way to make a living would have provoked a person far sturdier than Bellow to despair. But he was armored against disappointment by a stubborn belief in his destiny--a belief he maintained in the absence of both proof and reason. The sociologist Edward Shils, for many years his colleague at the University of Chicago and one of the most incisive interpreters of his character, noted, "For Bellow, an artist was the same as being a saint, an 'unacknowledged legislator of mankind,' one who was consecrated to the highest function of which any human being is capable, namely, to be an artist." It was a belief that enabled him to prevail.
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James Atlas is a model biographer. He writes with the conversational ease of a born storyteller, giving us both a richly informed history of one of America's most original and gifted writers and a mythos of the artist's life in the perilous twentieth century. His Bellow is seen, heard, felt, assessed; intelligently and sympathetically viewed from a number of perspectives; as fascinating a portrait as nay of Bellow's arresting ficitonal characters.
You can apply virtually any complimentary adjective to this book: compelling, engrossing, incisive, profoundly enjoyable. It is a masterly work, combining a remarkable integration of a vast body of research, including many previously inaccessible materials, with astute literary judgement and a nuanced psychological insight into perhaps the most revered and often enigmatic literary figure of the last half-century. In the vast intellectual range of his work, Bellow has been, in many senses, the Mind of America. James Atlas is now our Mind-Reader.
Saul Bellow is a man of profound gifts and potent charm: a considerable challenge to any biographer. Like a sparring partner. James Atlas enters the ring and weaves in and out of Bellow's extravagant life, his extraordinary novels, with great dexterity. It is a most accomplished performance, and a fascinating account of a great American novelist.
A Conversation with James Atlas
by Jesse Kornbluth
October 15, 2000
When I met James Atlas in the 1970s, I asked what he was writing. "A biography of Delmore Schwartz," he said. I said that was "interesting." But I was just being polite; I thought Atlas was writing a minor book about a deservedly obscure writer. Then I read Delmore Schwartz: The Life of an American Poet -- and was stunned both by all I didn't know about Schwartz and by the expertise of his young biographer.
Since 1977, Atlas has delivered nothing but surprises. For every carefully reasoned literary piece he's published in The New York Times Magazine or The New Yorker, there's one about finding himself trapped in New York's upper-middle-class poverty cycle. His novel, The Great Pretender, was about a bright young guy like the author, but it was hardly arcane -- it was, someone said, like Brideshead Revisited mixed with Portnoy's Complaint.
The sacred and the profane have converged again for Atlas in his just-published biography, Saul Bellow. It's a tale of worldly ambition, envy, and philandering -- and of high artistic aspiration and achievement. The combination is addictive, and in The Sunday New York Times Book Review, that's exactly how John Leonard described it: "I could no more stop reading this biography than I could stop reading Saul Bellow."
The review in the daily New York Times found that the book, though riveting, left a question unanswered: "Do the many unsettling facts Mr. Atlas unearths about Mr. Bellow's personal life devalue the novels...or does Mr. Bellow's art somehow transcend the life?" As it happens, that's exactly the thrust of my conversation with James Atlas.
Kornbluth: Before you began work on this book, you had a contract to write the authorized biography of Edmund Wilson. You dropped it because you "felt no emotional connection" with your subject. What emotional connection did you feel with Bellow as you began your research?
Atlas: I felt a deep connection. After all, he was from the very same background my parents were from, had grown up in the same world. They're both northwest side of Chicago, Jews from immigrant homes; both attended Northwestern, where Bellow transferred from the University of Chicago. I felt like an anthropologist among the Nambikwara, only my tribe was Chicago Jews. We, too, constitute a particular subgroup, and I wanted to study and make known to a wider public our curious ways. Also, Bellow's work: I read Dangling Man, his first novel, when I was 14, and recognized in it the voice of literature. I thought: So one's own experience is worth writing about. What a revelation!
Kornbluth: Your work on Bellow took a decade. During that period, you were so involved with your subject that there were, you say, "moments when I wondered if I was living my own life at all." But those moments have a half-life. When you finish a book, the spell vanishes. How do you feel about Bellow today?
Atlas: Well, a lot of things: gratitude for existing, to begin with; if he hadn't lived, I wouldn't have gotten to tell his story. As for his work, I think more or less what I did a decade ago: The best of it -- Seize the Day, Herzog, the early "European" novels, maybe even the first half of his latest, Ravelstein -- will last; and that's saying a lot. Some of his work wearies me, but I feel a tolerance for weariness. We ask too much of our writers -- ask them to reinvent themselves over and over, to give us something new all the time. People do what they can with the talents allotted them -- and that goes for genius as well as for the rest of us. Some of his personal failings I could do without: But it was my purpose to record, not to judge.
Kornbluth: Twenty years ago, Philip Roth was the first to encourage you to write a biography of Saul Bellow. And now, just as your book is coming out, he's published a long appreciation of Bellow in The New Yorker. The timing doesn't seem accidental. Roth focuses solely on Bellow's style and literary themes. Your book connects the dots between Bellow's extraordinarily autobiographical novels and his chaotic, not entirely admirable life. Do you suspect that Roth's piece is an implicit criticism of the way you filled the 611 pages of your book?
Atlas: Roth is saying: "Let's take the high road. None of this idle literary gossip. Atlas dabbles in dirty laundry; we're the real lit guys." I don't buy it.
Kornbluth: There's ample evidence that Bellow's interest in philosophical questions is genuine. But one topic seems to be merely intellectual for him: What makes a good man? In your book, he comes across as anything but admirable: five marriages, incessant philandering, etc. Is this a standard-issue demonstration that great art is often made by "bad" men? Or are we wrong to look at Bellow's relations with women through the prism of our contemporary standards?
Atlas: Your question reminds me of my ambition to write a book called "When Good Things Happen to Bad People." Bellow's attitudes toward women are not admirable, certainly, but why should that matter to the rest of us? Because of the way he represents them in his books: We read him to take a measure of what John Berryman called "the stock of available reality," and so we need to know where he's coming from, as it were. That said, I'm inclined to give him a pass on some of his more Neanderthal pronouncements about women; that's how men talked and thought in those days. (Have you ever noticed F. Scott Fitzgerald's or Hemingway's casual anti-Semitism? That's how people saw Jews then.)
Kornbluth: Bellow is famed for his formidable intellect and insight into personality. But in his own life, he could be amazingly dim-witted. I'm thinking of his marriage to Sondra and her affair with Bellow's close friend Jack Ludwig. At one point, Sondra insists that Bellow see a psychiatrist four times a week -- presumably so she and Jack can be together without any chance of detection. And yet Bellow never figured out they were having an affair until his marriage ended. How do you explain such blindness?
Atlas: Doesn't he say somewhere: "Knowing and not knowing: the human way." I paraphrase, having forgotten what I wrote, or quoted; but the notion is that we suffer from massive denial, some more than others. A glib way of looking at Bellow's blindness is to say that he was setting up the situation so that he could write about it. More likely, he was doing the heavy lifting of serious denial -- actually failing to notice. How could this be? The man was -- is -- focused on the writing of his books. The domestic details elude him. Most people try to avoid this kind of pain after a while: The pigeon gets enough shocks, it stops pecking at the ping-pong ball. Bellow shrugs off the pain. He's an artist -- and who knows? -- maybe a masochist into the bargain.
Kornbluth: Bellow told a reporter, "My life is a mess like everyone else's." But as I read your book, that's not quite the case -- Bellow often seems to have created domestic strife in order to generate material for his fiction. Was this conscious?
Atlas: His life was more of a mess than most people's. I'm amazed he had the stamina for it. It does seem a little -- how can I put this? -- literary to view his life as a lab for his work. It's probably more accurate to see his life as secondary to his work. Not the main thing: not to be worked on, labored over, made better, but simply endured while he got on with his work. Those of us who aren't burdened with true genius have a hard time understanding this arrangement of priorities.
Kornbluth: In a novel, Bellow described a thinly disguised character based on Susan Glassman, one of his ex-wives, as a nagging bitch. Later, Glassman wrote an essay about the use of real people in fiction. Her question: At what point is the novelist violating the privacy of the people he uses for inspiration? What do you think: Did Bellow go too far?
Atlas: Sometimes. He settled scores, no doubt about it. On the other hand, he revived, embellished, preserved souls who would have disappeared into the ether. He used his genius for portraiture as a weapon, but also as a paintbrush, making art.
Kornbluth: Bellow, Mailer, Roth -- these are the great living "Jewish novelists." Are they the end of this line?
Atlas: There are still Jews, still novelists, still Jews who write novels, but no more "Jewish novelists." That category is history.
Kornbluth: Has Bellow read the book? If so, what's his reaction?
Atlas: I don't know, and I don't know (and I'm not sure I want to know).
Kornbluth: Bellow is 85. You're 51. Odds favor that you'll outlive him. In an edition of your biography that's published after his death, is there material already in your possession that you'll add?
Atlas: No, the book stands. To me it feels complete.
Jesse Kornbluth, author of six books, is the editorial director of America Online.