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Professor Bellow

The influence of the academy made Saul Bellow’s fiction insufferable.

Photograph by Stephen Kent; Styling by Angharad Bailey

Saul Bellow was of two minds about the academy. In a 1957 article for The Nation, entitled “The University as Villain,” he described English departments as being filled with “discouraged people who stand dully upon a brilliant plane, in charge of masterpieces but not themselves inspired.” He had by then spent two decades working as an itinerant English professor—at Bard, Pestalozzi-Froebel Teachers College, and the University of Minnesota, among others—in order to supplement his meager writing income. This was not an unusual career in a period when the business of writing fiction became increasingly intertwined with academia. Not only did MFA programs begin to turn novel-writing into something like a guild profession, but many writers—from Bernard Malamud at Oregon State University to Vladimir Nabokov at Cornell—relied on an academic paycheck to fund their works in progress. Though teaching obligations can be burdensome, for Bellow the university was more than a source of income;  it allowed him to glimpse a fuller intellectual life.

Hidden behind his complaint in The Nation was the lament of a disappointed lover, for whom living among inspiring masterpieces was the summit of human achievement. If most ordinary professors couldn’t live up to his ideal, Bellow was still drawn to the minority for whom ideas were a matter of life and death. His best book was Herzog, his 1964 novel about the renegade professor Moses Herzog, who pens desperate letters to world dignitaries, all the time festering from the wound of his best friend running off with his wife. But Herzog contained, too, the seeds of Bellow’s future failures. It was the first of his professorial novels, which would portray intellectuals like Artur Sammler and Abe Ravelstein as exemplars of wisdom and insight. All but one (Humboldt’s Gift in 1975) of his subsequent novels would feature an academic hero.

Chicago, the city and the university, loomed large in Bellow’s consciousness.
Hans Behm / Library of Congress

By 1981, Bellow had abandoned his earlier ambivalence and swung around to the conclusion that, as he told The New York Times’ Michiko Kakutani, “It’s in the university and only in the university that Americans can have a higher life.” And in real life, Bellow had become a fixture of various academic haunts, most durably as a member of the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago, from 1962 to late 1993. But the novels Bellow wrote under the influence of the academy are some of his worst. It does little service to Bellow’s reputation to pretend that everything he wrote deserves preservation and revisiting. So arid are The Dean’s December (1982) and More Die of Heartbreak (1987) that inescapable questions emerge: Where did he go wrong? How did so gifted a writer lay waste to his talents? 

Bellow was an early test case for novelists trying to get by in the academy, and a particularly telling case, since he was a more enthusiastic recruit than most. As last year’s n+1 anthology “MFA vs. NYC” demonstrated, the tension between academia and real life has only deepened and still defines the contours of literary life. Cagey and brainy, Bellow wanted to be the novelist of both the streets and the faculty lounge. Alas, in too much of his work, he serves as a cautionary tale of how schools can open minds but can also sometimes trap the soul.

Bellow had always been attracted to intellectual life and initially looked for it beyond the academy: Starting off as a writer in the late ’30s, he gravitated toward the most highbrow of the literary quarterlies, Partisan Review, with its dual and contrary loyalty to high modernism and political revolution. And like the New York intellectuals, Bellow aspired to be a master of all thought, not bounded by disciplines but happily jumping from literature to politics to sociology to philosophy. Yet it was Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought that provided the perfect niche for a wide-ranging polymath like Bellow. 

Created in 1941 by the historian John Nef, anthropologist Robert Redfield, economist Frank Knight, and university president Robert M. Hutchins, the committee was designed as a meeting ground for specialists in all areas of the humanities and social sciences to exchange ideas across disciplinary boundaries. In Nef’s grand words, the committee aimed to forge “the unification of all recent discoveries in the arts and sciences.” Bellow thrived on the committee, which gave him both a steady income and, just as importantly, the chance to teach graduate seminars and engage in endless bull sessions with the sociologist Edward Shils, political theorist Allan Bloom, the art historian and critic Harold Rosenberg, and religious historian Mircea Eliade. Bellow enthused over the Committee on Social Thought as “the most beautiful of all my employers” and “a marvelous racket.” Bellow could teach courses on the writers he loved—Proust, Dickens, Dostoyevsky—and drink in the elixir of exalted ideas. 

While he idealized the life of the mind, the actual ideas he gravitated towards were often foolish, if not absurd. As a member of the committee, his lifelong proclivity for attaching himself to dubious gurus with messages of esoteric redemption tinged, at times, with apocalyptic despair, only worsened. In the early ’50s Bellow had become a follower of Wilhelm Reich’s dingbat psychological theories, even spending time sitting in an Orgone Accumulator, a wooden box that supposedly harnessed the power of orgasms. In  the 1960s, Bellow went on to find solace in Shils’s snooty Weberian despair, in the 1970s in Rudolf Steiner’s anthroposophy (“a path of knowledge aiming to guide the spiritual element in the human being to the spiritual in the universe”), and eventually, in the late ’70s and ’80s, in Bloom’s self-congratulatory popularization of Leo Strauss’s political philosophy. In justifying his interest in Steiner’s shifty mysticism, Bellow told an interviewer in 1975, “It puts back into life a kind of magic we’ve been persuaded to drop.”

These supposed sages provided the intellectual under-girding of Bellow’s novels. His trust in them tended toward the credulous. Shils, whose resistance to social change Bellow was all too quick to adopt, not only served as a model for the hero of 1970’s Mr. Sammler’s Planet but he also played a substantial role in editing the work. According to James Atlas’s Bellow: A Biography, “Bellow gave [Shils] a copy of the typescript, and Shils annotated it so extensively that the novel became—according to Daniel Fuchs—‘something of a collaborative effort.’” The best that can be said about these intellectual mentors is that they demonstrate Bellow’s admirable and persistent attempt to make sense of the world. Unfortunately, they also contributed to Bellow’s tendency, often out of control in the post-Herzog books, to pontificate in the place of narrative and to browbeat the reader with heady erudition that masks a solipsistic worldview. 

The best example of how academia ruined Bellow can be seen in The Dean’s December, his novel about the dean of a Chicago college who broods over his many battles both inside and outside the academy. The hero is Albert Corde, who bores readers and those around him with his thoughts on everything from Eastern European politics to race relations in Chicago to lead pollution’s role in causing crime. In the second chapter, the dean lectures his wife, who happens to have been born in Romania, about the politics of her native land. “Minna let him go on, and he stopped himself. It wasn’t the time to develop such views. Evil visions. The moronic inferno. He read too many articles and books.” 

This moment of respite is a brief one, and the dean soon resumes lecturing to one and all. As the novel makes clear, the fact that Minna tunes out her husband is her fault and not that of the dean’s verbal diarrhea. “The Dean had a language problem” since English was not Minna’s native tongue. “When he let himself go she didn’t understand what he was saying.” Elsewhere Minna is shown to admire her mate’s quickness of mind, a trait Bellow seems to want us to be in awe of.

It’s not only poor Minna who has to listen to her husband’s ramblings. While the two are in Bucharest, the dean meets the American ambassador, whom he needs to consult about an urgent personal matter, but not before getting some punditry off his chest: “Together with this he wanted to try out on the Ambassador some of his notions about the mood of the West. Oh, he had a lots of topics: the crazy state of the U.S., the outlook and psychology of officialdom in the Communist world, the peculiar psychoses of penitentiary societies like this one.” As fictional characters who share a universe with the dean, Minna and the ambassador at least have the option to politely smile but not listen to him. Readers of the novel are not so lucky, and we get to plow through the dean’s ruminations on these and many other topics through the course of a novel as bleak as a Chicago winter. 

There’s no denying that the dean, like Herzog and almost all the other post-Herzogian professors, is a know-it-all. To be fair, this claim of expert knowledge in all endeavors has a long lineage in fiction. As the literary critic Fredric Jameson noted in his 2013 book The Antinomies of Realism: “Balzac was supremely what the Germans call a ‘Besserwisser,’ a know-it-all at every moment anxious to show off his inside expertise. …But surely Dickens had the virus as well, who was so proud of knowing all the streets in London; and we may safely attribute an analogous concupiscence of knowledge to all the other great encyclopedic fabulators, from Trollope to Joyce.” 

Yet there’s a difference between the tradition of the encyclopedic besserwisser and Bellow. In trying to distill Paris or Dublin into their books, Balzac and Joyce wrote fictions that surveyed many characters radically different than themselves. Bellow’s Chicago is seen through the prism of a fairly narrow perspective, that of a Hyde Park intellectual affiliated with the University of Chicago. Beyond their sweep and scope, Balzac and Joyce deal with the grit of experience, the durable and tangible encounter with the material world found in Bellow’s early fiction that increasingly gave way to pure hot-air opinionating. A besserwisser can be tolerable if he or she is at least bringing news about the world. The scope of Dickens, Joyce, Balzac’s novels revealed something about the texture of human life, whether it was broad comedy that exalted urban life or showed the complexities of interiority. Bellow’s ambitious attempt to encompass vast systems of knowledge offered far less news about unexplored areas of human life, save in peak works like Seize the Day and Herzog. Bellow in his worst fiction brought not news, but airy and often malicious theories about what was wrong with other people.

Late-period Bellow liked to sound off about the sorry state of the world. Wisdom literature, as the durable popularity of the Book of Ecclesiastes proves, can be valuable. But the quality of Bellow’s wisdom was less solid than he assumed. Take gender for example. In his notebook Herzog wrote, “Will never understand what women want. What do they want? They eat green salad and drink human blood.” In the context of the novel, with Herzog in emotional traction after his wife’s rejection, this makes perfect sense. Novelistically, it’s much more acceptable than The Dean’s December, in which the hero’s snobby misogyny toward his sister Elfrida is hard to swallow. 

Bellow aspired to be a master of all thought, not bounded by disciplines.
Marisa Rastellini / Mondadori Portfolio / Getty

The dean’s sibling, we’re told, wrote a letter “with a sort of looping, rambling naïve charm, not strictly literate, with feminine flourishes” and “filled with lady phrases.” Because of her generally middlebrow nature, the dean had “stopped 30 years ago trying to discuss theories with Elfrida.” Elfrida’s “breath was acrid with tobacco, perfumed with lipstick; her teeth were irregular and spotty. Her air was that of a woman who had given in to disappointment and ruin. ‘Oh, to hell with it all!’ This was conveyed, however, with a certain cleverness, ruefully amiable and warm. For of course she hadn’t withdrawn the feminine claims of a younger woman. ‘American gals’ seldom did. In their fifties they were still ‘dating.’ ” (For the record, in real life Bellow was not himself opposed to continuing courtship late into life: He married  his fifth and final wife when he was 74 years old, and  his youngest child, a daughter, was born when he was 84.) 

This sort of free-floating attitudinizing isn’t a flaw in the novel, it is the novel. Theorizing in late period Bellow is inextricable from narrative: the ideas the characters construct to understand reality makes up the very texture of the books. Much of the action of The Dean’s December involves the dean trying to make sense of urban decay and African American life, writing a series of  articles about the subject for Harper’s, and then dealing with the attacks from critics of it. (The novel had its origins in a nonfiction book Bellow wanted to write about Chicago). 

Novels of ideas have their value, but unfortunately the dean’s ideas (which Bellow makes no effort to separate himself from) are shoddy. The crustiness and fustiness of the dean’s disdainful reaction to urban life owes much to Shils’s pompous sensibility, while the flights into transcendental reverie are infused with Steiner’s thoughts. Despite his pronouncements in Harper’s, the dean has little of interest to say when he actually encounters urban decay. Detecting the smell of excrement during a cab ride, he quips, “People have even stopped wiping themselves.” Asked what he thinks about a paper arguing that lead poisoning contributes to crime, the dean responds with banalities: “Naturally, I’m a good concerned American. I want bad things to stop, good things to go forward.”

The distastefulness of these ideas is coupled with a loss of linguistic control evident in the late-period novels. As Bellow wallowed in abstractions in his mind, he lost touch with living vernacular speech, which he so masterfully deployed in early novels like The Adventures of Augie March and Herzog. In The Dean’s December, the dean has an unpleasant argument with his nephew, described in these terms: “But the real trouble, as he recognized, was that he was in a wrong relation to the sum of things—he himself. A sign of this was that he was in a useless debate—hopeless! All the premises were wrong—with this adolescent whose head was so remote.” The sheer awkwardness of “whose head was so remote” is symptomatic of Bellow’s own humongous head, no longer capable of hearing and observing but fly-trapped by its own internal arguments. 

To read a book like The Dean’s December is overhearing Saul Bellow muttering, not always coherently or cogently, to himself. Whole passages read like a professor preparing a lecture, trying out pedagogical gambits and provocative quips while also anticipating objections. As John Updike noted in a review in The New Yorker, Bellow’s indistinguishability from his protagonist was a fatal flaw, preventing the novel from achieving the free flight of fiction. “Corde is too closely tied to his creator to be free, to fall, to be judged in the round, to have anything much happen to him.”

Bellow didn’t write academic satire in the tradition of Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim or Randall Jarrell’s Pictures From an Institution, novels that tackled the external pretenses of academic life but with less acknowledgment of why someone might want to devote their lives to reading and thinking.  In Lucky Jim, Jim Dixon doesn’t give a farthing about the medieval history he devotes his time to studying, it’s just an exercise he has to get through for his job. Herzog is also a historian, but his study of romanticism and Christianity touches on matters closest to his heart: His estranged wife was an erstwhile convert to Christianity and what moments of tranquility Herzog achieves during his prolonged breakdown come from a Wordsworthian contemplation of nature. Ideas mattered for Bellow, and he strove to write novels in which the drama of personal conflict was intimately intertwined with thinking about the world.

Eschewing the cheap jokiness of Amis’s style, Bellow found a deep vein of comedy by linking emotional fragility with the search for meaning in the realm of thought. In one of his finest crackpot moments, Herzog pens a little missive to a supreme philosopher of the twentieth century: “Dear Doktor Professor Heidegger, I should like to know what you mean by the expression ‘the fall into the quotidian.’ When did this fall occur? Where were we standing when it happened?” Out of context, this might almost seem like a line that anticipates Woody Allen’s humor in the feuilletons collected in Without Feathers (1975). In the pages of the novel, it has an added layer of poignancy because however misdirected they are, Herzog’s questions are real ones. His life has fallen apart and he wants to know how it happened. 

But there’s a fine line between taking ideas seriously and falling prey to intellectual self-seriousness. All too often, Bellow’s protagonists were not just men of ideas but pompous bores. At the beginning of Mr. Sammler’s Planet there’s a lament against explanation: “Intellectual man had become an explaining creature,” the narrator tells us. “The roots of this, the causes of the other, the sources of events, the history, the structure, the reasons why.” But this screed against the explanatory impulse is followed, apparently without any irony, by hundreds of pages of disquisition on the state of world, including an extended discussion of whether humanity should colonize other planets. The result is an enervating novel with all the dramatic tension of an all-day panel discussion. In 1972 Tom Wolfe, with justice, compared the “exquisite” frustration of graduate school with watching “the worst part of the worst Antonioni movie you ever saw, or reading Mr. Sammler’s Planet at one sitting, or just reading it.”

Chicago, the city and the university, loomed large in Bellow’s consciousness. Chicago is a city of both brains and brawn, host to a magnificent university that trumpeted itself as the repository of the great books, but also of a civic culture often dominated by gangsters. He lived there from the age of nine (he was born in Canada in 1915) and styled himself as the bard of the metropolis with the opening words of his third novel, The Adventures of Augie March: “I am an American, Chicago born.” 

Aware of the two faces of Chicago, Bellow wanted to encompass them both in his fiction, to show what happens when eggheads clashed with wise guys. “You were tough or you were nothing,” we’re told in The Dean’s December. “In realism and cunning these La Salle Street characters”—roughneck lawyers and businessmen who clash with the dean over legal matters‚“were impressive because they had the backing of the pragmatic culture of the city, the state, the region, the country. In his brother-in-law’s view, the dean had given up the real world to take refuge with philosophy and art. Academics were hacks and phonies.” It was part of the genuine nobility of Bellow that he wrote novels to argue against this crude pragmatism, to show how mind and spirit could hold their own in contests with brute force. 

Part of what drew Bellow and Shils together in the 1960s was a shared distaste for New Left student radicals, whom both men saw as enemies of the humanistic mission of the university. In his truculent responses to radical students, Bellow as a teacher could be remarkably nasty. When a feminist graduate student tried to raise a political issue in his Joyce seminar, Bellow shouted, “You women’s liberationists! All you’re going to have to show for your movement ten years from now are sagging breasts!” Artur Sammler shared Bellow’s sour views of 1960s America. To give heft to his character’s point of view, Bellow imbued him with some of Shils’s ideas and even language. Sammler dismissed radical thinkers like Herbert Marcuse as “worthless fellows”—a phrase Shils liked to use. 

Yet the overlap between life and fiction is problematic. Shils’s disdain for Marcuse has behind it at least the achievement of Shils’s own work as a social theorist, which we can appraise as we wish. When Sammler expresses the same ideas, the only grounds we have for judging the merits of these words are from within the novel itself, from Bellow’s implicit claim that Sammler is a man of intellectual worth. This was perhaps Bellow’s greatest problem: He only rarely figured out how to translate the genuine pleasure that the free play of ideas gave him into convincing, felt narratives. Much more often, he ended up falling between two stools, failing to rival his academic colleagues as thinkers while also losing his way as a novelist.