August 25: Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift was published on this day in 1975. The novel turns upon the relationship between two writers and former friends, the narrator Charlie Citrine and Humboldt, this inspired by the real life relationship between Bellow and Delmore Schwartz. Humboldt, now seven years dead, held fast to “the noble idea of being an American poet” and ended up in “the loony bin,” his work forgotten. Charlie acquired two Pulitzers, fame, and a pile of money from his more commercial writing; he now suffers from the “melancholy of affluence” and the guilt of having sold out, his torment fired by his recollections of Humboldt. But in truth, says Charlie defensively, “such sums as I made, made themselves,” or rather, “Capitalism made them for dark comical reasons of its own.” And anyway, there’s no living with Humboldt’s impossible alternatives:
Humboldt, that grand erratic handsome person with his wide blond face, that charming fluent deeply worried man to whom I was so attached, passionately lived out the theme of Success. Naturally he died a Failure. What else can result from the capitalization of such nouns? Myself, I’ve always held the number of sacred words down. In my opinion Humboldt had too long a list of them—Poetry, Beauty, Love, Waste Land, Alienation, Politics, History, the Unconscious. And of course, Manic and Depressive, always capitalized.
The novelist Martin Amis was also born on this day in 1949. Amis is well known for his high opinion of Bellow, most notably in a 1995 Atlantic Monthly article which informs America that “The Adventures of Augie March is the Great American Novel. Search no further. All the trails went cold 42 years ago. The quest did what quests very rarely do; it ended.” In subsequent articles Amis elaborated his praise of Bellow’s “sibling harmony” with language, his “intense formal artistry,” and his “extraordinary affective power”:
When we read, we are doing more than delectating words on a page—stories, characters, images, notions. We are communing with the mind of the author. Or, in this case, with something even more fundamentally his. Bellow’s first name is a typo: that ‘a’ should be an ‘o.’
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.