Bellow’s Beginnings

Saul Bellow was born in Lachine, Quebec on this day in 1915, two years after his parents immigrated there from Russia. Denied Augie March’s famous origins —”I am an American, Chicago born”— Bellow moved to Chicago at age nine, his father taking a night shift job as a baker. In “Starting Out in Chicago,” a talk he delivered at age sixty, Bellow reflected upon his blue-collar upbringing and his pie-eyed career choice:

And what was the most impractical of choices in somber, heavy, growling, low-brow Chicago? Why it was to be the representative of beauty, the interpreter of the human heart, the hero of ingenuity, playfulness, personal freedom, generosity, and love. I cannot even now say that this was a bad sort of crackpot to be.

Bellow admits that he was “extremely proud, ornery and stupid” in setting himself the “alien task” of describing America to Americans. He closes by wishing it were not so difficult for others to follow his example:

If I had to name the one force in America that opposes the symbolic discipline of poetry today … I would say the Great Noise. The enemy is noise. By noise I mean not simply the noise of technology, the noise of money or advertising and promotion, the noise of media, the noise of miseducation, but the terrible excitement and distraction generated by the crises of modern life. …Contributing to it are the real and unreal issues, ideologies, rationalizations, errors, delusions, nonsituations that look real, nonquestions demanding consideration, opinions, analyses in the press, on the air, expertise, inside dope, factional disagreement, official rhetoric, information—in short, the sounds of the public sphere, the din of politics, the turbulence and agitation that set in about 1914 and have now reached an intolerable volume. …William Wordsworth, nearly two hundred years ago, expressed his concern over the effects of modern turbulence on poetry. He was right, too. But in the language of my youth—”He didn’t know the half of it.”

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