Saul Bellow: Letters


Saul Bellow was agreat man of letters in both senses of the word. Over a long lifetime—he diedin 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 amaster of the genre. Not unlike Moses Herzog, the fevered letter-writer of hiseponymous—and to my mind, best—novel, “he wrote endlessly, fanatically, tothe newspapers, to people in public life, to friends and relatives and at lastto the dead, his own obscure dead, and finally the famous dead”; butBellow drew the line at the famous dead—no letters to Nietzsche or the Frenchtheologian Teilhard de Chardin, both one-way correspondents of Herzog—and hewrote no letters to “his own obscure dead,” though they were often inhis thoughts. As he got older, he looked backward more than forward: to hisclassmates at Tuley High School in Chicago; to his parents; and to the oddassortment of teachers and merchants and relatives who richly populated hischildhood in the Jewish-immigrant neighborhood of Humboldt Park where he grewup—characters like Uncle Benjy, who had a pet shop: “Why is it so sad thatBenjy should sell puppies and birds?” he asked one of his old classmates.

I must declare at the outsetthat two of the letters in this plump and totally engaging volume (both genialin tone) are addressed to me; and also that scattered throughout are a fewreferences (alas, not flattering) to the biography of Bellow overwhich I labored for more than a decade. But I suppose—it’s a stretch—thesereferences could be seen in a positive light. As Charlie Citrine says of theabusive poet Von Humboldt Fleisher in Humboldt’sGift:”To be loused up by Humboldt was really a kind of privilege. It was likebeing the subject of a two-nosed portrait by Picasso, or an eviscerated chickenby Soutine.”

Bellow complained endlesslyabout what a chore it was to keep up with his correspondence, especially afterhe became famous. “These days letters come hard for me….” “I’venever enjoyed writing letters….” Perhaps not; but he did answer most ofhis mail, and it gives off a heat of exuberance, energy, wit, and a pure joy inwriting for its own sake. There’s also plenty of pain, as in this letter toEdward Shils, his colleague at the University of Chicago, where he describesthe titanic alimony struggle with his third wife, Susan Glassman, that nearlylanded him in jail:

I hadalways thought myself quite sturdy and resistant to knocks, but it often seemsthat I am not quite so strong as I had believed. I wake in the night, and donot feel very strong. I sometimes find myself praying. Not for favors of anysort, not even for help, but simply for clarification. I am not especiallyapprehensive about dying. What does distress me is the thought that I may havemade a mess where others (never myself) see praiseworthy achievements.

It is a temptation—and perhaps acliché—to lament the end of the epistolary art. In an age of email andtechnological gadgetry that has shortened our attention span to minutes if notseconds, the time required to sit down and write a letter, even a dashed-off note(what Henry James called “the mere twaddle of graciousness”) issimply no longer there. On my shelf are six volumes of Virginia Woolf’s lettersamounting 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 biographerand keeper-of-the-Jamesian flame Leon Edel, was determined to cram in (like theincreasingly cramped words on a holiday post card) as many as he could beforerunning out of space. What these volumes hold are not just letters: they aregems of prose by masters of the English language. Bellow is the last in theline of literary correspondents. There’s no point in being elegiac: new ways ofrecording experience and, for the biographer, pulling back the curtain to findout what really happened (or what the subject thinks happened) are fastevolving. Twitter and Facebook and YouTube have superseded the typed or handwrittenletter, just as those means of communication rendered obsolete the quill. Inthe future, biographers will amass their evidence out of different materials.But the day in which nearly six hundred pages of letters—a fraction of thoseBellow wrote—can be assembled and published in a book is over. There will be nomore collections of letters like this.

In his book Literary Biography, Edel wrote: “The lettersare a part of the novelist’s work, of his literary self, a part of his capacityfor playing out personal relations as a great game of life.” They haveleitmotifs, thematic repetitions. For Bellow, one of those themes—a majorone—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 comeout, he wrote the novelist Josephine Herbst: “The sharpshooters are oilingtheir guns.”

But he was generous, too, praising other writers andexpressing unself-conscious affection for the people in his life—especially hispast life. “The love I have for you is something literal brotherhood nevergave me,” he writes his Tuley friend Sam Freifeld (who he derides in otherletters; but such is human nature). And funny! Stuck in Chicago on a frigidwinter day, he writes a girlfriend: “What is that Eliot line in ‘Journeyof the Magi’? ‘A cold coming, we had of it.’ Well! It’s all cold, and nocoming.” 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, aswell as accountants and wives, and children’s tuitions and medical expenses.The patriarchal list should go on to include menservants and maidservants andcamels and cattle. I’d be lucky to get into the end of the procession, amongthe asses.” When not lamenting his general cluelessness (“I alwaysmade a special point of seeming to be intensely practical and competent becauseI had no grasp of real life”), he slipped in wise axioms: “We allcarry the same load of unwashed plates from life’s banquet.”

The most surprising discoveriesare the love letters to Maggie Staats, the great love of his life. They metwhen she was twenty-four and he was fifty-one—a gap that in our prudish eramight be considered age-inappropriate. But these letters, some of which Ihadn’t seen before, reveal a side of Bellow that’s hard to discern from thepitiless depiction of women in his fiction, his numerous marriages, and his”womanizing.” There is a tenderness in their baffled tone, a sense ofdeep confusion about the intensity of his feelings. Signed “Y D”[your darling], they show him at his most vulnerable. “It’s dreadful how Imiss you,” he writes: “All the oldest, worst longings are stirredup—some seem very old, wild, peculiar, something like wrinkled furies along theline 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, andassembling a literary life’s worth of letters in even a book of this size couldnot have been an easy task. There are some editorial oddities. Given the vasttrove from which to select, why does Taylor interlard them with speeches,testimonies, eulogies, Nobel Prize nominations (of Philip Roth and Robert PennWarren)? These belong in a biography. There are also some flat-out errors. Idon’t suppose it makes any difference now, but Rust Hills, the fiction editorof Esquire, who died two years ago,narrowly averted having to read that he died in 1983. And the paucity offootnotes is frustrating. Taylor identifies some people referenced in theletters, 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 custodyby the State Police” in Maryland. What was that all about? “Herzog islike Old Man River, he don’t say nothing,” Bellow frets to Richard Sternwhen he’s stuck in the novel. Neither does Taylor. He doesn’t have to apologizefor Bellow’s foibles and misadventures, but at least he could explain.

In a letter to Mel Tumin, one ofhis Chicago “band of boys” (an echo of Shakespeare’s “band ofbrothers” in Henry V?), Bellowwrote: “Only some of us have had the sense to realize that the man webring forth has no richness compared with the man who really exists, thickened,fed and fattened by all the factsabout him, all of his history.” We can never know all the facts, ofcourse, but these letters bring us closer than ever to the man.

James Atlas, the biographer ofDelmore Schwartz and Saul Bellow, is president of the independent publishingcompany Atlas & Co.