Bellow: A Biography

Bellow: A Biography

by James Atlas

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With this masterly and original work, Bellow: A Biography, National Book Award nominee James Atlas gives the first definitive account of the Nobel Prize–winning author’s turbulent personal and professional life, as it unfolded against the background of twentieth-century events—the Depression, World War II, the upheavals of the…  See more details below


With this masterly and original work, Bellow: A Biography, National Book Award nominee James Atlas gives the first definitive account of the Nobel Prize–winning author’s turbulent personal and professional life, as it unfolded against the background of twentieth-century events—the Depression, World War II, the upheavals of the sixties—and amid all the complexities of the Jewish-immigrant experience in America, which generated a vibrant new literature.

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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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Atlas's chronicle of Saul Bellow's life contains all the excess of contemporary literary biography. Yet, in the midst of the recordings of Bellow's arrogance, sexual insatiability, and peevish complaints to publishers and friends, Atlas provides a portrait of an exceptional writer who has immeasurably enriched American literature. Enlivening his narrative with interviews, letters, and reviews of the novelist's work, Atlas (Delmore Schwartz) traces Bellow's life from his birth in 1915 through his student years to his mature development as a novelist. Although Bellow's first two novels had disappointing sales, his dogged belief that he was meant to be a writer and his fiery persistence resulted in The Adventures of Augie March, which won him his first National Book Award and was hailed by many as the "great American novel." With remarkable critical acumen, Atlas engages in close readings of Bellow's novels, providing glimpses of the ways in which the novelist's art and life have often mirrored one another. Atlas also generously covers Bellow's relationships with Lionel and Diana Trilling, Mary McCarthy, Robert Penn Warren, and many other icons in American literary history. This exceptional and definitive chronicle of the life and work of one of our most eminent men of letters is highly recommended. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 6/1/00.]--Henry Carrigan, Lancaster, PA Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
James Kaplan
A magnificent new biography...this is the book [Atlas] was born to write. He is, quite simply, the right guy for the (very big) matter how tuckered-out Saul Bellow may be in his mid '80's, he hasn't lost his edge.
New York Observer
John Leonard
However confounded, a biographer more scrupulous than Atlas is hard to imagine. He has been on the case like a federal marshal for more than a decade. A hoary old reviewer's scam is to pretend you already knew all the inside stuff before you ever read the biography you're about to quibble with by poaching from. Let me be upfront: Almost everything I know about Bellow that I didn't guess from reading him, I got from the encyclopedic Atlas.... I could no more stop reading his biography than I could stop reading Saul Bellow after he blew the blinds off the windows in my head.
New York Times Book Review
James Shapiro
Bellow is not only a compelling story of a great and flawed writer, one who continues to demand our attention, but also a portrait of an extraordinary (and now rapidly receding) epoch in the history of American letters.
New York Times
Logan Hill
From the marriages to the feuds to three National Book Awards and the Nobel Prize, the pages just fly by.
New York Magazine
Publishers Weekly
Long promised and much postponed, this first major biography of the Nobel Prize-winning author proves to be well worth the wait. Atlas's vigorous and incisive portrait grows out of thorough research and intuitive understanding, yeilding a sharp-edged, provocatibe portrait. . . . Capturing succingtly the drab but vital essence of the Jewish neighborhood of Humboldt Park, destined to be the touchstone of Bellow's fiction, Altas charts Bellow's book-obsessed boyhood, his fraught relationships with his overbearing father and older brothers, and the death of his mother just after his graduation from High School. But when Bellow settles down seriously to become a writer, the biography finds its center. Atlas's depiction of Bellow's haphazard, self-absorbed personal life--his five marriages, his four children, his many lovers, his wandering progress from Chicago to New York to Europe to various college campuses and back again--is tart yet sympathetic. He is at his best in describing Bellow's development as a writer and intellectual. Friendships and rivalries. . . and the polemics and passion of post war literary American spur on the prolific Bellow. . . . [Atlas] has a gimlet eye for the ravages of time and fame. This is an accomplished, campassionate but unsentimental life.
Kirkus Reviews
The definitive life of one of the century's great novelists. . . An unsparing but also affectionate portrait of the artist–with vivid splashes of scholarship, insight, and intuition.

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Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
Modern Library Paperbacks
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Read an Excerpt

        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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What People are saying about this

Joyce Carol Oates
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.
Scott Turow
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.
Michael Holroyd
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.

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