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THE GREAT AMERICAN AUGIE by Christopher Hitchens
Augie March stands on the Chicago lake-shore at dawn on a New Year's Day in the 1930s:
I drank coffee and looked out into the brilliant first morning of the year. There was a Greek church in the next street of which the onion dome stood in the snow-polished and purified blue, cross and crown together, the united powers of earth and heaven, snow in all the clefts, a snow like the sand of sugar. I passed over the church too and rested only on the great profound blue. The days have not changed, though the times have. The sailors who first saw America, that sweet sight, where the belly of the ocean had brought them, didn't see more beautiful color than this.
Nick Carraway stands on the Long Island shoreline at the close of The Great Gatsby:
And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors' eyes-a fresh green breast of the new world...the trees that had made way for Gatsby's house had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent...face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.
One man is reflecting at day's end, and one at day's beginning. Both have just been put through it by flawed and wretched humanity-Carraway has been to several funerals and Augie has had a close shave while helping a girl who isn't his girlfriend to survive an illegal abortion. (I pause to note that one is a belly man, while the other favors the breast.) Both draw strength from the idea of America. But Carraway derives consolation, while it might be truer to say that Augie finds inspiration. Reflecting on Gatsby's futile quest-his "dream"-Carraway decides that: "He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night." Augie doesn't take much stock in dreams, and he is about to venture on to those very fields.
I do not set myself up as a member of the jury in the Great American Novel contest, if only because I'd prefer to see the white whale evade capture for a while longer. It's more interesting that way. However, we do belong to a ranking species, and there's no denying that this contest is a real one. The great advantage that Augie March possesses over Gatsby lies in its scope and its optimism and, I would venture, in its principles. Or its principle-in the opening pages Augie states it clearly and never loses sight of it:
What did Danton lose his head for, or why was there a Napoleon, if it wasn't to make a nobility of us all? And this universal eligibility to be noble, taught everywhere, was what gave Simon airs of honor.
Simon is Augie's older brother, but "this universal eligibility to be noble" (eligibility connotes being elected as well as being chosen) is as potent a statement of the American dream as has ever been uttered. Simon doesn't "make it"; that's not the point. Augie doesn't exactly make it either; well, it's an ideal not a promise. He decides to match himself against the continent, seeking no one's permission and deferring to no idea of limitation. His making, like his omnivorous education, will be his own.
This was the first time in American literature that an immigrant would act and think like a rightful Discoverer, or a pioneer. The paradox of the American immigrant experience had hitherto been exactly that so many immigrants came to the New World not in order to spread their wings but to adapt, to conform, to fit in. When we are first introduced to Augie he is in cramped conditions; a poor Jewish family semi-stifled by its own warmth and replete with dreads about the wider world. Our hero doesn't know any better than this, and yet he does know. "I am an American, Chicago born," he proclaims in the very first line of his narrative. It's important to understand what this assertion meant when it was made, both to Bellow himself and to the audiences he had in mind.
Barely a half-century before The Adventures of Augie March was published, Henry James had returned to New York from Europe and found its new character unsettling in the extreme. In The American Scene, published in 1907, he registered the revulsion he felt at having "to share the sanctity of his American consciousness, the intimacy of his American patriotism, with the inconceivable alien" (my italics). On the Lower East Side he discerned "the hard glitter of Israel." In the Cafe Royale, a locus of Yiddish-speaking authors and performers, he found himself in one of the "torture rooms of the living idiom." And he asked himself: "Who can ever tell, in any conditions, what the genius of Israel may, or may not, really be 'up to'?" The Master was by no means alone in expressing sentiments and sensitivities of this kind. With Augie March, and its bold initial annexation of the brave name of "American," his descendants got the answer to the question about what the genius was "up to."
Saul Bellow was born-and named Solomon-in 1915, across the border in Lachine, Quebec. (Lachine itself was named by a Columbus-minded French military officer who was sent to look for China and declared he'd found it.) Bellow's parents smuggled him across the Great Lakes as an infant, and he did not discover that he was an illegal immigrant until he signed up for the United States armed forces in the Second World War. The authorities sent him back to Canada and compelled him to reapply-kept him hanging about, in other words. Among other things, Augie March is a farewell to the age of Bellow's own uncertainty, an adieu to the self of his two earlier novels, Dangling Man (1944) and The Victim (1947).
Affirmatively, almost defiantly American, the novel is by no means a paean to assimilation and amnesia. As a youth, Bellow composed and performed a stand-up spoof of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" in Yiddish, and he has always remained acutely aware of his Russian roots. He helped Irving Howe and Partisan Review in the first translations of his future fellow- Nobelist Isaac Bashevis Singer. One triumph of Augie March is that it takes Yiddishkeit out of the "torture rooms" and out of the ghetto, and helps make it an indissoluble and inseparable element in the great American tongue. Those of us who inherit Lenny Bruce, Walter Matthau, Woody Allen, and Philip Roth as part of our vernacular birthright take for granted this linguistic faculty and facility. But it was not a birthright in 1953.
Only in the preceding year, for one thing, had Bellow's peers and cothinkers and kibitzers got around to producing the famous Partisan Review symposium "Our Country and Our Culture." In those pages, the veterans of the cultural combat of the 1930s-most but not all of them Jewish-had asked if perhaps the time had not come to rewrite their project of permanent opposition. There were demurrals and reservations, but on the whole the formerly "alienated" began to speak as lawfully adopted sons and daughters of the United States. The exceptions, those who distrusted what they saw as a coming age of conformism, included Irving Howe and Delmore Schwartz. But when Augie astonished the critics by showing that an egghead novel could be a literary and a commercial success, Schwartz was won over. His review of it opened with the simple declaration that "Saul Bellow's new novel is a new kind of book." He compared it favorably with the grandest efforts of Mark Twain and John Dos Passos. And he was struck at once by the essential matter, which is the language and the style:
Augie March rises from the streets of the modern city to encounter the reality of experience with an attitude of satirical acceptance, ironic affirmation, the comic transcendence of affirmation and rejection.
Indeed, he made the immigrant vengeance on the old guard quite explicit:
For the first time in fiction America's social mobility has been transformed into a spiritual energy which is not doomed to flight, renunciation, exile, denunciation, the agonised hyper-intelligence of Henry James, or the hysterical cheering of Walter Whitman.
Schwartz, who would be the inspiration for the protagonist of Bellow's Humboldt's Gift ("Let me in! I'm a poet! I have a big cock!"), admired Augie the character for the very quality that some reviewers distrusted: his unreadiness to be committed or, as Augie puts it, "recruited." Among the hostile reviewers was Norman Podhoretz, who, as recently as the year 2000, revisited the squabble and-almost incredibly but probably unconsciously-echoed Henry James's anti-Jewishness in accusing Bellow of "twisting and torturing the language"!
If I've succeeded at all in establishing this context, I hope I've helped explain why it is that Augie March still constitutes a template for modern American literature. Just as it formed and altered the Jewish and the Anglo-Saxon attitudes of its time-so it still waits for readers and critics and helps them to measure their own perspective on America. (This pilot-light effect can be seen in the work of Martin Amis, who in 1987 wrote that "for all its marvels, Augie March, like Henderson the Rain King, often resembles a lecture on destiny fed through a thesaurus of low-life patois." In 1995, he began an essay as follows: "The Adventures of Augie March is the Great American Novel. Search no further. All the trails went cold forty-two years ago. The quest did what quests very rarely do; it ended." Not unrelatedly, perhaps, but in sharp reverse, Kingsley Amis greeted the original publication by telling the readers of the Spectator of Bellow's "gaiety and good humour, his fizzing dialogue, his vitality." Two decades later he wrote: "Bellow is a Ukrainian-Canadian, I believe. It is painful to watch him trying to pick his way between the unidiomatic on the one hand and the affected on the other." Twenty years further on he had sunk into the belief that everyone in America was "either a Jew or a hick.")
Augie himself is little better than "the by-blow of a traveling man." He informs us early on that the expression "various jobs" is the "Rosetta Stone" of his life. But the awareness of eligibility is in him, and he'll fight his corner for it and never be a hick. "What I guess about you," says one of his pals-guessing correctly-"is that you have a nobility syndrome. You can't adjust to the reality situation....You want to accept. But how do you know what you're accepting? You have to be nuts to take it come one come all....You should accept the data of experience." To which Augie replies, more confidently perhaps than he feels, "It can never be right to offer to die, and if that's what the data of experience tell you, then you must get along without them."
Even while he is still stranded at home in Chicago, knowing somehow that there must be more to life and America, Augie invests his banal surroundings with a halo of the numinous and the heroic. For a start, he transfigures the cliche of the Jewish mother:
[Mama] occupied a place, I suppose, among women conquered by a superior force of love, like those women whom Zeus got the better of in animal form and who next had to take cover from his furious wife. Not that I can see my big, gentle, dilapidated, scrubbing, and lugging mother as a fugitive of immense beauty from such classy wrath.
And then there is old Einhorn, the lamed and misshapen local organizer and fixer and memoirist, whom Augie ("I'm not kidding when I enter Einhorn in this eminent list") ranks with Caesar, Machiavelli, Ulysses, and Croesus. It's Einhorn who so memorably lectures Augie after he has a narrow squeak with a two-bit, no-account piece of larceny that could have turned nasty:
That was what you let yourself in for. Yes, that's right, Augie, a dead cop or two. You know what cop-killers get, from the station onward-their faces beaten off, their hands smashed, and worse; and that would be your start in life....But wait. All of a sudden I catch on to something about you. You've got opposition in you. You don't slide through everything. You just make it look so.
Einhorn then takes the role of Augie's missing father, releasing in his listener a spurt of love that he's too wised-up to acknowledge at the time:
"Don't be a sap, Augie, and fall into the first trap life digs for you. Young fellows brought up in bad luck, like you, are naturals to keep the jails filled-the reformatories, all the institutions. What the state orders bread and beans long in advance for. It knows there's an element that can be depended on to come behind bars to eat it....It's practically determined. And if you're going to let it be determined for you too, you're a sucker. Just what's predicted. Those sad and tragic things are waiting to take you in-the clinks and clinics and soup lines know who's the natural to be beat up and squashed, made old, pooped, farted away, no-purposed away. If it should happen to you, who'd be surprised? You're a setup for it."
Then he added, "But I think I'd be surprised."
Before Einhorn is through with his homily, he adds one more thing. "I'm not a lowlife when I think, and really think," says the poolroom king and genius swindler. "In the end you can't save your soul and life by thought. But if you think, the least of the consolation prizes is the world."
I judge this as a hinge moment in a novel that sometimes has difficulty with its dramatic unities. Einhorn summons the shades of the prison house for the growing boy, and evokes for us the omnipresence of violence, injustice and stupidity. He senses the lower depths of the underclass, while we sense in him what we feel in reading Thomas Gray's Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard: the unrealized potential of a great man who might have been. He, too, has felt the eligibility. And he has an untrained instinct for the examined life. Whatever this is-and it's demotic American English, all right-it's not lowlife patois.
So when Augie breaks free and sets out, he is no Candide or Copperfield. And this novel is no Horatio Alger tale. Many of Augie's ground-down relatives do end up in institutions, all of them achingly well-drawn and one-the "home" for Augie's retarded baby brother- poignantly so. Bellow's Chicago is not vastly different from The Jungle of Upton Sinclair.
Excerpted from The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow Copyright © 1995 by Saul Bellow. Excerpted by permission.
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