The great novel of the American dream, of “the universal eligibility to be noble,” Saul Bellow’s third book charts the picaresque journey of one schemer, chancer, romantic, and holy fool: Augie March. Awarded the National Book Award in 1953, The Adventures of Augie March remains one of the classics of American literature. An impulsively active, irresistibly charming and resolutely free-spirited man, Augie March leaves his family of poor Jewish immigrants behind and sets off in search of reality, fulfillment, and most importantly, love. During his exultant quest, he latches on to a series of dubious schemes – from stealing books and smuggling immigrants to training a temperamental eagle to hunt lizards – and strong-minded women – from the fiery, eagle-owning Thea Fenchel, to the sneaky and alluring Stella. As Augie travels from the depths of poverty to the peaks of worldly success, he stands as an irresistible, poignant incarnation of the American idea of freedom. Written in the cascades of brilliant, biting, ravishing prose that would come to be known as “Bellovian,” The Adventures of Augie March re-wrote the language of Saul Bellow’s generation.
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About the Author
Universally recognized as one of the greatest authors of the twentieth century, Bellow has won more honors than almost any other American writer. Among these, he received the Pulitzer Prize for his novel Humboldt's Gift and the B’nai B’rith Jewish Heritage Award for “excellence in Jewish literature.” He was the first American to win the International Literary Prize, and remains the only novelist in history to have received three National Book awards, for The Adventures of Augie March, Herzog, and Mr. Sammler's Planet. In 1976, Bellow was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature “for the human understanding and subtle analysis of contemporary culture that are combined in his work.” Saul Bellow died in 2005 at age 89.
Date of Birth:June 10, 1915
Date of Death:April 5, 2005
Place of Birth:Lachine, Quebec, Canada
Place of Death:Brookline, Massachusetts
Education:University of Chicago, 1933-35; B.S., Northwestern University, 1937
Read an Excerpt
Excerpt from the Introduction by Martin Amis
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.
But what was that quest, anyway - itself so essentially American? No literary masterpiece or federal epic is mentioned in the Constitution, as one of the privileges and treats actually guaranteed to the populace, along with things like liberty and life and the right to bear computerized machineguns. Still, it is easy enough to imagine how such an aspiration might have developed. As its culture was evolving, and as cultural self-consciousness dawned, America found itself to be a youthful, vast and various land, peopled by non-Americans. So how about this place? Was it a continental holding-camp of Greeks, Jews, Brits, Italians, Scandinavians and Lithuanians, together with the remaining Amerindians from ice-age Mongolia? Or was it a nation, with an identity-with a soul? Who could begin to give the answer? Among such diversity, who could crystallize the American experience?
Like most quests, the quest for the Great American Novel seemed destined to be endless. You won't find that mythical beast, that holy grail, that earthly Eden-though you have to keep looking. As with the pursuit of happiness, the pursuit was the thing; you were never going to catch up. It was very American to insist on having a Great American Novel, thus rounding off all the other benefits Americans enjoy. Nobody has ever worried about the Great French Novel or the Great Russian Novel (though it is entirely intelligible that there should be some cautious talk about the Great Australian Novel). Trying to find the Great American novel, rolling up your sleeves and trying to write it: this was American. And so it would go on, for ever, just as literature never progresses or improves but simply evolves and provides the model. The Great American Novel was a chimera; this mythical beast was a pig with wings. Miraculously, however, and uncovenantedly, Saul Bellow brought the animal home. Bellow sorted it. He dedicated the book to his father and published it in 1953 and then settled down to write Seize the Day.
Literary criticism, as normally practised, will tend to get in the way of a novel like Augie March. Shaped (loosely) as an odyssey, and well stocked with (unsystematic) erudition — with invocations and incantations — the book is very vulnerable to the kind of glossarial jigsaw-solver who must find form: pattern, decor, lamination, colour-scheme. But that isn't how the novel works on you. Books are partly about life, and partly about other books. Some books are largely about other books, and spawn yet other books. Augie March is all about life: it brings you up against the dead-end of life. Bellow's third novel, following the somewhat straitened performances of Dangling Man and The Victim, is above all free — without inhibition. An epic about the so-called ordinary, it is a marvel of remorseless spontaneity. As a critic, therefore, you feel no urge to interpose yourself. Your job is to work your way round to the bits you want to quote. You are a guide in a gallery where the signs say Silence Please; you are shepherding your group from spectacle to spectacle - awed, humbled, and trying, so far as possible, to keep your mouth shut.
A brief outline. The Adventures of Augie March is about the formation of an identity, of a soul — that of a parentless and penniless boy growing up in pre- and post-Depression Chicago.
Augie's mother is 'simple-minded' and so is his younger brother Georgie, who 'was born an idiot'. Simon, his older brother, is hard-headed; and Simon is all he's got. The domestic configuration is established early on, with typical pathos and truthfulness:
Never but at such times, by necessity, was my father mentioned. I claimed to remember him; Simon denied that I did, and Simon was right. I liked to imagine it.
'He wore a uniform,'I said. 'SureI remember.H e was a solider.'
'Like hell he was. You don't know anything about it.'
'Maybe a sailor.'
'Like hell. He drove a truck for Hall Brothers laundry on Marshfield, that's what he did. I said he used to wear a uniform. Monkey sees, monkey does; monkey hears, monkey says.'
His mother sewed buttonholes at a coat factory in a Wells Street loft and his father was a laundry driver; and Augie is simply 'the byblow of a traveling man'.
What comes across in these early pages- the novel's first act - is the depth of the human divide between the hard and the soft. The home, with its closed circle, tries to be soft. The outside world is all hard - isn't it? (It certainly looks hard.) Georgie is soft. He puts 'his underlip forward' in search of a kiss, 'chaste, lummoxy, caressing, gentle and diligent'. Given his chicken gizzard at noon, he 'blew at the ridgy thing more to cherish than to cool it'. Later, Georgie sits at the kitchen table 'with one foot stepping on the other' while his grim future is grimly discussed. This leads to the famously unbearable scene where Augie accompanies his brother to the institution:
We were about an hour getting to the Home- wired windows, dogproof cyclone fence, asphalt yard, great gloom . . . We were allowed to go up to the dormitory with him, where other kids stood around under the radiator high on the wall and watched us. Mama took off Georgie's coat and the manly hat, and in his shirt of large buttons, with whitish head and big white, chill fingers- it was troubling they were so man-sized - he kept by me beside the bed while I again showed him the simple little stunt of the satchel lock. But I failed to distract him from the terror of the place and of boys like himself around- he had never met such before. And now he realized that we would leave him and he began to do with his soul, that is, to let out his moan, worse for us than tears, though many grades below the pitch of weeping. Then Mama slumped down and gave in utterly. It was when she had the bristles of his special head between her hands and was kissing him that she began to cry. When I started after a while to draw her away he tried to follow. I cried also. I took him back to the bed and said, 'Sit here.' So he sat and moaned. We went down to the car stop and stood waiting by the black, humming pole for the trolley to come back from city limits.
Mama, too, simple, abandoned, a fool for love, is soft. As with Georgie, when Augie evokes his mother he accords her the beauty and mystery of a child. Family disruptions (of which there are many) frighten her: 'she was upright in her posture and like waiting for the grief to come to a stop; as if this stop would be called by a conductor'. But her distress is also adult, intimidating, unreachable. In the days after the decision is made to commit Georgie, Mama
made no fuss or noise nor was seen weeping, but in an extreme and terrible way seemed to be watching out the kitchen window, until you came close and saw the tear-strengthened color of her green eyes and of her pink face, her gap-toothed mouth . . . she lay herself dumbly on the outcome of forces, without any work of mind . . .
In Augie's childhood world, with its hesitancy and its peeled senses, it is as if everybody is too delicate to be touched. Too soft, or too hard - like Simon. Simon is Augie's parallel self: the road not travelled. All Simon ever does is set himself the task of becoming a high-grade American barbarian; but on the page he becomes a figure of Shakespearian solidity, rendered with Dickensian force. And there is a kind of supercharged logic here. To the younger brother, the older brother fills the sky, and will assume these unholy dimensions. Simon sweats and fumes over the novel. Even when he is absent he is always there.
Parentless and penniless: the basic human material. Penniless, Augie needs employment. If the novels of another great Chicagoan, Theodore Dreiser, sometimes feel like a long succession of job interviews, then Augie March often resembles a surrealist catalogue of apprenticeships. During the course of the novel Augie becomes (in order) a handbill-distributor, a paperboy, a dimcstorc packer, a news-vendor, a Christmas extra in a toy department, a flower-deliverer, a butler, a shoesalesman, a saddle-shop floorwalker, a hawker of rubberized paint, a dog-washer, a book-swiper, a coalyard helper, a housing surveyor, a union organizer, an animal-trainer, a gambler, a literary researcher, a salesman of business machines, a sailor, and a middleman of a war profiteer. As late as page 218 Augie is still poring over magazines in search of 'vocational hints'.
'All the influences were waiting for me. I was born, and there they were to form me . . . ' Malleable and protean, 'easily appealed to', busy 'trying things on', Augie is a natural protege, willing prey for the nearest 'reality instructor': would-be 'big personalities, destiny molders, and heavy-water brains, Machiavellis and wizard evildoers, big-wheels and imposersupon, absolutists'. First there is Grandma Lausch (no relation), the old widow who directs and manipulates the March family with the power-crazed detachment of a eugenicist. 'Her eyes whitely contemptuous, with a terrible little naked yawn of her gums, suck-cheeked with unspoken comment', Grandma Lausch is definitely of the hardness party. But she is old-world, Odessan, 'Eastern'; and Augie's subsequent mentors are embodiments of specifically American strategies and visions, as their names suggest: Mr Einhorn, Dingbat, Mrs Renling, Joe Gorman, Manny Padilla, Clem Tambow, Kayo Obermark, Robey, Mintouchian, Basteshaw (and Simon. Always Simon). With each of these small-cap 'universalists'- who believe that wherever they happen to be standing 'the principal laws [are] underfoot' - Augie goes a certain distance until he finds himself 'in the end zone' of his adaptability. Then he breaks free.
So what are all these roles and models, these outfits and uniforms, these performances? Augie is on a journey, but he isn't going anywhere.I f he has a destination, it is simply a stop called Full Consciousness.I n a sense, Augie is heading to the point where he will become the author of his own story. He will not necessarily be capable of writing it. He will be capable of thinking it. This is what the convention of the first person amounts to. The narrator expresses his thoughts, and the novelist gives them written shape. Like all narrators, Augie is a performing artist (as a young man). And it is Bellow who provides his Portrait.
The artist, perhaps uniquely and definingly, gets through life without belonging to anything: no organization, no human conglomerate. Everybody in Augie's familial orbit is eventually confined to an institution - even Simon, who commits himself to the association of American money. A leaf in the wind of random influences, Augie wafts through various establishments and big concerns, leagues, cliques and syndicates. As he does so it becomes increasingly clear that whatever identity is, whatever the soul is, the institution is its opposite and its enemy. This commonplace does not remain a commonplace, under Augie's gaze. Human amalgamation attacks his very sensorium, inspiring animal bafflement, and visionary rage. Dickens' institutions are neurotic; Bellow's are psychopathic. Small isn't always beautiful, but big vibrates with meshuggah power.
This is the dispensary:
like the dream of a multitude of dentists' chairs, hundreds of them in a space as enormous as an armory, and green bowls with designs of glass grapes, drills lifted zigzag as insects' legs, and gas flames on the porcelain swivel trays a thundery gloom in Harrison Street of limestone county buildings and cumbersome red streetcars with metal grillwork on their windows and monarchical iron whiskers of cowcatchers front and rear. They lumbered and clanged, and their brake tanks panted in the slushy brown of a winter afternoon or the bare stone brown of a summer's, salted with ash, smoke, and prairie dust, with long stops at the clinics to let off dumpers, cripples, hunchbacks, brace-legs, crutch-wielders, tooth and eye sufferers, and all the rest.
This is the dimestore:
that tin-tough, creaking, jazzy bazaar of hardware, glassware, chocolate, chickenfeed, jewelry, drygoods, oilcloth . . . and even being the Atlases of it, under the floor, hearing how the floor bore up under the ambling weight of hundreds, with the fanning, breathing movie organ next door and the rumble descending from the trolleys on Chicago Avenue- the bloody-rinded Saturday gloom of wind-borne ash, and blackened forms of five-story buildings rising up to a blind Northern dimness from the Christmas blaze of shops.
And this is the old folks' home, where Grandma goes:
We came up the walk, between the slow, thought-brewing, beat-up old heads, liver-spotted, of choked old blood salts and wastes, hard and bone-bare domes, or swollen, the elevens of sinews up on collarless necks crazy with the assaults of Kansas heats and Wyoming freezes . . . white hair and rashy, vessel-busted hands holding canes, fans, newspapers in all languages and alphabets, faces gone in the under-surface flues and in the eyes, of these people sitting in the sunshine and leaf-burning outside or in the mealy moldiness and gravy acids of the house.
Such writing is of course animated by love as well as pity and protest. And there are certain institutions and establishments to which Augie is insidiously drawn. The poolhall, for instance, and the anti-institution of crime. Here is Augie, in a new kind of uniform:
Grandma Lausch would have thought that the very worst she had ever said about me let me off too lightly, seeing me in the shoeshine seat above the green tables, in a hat with diamond airholes cut in it and decorated with brass kiss-me pins and AI Smith buttons, in sneakers and Mohawk sweatshirt, there in the frying jazz and the buzz of baseball broadcasts, the click of markers, butt thumping of cues, spat-out pollyseed shells and blue chalk crushed underfoot and dust of hand-slickening talcum hanging in the air. Along with the blood-smelling swaggeroos, recruits for mobs, automobile thieves, stick-up men, sluggers and bouncers . . . neighborhood cowboys with Jack Holt sideburns down to the jawbone, collegiates, tinhorns and small-time racketeers and pugs . . .
That frying jazz! Criminals are attractive because their sharply individualized energies seem to operate outside the established social arrangement. Augie is deeply candid, but he is not especially honest. Invited along on a housebreaking job, Augie doesn't give any reason for saying yes; he simply announces that he didn't say no.
'Are you a real crook?' asks Mr Einhorn. 'Have you got the calling?' At this point Mr Einhorn, the crippled propertybroker ('he had a brain and many enterprises, real directing power'), is still Augie's primary mentor. Mr Einhorn knows how the world works; he knows about criminals and institutions. And here, in one of the book's most memorable speeches, he lets Augie have it. One hardly needs to say that Bellow has an exquisite ear, precise and delighted in its registers: Guillaume, for example, the dog-handler who has become over-reliant on his hypodermic ('Theesjag-offis going to get it!'); or Happy Kellerman, Simon's much-abused coalyard manager ('I never took no shit in bigger concerns'); or Anna Coblin, Mama's cousin ('Owgie, the telephone ringt. Hear!'). Naturally, Bellow can do all this. But from time to time he will also commandeer a character's speech for his own ends, keeping to the broad modulations of the voice while giving them a shove upwards, hierarchically, towards the grand style. Seasoned Bellovians have learnt to accept this as a matter of convention. We still hear Einhorn, but it is an Einhorn pervaded by his creator:
'Don't be a sap, Augie, and fall into the first trap life digs for you. Young fellows brought up in back 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 lor. It knows there's an element that can be depended on to come behind bars to eat it. Or it knows how much broken rock for macadam it can expect, and whom it can count on to break 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.T hose 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.'
Nevertheless, as the novel nears the end of its second act, Augie continues to feel the urge to bottom out. At least the bottom is solid, when there's no further to fall - and nothing else in his life seems solid. Soon after Einhorn's speech Augie goes on another incautious jaunt (in a hot car) with the same hustler (Joe Gorman, the housebreaker), up north, Toledo way. Augie escapes the state troopers but gets incarcerated on another charge, in Detroit:
'Lock 'em all up.'
We had to empty our pockets; they were after knives and matches and such objects of harm. But for me that wasn't what it was lor, but to have the bigger existence taking charge of your small things, and making you learn forfeits as a sign that you aren't any more your own man, in the street, with the contents of your pockets your own business: that was the purpose of it.S o we gave over our stuff and were taken down, past cells and zoo-rustling straw . . . An enormous light was on at all hours. There was something heavy about it, like the stone rolled in front of the tomb.
Augie's durance, though, on his detour in the Midwest, unmoored fi·om Chicago, is internal and spiritual. Here for the first time he sees human misery stretched across a natural landscape: war veterans, the unemployed, 'factor-shoved' bums, haunting the railtracks (they 'made a ragged line, like a section gang that draws aside at night back of the flares as a train comes through, only much more numerous') and sleeping in heaps on the floors of disused boxcars:
It was no time to be awake, or half awake, with the groaning and sick coughing, the grumbles and gases of bad food, the rustling in paper and straw like sighs or the breath of dissatisfaction . . . A bad night - the rain rattling hard first on one side and then on the other like someone nailing down a case, or a coop of birds, and my feelings were big, sad, comfortless, of a thinking animal, my heart acting like an orb filled too big for my chest
- 'not from revulsion,' Augie adds, 'which I have to say I didn't feel.' And we believe him. Passively, directionlessly, Augie is visiting the dark and bestial regions occupied by his mother and younger brother - alike incapable of 'work of mind'. Some pages earlier, after an extreme humiliation, Augie has said,
I felt I had got trampled all over my body by a thing some way connected by weight with my mother and my brother George, who perhaps this very minute was working on a broom, or putting it down to shamble in to supper; or with Grandma Lausch in the Nelson home - somehow as though run over by the beast that kept them steady company and that I thought I was safely away from.
And by the time Augie limps back to Chicago his family is gone. Simon has taken off, in obscure disgrace; Mama has been farmed out; and Grandma Lausch ('My grates couldn't hold it. I shed tears with my sleeve over my eyes') is dead. Childhood - act one - ended with the house getting 'darker, smaller; once shiny and venerated things losing their attraction and richness and importance. Tin showed, cracks, black spots where enamel was hit off, thread barer, design scuffed out of the center of the rug, all the glamour, lacquer, massiveness, florescence, wiped out'. The second act - youth- ends when there is nothing to go back to, because the home is no longer a place.
What People are Saying About This
“[Bellow’s] body of work is more capacious of imagination and language than anyone else’s…If there’s a candidate for the Great American Novel, I think this is it.” –Salman Rushdie, The Sunday Times (London)
Reading Group Guide
The Adventures of Augie March burst on the postwar literary scene with the exuberance of a great American author finding his true voice. The most freewheeling of Bellow's heroes, Augie paints a fresh, gritty, comic view of the American landscape and poses anew the perennial questions: How do you reconcile freedom and love? How do you simultaneously find liberty and home in a chaotic world?
Bellow was already a well-known author when he began writing his third novel, but his early works, Dangling Man and The Victim, are very different books, written in a constrained, naturalistic form that he ultimately rejected as too limiting. Their central characters, introspective intellectuals trapped in claustrophobic circumstances, are reminiscent of Kafka's narrators. "I was afraid to let myself go," Bellow says of these works. He discarded the drafts of two additional novels because he felt they, too, were too bleak. Tired of the "solemnity of complaint," the plaintive tone he heard in the novels of his contemporaries and in his own first books, Bellow turned to his boyhood home in Chicago for inspiration.
The change proved immensely liberating and gave rise to the colorful cast of Augie March: Grandma Lausch, Einhorn, Five Properties, Dingbat, and many others, all of whom were rooted in the Humboldt Park neighborhood of Bellow's youth. Augie, a poor but spirited boy growing up in Chicago during the Depression, leaves his mother and disabled younger brother to find his way in the world. He enters a wild succession of occupations— dog groomer, saddle soap salesman, smuggler, shoplifter, boxing coach—guided by an equally fantastic array of mentors. Each of these "recruiters" attempts to determine Augie's lot in life, but whenever he is at risk of being taken by a person or profession, he slips away to a new misadventure, equal parts joiner and escapist. Not until his affair with Thea Fenchel does Augie begin to realize that love and independence are irreconcilable.
In one sense Augie is a characteristic Bellow hero, a young man with an ironic sense of the world, wary of taking direct action but certain that he belongs to a greater destiny. Like Bellow's other central characters, he is intent on finding a "good enough fate" eager to write his own part on life's stage yet stubbornly resistant to the limits imposed by any scripted role. But he is also dramatically different from the brooding thinkers of Bellow's early works. Augie is playful, subversive, adventurous, and ever optimistic. He is a new American Adam, innocently poised for a future full of promise in a land full of possibilities. No profession, no lover, no commitment can capture him. He risks his job as a book thief because he can't resist the desire to keep and read the books he has stolen. Although this very adaptability, this lack of firm obligations makes him hard to characterize or define, his first-person narrative conveys a compelling vision of American freedom, a fresh spirit of irresistible charm.
While Augie's character remains protean, the world he inhabits is painted with magnificent detail and texture. Infused with the vivid, hyperbolic Yiddish of his childhood, Bellow's narrative revels in the melodramatic people and language of 1920s Chicago. As Bellow said:"The most ordinary Yiddish conversation is full of the grandest historical, mythological, and religious allusions. The Creation, the fall, the flood, Egypt, Alexander, Titus, Napoleon, the Rothschilds, the Sages, and the Laws may get into the discussion of an egg, a clothes-line, or a pair of pants."
The language of Augie March is likewise rife with heroic allusions, casting a mythic glow on Augie's smallest move. Augie's thoughts about his job as a labor organizer invoke John the Baptist, Stonewall Jackson, the Tower of Babel, and Ghandi's India in quick succession. Yet the extravagant metaphors sound uncalculated, falling as easily on the ear as a street-corner conversation. "The great pleasure of the book was that it came easily," Bellow said in an interview. "All I had to do was be there with buckets to catch it. That's why the form is loose."
Praise for Bellow's ebullient new style was enthusiastic, if not unanimous, and he won the National Book Award in 1953. Augie March was compared to Ulysses and described as "a howlingly American book." Supporters and critics alike recognized in him a powerful voice, a vision of America that could not be ignored. The book brought "a new sense of laughter," wrote Alfred Kazin. "In Augie, Bellow . . . discovered himself equal to the excitement of the American experience, he shook himself all over and let himself go."
Ultimately Augie's vision finds a tamer, more mature expression in Herzog, Bellow's masterwork. But Augie March holds a unique place for its rev- olutionary joy and exuberance. This rollicking tale of modern-day heroism is not only a portrait of determination and survival, but also a keenly observed drama of one man's "refusal to lead a disappointed life."
ABOUT SAUL BELLOW
Praised for his vision, his ear for detail, his humor, and the masterful artistry of his prose, Saul Bellow was born of Russian Jewish parents in Lachine, Quebec in 1915, and was raised in Chicago. He received his Bachelor's degree from Northwestern University in 1937, with honors in sociology and anthropology, and did graduate work at the University of Wisconsin. During the Second World War he served in the Merchant Marines.
His first two novels, Dangling Man (1944) and The Victim (1947) are penetrating, Kafka-like psychological studies. In 1948 he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and spent two years in Paris and traveling in Europe, where he began his picaresque novel The Adventures of Augie March. Augie March went on to win the National Book Award for fiction in 1954. His later books of fiction include Seize the Day (1956); Henderson the Rain King (1959); Mosby's Memoirs and Other Stories (1968); Mr. Sammler's Planet (1970); Humboldt's Gift (1975), which won the Pulitzer Prize; The Dean's December (1982); More Die of Heartbreak (1987); Theft (1988); The Bellarosa Connection (1989); The Actual (1996); and, most recently, Ravelstein (2000). Bellow has also produced a prolific amount of non-fiction, collected in To Jerusalem and Back, a personal and literary record of his sojourn in Israel during several months in 1975, and It All Adds Up, a collection of memoirs and essays.
Bellow's many awards include the International Literary Prize for Herzog, for which he became the first American to receive the prize; the Croix de Chevalier des Arts et Lettres, the highest literary distinction awarded by France to non-citizens; the B'nai B'rith Jewish Heritage Award for "excellence in Jewish Literature"; and America's Democratic Legacy Award of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, the first time this award has been made to a literary personage. In 1976 Bellow was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature "for the human understanding and subtle analysis of contemporary culture that are combined in his work."
- "A man's character is his fate," says Augie, but his own character is elusive. As Robert Penn Warren wrote at the time of the novel's publication, "it is hard to give substance to a man who has no commitments." What are Augie's commitments? What defines his character?
- Augie repeatedly invokes mythic and historic figures to describe his mentors. Grandma Lausch is like a pharaoh, a Caesar, a Machiavelli. William Einhorn is Croesus or the Sun King at Versailles. Thea Fenchel evokes Queen Elizabeth and Helen of Troy. Simon is Napoleon. Why are the lives of small-time operators portrayed in such grandiose terms?
- The book's title invites comparison to another quintessentially American novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Each work features a poor boy who leaves his Midwestern home town to undertake a liberating pilgrimage. How are Augie and Huck alike in their outlook and dreams? How is Mark Twain's America different from Bellow's?
- Getting involved with Thea Fenchel and her eagle is a turning point for Augie. After leading a life of escape from others, he is abandoned for the first time. What happens to Augie's sense of reality when Thea leaves him?
- Augie's adventures initially resemble a picaresque novel like Tom Jones, in which a clever, likable rogue, after a series of misadventures, eventually comes to repent the error of his ways. Does Augie ever achieve such a repentance? What prevents him? What does Bellow's subversion of this genre suggest about his view of the human condition?
- Near the end of the novel, Augie makes an important commitment when he marries Stella. Why, after a life unbound by any one job or person, does he make this decision? How does Stella influence him?
- Grandma Lausch shows Augie that "wit and discontent" can go together and teaches him to lie— not because he needs to, but simply for the joy of the contest. How does this gaming spirit, this joy in subversion inform his later temperament and professions?
- What forces interfere with Augie's dream of happiness on the "axial lines of life"? Does Bellow allow the reader to believe in the fulfillment of Augie's wish to become a teacher? Why, among all his professions, is teaching the one that captures his imagination?
- In one sense Augie is obsessed with learning, weaned on the Encyclopedia Americana and compelled to read the books he steals rather than selling them. What drives Augie's intellectual hunger? Is knowledge an end in itself for him, or does he put it to practical use?
- Bellow's prose in Augie March has been described as "a child's wildest ice-cream sundae dream." Nouns and verbs are strung six or eight in a row, coupled with abundant similes and historical allusions. Discuss the impact of Bellow's language in Augie March on character, landscape, and tempo in the novel.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
If you have the time and patience, I highly recommend this novel. It's a bit tedious, but you'll soon forget. I loved reading how Augie floated through life, LIVED HIS LIFE, and experienced more, than we in society today allow ourselves to feel and live. As he chases after the American Dream, we the reader come to the harsh reality, that even Augie, trying to survive and find himself along the way, can account for more in every aspect of life than we, the self-involved patrons of the 21st century, can.
This was Bellow's first breakthrough book. The second , and one which captured America's heart, and in my opinion the better one ( and one truer to Bellow himself) is Herzog. This book opens with the now famous line' I am an American Chicago born' And it is the Jewish American writer's step toward identifying himself as one hundred percent fully American. It is a picaresque work on a great carnival of characters canvass. It does have a spirit of adventure, but I found it ( It is a very long book) too long. After a thousand turns in the plot, the thousand and first is not that interesting. Nontheless its colloquial language, its Bellowese ,its energy, its zest for life mark it out as an important work. If I were asked to choose which Bellow to read I would not choose this one first. But it is nonetheless a very good book , and one well - worth going at least part of the distance with .
Think of this as a mid-20th century 'Great Expectations'. Occasionally strays and challenges your attention span, but an entertaining read in the end.