The National Catholic Review
J. Robert Baker

In these letters of the literary giant Saul Bellow—winner of the Pulitzer and Nobel prizes, among others—which span most of his life, the author emerges as an intellectually ambitious writer, whose essential optimism carried him through repeated woes in his marriages. That optimism was intimately connected with his craft as a writer. He was a man of passion, both positive and negative—concern for his sons, affection for his friends and animus for critics. As he grew older, he suffered a flagging of energy and a growing recognition that the pattern of his life was increasingly beyond him. He knew life’s ineluctable griefs, and yet he persevered in his work, writing 11 novels, a couple of plays, short stories and innumerable forewords, speeches, lectures and essays. In these letters, he does not mention his prizes and awards, and he rarely refers to his teaching; but he was always soldiering on making the kind of life he wrote so often about—one that was moral even in the face of struggle and setback.

Just starting out, Bellow was full of enormous energy. In the 1940s, he laid aside a manuscript he called “The Crab and the Butterfly” and began The Life of Augie March; it was as if his creative vigor was so incandescent that he could scarcely express it quickly enough. He was also aware of his weaknesses, particularly a propensity toward didacticism. He wrote to John Berryman as he was finishing Henderson the Rain King: “I suspect that in the middle I was maybe too business-like and earnest. But I’m trying to give earnestness the sack. I think I’m going to be able to do it. Laying down the law too much. A bad trait ever since Moses started it.” Still, he was driven by a desire to “do the thing purely a few times before I stop,” but he worried that he would not come up to the mark. In 1978 he confessed, “What does distress me is the thought that I may have made a mess where others (never myself) see praiseworthy achievements.” Though he often wrote to meet expenses, he asserted, “I did not become a writer in order to make money, nor shall I stop being one because everything is confiscated.” Instead, writing was his vocation, and he remained faithful to it throughout his life.

This fidelity was a part of Bellow’s optimism. In the mid-1950s he wrote to his friend Samuel Freifield, “I have great confidence in our power to recover from everything.” His optimism was sobered by an awareness of the unavoidability of pain and the ubiquity of misery. “If Mr. Einstein, Albert, declined to believe that God was playing dice with the universe, I—we—can’t believe, ugly as things have become, and complicated, that human life is nothing but the misery we are continually shown.”

Even near the end of his life, Bellow preferred to be cheerful rather than to give up hope: “To fall into despair is just a high-class way of turning into a dope. I choose to laugh, and laugh at myself no less than others.” In his late 70s he admitted that he could not keep up with the tide of books, magazines, letters, requests and unsolicited manuscripts, and yet he went on reading manuscripts and writing letters almost up to the end, in what was certainly an act of hope.

He wrote in 1960: “The only cure is to write a book. I have a new one on the table and all the other misery is gone. This is the form any refusal to be unhappy takes now, and I suppose it saves me from a merely obstinate negative. But it isn’t merely for oneself that one should refuse a certain alternative. It’s also because we owe life something.” He could make the sordidness and stink of life beautiful and funny, as when he wrote about Puerto Rico:

The dog population is Asiatic—wandering tribes of mongrels. They turn up in all the fashionable places, and in the modern university buildings, the cafeterias—there are always a few hounds sleeping in a cool classroom, and at night they howl and fight. But with one another, not with the rats, another huge population, reddish brown and fearless. You see them in vacant lots downtown, and at the exclusive tennis club at the seashore. I won’t be surprised to see them at the crap table, watching the game.

Bellow’s optimism and devotion to his craft were matched by his affection for his sons and his friends. He worried about his sons and their growing up without a father. As the deaths of his friends mounted, his letters expressed his grief over those he had lost and his concern for those who remained. He noted at one point that his friends who had died constituted “a road map” of who he was.

Bellow’s animus against critics comes through again and again. Describing his first flight over Europe, he writes to his agent, “I saw a little dot shoveling manure in a field and recognized a critic....” Bellow’s loathing of critics was both general and specific. He wrote John Cheever that he could nominate critics only for crucifixion and proposed to the poet Karl Shapiro a club of Hugh Kenner (Canadian critic) haters. He had little use for the literary theorist Paul de Man and, inexplicably, for John Updike.

Most of all, though, what comes through in these letters is Bellow’s humanity. He found himself surprised at middle age, realizing that he had “not as yet adjusted myself to certain changes, or even grasped them, and that my self-image is about twenty years behind the real object.” He recognized his “own unsatisfactory character” as the source of his troubles. He admitted as he approached 70 that he had been absorbed in his own work and troubles and not been as attentive to his friends like John Berryman, Delmore Schwartz and Robert Lowell as he might have been.

Letters reveals Bellow as remarkably human, tragically undone by his uxoriousness and foibles. Yet because he went steadily on, undaunted in his affection for those he loved and faithful to the writing he chose, these correspondences are gripping; they remind us of what is best about ourselves.

J. Robert Baker teaches in the department of language and literature at Fairmont State University, Fairmont, W.Va.