Saul Bellow: A Jewish American Postmodern Humanist Author

Introduction to Saul Bellow (1915-2005)

                Saul Bellow, with 3 National Book Awards and a Nobel Prize for Literature to his name, is one of the leading figures of 20th century literary arts. His work, although he cannot be restricted to the position of an autobiographical author, can be characterized largely by the struggles and tribulations of his own life and the international immigrant nature of his upbringing and education. He was born in 1915 to the slums of Montreal, Canada, moved to Chicago at the age of nine, and witnessed firsthand the human experience across a wide range of social strata, from the pauperism of his childhood and his father’s criminal activities in bootlegging to the shadowed grandeur of his parents’ past life in genteel Russia. He was schooled in Scripture as part of his Jewish upbringing and was widely read from an early age, especially in the great authors of the 19th century. If the childhood of Moses E. Herzog in his largely autobiographical novel Herzog (1961) is any indication, then by the age of sixteen he was a “free-thinker” and “Darwin and Haeckel and Spencer were old stuff to him” (Herzog, 651). Regardless of any parallels between this work and his own life, however, it is evident just through reading him that his work is cerebral, erudite, and wide in scope.

While Bellow’s first two books, Dangling Man (1944) and The Victim (1947), brought him notoriety throughout literary circles, it was not until the picaresque novel The Adventures of Augie March (1953) and most especially the bestseller Herzog (1961), both winners of National Book Awards, that he gained more widespread critical attention as a leading author. Following Humboldt’s Gift (1975), winner of a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and the subsequent Nobel Prize for Literature, however, many critics considered his works to lack the same energy and humanity of prior days, and thus they did not receive the same universal praise. This partly has to do with his increasingly conservative outlook of the 70’s and 80’s and some statements he made, such as “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus?” that many consider to be highly offensive.

Because of his background as a descendant of Russian-Canadian and later American parents, his Jewish heritage and culture, and his extensive treatment of 19th century topics of philosophy and psychology, from Nietzsche to Freud to Kierkegaard and much more, he is considered to have a unique place in the American canon. Much of his subject matter is international and vast in scope, diverse by virtue of his Jewish heritage and his study at Northwestern University in anthropology and sociology. His novels embody this fact, and interspersed with the narrative, which is often marked by intense and dizzying scenes of vivid and calamitous action, is a sense of constant intellectual debate. The great questions of mankind are being perpetually assailed; truth is sought at every moment. The cerebral nature of narrative interruptions and integrations is not at all a hindrance to his work. Bellow is doing more than showcasing his extensive knowledge; he is using that knowledge as a tool of narrative and human analysis. Rather than ground themselves in the mires of sentimental fiction, although there is an element of retrospective sentimentalism, his works are both backward and forward looking. They ask the questions unanswered or insufficiently answered by past authors, and apply the problems of those questions to his characters, within the travails of their personal lives. Thus, his novels have a sense of completeness and complexity which makes their reading a trial, a joy, and a reassessment of one’s own place in the modern social framework.

The work of Saul Bellow, although varied in approach, has a central theme of the “defense of man”. It “[blends] the naturalistic, the picaresque, the philosophical, the psychological; the comic, [and] the depressive”. It embodies a “sympathy with this manifold humanity, the apprehension of the mystery inherent in living human beings” which “signifies their value” (Clayton, 253).Thus, in the midst of postmodern distancing and disassociation, fragmentation in the style of Rauschenberg, Bellow writes a type of art which both discusses the separate parts but views them as expedients, components of the human character. If the final human character is diseased, and he very well may be, he is diseased as a human being, and in that fact there is value.

The Works of Saul Bellow

Saul Bellow’s Chronology

Saul Bellow’s Herzog

            Herzog (1964) is a novel which, while fulfilling the postmodern paradigm, also accomplishes a powerful literary unity. It fails to be overtly fragmented, religious, obscure, irrelevant, recondite, or even humanistic, yet it retains those aspects throughout. It is a novel which defies ostentations regarding the elements of genre, and exists for the plight of man, set in circumstances, who acts as he does because he is human. In the work’s complex and varied treatment of the human, it develops itself into a work of postmodern humanism. While appealing to the side of postmodern society which can’t help but being fragmented, confused, and disassociated from meaning, it espouses the human spirit and its beauty in such a way as to assert humanity’s importance, at least, if not moral righteousness. Some of the novel’s defining characteristics which both question and assert meaning in humanity are its Jewish authorship and Jewish influences, closely tied to the autobiographical nature of the work, the obsessive neurosis of the protagonist Moses E. Herzog, and the transcendental nature of Herzog’s progress.

The Jewish authorship of Herzog is important in that it provides the cultural backdrop for Herzog: the family life, Talmudic upbringing, moral dilemmas. Herzog’s Judaism is an umbra, an accompaniment to all that he does. As his mother “wanted Moses to become a rabbi” (Herzog, 438), so he later looks at himself, dressed a way which is “unable to live up to his Jewish, nineteenth century ideal of man” (Clayton, 202). This conflict between his sensuality, his worldliness, and his Jewish background produces in him a guilty complex and his complicated neurosis. For example, he is unable to separate feelings of tenderness towards others from his childhood experiences in Montreal and his Jewish upbringing. His “Jewishness” and “family feeling” are inextricably bound, even though he never consciously admits this fact” (Malin, 147). Thus, his relations with women are fraught with a sense of critical perception as they relate to his own Jewish sense, passed down from his parents, his father who was “put out at four years old to study, away from home”. Despite whatever attempts his father made to “become a modern European” (Herzog, 565), and later an American, that filial lineage of Jewish character persists in Herzog, and confuses him as he comes into contact with the modern world, feeling ridiculous as he goes on dates with sensuous women and wears modern clothes.

This clash between his own Jewish sentiments and the real world is manifested in his relations with women, who he says “eat green salad and drink human blood” (Herzog, 458), and who he thinks have a “female passion for secrecy and double games” (Herzog, 570). There is, partly in his guilty sexuality, and partly in Bellow’s own novelistic misogyny, a tension surrounding women. Tarlochan Singh Anand argues that the women in Bellow’s work, more notably the later works, are “convincing characters comprising new and old-world women” (Anand, 126). Herzog, and much of Bellow’s early work, is fraught with a sort of simplification of the female character. Herzog’s contemporary love-interest is a woman named Ramona, whose “theme was her power to make him happy” (Bellow, 568). She exists to Moses Herzog as “lovely, fragrant, sexual, good to touch-everything” (Bellow, 569). While her sexual existence is obviously not the sole focus of their relationship, there is a disproportionate focus on those features of Ramona and other women, which both attract and repel the Jewish sensibilities of Herzog. His humanity espouses these carnal aspects, while his Jewish nature is somewhat critical and more prone to accept the “genuine family feeling” (Herzog, 570) he sees in Ramona. He does also praise intellectual and academic achievement in these women, but almost trivializes their accomplishment, characterizing the imagined wife Ramona as a “Frau Professor Herzog”, who would be “keen about scholarship, his books and encyclopedia articles”, a real “vaudeville show” (Herzog, 621). He seems to imply that she follows his articles, his etc., and maybe scholarship in general, as tools to an end. Again, he, while devaluing the worldly features, emphasizes himself as a Jewish figure, maybe “a patriarch, as every Herzog was meant to be” (Herzog, 620). While there is an irony in this title, its preeminence in his mind is indicative of the strong cultural presence of his Jewish upbringing in his life. He is in a state described as “Jewish vertigo” (Clayton, 31) by Rosenberg, in which “the Jew totters between the everyday world and the miraculous one at hand. It is an atavistic sentimental feature, looking back to the “childhood” which “holds ancient truths” as well as an inseparable cultural facet of his Jewish trend of ritual “heartfelt utterance” (Malin, 147), which both enriches and plagues Herzog’s day-to-day life.

It becomes clear in Herzog that the protagonist has a strong tendency towards the obsessively neurotic. Throughout the work, Herzog is continually writing letters to figures, both alive and dead, which he leaves unsent. They are written, however, with the urgency of a message that begs to be sent for significant reason, for immediate realization in the world of ideas. He finds it compelling, even important, to do things such as “bring the shades of great philosophers up to date”. Furthermore, Herzog even “[writes] to Spinoza”, Kierkegaard, and God (Herzog, 599). His immense interest in academia involves him past normal boundaries, functioning as a context within which he functions as another might in a room full of people. Herzog’s room is filled with the dead, embodiments of his ideas, waiting for retroactive subjection to analysis and “up to date” application.

This trend is also clearly demonstrated in Herzog’s frenzied repairs of the old Ludeyville mansion. He performs extraordinary tasks in repairing the place, lets out solemn dirges on his oboe, and leaves his academic duties unfinished on his desk, without fulfillment. At this point, he is in a state of neurotic “servitude” (Herzog, 734), which binds his soul to his dissatisfied wife and leaves Herzog in a state of stagnancy. This persists throughout the letter-writing stage, up until towards the end of the novel, when he is liberated and allows her to be “removed from his flesh, like something that had stabbed his shoulders, his groin, made his arms and his neck lame and cumbersome” (Herzog, 734). This state of mind is further elaborated in his treatment of Madeleine, which is characterized as being dominating and patriarchal. Herzog is described by Madeleine, as well as her lover—Herzong’s own best friend Gersbach– as having “had pains in [his] belly in order to dominate her, and got [his] way by being sick” (Herzog, 609). This reflects an aggressive and machinating hypochondriac impulse which consumes the protagonist.  Madeleine, to him, is clearly the “bitch”, while he supposes himself to be the victim, while at the same time he detests his own self-pitying inclinations. This is a reflection of his extreme neurotic anxiety about his own psychological state, which at times he recognizes with lucidity and at other times he carries without noticing it. He internally rails on about Valentine and Madeleine ruling his life, although he himself holds the power of his life in his hands. He, in this stagnant and passive yet furious state, bears a masochistic and guilt-ridden attitude which loves to punish itself. When he is caught with his father’s revolver pistol on the day out with his daughter, he thinks of himself: “He could not escape self-accusation” (Herzog, 706). He couldn’t help but bring it with him; he couldn’t help being “quixotic” (Herzog, 706). This neurosis develops into a misguided, picaresque striving, which, although it is human and perhaps stems from some innately good intention, fails to grasp its goal and ends up as masochistic.

Transcendental features are present in the work as both the end of Herzog’s narrative travails and as features of his worldly experience, sublimated into intellectual and often spiritual loftiness. It is this category which ties together the human features and the meaningless. It takes both the deep and multilayered complex of Jewish suffering and his own neurotic impulses to form his strange, quixotic character. This character filled with suffering and masochistic grief drops to the lowest points, at least relative to his own cultural background, in order to live again and be “done with these letters”, the “spell” (Herzog, 763) overall which consumes his life in the past and present of the narrative.  Herzog, like an Israelite wanderer who has no choice but to fight for spiritual contentment in the context of his own pain and worldly suffering, transcends his environment. As he involves himself sexually with Ramona, and in sentimental emotion with his Aunt Taube, he ponders on 19th century Romantic issues, fighting for meaning amongst what seems to him to be meaningless worldly issues. However, this cannot be considered transcendental without ascribing some value to the objects at hand. His transcendence is not escapist. He is not able to withdraw into “cozy narcissism”, “he can never really escape” (Malin, 146). Thus, he must look to the world around him, devalued by other post-modernists, by the absurd, by the obscenities of modern prose, and find value there.

“Trans-descendence-that was the new fashionable term for it” (Herzog, 594). Herzog thinks this critically as he views graffiti on a train platform-“blacked-out teeth and scribbled whiskers, comical genitals like rockets, ridiculous copulations, slogans and exhortations” (Herzog, 594). He views these devaluations critically, yet this analysis touches upon one of his vital aspects. It is precisely his own coming-to-terms with this carnal world which affects and stimulates his own recovery. While Herzog is not becoming a Ginsberg, a Kerouac, a Donleavy, or even the earlier absurdists Sartre and Camus, he is reconciling his own sentiments with the material world. This “religious transcendence” (Malin, 147) finds some reason in the turning point of the novel, the crash and the arrest of Herzog mentioned earlier in the analysis and discussed in class. In this section, he thinks upon when “he was overtaken by a man one dirty summer evening” (Herzog, 708-709) and sexually assaulted. This is paralleled by something said to him by a Christian women, directly after the assault in the narrative, “Good measure…shall men give into your bosom” (Herzog, 709). Thus, in this semantic opposition and split, there seems to be all the reason to espouse devaluation and the absurd philosophy. Instead, Herzog thinks on the “famous advice” to “forget what you can’t bear”, and at the same time denies that the world is “nothing but a barren lump of coke” (Herzog, 709). He grants himself psychological immunity from the pain, granting meaning to the world, and in the same vein disparages and hates its horrors. His childhood is filled with both the sentimental treasure of life and the horror of disassociation. After a long discourse on mass death of humans and the death of God, he thinks “At the bottom of the whole disaster lies the human being’s sense of a grievance, and with this I want nothing more to do. It’s easier not to exist altogether than accuse God. Far more simple. Cleaner. But no more of that!” (Herzog, 711). It is not exactly clear if the problem is solved for Herzog, but it is vied with, and not ignored or swept away into the disorganization. At the novel’s end, he begins to have surreal thoughts: “This strange organization, I know it will die. And inside-something, something, happiness… “Thou movest me””(Herzog, 762).

Although the most difficult of Moses Herzog’s run-ins with the physical world seems to  be over by the work’s close, it is clear that, despite his own recovery, the problems are left unanswered. Where is the human happiness amongst the massive deaths of the World Wars and the imminent possibility of earth’s untimely nuclear end? Herzog decides that it is not in these things, in an all-of-a-sudden swipe of past traditions of thought. He often refers back to older traditions of thought, not residing in them, but amongst them, with the modern world. Although we must remain conscious of “the ironic distance between Bellow and Herzog”, we must note that “the novel’s ideas are often Bellow’s own” (Clayton, 187). Thus, Bellow can be imputed with, in the scheme of his other novels and his vital place in a Jewish tradition, a postmodern humanist outlook which belies other works of his time and guarantees his place in the American literary canon. It is this complex discourse of historical and personal semantic associations concerning the human spirit which, although difficult to decipher in terms of authorial motive, asks important questions which are not completely discontinuous from the currents of the 20th century. His work both recognizes and elaborates devaluation and artistic experimentation, but quixotically denies that force with a satisfaction “to be just as it is willed” (Herzog, 762) and not force the issue of impending death. Herzog, after the individual’s absurd retreat into the void, “discovere[s] his solidarity with other isolated creatures” (Bellow, Nobel Prize Speech) and continues to live life, at the end of the novel with “no messages for anyone. Nothing. Not a single word” (Herzog, 763).

The Canonization of Saul Bellow and Further Reading 

Works Cited

by Cole


3 thoughts on “Saul Bellow: A Jewish American Postmodern Humanist Author

  1. The characteristics of Saul Bellow’s “Herzog” seem to accurately characterize the transition from modernism to postmodernism. As Modernism manifested following lines of thought from the Romantic, Regionalist, and Realist views, it attempted to explore the consciousness of the modern individual. As science and politics changed radically from the onset of the 20th century, Modernism reflected these influential studies with its focus on psychologically directed introspection, abstractions of interpersonal relationships, and philosophical colloquy. The most affective aspect of the Modernist era seems to be that the nature of reality had changed dramatically. Reality had become difficult to define and the overarching project of Modernist authors was to explore new definitions and understandings of their new reality. However, as time progressed, the sciences detracted even more from reality’s concreteness, political bodies became increasingly frayed and polarized at all nodes, and philosophy became more cynical. In response to these great changes, new forms of art rose in confrontation shaping postmodernism. Basically, postmodernism can be seen as an extreme extrapolation of Modernist thought. Where Modernists intersperse introspective dialogue, Bellow frames the story through its lens. The abstract interpersonal relations, those constructed in slightly unrealistic circumstances, are exaggerated into wholly chaotic, nonsensical ones. Bellows involves Moses in a completely silly car accident, the story of which is related nearly entirely through manic, stream-of-consciousness, and almost half of that is retrospective. The retrospective nature of Moses’ reflections, or present insights, is an example of the temporal nature of postmodernism. It offers sweeping considerations of past and present, accentuating Modernism’s classical allusions, and its incipient temporal narrative fragmentation. As introspective knowledge and temporal existentialism are reworked to a more intense degree, Postmodernism also readdresses philosophical questions raised by Modernism while positing new ones as well. For example, Modernists began to explore morality at the loss of their innocence after WWI. As times changed, Postmodernism further deepened moral discourse, the products of which were amorphous and much more subjective than the Modernist conclusions, e.g. The Sun Also Rises vs A Clockwork Orange. After examining his situation, Bellow’s Moses, in Herzog, capitulates to nihilism: “the victory of death, not of rationality, not of rational faith.” This resignation, and resilient analysis of, can stand as frame the efforts of Postmodernism, which I believe Ryberg considers Bellows does.

  2. I really enjoyed your insight on Bellow and Herzog. When I was looking at the different authors, I knew I had already heard of Bellow before, but I just could not remember where or when. Actually, I had never heard about him in France, but I just remembered that two years ago I had borrowed in an English library a recorded version of Humboldt’s Gift I have unfortunately never listened to. But now I know much more about Bellow I will definitely listen to it.
    Even if he suffers a low canonization, is he still widely read in America?
    I would like to know more about Bellow’s purpose with putting so many autobiographical elements in his book. Herzog seems pretty complex to me; my impression is that until the end of the book, the main character is kind of mad. Given that there are many autobiographical elements with Bellow’s life in Herzog, is he known for having mental troubles?
    Thank you for this really interesting insight!

  3. Cole,

    Your project is a well-written and extensive interpretation of Bellow as a writer and “Herzog” as a book. I think the clearest entry into your project is actually the separate page on “Canonization.” You raise a good point–there are a number of authors whose importance in post-1945 literature is in the novel, and often in the long, complex novel. Thus, many of these people are hard to include in anthologies (such as Don DeLillo, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Jack Kerouac) or through a single short story (i.e. Toni Morrison, Phillip Roth, etc.). But you are exactly right, Bellow must be studied extensively to be understood–like many other literary figures (even those who conveniently fit into an anthology with a representative story/poem or two).

    You point to the next step in understanding American literature (or any literature for that matter): study it in more depth. Using your metaphor for literary study, once you have a basic chart of the stars in the night sky, the next step is to study further in order to see new patterns and to gain a deep knowledge of the constellations.

    And you have a solid start here in your sections on Bellow’s works and on “Herzog.” There are some areas in which I think you could structure your work better to help guide your reader through your complex analysis–some breaking up of paragraphs, topic sentences, and overall paragraph structure. One main idea to highlight earlier is that of Bellow and postmodern humanism. I know that is in your title, but it is not discussed until the first paragraph of the second section. An earlier definition would help this be less confusing to your reader.

    One place to think about defining the term might be in relation to your description of his purpose, which reads, in part:

    “Bellow is doing more than showcasing his extensive knowledge; he is using that knowledge as a tool of narrative and human analysis. Rather than ground themselves in the mires of sentimental fiction, although there is an element of retrospective sentimentalism, his works are both backward and forward looking.”

    Then, briefly, describe what he is looking at and for in terms of your larger analysis.

    But these are all suggestions for polishing an excellent project. I also want to recommend, to you and your classmates, reading further in the Jewish canon of American novelists–Phillip Roth, Michael Chabon, etc. These are some of my favorite post-1945 writers, and I am now reminded that I need to read more Bellow to make sense of this constellation of writers. Summer reading…



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