Saul Bellow Jewish American Literature. Hao Guilian, Ph.D. Yunnan Normal University Fall, 2009. Jewish American Literature.
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Saul BellowJewish American Literature Hao Guilian, Ph.D. Yunnan Normal University Fall, 2009
Jewish American Literature • Jewish American literature holds an essential place in the literary history of the United States. It encompasses traditions of writing in English, primarily, as well as in other languages, the most important of which has been Yiddish. While critics and authors generally acknowledge the notion of a distinctive quantity and practice of writing about Jewishness in America, many writers resist being pigeonholed as 'Jewish voices'. Also, many supposedly Jewish writers cannot be considered representative of Jewish American literature.
Beginning with the memoirs and petitions composed by the Sephardic immigrants who arrived in America during the mid 17th century, Jewish American writing reached some of its most mature expression in the 20th century "Jewish American novels" of Henry Roth, Saul Bellow, J.D. Salinger, Norman Mailer, Bernard Malamud, Chaim Potok, and Philip Roth. Their work explored the conflicting pulls between secular society and Jewish tradition which were acutely felt by the immigrants who passed through Ellis Island and by their children and grandchildren.
Throughout Jewish history there exists a strong sense of community and the importance of family and relationships. Jews in early America strove to maintain their unique identity as a culturally active group. That cultural tendency exists today. Becoming American gave them the opportunity to express their lives without the threat of expulsion, though this did not mean they would not experience prejudice in their quest to establish themselves as Jews in America.
Establishing themselves as Americans with a distinctively different religious belief, (different from Christianity), was not easy, nor was it free from criticism from those outside their faith, but they persisted and succeeded in maintaining their faith in America. One enduring facet to establishing and maintaining their unique identity as American Jews is the literature that Jews have produced. Through literature, Jews have been able to communicate about their experiences in America and their Jewish heritage. One writer that stands out in the American Jewish community is Saul Bellow.
Saul Bellow, the son of Russian immigrants, was born in Quebec, Canada, but grew up in the city of Chicago. He attended the University of Chicago, and then transferred to nearby Northwestern University, where he earned a B.S. degree in anthropology and sociology in 1937. After briefly attending graduate school at the University of Wisconsin, Bellow returned to Chicago to work for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and then for the editorial staff of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.
At the beginning of his career, Bellow rejected Ernest Hemingway's 'tough guy' model of American fiction, and became engaged with a wide range of cultural fields and tradition - Nietzsche, Oedipal conflicts, popular culture, Russian-Jewish heritage. Already from the first published stories Bellow examined the relation of author-character-narrator.
Selected works: • DANGLING MAN, 1944 • THE VICTIM, 1947 • THE ADVENTURES OF AUGIE MARCH, 1953 (National Book Award) • SEIZE THE DAY, 1956 • HENDERSON THE RAIN KING, 1959 • HERZOG, 1964 (National Book Award) • MR. SAMMLER'S PLANET, 1970 (National Book Award) • HUMBOLDT'S GIFT, 1975 (Pulitzer Prize) • MORE DIE OF HEARTBREAK, 1987
The British writer Ian McEwan considers Herzog the most important post-war American novel. • "Bellow, too, is convinced that to have a conscience is, after a certain age, to live permanently in an epistemological hell. The reason his and Dostoevsky's heroes are incapable of ever arriving at any closure is that they love their own suffering above everything else. They refuse to exchange their inner torment for the peace of mind that comes with bourgeois propriety or some kind of religious belief. In fact, they see their suffering as perhaps the last outpost of the heroic in our day and age." (Charles Simic in New York Review of Books, May 31, 2001)
Nida Ulaby reports on interviews conducted with Bellow before his death in 2005 and in those interviews we hear that Bellow considered that time shaped his novels in his sense of the world – that he was drawn away from his Jewishness by the “expanding civilization”– not so much as to make him forget it, but that he wanted to combine it with other life experiences. In a previously recorded interview with Bellow he says he never considered himself a spokesman for his generation, or America, but Ulaby says he was perhaps a spokesman for humanity.
Bellow’s impact upon the American Jewish community is evidenced by spiritual and intellectual pursuits of those whose heritage in America allows the freedom to go beyond their community – to work with the world in trying to resolve problems and realize peace. By connecting Jews with the world beyond traditional Jewish life, and the individual experience, Bellow has contributed greatly to the development of American Jewish culture, intellectually and spiritually.
Bellow on acceptance of the Nobel Prize in 1976: • A novel is balanced between a few true impressions and the multitude of false ones that make up most of what we call life. It tells us that for every human being there is a diversity of existences, that the single existence is itself an illusion in part, that these many existences signify something, tend to something, fulfill something; it promises us meaning, harmony and even justice. What [Joseph] Conrad said was true, art attempts to find in the universe, in matter as well as in the facts of life, what is fundamental, enduring, essential. (Bellow).
"Looking for Mr. Green" • It provides a good introduction to Saul Bellow's fiction, particularly in its concern for the experience of contemporary man in search of his own identity. • It also shows a typical Bellow who tries to interpret the struggle of city dwellers to define their roles and responsibility in the modern world.
Conflicts • The essential conflict in "Looking for Mr. Green" is to be found not only in the frustration of Grebe's quest, but also elsewhere -- in the disaffection between races, between contrasting office roles and their respective arenas of responsibilities, or within the divisions of social and economic classes.
This particular story can be approached on two different levels, for it is both a realistic depiction of a relief worker's dedicated attempt to search for an unemployed, crippled black man in the slums of Depression Chicago in order to deliver a welfare check and a symbolic quest to discover the relationship between reality and appearances.
Historical Issues and Themes: • How does society help the downtrodden (in this story an unemployed, crippled black man) in bad economic times (e.g., the depression)? • The story also examines the problems of race, class, and gender. • Other issues that we might focus upon are: the dilemma of the noncompetitive in a capitalistic, highly competitive society; how money influences character; the alienation of the urban black man.
Personal Issues and Themes: • How does an idealistic humanist (i.e., the typical Bellow hero) reconcile noble ideas with the harsh facts of the human condition? • Is man essentially a victim of his situation or is he the master of his fate? • What is Bellow suggesting about the problem of human suffering and evil? The relationship of the individual to his society? The relationship of appearance to reality? The clash between the human need to order and make sense of life according to moral principles and life's amoral disorder, discontinuity, irrationality, and mystery?
Comparison and contrast: • The story might be compared with works by Ralph Ellison, in its search of identity, or compared to some stories by such naturalistic writers who are also concerned with the free will versus determinism theme. • An interesting comparison would be with F. Scott Fitzgerald, who wrote on the formative influence of money on the self. • The idea that illusion is necessary for the survival of self in a harsh, predatory world is a central theme of modern American drama (Eugene O'Neill), and this story might be compared to it. • Bellow's depiction of women might be compared to that of other writers.