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Saul Bellow

Saul Bellow at the Miami Book Fair International of 1990
Born Solomon Bellows
June 10, 1915(1915-06-10)
Lachine, Quebec, Canada
Died April 5, 2005 (aged 89)
Brookline, Massachusetts, United States
Nationality Canadian/American
Notable award(s) Nobel Prize in Literature

Saul Bellow (June 10, 1915 – April 5, 2005) was a Canadian-born American writer. For his literary contributions, Bellow was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, the Nobel Prize for Literature, and the National Medal of Arts.[2] He is the only writer to have won the National Book Award three times, and the only writer to have been nominated for it six times.

In the words of the Swedish Nobel Committee, his writing exhibited "exuberant ideas, flashing irony, hilarious comedy and burning compassion... the mixture of rich picaresque novel and subtle analysis of our culture, of entertaining adventure, drastic and tragic episodes in quick succession interspersed with philosophic conversation, all developed by a commentator with a witty tongue and penetrating insight into the outer and inner complications that drive us to act, or prevent us from acting, and that can be called the dilemma of our age." [3] His best-known works include The Adventures of Augie March, Herzog, Mr. Sammler's Planet, Seize the Day, Humboldt's Gift and Ravelstein. Widely regarded as one of the twentieth century's greatest authors, Bellow has had a "huge literary influence."[4]


Early life

Saul Bellow was born Solomon Bello[5] in Lachine, Quebec, two years after his parents emigrated from Saint Petersburg, Russia. Bellow celebrated his birthday in June, although he may have been born in July (in the Jewish community, it was customary to record the Hebrew date of birth, which does not always coincide with the Gregorian calendar).[6] Of his family's emigration, Bellow wrote:

The retrospective was strong in me because of my parents. They were both full of the notion that they were falling, falling. They had been prosperous cosmopolitans in Saint Petersburg. My mother could never stop talking about the family dacha, her privileged life, and how all that was now gone. She was working in the kitchen. Cooking, washing, mending... There had been servants in Russia... But you could always transpose from your humiliating condition with the help of a sort of embittered irony.[7]

A period of illness from a respiratory infection at age eight both taught him self-reliance (he was a very fit man despite his sedentary occupation) and provided an opportunity to satisfy his hunger for reading: reportedly he decided to be a writer when he first read Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin.

When Bellow was nine, his family moved to the Humboldt Park neighborhood of Chicago, the city that was to form the backdrop of many of his novels.[5] Bellow's father, Abraham, was an onion importer. He also worked in a bakery and delivered coal and as a bootlegger.[6] Bellow's mother, Liza, died when he was 17. She was deeply religious, and wanted her youngest son, Saul, to become a rabbi or a concert violinist. But he rebelled against what he later called the "suffocating orthodoxy" of his religious upbringing, and he began writing at a young age.[6] Bellow's lifelong love for the Bible began at four when he learned Hebrew. Bellow also grew up reading William Shakespeare and the great Russian novelists of the 19th century.[6] In Chicago, he took part in anthroposophical studies.

Education and early career

Bellow attended the University of Chicago, but later transferred to Northwestern University. He originally wanted to study literature, but he felt the English department to be anti-Jewish; instead, he graduated with honors in anthropology and sociology.[8] It has been suggested Bellow's study of anthropology had an interesting influence on his literary style, and anthropological references pepper his works. Bellow later did graduate work at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Paraphrasing Bellow's description of his close friend Allan Bloom (see Ravelstein), John Podhoretz has said that both Bellow and Bloom "inhaled books and ideas the way the rest of us breathe air."[9]

In the 1930s, Bellow was part of the Chicago branch of the Works Progress Administration Writer's Project, which included such future Chicago literary luminaries as Richard Wright and Nelson Algren. Most of the writers were radical: if they were not card-carrying members of the Communist Party USA, they were sympathetic to the cause. Bellow was a Trotskyist, but because of the greater numbers of Stalinist-leaning writers he had to suffer their taunts.[10]

In 1941 Bellow became a naturalized US citizen.[11]

During World War II, Bellow joined the merchant marine and during his service he completed his first novel, Dangling Man (1944) about a young Chicago man waiting to be drafted for the war.

From 1946 through 1948 Bellow taught at the University of Minnesota, living on Commonwealth Avenue, in St. Paul, Minnesota.[12]

In 1948, Bellow was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship that allowed him to move to Paris, where he began writing The Adventures of Augie March (1953). Critics have remarked on the resemblance between Bellow's picaresque novel and the great 17th Century Spanish classic Don Quixote. The book starts with one of American literature's most famous opening paragraphs, and it follows its titular character through a series of careers and encounters, as he lives by his wits and his resolve. Written in a colloquial yet philosophical style, The Adventures of Augie March established Bellow's reputation as a major author.

Returns to Chicago

Bellow lived in New York City for a number of years, but he returned to Chicago in 1962 as a professor at the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. The committee's goal was to have professors work closely with talented graduate students on a multi-disciplinary approach to learning. Bellow taught on the committee for more than 30 years, alongside his close friend, the philosopher Allan Bloom.

There were also other reasons for Bellow's return to Chicago, where he moved into the Hyde Park neighborhood with his third wife, Susan Glassman. Bellow found Chicago to be vulgar but vital, and more representative of America than New York.[13] He was able to stay in contact with old high school friends and a broad cross-section of society. In a 1982 profile, Bellow's neighborhood was described as a high-crime area in the city's center, and Bellow maintained he had to live in such a place as a writer and "stick to his guns".[14]

Bellow hit the bestseller list in 1964 with his novel Herzog. Bellow was surprised at the commercial success of this cerebral novel about a middle-aged and troubled college professor who writes letters to friends, scholars and the dead, but never sends them. Bellow returned to his exploration of mental instability, and its relationship to genius, in his 1975 novel Humboldt's Gift. Bellow used his late friend and rival, the brilliant but self-destructive poet Delmore Schwartz, as his model for the novel's title character, Von Humboldt Fleisher.[15]

Wins Nobel Prize

Saul Bellow (left) with Keith Botsford ca 1992

Propelled by the success of Humboldt's Gift, Bellow won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1976. In the 70-minute address he gave to an audience in Stockholm, Sweden, Bellow called on writers to be beacons for civilization and awaken it from intellectual torpor.[15]

The following year, the National Endowment for the Humanities selected Bellow for the Jefferson Lecture, the U.S. federal government's highest honor for achievement in the humanities. Bellow's lecture was entitled "The Writer and His Country Look Each Other Over."[16]

Bellow traveled widely throughout his life, mainly to Europe, which he sometimes visited twice a year.[15] As a young man, Bellow went to Mexico City to meet Leon Trotsky, but the expatriate Russian revolutionary was assassinated the day before they were to meet. Bellow's social contacts were wide and varied. He tagged along with Robert F. Kennedy for a magazine profile he never wrote, he was close friends with the author Ralph Ellison and he rubbed shoulders with Chicago gangsters. His many friends included the journalist Sydney J. Harris and the poet John Berryman.

While sales of Bellow's first few novels were modest, that turned around with Herzog. Bellow continued teaching well into his old age, enjoying its human interaction and exchange of ideas. He taught at the University of Minnesota, New York University, Princeton University, the University of Puerto Rico, the University of Chicago, Bard College and Boston University, where he co-taught a class with James Wood ('modestly absenting himself' when it was time to discuss Seize the Day). In order to take up his appointment at Boston, Bellow moved in 1993 from Chicago to Brookline, Massachusetts, where he died on April 5, 2005, at age 89. He is buried at the Jewish cemetery Shir HeHarim of Brattleboro, Vermont.

Bellow was married five times, with all but his last marriage ending in divorce. His son by his second marriage, Adam, published a nonfiction book In Praise of Nepotism in 2003. Bellow's wives were Anita Goshkin, Alexandra Tsachacbasov, Susan Glassman, Alexandra Ionescu Tulcea and Janis Freedman. In 1999, when he was 84, Bellow had a daughter, his fourth child, with Freedman.

While he read voluminously, Bellow also played the violin and followed sports. Work was a constant for him, but he at times toiled at a plodding pace on his novels, frustrating the publishing company.[15]

His early works earned him the reputation as one of the foremost novelists of the 20th century, and by his death he was widely regarded to be one of the greatest living novelists.[17] He was the first novelist to win the National Book Award three times. His friend and protege Philip Roth has said of him, "The backbone of 20th-century American literature has been provided by two novelists – William Faulkner and Saul Bellow. Together they are the Melville, Hawthorne, and Twain of the 20th century." James Wood, in a eulogy of Bellow in The New Republic, wrote:[18]

I judged all modern prose by his. Unfair, certainly, because he made even the fleet-footed – the Updikes, the DeLillos, the Roths – seem like monopodes. Yet what else could I do? I discovered Saul Bellow's prose in my late teens, and henceforth, the relationship had the quality of a love affair about which one could not keep silent. Over the last week, much has been said about Bellow's prose, and most of the praise—perhaps because it has been overwhelmingly by men—has tended toward the robust: We hear about Bellow's mixing of high and low registers, his Melvillean cadences jostling the jivey Yiddish rhythms, the great teeming democracy of the big novels, the crooks and frauds and intellectuals who loudly people the brilliant sensorium of the fiction. All of this is true enough; John Cheever, in his journals, lamented that, alongside Bellow's fiction, his stories seemed like mere suburban splinters. Ian McEwan wisely suggested last week that British writers and critics may have been attracted to Bellow precisely because he kept alive a Dickensian amplitude now lacking in the English novel. [...] But nobody mentioned the beauty of this writing, its music, its high lyricism, its firm but luxurious pleasure in language itself. [...] [I]n truth, I could not thank him enough when he was alive, and I cannot now.

Themes and style

The author's works speak to the disorienting nature of modern civilization, and the countervailing ability of humans to overcome their frailty and achieve greatness (or at least awareness). Bellow saw many flaws in modern civilization, and its ability to foster madness, materialism and misleading knowledge.[19] Principal characters in Bellow's fiction have heroic potential, and many times they stand in contrast to the negative forces of society. Often these characters are Jewish and have a sense of alienation or otherness.

Jewish life and identity is a major theme in Bellow's work, although he bristled at being called a "Jewish writer." Bellow's work also shows a great appreciation of America, and a fascination with the uniqueness and vibrancy of the American experience.

Bellow's work abounds in references and quotes from the likes of Marcel Proust and Henry James, but he offsets these high-culture references with jokes.[6] Bellow interspersed autobiographical elements into his fiction, and many of his principal characters were said to bear a resemblance to him.

Criticism, controversy and conservative cultural activism

Martin Amis described Bellow as "The greatest American author ever, in my view".[20]

His sentences seem to weigh more than anyone else's. He is like a force of nature. There is a nice part in a short story about when there is a storm in Chicago. And the main character and his father have this terrible mission to go and bum some money off a couple of do-gooders and they have a terrible journey through the storm. He says, "When we emerged from the subway the storm was still having it all its own way in the street." I always thought that one force of nature was recognizing another. He breaks all the rules [...] [T]he people in Bellow's fiction are real people, yet the intensity of the gaze that he bathes them in, somehow through the particular, opens up into the universal.[21]

For Linda Grant, "what Bellow had to tell us in his fiction was that it was worth it, being alive."

His vigour, vitality, humour and passion were always matched by the insistence on thought, not the predigested cliches of the mass media or of those on the left which had begun to disgust him by the Sixties... It's easy to be a 'writer of conscience' - anyone can do it if they want to; just choose your cause. Bellow was a writer about conscience and consciousness, forever conflicted by the competing demands of the great cities, the individual's urge to survival against all odds and his equal need for love and some kind of penetrating understanding of what there was of significance beyond all the racket and racketeering.[22]

On the other hand, Bellow's detractors considered his work conventional and old-fashioned, as if the author was trying to revive the 19th century European novel. In a private letter, Vladimir Nabokov once referred to Bellow as a "miserable mediocrity."[23] Journalist and author Ron Rosenbaum described Bellow's Ravelstein (2000) as the only book that rose above Bellow's failings as an author. Rosenbaum wrote,

My problem with the pre-Ravelstein Bellow is that he all too often strains too hard to yoke together two somewhat contradictory aspects of his being and style. There's the street-wise Windy City wiseguy and then-as if to show off that the wiseguy has Wisdom-there are the undigested chunks of arcane, not entirely impressive, philosophic thought and speculation. Just to make sure you know his novels have intellectual heft. That the world and the flesh in his prose are both figured and transfigured.[24]

Sam Tanenhaus wrote in New York Times Book Review in 2007:

But what, then, of the many defects -- the longueurs and digressions, the lectures on anthroposophy and religion, the arcane reading lists? What of the characters who don't change or grow but simply bristle onto the page, even the colorful lowlifes pontificating like fevered students in the seminars Bellow taught at the University of Chicago? And what of the punitively caricatured ex-wives drawn from the teeming annals of the novelists's own marital discord?

But, Tanenhaus went on to answer his question:

Shortcomings, to be sure. But so what? Nature doesn't owe us perfection. Novelists don't either. Who among us would even recognize perfection if we saw it? In any event, applying critical methods, of whatever sort, seemed futile in the case of an author who, as Randall Jarrell once wrote of Walt Whitman, is a world, a waste with, here and there, systems blazing at random out of the darkness -- those systems as beautifully and astonishingly organized as the rings and satellites of Saturn.[25]

V. S. Pritchett praised Bellow, finding his shorter works to be his best. Pritchett called Bellow's novella Seize the Day a "small gray masterpiece."[6]

Bellow's account of his 1975 trip to Israel, To Jerusalem and Back: A Personal Account, was criticized by Noam Chomsky in his 1983 book Fateful Triangle: the United States, Israel & the Palestinians. Bellow, Chomsky wrote, "sees an Israel where ‘almost everyone is reasonable and tolerant, and rancor against the Arabs is rare,’ where the people ‘think so hard, and so much’ as they ‘farm a barren land, industrialize it, build cities, make a society, do research, philosophize, write books, sustain a great moral tradition, and finally create an army of tough fighters.’ He has also been criticized for having praised Joan Peters's controversial book, From Time Immemorial, which challenged the conventional history of the Palestinian people.[26][27]

As he grew older, Bellow moved decidedly away from leftist politics and became identified with cultural conservatism.[15] His opponents included feminism, campus activism[28] and postmodernism. In 1995 along with Lynne V. Cheney and other noted conservatives, he helped found the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) based in Washington, D.C. and funded by the conservative Bradley Foundation and John M. Olin Foundation Promoting the Core Curriculum view of liberal education, the ACTA is best known for its 2001 report, Defending Civilization . . . , which met with wide criticism and accusations of neo-McCarthyism, because it served as a broadside against a "liberal academia" that the report authors saw as being insufficiently patriotic and "soft" on international terrorism.[29] Following a barrage of criticism, ACTA published a "revised and expanded" version.

Bellow also thrust himself into the often contentious realm of Jewish and African-American relations. In Mr. Sammler's Planet, Bellow's portrayal of a black pickpocket who exposes himself in public was criticized, by some activists, as racist. In 2007, attempts to name a street after Bellow in his Hyde Park neighborhood were scotched by local alderman on the grounds that Bellow had made remarks about the neighborhood's current inhabitants that they considered racist.[30]

In an interview in the March 7, 1988 New Yorker, Bellow sparked a controversy when he asked, concerning multiculturalism, "Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans? I'd be glad to read him." The taunt was seen by some as a slight against non-Western literature. Bellow at first claimed to have been misquoted. Later, writing in his defense in the New York Times, he said, "The scandal is entirely journalistic in origin... Always foolishly trying to explain and edify all comers, I was speaking of the distinction between literate and preliterate societies. For I was once an anthropology student, you see." Bellow claimed to have remembered shortly after making his infamous comment that he had in fact read a Zulu novel in translation: Chaka by Thomas Mofolo (an inaccuracy remains in this: Mofolo's novel is in Sesotho, not Zulu).

Despite his identification with Chicago, he kept aloof from some of that city's more conventional writers. Studs Terkel in a 2006 interview with Stop Smiling magazine said of Bellow: "I didn't know him too well. We disagreed on a number of things politically. In the protests in the beginning of Norman Mailer's Armies of the Night, when Mailer, Robert Lowell and Paul Goodman were marching to protest the Vietnam War, Bellow was invited to a sort of counter-gathering. He said, 'Of course I'll attend'. But he made a big thing of it. Instead of just saying OK, he was proud of it. So I wrote him a letter and he didn't like it. He wrote me a letter back. He called me a Stalinist. But otherwise, we were friendly. He was a brilliant writer, of course. I love Seize the Day."


"[There is] an immense, painful longing for a broader, more flexible, fuller, more coherent, more comprehensive account of what we human beings are, who we are and what this life is for."[31]

"I feel that art has something to do with the achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos. A stillness which characterizes prayer, too, and the eye of the storm. I think that art has something to do with an arrest of attention in the midst of distraction."[32]

"A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep."[33]

"People can lose their lives in libraries. They ought to be warned."[34]


for a complete list of works see Bibliography of Saul Bellow


Novels and novellas

Short Story Collections

  • Mosby's Memoirs (1968)
  • Him with His Foot in His Mouth (1984)
  • Something to Remember Me By: Three Tales (1991)
  • Collected Stories (2001)

Library of America editions

  • Novels 1944-1953: Dangling Man, The Victim, The Adventures of Augie March (2003)
  • Novels 1956-1964: Seize the Day, Henderson the Rain King, Herzog (2007)



  • To Jerusalem and Back (1976) - Memoir
  • It All Adds Up (1994) - Essay collection

Works about Saul Bellow

  • Saul Bellow, Tony Tanner (1965) (see also his City of Words [1971])
  • Saul Bellow, Malcolm Bradbury (1982)
  • Saul Bellow: Modern Critical Views, Harold Bloom (Ed.) (1986)
  • Handsome Is: Adventures with Saul Bellow, Harriet Wasserman (1997)
  • Saul Bellow and the Decline of Humanism, Michael K Glenday (1990)
  • Bellow: A Biography, James Atlas (2000)
  • "Even Later" and "The American Eagle" in Martin Amis, The War Against Cliché (2001) are celebratory. The latter essay is also found in the Everyman's Library edition of Augie March.
  • 'Saul Bellow's comic style': James Wood in The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel, 2004. ISBN 0224064509.
  • The Hero in Contemporary American Fiction: The Works of Saul Bellow and Don DeLillo , Stephanie Halldorson (forthcoming December 2007)

See also


  1. ^ Robert Fulford, "Bellow: the novelist as homespun philosopher" 23 October 2000 in The National Post (
  2. ^ University of Chicago accolades - National Medal of Arts. Accessed 2008-03-08.
  3. ^ [1] Press Release: The Nobel Prize in Literature, 1976, Swedish Academy
  4. ^ Obituary: Saul Bellow BBC News, Tuesday, 5 April 2005
  5. ^ a b
  6. ^ a b c d e f Mel Gussow and Charles McGrath, Saul Bellow, Who Breathed Life Into American Novel, Dies at 89, The New York Times April 6, 2005. Accessed 2008-10-21. "...his birthdate is listed as either June or July 10, 1915, though his lawyer, Mr. Pozen, said yesterday that Mr. Bellow customarily celebrated in June. (Immigrant Jews at that time tended to be careless about the Christian calendar, and the records are inconclusive.)"
  7. ^ Saul Bellow, It All Adds Up (Penguin, 2007), pages 295-6.
  8. ^ The New York Times obituary, April 6, 2005. "He had hoped to study literature but was put off by what he saw as the tweedy anti-Semitism of the English department, and graduated in 1937 with honors in anthropology and sociology, subjects that were later to instill his novels."
  9. ^ Saul Bellow, a neocon’s tale
  10. ^ Drew, Bettina. Nelson Algren, A Life on the Wild Side. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1991
  11. ^ Slater, Elinor; Robert Slater (1996). "SAUL BELLOW: Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature". Great Jewish Men. Jonathan David Company. pp. 42. ISBN 0824603818. Retrieved 2007-10-21.  
  12. ^
  13. ^ The New York Times Book Review, December 13, 1981
  14. ^ Vogue, March 1982
  15. ^ a b c d e Atlas, James. Bellow: A Biography. New York: Random House, 2000.
  16. ^ Jefferson Lecturers at NEH Website (retrieved January 22, 2009).
  17. ^ 'He was the first true immigrant voice' The Observer, Sunday 10 April 2005
  18. ^ Wood, James, 'Gratitude', New Republic, 00286583, 4/25/2005, Vol. 232, Issue 15
  19. ^ Malin, Irving. Saul Bellow's Fiction. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1969
  20. ^ [ Martin Amis Author of Yellow Dog talks with Robert Birnbaum] December 8, 2003, by Robert Birnbaum
  21. ^ Martin Amis Author of Yellow Dog talks with Robert Birnbaum, Identity Theory, December 8, 2003, by Robert Birnbaum
  22. ^ 'He was the first true immigrant voice' Linda grant, The Observer, Sunday 10 April 2005
  23. ^ Wood, James (February 1, 1990) "Private Strife." Guardian Unlimited.
  24. ^ Rosenbaum, Ron. "Saul Bellow and the Bad Fish." Slate. 3 Apr 2007
  25. ^ Tanenhaus, Sam (February 4, 2007) "Beyond Criticism." New York Times Book Review.
  26. ^ Review: The Joan Peters Case, Edward W. Said, Journal of Palestine Studies, 15:2 (Winter, 1986), pp. 144-150. Accessed 2008-03-27.
  27. ^ The Fate of an Honest Intellectual, Noam Chomsky (2002), in Understanding Power, The New Press, pp. 244-248. Accessed on 2008-03-27.
  28. ^
  29. ^ "The New American McCarthyism: policing thought about the Middle East".  
  30. ^ Ahmed, Azam and Ron Grossman (October 5, 2007) "Bellow's remarks on race haunt legacy in Hyde Park." Chicago Tribune.
  31. ^ Saul Bellow's Nobel Lecture, December 12, 1976.
  32. ^ Alfred Kazin and George Plimpton (eds.), Writers at Work: The Paris review interviews, Volume 3. New York, NY: Viking Press, 1967. ISBN 0-67079-096-6.
  33. ^ Saul Bellow, To Jerusalem and Back: A personal account, p. 127. Penguin Classics, 1976. ISBN 0-14118-075-7.
  34. ^ Quoted in Steven Gilbar, The Reader's Quotation Book: A literary companion. Wainscott, NY: Pushcart Press, 1990. ISBN 0-91636-664-2.

External links


Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

Saul Bellow (10 June 19155 April 2005) was an acclaimed Canadian-born American writer. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1976 and the National Medal of Arts in 1988.



  • Goodness is achieved not in a vacuum, but in the company of other men, attended by love.
    • Dangling Man (1944) [Penguin Classics, 1996, ISBN 0-140-18935-1], p. 84
  • There is only one way to defeat the enemy, and that is to write as well as one can. The best argument is an undeniably good book.
    • Quoted by Granville Hicks in The Living Novel: A Symposium (Macmillan, 1957; digitized version in 2006), p. ix
  • All human accomplishment has the same origin, identically. Imagination is a force of nature. Is this not enough to make a person full of ecstasy? Imagination, imagination, imagination. It converts to actual. It sustains, it alters, it redeems!
  • We are all such accidents. We do not make up history and culture. We simply appear, not by our own choice. We make what we can of our condition with the means available. We must accept the mixture as we find it — the impurity of it, the tragedy of it, the hope of it.
    • Great Jewish Short Stories, introduction to the Dell paperback edition (1963)
  • We mustn't forget how quickly the visions of genius become the canned goods of intellectuals.
    • Herzog (1964) [Penguin Classics, 2003, ISBN 0-142-43729-8], p. 82
  • I think that New York is not the cultural center of America, but the business and administrative center of American culture.
  • Everybody needs his memories. They keep the wolf of insignificance from the door.
    • Mr. Sammler's Planet (1970) [Penguin Classics, 2004, ISBN 0-142-43783-2], p. 156
  • I never yet touched a fig leaf that didn't turn into a price tag.
    • Humboldt's Gift (1975), p. 159
  • No realistic, sane person goes around Chicago without protection.
    • Humboldt's Gift (1975), p. 452
  • Writers are greatly respected. The intelligent public is wonderfully patient with them, continues to read them, and endures disappointment after disappointment, waiting to hear from art what it does not hear from theology, philosophy, social theory, and what it cannot hear from pure science. Out of the struggle at the center has come an immense, painful longing for a broader, more flexible, fuller, more coherent, more comprehensive account of what we human beings are, who we are and what this life is for.
  • 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.
  • Our media make crisis chatter out of news and fill our minds with anxious phantoms of the real thing — a summit in Helsinki, a treaty in Egypt, a constitutional crisis in India, a vote in the U.N., the financial collapse of New York. We can't avoid being politicized (a word as murky as the condition which it describes) because it is necessary after all to know what is going on. Worse yet, what is going on will not let us alone. Neither the facts nor the deformations, the insidious platitudes of the media (tormenting because the underlying realities are so large and so terrible), can be screened out. The study of literature itself is heavily "politicized."
    • To Jerusalem and Back: A Personal Account (1976) [Viking/Penguin, 1998, ISBN 0-141-18075-7], p. 21
  • For the first time in history, the human species as a whole has gone into politics. Everyone is in the act, and there is no telling what may come of it.
    • To Jerusalem and Back: A Personal Account (1976), p. 38
  • A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep.
    • To Jerusalem and Back: A Personal Account (1976), p. 127
  • There are evils, as someone has pointed out, that have the ability to survive identification and go on for ever — money, for instance, or war.
  • Psychoanalysis pretends to investigate the Unconscious. The Unconscious by definition is what you are not conscious of. But the Analysts already know what’s in it. They should, because they put it all in beforehand. It's like an Easter Egg hunt.
    • The Dean's December (1982), ch. 18, p. 298
  • Human beings can lose their lives in libraries. They ought to be warned.
    • "Him with His Foot in His Mouth," from Him with His Foot in His Mouth and Other Stories (1984) [Penguin Classics, 1998, ISBN 0-141-18023-4], p. 11
  • A good American makes propaganda for whatever existence has forced him to become.
    • "Cousins," from Him With His Foot in His Mouth and Other Stories (1984), p. 263
  • I discovered that rejections are not altogether a bad thing. They teach a writer to rely on his own judgment and to say in his heart of hearts, "To hell with you."
    • Quoted in "Feeling Rejected? Join Updike, Mailer, Oates..." by Barbara Bauer and Robert F. Moss, New York Times (1985-07-21), section 7, page 1, column 1
  • In the greatest confusion there is still an open channel to the soul. It may be difficult to find because by midlife it is overgrown, and some of the wildest thickets that surround it grow out of what we describe as our education. But the channel is always there, and it is our business to keep it open, to have access to the deepest part of ourselves.
    • Foreword to The Closing of the American Mind by Allan Bloom (1987)
  • California's like an artificial limb the rest of the country doesn't really need. You can quote me.
    • "Saul Bellow: Treading on the Toes of the Brahmans," interview with Lawrence Grobel in Endangered Species: Writers Talk about Their Craft, Their Visions, Their Lives [Da Capo, 2001, ISBN ISBN 0-306-81004-2], p. 21

The Adventures of Augie March (1953)

  • I am an American, Chicago born — Chicago, that somber city — and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent.
    • Ch. 1 (opening line)
  • Everybody knows there is no fineness or accuracy of suppression; if you hold down one thing, you hold down the adjoining.
    • Ch. 1
  • As for types like my own, obscurely motivated by the conviction that our existence was worthless if we didn’t make a turning point of it, we were assigned to the humanities, to poetry, philosophy, painting — the nursery games of humankind, which had to be left behind when the age of science began. The humanities would be called upon to choose a wallpaper for the crypt, as the end drew near.
    • Ch. 6

It All Adds Up (1994)

Viking/Penguin, 1995, ISBN 0-14-023365-2

  • There is no need to make an inventory of the times. It is demoralizing to describe ourselves to ourselves yet again. It is especially hard on us since we believe (as we have been educated to believe) that history has formed us and that we are all mini-summaries of the present age.
    • "Mozart: An Overture" (1992), pp. 13-14
  • The principles of Western liberalism seem no longer to lend themselves to effective action. Deprived of the expressive power, we are awed by it, have a hunger for it, and are afraid of it. Thus we praise the gray dignity of our soft-spoken leaders, but in our hearts we are suckers for passionate outbursts, even when those passionate outbursts are hypocritical and falsely motivated.
  • When we read the best nineteenth- and twentieth-century novelists, we soon realize that they are trying in a variety of ways to establish a definition of human nature, to justify the continuation of life as well as the writing of novels.
    • "The Sealed Treasure" (1960), p. 60
  • Anxiety destroys scale, and suffering makes us lose perspective.
    • "The Sealed Treasure" (1960), p. 62
  • It seems hard for the American people to believe that anything could be more exciting than the times themselves. What we read daily and view on the TV has thrust imagined forms into the shadow. We are staggeringly rich in facts, in things, and perhaps, like the nouveau riche of other ages, we want our wealth faithfully reproduced by the artist.
    • "Facts That Put Fancy to Flight" (1962), p. 67
  • It's hard for writers to get on with their work if they are convinced that they owe a concrete debt to experience and cannot allow themselves the privilege of ranging freely through social classes and professional specialties. A certain pride in their own experience, perhaps a sense of the property rights of others in their experience, holds them back.
    • "Facts That Put Fancy to Flight" (1962), p. 68
  • Apparently the rise of consciousness is linked to certain kinds of privation. It is the bitterness of self-consciousness that we knowers know best. Critical of the illusions that sustained mankind in earlier times, this self-consciousness of ours does little to sustain us now. The question is: which is disenchanted, the world itself or the consciousness we have of it?
    • "A Matter of the Soul" (1975), pp. 75-76
  • Americans must be the most sententious people in history. Far too busy to be religious, they have always felt that they sorely needed guidance.
  • In an age of enormities, the emotions are naturally weakened. We are continually called upon to have feelings — about genocide, for instance, or about famine or the blowing up of passenger planes — and we are all aware that we are incapable of reacting appropriately. A guilty consciousness of emotional inadequacy or impotence makes people doubt their own human weight.
    • "The Distracted Public" (1990), p. 156
  • Can we find nothing good to say about TV? Well, yes, it brings scattered solitaries into a sort of communion. TV allows your isolated American to think that he participates in the life of the entire country. It does not actually place him in a community, but his heart is warmed with the suggestion (on the whole false) that there is a community somewhere in the vicinity and that his atomized consciousness will be drawn back toward the whole.
    • "The Distracted Public" (1990), p. 159
  • Pointless but intense excitement holds us in TV dramas. We hear threatening music. A killer with a gun steals into the bedroom of a sleeping woman. More subliminal sounds of danger, pointlessly ominous. The woman wakes and runs into the kitchen for a knife. The cops are on the case. We watch as the criminal is pursued through night streets; shots, a death; a body falls from a roof. Then time is up, another drama begins. Now we are in a church. No, we are in a lecture hall; no again — a drawer opens in a morgue. A woman is looking for her kidnapped child. Then that ends, and we are on the veld with zebras and giraffes. Then with Lenin at a mass meeting. And suddenly we flash away to a cooking school; we are shown how to stuff a turkey. Next the Berlin Wall comes down. Or flags are burning. Or a panel is worrying about the rug crisis. More and more public themes, with less and less personal consciousness. Clearly, personal consciousness is shrinking.
    • "The Distracted Public" (1990), pp. 159-160
  • Writers, poets, painters, musicians, philosophers, political thinkers, to name only a few of the categories affected, must woo their readers, viewers, listeners, from distraction. To this we must add, for simple realism demands it, that these same writers, painters, etc., are themselves the children of distraction. As such, they are peculiarly qualified to approach the distracted multitudes. They will have experienced the seductions as well as the destructiveness of the forces we have been considering here. This is the destructive element in which we do not need to be summoned to immerse ourselves, for we were born to it.
    • "The Distracted Public" (1990), p. 167
  • There is simply too much to think about. It is hopeless — too many kinds of special preparation are required. In electronics, in economics, in social analysis, in history, in psychology, in international politics, most of us are, given the oceanic proliferating complexity of things, paralyzed by the very suggestion that we assume responsibility for so much. This is what makes packaged opinion so attractive.
    • "There Is Simply Too Much to Think About" (1992), pp. 173-174
  • One naturally regrets not being an expert or one of those insiders who thoroughly understand. It's hell to be an amateur. A little reflection calms your sorrow, however. The experts in their own little speedboat, the rest of us floating with the rest of mankind in a great barge — that is the picture.
    • "The Day They Signed the Treaty" (1979), p. 224
  • In politics continental Europe was infantile — horrifying. What America lacked, for all its political stability, was the capacity to enjoy intellectual pleasures as though they were sensual pleasures. This is what Europe offered, or was said to offer.
    • "My Paris" (1983), p. 235
  • There's something that remains barbarous in educated people, and lately I've more and more had the feeling that we are nonwondering primitives. And why is it that we no longer marvel at these technological miracles? They've become the external facts of every life. We've all been to the university, we've had introductory courses in everything, and therefore we have persuaded ourselves that if we had the time to apply ourselves to these scientific marvels, we would understand them. But of course that's an illusion. It couldn't happen. Even among people who have had careers in science. They know no more about how it all works than we do. So we are in the position of savage men who, however, have been educated into believing that they are capable of understanding everything. Not that we actually do understand, but that we have the capacity.
    • "A Half Life" (1990), pp. 302-303
  • We take foreigners to be incomplete Americans — convinced that we must help and hasten their evolution.
    • " A Second Half Life" (1991), p. 324
  • Much of junk culture has a core of crisis — shoot-outs, conflagrations, bodies weltering in blood, naked embracers or rapist-stranglers. The sounds of junk culture are heard over a ground bass of extremism. Our entertainments swarm with specters of world crisis. Nothing moderate can have any claim to our attention.
    • "A Second Half Life" (1991), p. 326


  • All a writer has to do to get a woman is to say he's a writer. It's an aphrodisiac.
  • If women are expected to do the same work as men, we must teach them the same things.
    • If women are to have the same duties as men, they must have the same nurture and education. — Plato, The Republic, Book V, trans. Benjamin Jowett, third edition, Oxford University Press, 1892 [1]
    • Variant: So if we are going to use men and women for the same purposes, they must be taught the same things. The Republic, trans. Desmond Lee [Penguin Classics, 2003, ISBN 0-140-449140-0], p. 161
    • Variant: Then if we are to use the women for the same things as the men, we must teach them the same things. The Republic, trans. W.H. D. Rouse [Signet Classic, 1999, ISBN 0-451-52745-3], p. 249
  • Take our politicians: they're a bunch of yo-yos. The presidency is now a cross between a popularity contest and a high school debate, with an encyclopedia of cliches.
  • What is art but a way of seeing?
  • Whoever wants to reach a distant goal must take small steps.
  • You never have to change anything you got up in the middle of the night to write.


  • When we ask for advice, we are usually looking for an accomplice.
    • Demander un conseil, c'est presque toujours chercher un complice.- Adélaïde-Édouard le Lièvre, marquis de Lagrange et de Fourilles (1796 - 1876), Pensées (1872) [2]

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