Fifty years ago, Saul Bellow's third novel — a rollicking picaresque with a bold young Chicago hero — propelled him into the front ranks of American writers. Since then, critics have come to admire the book even more, with some calling it the greatest American novel since World War II.
By Bill Beuttler (Chicago Magazine, May 2003)
The chanterelle risotto had been spooned out to each dinner guest and the glasses of red wine poured. "To our host," said Janis Bellow, raising her glass.
Nonsense, replied Keith Botsford with a modest wave of his hand. He rose up to his full height and, with playful pomposity and an Italian spin, offered a toast of his own: "To the 50th birthday of our distinguished friend Augusto Marzo."
To the 50th anniversary of the publication of The Adventures of Augie March, that is. Its author, the 87-year-old Chicago-reared Nobel laureate Saul Bellow, raised his glass and drank appreciatively with the others. A literary friend was in town from England, and Botsford — who had first met Bellow on the evening of the book's publication and currently teaches a course with him at Boston University — was having the Bellows and a handful of other friends to dinner at his Boston home. The Bellows' three-year-old daughter, Rosie, slept upstairs while the adults ate, drank, and talked, mostly about food and literature.
Bellow's own work was barely discussed beyond Botsford's toast. At one point, though, someone asked Bellow about an incident recounted by James Atlas in Bellow, his 2000 biography of the writer. According to Atlas, the sight of water flowing down a street in Paris had inspired Bellow to cast aside the restrained style of his first two books and let his writing run freely — in a "cascade of prose," as Atlas puts it — in The Adventures of Augie March.
Bellow gave a tiny grimace, leaned over the table, and shook his head slightly in mild irritation. What Atlas was referring to, Bellow explained, is the Parisian custom of opening the hydrants each morning to clean out the gutters. That's the trickling water Atlas was talking about.
But you do agree, another guest persisted, that your writing voice changed remarkably in Augie March? And why did that voice not appear until then?
"I hadn't found it yet," Bellow replied. So much for literary epiphanies.
Talk that evening turned to other matters, and Bellow held up his end of the conversation by peppering it with bon mots. A couple of times he even broke into song, calling up from memory three verses of the old Cab Calloway hit "Minnie the Moocher." Ultimately, he and his family left Botsford's dinner party ahead of the others. Janis had a class to teach early the next morning at Tufts, and father, mother, and daughter all needed to get home to bed.
Bellow stood in the doorway in his blue-green wide-wale corduroys, winter jacket, and a Chicago Bears cap bidding Botsford and the other guests adieu. As he shook Bellow's hand goodnight, one of the others, also a transplanted Chicagoan, couldn't resist asking Bellow if he missed their hometown. "No," Bellow replied with surprising emphasis. "I don't miss Chicago at all." Then he turned and followed his wife and still-sleeping daughter to their car.
Bellow may have little interest in reminiscing about his former hometown or talking about The Adventures of Augie March, but there are others out there who continue championing that rollicking tale of an optimistic Chicago street kid hustling his way to manhood in Depression- and World War II-era America. And why shouldn't they? This was the book, after all, in which Bellow discovered the voice that would earn him his Nobel Prize in literature in 1976, a voice that is evident from the novel's famous opening sentence: "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 ... ."
"There is probably no more definitive statement about [Augie March] than Bellow's own, that he discovered his 'powers' in writing that book," says Scott Turow, another novelist who has used his life in Chicago as fictional fodder. "Bellow broke out of the straitjacketed prose and dust-dry realism of his earlier novels and invented that combustible mix of high-flown ideas expressed in a low argot that characterized his writing thereafter."
Bellow’s two earlier novels, Dangling Man (1944) and The Victim (1947), had been smart, self-conscious works of art in the tradition of masters such as Gustave Flaubert and Henry James. Though praised by critics, they had sold fewer than 4,000 copies between them. That changed dramatically with Augie March. It never quite made the bestseller lists — today, the most widely remembered bestseller from 1953 is James Jones’s From Here to Eternity — but it was an alternate selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club and sold 30,000 copies in hardcover early on. Over the last three years, it has averaged 5,800 paperback sales annually for Penguin, and Viking, its original publisher (and the publisher of most of Bellow’s novels since), plans to bring out a hardcover edition of Augie March this year on September 18th, the book’s golden anniversary.
By the time Bellow’s third novel was first published, it had already been excerpted widely, in magazines ranging in size and tone from The New Yorker to Partisan Review to Harper’s Bazaar. The New York Times Book Review gave it a mostly positive review on its front page on September 20, 1953, and ran an accompanying short interview with Bellow; Time and Newsweek each reviewed it that same week; and reviewers as distinguished as Robert Penn Warren (in The New Republic), Delmore Schwartz (in Partisan Review), and John Berryman (in a subsequent piece in the Times Book Review) followed up with abundant praise soon afterward. There were some who greatly disliked the book (Anthony West in The New Yorker, Milton Crane in the Chicago Tribune), others whose reactions were mixed (Orville Prescott in the daily New York Times, Norman Podhoretz in Commentary, the unnamed drones at Time and Newsweek). But no one interested in books ignored The Adventures of Augie March.
The book’s stature has only grown since then, with some critics calling it the best American novel published in the last half century. Jonathan Yardley, the books columnist for The Washington Post, wrote last summer that Augie March was “one of only 11 American novels published in the life span of [that] newspaper” that indisputably deserved to be called great. (The others: Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, Wharton’s The House of Mirth, Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, Light in August, and Absalom, Absalom!, Ellison’s Invisible Man, and Nabokov’s Lolita.) And in an interview, Yardley called Augie March “a fabulously rich, humorous, far-ranging book that tries what so few American books [do], which is to — in the Faulknerian phrase — take the universe and put it on the head of a pin.”
The English novelist Martin Amis gave Bellow’s book the ultimate accolade. “The Adventures of Augie March is the Great American Novel,” declared Amis in a 1995 essay for The Atlantic Monthly that doubled as the introduction to the book’s Everyman’s Library edition. “Search no further. All the trails went cold forty-two years ago. The quest did what quests very rarely do: it ended.”
And Amis’s journalist friend Christopher Hitchens stopped barely short of that in a winter 2001 essay in The Wilson Quarterly titled “The Great American Augie,” where he compared the book to another celebrated American novel. “The advantage The Adventures of Augie March … has over The Great Gatsby … derives from its scope, its optimism, and, I would venture, its principles.”
Its freewheeling language and design, too, set Augie and Bellow off from Gatsby and Fitzgerald. Gatsby, steeped in modernist pessimism, is an exquisitely compact tale of the American dream gone sour; Augie March is a sprawling, defiantly optimistic picaresque. Yet Bellow, with his strange new mix of erudition and big-city colloquialism, was no less a stylist than Fitzgerald or Hemingway.
“Saul Bellow,” proclaimed James Wood in a November 2000 essay for The New Republic, “is probably the greatest writer of American prose in the twentieth century — where greatest means most abundant, various, precise, rich, lyrical. This seems a relatively uncontroversial claim.”
Even less laudatory critics liked some things about Augie March. As he later recalled in his memoir Making It, Norman Podhoretz angered Bellow, and made his own reputation as a young critic, with his criticism of the book in Commentary. But he was quick to credit what the novel had accomplished for American English. “Mark Twain in Huckleberry Finn had crossed the regnant ‘high’ literary language with the ‘low’ frontier vulgate,” Podhoretz observed. Now Bellow was asserting his right to create a new literary language by fusing “fancy English” with the colloquial “American-Jewish” vernacular of his youth. “To appreciate the force of this assertion,” Podhoretz continued, “we need only remind ourselves that fifty years earlier Henry James had come away from a tour of the Jewish ghetto on the Lower East Side wondering what would become of the knightly and embattled English language when the children and grandchildren of these people came into possession of it. ‘Whatever we shall know it for,’ said James, ‘we shall not know it for English.’ Saul Bellow to Henry James: Up yours, buddy.”
James might have been more comfortable in the Humboldt Park neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side where Bellow grew up in the 1920s and ’30s, having moved there from Montreal at age nine. Certainly these sons and daughters of mostly eastern European Jewish immigrants had no trouble speaking and writing recognizable English. Two of young Bellow’s best buddies at Tuley High School were the future literary critic Isaac Rosenfeld and the future Chicago newspaper columnist Sydney J. Harris.
Then again, Humboldt Park was hardly a place of Jamesian gentility. It was here that Bellow picked up the street smarts he passed on to Augie, and here that he met embryonic versions of several of the many memorable characters peopling Augie’s story. William Einhorn, the crippled eccentric who occasionally acts as a surrogate parent to the fatherless Augie, was, according to the Atlas biography, modeled on a local real estate king, the father of Bellow’s Tuley High classmate Sam Freifeld. Grandma Lausch, the domineering boarder from Odessa who actually runs the March household, was based on a West Augusta Street neighbor of Bellow’s. And Augie himself, says Atlas, was a composite of the brothers who lived with her, Charlie and Morris August, with a strong dose of the author himself mixed in.
Bellow no more wanted to stick around Humboldt Park or chase conventional bourgeois respectability than Augie did. He followed Rosenfeld and Harris to the University of Chicago, but found the atmosphere there as stifling as he would later find the strict formalism of Henry James. So he transferred to Northwestern, where he graduated with honors in sociology and anthropology. He then put in a semester as a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, but quit to move back to Hyde Park, marry, and become a writer.
The next decade was a lean one. Bellow taught part-time at a downtown teachers’ college, wrote for the Federal Writers’ Project and a Great Books guide published by Encyclopedia Britannica, and traveled in Mexico on money inherited from his mother. He was also writing short stories and novels. An apprentice novel was bought for $150, then incinerated by Bellow after the tiny publishing house that purchased it was put out of business by World War II. His first published novel, Dangling Man, came out a year before Bellow finally became fed up with three years of his own dangling by the U.S. military authorities and signed up for service in the merchant marine in April 1945 (after the Japanese surrender, Bellow was released to inactive status in September 1945).
In 1946 Bellow was hired by the University of Minnesota English department, where he worked his way up from instructor to assistant professor before leaving for Paris on a Guggenheim Fellowship in the fall of 1948. It would be another 15 years before Bellow moved back to Hyde Park and began three decades of teaching at the University of Chicago. But he didn’t stop thinking about the city in the meantime. “For it was Chicago before the Depression that moved my imagination as I went to my room in the morning,” Bellow would write of his time in Europe, “not misty Paris with its cold statues and its streams of water running along the curbstones.”
That those streams stuck in Bellow’s mind was no accident. According to Atlas’s biography, Bellow found that thoughts of Chicago were distracting him from the novel he had first begun writing until one spring morning, on the way to his desk after breakfast, he noticed “water trickling down the street and sparkling as it trickled.”
“The free-flowing rivulet triggered an epiphany,” Atlas explains. “It was the form that Bellow had been searching for, the way to write his ‘other’ book. One of the hallmarks of Bellow’s mature style is its exuberance; the long, prolix sentences, the profusion of adjectives, the seemingly effortless (but clearly worked) cascade of prose in his distinctive American idiom unfurl in the later novels with the controlled rhythm of a highly sophisticated jazz riff. In the water flowing down a Paris street he found a visual analogue for his style.”
Bellow discarded the earlier novel and began writing what became Augie March. Monroe Engel, his new editor at Viking — Bellow had asked out of his contract with Vanguard Press, believing it had failed to support his first two novels — responded to the first chapters Bellow sent him enthusiastically. “My God, Saul,” Atlas quotes him as writing Bellow, “the excitement moves across each line without a break.”
“The great pleasure of the book was that it came easily,” Bellow told The New York Times the week it was published. “All I had to do was be there with buckets to catch it. That’s why the form is loose.”
The following January, Bellow contributed a short piece to the same publication titled “How I Wrote Augie March’s Story,” in which he twice quoted his friend Robert Penn Warren’s observation on the benefits of writing where “the language is not your own and you are forced into yourself in a special way.”
“A descendant of Russian-Jewish immigrants,” Bellow recalled, “I was writing of Chicago in odd corners of Paris and, afterward, in Austria, Italy, Long Island, and New Jersey. … In Rome I wrote every morning for six weeks at the Casino Valadier in the Borghese Gardens. In this marvelous place, overlooking the city from the Pincian Rock, I happily filled several student notebooks and smoked cigars and drank coffee, unaware of the close Roman heat as long as I did not move about.”
The novel was finished during a year Bellow spent teaching at Princeton, with its stirring final lines — “I may well be a flop at this line of endeavor. Columbus too thought he was a flop, probably, when they sent him back in chains. Which didn’t prove there was no America” — written in Manhattan. “The last two paragraphs I completed on a Viking Press typewriter,” wrote Bellow. “Not a single word of the book was composed in Chicago.”
By the time The Adventures of Augie March was published, Bellow had moved on to Bard College, a small, arty liberal arts school on the east bank of the Hudson River about two hours north of Manhattan. He had recently turned 38. Keith Botsford, who besides teaching a course at Boston University with Bellow (An Idiosyncratic Survey of Modern Literature) has coedited a series of literary magazines with him over the years, met his future collaborator at Bard the very evening of the book’s release.
Botsford had queued up at Bloomingdale’s at nine o’clock that morning to buy a copy, he recalls, and read it on the train up from Manhattan. That night, Chanler Chapman (the inspiration for Bellow’s protagonist in Henderson the Rain King) held a party for new Bard faculty at his Barrytown estate. Botsford (himself immortalized as Pierre Thaxter in Humboldt’s Gift) found Bellow in a corner being monopolized by Jack Ludwig (the future Valentine Gersbach, cuckcolder of Moses Herzog). Botsford elbowed Ludwig aside, told Bellow how much he liked his new book, and a 50-year friendship was born.
“I would describe Saul’s mood at the moment of Augie a something approaching elation,” says Botsford, 75. “He knew that he had written a fine book, and everybody climbed on board and said, yes, it was a fine book. And it caused a huge stir. If you weren’t around you can’t know, but everybody recognized it, almost instantly, as a remarkable book.”
Back in Bellow’s hometown, the initial reaction to his breakthrough novel was mixed. “There is nothing poetic or symbolic about this detailed account of a picaresque hero’s childhood in Chicago and his gradual growth toward maturity (if any) thru a succession of unsatisfactory but lurid love affairs,” sneered the University of Chicago professor Milton Crane in the Tribune. “The fact that Augie bobs up after every defeat and optimistically heads into more trouble merely emphasizes the episodic and fragmentary character of his chronicle.”
Herman Kogan couldn’t have disagreed more. Augie “is a strange sort of hero,” Kogan wrote in the Chicago Sun-Times. “There is no basic pattern to his life. Yet he is a sympathetic character with whom all but the most obtuse can find identification. For Bellow, I believe, intends to make us aware of how much Augie March there is in each of us.” The book, Kogan presciently concluded, “moves Bellow well into the front rank of our major novelists.”
One novelist already occupying the very front rank also weighed in on Augie. Robert Manning had visited Ernest Hemingway in Cuba as a freelance writer shortly after Hemingway won the 1954 Nobel Prize, and he wrote about the meeting years later as executive editor of The Atlantic Monthly. “[C]lutching an early nightcap,” Manning recounted, “Hemingway sprawled with pleased fatigue in his big armchair and talked of books he had recently read. He had started Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March, but didn’t like it. ‘But when I’m working,’ he said, ‘and read to get away from it, I’m inclined to make bad judgments about other people’s writing.’ He thought Bellow’s very early book, Dangling Man, much better.”
Ironically, in the opening pages of Dangling Man, the story’s narrator flatly rejects the famous Hemingway code of close-mouthed stoicism. And a few years ago, employing the kind of sports metaphor that Papa would have appreciated, the literary journalist D.T. Max wrote in the online magazine Salon that Bellow “wrestled American writing from the grip of Hemingway.”
Even 50 years ago, critics recognized Bellow’s efforts to remake American literature. In his contentious review for Commentary, Norman Podhoretz applauded Bellow’s intent, but insisted that the novelist’s execution fell short. “He is trying to put blood into contemporary fiction and break through the hidebound conventions of the well-made novel,” argued Podhoretz. “This is a herculean job that will have to be done if we are to have a living literature at all. But our sympathy with Mr. Bellow’s ambition and our admiration for his pioneering spirit should not lead us to confuse the high intention with the realization.”
There are signs that Bellow himself has been edging toward a similar conclusion over the years. In his 1966 interview with The Paris Review, he spoke of deliberately cutting back on the liberties he had taken in writing Augie March when he moved on to his next three books, Seize the Day (1956), Henderson the Rain King (1959), and Herzog (1964). “I took off many of these restraints [in Augie March],” Bellow said. “I think I took off too many, and went too far, but I was feeling the excitement of discovery. I had just increased my freedom, and like any emancipated plebeian I abused it at once.”
“I don’t think he himself is as wildly fond of the book as he once was,” says Botsford, who adds that he brought up Augie March with Bellow fairly recently. According to Botsford, when he asked if Bellow would have written the book differently if he had it to do over again, Bellow replied, “You bet I would.”
“I said, ‘I’ll bet you’d cut it by at third,’” Botsford recalls. “And he said, ‘Yep.’”
As the tale of his adventures ends, Augie has fetched up in Paris, married to an actress he had met in Mexico and working as an overseas representative of his cynical Armenian lawyer friend Mintouchian. Like Bellow, Augie spent several weeks in Rome, smoking cigars and drinking coffee to contend with the summer heat. Because his traveling alone for his job left him with a lot of time on his hands, he began writing his memoirs — which Bellow’s readers supposedly held in their hands.
“I got into the habit,” Bellow has Augie write, “of going every afternoon to the Café Valadier in the Borghese gardens on top of the Pincio, with the whole cumulous Rome underneath, where I sat at a table and declared that I was an American, Chicago-born, and all these other events and notions. Said not in order to be so highly significant but probably because human beings have the power to say and ought to employ it at the proper time. When finally you’re done speaking you’re dumb forever after, and when you’re through stirring you go still, but this is no reason to decline to speak and stir or to be what you are.”
If Augie’s fictional memoir would have seemed rude or unwieldy to Henry James or Hemingway, then, so be it. “In the great period of the novel,” Bellow explained to the Times Book Review as The Adventures of Augie March was first being published, “the novelist didn’t care — there was a great mass of sand and gravel; there was diversity of scene, a large number of characters.
“After all,” the 38-year-old author concluded, “the novel grew out of daily events, out of newspapers. Today, the novelist thinks too much of immortality and he tries to create form. He tries to make his work durable through form. But you have to take your chance on mortality, on perishability. That’s what I felt. I kicked over the traces, wrote catch-as-catch-can, picaresque. I took my chance.”
© Bill Beuttler