Biography of Saul Bellow, Canadian-American Author

Saul Bellow
Portrait of Author Saul Bellow.

Kevin Horan / Getty Images

Saul Bellow, born Solomon Bellows (June 10, 1915 – April 5, 2005) was a Canadian-American writer and a Pulitzer-Prize laureate known for his novels featuring intellectually curious protagonists at odds with the contemporary world. For his literary achievements, he was conferred the National Book Award for Fiction three times, and he also won the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize for Literature in the same year (1976). 

Fast Facts: Saul Bellow

  • Known For: Pulitzer-Prize-winning Canadian-American author whose protagonists had an intellectual curiosity and human flaws that set them apart from their peers
  • Also Known As: Solomon Bellows (originally Belo, then "Americanized" into Bellow)
  • Born​: June 10, 1915 in Lachine, Quebec, Canada
  • Parents: Abraham and Lescha "Liza" Bellows
  • Died​: April 5, 2005 in Brookline, Massachusetts
  • Education​: University of Chicago, Northwestern University, University of Wisconsin
  • Selected Works: Dangling Man (1944), The Victim (1947), The Adventures of Augie March (1953), Henderson the Rain King (1959), Herzog (1964), Mr. Sammler's Planet (1970), Humboldt's Gift (1975), Ravelstein (2000)
  • Awards and Honors:​ National Book Award for the Adventures of Augie March, Herzog, and Mr. Sammler's Planet (1954, 1965, 1971); Pulitzer Prize for Humboldt's Gift (1976); Nobel Prize for Literature (1976); National Medal of Arts (1988)
  • Spouses: Anita Goshikin, Alexandra Tschacbasov, Susan Glassman, Alexandra Ionescu-Tulcea, Janis Freedman
  • Children​: Gregory Bellow, Adam Bellow, Daniel Bellow, Naomi Rose Bellow
  • Notable Quote​: "Was I a man or was I a jerk?" spoken on his deathbed

Early Life (1915-1943)

Saul Bellow was born in Lachine, Quebec, the youngest of four siblings. His parents were of Jewish-Lithuanian ancestry and had recently immigrated to Canada from Russia. A debilitating respiratory infection he contracted at the age of eight taught him self-reliance, and he took advantage of his condition to catch up on his reading. He credits the book Uncle Tom’s Cabin for his decision to become a writer. At age nine, he moved to the Humboldt Park neighborhood of Chicago with his family, a city that would end up becoming the backdrop of many of his novels. His father worked a few odd jobs to support the family, and his mother, who died when Bellow was 17, was religious and wanted her youngest son to become a rabbi or a concert musician. Bellow did not heed his mother’s wishes, and instead kept writing. Interestingly, he had a lifelong love for the Bible, which started when he began learning Hebrew, and was also fond of Shakespeare and the Russian novelists of the 19th century. He befriended fellow writer Isaac Rosenfeld while attending Tuley High School in Chicago.

Bellow originally enrolled at the University of Chicago, but transferred to Northwestern University. Even though he wanted to study literature, he thought his English department was anti-Jewish, so, instead, he pursued degrees in anthropology and sociology, which became important influences in his writing. He later pursued graduate studies at the University of Wisconsin.

A Trotskyist, Bellows was part of the Works Progress Administration Writer's Project, whose members were, in large part, Stalinists. He became an American citizen in 1941, because, upon enlisting in the Army, where he joined the merchant marine, he found out he had immigrated to the United States illegally as a child. 

Early Work and Critical Success (1944-1959)

  • Dangling Man (1944)
  • The Victim (1947)
  • The Adventures of Augie March (1953)
  • Seize The Day (1956)
  • Henderson the Rain King (1959)

During his service in the army, he completed his novel Dangling Man (1944), about a man waiting to be drafted for the war. The almost non-existent plot centers on a man named Joseph, a writer and intellectual who, frustrated with his life in Chicago, isolates himself to study the great men of literature, while waiting to be drafted for the war. The novel ends with that occurrence, and with Joseph's hope that the more regimented life in the army will provide structure and ease his suffering. In a way, Dangling Man mirrors Bellow's life as a young intellectual, striving for the pursuit of knowledge, living on the cheap, and waiting himself to be drafted.

Saul Bellow Dangling Man
Saul Bellow's Dangling Man,' English first edition published by John Lehmann, London, 1946. Culture Club / Getty Images

In 1947, Bellow wrote the novel The Victim, which centers on a middle-aged Jewish man named Leventhal and his encounter with an old acquaintance named Kirby Allbee, who claims that Leventhal had caused his demise. Upon learning this information, Leventhal first reacts with annoyance, but then becomes more introspective regarding his own behavior. 

In the fall of 1947, following a tour to promote his novel The Victim, he moved to Minneapolis. Thanks to a Guggenheim Fellowship he was awarded in 1948, Bellow moved to Paris and started working on The Adventures of Augie March, which was published in 1953 and established Bellow's reputation as a major author. The Adventures of Augie March follows the eponymous protagonist who grows up during the Great Depression, and the encounters he makes, the relationships he forges, and occupations he endures in his life, which shape him into the man he would become. There are clear parallels between Augie March and the 17th Century Spanish classic Don Quixote, which is why it's easy to classify it as a Bildungsroman and a picaresque novel. The prose is quite colloquial, yet it contains some philosophical flourishes. The Adventures of Augie March got him his first (of three) National Book Awards for fiction.

His 1959 novel Henderson the Rain King centers on the eponymous protagonist, a troubled middle-aged man who, despite his socio economic successes, feels unfulfilled. He has an inner voice that pesters him with the cry “I want I want I want.” So, in search of an answer, he travels to Africa, where he ends up meddling with a tribe and being recognized as a local king but, ultimately, he only wants to return home. The message of the novel is that, with effort, a man can experience spiritual rebirth and find harmony between his physical self, spiritual self, and outside world. 

The Chicago Years and Commercial Success (1960-1974)

  • Herzog, 1964
  • Mr. Sammler’s Planet, 1970

After living in New York for a number of years, he returned to Chicago in 1962, as he had been appointed professor of the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. He would hold that position for more than 30 years. 

Saul Bellow And Son
Author Saul Bellow (1915 - 2005) with his son Daniel, Chicago, December 1969. Michael Mauney / Getty Images

To Bellow, Chicago embodied the essence of America, more so than New York. "Chicago, with its gigantesque outer life, contained the whole problem of poetry and the inner life in America," reads a famous line from Humboldt's Gift. He lived in Hyde Park, a neighborhood that was known as being a high-crime area back in the day, but he relished it because it enabled him to "stick to his guns" as a writer, he told Vogue in a March 1982 interview. His novel Herzog, written during this period, became an unexpected commercial success, the first in his life. With it, Bellow won his second National Book Award. Herzog centers on the midlife crisis of a Jewish man named Moses E. Herzog, a failing writer and academic who, aged 47, is reeling from his messy second divorce, which includes his ex wife having an affair with his former best friend and a restraining order that makes it hard for him to see his daughter. Herzog shares similarities with Bellow, including their background—both born in Canada to Jewish immigrants, lived in Chicago for an extensive period of time. Valentin Gersbach, Herzog's former best friend who becomes involved with his wife, is based on Jack Ludwig, who had an affair with Bellow’s second wife Sondra.

Six years after publishing Herzog, Bellow wrote Mr. Sammler’s Planet, his third National Book Award-winning novel. The protagonist, Holocaust survivor Mr. Artur Sammler, is an intellectually curious, occasional lecturer at Columbia University, who sees himself as a refined and civilized being caught among people who only care about the future and progress, which, to him, only leads to more human suffering. At the end of the novel, he realizes that a good life is a life lived doing what is “required of him” and meeting the “terms of the contract.”

Humboldt’s Gift (1975)

Humboldt’s Gift, written in 1975, is the novel that won Saul Bellow the 1976 Pulitzer Prize and was crucial in earning him the Nobel Prize in literature the same year. A roman à clef about his friendship with the poet Delmore Schwartz, Humboldt's Gift explores the significance of being an artist or an intellectual in contemporary America by juxtaposing the two careers of the characters Von Humboldt Fleisher, modeled after Schwartz, and Charlie Citrine, his protegé, a version of Bellow. Fleisher is an idealist who wants to lift society up through art, yet he dies without any major artistic accomplishments. By contrast, Citrine becomes wealthy through commercial success after he authors a Broadway play and a tie-in movie about a character named Von Trenck, modeled after the idealist Fleisher himself. A third notable character is Rinaldo Cantabile, a wannabe gangster, who gives Citrine career advice solely focused on material gains and commercial interests, as opposed to Fleisher’s emphasis on artistic integrity above anything else. Funnily enough, in the novel, Fleisher has a line about the Pulitzer Prize being a "a dummy newspaper publicity award given by crooks and illiterates."

King Carl Gustaf Giving Saul Bellow Nobel Prize
Sweden's King Carl Gustaf, right, presents American Saul Bellow the Nobel Prize for Literature in award ceremonies here December 10, 1976. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

Later Work (1976-1997)

  • To Jerusalem and Back, a memoir(1976)
  • The Dean's December (1982)
  • More Die of Heartbreak (1987)
  • A Theft (1989)
  • The Bellarosa Connection (1989)
  • It All Adds Up, an essay collection (1994)
  • The Actual (1997)

The 1980s were quite a prolific decade for Bellow, as he wrote four novels: The Dean’s December (1982), More Die of Heartbreak (1987), A Theft (1989), and The Bellarosa Collection (1989).

The Dean’s December features the standard Bellow-novel protagonist, a middle-aged man who, in this case, is an academic and is accompanying his Romanian-born astrophysicist wife back to her native country, then under the communist rule. The experience leads him to meditate on the workings of a totalitarian regime and, particularly, on the Eastern Bloc.

More Die of Heartbreak features another tortured protagonist, Kenneth Trachtenberg, whose intellectual prowess is counterbalanced by his philosophical torture. A Theft, written in 1989, is Bellow’s first straight-to-paperback book, originally intended for magazine publication. It features a female protagonist, Clara Velde, a fashion writer who, upon losing her prized emerald ring, goes down a rabbit hole made of psychological crises and interpersonal issues. Bellow originally wanted to sell it in a serialized version to a magazine, but nobody picked it up. The same year, he wrote The Bellarosa Connection, a novel in dialogue form between the members of the Fonstein family. The topic is the Holocaust, especially the American Jewish response to the experience of European Jews during World War II.

In the 1990s, he only wrote one novel, The Actual (1997) where Sigmund Adletsky, a wealthy man, wants to reunite his friend Harry Trellman with his childhood sweetheart Amy Wustrin. In 1993, he also moved to Brookline, Massachusetts, where lived until his death.

Ravelstein (2000)

In 2000, aged 85, Bellow published his final novel. It’s a roman à clef written in the form of a memoir, about the friendship between Abe Ravelstein, a professor, and Nikki, a Malaysian writer. The real-life references are the philosopher Allan Bloom and his Malaysian lover Michael Wu. The narrator, who meets the pair in Paris, is asked by a dying Ravelstein to write a memoir about him after his death. After said death, the narrator and his wife go on vacation to the Caribbean, and, while there, he contracts a tropical disease, which brings him back to the United States to recover. He writes the memoir after he’s cured of the disease.

The novel was controversial because of the way he frankly depicted Ravelstein (Allan Bloom) in all his facets, especially in his homosexuality, and the revelation that he was dying of AIDS. The controversy stems from the fact that Bloom did align with conservative ideas formally, but he was more progressive in his private life. Even though he never spoke publicly about his homosexuality, he was openly gay in his social and academic circles. 

Literary Style and Themes

Starting from his first novel, The Dangling Man (1944) all the way to Ravelstein (2000), Bellow created a series of protagonists who, with barely any exceptions, struggle coming to terms with the world around them; Joseph, Henderson and Herzog are only a few examples. They are usually contemplative individuals at odds with America’s society, which is known for being matter-of-factly and profit-oriented.

Bellow’s fiction is rife with autobiographical elements, as many of his principal characters bear a resemblance to him: they are Jewish, intellectually curious, and have relationships with, or are married to, women that take after Bellow’s real-life wives.

With Bellow being an academically trained anthropologist, his writing tends to put humankind at the center, especially with characters who appear at loss and disoriented in modern civilization, but are able to overcome their own frailties to achieve greatness. He saw modern civilization as a cradle of madness, materialism, and false knowledge. Contrasting these forces are Bellow’s characters, who have both heroic potential and all too human flaws. 

Jewish life and identity are central in Bellow’s work, but he did not want to be known as an eminently “Jewish” writer. Starting with his novel Seize the Day (1956), a longing for transcendence can be seen in his characters. This is particularly apparent in Henderson the Rain King (1959), even though, after experiencing bizarre adventures in Africa, he is happy to return home.

Nobel Laureate Saul Bellow Dies
Author Saul Bellow, shown in this May 2004 file photo, being awarded an honorary doctorate by Boston University during commencement ceremonies held at Nickerson Field. Corbis / Getty Images

In his prose, Bellow was known for his exuberant use of language, which won him comparisons to Herman Melville and Walt Whitman. He had a photographic memory, which allowed him to recall the most minute details. "Above all, just this joyous comedy—a delight in adjectives and adverbs for their own sake,” James Wood, the editor of the Library of America’s four-volume edition of Bellow’s fiction, told NPR. “A pleasure in metaphors, sparkling metaphors—a wonderful description of Lake Michigan, which is just a list of adjectives of the kind that Melville would have loved. I think it goes something like 'the limp silk fresh lilac drowning water.' You can't get much better than that," he said. He often referenced and quoted Proust and Henry James, but interspersed these literary references with jokes. 

Saul Bellow’s Women

Saul Bellow was married five times and was known for his affairs. Greg, his eldest son, a psychotherapist who wrote a memoir titled Saul Bellow’s Heart (2013), described his father as an “epic philanderer.” The reason why this is relevant is that his women were his literary muses, as he based a number of characters on them. 

Saul Bellow and Wife in Bed
Nobel Prize winner in literature Saul Bellow in bed with his wife Alexandra. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

He got engaged to his first wife, Anita Goshikin, in 1937 at age 21. Their union lasted 15 years and was dotted by Bellow’s numerous infidelities. An altruistic woman, Anita was not a big presence in Bellow’s novels. Right after divorcing her, he married Alexandra "Sondra" Tschacbasov who was both mythologized and demonized in Herzog in the character of Madeleine. After divorcing her in 1961, he married Susan Glassman, a former girlfriend of Philip Roth, and eighteen years younger than him. He had an onslaught of affairs while on tour in Europe.

He divorced Susan and got involved with Alexandra Ionescu Tulcea, a Romanian-born mathematician whom he married in 1975 and divorced in 1985. She featured prominently in his novels, with favorable portrayals in To Jerusalem and Back (1976) and in The Dean’s December (1982), but in a more critical light in Ravelstein (2000). In 1979, he met his last wife, Janis Freedman, who was a graduate student at the Committee of Social Thought at Chicago University. She became his assistant and, after he divorced Ionescu and moved to an apartment in Hyde Park, their relationship blossomed.

Freedman and Bellow married in 1989, when he was 74 and she was 31. Together they had Bellow's first and only daughter, Naomi Rose, in 2000. He died in 2005, aged 89, after a series of minor strokes.

Legacy

Saul Bellow is widely regarded as one of America’s most notable writers, whose wide variety of interests included sports and the violin (his mother wanted him to become either a rabbi or a musician). In 1976, he won both the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the Nobel Prize in literature. In 2010, he was inducted into the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame. While he was a critically acclaimed author since the beginning of his career, he only became commercially successful when he published Herzog, aged 50. He was one of the most dominant Jewish writers who shaped 20th-century American literature—Philip Roth, Michael Chabon and Jonathan Safran Foer are indebted to Saul Bellow’s legacy.

In 2015, Zachary Leader published a monumental biography that is also a work of literary criticism of Saul Bellow in two volumes. In it, the author focuses on the way Bellow’s fiction itself can be read, palimpsest-style, to learn more about his past. 

Sources

  • Amis, Martin. “The Turbulent Love Life of Saul Bellow.” Vanity Fair, Vanity Fair, 29 Apr. 2015, https://www.vanityfair.com/culture/2015/04/saul-bellow-biography-zachary-leader-martin-amis.
  • Hallordson, Stephanie S. The Hero in Contemporary American Fiction, MacMillan, 2007
  • Menand, Louis. “Saul Bellow's Revenge.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 9 July 2019, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/05/11/young-saul.
  • Pifer, Ellen. Saul Bellow Against The Grain, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991
  • Vitale, Tom. “A Century After His Birth, Saul Bellow's Prose Still Sparkles.” NPR, NPR, 31 May 2015, https://www.npr.org/2015/05/31/410939442/a-century-after-his-birth-saul-bellows-prose-still-sparkles.