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Reading Saul Bellow's Letters

Saul Bellow in Chicago, 1976. (AP)

The very backbone of 20th century literature, said Philip Roth, came from two writers: William Faulkner and Saul Bellow. 

Bellow - the great and exuberant Nobel Prize-winning voice out of Chicago – died five years ago. 

Now come his letters – to John Cheever and Ralph Ellison, to Cynthia Ozick and John Berryman, to his five wives, his children. There are also letters to Roth and – piercingly – to Faulkner. 

Bellow, who once spoke of “panting” after meaning, is laid out here in private prose. 

We dip into a new collection of the great Saul Bellow’s correspondence.

-Tom Ashbrook

Guests:

 
Benjamin Taylor, novelist, essayist, and member of the faculty at The New School. His new book is Saul Bellow: Letters.”
 
Gloria Cronin, professor of English, Brigham Young University. She’s co-editor of the Saul Bellow Journal.  Her books include “A Room of His Own: In Search of the Feminine in the Novels of Saul Bellow,” “Conversations with Saul Bellow,” and “Saul Bellow: A Mosaic.”
 
Nathan Englander, novelist and short story writer. He’s author of “The Ministry of Special Cases” and “For the Relief of Unbearable Urges.”

More:

Hear Tom speak with Philip Roth — and see a list of great On Point literary archives, where you can link to shows with Toni Morrison, John Updike, T.C. Boyle, Junot Diaz, Joyce Carol Oates, and more.

We excerpt some of Bellow’s letters here:

To Ralph Ross

March 22, 1977  - Chicago

Dear Ralph:

Years ago (God, what a long time it seems, and how far way Minneapolis is!) you told me something valuable, and it was so unexpected that I couldn’t react intelligently on the spot but carried the remark off and worked on it for a couple of decades.  You said that Isaac [Rosenfeld] was the most unworldly person you had ever known, with one exception: Compared with me, Isaac was the complete sophisticate. I felt the truth of this immediately—being what I was, I couldn’t expect to understand.  And I always made a special point of seeming to be intensely practical and competent because I had no grasp of real life.  Isaac was what our French friends call “faux naïf,” and I saw that all along and understood that he wouldn’t have needed such an act if he hadn’t been so clever. He was trying to act his way out of (relative) worldliness. I was working in the opposite direction. Was I so innocent? Self-absorbed, rather. Only it was no ordinary form of self-absorption because I could understand what I was determined to understand. And if I hadn’t sensed so many frightful things I wouldn’t have been so intensely unworldly. Evidently I was determined not to understand whatever was deeply threatening—allowed myself to know what conformed to my objectives, and no more. A tall order, to bury so many powers of observation. That sounds immodest; I mean only to be objective. But all the orders have been tall. If you had followed up on your shrewd remark you might have saved me some time, but I assumer you thought that if I couldn’t work out the hint I couldn’t be expected to bear a full examination either. I had to go through the whole Sondra-Jack Ludwig business, for instance. I gave them, and others, terrific entertainment. Sondra sent me to the English Department to threaten to resign if the didn’t re-appoint Ludwig, whom they had good reason to loathe. It was a barrel of fun. I’m not so keen on this sort of Goldoni comedy as I once was (small wonder), but I can see the humor of it. It gives me great satisfaction to look back in detachment and to think of the wit the gods gave us when they had to reduce our scope.  But why didn’t they reduce our ambitions correspondingly? Why were we fired up with glorious dreams of achievement leading to such appalling waste? No one could make a true success except a few private persons with limited aims. Some of us, trying hard, were wonderfully unstinting of themselves. I think of John [Berryman], so generous in self-destruction.  Or Isaac, who put on every stitch of virtue he had, and got on his horse and jumped into the big hole in the Forum. No one who set out to make the big scene in a big way could in the nature of the case, get very far.

***

To John Cheever

December 9, 1981    Chicago

Dear John:

Since we spoke on the phone I’ve been thinking incessantly about you. Many things might be said, but I won’t say them, you can probably do without them. What I would like to tell you is this: We didn’t spend much time together but there is a significant attachment between us. I suppose it’s in part because we practiced the same self-taught trade. Let me try to say it better—we put our souls to the same kind of schooling, and it’s this esoteric training which we had the gall, under the hostile stare of exoteric America to persist in, that brings us together. Yes, there are other, deeper sympathies but I’m too clumsy to get at them. Just now I can offer only what’s available. Neither of us had much use for the superficial “given” of social origins. In your origins there were certain advantages; you were too decent to exploit them. Mine, I suppose, were only to be “overcome” and I hadn’t the slightest desire to molest myself that way. I was, however, in a position to observe the advantages of the advantaged (the moronic pride of Wasps, Southern traditionalists, etc.).  There wasn’t a trace of it in you, You were engaged, as a writer should be, in transforming yourself. When I read your collected stories I was moved to see the transformation taking place on the printed page.  There’s nothing that counts really except this transforming action of the soul. I loved you for this, I loved you anyway, but for this especially.

***

To Eugene Kennedy

February 19, 2004       Brookline

Dear Gene,

I tried to reach you by phone yesterday. Spurlos—the word employed by German submarine commanders. It means “without a trace”: not so much as an oil slick on the bosom of the Atlantic. (It occurs to me that you must have studied German under the Hollywood German experts).

I don’t do much of anything these days and I spend much of my time indoors.  By far my pleasantest diversion is to play with Rosie, now four years old. It seems to me that my parents wanted me to grow up in a hurry and that I resisted, dragging my feet. They (my parents, not my feet) needed all the help they could get. They were forever asking, “What does the man say?” and I would translate for them into heavy-footed English. That didn’t help much either. The old people were as ignorant of English as they were of Canadian French. We often stopped before a display of children’s shoes. My mother coveted for me a pair of patent-leather sandals with an elegantissimo strap. I finally got them—I rubbed them with butter to preserve the leather. This is when I was six or seven years old, a little older than Rosie is now. Amazing how it all boils down to a pair of patent-leather sandals.

I send an all-purpose blessing…

Letters reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from Saul Bellow: Letters, edited by Benjamin Taylor. Copyright © Janis Bellow, 2010.

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
  • L. Armond

    There is something about writing with a fountain pen, or a soft lead pencil, that controls the pace of thought and reflection. I often worry about kids using computers, and missing out on the whole gestault feeling I get from pulling out notes from University, letters, or my old canvas covered 3-ring binder, with its drawins on the blue cover, and my reworking in a pensive mood, the design printed on the inside covers. Pen and Pencil on paper bring up a universe which I fear children today will lose. And in technical schools of Chicago, the students actually recreated their lectures and drawings in their own handwriting, that brought about 100 % memory, in the muscles, in the ink, in the time it took to store and to retrieve and consult. No one can possibly have that gestault recollection anymore.

  • David Shufelt

    In college 25 years ago, I read Saul Bellow’s novella Seize the Day for an English class. I even wrote a paper on it. The book did not impress me that much, certainly not enough to motivate me to read any of Bellow’s other books. In that English class, we also read the likes of Faulkner, Ellison, Nabokov, and Mailer. The professors were great, but not one of these authors “grabbed” me. Give me something by Sherwood Anderson, Chekhov, Melville, Malamud, Tolstoy, Benet, and Flaubert any day instead of Bellow and company. Lastly, I was on “hold” today during the show, but I didn’t get a chance to participate in what turned out to be a Bellow lovefest…

  • http://www.missionariesboston.org Isabel Legarda

    This is not about today’s show but is rather a suggestion for an upcoming show. Would it be possible to pay tribute the week of November 29-December 4 to the four American church women who were killed by a death squad in EL Salvador? This year marks the 30th anniversary of their deaths. Their work helped perpetuate a social justice movement that continues in Central America today. Commemorations of their lives and deaths are still being observed around the country, including a 30th anniversary concert in Boston featuring the work of composer Elizabeth Swados.

    Archbishop Romero and the six slain UCA Jesuits often get attention; these four brave women’s story is inspiring and worthwhile as well.

  • Potter

    Good show. Thank you.

    It would be nice if you published the letters that were read on the air.

  • Hugh Rogovin

    At the end of Saul Bellow’s teaching career, I had the extraordinary opportunity to audit his classes at BU for 5 consecutive years. During the last 2, James Wood was a participant and Janice Bellow was a frequent visitor. Even in his last year, Saul’s contribution and participation were unique.
    On a few occasions I had coffee with him after class, drove him home and once walked home with him (a little over a mile) and was invited in to meet Rosie but she was sleeping.
    One of your callers recalled how Prof. Bellow would not allow comments or references to his books which is true but he did talk once about one phase of his writing career. He said that when he was a student and riding on the trolley to and from school, he would rewrite passages of the great novels including the Russians to conform to his ideas of how fiction should be written.
    Your program was excellent and allowed me to savor memories of the man. While I have read all his novels 2 or 3 times, I am most anxious to read “Letters.”
    Thank you for the wonderful discussions and insights from all the panelists.

  • http://santafe,newmexicoheardonnprwebsite laurie silver

    thank you nathan englander for speaking to the soul of the man, saul bellow, with such eloquence and insight. thank you for talking honestly about his psychological complexity; both the pain he could inflict and the paradox of the brilliance that came from that often painful gift.

  • Joshua Hendrickson

    I’ve had HUMBOLDT’S GIFT sitting on my bookshelf since the 80s. So far it has gone unread. I’m not sure what it is about Bellow that puts me off. There are some tangential things, to be sure: an essay I read after his death which brought to light his misogyny; the fact that his son Adam Bellow is one of those rotten neocons, which may be no reflection on Saul (though I have heard that Saul was pretty conservative), but I cannot be certain how far the apple fell from the tree. But these needn’t necessarily impact the novelist’s art, and I suppose that one day I’ll get around to reading HUMBOLDT’S GIFT. Even so, I suspect that Bellow will never make it into my list of favorite writers. Of his contemporaries I prefer Gore
    Vidal, Ralph Ellison, Robertson Davies, and Vladimir Nabokov.

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