- - Sunday, May 21, 2017


Edited by Gloria L. Cronin and Lee Trepanier

University Press of Kentucky, $28, 285 pages

It is hard to overstate the importance of politics in the works of Nobel Laureate Saul Bellow. From his teenage years in high school, Bellow was a profoundly political person, deeply engaged in the ideologies and issues of his day.

So a book like this with essays by diverse hands, all of them belonging to academics of some distinction, is invaluable for readers who want to use their expertise to look beyond the admittedly fascinating layers of gossip, interpersonal relationships (both overtly sexual and not), places evoked, and characters brought vividly to life.

Even if you don’t agree with all the angles and judgments in these pages you will benefit enormously from them in your understanding of this complicated writer and man.

Bellow, who was born in 1915 and died just short of his 90th birthday in 2005, followed a political trajectory typical of intellectuals — and particularly Jewish ones — of his generation. Starting out as a Trotskyite in the 1930s, he went through predictable adherence to New Deal liberal values and their afterglow, before ending up as a neoconservative in all but name. And in that last clause, “aye, there’s the rub”.

Unlike his friend and colleague on The University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought, Edward Shils, Bellow was shy about identifying himself overtly with the political right. In this he was more like his other friend and colleague Allan Bloom, widely believed to be the model for his late novella “Ravelstein.”

While Bloom was too genuinely subtle in his politics and general thinking to embrace wholeheartedly any single label, Bellow’s similar skittishness additionally owed quite a bit to his ambition. To put it crudely, he knew that the prevailing intellectual establishment in this country and much of the rest of the West was too doggedly liberal to shower honors on someone who swam against the tide.

National Book Awards and the ultimate Swedish accolade were important to him and so he did trim his sails as a public intellectual. Yet where it counted, he wore his political as well as his private heart on his sleeve.

To his credit as a consummate artist, his fiction is generally unvarnished in its expression of true political stance. As far back as his Magnum Opus “Herzog,” 40 years before his death, you see his respect for normative values and the bourgeoisie revealing itself between the cracks. A dozen years later in “Mr. Sammler’s Planet” you see him unmistakably as neocon before its heyday.

And clear evidence of his true place in the ideological spectrum of American politics continues mounting up through his serious fiction for the rest of his life.

One of the joys of this collection packed with insights and analysis are the invaluable anecdotes about Bellow. Nowhere is this truer than in the essay by one of its editors, Gloria L. Cronin, a professor of English at Brigham Young University titled “Our Father’s Politics: Gregory, Adam, and Daniel Bellow.”

Born to different wives — there were five in all — each son, who almost belong to different generations, brings his unique take on the paternal politics they witnessed. Eldest son Gregory, provides personal evidence of that respect for normative values half a decade before “Herzog”:

“In 1959, when I graduated from junior high school they played the national anthem, my [still left-wing] mother refused to stand up. There was Saul standing up with his hand on his heart and Anita sitting next to him in silent protest. He said, ‘What the heck’s wrong with you?’ Bear in mind, this was twenty years after his Trotskyite period. But he had long since abandoned such behavior.”

Middle son Adam, who did not really get to talk to Bellow as an adult until he was “already very much in his ‘late phase’” remembers “by then, he always spoke of his youthful radicalism by dismissing it as a far off folly.”

Adam Bellow is wise enough to see this as facile, but stresses certain enduring lodestars in his father’s life, like his commitment to Israel and the influence of conservative thinker Leo Strauss, with whom “he shared a certain sense of detachment from American society, but also a great sense of gratitude and appreciation for it.”

Youngest son Daniel opines that “His [Romanian] wife Alexandra had the most influence on him politically,” which will come as no surprise to readers of what is perhaps his last great novel “The Dean’s December” based on a trip he took with her to her ravaged Communist homeland.

For me, a brief essay by Daniel Gordon, professor emeritus of English at the University of Florida, titled “‘Mr. Sammler’s Planet’: Saul Bellow’s 1968 Speech at San Francisco State University” is perhaps the most interesting, showing as it does the raw material for a crucial scene in the novel published two years later.

Like another brutal experience, the trip to Romania, this searing encounter with savage radicalism provided the grit which became the pearl in his fictive creation. That 1968 campus encounter provides perhaps the clearest explanation for Bellow’s move to the right, as well as demonstrating his preternatural capacity for using his pen to raise a squalid incident to a high artistic plane.

• Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, California.

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