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About Saul Bellow

A Conversation with James Atlas

HUMANITIES, November/December 2000 | Volume 21, Number 6

With The Adventures of Augie March in 1953, a new voice emerged on the American literary scene. Saul Bellow won the National Book Award for Augie March in 1954, and in a career of nearly six decades would gather countless other writing honors—- a second National Book Award for Herzog in 1964, a Pulitzer prize for Humboldt's Gift in 1975, the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1976. Writer James Atlas traces Bellow's journey in a new biography that grew out of research funded by NEH. Atlas talks about his experiences with NEH Chairman William R. Ferris.

William R. Ferris: In the introduction of your biography you say, "To write a biography of Saul Bellow would be in a sense to write my own autobiography a generation removed." In what ways is the Bellow biography your own autobiography?

James Atlas: I was very drawn to the connections between Bellow's life in Chicago and the fact that he had grown up in a neighborhood that my parents grew up in. I grew up reading Bellow. As a cultural anthropologist, I was very much drawn to this Chicago Jewish world of immigrants who had come over from Russia and tried to make their way in America, which was Bellow's theme.

I grew up in Evanston, a suburb just north of Chicago, and I was looking at all this one generation removed. I had a deep affinity with him.

Other biographers, such as Richard Ellmann, with whom I studied at Oxford—- the great biographer of Joyce and Yeats—-or Leon Edel, with Henry James, are more removed from their subjects. In other words, I don't think that biography mandates a close autobiographical connection between subject and biographer, but with Bellow it was there for me.

Ferris: In a New Yorker article a few years ago, you wrote that you have a weakness for the kind of story in which a person has false starts and years of failure. What was compelling about Bellow that made you want to write about him?

Atlas: That is something that has interested me for a long time. I think we have in America this Horatio Alger fantasy of advancement and self-improvement; in my experience, both personal and as an observer of the human theme, it is a bumpier road than that. With the poet Delmore Schwartz, who was my first biographical subject, the tragedy was built into the narrative of his life. He was tremendously promising at the age of twenty-three; T.S. Eliot was saying he was the great hope of American poetry. And within three decades, he had died alone in a fleabag hotel in midtown Manhattan.

With Bellow, you have this outwardly optimistic trajectory from his childhood in the slums, first in Montreal and then Chicago, to his rapid ascendancy through the ranks of New York literary life and his crowning achievement of the Nobel Prize. I thought, "Where's the failure in this?" But when I began to look at his life more closely, I discovered what a tremendous struggle it had been to make his way as an artist, both to support himself and to gain recognition, but also to find his voice.

There was his friend, Isaac Rosenfeld, Bellow's closest friend, who also wanted to be a great writer. They were comrades at Tuley High School, literary cronies, both of whom had a dominating ambition to rise in the world. Rosenfeld fell by the wayside, dying of a heart attack at the age of thirty-eight alone in a room in Chicago. So I had a drama in their divergent fates that I could write about, and that helped speed me on my way—-if you can call taking a decade to write a book being sped anywhere.

Ferris: Do you think your own early desire to write novels gave you insight into Bellow's creative process?

Atlas: The truth is, fiction is valued in our society at this moment as the great literary art, and everyone finishes up wanting to write novels. I no longer feel that way. I certainly think that biography is itself an art. But I wanted to be a poet, and in fact I wrote poems and published early on in Poetry Magazine and once in the New Yorker. Then I wanted to be a novelist, and I did write a novel after my first book.

-But for me, truth—not to say artistic truth, but factual truth—is the best means for me to write narrative. I like the building of a narrative from fact. It just happens. It's a mystery, but that's my strong suit. I'm sure that writing fiction and wanting to write fiction informed my understanding of Bellow.

Ferris: As you said, you and Bellow have a kinship, both of you being Jewish American writers from Chicago. What kind of parallels do you see between your lives? And do you feel they have allowed you to be a more productive and perceptive biographer?

Atlas: Wow. That requires a complex answer. I have to say that in certain ways I find that writing biography always conceals a cautionary tale. With Delmore, the prevalent myth of the self-destructive poet was one that I apparently wished to avoid. By writing about him and his eventual destruction through alcohol and madness, I was able to dramatize whatever elements I have in myself without actually having to undergo them.

With Bellow, the chaos of his life was not an ideal model for me. On the other hand, I am very curious about this connection between art and self-destructiveness, art and madness, art and disorder. Why do the two so often go hand in hand, especially in the history of American literature? As with all writers, I seek to address conflicts within myself, but unlike Bellow I haven't been married five times. I've only been married once. It is the right number for me, but everybody is different.

Ferris: How do you think the role of the Jewish American writer has changed over this past century?

Atlas: I think Bellow's great achievement was that he brought what I suppose would be called Jewish literature into the American mainstream and found a voice for it. If you look at the history of Jews writing in America—-without putting them down—-you have this immigrant literature that starts with Abraham Cahan writing The Rise of David Levinsky and the works of Ludwig Lewisohn. These were books that seemed as if they themselves had just gotten off the boat. They had a certain raw power and energy to them, but they seemed foreign. They were works written almost in a foreign tongue. In Bernard Malamud and Isaac Bashevis Singer, you also find this very Jewish voice, echoes of Isaac Babel and the great Jewish European writers of the nineteenth century.

Bellow is the first Jewish writer to find an American idiom, as he does in The Adventures of Augie March in 1953, and to bring into it what Philip Rahv, the critic, calls the Europeanization of American literature. Bellow really found his voice, and the whole drama of the assimilation of Jews as they become Americans also found voice in his work.

Ferris: Bellow once wrote, "The most ordinary Yiddish conversation is full of the grandest historical, mythological, and religious allusions." Can you give me an example?

Atlas: One of the traits of Jewish culture is this tremendous expressiveness, so that everything that you say echoes through the ages. When Bellow says that, he is referring to the kind of biblical elements in ordinary Jewish speech. For example, when someone asks you a question, as Bellow does, responding with "I'll tell you a story," you answer the question in the form of a parable, something out of ancient lore or something biblical or something from a story by Sholem Aleichem. That kind of seeing every daily event as a story, that's a very Jewish thing.

Ferris: It is also a very Southern way of responding to questions. I remember there was a friendship for many, many years between Robert Penn Warren and Bellow.

Atlas: Robert Penn Warren and Bellow met when they were at the University of Minnesota in the 1940s, and Warren was writing All the King's Men, or had just written it, and Bellow was struggling with his early works. They developed a very warm friendship which I actually don't anatomize at great length in the book, but I think has to do with this love of language that is both a Southern and a Jewish character trait. Bellow would read his pages aloud to Warren. Warren was ahead of him in having developed a very rolling, expressive oratorical style, and Bellow was still in the phase of writing what he called his M.A. and his Ph.D. novels, very strait-laced. He saw Warren as one of the first of many mentors. He was five or six years older than Bellow. And Bellow always sought to learn from people. One of his great strengths as a novelist is his capacity to learn, to apprentice himself to elders. Warren was one of the first to encourage him, both in practical ways and helping get him a job at Minnesota, and in friendship. They remained friends throughout their lives.

Ferris: How do you see the mix of languages that both you and Bellow were exposed to growing up in Chicago as affecting your writing?

Atlas: I feel very close to Chicago—-obviously not as close as Bellow. But his journey was one that was very verbally enriching to him because he came to America by way of Canada, unlike many immigrant Jews. His family landed from Russia in Halifax, and he then grew up in the slums of Montreal, moving to Chicago when he was nine. In those early years, he was surrounded by a polyglot mix of French, a kind of King's English of Montreal, Russian, Yiddish, and Hebrew. Then he came to Chicago, which has, I think, the great advantage of being geographically remote from New York. New York is very much influenced by cosmopolitan Europe—-Delmore Schwartz called it the last outpost of Europe.

And Chicago, as the economist Milton Friedman has theorized, by being geographically remote, encourages a kind of independence and originality that I think has been great for literary artists. If you think of Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, James T. Farrell—all these writers come out of Chicago. So Bellow was building on a great tradition of linguistic independence.

I love being from Chicago. In fact, my friend Scott Turow and I still think of ourselves as Chicago boys. He still lives there; I still live there in heart, as I'm sure you still live in the South. You know, you come to these cosmopolitan centers, but you retain your core of independence, and that is tremendously helpful to a writer.

Ferris: Absolutely. That is what Faulkner called his "little postage stamp of native soil."

Atlas: Well, the cold truth is that New York has produced its share of great writers, and I think it is the center of literary commerce. Actually, Bellow thinks it is the center of literary commerce, not the center of literary art.

Ferris: One critic wrote that because Bellow does not need a translator, his work has succeeded where some of his Yiddish compatriots failed. Herzog, for one, seems to be a new version of the Sholem Aleichem character Tevye. You have talked about this earlier, but how do you see Bellow contributing to the legacy of Jewish fiction?

Atlas: To be blunt about it, I see him contributing by adding this hyphenated term "American" to "Jewish-American." He has given us our right to identify ourselves as American without ever losing the cadences and idioms and rich cultural tradition of Jewish literature. He certainly would be the last one to distance himself from it. It is the very essence of his genius. But he has made us at home in what to many of us still feels like the New World. Bellow himself is always talking about the marginalization of fiction. That is his great theme in Humboldt's Gift, that art has no place in the commerce-obsessed capitalist engine that is modern America. But, in fact, he has dramatized and I think helped affect this tremendous drama of assimilation.

Ferris: Absolutely. It is as though art precedes life and opens the doors for us to follow through.

Atlas: Well, we like to think so. I hope it is true. Writing a biography resembles writing a novel in that you have to solve the problems that present themselves in writing any narrative. You have to deal with case, character development, motive, how to structure the progression from the beginning to the dramatic crisis in the middle to the denouement. That is why I claim that biography is an art form, because it involves the same narrative and aesthetic questions. The only difference, I'm tempted to say, is that you're dealing with fact instead of inventing facts.

Ferris: How did writing this biography differ from writing your biography of Delmore Schwartz?

Atlas: Well, the key difference, of course, the glaring difference, is that Delmore was dead. I was presented with the rather more conventional challenge of bringing to life a figure I had never known. I was assisted by many interviews with people who had known him, but was also highly dependent on the written word, on documents, which are the biographer's primary material—the letters, journal entries, essays—and on Delmore's spoken voice. With Bellow, I knew him. I know him. He is a living person. So the question presents itself: does this provide an advantage, as it did with Boswell writing about Dr. Johnson? Or, as I began to feel at times, does it just simply complicate matters because I become another one of the competing witnesses trying to describe what this man is like? I had the great advantage of being the supreme collator of everyone's impressions of him, but at times I felt that my observing him was changing the whole game and creating this whole new drama, especially since Bellow was rather phobic about biographers. It added a strange, complicating element that fascinated me. I became a player—a minor player, but a player nevertheless—in the unfolding drama of his life, and it was pretty incredible. The question is, is this more accurate or less accurate than my last biography? It was a challenge.

Ferris: As founding editor of the Lipper/Viking Penguin Lives Series, you've created a series of pocket biographies—but your own biography of Bellow runs some six hundred pages.

Atlas: You should have seen it last year!

Ferris: Could you imagine boiling Bellow down to one hundred and fifty pages and including it in your pocket biography series?

Atlas: The premise of our Penguin biographies is that they are original. They're not redactions of earlier works, and I could never come at it fresh. I spent a decade imagining the length and breadth of this work in its current size. I could never reduce it. In a few years, if some terrific writer came along and wanted to write it, yeah, sure. I think that would be very interesting a few years down the road.

Ferris: Let me ask you the benefits and the drawbacks of keeping a biography as slim as one hundred and fifty pages.

Atlas: The benefits are these: that you have to undergo a tremendously rigorous process of selection, and therefore you have to establish a strong point of view. The selection mandates that you tell the story in a certain way because you can't be inclusive. So I feel that the success of the books in my series has been their liveliness, their vibrancy, the fact that they are telling a story from a very strong authorial point of view. On the other hand, they can't be, obviously, the definitive source, although with, say Douglas Brinkley on Rosa Parks, and Mary Gordon on Joan of Arc, or Garry Wills on St. Augustine—they do have all the material. The advantages of a long book, of course, are that its very size enables you to sprawl and to put in all the important facts. On the other hand, you are still selecting, and I think that the length sometimes encourages a form of laziness. It is like Proust writing this long letter to a friend and saying, "If I had time, I would have written a shorter letter."

Ferris: You have made some interesting matches between literary figures and your biographers for your series. Who would you want to write your own biography for the Penguin series?

Atlas: No one! I mean, one of the joys of being a biographer is that you preemptively strike. You get to be a literary person and write, one hopes, valuable books that are entertaining, but you never reach that dangerous level of renown where somebody's going to write about you. Well, Lytton Strachey. There have been biographies of biographers, but what an alarming thought. Being the subject of a biography is a form of affliction. It's a mixed blessing. It's like Alden Whitman, who used to be the chief obit writer for The New York Times. He would write three or four thousand words, these wonderful long obituaries. And he would interview people who were prospective subjects—he would find living subjects and interview them as a biographer would. So when Alden Whitman, known around the Times as "Mr. Death," called you up, you knew first of all that you were very famous, and second of all that you were getting near the end. But I just think that the violation— not violation but the incursion —to use a term from the Vietnam days—on privacy is alarming. It's tough. Bellow is a great man and deserving of the attentions of someone for a whole decade, but I think we all have things to conceal.

Ferris: Most biographies of major writers are published after the writer has died; as you know, Boswell agreed not to release his biography of Dr. Johnson until Johnson had passed away. My question is: has the knowledge that Bellow might read your book affected the material you chose to include or the way in which you wrote about him?

Atlas: Almost not at all. You have to understand that this book was, as Bellow used to describe it, neither authorized nor unauthorized; that is to say, it was not officially authorized and I didn't wish him to authorize it. I wanted my freedom. On the other hand, he cooperated often and saw me over the years at least ten or twelve times and allowed his friends to talk to me and provided access to the letters. I met John Gaddis at Yale, who is George Tennan's biographer. They have made the deal that Gaddis will have complete access and will publish his book after Tennan's death. But Bellow being Bellow wouldn't propose such a thing. He is a great proponent of freedom—freedom for him, freedom for others. Given that, I felt that I should write the book with as much candor as I possibly could. Only at the end, when I was reading the galleys and maybe in an earlier draft, I took out some things just because I felt that it was beyond what was acceptable for a living person. How I determined that is utterly subjective. They were just feelings that I had, matters of taste and decorum, but they were significant. You get the story of who he is from my book, I think. Will Bellow like it or will he not like it? I don't know. I don't even know if he will read it. I tried manfully not to think about that.

Ferris: You spent a decade on your book. Richard Ellmann took seventeen years to write Joyce's biography. How did spending that much time on a single work change your approach to writing?

Atlas: Yes, people have spent longer than I did. You have to understand that I was doing a lot of other things while I was writing this book. I had a full-time job for many years at The New York Times Magazine as an editor, and then I started this business, the Penguin Lives Series. And then I was a staff writer at the New Yorker. So the book was written in the interstices of a complicated literary life in New York. But I think that I got it about right. When I signed the contract, they asked me how long it would take, and I said, "Ten years." My agent said, "You can't say that because you can't sign the contract. No publisher will wait ten years." So I said, "Four?" He said, "Four," so I said, "Okay, four." But I knew it was going to be ten, and I was just one off; it was eleven. For me, it felt right. It enabled me to absorb a tremendous mass of material, to grow as a biographer, I hope, by reading other biographies all that time, and to try to master my craft. It doesn't seem like a neurotically weird amount of time. It seems like the right amount.

Ferris: How did writing the biography permeate your life and your other projects?

Atlas: I think I was helped by being interrupted. No matter how deeply you're in love with your wife, if you see her twenty-four hours a day for ten years, it is going to put a strain on the relationship. So imagine what it's like with a subject with whom you have a complex relationship. You need time to breathe and to be away from that person. I think over a decade, I really got to know Bellow, and I also saw him go through a phase in his own life. He went—in Martin Amis's words—"from late Bellow to later Bellow." That was remarkable to witness. How did it affect my own life? It was always with me. In a way, it was my life. In the same way that you can't imagine your own life ending, I just didn't think of this as something that would end and be published. It was just what I did.

Ferris: We share a relationship with Richard Ellmann. I studied with him when I was at Northwestern University in the early sixties. He was a great teacher. He was a truly gentle man. I saw in his quiet, methodical way a kind of discipline that made the biographer's craft even more impressive. I wondered if you found that kind of discipline in sifting through and working out the patterns of Bellow's life that Ellmann did in working on Joyce and Yeats.

Atlas: One of the many things I learned from Ellmann was that lives have themes. What distinguishes him from almost every other biographer is that he is not imposing an artificial pattern or order on his material. He is seeing what James called "the figure in the carpet." He becomes aware and then makes the reader aware that themes recur. In the same way that Joyce was obsessed with Vico's theory of the recurrence of history, Ellmann saw that there were motifs in people's lives. With Bellow, I began to see, after a few years, that—and this is not to diminish the complexity of his nature—but simply to say that I began to see this recurrence of certain themes: the family struggles with his brothers, the assertion of independence against the father, the need to establish his own identity, and so on—and that these themes worked themselves out often in very movingly diverse ways. In that pattern, one could divine the persistence of certain themes, and their persistence became the meaning of his life. To work out these themes became his main enterprise. That is why when you look at his life, despite the chaos of his personal life—his marriages, his girlfriends, his conflicted friendships—you see this unity. That is what I was trying to get at. I went to see him the summer before last, to deal with some papers, and he said, "Well, what did you learn?" I quoted Henry James who said, "Never say you know the last word about any human heart." Basically what I learned was you can't know anybody, but you can know a person's themes.

Ferris: I've been reading Cormac McCarthy and thinking about your description of the evolution of Jewish writers moving beyond this mix in, say, Call it Sleep, of Yiddish and English and the sense of the two cultures pulling at each other. McCarthy moves in the other direction, into the blending of Spanish and English and the kind of weaving of cultures back together, almost as though he's coming against the curve. He is a sort of a legatee of Faulkner. You see him coming out of this Deep South, someone moving into another culture and another language. But it's a fascinating world. In many ways, the South and Jewish culture and their writers have much in common.

Atlas: Yes, they do. Bellow certainly read Faulkner. But Bellow had an adversarial relationship with the South, I have to say, because he felt that Southerners were all like Allen Tate. And he got into a row with Faulkner. Do you remember in my book, where they get into this argument over politics, Faulkner's defense of Ezra Pound? But in a way, the connection is there. I like to think of "southern" as a kind of indigenous group. I mean, northerners are not a group; westerners are not a group. But the South, as we were saying before, does have this incredible literary culture. I've been reading Shelby Foote lately. It is really as if the South isn't part of our country, in a way. It is as if it has seceded from America.

Ferris: Southerners have been compared to an ethnic culture.

Atlas: That is what I'm trying to get at.

Ferris: There is an ethnicity of Southerners that is not unlike the ethnicity of Jewish worlds: the foods, the language, the literature.

Atlas: You must still feel that. I was interested that you went home, in a way. A lot of people with these powerful literary feelings literally go home, like Bellow went back to Chicago.

Ferris: Was Richard Wright influential on Bellow as a Chicago writer? Did Native Son touch him in any way?

Atlas: I wish I knew more about that. I know that Bellow met Wright in Paris, and he met James Baldwin. Wright was there in the late forties when Bellow got a Guggenheim grant and when there were many writers in the postwar period who had gone to Paris. So he did know him. Was Wright on the WPA?

Ferris: Yes, he did work for the WPA.

Atlas: Bellow and Nelson Algren were on the WPA in the thirties in Chicago, and Wright was there at one point, but I don't know if they crossed paths. But I know that Bellow was a great admirer of Native Son.

Ferris: What kind of projects have you lined up for your next challenge? Do you plan to take a vacation from biographies?

Atlas: I'm writing a book called My Life in the Middle Ages, which is based on some pieces I wrote in the New Yorker a couple of years ago about what it is like to be middle- aged in this culture. The articles are about aging parents and money and career and kids. I'm having fun doing that, but I have to write it in less than ten years or I won't be middle-aged anymore. My one project related to biography is that I'm very eager to write a long essay about the experience of writing this book. I want to write a kind of Quest for Corvo account of what it was like, because it was really one of the great adventures of my life.

Ferris: Well, we salute you in all your many wonderful projects, and are deeply grateful for this new book, which I know many, many people will enjoy and read for years to come.