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Saul Bellow was a Canadian-American writer of Jewish origin who wrote about the disorienting nature of modern civilization, and the countervailing ability of humans to overcome their frailty and achieve greatness. Bellow interspersed autobiographical elements into his fiction, and many of his principal characters were said to bear a resemblance to him. In his novels, Saul Bellow uses his life experiences from early childhood and late adulthood to reflect in the events of the novel through his characters. Saul Bellow was born as Solomon Bellows in Lachine, Quebec on June 10, 1915 to his poor, Russian-Jewish parents. Bellow was known for keeping his personal life very private but there are some facts that have been uncovered throughout the years. In 1924, Bellow moved to Chicago to attend high school and college; the urban landscape surrounding the city later appeared in his writing.
After attending the University of Chicago for two years, he transferred to Northwestern University where he majored in Anthropology. After graduating Bellow decided to continue graduate studies in the field of Anthropology by attending the University of Wisconsin, but unfortunately dropped out later in order to get married. Afterwards he started a job that consisted of composing short biographies of Midwestern writers and later took an editorial position at The Encyclopedia Britannica. Bellow lived through the Depression and World War II, serving shortly in the Merchant Marine. During the course of his life, Bellow taught at numerous universities, including the University of Minnesota, New York University, Princeton, Bard, the University of Puerto Rico, and the University of Chicago. He received many awards for his work including the National Book Awards, two Guggenheim Fellowships, the Prix Litteraire International, the Jewish Heritage Award, the 1975 Pulitzer Prize, and the Nobel Prize in Literature.Saul Bellow’s novel Herzog has a narrative plot, that takes place in the mind of Moses Herzog, its protagonist. Moses is a middle-aged college professor living temporarily in his country home in the Berkshires. Moses has made a habit of writing letters, which makes up much of the novel, but he never sends them to those addressed.
Through the letters in the novel we learn that before Moses married Madeleine, he was married to a woman named Daisy, and he has a son named Marco. We also learn that Moses was raised in a Jewish immigrant family in LaRoux, Canada, and that his father failed in many business ventures and eventually became a bootlegger. Moses also recounts tales of his brothers and sister and constantly mentions his efforts as a writer. He published one book entitled Romanticism and Christianity but never completed the intended second volume of the book. Later on, Moses decides to visit his friends at Martha’s Vineyard, mostly because he wants to escape his lover, Ramona. Almost immediately after arriving at the Vineyard Moses decides to return to New York, where he writes letters compulsively. Moses spends the next night with Ramona and the following morning, he decides he must fight his ex-wife for custody of their daughter, June. Moses calls his lawyer and arranges a meeting in the courthouse. The next day, Moses impulsively flies to Chicago to visit his daughter. In Chicago, he goes to his childhood home, where his widowed stepmother still lives. There, he goes to the desk of his late father, and takes his father’s old gun and some Russian rubles. He considers murdering his ex-wife and her lover with the gun but ultimately decides not to. The next morning he takes June to the aquarium and as they leave Moses gets into a car accident. June is not hurt, but Moses is knocked unconscious.
He wakes up to find himself with the police and is charged with possession of a weapon and taken to jail. His brother Will bails him out. Will is worried for Moses and they later meet in the Berkshires. Moses remains in the Berkshires and by the end of the novel, has found contentment in his country home and now he feels as if he does not need to write any more letters. In his novel Herzog, Saul Bellow uses his life experiences from early childhood and late adulthood to reflect in the events of the novel through his character Moses Herzog. Bellow saw many flaws in modern civilization, and its ability to foster madness, materialism and misleading knowledge. The characters in Bellow’s fiction have heroic potential, and many times they stand in contrast to the negative forces of society. Often these characters are Jewish and have a sense of alienation or otherness. Jewish life and identity is a major theme in Bellow’s work, although he did not like being identified as a “Jewish writer.” Bellow’s work also shows a great appreciation of America, and a fascination with the uniqueness and vibrancy of the American experience. Bellow grew up immersed in the Old Testament and learned Hebrew and Yiddish. His mother wanted her children to be Talmudic scholars while his father wanted his children to take advantage of the new world of economic opportunities before them by becoming professionals.
Bellow’s father was a businessman, a bootlegger, and an importer. Bellow gives all of his own early circumstances to his fictional character, Moses Herzog. The fictional character Moses is in his mid-forties in the 1960s as was Saul Bellow and they both have lived through the same events. Much has been written about the autobiographical aspect of the novel, and some critics say that Bellow put a lot of himself into Herzog. The writing style of Saul Bellow is extremely descriptive. He uses his settings to move his story along, and to help portray characters, ideas, and emotions. Raised during the Great Depression, the struggles incurred by less fortunate Americans come out in Bellow’s writing. What makes Bellow exceptional is his ability to describe what the Depression felt like to the average struggling American. Bellow also makes a point to incorporate cultural, philosophical, historical, and literary references into his works. His bleak descriptions of buildings and dismal portrayals of the Chicago streets emphasize hard times had both by characters in his novels, as well as countless Americans.
In fact in the “Looking For Mr. Green,” Bellow uses powerful language and description as he describes Chicago: Rebuilt after the Great Fire, this part of the city was, not fifty years later, in ruins again, factories boarded up, buildings deserted or fallen, gaps of prairie between. But it wasn’t desolation that made you feel, but rather a faltering of organization that set free a huge energy, an escaped, unattached, unregulated power from the giant raw place.Another characteristic of Bellow’s writing are his characters. Personalities are given extreme attention, and discussed in a manner that supports the theme of the story. This excerpt, taken from “A Silver Dish” describes two unnamed men, and helps give the reader an idea of the characters:The two coal trimmers stood up at Devond Avenue. One of them wore a woman’s coat. Men wore women’s clothing in those years, and women ment’s, when there was no choice. The fur collar was spiky with the wet, and sprinkled with soot. Heavy, they dragged their shovels and got off in at the front.Due to the descriptive nature of his work and his distinctive use of setting, characters, and style to paint a portrait for the readers, Saul Bellow was awarded the 1976 Nobel Prize in Literature “for the human understanding and subtle analysis of contemporary culture that are combined in his work.”
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