The World Left Behind
"I am preoccupied with feelings and longings."
"Somewhere in my Jewish and immigrant blood there were conspicuous traces of a doubt as to whether I had the right to practice the writer’s trade."
"It was up to me to find ways to reconcile the Trojan War with Prohibition, major-league baseball, and the Old Country as my mother remembered it.
I first met Saul Bellow on a dormitory wall. Pierce Hall, 55th Street, University of Chicago, September 1962. I was 18, the child of Jewish working-class parents who finished high school in the 1930s and left school behind to support themselves and their families. Mom was a secretary until I was born and again after I started high school. Dad worked for his uncle as what was called an "installment dealer." He sold goods to poor immigrant families like his own, mostly Spanish-speaking like his own. He drove all over the city, climbed to their fourth and fifth floor apartments to collect his payments––a dollar or two a week, on installments––and perhaps sell them more merchandise. When I learned to drive, I started working part of his route on Saturdays, and continued to go home periodically all through college to help when he needed me.
Dad and the other installment dealers–there were more than a hundred that I can remember––worked out of stores along Roosevelt Road before the businesses there were torn down to make way for the University of Illinois Chicago campus. They were like human credit cards, I would explain to friends in later years when I talked about his work. Which I never did at college, embarrassed by my background among over-educated university students from professional families. I had one cousin who went to teacher's school; otherwise I was the first in my extended family to study beyond high school. The University of Chicago was a stretch for my folks; they were hoping for a local school that would let me live at home. They couldn't see the reason to spend so much. When a scholarship came through for a third of the expense, they were willing to let me try it for a year. I covered another third of the costs by working all four years (renting and delivering TVs at night in a hospital; recording data from stress experiments for a psychologist) and every summer (supplying transistors on an assembly line; stacking metal Christmas trees in a warehouse). My confused but loving parents scrambled to find the money to handle the rest.
Pierce Hall had just been built; we were the first class to occupy rooms. I wandered down the corridor to meet other freshmen, walked into Greg Bellow's room, introduced myself. Above his bed on the right side of the room he had already put up a plaque: The National Book Award for 1954, awarded to Saul Bellow for The Adventures of Augie March. I didn't know who Saul Bellow was, what The Adventures of Augie March was, what a National Book Award was. It was a prize Greg's father won, as a writer, for a novel he wrote, Greg explained.
When I was in sixth grade I won a free dinner for my dad and me for writing an essay about my father. I was part of our school quiz team that won a few rounds of a city contest on the local radio station. I went to a technical high school because I wanted to be an engineer and wrote a poem that was printed in the dance card for our senior prom. (By the time I started college my ambitions had changed: I had given up on engineering and wanted to be a psychiatrist, though I had no idea what either of those careers involved. A man who led our local Jewish youth group had training in psychology; the time I spent learning from him, at the synagogue, was my first separation from family. That was enough to help me create a new ambition for myself.)
We didn't have many books at home. I remember a complete Shakespeare my parents bought off a remainders table, a book of street maps of Chicago, a set of prayer books for the Sephardic Jewish temple that we attended, and the popular novels my parents read before bed. I don't remember being read to as a child, nor does my sister. Mom and dad both read the morning and evening newspapers, the Sun-Times and Daily News, cover to cover. My mother read magazines and best-sellers she took out of the library, which adorned the glass-covered top of the dresser that served as her night stand. My dad read detective novels: paperbacks with lurid covers promising violence, sex, mayhem. He kept one flattened, open to his place, rubber-banded to the sun visor in his car and would pull it out during the day when he had to wait for a customer. He kept more buried in the bottom drawer of the dresser on his side of the bed under his socks and underwear, a private stash. When I was alone in the house I would sneak into their bedroom and pull out book after book looking for sex scenes, descriptions of voluptuous women, whatever titillation I might find. They were my introduction to literature, along with the Black Stallion novels my friend Mike Hoffman introduced me to.
But this notion Greg introduced me to, of a father who wrote novels and won awards, was a foreign country. So was the university. Before classes started all entering students took ten exams in math, writing, chemistry, physics, history and art to determine our background knowledge. Based on our scores we could place out of up to eight of the required courses for the two year general education curriculum. The assumption was that people accepted to the University of Chicago would already know enough to place out of three to five of the classes, allowing them to begin their major concentrations during those first two years. Though an all-A high school student at what was considered one of the better Chicago public schools, I failed all ten exams, while other students on my dorm floor were passing out of five, six, eight classes. (One guy who went to Eastern private schools became famous for placing out of all ten exams. There was some odd satisfaction in the fact that he left before the first quarter was over, victim of too much alcohol, not enough interest in his studies.) Our first essay in an introductory Humanities course required us to travel downtown to the Art Institute, look at an El Greco painting ("The Assumption of the Virgin"), and write about it. I did, in the flowery, purple prose that had worked in high school. The paper came back with a "C" on it and "Bull Shit" scrawled in the margins of every page.
I don't remember ever opening my mouth in class that whole first year. But I do remember only a few weeks into that same Humanities intro reading Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury. Somehow it made sense to me, I could figure out the shifts in time, in voice, in story. I could write about it. The teacher who dismissed my art criticism liked the paper; he would become a mentor. In my second year another teacher approached me:
"Why don't you ever say anything in class when you write so well, and obviously think about books so well?"
"I find it easier talking to my typewriter than to people," I told him.
"Well, so do I," he answered, "but look at me, standing in front of your class, talking all the time. Try it."
I think I smiled, turned my head down as was my way then, blushed as was also my way. But I started to talk. I would become a literature major, I would go on to graduate school and spend more than thirty years as a literature teacher.
Bellow was the one who helped me turn my face homeward, inward, outward to the world of books, all at once. Sometime that first winter, 1963, I found a copy of Henderson the Rain King on a remainder table in the college bookstore; because of the plaque on Greg's wall, I bought it. It would take me until that summer to actually sit down and read it. I learned that Bellow himself was teaching at the University; he'd accepted a position on the Committee of Social Thought that fall. But I couldn't take his classes and had no contact with him.
Still, by the time Herzog was published in 1964, when I was a Junior, I had devoured all his earlier novels: Dangling Man, The Victim, Augie March, Henderson, the stories collected in Seize the Day. Bellow not only was a Jew, he was a thinking Jew. He helped me discover the world of books, culture, and the arts. But he also helped me look back to where I came from: back to my working-class dad driving all over Chicago; to his work that shamed me; to his sisters who spent years selling perfume and jewelry and women's clothes behind the counters at Mandel Brothers and lived at their parents' home with their husbands long after they married. Back to their husbands, my uncles, installment dealers all, loud-talking bossy men all, who showed affection with a painful pinch on the cheek, a hand slammed on the back, an extra piece of salami they threw at you while cutting some up for a sandwich.
Herzog was the book I, unknowingly, longed for: an intense mixture of unkempt desires and philosophical speculation; of misdirected passions and self-destructive impulses; of deep thoughts and a heartfelt recognition that no ideas–however lofty, however wise–were going to bring contentment. The touch of self-deception and venom that I noted years later rereading were lost to me then next to the vision of this schlemiel from Chicago, witty and charming and lost, who could stumble and fall and come out the other end, at peace with himself. Herzog was sacred script those years when I was filled to overflowing with my high-minded university education, higher-minded political intentions, confusing physical longings; when I was in love and not with my college sweetheart and trying to decide what to do with all the parts of me that warred with each other. I wrote my senior thesis on Bellow's Seize the Day under the direction of the College Dean, Wayne Booth, a noted scholar and, it turned out, friend of Bellow's. The paper itself burned up years ago in a fire but I still have my copy of the novel from that year, with my round-lettered thoughts littering the margins.
If the university was a foreign country, Bellow was my translator. He spoke Chicago, a mix of heady sentiment and coarse skepticism that I didn't realize until then was the language of my past: of my dad, his buddy Dave who owned a dry cleaners, Dick who worked at a currency exchange, my Uncle Max who sold furniture. Of my Uncle Abe, the playboy bachelor who parlayed a life selling cameras into connections with the rich and famous; who came over to dinner Monday nights with stories of schmoozing with Jerry Lewis, Buddy Hackett, Sammy Davis Jr.
There's a moment in Herzog when Herzog tires of listening to someone's pomposity and mutters to himself, "Shame on you. Your father sold apples in the street." That unuttered rejoinder caught it–caught the edge that kept me honest, kept me me, kept me separate from that university world I came to love and distrust and live in my whole life. I didn't mention Bellow's name when I went back to my parents' home, didn't say much about my schooling until well after graduate school. The divide between home and university was nearly complete those college years. I grew up on the other end of the city–at 5700 North versus Pierce Hall on 55th St. South. To go 'home' to work for my Dad or borrow the family car for a date, I got on the El at 55th, got off at Lawrence or Bryn Mawr, where Dad was waiting to pick me up. My parents were embarrassed by their lack of schooling; I didn't realize I needed to help them bridge the gap, explain it didn't matter. Because then, alas, it did matter, somehow, to me, seeking release from that world I would eventually come to miss and cherish. My folks seldom asked about my school life, I seldom volunteered information. But at some point Bellow's name did come up, one Sunday dinner over ribs and steak in the usual too-noisy restaurant. My dad and his buddy Dick told me they knew him a little when they were growing up. They didn't like him much. He was a little older. Stuck-up kid. Stunk at stick ball.
But there it was again, this serendipity. Bellow was born in 1915, Dad 1918. Bellow went to the same schools as Dad and his gang. Like Bellow's father, my grandfather was itinerant: he repaired shoes for awhile, worked on an assembly line; then sold caramel, fudge and other candies on the street when he got too ill for the hard labor. That generation of Jewish immigrants worked their way up, made some money, and raised children who bought homes across the city, sent their kids to college; who counted happiness in cash, nice sports jackets, jewelry for their wives.
That plaque on Greg's wall was the beginning of what has been a lifelong one-sided friendship with Saul Bellow; an essential part of my lifelong life in literature. He got to me at the right time, in that first year of college when the world of books cascaded before a willing but unenlightened and naïve set of eyes. He was there in person, if distant, those years and that somehow mattered. He was a Jew. He was my friend Greg's father; Greg who soon coupled with JoAnn Henikoff, a girl I had a crush on in high school when we were both part of the same Jewish youth group and who eventually became Greg's wife.
If you lead a reader's life, as I have, you discover that certain books, and certain writers, and certain friends you talk to about those books and writers, are as intimate as lovers or family. They shape the contours of your mind, give it boundary and dimension, direction and substance. And intimacy involves change: shifts in perspective, fights and feuds, arguments, contested territories.
As a reader, and as a teacher, I eventually, sadly, parted company with Bellow awhile back, somewhere between The Dean's December and the birth of my first son in 1983. For all the acclaim it garnered and awards it won, Mr. Sammler's Planet felt like invective to me. Humboldt's Gift was more inviting, but baggy, old-fashioned, cloaked gossip more than fiction. In the late 1980s came the series of novellas, Bellow the ventriloquist back at his business, talking his way through despair. But the books seemed slim in intention, range, story. By the time Bellow collected his essays in It All Adds Up (1994), including many of the public statements that accompanied Bellow's fame after he won the Nobel Prize (1976), I dismissed him as a rearguard proselytizer. I blinded myself to the way that Bellow had broken ground, in our national literary life as well as my own biography; let myself cozy up to a portrait of him as the keeper of the gates. I dismissed him, or so I thought. I was looking for younger, more radical, inclusive, multicultural accents. Feminism made me suspicious of his manhandling of the women in his novels–made me unforgiving of my own lecherous pleasure in peeking in on Ramona in Herzog, for example. PC concerns about colonialism and cooptation kept me from rereading Henderson the Rain King. I taught Herzog sometimes, worked with graduate students over Seize the Day, which I find a more abundant book than Bellow himself or others do. I was writing about detective novels, he was arguing from Tolstoy; I was working with the writings of women of color and he was reminding us that there were no great Zulu classics in a statement that has long been misunderstood but remains a thorn in the side of his reputation for openhearted attention to the possibilities of literature.
But hard as I tried I couldn't get rid of him. I loved Bellow, it seemed, in that way I loved my annoying relatives–my misanthropic cousin, my penny-pinching uncle. In the same way I slowly realized I was, proudly if also sheepishly, a son of working-class Jewish parents from the Midwest; realized I shared that viewpoint on the world even as I tried on others. I gradually understood that there would always be something compelling about Bellow, however much we parted ways politically or culturally. His rants, his voices, his characters; the rush of language rash and undigested; the cacophony; the mass of material life he collected in every paragraph: these outlasted my intellectual hemmings and hawings.
Then came a piece Philip Roth published in the New Yorker in 2005. Roth quoted comments from Bellow about his early years as a writer. At the very end comes this reminiscence from the 1950s, working on Henderson the Rain King:
Those years were the grimmest years of my life. My father had died, a nephew in the Army had committed suicide. My wife had left me, depriving me also of my infant son. I had sunk my small legacy into a collapsing Hudson River mansion. For the tenth time I went back to page 1, beginning yet another version of “Henderson.”
That tenth time, that 'another version,' that process of sinking misery into beginning again: it's the image of a man and writer who has moved very far from his initial sense of himself as an outsider I quote at the beginning of this essay. Moved to a realization that writing is his soul, his entrance inside and out; to himself and to his culture. Maybe not salvation but as close as he, or most of us, can come to knowing salvation; what he can return to amid collapse. Bellow was there again, as he always had been, read or ignored: reminding me, teaching me, extending me.
I kept in touch with Greg over the years, but I only met Saul Bellow in person once. Late in his life, in the 1980s, he published his series of brief novellas. I was reviewing fiction for the San Francisco Chronicle and got the chance to interview him on one of his book tours.
We met in his hotel lobby, sat beside each other on an uncomfortable couch amid the noise. He was nattily dressed in a handsome grayish suit, brightly colored tie knotted tight over a fine yellow cotton shirt. He was all smiles when I introduced myself, explained my connection with Greg and JoAnn and my years of admiration for his work. He was an easy interview, and a flat one. I felt from the first that I was being played with by someone so secure in this kind of situation he didn't even need to memorize his lines anymore. I asked questions, he answered, his phrases crafted by years of experience. Until one moment near the end, when I actually sensed him listening to himself with pleasure, or surprise, as if he perhaps was saying something he hadn't said a hundred or more times before; as if I actually was helping him think, as he had for all these years been helping me.
It started when I asked him about the endings of his books. I'd long loved the way Bellow moved through a final scene, the narrative strands left to drift off rather than bound together tightly, the reader released from the tensions of the story in a way that offered both lighthearted freedom and emotional charge. So I asked about the end of the novella in a way that made it clear I had read it carefully.
"Oh." he said, startled. "You finished the book. Most interviewers don't."
Yes, I said, going on to explain that what interested me was a cadence I responded to in the depth of me; a cadence I read for, and found, so often at the end of his fiction–a tamping down of emotions; a breath of quiet that led a reader out of skirmish.
He looked at me as if I had dug up some secret bone. For answer he described the ferries he once took from Chicago across Lake Michigan as a child. When the boats left, the seagulls followed in their wake, floating within the draft of the boat until it reached a certain distance from shore, when the birds turned back and the ship went on.
"That's what I am trying to get with the sentences," he said, "that quality of the birds' effortless flight, their wings extended on the air currents from the boat, that float and freedom."
"And that point when the air current ends, and there is a return to the world left behind?" I wondered.
"Yes, that too."
That too: the free ride out across the water, the work to return to shore. To the streets of Chicago: the city that made me; the city that Bellow revealed to me; the city we share.