I didn’t ask to write about Saul Bellow: Letters so I could mention that I once received a letter from the late Nobel Prize–winning novelist. At least not only so I could mention it. (And, yes, I recognize that “mention” here is a euphemism for “brag” or “gloat.”) Long before I had the opportunity to interview him in 1982, I felt a deep connection with Bellow, a fellow Chicagoan, a professor at the university where I received my post-graduate degree, the author who I (and so many others) considered America’s greatest contemporary novelist.
In his introduction to this generous selection of more than 700 letters spanning Bellow’s literary life, editor Benjamin Taylor writes that the volume constitutes “an exhaustive self-portrait which is, as well, the portrait of an age.” The first part in particular is crucial, for Bellow often had a prickly relationship with critics whom he felt misread him and a resistance toward biographers, whom he believed had a reductive attitude toward the relationship between the author’s fiction and his life and often seemed more interested in his serial marriages than the seriousness of his (often very funny) art.
It’s illuminating to read his self-deprecatory assessments of Humboldt’s Gift (“an amusing and probably unsatisfactory novel,” he wrote to Joyce Carol Oates), Mr. Sammler’s Planet (“isn’t even a novel. It’s a dramatic essay of some sort, wrung from me by the Crazy Sixties.”) and the popular breakthrough of Herzog: “I can’t pretend it’s entirely unpleasant,” he writes of the clamorous response. “After all, I wanted something to happen, and if I find I can’t control the volume I can always stuff my ears with money.”
These aren’t dashed-off notes, but letters that required considerable care and meant much to the author, as he expresses affection and support for other writers (Ellison, Roth, Malamud, Cheever, Amis et al.), takes critics and journalists to task with well-formed arguments and offers critical commentary on the culture that provides the context for his work (a culture that no longer values the art of writing letters).
“There used to be something like a literary life in this country…Nothing remains but gossip and touchiness and anger,” he laments. Of his own work: “I prefer to think of the pages of fiction that I write as letters to the very best of non-correspondents. The people I love—the great majority of them unknown to me.”
The letters are most revealing of Bellow’s own character—his playful humor, his commitment to take his own work and that of others very seriously but not himself. Here’s how he ends the letter he wrote to me: “I got a kick out of the photograph too. I told my secretary that it made me look just like Dwight D. Eisenhower. As she comes from Canada she only laughs at me.”
Alas, that letter is not in this book.