Alas, that letter is not in this book.

SAUL BELLOW

LETTERS

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.

Pub Date: Nov. 15, 2010

ISBN: 978-0-670-02221-2

Page Count: 512

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: Sept. 16, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2010

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IN MY PLACE

From the national correspondent for PBS's MacNeil-Lehrer Newshour: a moving memoir of her youth in the Deep South and her role in desegregating the Univ. of Georgia. The eldest daughter of an army chaplain, Hunter-Gault was born in what she calls the ``first of many places that I would call `my place' ''—the small village of Due West, tucked away in a remote little corner of South Carolina. While her father served in Korea, Hunter-Gault and her mother moved first to Covington, Georgia, and then to Atlanta. In ``L.A.'' (lovely Atlanta), surrounded by her loving family and a close-knit black community, the author enjoyed a happy childhood participating in activities at church and at school, where her intellectual and leadership abilities soon were noticed by both faculty and peers. In high school, Hunter-Gault found herself studying the ``comic-strip character Brenda Starr as I might have studied a journalism textbook, had there been one.'' Determined to be a journalist, she applied to several colleges—all outside of Georgia, for ``to discourage the possibility that a black student would even think of applying to one of those white schools, the state provided money for black students'' to study out of state. Accepted at Michigan's Wayne State, the author was encouraged by local civil-rights leaders to apply, along with another classmate, to the Univ. of Georgia as well. Her application became a test of changing racial attitudes, as well as of the growing strength of the civil-rights movement in the South, and Gault became a national figure as she braved an onslaught of hostilities and harassment to become the first black woman to attend the university. A remarkably generous, fair-minded account of overcoming some of the biggest, and most intractable, obstacles ever deployed by southern racists. (Photographs—not seen.)

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 1992

ISBN: 0-374-17563-2

Page Count: 192

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 1992

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Necessarily swift and adumbrative as well as inclusive, focused, and graceful.

A LITTLE HISTORY OF POETRY

A light-speed tour of (mostly) Western poetry, from the 4,000-year-old Gilgamesh to the work of Australian poet Les Murray, who died in 2019.

In the latest entry in the publisher’s Little Histories series, Carey, an emeritus professor at Oxford whose books include What Good Are the Arts? and The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life in Books, offers a quick definition of poetry—“relates to language as music relates to noise. It is language made special”—before diving in to poetry’s vast history. In most chapters, the author deals with only a few writers, but as the narrative progresses, he finds himself forced to deal with far more than a handful. In his chapter on 20th-century political poets, for example, he talks about 14 writers in seven pages. Carey displays a determination to inform us about who the best poets were—and what their best poems were. The word “greatest” appears continually; Chaucer was “the greatest medieval English poet,” and Langston Hughes was “the greatest male poet” of the Harlem Renaissance. For readers who need a refresher—or suggestions for the nightstand—Carey provides the best-known names and the most celebrated poems, including Paradise Lost (about which the author has written extensively), “Kubla Khan,” “Ozymandias,” “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads, which “changed the course of English poetry.” Carey explains some poetic technique (Hopkins’ “sprung rhythm”) and pauses occasionally to provide autobiographical tidbits—e.g., John Masefield, who wrote the famous “Sea Fever,” “hated the sea.” We learn, as well, about the sexuality of some poets (Auden was bisexual), and, especially later on, Carey discusses the demons that drove some of them, Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath among them. Refreshingly, he includes many women in the volume—all the way back to Sappho—and has especially kind words for Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop, who share a chapter.

Necessarily swift and adumbrative as well as inclusive, focused, and graceful.

Pub Date: April 21, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-300-23222-6

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Yale Univ.

Review Posted Online: Feb. 9, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2020

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