Today would have been the 94th birthday of Saul Bellow, a fact that sent me on a wild goose chase for an online version of John Hankiewicz‘s lovely two-page graphic tribute, “A Paragraph by Saul Bellow (1915-2005).” (No luck, but it’s in An Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons, & True Stories, edited by Ivan Brunetti, and well worth tracking down.) Instead, I did find a piece the Rumpus recently published reprinting excerpts of a tribute to Bellow by Herbert Gold titled “A Genius for Grief.” The segments suggest that the overall piece, originally published in News From the Republic of Letters, paints Bellow as a bit of a despairing soul:
Until I came to live in San Francisco, our friendship went through ups and downs, with periods of intense intimacy; that is, Saul confided his troubles, I listened and felt warm about being invited in. Occasionally he stayed with me in New York and gave me the difficult gratification of hinting that I stood between him and some desperate act at the high window. These threats didn’t interfere with his intent sessions bent over the notebooks with their ruled lines upon which his fountain pen tracked his imagination and indignation. I learned that folks don’t usually kill themselves in the middle of composing the suicide note.
I’m not well-schooled enough in Bellow’s biography to know if he had serious issues with depression. But a 1978 interview with Henrietta Buckmaster, published in Conversations With Saul Bellow, suggests that, even if he wasn’t, he gave a lot of thought to a uniquely American kind of despair:
We Americans are in a peculiar position when it comes to brainwashing, because we’ve been spared the worst in modern history—we’ve been spared the holocaust—both wars—we’ve been spared totalitarianism, the forced labor camps, the police regimes and all the rest of that. We are the avant garde of safety, comfort, affluence, security. We’re also witnesses to the horrible effects that safety, comfort, affluence, privilege can have. I sometimes think we’re stuck somewhere in the middle. We no longer have nature and history to punch us in the nose. Other nations could depend on that punch in the nose to keep them realistic. I think we’ve lost that principle of realism in the United States—if we ever had it. Most of us are spoiled and blundering, and we believe, in a very shallow way, in the goodness of our intentions….
[T]here is a comfort for our despair, I think. It’s better than the despair Europe wallowed in.
Interviewer: Meanwhile, things go on and life somehow remains, I think, a remarkable commodity.
Well, life is the only thing we know, isn’t it?