A Thing About Ideas

The selection of Saul Bellow‘s letters published in this week’s New Yorker (not online)—a book of his correspondence is slated for the fall—is a sort of greatest hits of the Bellow myth. Among numerous other personas, the letters showcase the nervy free spirit, dismissing critics to Alfred Kazin; the Jew defending his kinsmen, slapping William Faulkner for supporting Ezra Pound; the mentor, passing his agent’s name on to a young Philip Roth; the convivial but tough colleague, trying to explain his love of John Cheever to Cheever himself; and the casual misogynist, grousing about the “crooked little slut” who interviewed him for People.

But though this particular clutch of letters seems largely chosen to emphasize star power and provocative statements, they also make up a chronology of how Bellow felt about his work, shifting from arrogance to Herzogian anxiety to, in his last years, a kind of ruefulness about what he avoided even in his most expansive novels. The passage most likely to be quoted (and which Bellow’s widow, Janis Bellow, reads on this week’s New Yorker books podcast), comes from a 1957 letter to Roth responding to his story “Expect the Vandals”:

A company of Japanese committing hari-kari, though, I wasn’t sure about. A great idea, but palpably Idea. I have a thing about Ideas in stories. Camus’s “The Plague” was an IDEA. Good or bad? Not so hot, in my opinion.

Being so deliberately anti-idea freed him to write stemwinders like Augie March, Herzog, and Henderson the Rain King. But in his later years, he seemed concerned about what those novels didn’t address, particularly the Holocaust. As he put it in a 1987 letter to Cynthia Ozick: “I was too busy becoming a novelist to take note of what was happening in the Forties. I was involved with ‘literature’ and given over to preoccupations with art, with language, with my struggle on the American scene…with anything except the terrible events in Poland.” In Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors‘ 2009 book A New Literary History of America—a massive, inventive, entertaining, Bellovian book—Harvard literature professor Ruth Wisse expands on that point, writing that, for better or for worse, that kind of denial was critical to Augie March‘s success. “To have taken any greater note of Hitler’s war against the Jews in that novel would have changed the entire balance of its American project,” she writes. “That insouciance is part of Augie’s charm.”

The letters in the New Yorker don’t track how Bellow shifted away from being an anti-ideas man, just how heavily the shift seemed to weigh on him. It’ll be interesting to see how much of that he addressed head-on in his correspondence.

One thought on “A Thing About Ideas

  1. The thing about ideas is, they tend to find their way into your work even if you try to avoid them. If you look at the post-war art of every medium, up until at least the ’70s… no matter how diligently artists avoided talking about the war or the holocaust or the bomb, it’s all there, lurking beneath the surface.

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