This week we celebrate the life of author Saul Bellow, winner of the Nobel Prize, the Pulitzer Prize, and three National Book Awards. He is most famous for his novels, The Adventures of Augie March, Herzog, and Henderson the Rain King. How well do you know this classic American writer? Test your knowledge against these ten facts.
Bellow was born in Quebec on either June 10, 1915 or July 10, 1915. Shortly before his birth, his Jewish parents had immigrated to Canada from Russia where they had fallen upon hard times. In those days, immigrant Jews often disregarded dates on the Christian calendar, and the birth records left by Bellow’s parents were unclear. Moreover, Bellow’s original birth certificate was lost when the city hall containing it burned down. Bellow, himself, celebrated his birthday in June.
2. Bellow had two near-death experiences
At the age of eight, Bellow contracted a severe respiratory infection and was hospitalized for six months. It was during his prolonged convalescence that Bellow’s lifelong love for reading crystalized. He read books such as Black Beauty and Raggedy Ann, as well as a host of comic books and the New Testament. Much later, in 1995, Bellow was hospitalized after eating toxic fish while vacationing in the Caribbean. Bacteria attacked his nervous system and he suffered from near-fatal pneumonia. He spent five weeks in intensive care and over a year in recovery.
3. As a child, Bellow knew he wanted to be a writer
Despite the fact that Bellow’s mother, Liza, aspired for her son to become a rabbi or concert violinist, Bellow felt destined for a different career. His vocation was sealed during his time in the hospital when he was eight years old. There, he read Uncle Tom’s Cabin and loved the book so much that he decided to become an author himself. Thereafter, he ignored his mother’s ambitions and dedicated himself to the written word.
Some critics speculate that Bellow’s writing style resulted from his exposure to so many different languages as a child. At home, his parents spoke Russian and Yiddish while Bellow and his siblings spoke English and Yiddish. At the age of four, Bellow learned Hebrew; he and his siblings also spoke French on the streets of Montreal. He wrote that as a child, “I didn’t even know they were different languages.”
5. Bellow chose not to study English Literature because of anti-Semitism
In 1933, Bellow began his studies at the University of Chicago but transferred to Northwestern two years later. His intended major was English, but he was put off by the anti-Semitism of the English department and opted for an anthropology and sociology major instead. He graduated with honors in 1937 and pursued a graduate degree in anthropology at the University of Wisconsin. It was during his graduate work that his thoughts returned to fiction. “Every time I worked on my thesis, it turned out to be a story,” he said.
6. Bellow had an appointment with Leon Trotsky on the day of Trotsky’s assassination
Bellow described the day thus: ““I was in Mexico at the time, and an acquaintance of the Old Man, a European lady whom I had met in Taxco, arranged a meeting. Trotsky agreed to receive my friend Herbert Passin and me in Coyoacán. It was on the morning of our appointment that he was struck down, and when we reached Mexico City we were met by the headlines. When we went to his villa we must have been taken for foreign journalists, and we were directed to the hospital. The emergency room was in disorder. We had only to ask for Trotsky. A door into a small room was opened for us and there we saw him. He had just died. A cone of bloody bandages was on his head. His cheeks, his nose, his beard, his throat were streaked with blood and with dried trickles of iodine.”
7. Bellow was married five times and fathered a child at age 84
Bellow was married to Anita Goshkin (1937–56), Alexandra (Sondra) Tschacbasov (1956–59), Susan Glassman (1961–64), Alexandra Bagdasar Ionescu Tulcea (1974–85), and Janis Freedman (1989–2005). He had four children: Adam, Daniel, Gregory (Greg), and Naomi Rose (Rosie). Rosie was born when Bellow was 84 years old. His three sons were all born to different women and never lived together for more than a weekend.
Of all his characters, Bellow said that he most resembled Eugene Henderson, of Henderson the Rain King. Henderson was a pig farmer and violinist who quested fruitlessly for greater truth and meaning in life. Bellow also said that he saw similarities to himself in Moses Herzog, the protagonist of Herzog, Artur Sammler, of Mr. Sammler’s Planet, and Albert Corde, of The Dean’s December.
9. Bellow opposed “deep reading”
In an essay for The New York Times, entitled “The Search for Symbols, a Writer Warns, Misses All the Fun and Fact of the Story,” Bellow wrote against readers focusing overmuch on finding symbols in literature. He drew distinctions between “substantial” and “accidental” symbols. “Accidental” symbols, in his opinion, were akin to wood shavings in Ulysses representing the crucifixion. He wrote of a “substantial” symbol that, “You cannot avoid it, you cannot remove it. You can’t take the handkerchief from Othello, or the sea from The Nigger of the Narcissus, or the disfigured feet from Oedipus Rex.”
10. Some considered Bellow a racist
Bellow became mired in controversy when he asked, concerning multiculturalism, “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans? I’d be glad to read him.” Many interpreted his statement as an insult to non-Western literature. Bellow claimed that he was misquoted and later wrote a defense in The New York Times arguing that he “was speaking of the distinction between literate and preliterate societies.”