From the age of 49, when he became rich and famous, Saul Bellow was the most acclaimed novelist in America. His parents were Russian –Jewish immigrants, and his loving but tyrannical father failed at everything – farmer, baker, jobber, junk dealer, bootlegger.
To escape his debts they became illegal immigrants in the USA. In Chicago, Bellow became American while staying loyal to his Russian/Canadian/Jewish heritage. “I took all these (identities) for granted and in me you see a sort of virtuoso act of integration… and I feel no particular conflict… they are part of my history. If that history is mixed, scrambled, anomalous, difficult for any outsider less exotic to put together for himself, that’s not my fault. I was truthful to what I was. I lived that way and tried to work that way.”
His ambition began early: “He was focused, was dedicated to becoming what he was from the beginning,” says an old high school friend. In the first half of his life, Bellow struggled to escape the forces that would prevent him from writing – familial as well as social and cultural. Bellow learned his craft. He was serious about reading and remained so throughout his life. Two to three afternoons a week he would teach and discuss literature, philosophy and political theory.
In a rut with his personal life and the particular novel he was working on, he was in Paris and walking one day past some municipal street cleaners. He says of this Damascene moment: “The running water of their hydrants made me say to myself “well why not, have at least as much freedom of movement as the running water.”
This bitterness of mine was intolerable. I seem then to have gone back to childhood in my thoughts and remembered a pal of mine whose name was August… The decision came to me in a tremendous jump. Subject and language appeared at the same moment. I can’t say how it happened but I was suddenly enriched with words and phrases. The gloom went out of me and I found myself with magical suddenness writing a first paragraph. It rushed out of me. I was turned on like a (water) hydrant in summer.” The resulting book, The Adventures of Augie March, heralded a new type of American writing which rebelled against the status quo and influenced a new generation of novelists including Philip Roth and Martin Amis.