The Great Assimilator

Saul Bellow’s genius lay in combining the high and the low, the reflective and the active, the ivory tower and the ghetto.

Of the single occasion when I met Bellow properly, Martin Amis has given a brilliantly scandalized account in his memoir, Experience. Actually, the evening wasn’t as rough as all that. Bellow read to us from some fascinating old correspondence with John Berryman. He recalled the occasion when he had been denied a job at Time magazine by no less a person than Whittaker Chambers for giving the wrong answer to a question about William Words­worth (the episode is loosely fictionalized in The Victim). When asked his opinion, Bellow had said that he thought of Words­worth as a Romantic poet, and then been rudely turned away. He wondered aloud what he ought to have said instead, and I daringly suggested that the answer was an easy one: Chambers wanted him to say that Words­worth was a former revolutionary and republican poet who saw the error of his ways and became a counterrevolutionary and a monarchist. This seemed to satisfy and amuse Bellow, who then wondered aloud what his writing life would have been like if he had secured that safe billet at Time.

So all was going fairly smoothly, except that on the reading table, like a revolver in a Chekhov play, there lay a loaded copy of Commentary. It soon became apparent that Bellow really had moved to the right, without losing his taste for Talmudic and trotski­sant dialectic, and that in his mind there was a strong connection between the decay of American cities and campuses, and wider questions of ideological promiscuity. I do not think I am wrong in guessing that he regarded the battle in the Middle East as something of an allegory of the distraught state of black-white (and black-Jewish) relations in his beloved Chicago. Anyone who has read his nonfiction work To Jerusalem and Back will be compelled to notice that the Arab inhabitants of the holy city are as nearly invisible and alien as their equivalents in Oran in Camus’ La Peste. At any event, we ended up having a strong disagreement about the Palestinians in general, and the work of Edward Said in particular. I have several times devoutly wished that we could have had this discussion again.

The thread in the labyrinth of Bellow’s politics has undoubtedly something to do with the “ghetto” also, and with a certain awkward possessiveness about the employment of that same pejorative. In a revealing moment in Ravelstein, the hero objects to the commonplace use of the term as customarily applied to black American life:

“Ghetto nothing!” Ravelstein said. “Ghetto Jews had highly developed feelings, civilized nerves—thousands of years of training. They had communities and laws. ‘Ghetto’ is an ignorant newspaper term. It’s not a ghetto that they come from, it’s a noisy, pointless, nihilistic turmoil.”

So, perhaps paradoxically, Bellow echoes a defensive and even admiring attitude to the very place from which he wished to escape. This is almost conservatism defined. One can locate the same trope as early as Dangling Man, where the boy recalling the horrors of slum life remembers “a man rearing over someone on a bed, and, on another occasion, a Negro with a blond woman on his lap.” And the underage black boy who transmits AIDS to Ravelstein (who himself is fatally attracted to the very thing that he supposedly most despises), was in early drafts given the same name as Augie March’s only black character. In Mr. Sammler’s Planet, the eponymous figure is haunted by a large “Negro” who stops him in the street and flaunts a massive penis in his face. In The Dean’s December, black crime and big-city corruption have become hard to distinguish in Bellow’s mind; he was later to manifest alarm and disgust when a black demagogue in Chicago accused Jewish doctors of spreading the AIDs virus. I don’t want to make any insinuation here, but it’s clear that Bellow had concluded that one of the fondest hopes of the democratic left—that of a black-Jewish alliance—had become a thing of the past: another slightly sappy proj­ect of what in a more genial and witty moment he had called “the Good Intentions Paving Company.”

However, he never quite succumbed to the affectless cynicism that he had always despised. His famously provocative 1988 question, “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans?,” asked in the context of a defense of Bloom, seemed to many people to contradict the generosity of what he had offered about Africa in Henderson, and evidently must have struck Bellow himself in the same light, since six years later he wrote a much-less-noticed essay in praise of the novel of Zululand Chaka, by Thomas Mofolo. Life and politics might have had souring results, and so might personal experience, but to the end, he put his money on the life-affirming and on the will to live (as Henderson’s understanding of the benediction grun-tu-molani loosely translates), and he could never quite abandon his faith in that crucial eligibility to be noble.

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Christopher Hitchens is an Atlantic contributing editor and a Vanity Fair columnist. More

Christopher HitchensFor nearly a dozen years, Christopher Hitchens contributed an essay on books each month to The Atlantic. He was the author of more than ten books, including A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq (2003), Why Orwell Matters (2002), God Is Not Great (2007), and Hitch-22 (2009). He was a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, and wrote prolifically for American and English periodicals, including The Nation, The London Review of Books, Granta, Harper's, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, New Left Review, Slate, The New York Review of Books, Newsweek International, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Washington Post. He was also a regular television and radio commentator.

Hitchens began his career in England, in the 1970s, as a writer for the New Statesman and the Evening Standard. From 1977 to 1979 he worked for London's Daily Express as a foreign correspondent and then returned to the New Statesman as foreign editor, where he worked from 1979 to 1981. Hitchens has also served as the Washington editor for Harper's and as the U.S. correspondent for The Spectator and The Times Literary Supplement. From 1986 to 1992 he was the book critic at New York Newsday. He also taught as a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Pittsburgh; and the New School of Social Research.

Born in 1949 in Portsmouth, England, Hitchens received a degree in philosophy, politics, and economics from Balliol College, Oxford, in 1970.

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