Confession: I’ve never read one of Saul Bellow’s novels. (If you’ve got a strong case to make for which one I should start with, feel free to send me a note.) But I’ve been taught by enough people who love him to recognize his monumental place in American literature. Christopher Hitchens wrote about that influence in our November 2007 issue:
At Bellow’s memorial meeting ... the main speakers were Ian McEwan, Jeffrey Eugenides, Martin Amis, William Kennedy, and James Wood. ... Had it not been for an especially vapid speech by some forgettable rabbi, the platform would have been exclusively composed of non-Jews, many of them non-American. How had Bellow managed to exert such an effect on writers almost half his age, from another tradition and another continent? Putting this question to the speakers later on, I received two particularly memorable responses. Ian McEwan related his impression that Bellow, alone among American writers of his generation, had seemed to assimilate the whole European classical inheritance. And Martin Amis vividly remembered something Bellow had once said to him, which is that if you are born in the ghetto, the very conditions compel you to look skyward, and thus to hunger for the universal. ...
Bellow in his time was to translate Isaac Bashevis Singer into English (and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” into Yiddish), but it mattered to him that the ghetto be transcended and that he, too, could sing America.
On that note, my colleague Emma has written a piece today about the complex history of Jewish identity in America, at a time when the self-described alt-right movement has given anti-Semitism an ugly new presence in public discourse. Read it here (and let us know if you have a related personal experience to share).
But speaking, as Hitchens does, of singing and transcendence and the translation of art into other forms and languages, I remember being thrilled to discover during a high-school AP English class that one of the Counting Crows songs I’d been listening to on repeat was titled after one of Bellow’s novels: Henderson the Rain King. The song’s narrator is scared, trapped, frustrated, and overlooked, and seems to invoke Henderson as a figure who represents many of those feelings:
Hey, I only want the same as anyone
Henderson is waiting for the sun
Oh, it seems night endlessly begins and ends ...
There’s a vision of freedom, though, in the wistful opening lines: “When I think of heaven ... I think of flying.”
Back to Hitchens on Bellow, Henderson, and flight: