Readers acquainted with the work of Saul Bellow only through such novels as "The Adventures of Augie March" and "Humboldt's Gift" may be unaware that the Nobel Prize-winning writer was also an astute literary and cultural critic. Thanks to editor Benjamin Taylor, who produced the volume of Bellow's letters published in 2010, readers can fill that gap with a provocative and revealing glimpse inside the writer's mind, through this extensive collection of his nonfiction.
Arranged by decade beginning in the "Fifties and Before," and continuing until a few years before Bellow's death in 2005, the nearly 60 essays, speeches, interviews and memoir fragments that make up the book reveal a writer who wasn't content merely to produce enduring works of fiction. Bellow passionately believed in the power of great literature to move readers even in a time when "modern distraction, worldwide irrationality and madness threaten existence itself," as he wrote in 1975.
"Art can be no more taken from humankind than faces and hands," he argued, his answer to those who asserted that literature's significance has diminished in an age when technology seemingly has triumphed in the war between art and science.
Another of Bellow's preoccupations was his lifelong project of figuring out "how to combine being a Jew with being an American and a writer." Speculating that he may have become, along with Bernard Malamud and Philip Roth (on whose "Goodbye Columbus" he lavished praise), the "Hart Schaffner and Marx of our trade," he characterized himself, in his eighth decade, as "an American Jew whose interests are largely, although not exclusively, secular," but acknowledged, ultimately, that it "would be a treason to my first consciousness to un-Jew myself."
The collection offers vivid reminiscences of Bellow's youth in Depression era Chicago, journalistic pieces describing his travel to Israel in the immediate aftermath of the Six-Day War, and his presence at the White House on the day the Camp David Accords were signed. Among the personal essays, Bellow offers charming stories about two country homes: the Hudson River mansion in Tivoli, N.Y., he shared with fellow National Book Award winner Ralph Ellison, and the Vermont farmhouse he cherished in the last years of his life. In a brief review it's possible only to hint at the intellectual and personal richness of this book.
"But it is the task of artists and critics in every generation to look with their own eyes," Bellow wrote in 1965. This generous work displays how he admirably discharged that obligation. For readers who want to engage with one of the great writers of the 20th century, it is nothing short of a literary feast.
Harvey Freedenberg is a freelance reviewer and member of the National Book Critics Circle. He writes from Harrisburg, Pa.