Behind the life and work of Saul Bellow

In the late 1950s, novelist Saul Bellow, X’39, found himself living in upstate New York in a well-worn house with Ralph Ellison, the acclaimed author of Invisible Man, as a roommate. A trove of correspondence remains from the two years that the literary odd couple lived under the same roof.

One letter, faded and yellowed, is dated May 15, 1959. It mostly details gutter repairs and the state of spring flowers. A postscript states a rake had been purchased. But Ellison slips in an aside on Bellow’s acclaimed novel Henderson the Rain King that had just been published.

“Henderson, by the way, continues to raise the decibels at literary get togethers. You threw some real whiskey in the placid water of the literary well and I’ve been laughing my can off to see them try to deal with it.”

Ellison’s delight is one of countless glimpses into Bellow’s life—30-plus years of which he spent as a University of Chicago professor—that emerges from the letters, personal writings and unpublished works recently made public in the Saul Bellow Papers at the University of Chicago Library.

“The University and the city of Chicago were the home of much of Bellow’s writing, and no other location was more appropriate as a permanent location of his papers,” said Daniel Meyer, director of the Library’s Special Collections Research Center.

The opening of the archives, following extensive organization and cataloguing of the collection made possible by the financial support of Robert Nelson, AM’64, and Carolyn Nelson, AM’64, PhD’67, will provide new insights into Bellow, Chicago and 20th-century American literature. In addition to his correspondences, the archives contain ephemera—from Bellow’s Rolodex to handmade art by his children–as well as photographs and audio recordings. But of real significance to scholars will be drafts of Bellow’s published and unpublished works.

Bellow biographer Zachary Leader called the papers “a tremendous boon for people who are interested in Bellow’s life and work. Unless you know the intermediate, unfinished works, you don’t know how his ideas evolved, how his style evolved.”

Finding the right note

Born in Montreal in 1915, Bellow was raised in Chicago, most notably the Humboldt Park neighborhood. He spent two years as an undergraduate at UChicago before completing his degree at Northwestern University.

In 1962, he returned to Chicago as a faculty member in the Committee on Social Thought and remained for more than three decades, winning nearly every major award in literature, including both the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize in 1976. Over those years, Bellow made regular deposits of his personal writings to the University’s archives.

The process of cataloguing the papers was no easy task. Lead archivist Ashley Gosselar spent more than a year organizing the works that now span 254 boxes, extending nearly half the length of a football field.

“It is an enormous collection,” Gosselar said. “The challenge of this project was in reuniting the different fragments of drafts. They were very scattered. That took some real sleuthing.”

Making her job even more difficult was the fact that Bellow, who revised constantly, rarely if ever dated his work, but Gosselar said she discovered an appreciation for the artistry behind Bellow’s tinkering.

“With Bellow’s drafts, it’s so clear that he was constantly reworking sentences, until he hit on the right note,” Gosselar said. “It was kind of like listening to a jazz musician improvise. He wrote variation after variation of a sentence until it was the melody he wanted.”

While the notes of the melody may have changed, the city of Chicago and the University proved a consistent theme of Bellow’s oeuvre.

As a youth, Bellow discovered his love for books in the recesses of the Humboldt Park branch of the Chicago Public Library. “I am an American, Chicago born,” begins The Adventures of Augie March (1953), for which Bellow received the National Book Award. The Russian bathhouses that once lined Division Street inspired Humboldt’s Gift (1975). And Bellow’s friend and fellow Social Thought committee member Allan Bloom would become the basis for the titular character of his final novel, Ravelstein (2000)

‘Thanks for your letter…’

Bellow kept to a strict writing schedule each morning, but his afternoons were spent at the University, where he taught graduate students in courses ranging from Ulysses to Nietzsche.

In the papers, one gets a sense for the soft spot Bellow seems to have had for academics and the generally curious, something Leader noticed in the course of his own research through the archives.

“He read all sorts of seemingly uninteresting correspondence,” Leader said. “He had great patience if he detected something intelligent. If the ignorant person seemed to have a good heart, he’d answer them.”

In one letter, a student who describes himself as a 35-year-old computer engineer, includes a copy of a college essay he wrote on Bellow.

“Thanks for your letter,” Bellow replied. “I found the T.S. Eliot parallel full of charm, but also quite baffling. It was a good try nevertheless and I much enjoyed it. Sincerely yours, Saul Bellow.”

Of course, there are also correspondences with luminaries from literature and beyond, including the likes of Philip Roth, AM’55, and John F. Kennedy. While some, like the Ellison letters, are cordial, others reveal awe in writing to the famed novelist.

The author Dave Eggers writes of drawing strength from Bellow’s novels while working on his own first work of fiction. “I just wanted you to know that every single sentence of yours makes me believe,” Eggers writes.

But among the multitudes writing him, one letter from a 17-year-old fan speaks volume to Bellow’s impact on readers. In the letter, a fan tells Bellow of her initial dislike of Herzog, but her critique soon turns to praise.

“Tonight I am on page 135 and figured that it was about time I wrote you a fan letter of sorts because I am no longer bored or apathetic about reading it,” she writes. “It’s damn good writing. I feel it inside of me. My insides say yes to it.”

A University of Chicago feature

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