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Saul Bellow

Of all the Jewish-American writers of merit throughout history, few have achieved so much recognition from their literary peers as Saul Bellow.  Born Solomon Bellows to Russian immigrants in Lachine, Quebec, Canada, on June 10, 1915, Bellow moved with his family to Chicago when he was nine.  He learned Hebrew at an early age, and his mother wanted him to be a Talmudic scholar; but he was often sickly as a child and spent much of his time reading the great classics of literature. 

Growing up during the Great Depression of the 1930s, he felt something energizing about the strength of character of the people around him. 

"There were people going to libraries and reading books," he said in a 1997 interview with the Associated Press.  "They were going to libraries because they were trying to keep warm; they had no heat in their houses.  There was a great deal of mental energy in those days, of very appealing sorts.  Working stiffs were having ideas."

Not long thereafter, Bellow decided to become a writer.  His father didn't like the notion and tried in vain to dissuade him.  He said, "You write and then you erase.  You call that a profession?"  His brothers all went into more conventional careers, and Bellow once commented that "All I started out to do was to show up my brothers."

He wrote a couple of novels that didn't do well commercially.  Dangling Man (1944) and The Victim (1947) sold fewer than 5,000 copies combined.  In 1948, he went to Paris with his wife on a two-year Guggenheim fellowship, but he hated the city.  The longer he stayed there, the more he realized how much he really loved Chicago.  It was there that he began writing his first successful book, The Adventures of Augie March.

The story of a young man's adventures in Chicago just before the Great Depression, Augie March was his first big success.  British writer Martin Amis recently called it "the Great American Novel" for its "fantastic inclusiveness, its pluralism, its qualmless promiscuity....Everything is in here."  It won the National Book Award for fiction in 1954.

Bellow followed Augie March with Seize The Day (1956), Henderson The Rain King (1959), Herzog (1964), Mosby's Memoirs and Other Stories (1968), and Mr. Sammler's Planet (1970).  His Humboldt's Gift (1975) was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for literature.  Both Herzog and Mr. Sammler's Planet were awarded the National Book Award for fiction.  Bellow's first nonfiction work, To Jerusalem and Back: A Personal Account, published on October 25, 1976, is his personal and literary record of his sojourn in Israel during several months in 1975.

In 1965, Bellow received the International Literary Prize for Herzog, becoming the first American ever to claim the award.  In January 1968, the Republic of France awarded him the Croix de Chevalier des Arts et Lettres, the highest literary distinction awarded by that nation to a non-citizen, and in March 1968, he received the B'nai B'rith Jewish Heritage Award for "excellence in Jewish literature."

A playwright as well as a novelist, Saul Bellow penned The Last Analysis, along with three short plays, collectively entitled Under the Weather, which were produced on Broadway in 1966.  He contributed fiction to Partisan Review, Playboy, Harper's Bazaar, The New Yorker, Esquire, and various literary quarterlies.  His criticism has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, Horizon, Encounter, The New Republic, The New Leader, and elsewhere.  During the 1967 Arab-lsraeli conflict, he served as a war correspondent for Newsday.  He taught at Bard College, Princeton University, and the University of Minnesota and was a member of the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago.

In 2003, the Library of America published Bellow's first three novels in a volume called Novels, 1944-53, making him the first living author to be so honored.

"I came humbly, hat in hand, to literary America," the author said.  "I didn't ask for much; I had a book or two to publish.  I didn't expect to make money at it.  I saw myself at the tail end of a great glory.  I was very moved by the books I had read in school, and I brought an offering to the altar."

Bellow published fiction for more than half a century, writing more than 30 books.  He once commented, "There is only one way to defeat the enemy, and that is to write as well as one can.  The best argument is an undeniably good book."

Saul Bellow died at his home in Brookline, Mass., on April 6, 2005.  He was 89.

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