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Bellow
Cover of Bellow
Bellow
A Biography
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With this masterly and original work, Bellow: A Biography, National Book Award nominee James Atlas gives the first definitive account of the Nobel Prize–winning author’s turbulent personal and professional life, as it unfolded against the background of twentieth-century events—the Depression, World War II, the upheavals of the sixties—and amid all the complexities of the Jewish-immigrant experience in America, which generated a vibrant new literature.
Drawing upon a vast body of original research, including Bellow’s extensive correspondence with Ralph Ellison, Delmore Schwartz, John Berryman, Robert Penn Warren, John Cheever, and many other luminaries of the twentieth-century literary community, Atlas weaves a rich and revealing portrait of one of the most talented and enigmatic figures in American intellectual history.
Detailing Bellow’s volatile marriages and numerous tempestuous relation-ships with women, publishers, and friends, Bellow: A Biography is a magnificent chronicle of one of the premier writers in the English language, whose prize-winning works include Herzog, The Adventures of Augie March, and, most recently, Ravelstein.
With this masterly and original work, Bellow: A Biography, National Book Award nominee James Atlas gives the first definitive account of the Nobel Prize–winning author’s turbulent personal and professional life, as it unfolded against the background of twentieth-century events—the Depression, World War II, the upheavals of the sixties—and amid all the complexities of the Jewish-immigrant experience in America, which generated a vibrant new literature.
Drawing upon a vast body of original research, including Bellow’s extensive correspondence with Ralph Ellison, Delmore Schwartz, John Berryman, Robert Penn Warren, John Cheever, and many other luminaries of the twentieth-century literary community, Atlas weaves a rich and revealing portrait of one of the most talented and enigmatic figures in American intellectual history.
Detailing Bellow’s volatile marriages and numerous tempestuous relation-ships with women, publishers, and friends, Bellow: A Biography is a magnificent chronicle of one of the premier writers in the English language, whose prize-winning works include Herzog, The Adventures of Augie March, and, most recently, Ravelstein.
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  • Chapter One         I was, in 1937, a very young, married man who had quickly lost his first job and who lived with his in-laws. His affectionate, loyal, and pretty wife insisted that he must be given a chance to write something."

            But what? In "Starting Out in Chicago," originally delivered as a Brandeis commencement address in 1974, Saul Bellow provided a memorable portrait of his beginnings as a writer. If the year is wrong—it was 1938, just a year before the outbreak of World War II in Europe—the details are painfully accurate. This brief memoir, more than anything else he ever wrote, captures the early stage of that momentous confrontation in which "American society and S. Bellow came face to face." He was twenty-two years old.
            
            The job he'd lost was a stint in his older brother Maurice's coalyard, and he was fired for absenteeism. Maurice, not unreasonably, expected his brother to keep regular hours; Bellow had other ideas about how to spend his time: He wanted to write.

            His in-laws' apartment on North Virginia Avenue in the Northwest Side neighborhood of Ravenswood was drab and anonymous, one of the thousands of identical brick dwellings that sprawled mile upon mile across a dull, orderly grid of streets. While his wife, Anita, attended classes at the School of Social Service Administration at the university, Bellow sat at a bridge table in the back bedroom:

    My table faced three cement steps that rose from the cellar into the brick gloom of a passageway. Only my mother-in-law was at home. A widow, then in her seventies [actually, her mid-sixties], she wore a heavy white braid down her back. She had been a modern woman and a socialist and suffragette in the old country. She was attractive in a fragile, steely way. You felt Sophie's [Sonya's] strength of will in all things. She kept a neat house. The very plants, the ashtrays, the pedestals, the doilies, the chairs, revealed her mastery. Each object had its military place. Her apartment could easily have been transferred to West Point.

    Lunch occurred at half past twelve. The cooking was good. We ate together in the kitchen. The meal was followed by an interval of stone. My mother-in-law took a nap. I went into the street. Ravenswood was utterly empty. I walked about with something like a large stone in my belly. I often turned into Lawrence Avenue and stood on the bridge looking into the drainage canal. If I had been a dog I would have howled.


            American writers are largely self-made. William Faulkner emerged out of the somnolent town of Oxford, Mississippi; Ernest Hemingway was brought up in the bland suburb of Oak Park, just a few miles from Ravenswood; Sinclair Lewis hailed from Sauk Centre, Minnesota. They simply "materialized somehow," as Bellow put it. But even by the folkloric standards of American literature, Bellow's remoteness from the centers of culture was extreme. "Bernanos, the French religious novelist, said that his soul could not bear to be cut off from its kind, and that was why he did his work in cafés," Bellow noted enviously: "Cafés indeed! I would have kissed the floor of a café. There were no cafés in Chicago. There were greasy-spoon cafeterias, one-arm joints, taverns. I never yet heard of a writer who broughthis manuscripts into a tavern."

            Over the years, he...
About the Author-
  • James Atlas is the founding editor of the Lipper/Viking Penguin Lives Series. A longtime contributor to The New Yorker and Vanity Fair, he was an editor at The New York Times Magazine for many years. His work has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The New York Review of Books, and many other journals. He is the author of Delmore Schwartz: The Life of an American Poet, which was nominated for the National Book Award, and of a novel, The Great Pretender.
Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    Starred review from October 2, 2000
    Long promised and much postponed, this first major biography of the Nobel Prize-winning author proves to be well worth the wait. Atlas's vigorous and incisive portrait grows out of thorough research and intuitive understanding, yielding a sharp-edged provocative portrait. Born in 1915 in a small town near Montreal, Solomon (later Saul) Bellow, the youngest son of Russian Jewish immigrants, was nine years old when his family settled in Chicago. Capturing succinctly the drab but vital essence of the Jewish neighborhood of Humboldt Park, destined to be the touchstone of Bellow's fiction, Atlas charts Bellow's book-obsessed boyhood, his fraught relationships with his overbearing father and older brothers, and the death of his mother just after his graduation from high school. But when Bellow settles down seriously to become a writer, the biography finds its center. Atlas's depiction of Bellow's haphazard, self-absorbed personal life - his five marriages, his four children, his many lover, his wandering progress from Chicago to New York to Europe to various college campuses and back again - is tart yet sympathetic. He is at his best in describing Bellow's development as a writer and intellectual. Friendships and rivalries - with high school friend Isaac Rosenfeld, the Partisan Review crowd, Allan Bloom at the University of Chicago - and the polemics and passions of postwar literary America spur on the prolific Bellow. His first, more cerebral novels were followed by the sprawling, exuberant Adventures of Augie March, then by his three triumphant H-novels - Henderson the Rain King, Herzog, Humboldt's Gift - among others. From here on in, the business of celebrity and the gradual narrowing of Bellow's vision occupy Atlas; he has a gimlet eye for the ravages of time and fame. This is an accomplished, compassionate but unsentimental life. Agent Jeff Posternak, Wylie Agency. 6-city author tour.

  • Michael Holroyd "Saul Bellow is a man of profound gifts and potent charm: a considerable challenge to any biographer. Like a sparring partner, James Atlas enters the ring and weaves in and out of Bellow's extravagant life, his extraordinary novels, with great dexterity. It is a most accomplished performance, and a fascinating account of a great American novelist."
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A Biography
James Atlas
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