Page 24 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 35

Basic HTML Version

HAROLD U. RIBALOW
Saul Bellow: Jewish Writer
T
here
ar e
t w o
kinds of American Jewish novelists: those who
admit it and those who deny it.
Saul Bellow, the most recent winner of the Nobel Prize for
Literature, is among those who persistently detach themselves
from the label “Jewish writer.” The thrust o f this essay w ill be
to “prove” that Bellow does not himself understand the degree
to which he is truly a Jewish novelist. It is not my intention here
to deal critically or analytically with the body of Bellow’s work,
but to emphasize the Jewish quality, spirit, and attitudes to be
found in his novels and stories.
For some reason, Bellow is upset when he is called a “Jewish”
writer. In an interview with Joseph Berger in the New York
Post, after winning the Nobel Prize, Bellow said, “I see myself
getting the prize as a writer. In my mind a w riter is not some­
thing national and not associated with any race or religion. There
is something of universal significance to being a writer. And I
should resist the (Jewish) label, not so much for my own sake,
because i t doesn’t mean that much to me, but to prevent general
misunderstanding.”
In a Commencement address delivered at Brandeis University
(published as “Starting Out in Chicago,” in the American
Scholar, W in ter 1974/75), Bellow spelled it out w ith almost
brutal clarity and perhaps a touch of hostility:
" . . . I thought of myself as a midwesterner and not a Jew. I
am often described as a Jewish writer, in much the same way
one might be called a Samoan astronomer or an Eskimo cellist
or a Zulu Gainsborough expert. There is some oddity about it.
I am a Jew, and I have written some books. I have tried to fit
my soul into the Jewish-writer category, but it does not feel com­
fortably accommodated there. I wonder, now and then, whether
Philip Roth and Bernard Malamud and I have not become the
Hart Schaffner and Marx of our trade. W e have made it in the
field of culture as Bernard Baruch made it on a park bench, as
14