Page 13 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 41

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BAUMGARTEN / URBAN FAILURES
7
way: first to knock, first adm itted; sometimes an innocent knock,
sometimes a not so innocen t.” Relying on his personal abilities
ra th e r than traditional learning, making his way as an individual
ra th e r than a member o f a communal group , Augie strikes ou t on
his own. His free style enables him to modulate his responses to
new situations and to take advantage o f the fluid experience o f
the city. He can take on many roles and , functioning as Bellow’s
twentieth century version o f Shakespeare’s Prince Hal, succeed
— perhaps because his roguish exploits have helped him discover
the full dimensions and range o f meanings o f his kingdom. Self-
taugh t, he has the advantage o f his rivals who cannot com p re­
hend what Chicago is because o f the cultural baggage they bring
to this self-transform ing city. Forced “early into deep city aims,”
he articulates his own individuality because he is a city — a
Chicago — boy. He is the prince o f this city, dem and ing a noble
destiny, for he is married to Chicago’s world-transformative
power — in which he participates and for a time makes his own.
Optimistic, urban , modern , Augie is a “Columbus o f those near-
a t-hand ,” a discoverer and explorer o f his new world.2
T he city is not only the setting for Augie’s life but the condition
o f his existence. Even when he is o ff on his adventures he, like so
many o the r characters in modern Jewish literature , is a city p e r ­
son. Bellow’s novels depend upon and re fe r to this fundamen tal
experience o f the Jews in the modern world. Even if you can take
the Jew out o f the city, the city can’t be gotten ou t o f the Jew. His
discoveries are urban , his life the reciprocal o f the city he has
made his own.
GATEWAY TO CULTURE
To live in Bellow’s city is to be neither beast no r god bu t most
fully human. Only here can one be an individual and thereby p a r ­
ticipate in the en terprise o f western cu lture — the effo rt to which
in Bellow’s view its philosophers and intellectuals have contrib­
uted. As Charley Citrine comments in
Humboldt's Gift,
“Chicago
with its gigantesque ou te r life contained the whole problem o f
2 Saul Bellow,
The Adventures of Augie March,
New York: Modern Library
Edition, 1965, pp. 1, 62, 90. Also see Joyce Carol Oates, “Imaginary Cities:
America,”
Literature and the Urban Experience. Essays on the City and Literature,
edited by Michael C. Jaye and Ann Chalmers Watts, New Brunswick: Rutgers
University Press, 1981, pp. 11, 18, 22.