Skip to content

‘Augie March’ Turns 70

An Interview with Saul Bellow’s biographer Zachary Leader.

· 12 min read
‘Augie March’ Turns 70

Zachary Leader is an Emeritus Professor of English Literature at the University of Roehampton. He is the author of numerous books, including Reading Blake’s Songs, Writer’s Block, Revision and Romantic Authorship, The Life of Kingsley Amis, The Life of Saul Bellow: To Fame and Fortune 1915–1964, and The Life of Saul Bellow: Love and Strife 1965–2005. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and General Editor of The Oxford History of Life-Writing.

Leader kindly agreed to be interviewed by Riley Moore for Quillette about the 70th anniversary of the publication of Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March. They spoke in August.

Quillette: Let’s introduce Saul Bellow as you did in your biographies. In the first volume, The Life of Saul Bellow: To Fame and Fortune, you write that, “Saul Bellow was the most decorated writer in American history,” noting that he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, three National Book Awards, and the Pulitzer Prize. His third novel, The Adventures of Augie March, launched him into cultural significance. But let’s not skip Dangling Man and The Victim, his first two novels, sometimes called his “apprentice” work. How “apprentice” is this “apprentice” work? Are those novels worthy of inclusion in the conversation about Bellow’s canon?

Zachary Leader: Yes, they are. I’m especially fond of The Victim. But neither Dangling Man nor The Victim were written in a Bellovian style. He wrote them, his phrase was, in pursuit of a “Flaubertian standard.” Flaubert, Joyce, and Kafka were the European writers in vogue among the Partisan Review crowd in the early 1950s, and it was this crowd whose notice Bellow wanted to gain. Dangling Man was influenced by Kafka in particular. Hence Bellow’s decision not to give his protagonist, Joseph, a last name. In The Victim, you can see Bellow’s interest in Dostoevsky. Allbee, for instance, is a Dostoevskian character. Allbee haunts Leventhal, the protagonist, and has this quality of false jollity, while actually being malevolent.

But these novels proved that Bellow could do it: he could write that kind of book, the kind of book the Partisan Review crowd admired. It’s similar to Picasso doing representative art before graduating into cubism and subsequent Modernist dislocations. Bellow wrote those novels, too, partly in defiance of the discouraging advice he received from the head of the English department at Northwestern. He was told that he wasn’t eligible for literary correctness or seriousness, that English wasn’t really his language. Bellow called Dangling Man his MA, and The Victim his PhD. Both novels were well received, though The Victim received a brief, stupid review in the New York Times. But both books are interesting, though they’re not written in the style that we’ve come to see as Bellow’s style.

Q: Bellow abandoned a work in progress to begin Augie. He was in Paris on a Guggenheim Fellowship. And it was in the spring of 1949, walking to his writing room, that Bellow saw municipal workers cleaning the streets. He saw water running along the curbs and this spawned a “freedom of movement” in him. Can you explain this? What was Bellow’s life like in Paris in 1949?

ZL: At the time, he was writing what might have been a short story, possibly a novella, called The Crab and the Butterfly. And he was unhappy with it. The bits that he had completed included dialogue between two characters in a hospital. They depressed him, and he felt constrained, being tied to a story that he didn’t think was working. He felt constrained, too, by having to write “properly.” Then, in Paris, he sees water running freely. I didn’t make this point explicitly in the biography, but Bellow had noticed water sparkling in the gutter. Something about the low culture that he brings to his novels may be connected to that moment. And then there was Charlie August, who Bellow knew in childhood, who used to announce, with American can-do: “I got a scheme!” Bellow wanted to capture that American spirit. And then Augie rushed out of him.

Bellow was proud to be an American. This has ties to his family. Bellow’s father, Abraham, was very proud to be an American, as were Bellow’s brothers, Sam and Maury. Bellow’s desire to identify himself with American culture was connected, too, with the way in which he felt he was condescended to in Paris by French intellectuals. This deeply offended him, and not only because of how implicated so many French intellectuals were in the treatment of Jews in Paris. It irked him that the condescension that they felt towards American culture coincided with their desperation to get American material possessions. All his life, Bellow bridled when being condescended to or challenged. At a conference in Israel, for instance, a conference organized to celebrate his works, the women who had organized this conference sat him down for an interview. They suggested that he didn't give his female characters active roles in his novels. Bellow replied with a smile on his face: “They say I’m a misogynist. I love the adorable creatures.” He knew exactly how this sounded; it was his way of attacking them for their implied criticism.

Q: Let’s talk about the plot—or lack of plot—in Augie. Was Bellow’s approach systematic or was he instead spilling ideas?

ZL: He had a mood, a voice. This makes for complications. Is it, for instance, a Bildungsroman [a coming-of-age story]? I don’t think so. Norman Podhoretz, who was a very influential young critic in the early 1950s, was commissioned to write a review of Augie. One of the criticisms he had is that Augie travels to many places, but he doesn’t go through anything. That is, Augie doesn’t go through much of a transformation; there’s not much character development in Augie.

Q: Augie is an extremely democratic book: its perpetually oscillating between high and low culture. I remember a line from Conrad. One of his characters noted how, at a certain hour, the sky and sea would meet “without a joint.” That’s Augie. High and low, Nietzsche and baseball, meet without a joint. It’s a tremendous blend. Philip Roth called it the “Bellovian glide.” When Bellow’s among the intelligentsia, he’s still got an eye on Chicago, on street life, and on the newspapers. Is this accurate? Was Bellow an anti-snob?

Twilight of the Satyrs
Sydney. London. Toronto.

ZL: He’s anti those who think that low culture has no importance or carries no meaning. He’s drawn to street life in and of itself, but he also thinks street life points to something important about America. Baseball, radio, gangsters—they tell you about America, or American materialism. As for high culture, it’s only in Herzog, and only on the surface, that Bellow seems to suggest that high culture is of no importance—or rather, of limited importance—certainly of less importance than its proponents claim. If your wife is cheating on you with your best friend, Spinoza offers no help. Elsewhere, though, Bellow went on about Spinoza and high culture all the time. He was against those within high culture who didn’t see the appeal as well as the dangers of low culture.

Q: Augie’s older brother, Simon, is the most American character in literature. He’s straight American materialism. But it’s worth noting that the novel is not titled The Adventures of Simon March. What is Simon doing in the novel? Did Bellow base the character on his real-life older brother Maury? Did this character repeat in Bellow’s fiction?

ZL: Absolutely, he’s based on Maury. And this Maury character appears in different novels and stories. His portrayal is terrific in Humboldt’s Gift. Maury was monstrous and monstrously attractive. When I first got the job to write Bellow’s biography, I was told that I should meet Philip Roth. Benjamin Taylor, who edited Bellow’s letters, introduced us. Roth told me that Saul was not a monster, but he loved monsters and that I was going to have to interview them. Well, Simon in Augie March is a monster. In one scene, Simon reaches across the dinner table and rips off the top of his mother-in-law’s dress because he thinks she’s dressing too cheaply. She screams and laughs and then gives him a big kiss. He does this because he doesn’t want her to be wearing what he calls janitor’s wife’s clothes. He wants her to dress up, and he gives her money. And then, in another scene, Simon looks at girls bending over at the beach and bellows like a bull at them. Absolutely monstrous.

Bellow was attracted to this size and bullishness while registering how horrible it is, how monstrous it is. When a character appears again and again in Bellow’s fiction, like Maury, I don’t think it’s because Bellow lacks invention. I think he wants to get even closer to what fascinates him or strikes him about the real-life model of the character, to see if he can get it exactly right. Simon in Augie is presented as archetypically American; was Maury really in this relation to America? What if I put him in this other situation? Would these other situations more accurately bring out the mixture of charm, monstrousness, ego, and appetite? He’s drawn back to the same characters, not so much because they are readily available, but because he’s looking for something in them. He’s looking to get closer, not simply to what they are in the physical world, but to what they mean in social and philosophical terms.

Q: Janis Bellow, Bellow’s widow, said that Bellow “waved a wand, not scissors.” Let’s talk about the relationship between the facts and the fiction from the reader’s position. Do the facts really matter? Do they help explain Bellow’s literary talent? Or are they merely interesting anecdotes?

ZL: The two main responsibilities of literary biographies are to explain how the books got written and to document the life of the person who wrote the books. But I don’t think you need to know that there was a real-life Maury to appreciate Simon. Except, of course, if you’d like to know how Simon came about. That’s not an obscure motive when someone finishes a book. How did he pull this character off? Where did he come from? Where did he come across these attitudes? Biographical facts cater to the appetite of those who wish to learn about how works one admires get made.

Q: Bellow is interested in character, more so in Augie than in his other books. They stand out as personalities. Einhorn, Simon, Mama, Grandma, Dingbat, Mimi Villars, Thea Fenchel. It’s Dickensian. Are the characters so inflated with traits that Bellow loses touch with realism?

ZL: It’s a complicated question. Some of the characters do, in fact, balloon into Dickensian proportions. And a frequent complaint about Dickens’s novels is that there is always a bland, uninteresting, stick-like couple at the center of the plot, and that all the interesting, fantastic, gargoyle-like characters who surround them seem to come from a different novel, a different world. Does this occur in Bellow’s fiction? If you take Ravelstein, for instance, the Janis character is like a character from a realist novel, and Chick, the protagonist, is realist, too. Ravelstein, though, is inflated, Dickensian. But they inhabit the same novel. Are there characters in Augie who seem to come from different novels? Difficult to say. There’s a part of me that resists categorizing the characters in Augie as Dickensian. Perhaps because their quirks are so individual.

Q: Chicago, too, according to Salman Rushdie, essentially functions as another character in the book. Bellow said the important thing about Chicago was that it wasn’t New York. Martin Amis said Bellow slightly lucked out being from Chicago: it wasn’t rubbed flat from literary use. But the Chicago of Augie is not the same as the Chicago of The Dean's December, Bellow’s later novel. Normally, when Bellow is in New York, the story is gloomier (Seize the Day, Mr. Sammler’s Planet), and his characters are afraid. They’re dealing with the unfamiliar. Eventually, however, Chicago becomes like New York for Bellow. But it didn’t start that way. What was Bellow’s original relationship with Chicago and how is it presented in Augie?

ZL: There are interviews between Roth and Bellow where they speak about this. Bellow identified his brother, Maury, as America, and identified America with Chicago. And Chicago, to Bellow, is seen as a temple of materialism. When I think of the difference, for Bellow, between New York and Chicago, I think of the difference between his time at the University of Chicago and Northwestern. At the University of Chicago, he was easily typed. There were many people who had similar intellectual interests and backgrounds. But then he attended Northwestern where there were fewer Jews, and fewer people with his sorts of intellectual interests. He stood out at Northwestern. Well, I think he felt that New York was like the University of Chicago. There were too many people with his interests and background. He was unique—or more unique—as a writer from Chicago. Also, he really knew Chicago. He grew up there. Which is not to say that he didn’t do a good job at capturing New York. But he just had such a strong relationship with and understanding of Chicago. Why would he not use it?

Q: There’s a section of Augie—the Mexico section—where Augie is helping Thea Fenchel train an eagle to capture giant lizards. It’s in Mexico, too, that Augie sees the corpse of Leon Trotsky. In a way, these scenes appear too overtly symbolic: an American guy trying to assert autonomy over America itself (America as the eagle) and witnessing the decay of Soviet communism (the death of Trotsky). Was Bellow in the symbol business? Was he consciously trying to write The Great American Novel?

ZL: I don’t think Bellow was in the symbol business. First of all, the American eagle in Augie lets everybody down. It’s not aggressive enough. But I think, when Bellow was writing Augie, something let loose inside him, and he tried to ride it to the end. He was fitting in a variety of episodes because the language was spilling out of him—I could do this, I could try that. Martin Amis once said to me that novelists know where they want to start and know where they want to end up but have no idea how they’re going to get there. The middle gets worked out in the process of writing. But I don’t think Bellow approached his novels in a chronological, straightforward manner. There are no notebooks that suggest that that’s how he thought out his novels. You don’t get a sense of things cooking, either. That is, Bellow doesn’t really place clues in the beginning that are later unraveled. That’s why there’s a farcical rush of plot at the ends of his novels. He’s sort of forcing the novel into a shape.

Q: An essential Bellow ingredient is his sense of “soul” in people and things. Bellow believed that there was a connection between character and appearance: that the way someone looked also told you something about them. What are we to make of Bellow’s anti-materialist side? Charlie Citrine in Humboldt’s Gift, for instance, speaks to the dead. Bellow’s emphasis on spirituality, as you note, was not simply contained in his fiction.

ZL: Though I greatly admire Bellow’s books, they don’t make me any more likely to develop a mystical or spiritual belief. This anti-materialist side of Bellow is likely connected with the intensity with which his memories stay with him. This intensity makes him think that the people in his memory somehow live on, beyond death. It’s also possible that he didn’t want to dishonor all the people, including people in his family, who did have faith.

Q: Do you think this anti-materialist side discounts the seriousness of his books?

ZL: No. None of his characters has any mystical breakthroughs or anything like that. He said several times—and his characters said this, too—that he expected to meet the ones he’d loved in his life after he died. But it’s clear that this is an intense wish more than anything else.

Q: Let’s close by looking at the change in tone in Bellow’s fiction. As you say in the biographies, it seemed that as Bellow progressed into his career, he discarded Dickens as an influence and gained Dostoevsky. Bellow’s topic, in other words, became morally darker. Perhaps it’s best to reintroduce The Dean’s December and compare it with Augie March. Where Augie is imbibed with a sense of possibility—of being a “Columbus of the near at hand”—Albert Corde must deal with harsh reality—murder, loss of reputation, dissolved friendships. How do you account for this graduation in Bellow?

ZL: It is morally darker in The Dean’s December. At the time, Bellow was living in Chicago, and becoming increasingly appalled by it. You can see portents of The Dean’s December in his earlier books. In Mr. Sammler’s Planet, for instance, Bellow connects racial deprivation and materialism. The black pickpocket is dressed like a prince. He represents the super-valuing of materialism. Bellow sees this valuing of material goods—of money—as producing figures like the pickpocket. It is a culture in which if you don’t make it, you’re considered a loser, a culture in which those denied equality of opportunity and rightly think things are rigged against them, and will go to any lengths to gain what they’re denied, to defy the loser label. He’s astonished and appalled by this. But why is it darker in The Dean’s December than in Herzog and Sammler? Partly because it became more and more of a problem. The American dream had been systemically denied to a segment of the population. Bellow saw this as the cause of inner-city violence and despair and he reflected it in the fiction.

Latest Podcast

Join the newsletter to receive the latest updates in your inbox.


On Instagram @quillette