Bellow’s Turn

In 1948, Saul Bellow was 33, the author of two short, formally composed novels in the classic Flaubert-Henry James (or European-American) tradition, written in a straightforward, naturalistic style dusted with modernist disillusionment and a sense of alienation. That year, he won a Guggenheim Fellowship and left New York to spend the next twenty four months living and writing in Paris.

We are dealing then with the familiar phenomenon of an American artist returning to the Old World to re-connect with its artistic Motherlode, a journey that operated as a kind of cultural reverse gear to the great transatlantic migrations of the previous century. Saul Bellow was one of the last to make the trip: ten years later, the whole idea would be obsolete as the West’s cultural centre of gravity shifted decisively from the Old World to the New, a process in which Bellow himself played a significant, often overlooked, role. But in the immediate post-war period, Europe might be down but it wasn’t out. There was as yet no comparable intellectual scene in the US. Paris still clung to its status as a world capital for the arts as well as, in Tony Judt’s phrase, “(the) one place for a properly European intellectual life in the years after World War Two.”[1]

We can surmise that Bellow planned to do more of the same things in Europe that he’d been doing in America. Writing more novels like Dangling Man and The Victim. Continuing to move in the same, broadly left-wing circles he’d frequented at home through his association with ‘Partisan Review’. His story might have ended with his becoming another of the many Americans from Henry Miller and Gertrude Stein to Richard Wright and James Baldwin via Hemingway and Fitzgerald for whom Paris proved to be “the second home of every artist”.

But Bellow hated Paris. He arrived in a city that was slowly recovering from the trauma of defeat and Nazi occupation only to find itself deeply divided over the sort of society postwar France should become. Major figures like Sartre, Camus and Merleau-Ponty, who had emerged from the war as allies, fell out bitterly with one another as their domestic disagreements got caught up in the developing confrontation between the USA and the USSR- the confrontation Walter Lippman named, only the year before Bellow’s trip, as ‘The Cold War’.

Artistically, Bellow decided that the Flaubert-Henry James way of writing novels had petered out in excessive European cynicism and “modernist” disillusion. Politically, he concluded the “French revolutionary tradition (had) degenerated into a confused leftism”. The behaviour of the French thinkers shocked him. He considered men like Sartre to be anti-American (he was right about that). Worse still, the French left refused to condemn Stalin’s crimes. Bellow went so far as to claim this was because they believed Russia was going to win the Cold War and wanted to hedge their bets.

Because he was a novelist first and an intellectual only a distant second, Bellow’s response wasn’t to write a polemic or engage in a debate but to start a new novel. The Adventures of Augie March is Bellow’s famous “turn”, the first of two in his career, as well as the postwar American novel’s declaration of independence from Europe. Completely different from its two predecessors, Augie March’s tone is comic, antic, dispelling existential angst and tension. In place of a formally precise prose style, Bellow invents a new style, rambunctious, free-flowing, and associative- Walt Whitman more than Flaubert. Rather than characters who could be Europeans in American dress, Augie tell us in the very first sentence: “I am an American, Chicago-born....and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way”.

So intoxicating is Augie’s speech, and the speech of all the other “Augies” who follow him as first-person narrators in Bellow’s work (like Dostoevsky in Russian, Bellow is a rare example of a novelist who finds his content and themes primarily through language, jumbling up the demotic and the formal, metaphysics and street talk, slang and academic exposition, bits of philosophy, science, legalese, everything thrown in together to see where the language itself will take him) it’s easy to miss the extent to which “Augie March” consciously repudiates European ideas and European forms. Since these ideas and forms created the gold standard for artistic Modernism as well as shaping Bellow’s own evolution, to turn against them involved a wrenching break with his own past. He would never have made it if he hadn’t concluded they were a sham, a deceit, a pose concealing a shameful secret.

Bellow found this secret hidden in plain sight when he got off the boat in war-ravaged France, and he called it “a seldom-mentioned force...visible to anyone who had eyes- the force of a nihilism that had destroyed most of its (Europe’s) cities and millions of lives in a war of six long years.”[2]

What did Bellow mean by “nihilism”? Nihilism is the sense that existence is meaningless and all values baseless. As it’s applied to politics or the arts or society in general nihilism gets used in different ways; it can mean different things to different people. However, none of the obvious meanings would be as a force. A principle, a philosophy, a mood perhaps, but a force? And not just any old force but a force so strong, of such gigantic power, that it caused the Second World War?

Nihilism is commonly associated with Nietzsche who in turn associated it with modernity-with that radical break in European, indeed in human, history caused by the coming of modern scientific-industrial society. When rationalism and science disenchanted the world, one result was “the death of God”. Life lost its traditional meanings and values. Then industrialism, together with the gigantic bureaucratic systems that the new scientific- technological dispensation made possible, came along to compound now-soulless men into “mass man”. The proud, self-sufficient individual of 19th century bourgeois ideology became Nietzsche’s empty robotic “last man” living at the end of history.

Following Nietzsche, one important strain in artistic and intellectual (and political) Modernism was pessimistic about modernity. Many European Modernists were nihilistic in this sense, if by “nihilism” we mean they were profoundly critical of the modern world.[3] This same strain of Modernism was also linked to war, though in a negative sense, when the appalling slaughter of 1914-18 turned European thinkers and artists towards a darker, more despairing vision. In German-speaking Europe, in particular, there was a kind of continuum running from Nietzsche himself through Walter Benjamin, Horkheimer, Adorno and the Frankfurt school to Spengler and then to Ernst Junger and the so-called “conservative revolutionaries” in 1930s Weimar. Along this continuum, what began with Nietzsche as a diagnosis and critique of modern society turned into an expression of nihilism itself (Spengler) that later, in the hands of the “conservative revolutionaries”, somehow generated its own antidote in the form of National Socialism’s pseudo-heroic dynamism.

That was the background of “Nihilism” but the term was also in present political use in France when Bellow arrived there, part of the polemical Cold War then raging between conservatives like Raymond Aron and his fellow philosophers like Sartre and Merleau-Ponty who were in sympathy with Communism. In his assault on Communism and its supporters, The Opium of the Intellectuals, Aron wrote “he who protests against the fate meted out to mankind by a meaningless universe sometimes finds himself in sympathy with the revolutionaries because indignation or hatred outweigh all other considerations, because, in the last resort, violence alone can appease his despair.”[4] This was an updated, post-Nietzchean version of a popular trope among conservatives ever since the days of the French Revolution. It worked by turning radicalism upside down and charging that the radical attempt to bring reason to bear on human affairs was merely a cover for their fanaticism. They claimed to love the people but they really hated the world. Radical or revolutionary politics could therefore be reduced to a type of mental illness (when it wasn’t being condemned as hopelessly utopian and optimistic. Like most conservatives, Aron happily indulged in both criticisms simultaneously).

Bellow adopted the Parisian right’s argument in whole cloth. Over the years, he even repeated word for word their characterisation of Sartre as consumed by self-hatred, or rather hatred of his own class, the bourgeoisie, and how this accounted for Sartre’s radicalism. But Bellow went further, as his comment about nihilism’s role in the disaster of 1939-45 makes clear. His concept of “European nihilism” was much broader than a criticism of the French fellow-travelling intellectuals of the late 1940s and 1950s. It went back in time to include the early modernists and forwards to take in more recent figures like Hannah Arendt and the members of the Frankfurt school (in its second incarnation) even though the avowed aim of these later thinkers was to diagnose and expose those elements in modern society that had led to Europe’s apocalypse, not to reproduce or advance them. In the 1960s, Bellow was still writing of Hannah Arendt, “This woman professor’s enemy is modern civilisation itself. She is only using the Germans to attack the twentieth century- to denounce it in terms invented by Germans. Making use of a tragic history to promote the foolish ideas of Weimar intellectuals”.[5]

By then, Bellow had concluded that Modernism, especially the pessimistic strain he ascribed to “Weimar intellectuals”, was the problem rather than the modernity itself.

Yet Bellow himself was no Pollyanna about the modern world. He shared his fellow Modernists’ view of contemporary civilisation as existing in a state of permanent crisis, a “moronic inferno” (a favourite phrase of Bellow’s that he took from Wyndham Lewis) whose scientific and technical achievements were bought at the expense of human values, almost of human identity itself. “At the center humankind struggles with collective powers for its freedom. The individual struggles with dehumanisation for possession of his soul.” All of this was patently true, Bellow conceded. But the mistake, the fall into nihilism, came about when the Europeans decided “dehumanisation” was the whole truth and, like Sartre, went haring off after revolutionary fantasies, seeking political, collective answers to what is an individual, spiritual crisis. To Bellow, politics was part of the problem rather than the solution. If the issue is the growth of the “collective”- of mass modern society, gargantuan forces, bureaucracies both public and private- then the answer can only be personal and individual. The sole valid response to the modern crisis has to be the traditional patient work of the artist, the scholar, the priest or the rabbi, re-connecting men to “true impressions” and reawakening them to the inner truths and human values that, pace Nietzsche, haven’t fled the world but are merely obscured, buried amid “the disorder of contemporary reality….this mountain of complexities (that is) the supreme datum...our great given.”

Bellow’s argument with the Europeans was not over the existence of a crisis per se but over the terms they used to describe it and the conclusions they drew about it. In his 1976 Nobel lecture, he called for new ideas and argued that artists and intellectuals were still working with the old, outdated 19th century “Baudelairian, Nietzschean, Marxian, Psychoanalytic” theories, “all the usual things about mass society, dehumanisation and the rest”.[6]

In the end, it isn’t clear exactly what Bellow meant by his statement about “European nihilism”. I’ve not found any place where he unpacks the “seldom-mentioned force...visible to anyone who had eyes- nihilism that had destroyed most (European) cities and millions of lives in a war of six long years.” But nihilism seems to have struck him first and foremost as a traison des clercs. Faced with the “mountain of complexities”, European intellectuals had suffered a failure of nerve. They’d given up too soon and thus helped turn Europe into the very wasteland they imagined. Moses Herzog complains about “the canned saeurkraut of Spengler’s ‘Prussian Socialism’, the commonplaces of the Wasteland outlook, the cheap mental stimulants of Alienation, the cant and rant of pipsqueaks about Inauthenticity and Forlorness. I can’t accept this foolish dreariness. We are talking about the whole life of mankind. The subject is too great, too deep for such weakness, cowardice...”.[7]

Here is Philip Roth’s reading of ‘Augie March’:

“The pervasive threat that organized the outlook of the hero and the action of the novel in The Victim and Dangling Man disappears, and the bottled up aggression that was The Victim’s Asa Leventhal and the obstructed will that was Joseph in Dangling Man emerge as voracious appetite. There is a narcissistic enthusiasm for life in all its hybrid forms propelling Augie March and there is an inexhaustible passion for a teemingness of dazzling specifics driving Saul Bellow....the intrigues of mankind no longer incite paranoid fear in the Bellow hero but light him up. That the richly rendered surface is manifold with contradiction and ambiguity ceases to be a source of consternation; instead the “mixed character” of everything is bracing. Manifoldness is fun.”[8]

As a novelist, Bellow’s business wasn’t primarily with critiquing or analysing “nihilism”. His business was with the alternative, how European cynicism and cowardice can be redeemed by American courage and optimism. In fact, this alternative is not just “American” but America itself. America is the modern world as it should (and could) be. In America, modernity aka “the moronic inferno” appears in its optimistic, enthusiastic aspect (manifoldness is fun), in the same way the earliest European Modernists had apprehended it before despair set in, when developments like railways and electric light first excited their artistic imaginations.

How can Bellow make such a claim? What evidence does he have? Not for the first time in its history, America’s very existence, its origins as the New World to Europe’s Old, is supposed to prove its worth and guarantee its authenticity. Bellow’s nationality makes his case for him and for a benign version of American exceptionalism. The wrong turns, the disasters, the nightmares the Old World has inflicted on itself get replayed and redeemed in the New, American one. Specifically, America replays and redeems the Russian Revolution, which for Bellow represents the key project and the turning point in Europe’s experience of modernity.

“Both the USA and the USSR were for Sammler utopian projects”. But the USA has achieved what Russia can only pretend to. Thanks to its extraordinary abundance, America has solved the problem of human scarcity, the poverty that undermined and distorted not only the Bolshevik Revolution but all the revolutions that came before it, such as the French (the one exception being of course the original American Revolution). America is the “real Russia”. Contemporary America, post-war 1950s America of fridges and TV sets, cars with giant tailfins, Campbell’s Soup and the GI bill, has produced everything Marx wanted without bloodshed or revolution. The result is that America has all the benefits of a Socialist society without any need for Socialism.

Bellow doesn’t try to claim that America is perfect. He’s not some simple-minded patriot. Rather, he argues that America has replaced Europe as modernity’s crucible-the place where the real action is. Those European Modernists who judged the modern world so harshly in the years around the First World War weren’t so much wrong in their judgement as they were premature. The modern experiment, the unprecedented break in human history that we can all agree has produced a state of permanent crisis, may have ended in ruin and war in Europe, but in America the verdict isn’t in yet. In America, modernity is still struggling to give birth to its own inner impulse. While this may indeed turn out to be Yeats’s “rough beast” or Montale’s “shadowy Lucifer”, it may also take a different, more benign form. Here the great experiment continues and, as Bellow makes clear, America is that experiment, and has been ever since its settlement in the 17th century. “Pioneering America, immigrant America, political America, the industrial America of the Carnegies, DuPonts and Henry Fords did not entirely engross the human spirit in the New World. Something that humankind was doing in this American setting was beyond all these activities and innovations...that something had not found full expression”[9].

What Bellow doesn’t say - and doesn’t need to say since his whole career testifies to the point- is that, so long as the result remains in question, poets and artists and thinkers have a responsibility. It’s up to them to do everything they can to influence the issue, so that what ultimately incarnates is not the devil’s spawn but a new revelation, a new step forward (or upward) for humanity.


Bellow’s thinking was his own but his intellectual evolution paralleled that of his mentors at Partisan Review and of the “New York intellectuals” in general. Most of them began on the left, supporting revolutionary socialism in general and communism in particular.[10] In the 1930s, some of the most progressive, including the circle around Partisan Review, broke with Stalinism but only to endorse Trotsky. Others, less interested in politics and more interested in the arts, put their energies into the left critique of American culture as philistine and American society as dominated by business and money-making.

The experience of war and the Cold War that was its immediate aftermath changed these attitudes. On the one hand, opposing Stalinism was no longer a sectarian choice but got gathered up into the broader wave of Anti-Communism that swept America in the late 1940s and early 1950s, where it was transformed into hard-line opposition to “Soviet totalitarianism” and the supposed Soviet desire for world domination. On the other hand, with America’s emergence as a superpower and self-appointed defender of Western values, being “alienated” and disaffected with one’s country ceased to seem like a valid critical stance and seemed more like a quasi-traitorous anti-Americanism. Meanwhile “Americanism”, previously the cheesy invention of small-town patriots and right-wing clubs like the American Legion, became newly intellectually respectable.

As the “age of alienation” gave way to the “age of conformity” among the New York intellectuals via what Norman Podhoretz called “the move...towards self-acceptance as Americans” there were several important markers along the route. One was a symposium staged by Partisan Review in 1952, whose title tells the story- “Our Country and Our Culture”. [11]

Another was the extraordinary reception given to The Adventures of Augie March when it appeared in 1953. Vaulting the great divide between highbrow literary novelists like Bellow and popular authors, Augie March entered the bestseller lists that were considered the preserve of middlebrow writers like Herman Wouk and James Michener.

Norman Podhortez, then a young critic and new recruit to the ‘culture crowd’ (as the New York intellectuals were known), reconstructed the situation as follows: “by the early 1950s... when Bellow was working on The Adventures of Augie March, the ethos of which his first two novels had been among the early premonitions was also in the process of consolidating itself, and as its outlines grew clearer it gained steadily in confidence and militancy. The first stage (reflected, it may be, in the pessimism of The Victim) was an almost reluctant admission that America had become the only protection against the infinitely greater menace of Soviet totalitarianism. But what began as a grim reconciliation to the lesser of two evils soon turned into something more positive ranging from the jingoism of a few ex-radicals who travelled as far to the right as they could do to the upsurge of an exhilarating new impulse to celebrate the virtues of the American system and of American life in general.........

The spiritual atmosphere of this phase of American cultural history was fully captured and expressed for the first time in a novel by The Adventures of Augie March which perhaps explains why the book was greeted with such universal enthusiasm and delight when it appeared in 1953. The attitudes of what its enemies called ‘the age of conformity’ and its friends’ the age of intellectual revisionism’ were all there......”[12]

‘Augie March’and the novels that followed made Bellow the key writer of America’s Golden Age. His prime coincided with the period when America stood alone at the apex of world power with only the Soviet Union as its rival. Bellow made his voice into the crucial voice because he offered the most sophisticated, the most sympathetic rationale for America’s global supremacy- namely, that it’s an experiment. America is conducting an experiment on behalf of all mankind, one that America alone is in a position to conduct. “Urbanization and technology indisputably dominate the planet. A world society quite different from the one anticipated by Marxists has materialised and we are looking for ways to come to terms with it”. [13]

Now, if you had to choose a country in which to stage the drama of the individual under modern world-historical conditions, America would be the obvious choice. After all, they had 200 years of experience with this sort of thing. Given a society in which everyone, except for the native Indians, is an immigrant or the descendant of an immigrant, identity has always been an American preoccupation. Whoever you were back home, once you left the old country, crossed the ocean and landed in what was- not long ago, only a couple of hundred years ago- a vast wilderness, you faced the question, who are you in this new world? What is this new man, an American?

To put it another way, America is where the early Protestant obsession with the individual soul got its second wind from the 19th century bourgeois passion for individualism. The result was the tremendous American emphasis on the Self, the solitary individual. At the same time, America has always put the Self under equally tremendous pressure: at first under geographical pressure, from the sheer size and vacancy of the continent; later, under pressure from industrialism and the production of material power on a gigantic scale; and finally under the pressure of sheer numbers, from 250 million-plus other Americans.

Nowhere else but in America is the Self at once so Promethean and so in danger of shrinking into a mere cypher, a tick, a jot in The Lonely Crowd, which was the title of one of those sociological treatises Americans are so fond of, not so much state-of-the-nation as state- of –the-American, because in America individuals are presumed to be the nation and vice versa.

Are they really? How does that work? At this point, the American problem of identity reveals itself to be the old familiar problem of the one and the many, the Self and society, or, in the form in which the question has preoccupied Americans in recent years, the citizen and the government. It’s a question that doesn’t have any easy answers. One answer that Americans from Emerson to Walt Whitman to Saul Bellow have favoured is America itself, a country that has the handy ability to turn itself into an idea when necessary. The individual American in the course of perfecting his or her self will automatically produce the good society. America will take care of the problems America has created. Such is the moral version of the American Dream whose materialist version seemed, in Bellow’s prime years, all but accomplished- a done deal.

Except that it never quite works that way. The fit is never quite seamless. In the Old World, the split between the individual and the community tends to be held-clamped-together by a strong state. In America, which has a weak state, it generates an endless series of contradictions. You can see some of them at work today in the Tea Party movement whose libertarian cravings are contradicted by their thirst for traditional values and social controls (the movement’s followers deal with this contradiction even more blithely than Emerson, Whitman and co did: they ignore it altogether).

More important for our purposes, the split provided Bellow with his basic plot. Bellow is an extreme example of a novelist who writes the same book over and over. All his novels from Augie March onwards have a similar structure. They all feature an alter ego of a narrator, a solitary man, often scholarly, often with spiritual interests or yearnings, and therefore an outsider in America whose business, we should remind ourselves, is Business. Moses Herzog is typical of Bellovian heroes for whom “awareness was his work; extended consciousness was his line” and who, for one reason or other, finds himself set aside from ordinary toil to conduct his “researches” into the nature of the Self. But then how can he relate to the wider society, except via a series of comic misadventures and misunderstandings? All Bellow’s anti-heroes are adult Augies who’ve grown up to find that things don’t work out as readily as that bouyant, irrepressible youth, a Huck Finn with ambition, a not-so-Innocent American at home and abroad, eternally hopes they will.


If you want to see the novelist Bellow might have been if he’d stayed in Europe and adopted what he called “European nihilism” rather than reacting against it, compare him with the Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard. Bellow’s creative trajectory might have been the same as Bernhard’s had Bellow embraced Europe rather than turning away from it and from existentialism, the philosophy that was either postwar Europe’s answer to nihilism or its surrender to nihilism, depending on your point of view. [14] With The Victim and Dangling Man, Bellow started out down the same path as Bernhard, the path that the great 19th century European writers and their transatlantic followers had laid out for the novel. Bellow travelled to Europe. He got as far as Paris. But then he jumped back to New York instead of carrying on to Vienna. He jumped back because in the end, like Augie March, he was “an American” who must “go at things as I’ve taught myself, free style, and will make the record in my own way.”[15] As for what is an American? , well, that’s exactly the question Bellow asks himself in his novels (and his answer, as we’ve seen, is essentially “a work in progress”).

Both Bellow and Bernhard were language- intoxicated prose-poets. Both men wrote multiple novels that are variations on a single theme. Bernhard’s theme was more or less the same as Bellow’s too- a solitary narrator/anti-hero with introspective and intellectual tastes who has difficulties in relating to other people and to the world around him. The difference between the two writers comes down to a difference of mental and linguistic acceleration. While Bellow’s heroes shuttle back and forth between their own sensibilities and the society they inhabit, unwilling to give up on either although unable finally to reconcile the two, Bernhard’s crazed aristocrats, failed scholars and artists manque shoot past them, leaving reality far behind as they move into alien landscapes generated by their own extreme self-consciousness and tortured disgust at the world in general, as represented for Bernhard by postwar Austria.

If Bernhard took European nihilism to the extreme, Bellow reclaimed American optimism for serious consideration along with several other quintessentially American traits. One of these was religion- a belief in the spiritual world- which in Bellow’s case tended to emerge as a rather rarefied interest in esoteric religious thinkers like Swedenborg or Rudolf Steiner. Another was hyper-individualism. A third was a general distrust of government and the state. The implications of all these positions for art, indeed for society as a whole, tend to be conservative. It was no accident that Bellow framed his break with Europe in specifically political terms, when he decided that French intellectuals were excusing Stalin’s crimes, thereby putting themselves on the wrong side of the great defining issue of our time.

Bellow’s “turn” severed the American novel from Europe’s postwar hangover, and from the “nihilism” he thought infected Europe’s experience of the modern world. In his own Modernism, he looked backwards as well as forwards, bridging the gap between the modern and pre-modern worlds. Bellow wanted to use modernist techniques- in particular the stream-of-consciousness prose developed by Joyce and Proust- to revivify the classic novel with its connection first to the individual, to his spiritual essence, and second to society at large. But keeping all this together, which had still seemed possible with Augie March, became increasingly problematic as time went on and America began to develop many of the same problems that Europe had faced 50 years earlier (Virginia Woolf once said human character itself changed in December 1910, an intuition no less valid for being suspiciously exact in its timing). This American dis-ease, for which the work of the Beats, like Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, provides a clinical catalogue gathered below the conformist and complacent surface of the US in the 1950s. It’s reflected in the increasingly rocky and marginal roads followed by Bellovian heroes after Augie March, in novels whose epiphanous closing pages start to seem tacked on, like Hollywood happy endings.

By the 1960s, when a new, younger generation came out in open revolt against the Western version of modernity, they did so in both America and Europe, and in ways that were virtually identical on both sides of the Atlantic. Mr Sammler’s Planet, published in 1970, is Bellow’s judgement on the Sixties. His judgement was harsh. The novel shocked a lot of Bellow’s admirers who had thought of him as a liberal and now found themselves reading what sounded like a dyed-in-the-wool reactionary, describing the hippies and young radicals as “hairy, dirty, without style, levellers, ignorant” and condemning their elders in “White Protestant America for not keeping better order. Cowardly surrender. Not a strong ruling class. Eager in a secret humiliating way to come down and mingle with all the minority mobs and scream against themselves.”[16]

At the time, this looked like a second “turn” by Bellow- and a U turn at that. But was it really? Bellow himself rejected the notion. He claimed he never saw himself as a conservative but had remained “some sort of liberal”.[17] In his view, it was liberalism (turning into “big government” and political correctness) and America (becoming a multiethnic polity) that had changed. There is some truth in this idea despite the likes of Ronald Reagan parroting crude versions of the same notion. [18] Bellow’s politics do seem to have remained more or less consistent even as modern social and political conditions finally caught up with, and transformed, America, making those same politics no longer progressive but right-wing.

The 1960s in America were a reprise of the early 1900s, a time when a new, second wave of modernity- the wave called “postmodern”- hit with full force. The rationalisation of industry and commodities that launched the modern world moved on to a new stage, commencing “the rationalisation of human beings through marketing, public relations, image consulting and spin.”[19] Mass Man turned into The Organisation Man, The Man in The Grey Flannel Suit, the figure in The Lonely Crowd. My generation’s response to these developments was the socio-political event known as “the Sixties”. Bellow neither understood nor sympathised with this last, no doubt doomed, protest against the progress of a “totally administered society” with its massive reorganisation and reconfiguration of human life through consumption, labour and war. By the 1960s, we were all trying to get out of the rational perch that had shaped the West since the Enlightenment but had now stranded us on the farthest tip of the outermost branch- a branch about to break under the weight of the mass scientific-technological societies created by that same history[20]. The difference between Bellow and us baby-boomers was that Bellow thought it was still possible to climb back down to the safety of the trunk, to traditional liberal humanism, purged of what he saw as a degenerate Romanticism and its successor, Euro-nihilism. We, on the other hand, thought the only thing left to do was to jump.


My own Sixties generation, the sons and daughters of American abundance, allied ourselves with the dystopian view of modernity taken by the European modernists- the very people Bellow had rejected as “nihilists” twenty years earlier.[21] When young Americans went “looking for America” as the Sixties anthem ran, they were more likely to find the America of Howl than the America of Augie March or Moses Herzog. Yet Bellow’s views resembled ours in many respects. Like his repudiation of the Euro-nihilists, his quarrel with the younger generation was more subtle than it seemed at the time.

Like us, Bellow believed there was more to the world than is dreamt of in scientific-technological rationalism. He shared our scorn for the political class: “in the highest government positions almost no human beings have been seen for decades now, anywhere in the world”. He attacked the rich and big businessmen: “it was plain that the rich men he knew were winners in struggles of criminality”. He even drew unflattering parallels between the USA and the USSR, equating them in ways no conventional Cold Warrior would have dreamt of doing (Mr Sammler sees “Washington and Moscow as twin evils, in all significant respects identical”). Bellow also came out publicly against the Vietnam War, though he avoided the big demonstrations that attracted the likes of Norman Mailer.

It wasn’t so much that Bellow disagreed with the views of my generation, then, as that he disagreed with- disliked- was disgusted by us, ourselves. “The thing evidently, as Mr Sammler was beginning to grasp, consisted in obtaining the privileges and free ways of barbarism under the protection of civilised order, property rights, refined technological organisation and so on”.... “the children were setting fire to libraries. And putting on Persian trousers, letting their sideburns grow. This was their symbolic wholeness”. And, “It made him sad to feel that the thought, art, belief of great traditions should be so misemployed. Elevation? Beauty? Torn into shreds, into ribbons for girls’ costumes or trailed like the tail of a kite at Happenings. Plato and the Buddha raided by looters. The tombs of Pharohs broken into by desert rabble.”[22]

If we were to draw up a set of Bellovian equations about the Sixties, they would look something like this:

1. The Sixties youth revolt was not a progressive revolutionary upsurge but a symptom of social and political decay and degeneracy.

2. The essential demand of the Sixties was for sexual liberation rather than, say, opposition to the Vietnam War, calls for reform of the universities, civil rights, anti-capitalism, expanded consciousness or anything else. “A sexual madness was overwhelming the Western world”.[23]

3. This demand was not, as the young radicals thought, a repudiation of American capitalism (or Soviet communism), but a continuation and extension of the USA and USSR’s utopian nature, their refusal to accept the limits that go with being human, limits that are best expressed in a traditional, liberal polity and a humanist society bound by rules and order

And finally-

4. The emphasis on sexual freedoms and the body linked the young white radicals with Negroes and primitive peoples in general. “From the black side, strong currents were sweeping over everyone. Child, black, redskin—the unspoiled Seminole against the horrible Whiteman. Millions of civilized people wanted oceanic, boundless, primitive, neckfree nobility, experienced a strange release of galloping impulses, and acquired the peculiar aim of sexual niggerhood for everyone.” “The labor of Puritanism now was ending...the reprobates converted into the children of joy, the sexual ways of the seraglio and the Congo bush adopted by the emancipated masses of NY, Amsterdam, London”.[24]


Once again, Bellow viewed an historical crisis primarily as a traison de clercs, with the universities becoming the epicentres of the Sixties revolt. Numbers of academics sided with the young radicals and their critique of American society. Others like Bellow, by then teaching at the University of Chicago, were horrified by the disorder. Bellow “had no doubt that the loud sour trumpeting of decay was (being) mistaken for the spirited tune of true rebellion”.[25] When Mr Sammler worries “whether the worst enemies of civilization might not prove to be its petted intellectuals who attacked it at its weakest moments- attacked it in the name of proletarian revolution, in the name of reason, and in the name of immortality, in the name of visceral depth, in the name of sex, in the name of perfect instantaneous freedom”, he’s using a high-flown version of the rhetoric that Nixon employed Spiro Agnew to hurl against his enemies. [26]

For all these reasons Saul Bellow couldn’t be “our” author. Our champion was Norman Mailer who, after publishing one bestselling novel based on his experiences in the war (The Naked and the Dead), spent the rest of his career as an experimental writer. Experimental not so much in form (despite all the 1970s ballyhoo about the coalescence of fiction and journalism to produce a new kind of “non-fiction novel”) as in content. Mailer’s search for a fresh subject after The Naked and the Dead led him in many different directions. It would be fair to say he tried almost everything, both on the page and off. As a writer, he inhabited such American types as the private eye, the gunslinger, the CIA operative, the free-loving hipster, and the roving reporter (as well as such non-American ones as an ancient Egyptian and Hitler). When he wasn’t writing, Mailer tried being a film director, a debater, a frequent guest on TV talk shows and a candidate for Mayor of New York.

In his dramatic, almost theatrical way, Mailer’s search anticipated my generation’s quest for an identity that could outrun nihilism, now that modernity had made its full impact on the West and exposed the limitations and omissions of traditional liberal humanism. In artistic terms, too, the situation seemed to call for a new or second avant garde rather than Bellow’s modified realism. Mailer was the key figure in attempting to create a new form for the novel (to be followed by Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo). If he often failed to find it, the obstacles were (and remain) severe. As Pankaj Mishra explains, “There are considerable formal difficulties involved in moving away from that entire school of American fiction that DeLillo (has) defined as ‘around-the-house-and-in-the-yard’. The peculiar realities, dreams and fears of public life- ruthless corporations, terrorist sleeper cells, imperial presidencies, remote wars- can lead to an oppressive shapelessness, unsuited to the plot-driven mimetic realism minted in the 19th century. The strain on language can be too great, the attempted fusion of the political and the personal can take on a bewildering occult quality.”[27]

That paragraph could stand as a critique of Mailer’s work as a whole. Mailer himself eventually- and openly- turned to the occult to bridge what was as much a literary as an intellectual gap.[28] But he invested his early hopes in the figure of the hipster as postmodern successor to the burned-out liberal- humanist hero. In his famous essay The White Negro, Mailer addressed the Sixties dilemma avant la lettre by sketching this new identity, based on the very terms Bellow had rejected back in 1948. The new American was to be an “American existentialist”, a swinging hipster or an updated Beat who anticipated Sixties themes of sexuality, the body, spontaneity, and anti-rationalism. He (or she) was also, as the title declared, a White Negro.

“......In such places as Greenwich Village a menage a trois was completed- the bohemian and the hipster came face to face with the Negro, and the hipster was a fact in American life. ..and in this wedding of the white and the black it was the Negro who brought the cultural dowry.” With his keen eye for the social and political future, Mailer wrote of Greenwich Village in 1959 “with this possible emergence of the Negro (through civil rights) Hip may erupt as a psychically armed rebellion whose sexual impetus may rebound against the antisexual foundations of every organised power in America...a time of violence, new hysteria, confusion and rebellion will then replace the time of conformity.”[29]

Ten years later, when Bellow came to write Mr Sammler’s Planet, New York had commenced its long decline into dirt and disorder.[30] The hipster had become the hippy (“hairy, dirty, without style etc”). The Negro’s supposed incarnation of sexuality and outlaw status that had made him a cultural catalyst for the 1950s now appeared as a threatening predator. As civil rights gave way to Black Power, there were “long hot summers” of black rioting in major US cities (accompanied by comments like H Rap Brown’s “violence is as American as cherry pie”) while almost every white New Yorker either had been mugged himself or knew someone who had been.

One avowedly conservative writer/editor recalled the period as follows:

“Fear was a New Yorker’s constant companion in the 1970s and ’80s. We lived behind doors with triple locks, some like engines of medieval ironmongery. We barred our ground-floor and fire-escape windows with steel grates that made us feel imprisoned. ....nearing our building entrances, we held our keys at the ready and looked over our shoulders, as police and street-smart lore advised; our hearts pounded as we tried to shove the heavy doors open and slam them shut before some mugger could push in behind us, standard mugging procedure.”[31]

In Mr Sammler’s Planet, the principal villain isn’t one of the floundering young white New Yorkers Mr Sammler encounters, like the spoiled sexpot Angela or her would-be hipster brother Wallace, but a black professional pickpocket “this handsome, this striking arrogant pickpocket, this African prince or great black beast”. After Mr Sammler spots him practising his trade on a bus, the pickpocket follows Sammler home, corners him in the lobby and gives a warning in the form of a demonstration with sexual overtones: “The pickpocket unbuttoned himself...the black man had opened his fly and taken out his penis. It was displayed to Sammler with great oval testicles, a large tan-and-purple uncircumcised thing....over the forearm and fist that held him Sammler was required to gaze at this organ.”[32]

As this passage shows, America’s Culture Wars (as they became known in the 1980s and 1990s) were not a later invention. They were waged in the first place during the Sixties themselves, when the difference between Mailer and Bellow came down to an argument over the limits of freedom. To Bellow, “limitless demand” is the problem because it is utopian in its refusal to accept the limits that go along with being human. To Mailer, on the other hand, “Hip proposes as its final tendency that every social restraint and category be removed, and the affirmation implicit in the proposal is that man would then prove to be more creative than murderous and so would not destroy himself.”[33] Early on, Mailer understood that a Sixties-style identity would have negative as well as positive consequences and that these negative consequences would be related to sexual freedom and to personal- as opposed to the state or society’s- violence. While he was certainly prepared to accept the resulting disorder, his critics accused him of welcoming and revelling in it (This was the basis of the famous quarrel between Mailer and Gore Vidal who accused him of a “love of murder (and) a celebration of rage”).

There was no such public quarrel between Mailer and Saul Bellow but there were important issues at stake in addition to creative rivalry. Each man stood for something beyond his own talent, and was recognised as doing so. Recalling in later life his views as a young critic, Norman Podhoretz wrote, “I once ventured the proposition that there was a sense in which the validity of a whole phase of American experience- the move in the 1950s away from ‘alienation’ and towards self-acceptance as an American- was felt to hang on the question of whether or not Saul Bellow, who was in effect enacting that development in his work, would turn out to be a great novelist. In that sense, Mailer was the anti-Bellow and the viability of the new radicalism which he was testing out in his work might consciously depend on whether he would turn out to be a great novelist.”[34]


Mailer was a much more public figure and natural political animal than Bellow who found himself acutely uncomfortable when the 1960s arrived and, as such turbulent periods do, politicised everybody. [35] He was undoubtedly sincere when he wrote to a fellow novelist, “the likes of us should quit politics and stick to dreams.”[36] But notice the word “quit”. Faced with the two defining political events of his maturity- first, the early years of the Cold War; and then, the Sixties countercultural “revolution”- Bellow reacted by moving to the right on both occasions. In some moods, he even seems to have subscribed to a conservative narrative that connected the two events and traced both to an original traison des clercs by Sartre. According to this theory, Sartre was a fellow-traveller after the war who went on to become one of the creators of “radical chic” by irresponsibly endorsing revolution and violence in the 3rd world, which in turn formed the inspiration and model for ‘60s student rebels in the 1st world.

Such views would have been common at the University of Chicago where Bellow taught after leaving New York in the early 1960s. Returning to his hometown, Bellow was also returning to the capital of the conservative MidWest and joining a University known as a headquarters for the political and academic right. Bellow’s fellow professors there included such conservative stars as the economist Milton Friedman and the political theorist Leo Strauss.

To Friedman, unregulated so-called “free market” capitalism was never simply an economic necessity: it was a political shibboleth, the sole guarantee of human freedom. To Strauss, pursuing his own version of classical political philosophy, the need was for a liberal state without the liberalism. Strauss’s vision was of a society governed by an aristocratic elite, whose people obeyed a strong religious code and were organised in traditional hierarchies to strike a martial, imperial posture in a world full of enemies.

Bellow’s work developed echoes of both these thinkers, but more so of Strauss. The criticism of both the USA and the USSR as utopian projects; the belief that a just society is not merely impossible but inconceivable; the need for social order and for people to obey authority and follow traditional values are all Straussian positions adopted by Bellow, either directly from Strauss himself or more likely via Bellow’s long friendship with Allen Bloom, an acolyte of Strauss and also an academic at the U. Of Chicago (their friendship was the subject of Bellow’s last novel, ‘Ravelstein’).[37] More important than such specific resemblances, though, was the feeling of horror and outrage at the behaviour of the young would-be revolutionaries that Bellow shared with many (though by no means all) academics and thinkers of his generation and that turned some of them to an increasingly right-wing position known as neo-conservatism.

Ironically, Bellow’s decision to leave New York had come about in part because he felt the New York literary milieu was becoming too politicized with the Vietnam War. But there was another element involved too. As he later recalled for an interviewer, Bellow had decided that Chicago would be a better environment for his work as a novelist, that it was the “more American, more representative” city.[38] Here his sense of timing betrayed him. Chicago might still have been “representative” and all-American when Bellow moved there but, as the century progressed, the city became detached from political and social developments in the US as a whole and curiously old-fashioned. As in other Northeastern and Midwestern US cities, mass immigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries had produced a Tammany Hall- type politics of corruption and clientism in Chicago. But while other cities gradually outgrew the old system, it clung on in Chicago under the control of the late Mayor Richard Daley and his clan. Returning to his hometown may have given Bellow access to the cycle of European immigrant experience in America, but it did so at the cost of cutting him off from changes in the country and the world outside that were making that same experience increasingly unrepresentative.

Another way of putting this would be to say that Bellow’s view of America was urban rather than national. His model for the American political economy was Chicago machine politics. His idea of an American politician was a Chicago alderman. His pattern of a big businessman was a Chicago real estate developer or successful society doctor. The models and the milieu speak of an older America, out of step with the growth of giant transnational corporations, the rise of Wall Street finance capitalism, the development of the massive US military-industrial complex, and of a US Federal Government with global, imperial range and power. It was even out of step with social conditions in the new cities in the South and West that were growing rapidly as the Midwest and Northeast stagnated or declined.[39]

Bellow himself sometimes cited Dickens on London and Balzac on Paris when he talked about his writing. But Dickens’ London and Balzac’s Paris were capital cities at the apex of their power: 19th century Paris and London reflected their respective nations while England and France were reflected in their capitals in turn, and seamlessly. Chicago from the 1960s to the 1990s wasn’t like that. Perhaps as a result, Bellow was a poor predictor of the American future. Take the following from Mr Sammler’s Planet: “The children were setting fire to libraries. And putting on Persian trousers, letting their sideburns grow. This was their symbolic wholeness. An oligarchy of technicians, engineers, the men who ran the grand machines would come to govern vast slums filled with bohemian adolescents narcotized, beflowered and ‘whole’.” That might have seemed a plausible prognosis when Bellow sketched it at the end of the 1960s. By the early 2000s, it was patently and utterly wrong.


In the half century from the youth revolt of the 1960s to the Tea Party revolt of the 2010s, the US developed in the exact opposite way to Bellow’s predictions. “The Sixties” turned out to be a short-lived carnival distracting from the real action behind the scenes where post-war capitalism’s stupendous recovery stalled and entered a Long Downturn. Beginning with Ronald Reagan, neoliberals attempted to make up for the defects of the market by redoubling “free market” forces through privatisation and deregulation while the US economy stayed afloat on a series of speculative bubbles, ending in a major global financial crisis in 2008.

Corporations moved plants offshore or to non-union states, or shut them down entirely. Blue collar and then many white collar jobs disappeared. Average wages shrank. A superwealthy oligarchy emerged comparable to the 19th century robber barons of the Gilded Age- by 2010 the top 1% of American households took 25% of the national income. American democracy turned into a perpetual motion machinery of fundraising and lobbying dominated by the big corporations and the rich. Meanwhile, both public and private bureaucracies continued to grow and to squeeze the individual’s experience of freedom, adding a whole new surveillance and “security” apparatus after the 9/11 attacks.

So far as I know, Bellow never changed his prophesy or admitted how wrong he’d been. He was not alone in this. For many years, the memory of 1960s sturm und drang obscured the deeper, long-term, deeper changes that were undermining America’s golden age- as well as diverting the populist rage that was the response to those changes. People continued to argue over the legacy of the Sixties. America was gripped by Culture Wars based on the divisions that had opened up in that decade even as the American polity underwent major reconstruction in a socio-economic counter-reformation led by resurgent capitalist class power.

Meanwhile, populist discontent in America navigated from the left to the right of the political spectrum.[40] In the Sixties, the rage against government authority had come from the left, from a youth revolt that in turn took much of its energy from the civil rights struggle and the tragedy of the Vietnam War (although there were always two sides to the 1960s’ turmoil. While the counterculture hogged the headlines there was a powerful conservative backlash against it, whether from university professors like Bellow appalled at becoming the targets of their own students or from hard hats beating up antiwar protesters).

Two decades on, the New Left was old history while the rage on the right continued to escalate. Sixties disorder hardened into an inarticulate, racially inflected “class war” in the form of an urban crime wave fuelled by drugs. Affluent WASPs confronted black and brown predators for control of the degraded “streets” of major cities, or abandoned those cities altogether for the suburbs. Layoffs and “restructurings” shook first blue collar and then white collar workers as the insecurity that had always haunted working class lives started to invade the middle class.

Bellow’s contribution to this rapidly changing society was The Dean’s December (1980), or more specifically the sections of that novel that describe Chicago and Chicago’s criminal justice system. In these sections, Bellow connects “the slums of the psyche” with the physical slums in Chicago, the degradation of the inner world reflected in the outer. Indeed, The Dean’s December is the novel in which that link, first forged in Mr Sammler’s Planet, becomes explicit.[41] At the same time, the call for individuals to reconnect to the spiritual, to re-enchant the world and re-animate their inner, imaginative powers remains the author’s message, put forward with ever-increasing urgency. For Bellow, inner transformation and renewal are the prescriptions for social transformation and renewal. The contrast with Europe and the early Modernists is as striking as ever. To the Modernists, the coming of the scientific-technological world, organised as industrial commodity-capitalism, distorted and emptied people’s inner lives rather than the other way around.

What is different about The Dean’s December is that Bellow seeks a kind of reconciliation with Europe, even with European “nihilism”. Judging by the passages in the novel set in the old Eastern bloc, he wants America’s bourgeoisie to stop being so bourgeois, or rather to revert to being the kind of bourgeois interested in “property and learning” who flourished in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (notably among educated German jews or in Bloomsbury in Britain), and pockets of which certain European conditions have preserved, albeit at the cost of great suffering. Bellow is a student of those conditions, be they antisemitisim, fascism and the massacre of the Jews or the long grey postwar stasis in the Iron Curtian countries. He annexes them as background for some key characters- for Valeria and others in Dean’s December; for Mr Sammler in Mr Sammler’s Planet .But by the time he comes to write Dean’s December it’s clear to him that such conditions are irrecoverable ancient history.

Pessimism replaces the characteristic Bellovian optimism. In The Dean’s December, America’s abundance appears riven with corruption at both ends of the social spectrum. The placing of the characters in relation to the novel’s central theme represents a reversal of the stance the author himself adopted in Paris in the late 1940s. Now it’s the Europeans who are the guardians and exemplars of liberal humanist values while the Americans are either flashy charlatans like the journalist Dewey Spangler or live in horrifying ghetto chaos and disorder. The novel’s hero, Dean Corde, is an old-fashioned, Europhile type of American, educated, avuncular and well-meaning, the type who ought to be a conduit between Europe and America, East and West, combining the best European values with America’s democratic and republican spirit. Corde as a type harks back to Bellow’s own Partisan Review generation of intellectuals like Sidney Hook who broke with Communism and committed themselves to the Cold War (The Dean’s December’s view of life behind the Iron Curtain is as unsparing as any Cold Warrior could wish). In those days, Bellow would argue, the Americans transmitted the necessary correction to fellow-travelling Europeans. But under contemporary conditions, the putative transmission fails at both ends. Corde finds himself impotent and irrelevant in Eastern Europe even as he’s villified and eaten up by sharpies and frauds back home in Chicago after he seeks justice for a student murdered by black criminals and publishes a series of articles that relate harsh home truths about his city.

According to Philip Roth, “the book’s very point is that this huge place (Chicago) is Bellow’s no the time he comes to write The Dean’s December some thirty years after Augie March his hero Dean Corde has become the city’s Sammler”.[42]

This is a devastating development. If Chicago is “Bellow’s no longer”, if he’s not at home there, then as Roth points out, he’s no longer at home in America tout court, since Chicago is Saul Bellow’s chosen stand-in for the nation. Mr Sammler’s Planet was an angry book because Bellow thought he knew who was to blame: it was the young radicals. By the time of The Dean’s December, his vision is no longer so clear and it sometimes seems as if every element in Chicago’s politics and society is at fault, that they’re all as bad as one another[43]. Hence the novel’s sombre, rather elegaic tone.

The interesting thing about the Chicago material is not that it’s boring or inaccurate but that it fails to capture the feeling of the times the way that Mr Sammler’s Planet captured the sense of the Sixties (albeit from the conservative point of view). In fact, the later book is really ‘Mr Sammler’ warmed over and reworked to fit Chicago rather than New York. The Dean’s December is Bellow’s confession that America has gone beyond him. Bellow’s urban model turns out to be a poor template for plotting the downward curve America is taking from its golden age. The country’s focus has shifted elsewhere, away from the great Northeastern and midWestern cities to the new Republican suburbs and exurbs in the South and West, while the centre of gravity of American politics has moved from the broadly “liberal” (in the American sense) to what was previously considered the extreme, even lunatic, right, represented by men like Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. Later, the racial divide will migrate as well, from white panic over black inner-city ghettoes to white panic over Hispanic immigration.

About this new world and the forces that brought it into being, Bellow has little to say. Already, by the time Dean’s December appeared, white rage could no longer be contained within an intelligent, nuanced, realistic work of this sort. A cruder vehicle was needed to express emotions that had begun to be overdetermined, inflated by more inarticulate concerns than their ostensible objects- in this case, black crime and the menace of “the streets” (both much exaggerated in white perceptions). The work that truly captured the mood of 1980s America wasn’t a Saul Bellow novel but a movie, Falling Down, starring Michael Douglas as William ‘D-fens’ Foster. Laid off from his defense industry job (he builds missiles), estranged from his wife, kept from seeing his daughter, stranded on an LA freeway in yet another gridlock on a boiling hot day, D-fens abandons his car and sets off to walk across L.A.- a wonderful image of rebellion in that car-dominated metropolis. Along the way he enacts what had become, by the 1980s, a favourite white middle-class fantasy, violently righting society’s imbalance and injustice. He encounters and blows away murderous gangbangers, creepy neo-Nazis and fat cat golfers alike while declaiming to everyone he meets that he is “overeducated and underskilled or is it the other way around? I’m not economically viable.”

Falling Down ends with D-fens provoking Robert Duvall’s detective to shoot him since he’s worth more to his family dead, due to the insurance payoff, than he is alive and in prison. Facing an uncertain retirement himself, his career washed up between stupid, self-promoting superiors and streets full of “human scum”, Duvall’s cop is not unsympathetic. Before the fatal faceoff the two men talk and D-fens says “I’m the bad guy? How did that happen? I built missiles...I helped defend this country. You should be rewarded for that. Instead they give the money to plastic surgeons. ...they lied to me.”

“They lie to everyone,” Duvall tells him. “They lie to the fish. That doesn’t make you special.”

There’s nihilism, if you like. Under the guise of enacting the silent majority’s fantasy of freedom and retribution, Falling Down actually reflects a white middle class’s impotent rage and increasing cynicism. But that rage still has limits. Despite the truly subversive final scene, for most of its length Falling Down, like other vigilante films such as Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry and Charles Bronson’s Death Wish series, situates its narrative squarely in support of “law and order”. There is confusion and disillusion (“I’m the bad guy?”) about laws that supposedly protect the criminals rather than their victims, as well as about social forces that toss honest white (-collar) workers on the scrapheap while rewarding charlatans (“plastic surgeons” who are plastic in all senses of the word). But there is no outright revolt. Nor does the Federal Government or the state as such appear on D-fens’ list of targets.


Coming to adulthood at the end of the Second World War, Bellow witnessed the inception of the Cold War, the emergence of America as a superpower and- of special importance to him-the establishment of the state of Israel, along with the revelations of the full horror of the Holocaust as they emerged in the post-war years.

The politics he developed in response to these events were both simple and typical of his generation. Bellow saw Communism as Stalinism and therefore evil. Given that the facts about Stalin’s regime were readily available, the only reason for anybody to remain a Communist was “hatred of one’s own country. Among the French it was the old confrontation of ‘free spirits’ or artists with the bourgeoisie. In America, it was the fight against the McCarthys, the House Committees investigating subversion etc......well, it was a deep and perverse stupidity.”[44]

He saw the state of Israel as a response to the Holocaust and thus necessary and good. The only reason for anybody not to support Israel was anti-semitism.

He saw Europe as fatally undermined and infected by a nihilism that led to the Second World War, Hitler and the Holocaust (and Stalin). In one of his letters, Bellow tries to argue that nihilism ties together the history of pre-war Europe with the history of post-war America and Israel. “The movement (among European Jews) to assimilate coincided with the arrival of nihilism. This nihilism reached its climax with Hitler. The Jewish answer to the Holocaust was the creation of a state. After the camps came politics and these politics are nihilistic. Your (Christopher) Hitchenses, the political press in its silly dishevelled left-wing form are (if nihilism has a hierachy) its gnomes.”[45]

Bellow’s answer to the various political conundrums bred from the sickness of the Old World was equally straightforward. His answer was the New World, America (or America plus Israel for the Jews). As a result, when postwar America’s great crisis developed in the 1960s, Bellow saw it from the opposite point of view from that of the radicals. He could agree with them that there was a crisis. He could even agree the Vietnam War was wrong. But he opposed the war as a discrete, single issue, a government policy like any other. He didn’t regard Vietnam as evidence of some deep-seated break or flaw in American society, one that required a radical response and the mounting of barricades. On the contrary, Bellow saw the revolutionaries, both the students and their radical chic patrons, as causing the crisis.[46]

Bellow had his own criticisms of America that might be summed up in Calvin Coolidge’s famous declaration “the business of America is business”. He had no truck with that and never ceased bemoaning the hold business had over his countrymen (though he admitted to a sneaking regard for entrepreneurial chutzpah that he ascribed to his father). But the radicals’ critique of America’s dark side- of empire, of power, of a military-industrial complex (Amerika!)- never really interested him or found a place in his fiction. Nor did their critique of America as an example of ruthless and exploitative global capitalism. In his prime, Bellow saw America fundamentally as energy and optimism, as a tremendous planetary resource, so that if much of both those qualities were to be wasted (on business, for instance) enough would still be available for spiritual evolution. When that hope grew tarnished and more distant of realisation after the 1960s, he blamed the Sixties for the debacle.

He began to align himself with a new group of disillusioned ex-liberals, the neoconservatives, for whom the U of Chicago was a spiritual home[47]. According to his biographer James Atlas, “he concurred with the main tenets of neoconservative thought: that the Russians posed a threat to American society; that America had grown morally lax, a legacy of liberalism and the welfare state; that big government is bad”.[48] In 1981, he allowed his name to be linked to the neocon Committee for the Free World and when he resigned from the Committee three years later his resignation letter made it clear his reasons were aesthetic (he objected to the literary reviews in the Committee’s journal) rather than political: “about Nicaragua we can agree well enough but as soon as you begin to speak of culture you give me the willies.”[49]

As time went on and Sixties disorder and political correctness became increasingly thin and inadequate explanations of what had gone wrong with America, Bellow, like his fellow conservatives, neo or otherwise, had nothing to offer in their place and it’s this, rather than the graphic descriptions of the lives of Chicago’s underclass, that makes Dean’s December (and the novels that came after) seem disappointing. Another 20 years had to pass, years in which one commentator identified the two main trends in American life as being Wall Street and militarism, both fuelled by white male rage, until Americans’ populist fury was directed openly against their own government. Much of the Tea Party movement turned out to be smoke and mirrors, pumped up behind the scenes by a group of reactionary multi-millionaires such as the Koch brothers. But the part that was spontaneous saw the government as a marker for everything that was wrong with white Americans’ lives from rampant economic inequality and declining living standards to the loss of their traditional status over ethnic and other minorities to endless overseas wars to an ever more tightly organised and supervised domestic society where the rules and penalties seemed to multiply year or year- along with their own powerlessness to change any of it in a democracy squarely in the hands of a wealthy oligarchy and its client-politicians.

By then, Saul Bellow was dead (he died in 2005 aged 89) and America had travelled far from the golden age he chronicled, when American abundance made it look like a potential utopia, like the country where the great modernist experiment could finally create the “something that had not found full expression”.


After this essay was completed, a previously unpublished 1988 speech by Saul Bellow ‘A Jewish Writer in America’ appeared in the New York Review of Books (October 27th and November 10th 2011). In it, Bellow takes additional steps to connect his idea of “nihilism” to 20th century history and to the history of the Jews in particular. Specifically rejecting Nietzsche’s idea of nihilism as “too broad to be useful”, Bellow offers his own definition: “nihilism denies existence of any distinct substantial self. This lack of self-substance makes all persons nugatory or insignificant.”

Taken to its logical extreme, the Nazis “applied” nihilism to the Jews and “other peoples judged superfluous”. It is in this sense European nihilism became an actor in history. But there is more. In the wake of the Holocaust the Jews, who had every reason to despair and fade into oblivion, instead responded by creating the state of Israel, reaffirming their existence in the most concrete historical (and martial) sense and “remov(ing) the curse of the Holocaust, the abasement of victimization from them.” As a result “the Jews, through the horror of their suffering and their response to suffering, stand apart from the prevailing nihilism of the West-if they wish to separate themselves from this nihilism they have such a legitimate option.”

Bellow goes on to unpack what is involved in this “separation”, especially in America where, he says, Jews like himself have complete freedom to express themselves. Several related ideas are involved. One is that nihilism remains pervasive in contemporary culture and society, it’s the tone of the age from which Jews themselves cannot escape: “all of us living in the West must endure this desolation” which is “the despair arising from the dying heart of every ‘advanced society’”. Second, nihilism is not the same as the “alienation” which was much discussed in the post-war West. It’s more profound than that. A clue to its nature is the opposition Bellow and other Jewish writers and thinkers faced in the America of the 1950s from the ruling WASP cultural elite, what could be called the TS Eliot-Wasteland school. Their nihilism, Bellow says, was in fact “profoundly racist”- it was anti-Semitic.

So is nihilism actually the same as, or the incubator of, anti-Semitism? And is anti-Semitism and the Jewish response to it, centred around the twin events of the Holocaust and the founding of the state of Israel, the Ariadne’s thread therefore that runs through modern history and leads us to the face of the Gorgon and back again, so that the Jews save the rest of us from nihilism? As much as their fate shows us there is no redemption by a supernatural force or personality or plan so their response to that fate shows us how to redeem ourselves and continue this life after Nietzsche’s declared “death of God”. Bellow doesn’t go as far as that but he does confirm his own credo as a rejecter of nihilism and a defender of the “substantial self” and its spiritual connection to the cosmos even if, as he makes clear, in his own case that connection cannot be through religious Judaism or “Jewish orthodoxy”.

NB interestingly, Bellow in this speech credits Leo Strauss with influencing his views on the Jews, citing Strauss’ essay ‘Why We Remain Jews’ (in ‘Jewish Philosophy and the Crisis of Modernity: Essays and Lectures in Modern Jewish Thought’ ed. Kenneth Hart Green, State University of New York press, 1997).

[1] Tony Judt, ‘Postwar’ (London, Wm. Heinemann, 2005) p. 209.

[2] Saul Bellow, ‘It All Adds Up’ (New York: Viking Penguin, 1994) essay on ‘My Paris’ pps. 239;235.

[3]Not just the Germans. Take TS Eliot and DH Lawrence, two very different Anglophone artists.

[4]Raymond Aron, ‘The Opium of the Intellectuals’ (New Brunswick,Va: Transactions, 2001 reprint of 1955 original) p. 49.

[5] In Saul Bellow, ‘Mr. Sammler’s Planet’ (London: Penguin Books, 1972).

[6] The trope of dehumanised “mass man” has a convoluted history. In early 20th century Europe, where it was used by both left and right, its use was connected to fears over the advent of modern democracy and the entry of the masses into politics. In this form it had little resonance in America where mass politics had been the rule for years and democracy was the founding ideology. An American like Saul Bellow adopted the notion in its obverse: where European thinkers saw “mass man” as the product of modern society in general and capitalism in particular, Bellow took it primarily as a reference to, and critique of, the modern state, of collectives in general and political collectives (such as Fascism and Communism but also the post-1960s US Federal Government) in particular.

During the 20th century, the trope continued to migrate from the left to the right of the political spectrum and from Europe to America. Though the phrase itself fell out of use, its anti-collective sense reappeared in US conservative reaction to the 1960s and the ensuing right-wing attacks on “big government”. You can even detect its ghost in later descriptions of affluent Western society as a consumerist dystopia whose citizens lack religious discipline and martial vigour.

[7] Saul Bellow, ‘Herzog’ (London: Penguin Modern Classics, 2007)

[8] Philip Roth , ‘Rereading Saul Bellow’ (2000) p 139-160 in ‘Shop Talk’ (NY: Houghton Mifflin, 2001)

[9] Bellow ‘The Jefferson Lectures’ 1977 in Bellow, 1994. P. 127.

[10] The name given to the group of editors, writers, critics, columnists, thinkers and ideologues (not all of them New Yorkers) who operated in the public realm of little magazines, newspapers, book publishing, TV etc..

[11] Norman Podhoretz, ‘Ex-Friends’ (New York: The Free Press, 1999) p. 192.

[12] Norman Podhoretz, ‘Doings and Undoings, The Fifties and After in American Writing’ (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Co, 1964) p. 215

[13]‘The Distracted Public’ 1990 in Bellow, 1994. p. 156. To “come to terms with it” here means “discover its inner meaning” or “find its fullest expression”.

[14] Since it accepted nihilism’s premises about the lack of meaning or purpose but saw it as an opportunity to create one’s own character rather than setting men adrift in an absurd world. The resulting creed is rather pessimistic and stoic for all its exhortations to human freedom and choice.

[15] Bellow was actually born in Canada. His family emigrated to Chicago when Saul was 9.

[16] Bellow, ‘Mr. Sammler’s Planet’ .

[17]James Atlas, ‘Bellow: A Biography’ (London, Faber and Faber, 2000) p. 575.

[18]Reagan tried to reach out to Democratic voters, the so-called “Reagan Democrats”, by telling them ‘you haven’t left the Democratic Party: the Democratic Party left you’- ie by becoming too liberal or too radical.

[19]Jennifer Egan, ‘Look At Me’ (2001).

[20] ‘Do Not Fold Spindle or Mutilate’ was an early Sixties slogan. In that era, when politics was worn Andy-Warhol style in slogans, on T-shirts and on buttons, it referred to the instructions on punch cards used by early computers and expressed the 1960s radicals’ revolt against a society they saw as ever more computerised, militarised and reducing human beings to numbers, to “mass men”.

[21] Some of the European modernists and the intellectuals who inspired and helped lead the Sixties cultural revolution were indeed the same people leading second, post-war lives in the US. Herbert Marcuse is a well-known example.

[22] Bellow, ‘Mr. Sammler’ ; and ‘The Old System’ in Saul Bellow, ‘Collected Stories’ (London: Penguin Modern Classics, 2007)

[23] Bellow, ‘Mr Sammler’.

[24] Bellow, ‘Mr Sammler’. Though Bellow didn’t say so, the link was specific in rock n’roll, named from black slang for having sex.

[25]Stanley Crouch, Introduction to Mr Sammler’s Planet (NY: Penguin 20th Century Classics edition, 2004)

[26]Bellow, ‘Mr Sammler’s Planet’.

[27]Pankaj Mishra ‘Modernity’s Undoing’ in London Review of Books, 31 March 2011. The article is a review of Jennifer Egan’s novel, ‘A Vist from the Goon Squad’.

[28]The grandfather of this strategy was DH Lawrence. In the early 20th century, Lawrence’s passionate protest against modernity ‘s first wave ended up with him endorsing a revived Aztec religion in ‘The Plumed Serpent’.

[29] Norman Mailer, ‘The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster’ in ‘The Time of Our Time’ (London: Little Brown and Co, 1998) p. 211-230.

[30] Published in 1970 the novel was actually begun in 1968, the turning point of the American 1960s and the most turbulent year in post-war US history. 1968 saw the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy; the height of the Vietnam War and campus demonstrations against the war; LBJ’s decision not to stand for re-election; and the police riot at the Democratic Convention in Chicago.

[31] Myron Magnet, ‘Mr. Sammler’s City’ in City Journal, Spring 2008. The rest of the piece is effectively a precis of ‘Mr. Sammler’ by a sympathetic fan, to which Magnet adds his own contempt for such Sixties figures as William Sloane Coffin and the Black Panthers. It’s striking how viscerally and angrily right-wing ‘Sammler’s’ politics appear when extracted from the novel’s characters and plot.

[32] Bellow, ‘Mr Sammler’s Planet’.

[33]Mailer, ‘The White Negro’. The full quote begins “the nihilism of Hip proposes...” Mailer’s Nietzschean point is that “Hip” transcends or pushes beyond nihilism to reach the “affirmation” in the second half of the quote- or as he puts it a few lines earlier, “the nihilistic fulfillment of each man’s desire contains its antithesis of human co-operation”. I ‘ve omitted Mailer’s use of “nihilism” here as confusing to the more normative usage in this essay.

[34] Podhoretz, ‘Ex-Friends’ p. 192-3.

[35] Oddly, though Mailer must have appeared on hundreds, if not thousands, of platforms, public debates, staged symposia, TV discussions and the like, he never mastered the art and was a terrible public speaker.

[36] Letter to Martin Amis 30th December 1990.

[37] The last of these, the call for order and authority, is hardly a concern of the somewhat antinomian Augie March, Henderson the Rain King or even Moses Herzog. It becomes explicit in Mr Sammler’s Planet and is the best evidence that Bellow did indeed take a new and conservative turn with that book.

I’ve omitted strong anti-communism from the list of positions common to Bellow and Strauss (and Friedman) because it was shared by many other US Cold War liberals as well as (of course) conservatives and neoconservatives.

[38] Michiko Kakutani , ‘A Talk with Saul Bellow in Chicago’ December 13th 1981, downloaded from

[39] Given America’s size and complexity, it’s arguable that there is no single place that can serve as a national standpoint. However, as the one really cosmopolitan or “world city” in the US, New York seems a better bet than Chicago. The alternative strategy of being an avowedly regional or local novelist like Faulkner never appealed to Bellow.

[40] Populist discontent is the modern world’s political high explosive that can find expression equally in left-wing or right-wing revolts. The classic case is the rise of both Socialism/Communism and Fascism/Nazism in Germany between the wars.

[41]Bellow himself judged both Mr Sammler’s Planet and Dean’s December as not “real” novels, presumably because of the strong didactic element in both books. “Sammler isn’t even a novel. It’s a dramatic essay of some sort, wrung from me by the crazy Sixties” Letter to Daniel Fuchs April 10 1974 in ‘Saul Bellow: Letters’ edited by Benjamin Taylor (NY: Viking Penguin, 2010). And- “.... The Dean is not a “fiction” in the conventional sense. It is, as some people have told me, people whose judgement I value, a very strange piece of work.” Letter to Owen Barfield August 23 1982 in Bellow ‘Letters’.

[42] Philip Roth, ‘Rereading Saul Bellow’.

[43]However, radical youth still features among the culprits in the shape of the Dean’s nephew Mason, who attacks the Dean as a racist and defends the black muggers as victims of “the system”.

[44] Letter to Philip Roth January 1 1998, in Bellow ‘Letters’.

[45] Letter to Cynthia Ozick August 29 1989, in Bellow ‘Letters’. The letter goes on to class Edward Said with Hitchens and the “political press” and to accuse them of “(making) trouble for the Jews. Nothing easier. The networks love it, the big papers let it be made, there’s a receptive university population for which Arafat is Good and Israel is Bad, even genocidal.”

The other specific issues on which Bellow recorded his position were the Cold War, where he took a hard line, and Civil Rights, of which he was a staunch and early (1950s) supporter.

[46] “I am not a revolutionary. I have little respect for American revolutionaries as I know them, and I have known them quite well.” Letter to Harvey Swados August 30 1969. Also- “It boggled my mind to see how greedy the radicals were for excitement “radical-style”. I’m speaking of big-time subversives like Ginsberg, Nadine Gordimer, Grace Paley, Doctorow and other representatives of affluent revolution”. Letter to Karl Shapiro February 18 1986. Both in Bellow ‘Letters’. The occasion for the last quote was a PEN meeting hosted by Norman Mailer.

[47]Much has been written on the connection between the neoconservatives and Leo Strauss, who taught a number of the younger members. Whether or not any direct link can be sustained, Strauss’ views and neoconservative doctrine were sufficiently aligned that Strauss (and his acolyte Allen Bloom) deserves his reputation as the neocons’ “spiritual godfather”- as opposed to the more direct influence of the group’s founder and “intellectual godfather”, the writer and political activist Irving Kristol.

[48]James Atlas, ‘Bellow: A Biography’ p. 513. Atlas’ book was vilified by Bellow’s supporters when it came out but reading it now, apart from some unconvincing psycho-analysing, it seems a perfectly competent popular biography.

[49] Letter to Midge Decter February 7 1984. Cited in Atlas, ‘Bellow: A Biography’ . All contents mike bygrave 2014