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Robert L. Kehoe III

“I Will What?”

Saul Bellow and the madness of our moment.

When news of his death made its way around Chicago, the claws of winter clung to Lake Michigan's shores with one last determined grip. In the next day's Chicago Tribune, Saul Bellow's passing was placed prominently, as if the city that defined so much of his life and work was clinging to its greatest literary son with equal determination. Ten years earlier Bellow had accepted an appointment to the east, so in a way Chicago had said goodbye before. But the permanence of this final parting was felt in the Tribune's careful attention to a Nobel laureate they called their own: "Bellow loved Chicago not simply as a non-New York but for itself. It was an eyes-wide love that took in, even embraced, the grit and ugliness and stupidities of the city as well as its beauty and aspirations." Seeing and hearing with such vivid resolution and fidelity, he wrote his city in a manner as conversant with Aristotle and Kafka as it was with bus drivers, bartenders, gangsters and windbag city officials on the stump.

Last year marked the tenth anniversary of his passing, and with it Saul Bellow had a bit of a moment with two noteworthy publications: Zachary Leader's The Life of Saul Bellow: To Fame and Fortune, 1915-1964, and There Is Simply Too Much to Think About: Collected Non-Fiction, edited by Benjamin Taylor. Both books were widely reviewed, but the rap on Bellow has become fairly predictable in recent years. While his gripping, tragic-comic prose and numerous accomplishments are impossible to ignore, his ability to speak with clarity to the moral challenges of the 20th and early 21st century is routinely dismissed. At The Nation, David Mikics—whose own book, Bellow's People: How Saul Bellow Made Life into Art, is due in May—suggested that "the withering of Bellow's reputation" is due to a wrongheaded understanding of his writing, along with the new normal in "academic fashion: Professors now ignore his work, believing ...

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