Herzog, arguably Saul Bellow’s finest novel, turns 50 this year. I had this landmark birthday in mind when I assigned the book to my recent class on Jewish-American literature. I hadn’t taught it in a while, as its (by now) abstruse cultural references and dense philosophical musings have proved an almost insurmountable challenge to my undergraduates.
But this time would be different. I planned various entry points for discussion: the book’s ruthless portraiture, the brio of its full-throated sentences, its multilingualism, its complicated gender and domestic politics, its depiction of 20th-century immigrant dreams and burdens, the laugh-out-loud humor of some of those letters composed (mostly internally) by its unhinged protagonist, Moses Herzog, and its privileging of the city and strange hostility toward nature’s green realm.
Then I reread the novel. And I had to rethink that last bit.
I had always believed that the novel—set largely in Chicago, New York, and the Berkshires, distinctively urban and rural environments that Herzog alternately flees to, and from—extols the urban environment and views the rural one with suspicion, fear, even derision. In short, the middle of the woods is no place for a Jew. I had found plenty of passages that encourage that interpretation. But the first thing I noticed on rereading the novel was Bellow’s sensitive evocations of place, particularly green places both within and without the city.
The novel opens with Herzog at his dilapidated Berkshires property at the peak of summer, contemplating all that has recently befallen him, primarily the collapse of his second marriage and his academic career. Bellow takes pains during this opening section, and throughout, to dramatize Herzog’s receptivity to the natural world. He sleeps outside many nights, surrounded by "tall bearded grass and locust and maple seedlings." And "when he opened his eyes in the night, the stars were near like spiritual bodies. Fires, of course; gases—minerals, heat, atoms, but eloquent at five in the morning to a man lying in a hammock, wrapped in his overcoat."
I'd always believed that Herzog extols the urban environment and views the rural one with suspicion—the middle of the woods is no place for a Jew.
Critics have generally paid short shrift to such moments of heightened perception, moments that don’t directly involve the people in Herzog’s life, or his big ideas. But now it seems wrong to separate Herzog’s receptivity to the external world from his insights about his impoverished upbringing, his failures as a father, husband, and son, and his scholarly views. It seems worthwhile, instead, to examine whether he finds, through nature, the exalted state of human perception envisioned by another Massachusetts resident, Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Bellow at least holds out the possibility that Herzog, like Emerson’s scholar or poet, might tap into his highest intuitive powers and realize true insight through his close observations of the animals, plants, and nighttime sky in the New England countryside. "Nature (itself) and I are alone together, in the Berkshires," Herzog muses late in the novel, "and this is my chance to understand."
There’s plenty about the novel that supports the view that Bellow didn’t set out to celebrate the physical world. For one thing, he names Herzog’s fictional town in the country Ludeyville, which one can’t help hearing as "Looneyville." It seems to have been a crazy real-estate investment, "one of his biggest mistakes," Herzog feels. He laments that he’s squandered his inheritance from his beloved father—"Papa’s hard-earned money!"—and derides the folly of his rural fantasies. "I could be Moses, the old Jew-man of Ludeyville, with a white beard, cutting the grass under the washline with my antique reel-mower. Eating woodchucks."
Bellow’s few reflections on the countryside in his nonfiction also tend to sound cranky. In an essay on Vermont, where he had a summer house, he repeatedly fends off any romantic, pastoral impulses: "Here you can commune, if you have a taste for that kind of thing, with the premechanized America of horse-drawn harvesters and harrows."
And yet Herzog pays attention to the pine needles underfoot, "a life-giving russet color," and to "the red-eyed cicadas, squat forms vividly colored … wet after molting, sopping, immobile; but drying, they crept, hopped, tumbled, flew, and in the high trees kept up a continuous chain of song, shrilling." And he notices, along Chicago’s gritty streets, the "elms and those shabby cottonwoods with blackened, dusty, wrinkled bark, and leaves that turned tough by midsummer."
While the organizational framework of Herzog and many of its hero’s reflections encourage readers to see the urban and rural environments as opposing forces, vying for Herzog’s soul, Bellow’s narrative persistently challenges such a simple formulation. Herzog’s most powerful ruminations insist on a Whitmanesque merge between the human and nonhuman order.
Consider this moment of contact between Herzog and the physical world as Herzog gazes into the green darkness of the water while waiting for a ferry:
He loved to think about the power of the sun, about light, about the ocean. The purity of the air moved him. There was no stain in the water, where schools of minnows swam. Herzog sighed and said to himself, "Praise God—praise God." His breathing had become freer. His heart was greatly stirred by the open horizon; the deep colors; the faint iodine pungency of the Atlantic rising from weeds and mollusks; the white, fine, heavy sand; but principally by the green transparency as he looked down to the stony bottom webbed with golden lines.
Looking deep into the water "down to the stony bottom" moves him toward a spiritual revelation. Additional passages abound through which Herzog’s receptivity to the external environment precipitates his keenest, and most spiritual, insights. "What it means to be a man," Bellow writes,
In a city. In a century. In transition. In a mass. Transformed by science. Under organized power. Subject to tremendous controls. In a condition caused by mechanization. After the late failure of radical hopes. In a society that was no community and devalued the person. Owing to the multiplied power of numbers which made the self negligible. Which spent military billions against foreign enemies but would not pay for order at home. Which permitted savagery and barbarism in its own great cities. At the same time, the pressure of human millions who have discovered what concerted efforts and thoughts can do. As megatons of water shape organisms on the ocean floor. As tides polish stones. As winds hollow cliffs. The beautiful supermachinery opening a new life for innumerable mankind.
Bellow engages with the physical world in those last few lines partly for its symbolic power, but not for mere symbolism alone. Herzog’s fate—the fate of "innumerable mankind" generally—is inextricably connected with the fate of the planet. We’re all part of a single story. The passage exposes the insignificance of the individual in light of prevailing social forces, yet in the end valorizes individual existence through our connection to a more timeless, ecological narrative. Perhaps it was Bellow’s training as an anthropologist while he was an undergraduate at Northwestern University that sensitized him to this more expansive and organic human story.
How had I missed all this?
The novel concludes where it started, at Herzog’s dilapidated Ludeyville residence. Such plotting may represent another Bellovian act of narrative ambiguity, if not misdirection, for Herzog isn’t truly in the same place. By this point, he has achieved a significant measure of self-knowledge, which puts him on a stronger course. Further, he has reached this primal point of balance largely through his contact with the physical world. The greenest sites of the novel exert themselves, continually and finally, as the site of Herzog’s greatest revelations. I use that religious term deliberately because Bellow articulates his hero’s triumph in equally religious terms.
While nature is positioned in some Jewish religious texts as a hostile, pagan realm, which may account for Bellow’s ambivalence, the weight of its influence in Herzog facilitates our hero’s connection with his Jewish soul. "What a struggle I waged!—left-handed but fierce," Herzog reflects. "But enough of that—here I am. Hineni! How marvelously beautiful it is today. He stopped in the overgrown yard, shut his eyes in the sun, against flashes of crimson, and drew in the odors of catalpa-bells, soil, honeysuckle, wild onions, and herbs." His nostrils drenched with the aroma of flowers and dirt, Herzog finally embraces the covenant of his biblical namesake, and the covenant of Abraham before Moses, echoing their Hebrew declaration: Hineni. Here I am.
I wish I could report that my students read Herzog as enthusiastically as I reread it. But Bellow seemed as remote to most of them as, well, Emerson. Those obscure cultural references and hyperintellectual scrums, despite my advice to read past those sections, proved as discouraging as they had to my former students. Worse, students didn’t have much sympathy for Herzog—at least not for the spoiled son, absent father, and philandering husband that they mostly took him to be. The young can be especially merciless.
Nor were they particularly blown away by the novel’s complex environmental politics, or interested in my exuberant eco-critical interpretation. In fairness, I probably belabored that topic, which couldn’t have seemed so new and intriguing to them, having not overlooked that aspect of the novel themselves for the past 25 years.
While I’ll give my undergraduates a break, I can’t let myself off the hook so easily. I may have had some unconscious stake in viewing Bellow as unequivocally antinature. As a young Jewish scholar, I had half an eye fixed on becoming a more literary writer someday. I couldn’t be Bellow. Bellow was already Bellow, and he was still pumping out formidable novels when I was in college and graduate school. I may have been hoping to carve out some future space of my own as a Jewish writer in America. Bellow and his formidable postwar cohorts (Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth) had already done the Jewish cities and suburbs. Couldn’t they at least bug off and leave their literary grandchildren the countryside?
I had fashioned an oppositional model to think and write against, when I might have sought more fruitful inspiration in a literary ally: Saul Bellow, nature writer.
Andrew Furman is a professor of English at Florida Atlantic University and the author of Bitten: My Unexpected Love Affair With Florida (University Press of Florida, 2014).