Throughout Saul Bellow’s long literary life—his first novel, Dangling Man, was published in 1944; his last, Ravelstein, appeared in 2000—the Nobel Prize-winning writer, who died in 2005, was celebrated for his ability to marry the often highbrow world of ideas to the lowbrow idiom of the street. Bellow, Philip Roth once said, closed “the gap between Thomas Mann and Damon Runyon.”
That same quality is on display in Bellow’s letters, a volume of which will be published in November by Viking. The collection is edited by the novelist Benjamin Taylor, who is a member of the faculty of the graduate writing program at The New School. I recently caught up with Taylor by e-mail to ask about the book.
Q: How did you get involved in this project? And how long have you been at work on it?
A: One snowy evening in December 2006 the phone rang and a person identifying himself as Andrew Wylie asked me if I’d be interested in editing Saul Bellow’s letters. I said I thought I would, and we took it from there.
Q: Were all of the letters culled from the Bellow archive at the University of Chicago? Are any letters out there that you would love to have but couldn’t get?
A: Oh, no, the letters come from everywhere—from a very large number of Special Collections (the Beinecke at Yale, the Berg at the New York Public Library, Boston University, the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, the Houghton at Harvard, etc.) and from individuals who had letters in their possession. The whole fun of the project was the hunt for buried treasure.
Q: How do these letters alter or deepen our understanding of Bellow’s work and life?
A: Well, the book taught me a lot about the difference between the energies of genius, and the more ordinary capacities of an ordinary writer—like me, for instance. I don’t know that America has ever produced another novelist like him, so avid of the world of ideas and of high-European learning, and simultaneously so avid of the gritty urban particulars. So “spiritual,” as they say, and simultaneously so profane. He puts me in mind of the great Russians rather than of James, Dreiser, Faulkner, Hemingway or Fitzgerald. His work does not resemble that of Philip Roth, with whom he’s often bracketed for ethnic reasons. Or that of Thomas Pynchon or Cormac McCarthy, writers he championed when they were almost unknown.
Q: What surprised you most in these letters?
A: The scale of everything: loves, lusts, recriminations, regrets, joys.
Q: Bellow held numerous academic positions throughout his life, including at the University of Chicago, where he taught from 1962 to 1993. Do his letters reveal much about his view of academe?
A: An artist taking on the role of educator is of course nothing new. Bellow played this role in and out of university life. And though he never lost his heart to academe, he was from all I can gather an extraordinarily conscientious professor. I think Bellow and Robert Penn Warren were the first great American novelists to be truly interested in the things people talk about at universities. No surprise then that both taught, and taught exceptionally well—and into old age.
Q: What are you working on next?
A: A writer friend of mine likes to say that the road to hell is paved with works in progress. But here goes: I’m on the point of finishing a travel memoir called “Naples Declared: A Walk around the Bay.” I’m then going to write a little book on Proust for Yale’s newly announced Jewish Lives Series. And I’ve got a third novel (delicately) underway.—Evan R. Goldstein