Well-Written 'Letters': Saul Bellow Shows Us How

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Saul Bellow: Letters
Edited by Benjamin Taylor
Hardcover, 608 pages
Viking Adult
List Price: $35

Read An Excerpt

Really. You must read this. If you're a lover of prose, someone who knows how to savor the taste of a scrumptious sentence, then you'll find morsels aplenty to set your eyes rolling to the back of your head in indecent pleasure.

These 700 letters to friends and enemies, to multiple wives, ex-wives, and lovers, to the famous and to those made infamous by Bellow's own treatment of them in his novels, are full to the brim with the insights of a man who was always taking in the world with abundance, only to give it out again in wonderful words.

So, for example, in a letter to Allan Bloom, author of The Closing of the American Mind and Bellow's colleague at the University of Chicago, (also, posthumously, the eponymous subject of Bellow's last novel, Ravelstein), Bellow describes a trip to Dominick's to buy salad oil:

Now I dragged myself over to the east side of Broadway, and a woman of ninety advanced toward me on a four-pronged cane — tiny, a construction worker's yellow hard hat pulled over her forehead ... and then some people affably talking to themselves, and then a nice police dog chained to a parking meter, wearing a cast on his broken leg and barking. He may have been asking to see the humanity in relation to which he was supposed to be a dog. We were at one in this. My tired intelligence found no trace of the hierarchy.

Here are the layered concoctions for which Bellow was famous, his flair for mixing things like salad oil and moral philosophy. He sets off for Dominick's and gains purchase on the human condition.

And also if you're a writer — or someone who aspires to be a writer — then you must read these letters, arcing from about the age of 17 to about a year shy of his death at the age of 89, so that you might see what goes into such a being's being.

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein is the author of the novels The Mind-Body Problem, Properties of Light and Mazel. i

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein is the author of the novels The Mind-Body Problem, Properties of Light and Mazel. Steven Pinker/ hide caption

toggle caption Steven Pinker/
Rebecca Newberger Goldstein is the author of the novels The Mind-Body Problem, Properties of Light and Mazel.

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein is the author of the novels The Mind-Body Problem, Properties of Light and Mazel.

Steven Pinker/

Be instructed on a writer's humility: "I tend to think of a book just completed as something that has prepared me to do better next time." Be instructed on a writer's unapologetic audacity: "I know how to transform common matter," he lashes back at one of his old friends, who is in a snit because Bellow has appropriated an incident from that man's life for use in Humboldt's Gift. "What you fear as the risk of friendship, namely that I may take from the wonderful hoard, is really the risk of friendship because I have the power to lift a tuft of wool from a bush and make something of it."

And above all, if you are a student of human nature, if you are dismayed and disgusted and delighted by the infinite modifications on the human theme, then read the letters of a man who welcomed the newborn daughter of the poet John Berryman with these words: "This is to greet and bless Sarah Berryman on her arrival in this gorgeous wicked world which has puzzled and delighted my poor soul for 56 years." Such capacities for puzzlement and delight made for a wonder of a man, and they make for a wonder of a book.

You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva with production assistance from Rose Friedman, Lena Moses-Schmitt and Amelia Salutz.

Excerpt: 'Saul Bellow: Letters'

Saul Bellow: Letters
Edited by Benjamin Taylor
Hardcover, 608 pages
Viking Adult
List Price: $35

To Ralph Ross

March 22, 1977 Chicago

Dear Ralph:

Years ago (God, what a long time it seems, and how far way Minneapolis is!) you told me something valuable, and it was so unexpected that I couldn't react intelligently on the spot but carried the remark off and worked on it for a couple of decades. You said that Isaac [Rosenfeld] was the most unworldly person you had ever known, with one exception: Compared with me, Isaac was the complete sophisticate. I felt the truth of this immediately — being what I was, I couldn't expect to understand. And I always made a special point of seeming to be intensely practical and competent because I had no grasp of real life. Isaac was what our French friends call "faux naif," and I saw that all along and understood that he wouldn't have needed such an act if he hadn't been so clever. He was trying to act his way out of (relative) worldliness. I was working in the opposite direction. Was I so innocent? Self-absorbed, rather. Only it was no ordinary form of self-absorption because I could understand what I was determined to understand. And if I hadn't sensed so many frightful things I wouldn't have been so intensely unworldly. Evidently I was determined not to understand whatever was deeply threatening—allowed myself to know what conformed to my objectives, and no more. A tall order, to bury so many powers of observation. That sounds immodest; I mean only to be objective. But all the orders have been tall. If you had followed up on your shrewd remark you might have saved me some time, but I assumer you thought that if I couldn't work out the hint I couldn't be expected to bear a full examination either. I had to go through the whole Sondra-Jack Ludwig business, for instance. I gave them, and others, terrific entertainment. Sondra sent me to the English Department to threaten to resign if the didn't re-appoint Ludwig, whom they had good reason to loathe. It was a barrel of fun. I'm not so keen on this sort of Goldoni comedy as I once was (small wonder), but I can see the humor of it. It gives me great satisfaction to look back in detachment and to think of the wit the gods gave us when they had to reduce our scope. But why didn't they reduce our ambitions correspondingly? Why were we fired up with glorious dreams of achievement leading to such appalling waste? No one could make a true success except a few private persons with limited aims. Some of us, trying hard, were wonderfully unstinting of themselves. I think of John [Berryman], so generous in self-destruction. Or Isaac, who put on every stitch of virtue he had, and got on his horse and jumped into the big hole in the Forum. No one who set out to make the big scene in a big way could in the nature of the case, get very far.


To John Cheever

December 9, 1981 Chicago

Dear John:

Since we spoke on the phone I've been thinking incessantly about you. Many things might be said, but I won't say them, you can probably do without them. What I would like to tell you is this: We didn't spend much time together but there is a significant attachment between us. I suppose it's in part because we practiced the same self-taught trade. Let me try to say it better — we put our souls to the same kind of schooling, and it's this esoteric training which we had the gall, under the hostile stare of exoteric America to persist in, that brings us together. Yes, there are other, deeper sympathies but I'm too clumsy to get at them. Just now I can offer only what's available. Neither of us had much use for the superficial "given" of social origins. In your origins there were certain advantages; you were too decent to exploit them. Mine, I suppose, were only to be "overcome" and I hadn't the slightest desire to molest myself that way. I was, however, in a position to observe the advantages of the advantaged (the moronic pride of Wasps, Southern traditionalists, etc.). There wasn't a trace of it in you, You were engaged, as a writer should be, in transforming yourself. When I read your collected stories I was moved to see the transformation taking place on the printed page. There's nothing that counts really except this transforming action of the soul. I loved you for this, I loved you anyway, but for this especially.


To Eugene Kennedy

February 19, 2004 Brookline

Dear Gene,

I tried to reach you by phone yesterday. Spurlos — the word employed by German submarine commanders. It means "without a trace": not so much as an oil slick on the bosom of the Atlantic. (It occurs to me that you must have studied German under the Hollywood German experts).

I don't do much of anything these days and I spend much of my time indoors. By far my pleasantest diversion is to play with Rosie, now four years old. It seems to me that my parents wanted me to grow up in a hurry and that I resisted, dragging my feet. They (my parents, not my feet) needed all the help they could get. They were forever asking, "What does the man say?" and I would translate for them into heavy-footed English. That didn't help much either. The old people were as ignorant of English as they were of Canadian French. We often stopped before a display of children's shoes. My mother coveted for me a pair of patent-leather sandals with an elegantissimo strap. I finally got them — I rubbed them with butter to preserve the leather. This is when I was six or seven years old, a little older than Rosie is now. Amazing how it all boils down to a pair of patent-leather sandals.

Excerpted from Saul Bellow: Letters edited by Benjamin Taylor. Copyright 2010 by Janis Bellow. Excerpted by permission of Viking Adult.

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