"I am an American, Chicago born — Chicago, that somber city — and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent..."
A lot of readers and writers have been quoting that sentence, the opening lines of the novel The Adventures of Augie March, this week, the week that its creator, Saul Bellow, left us to our own devices. Since Melville opened Moby Dick with that first great line of American fiction — "Call me Ishmael" — and Mark Twain opened The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in his own special way, no one but Bellow has fashioned an opening as memorable and as powerful, and as important.
This line that sprung open the padlock of American art language by using the pick of free-style diction. This line that announced that American writers didn't have to glove their knuckles anymore when they knocked at the door.
Saul Bellow published The Adventures of Augie March in 1953. It won him national recognition, a National Book Award, a major place at the American literary table. "The book just came to me," he wrote. "All I had to do was be there with buckets to catch it."
Bellow had prepared for this one, though. His first novel, Dangling Man, came out almost a decade before. The Victim, his second novel, published in 1947, opened with a line that was almost as memorable, if more conventional: "On some nights New York is as hot as Bangkok." And then the rest of that novel's opening paragraph, as beautiful as anything by any of his predecessors or peers in the sweltering art of the novel: "The whole continent seems to have moved from its place and slid nearer the equator, the bitter gray Atlantic to have become green and tropical, and the people, thronging the streets, barbaric fellahin among the stupendous monuments of their mystery, the lights of which, a dazing profusion, climb upward endlessly into the heat of the sky."
If Bellow hadn't upped the ante with the opening of Augie March, this passage alone would have been a great opening to remember him by: the allusion to a South Asian city, the geographical breadth of the imagery, the transformation of colors, gray to green and tropical, New York bustle presented in terms of the Arab street.
Bellow, a Jewish immigrant from Montreal at an early age, who spoke Yiddish as his first language, was, to be sure, the Poet Laureate of the modern American melting pot. After Hemingway, no writer did more to enliven and transform the American literary sentence, stirring mind and feelings, ideas and action, the premeditated and the unconscious, in a spicy mix of high and low speech.
His characters sometimes traveled to Mexico and Europe, to upstate New York and the western desert. But Chicago and New York were his Paris and his London, his cities where life emerged from the ruins of life. Where failed schemers weep at the funerals of strangers and angry men beat with baseball bats on the bodies of beautiful cars, and extraordinary women wear boots made for walking. And men afflicted — or gifted — with graphomania write letter after letter in their minds to the people they think can set things right when only they can take charge of their own lives.
The books Bellow wrote! Letter by letter, sentence by sentence. Seize the Day, the best short novel by an American. The stories, "A Silver Dish," "Looking for Mr. Green," "By the St. Lawrence," the incomparably beautiful and mournful and yet funny, funny coming of age story — set, of course, in Chicago, that somber city — called "Something to Remember Me By." All these novels to remember, stories to remember, characters to remember.
Though the stupendous monuments of our great mystery may one day crumble, Bellow's lines will, I think, live on a good long while — in Urdu, in Chinese, in the beautiful as yet undiscovered countries where heart and mind struggle together to live in peace.