the letters of Saul Bellow
The published personal letters of famous people bring some of their private thoughts to the attention of interested readers. A writer’s personal letters have special appeal as historical documents; they carry biographical background material forward for fans and specialist scholars alike. Writers are among the messengers of the human spirit within a culture. When a renowned literary writer was a prolific letter writer—as it turns out Saul Bellow was—and some of his letters are collected and published, readers hear not only big public ideas, but personal insecurities and domestic quarrels, family loyalties and little epiphanies from the writer’s own consciousness.
This collection’s opening missive, from 1932, is a “Dear Jane” letter to Yetta Barshevsky, a high school flame. Seventeen year old Solomon (later Sol and then Saul) spells it out in purple for Yetta: “So it is through mutual consent that we part. You to listen to Goldstein’s Marxian harangues with a half-feigned interest; I to loll on the bosom of voluptuous time and space and stifle desire and hope.”
The last one in the collection, written in 2004 from Brookline, Massachusetts to his Chicago friend, the Roman Catholic psychology professor Eugene Kennedy, is a grandfather’s evening reflection of gentle affection. One year before his death, Bellow wrote to Kennedy, “By far my pleasantest diversion is to play with Rosie, now four years old.” With his granddaughter at his feet, the Nobel Laureate could descend the depth of his own years to feel what it was like to be a child “a little older than Rosie”.
Bellow writes that his parents wanted him to grow up early, to be their translator and everyday linguist in a bilingual city, but he would not. “I dragged my feet,” he recalls. Still a nimble thinker at ninety-four, Bellow hops to a clear memory of his own feet when he was boy, recalling in the letter how his mother wanted to buy a certain pair of sandals for him. When she finally managed to get them, he “rubbed them with butter to preserve the leather”. He closed that letter with wonder at how it all boils down to “patent leather sandals”. How beautiful that it did come down to that for one of our finer cultural messengers, who brought glad tidings in stories throughout his life.
In the last years of his life, Bellow might have gone back often to those middle years of his childhood. When he was nine, his family moved from Montreal to Chicago. One year earlier he had been hospitalized with pneumonia and peritonitis. Operated on three times, he faced the real possibility of his own death “rather matter of factly”. In Montreal’s Royal Victoria Hospital, with the Canadian winter gripping the world outside his room, his “belly haggled open and draining”, the young Jewish boy from an Orthodox immigrant family, who would later win the Pulitzer Prize for Humboldt’s Gift, read every book that appeared at his hospital bedside, including a New Testament brought in by a “lady from some missionary society”.
Three quarters of a century later, upon reading Stephen Mitchell’s The Gospel According to Jesus, eighty-four year oldBellow wrote a letter to Mitchell in which he affirmed with sympathy the impulse of the younger Jewish writer to study the Christian Gospels. He recalled how, in that winter in Montreal, as he read the New Testament, “Jesus overwhelmed me”.
Through months of hospitalization the boy waited each week for a short visit from one of his parents. Determined to get through his health crisis by steeling himself against sorrow and self-pity, he would not allow himself to cry when his mother walked out for another week. Emotionally braced for survival, when he read the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, he wrote, “I was moved out of myself by Jesus”. The brave little boy, held in place by pain and disease, was visited that winter by an ancient rabbi who told of lilies of the field and said “suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me.” The boy followed the whole narrative of Jesus’ life and was “horrified” by Jesus’ death, having faced charges made against him by the Pharisees and Sadducees—“his people”—as if he was an accomplice.
Jesus was not discussable with his observant Jewish parents. He knew that as they struggled to get by in life they would not welcome a conversation of what we might now call comparative religion or textual criticism, so he kept the matter of Jesus to himself. In the letter to Mitchell he wrote, in effect, that the lasting impact of that literary and spiritual encounter with Jesus, when he was young and alone, was a kind of liberation. He had never before thought about religious matters without the guidance of authority. Reading silently in that hospital bed, the boy who would grow up to win three National Book Awards, for the first time thought for himself about God. The Gospel stories, read without commentary, qualification or explanation, captivated him. In a manner of speaking, Jesus set Saul Bellow free for a life of creativity and accomplishment.