In these days of electronic communication by computer, this giant collection of Saul Bellow’s letters is a dinosaur. Unfortunately, publications such as these now join the ranks of relics along with the epistolary novel, popular in the 17th and 18th centuries, in which the narrative was presented through letters written by one or more of the characters. This literary genre has largely disappeared just as collections of letters are doomed to extinction. The simple truth is that people rarely write letters these days and the deplorable extent of our loss is fully demonstrated by the wit and wisdom contained in Bellow’s remarkable letters. We are keenly indebted to editor Benjamin Taylor, a prize-winning author in his own right, who spent a great deal of time with Bellow before he died in 2005 and who diligently located, selected, and edited the letters. Taylor tells us that his book contains about 40% of Bellow’s known letters. Taylor’s significant contribution constitutes the eloquent autobiography that Bellow never wrote.
Along with Philip Roth and Bernard Malamud, Bellow was a crucial member of the great trio of American Jewish writers, of whom only Roth is still alive. The book contains many letters from Bellow to Roth and Malamud, expressing his esteem for them. There are also letters in which Bellow recommends Malamud for a Guggenheim Fellowship and Roth for the Nobel Prize, both of which Bellow had been awarded. He was the sixth Jewish Nobel Laureate in literature. Bellow also won the Pulitzer Prize and three National Book Awards.
The book opens with a fine introduction by Taylor and with a 19-page chronology that is extremely helpful in providing context for the letters. In addition, the book contains 16 pages of useful photos. The presentation begins with one letter written in 1932 and then jumps to 1937, continuing by year to the last letter in 2004. Bellow’s incessant traveling is reflected throughout the book in the datelines of the letters. The difficulties he had with getting his early work into print is shown through letters to his literary agent, publishers, and editors. There are also letters to other writers, a group to whom he wrote throughout his life, commenting brilliantly on their work and expressing gratitude for their appreciation of his publications. Some of these letters usefully analyze the books he wrote. Other sets of people to whom Bellow wrote were friends from his youth, members of his family, academic colleagues at the numerous universities where he taught, lovers and wives.
The lovers and wives were especially important since Bellow married five times and while many love letters are included in the collection, there are also numerous letters complaining bitterly about demands for alimony and about arguments over custody of his children. In 1977, he was sentenced to ten days in jail for failure to pay alimony and child support but the sentence was overturned.
Bellow made several trips to Israel and, in 1976, he published a memoir, “To Jerusalem and Back.” He became friendly with Teddy Kollek, mayor of Jerusalem, and there are numerous letters to Kollek, one of which expressed appreciation for Kollek’s warm comments about “To Jerusalem and Back.” Writing to another author, Bellow characterizes Kollek as “rude…bumptious…and candid.” In an additional letter, Bellow writes that Kollek is a “phenomenal personality…a schemer, finagler, and arranger.” In 1986, Bellow wrote a laudatory letter to the Norwegian Nobel Committee recommending Kollek for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Readers will revel in this tribute to Bellow’s lasting legacy and should rue the sad truth that letters as a literary form are rapidly disappearing.
(Dr. Morton I. Teicher is the founding dean, Wurzweiler School of Social Work, Yeshiva University and Dean Emeritus, School of Social Work, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.)