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Saul Bellow  

One of the most important novelists in 20th Century America, Saul Bellow's many novels and stories dealt with the troubles of the modern urban man.
Last Updated: Jun 9, 2017 URL: Print Guide RSS Updates

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Saul Bellow (1915-2005)


Brief Biography

An erudite, complex man, Saul Bellow was born in Montreal, Canada in 1915, of Jewish parents who emigrated to Canada in 1913.  Bellow was the youngest of four children of Yiddish speaking parents.  All the children were fluent in Yiddish.  Bellow's father was hard working, but often failed at what he tried to accomplish.  In 1924, the family moved to Chicago, where the senior Bellow had better luck providing for his family--from working in a bakery to bootlegging.  Bellow described his father as a constantly angry man, who always considered himself the head of the family, even when his children were grown with families of their own.  Bellow's mother was a gentle woman who hoped her youngest son would become a rabbi or a concert violinist--  Bellow was very  skilled at playing the instrument and enjoyed playing as an adult ( in addition to cooking, gardening and following sports.).  Bellow is quoted as saying he always wanted to be a writer, even from the age of eight.   Bellow, an intelligent child, loved Chicago.  His family continued their Jewish traditions, but Bellow relished the streets of Chicago.  He and his friends would prowl the streets, go to the public library and talk about books, art, religion and other topics.  Bellow loved the city --as one obituary noted the city was almost a "character in its own right" in his novels.   Bellow's mother died when he was 17 and eventually his father remarried. Bellow was deeply affected by his mother's death.  While he felt set free from Jewish traditions, it was hard for him to come to terms with his mother's death for a number of years.

Bellow enrolled at the University of Chicago in 1933, but after two years transferred to Northwestern to save money.  He graduated in 1937 with a degree in anthropology and sociology.  He did graudate work at the University of Wisconsin in anthropology but left after several months.  He then worked for the Federal Writers's Project in Chicago and for the "Great Books" series.  He lived in New York in the late 1930's, was rejected by the Army for health reasons and joined the merchant marine.   While in the service, he wrote "Dangling Man."  The novel was published in 1944.  "The Victim" soon followed.  In 1948 he went to Paris and after some aimlessness, set down to work writing "The Adventures of Augie March."  Published in 1953, the novel was well received and Bellow was recognized as a promising American writer with a distinct voice.  Bellow would use facts from his life and what he observed about his friends as fodder for his novels.  Bellow had never been to Africa, but his anthropology background proved valuable when writing "Henderson the Rain King", a novel he regarded as a turning point.  In 1964, he published "Herzog."  The novel earned him a National Book Award.   He won his third National Book Award with "Mr. Sammler's Planet" and earned a Pulitzer Prize for "Humboldt's Gift."  The Nobel Prize soon followed.  Bellow was pleased to accept the Prize but realized that there were many great writers who never won it.  He kept writing-a nonfiction memoir about a trip to Israel, and more novels.

In 1993, Bellow moved to Boston and began teaching at Boston University.  He did not need the money, but enjoyed teaching and talking to others about literature.  The writing continued, even as he grew older.  He became an "elder statesman" of literature, accepting the role and granting interviews.

A man of good health for most of his life,   Saul Bellow died at the age of 89 at his home in Brookline Massachuttes, survived by his fifth wife, four children and six grandchildren.  He is quoted as saying he was an agnostic, but was not fully convinced that death is the final end.  He was not sure what death had in store for him  ( and us) but he sincerely hoped to meet his parants and friends again after his time on Earth ended.

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