Today in Literary History – June 10, 1915 – Novelist Saul Bellow is born

The Nobel Prize-winning American novelist Saul Bellow was born on June 10, 1915. In addition to the Nobel he won a Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award three times.

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Bellow, whose parents were Jewish refugees from St. Petersburg, Russia, was born in Lachine, Quebec, a suburb of Montreal. When he was nine years old his family moved to Chicago, which would become the setting of most of his novels. “I am an American, Chicago-born – Chicago, that sombre city …” is the famous opening to The Adventures of Augie March.

(It wasn’t until Bellow tried to enlist in the US Army in 1941 that he discovered that he was not an American citizen but was in fact an “illegal immigrant” from Canada.)

His family had been wealthy in Russia but their lives in Canada and America were made up of hard work in city slums. Bellow’s upbringing was very religious. His mother, who died when he was 17, wanted him to be a rabbi, and he remembers reading the Hebrew Bible avidly from a young age.

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Bellow wrote his first novel while serving in the merchant marines during World War II. Dangling Man was published in 1944. Bellow went on to write such iconic novels as The Adventures of Augie March, Henderson the Rain King, Herzog, Mr. Sammler’s Planet, Seize the Day, Humboldt’s Gift and Ravelstein. He was awarded the Nobel in 1976.

Bellow’s books not only garnered critical praise but were often bestsellers as well. Bellow spent much of his life teaching literature and creative writing at various universities and kept on teaching nearly to the time of his death in 2005 at the age of eighty-nine.

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Four of Bellow’s five marriages ended in divorce. The exception being the last one, which ended with his death and during which he fathered a daughter at the age of eighty-four.

Bellow’s novels have come in for scrutiny from feminist critics and from those who object to the conservative tone of the later books. His books are, however, full of humour and deep enthusiasm for American bravado.

Personally, I’m not a big Bellow fan, although I have enjoyed what I have read and admire his technique. I think he’s one of those authors that you either really deeply love or are just left cold by despite your admiration.

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