Saul Bellow, a jerk and a determinedly great writer

December 11, 2018 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, fiction, journalism, writers, writing.

Saul Bellow is one of the giants of 20th century American literature — a writer of the first order who could mesmerize the reader with his prose. Yet personally, he could be — and often was — a jerk, demanding, demeaning, and thoroughly foul-tempered.

What’s a biographer to do?

The answer comes from Zachery Leader, who has just published the second of a two-volume biography, this one cover the last 40 years of Bellow’s life. Leader, according to New York Times reviewer and English professor Mark Grief, not just covers Bellow’s life but manages to make him, somewhat, sympathetic.


The vein that successfully keeps one focused on Bellow, and enchanted, is the novelist’s excerpted prose. It knocks you back on your heels. Not just in the novels and stories, but in letters to every sort of addressee, from intimates, to fans, to politicians, Bellow’s prose is electric. Was Saul Bellow a Man or a Jerk? Both, a Monumental Biography Concludes – The New York Times

Greif describes one of the elements that made Bellow a great writer:

I have always found Bellow’s artfulness to cloy over the length of his longest novels. He made himself a fiction writer by force of mind, hard work and sheer will, plus study of the greats. He remained a lifelong student of the highest caliber: co-teaching with philosophers, metabolizing esoteric doctrines, even directing the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago.

Read the review, read the biography if you’re interested, but by all means read Bellow if you have never done so. Read his words and sentences and find out what Grief is talking about.

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