Bellow’s Gift: A Q&A with Zachary Leader on the Life of Saul Bellow

Saul Bellow - Zachary Leader
Saul Bellow

Saul Bellow is one of the most heralded of 20th-century American novelists -- winner of three National Book Awards, the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and the Nobel Prize for Literature -- but his life story fascinates for reasons that go far beyond his novels. He was married five times and had many more numerous affairs. He was interested and impassioned about politics. He had an intellectual curiosity that spanned academia, literary life, and popular culture.

In The Life of Saul Bellow: To Fame and Fortune, 1915-1964, Zachary Leader’s deeply researched biography that covers the first half of Bellow’s life -- he is working on a second volume -- Leader follows the literary icon from his early childhood in Quebec to his literary awakening in Chicago to the 1964 publication of his best-seller Herzog.

Leader, who is a professor of English at Roehampton University in the UK and author of The Life of Kingsley Amis, spoke to Signature about how he distilled a massive trove of research material on Bellow’s literary and personal life into the story of his rise to literary fame.

Signature: You live in the UK. Did you travel back and forth to the United States during your research, or have a lot of the archival materials on Bellow moved online?

Zachary Leader: I spent about six years doing the research for the book and about half of those six years in Chicago in four different trips. One trip was for five months in which I taught at the same place Bellow taught -- the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. I taught a course on Bellow’s novels, so I would teach my course and then I would go to the library. The special collections at the Huntington Library has 350 boxes of Bellow’s papers, and I worked my way through every box.

SIG: You were able to get a full immersion experience, then.

ZL: I did. While I was there teaching at the University of Chicago, the university housing people found my wife and I an apartment in the very beautiful building -- a beautiful apartment building called The Cloisters -- where Bellow lived. I had a terrific experience of living just one floor below the floor he lived on with just about the same view and having exactly the same walks to an office in the same building where his office was. If you believe in the Richard Holmes footsteps school of biography, that it makes sense to go and see where your subject lived and how he lived, then I had a full immersion in that way too.

SIG: How would you characterize Bellow among a group of 20th-century literary peers?

ZL: He’s on the very highest rank, and his contribution is of several sorts. His prose is a marvelous and distinctive thing. It’s a style that ranges across the registers of social class and tone. He was very interested in the experience of assimilation, the pains of an immigrant trying to assimilate into American culture. He was very good at the triumphs and pains involved in this process. He was attentive to the Jewish experience and not just to a fanciful notion of Jewish success in America.

In The Adventures of Augie March, he concerns himself with small-time businessmen. From Humboldt onward, you get bigger businessmen and lawyers and politicians. He was interested in power in America and business, the making of things was at the heart of his sense of power, and he was very good about that -- certainly in the first half of his life.

SIG: Bellow is identified as a Jewish writer and as a midwestern writer. Do you see strains of both of those identities at different times in his work, or is it more of a fused identity for him?

ZL: I think you’re right that it’s a fused identity, and he was clear about it throughout. He was much more comfortable in the urban Midwest than he was in the urban East Coast, where he wasn’t very comfortable at all. He was a proud midwesterner, and he had a clear Jewish identity. The remarkable thing about him is that he didn’t feel the need to disown or underplay the elements that made up his background.

SIG: Did you find him very engaged in the popular culture?

ZL: He liked the world of city newspaper stories. He was very interested in crime and popular consumer culture. He liked the ethnic variety of Chicago and knew a lot about the different neighborhoods and different kinds of foods and markets you could find in the city. He was a novelist who today would read not just the New York Times but the New York Daily News. He knew all about popular culture as well as more elevated culture, and his style reflects this knowledge.

SIG: Do you think there’s something inherent about the great writers being interesting as biographical subjects, or are there some that you find not terribly interesting?

ZL: One thing about Bellow that sets him off from a number of writers is that a number of writers need part of their day to be doing something else. Some people go off and play golf. Bellow led an incredibly engaged life. He wanted to meet people. He not only taught at the University of Chicago; at a time when he was the most acclaimed novelist in America, he accepted a post as the head of the department, the Committee on Social Thought.

He made sure that people he cared about as writers and human beings got editors and publishers and jobs and fellowships and that the people he didn’t approve of didn’t get these things. He exercised a degree of power in the intellectual and literary world. He was both busy and responsible away from the desk, and that is part of what makes him an interesting subject and part of why my book is so long. In addition to all that, he was irresponsible in his romantic life. He had five wives and many dalliances, and the women he was attracted to were not just very attractive but smart and interesting.

SIG: It’s tough to please critics of literary biography because they’re going to find either too much or not enough of everything they want -- a psychological profile, an intellectual biography, a cultural biography, literary criticism, new dirt on the subject. What kind of biography did you set out to write?

ZL: I set out to satisfy them all. But, you know, you can’t win. Some people say the reason you should be interested in literary biography is the writer, so you have to talk about the writing. Some people say they want to know about the life. I don’t expect everybody to like my biography, but I did try to include a sense of the cultural history, a sense of the personality -- what it was like to be Saul Bellow as well as what it was like to meet Saul Bellow at different stages of his life -- so there was a lot I had to do.

It’s mystifying to me, but there are some critics who have said that I don’t emphasize him enough as a Jewish writer. Although he never hid his identity as a Jewish writer, he wanted to stress that he had as much entitlement to talk about other subjects as any writer of any background.