Saul Bellow: Biography, Novels & Short Stories

Instructor: Christina Boggs

Chrissy has taught secondary English and history and writes online curriculum. She has an M.S.Ed. in Social Studies Education.

Saul Bellow was a Jewish-American writer who helped change the face of American literature. In this lesson, you will learn about his biography, major literary works, and the recognition he received for his writing.

Biography

Saul Bellow is remembered as one of the great Jewish-American writers of the 20th century, but he was not actually an American. In fact, he was born in Quebec, Canada, in 1915. Bellow's parents were Russian immigrants who left their home country with three small children to settle in North America. At the age of 9, Bellow and his family immigrated illegally to the United States and lived in Chicago.

In Chicago, the Bellow family ran a coal business. Saul Bellow was fluent in English, but at home his family spoke Yiddish, a Jewish language made up of a mixture of German and Hebrew. Bellow's experiences as a Jewish immigrant growing up between World War I and World War II influenced the novels and short stories he wrote later in life.

Saul Bellow began his college degree at University of Chicago. He had to drop out of school after just two years due to a problem with the family business, but he was able to graduate from Northwestern University. As a student, he focused on anthropology, or the study of human societies and cultures. So how exactly did he become a writer?

After graduating from Northwestern University, Bellow started work on a master's degree in anthropology from the University of Wisconsin but dropped out after taking just one class. At this point, he started working as a university teacher and a writer. Over the course of his career, he worked at many different colleges and universities, including the University of Chicago, Princeton University, and Boston University.

Writing Style

After World War II, American literature was evolving, and Saul Bellow was one of the authors bringing change. Bellow's books featured smart Jewish characters that struggled with figuring out who they were in a modern and constantly changing world. The theme of defining your self instead of letting other people define you was a common one in Bellow's writing.

Bellow's style is often described as picaresque; the main characters of his books were not your traditional heroes. Instead, they were rough around the edges and sometimes had questionable morals. Despite this, the characters' adventures and interactions with the world around them made them likable to the reader. Bellow was inspired by the experiences of Jewish people living in the United States and by the people in his life. Two of his novels were actually revenge novels about things that had happened in his messy love life.

Novels

Saul Bellow's career as a novelist began in 1944 with his book Dangling Man. Have you ever written a paper or story for class, but were embarrassed to have your teacher or classmates read it? That's exactly how Bellow felt about Dangling Man. Even though Bellow did not consider it to be his best work, the book, told from the perspective of a man waiting to join the army, was still very successful.

Three years later, he wrote The Victim, which explains the relationship between Jewish people and Christian people. Bellow's writing became even more distinct in the early 1950's after he published The Adventures of Augie March. Bellow used a free-form style, so the book is told like a series of episodes about the main character's experiences.

Bellow's big break as a writer came with the 1964 novel Herzog. The book was on the bestseller list for almost a year, and over 140,000 copies were sold. Herzog is one of Bellow's revenge novels inspired by an affair his second wife had with another man.

Throughout the rest of the 1960s all the way into the 1990s, Bellow's books focused on smart Jewish characters and their inner thoughts as they made their way in the world. The novel Humboldt (1975), about a man influenced by a dead poet and a living mafia member, is considered one of Bellow's greatest works. Bellow's last work, Ravelstein (2000), was another revenge novel, this time based on the actions of his fourth wife.

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