Why do so many literary critics prize The Adventures of Augie March so highly? It is a novel in which a young man comes of age in Chicago yet cannot settle down to one career or commit to one relationship. It is a novel in which, after several hundred pages, the hero, Augie March, suddenly goes to Mexico to train an eagle to hunt lizards. Eagles in Mexico? Such a plot twist is a rather odd way to show that Augie is susceptible to the desires of others, and perhaps Saul Bellow could have made his point without such an abrupt change of setting and action. Yet perhaps a story that at its heart is a celebration of the energy and diversity of America should be a little wild itself. It is not a perfect novel: it rambles and at times bogs down in philosophical dialogue; most of the female characters are not fully realized. And then there is that trip to Mexico. Yet Augie, the ‘‘man of no commitments,’’ as Robert Penn Warren calls him, still speaks to us. He is unmistakably American in his ambition, individualism, and self interest. His restlessness is the restlessness of Americans throughout their history. Bellow clearly thought deeply about the United States as a land of immigrants and radicals, of innovators and hobos, and into Augie he poured all these types and produced an epic novel of America between the world wars.
Augie’s simultaneous claim of American identity and his clear Jewishness was startling to many readers when the novel appeared in 1953. Bellow’s goal was to write both a novel of immigrants as well as the ‘‘Great American Novel,’’ a bold act for a young writer’s third book. So he has Augie proclaim at the story’s opening: ‘‘I am an American, Chicago born . . . and go at things as I have taught myself.’’ This reads almost like a claim by the poet Walt Whitman. But in the following paragraphs we learn that hearing Yiddish in Augie’s house is common while he finds his brother’s ‘‘English schoolboy notions of honor’’ foreign and strange. Augie’s Chicago is a city of immigrants, of Jews, of gangsters and schemers. ‘‘The fact that its citizens . . . express themselves in four or five different languages,’’ writes Joan Acocella in The New Yorker, ‘‘does not mean that they are marginal. It means that they are central—the inheritors.’’ Bellow’s novel is unapologetically cosmopolitan, seemingly casual about the diversity of its cast. And the fact that Jews in the novel run the entire range of human qualities, whatever Bellow’s intentions, is his way of laying claim to American citizenship for all immigrants and native-born Americans willing to take part. As Bellow’s biographer, James Atlas, notes, Bellow insisted that his book was ‘‘a novel by an American writer who happened to be a Jew. To claim otherwise would have diminished its universality.’’ In this way, The Adventures of Augie March is a work of national pride, showing off the diversity, warts and all, of the new world power coming into its own after World War II and the Holocaust.
If Augie and his author were assimilating into a larger, expansive Americanness, what was it they were conforming to? Throughout the novel, numerous characters attempt to influence Augie’s development and purpose. He clearly recognizes this himself: ‘‘All the influences were lined up waiting for me. I was born, and there they were to form me,’’ the Machiavellian characters hoping to free Augie from whatever trap they feel life has set for him. Grandma Lausch, the March’s domineering boarder, wants to teach the ten-year-old Augie to work the social welfare system, but also to stay away from a life of petty crime. ‘‘I’m trying to make something of you,’’ she tells him. ‘‘I want you to be a mensch.’’ Einhorn tries to shepherd Augie into manhood, suggesting a life of the mind even if he seems helpless before his physical handicaps and the destruction of the Great Depression. Mrs. Renling promises to make Augie ‘‘perfect’’ by stripping him of his ethnic and religious markers and thrusting him into a world of manners and surfaces. Next, Simon recruits Augie to follow him into the wealth and power of the Magnus family even as Augie is drawn into the labor movement. It is no surprise, then, that when Thea lovingly beckons him south into an unknown world, he is ready to follow. Thea is on a quest for power, however, over Augie and life itself, demanding he accompany her on a dangerous and truly ludicrous journey.
Augie’s ‘‘opposition,’’ a characteristic pointed out by Einhorn and accepted by Augie at face value, is his way of resisting the influence of those who wish to mentor or control him. His life touches so many other worlds, but he does not truly become a part of any of them. In this sense, he is, at least at first, a rather empty character, always running away from any kind of commitment, until he falls in love with Thea. Critic Keith Michael Opdahl argues that Augie’s failure with Thea causes him to see the hollowness in his search for adventure: ‘‘This insight and struggle give Augie an inner life and a substantial identity.’’ It is after he betrays her with Stella and is left to find his way home from Mexico that Augie becomes more than a happygo-lucky adolescent. He is wounded and confused. Yet he is not alienated or enfeebled because of his belief in a transcendent level of truth. He tells Clem Tambow of how, ever since childhood, he has been aware of ‘‘axial lines of life,’’ supporting external existence with their unalterable truth. They are, Augie claims, what has made him turn away from all his potential teachers. They call him away from the bewildering specialization the modern world demands, and to which Clem calls him. Instead, in his vision, in his own scheme, Augie wants to create a school in the country for children like himself, a place where he might teach languages or learn to fix his car. In short, he has a pastoral vision of family and simplicity, one which he believes will take him ever closer to the transcendental experience he now seeks.
At the climax of the novel, then, Bellow appears to suggest that Augie’s appropriate response to his many mentors (and there will be more before the novel draws to a close) is to turn to the simple, interior life. This solution is emotionally appealing and would have an American pedigree—Emerson and Thoreau come quickly to mind. But what would a retreat to the country do to Bellow’s portrait of a nation of schemers and doers? He can’t really have both idylls. So Bellow begins World War II immediately after Augie’s ‘‘axial lines’’ speech, and the introspection and philosophizing give way to action once again. Augie volunteers, undergoes an operation to meet the physical requirements of the military, and prepares to ship out. While doing so he meets Stella again, and falls for her without really bothering to know who she is or what has happened to her. Despite warning signs, Augie rushes into marriage and casts away his dream, despite having told Clem that ‘‘I’d never loan myself again to any other guy’s scheme.’’ The novel concludes with Augie in Paris, living in Europe to support Stella’s desire to be an actress, and working in the black market. Augie doesn’t want to be in Europe and finds communicating with Stella about anything important extremely difficult. He tells himself he is doing it for love. ‘‘I am a person of hope,’’ he tells himself, and he continues to long for children of his own and a simpler life.
The final vignette of the novel leaves the reader with a laughing Augie, thinking about all his travels and having a truly hopeful vision of his life. He declares that ‘‘I am a sort of Columbus of those near-at-hand and believe you can come to them in this immediate terra incognita that spreads out in every gaze.’’ Augie still believes he can escape the interior world and find communion with people around him, though he admits, ‘‘I may well be a flop at this line of endeavor.’’ On a broader level, The Adventures of Augie March uses Bellow’s beloved American spirit to say something about human happiness. If the unresolved ending seems unsatisfying, any other option would undo the main arguments of the novel. The reader is invited to watch Augie find his way in the world, not to come to a tidy conclusion to his adventures. If in the final chapter Augie was to be found in the classroom of his school, doling out wisdom to his foster children, then the pleasure a reader takes in the grit of Chicago life would have to be sacrificed. His victory over his wanderings would be a repudiation of them. As it is, Augie is fine. Because a ‘‘man’s character is his fate,’’ as he proclaims in the first paragraph, Augie’s character requires he continue searching the ‘‘terra incognita’’ around him, even if it is the hidden spaces between him and his wife.
So what is Bellow trying to tell us about America by leaving Augie singing Mexican songs with a French maid? Clearly, both Augie and his creator unambiguously love America in all its earthy promise. Augie is happy to be the Renlings’s ‘‘house slave’’ if it means he out-earns his brother. He will sell his junker of a car to a sucker, though he may feel regret later. And he will be a smuggler if the price is right. His energy and ‘‘opposition’’ make him an innovator of his own being. He is constantly experimenting, constantly reinventing himself yet always with an eye on his axial lines. Thus, he is of the world if not part of it. Augie puts his shoulder to the wheel when it suits him, but when he senses a ‘‘better fate’’ over the horizon, he strikes out like a Huckleberry Finn of Chicago. As Robert R. Dutton has noted, ‘‘In this role as wanderer, Augie is intended by Bellow to be what we may call the backbone of American literature, or, as . . . the spirit of that literature.’’ His Americanness is his restless need for liberty and experience. He is not alienated. He reminds Americans that ‘‘one is only ostensibly born to remain in specified limits. That’s what you’ll be told in the ranks.’’ But for those like Augie, ‘‘nothing that others did [was] so inconceivable for me.’’ He believes he can do whatever moves him. In this sense, Augie is a precursor to the dreamers of the following decade, the 1960s, who follow the beat of their own drummers in search of a meaningful life. Bellow himself would turn against what he saw to be the hedonistic excesses of the counterculture, but in the conformist atmosphere of the early 1950s, his message was one of personal liberation, even if that liberation never came.
Sara Constantakis, Novels for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels, Volume 33, Gale-Cengage Learning, 2010
Patrick J. Walsh, Critical Essay on The Adventures of Augie March in Novels for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.