Published in 1953, Saul Bellow’s sweeping, comedic novel The Adventures of Augie March, was heralded by many reviewers as an instant classic, and it established its author as a major voice in American fiction. It is a bold, ambitious novel that claims that the story of a young, poor, fatherless, Jewish man belongs at the center of American literature as well as at the center of the American experience itself. In the course of the novel, Augie seeks to find his place in the world, and his desire for what he calls his ‘‘better fate’’ leads him on dozens of adventures, some tedious, some exhilarating, from selling coal to training an eagle to stealing college textbooks. Intertwined with these many occupations are numerous romantic escapades with chambermaids, heiresses, actresses, and others, through which Augie strives to find both true love and amorous excitement.
Centered in Chicago, the story is told from Augie’s point of view in a seemingly endless torrent of words. The novel teems with American idiom, slang, and the music of urban immigrant speech. Through Augie, Bellow paints intensely rich, and often hilarious, portraits of Chicagoans of all stripes from the years before the stock market crash of 1929, through the Great Depression and World War II, finally coming to rest in postwar Paris. The joy with which Bellow presents this world, combined with Augie’s liberal use of references from classical mythology and European literature as he describes his experiences, elevates the story to the level of a truly American coming-of-age epic.
Saul Bellow was born in 1915 in Lachine, Quebec, Canada, and was the fourth child of parents who had emigrated from Russia just two years before. When he was nine, his family moved again, settling in Chicago. After finishing high school, Bellow attended the University of Chicago for a year before transferring to Northwestern University, where he graduated with honors in sociology in 1937. His first two novels, Dangling Man and The Victim, appeared in 1944 and 1947, respectively, to mostly positive reviews but did not sell widely. In the late 1940s, Bellow traveled Europe, part of the time as a Guggenheim Fellow. With the publication of The Adventures of Augie March in 1953, Bellow moved into the top tier of American writers both in terms of popularity and critical reputation. Augie March won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1953, the first of three times Bellow would win the award. Over the next half century, Bellow produced a number of successful and important novels, including Seize the Day (1956), Henderson the Rain King (1959), Herzog (1964), and Humboldt’s Gift, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1975. In 1976, Bellow was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Although he had worked for left-wing magazines in earlier years, Bellow became disenchanted with liberal views as the years passed. After 1966, Bellow taught at the University of Chicago and increasingly became identified with conservative thinkers at that school. He traveled the college lecture circuit and often clashed with the liberal counterculture that was sweeping the country. In 1970, students at San Francisco State University booed Bellow off stage following a speech he gave there.
In the 1980s Bellow married for a fifth time and took a position at Boston University. Perhaps because his work reflected his growing cynicism about American society, critics were less enthusiastic about the novels he continued to write. In 2000, however, Bellow published a final novel, Ravelstein, which met with highly positive reviews. Bellow died in 2005.
Source Credits: Sara Constantakis, Novels for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels, Volume 33, Gale-Cengage Learning, 2010