Loads of Learned Lumber

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Lack of Young Bellovians

QUITE CLEAR FROM Sam Tanenhaus's review in the NYTBR that he thinks Zachary Leader's new biography is great big stack of not much; Bellow himself, though, matters: "He was fixed on a cultural course that was also a visionary quest. He wanted to re-invent and also re-Americanize the novel, free it from the European masters he devotedly studied. [...] the social world he described should be captured in motion, not frozen in the stasis of manipulated symbols and pattern, of muted irony and elegantly veiled allusion."

Tanenhaus also notes, though, that "Bellow admirers in their 20s and 30s are increasingly harder to find." Very true, in my experience. Which got me thinking--how did that happen?

Academia is hardly the sole determinant of what novels get read, but Bellow has certainly dropped off the course reading lists.  When I was in college and graduate school, he was likely to show upin contemporary  fiction courses, but as far as I can tell he rarely does now.

One reason he was dropped is easy to guess: his depiction of Africans and African-Americans is benighted to the point of seeming vicious. Then there are his women characters. Most college literature students  are women, and they more or less expect the canonical 20th century male American novelists to be sexist, but Daisy Buchanan, Caddy Compson, and Lady Brett are vivid enough to be interesting and discussable. Bellow's women just are not. Even Updike and Roth do better on this score than Bellow does.

Nor does Bellow seem to enjoy high esteem in the MFA world. James Salter, Raymond Carver, and Paul Bowles do not get assigned in literature courses all that often, but in creative writing programs,  they seem to have been widely offered and followed as examples. Anyone who tried writing like Bellow would probably be told quite quickly and quite plainly to cut it out.

It's hard to imagine this turning around any time soon. Virtually no one in academe would touch  anything from Henderson on with a ten-foot-pole (I remember a fellow graduate student, who had had to teach a discussion section on Mr. Sammler's Planet for a large lecture class, asking his students, "Would you call this a novel or a rant?"). But could, say, The Victim be successfully revived? Maybe.

Bellow has some influential and articulate advocates--not just Tanenhaus but James Wood and Martin Amis. But writers don't get on the syllabus because Wood or Amis gave a thumbs up. Bellow could turn out to be like Thomas Wolfe--an immensely honored writer whose stock falls precipitately 10-20 years after his death and never gets back up.


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