Saul Bellow: Eulogy From A Former Student...
Saul Bellow: Eulogy From A Former Student...
by Charles Shaw, Boston University '92
Common Sense Politics Daily
Day broke sharp and fast across Chicago this morning as the incendiary copper glow of a million sunbeams ignited an undulating sea of high-rise windows which coat the shore of Lake Michigan. Light spilled amply through one of these solitary windows into an old building in Hyde Park that Saul Bellow once called home.
Thousands of miles away in Rome a throng of millions mosey across the Tiber, waiting a day and then some to view the body of Pope John Paul II. Each carryies with them the understanding that all of humanity had just lost a great and historical figure. Though Saul Bellow never commanded a comparable station in life, he was nonetheless a great and historical figure in his own right. He had a direct and profound effect on my life and the artist I would become, because he represented, and his work emulated, the very world that had given me life and name and meaning.
Bellow's world was shaped by the great American city of Chicago, my home. He was raised amongst the rabble of a Balkanized population of Irish, Italian, German, Polish, Black, and Jew, and he came of age amongst the Deal and the Graft that was the local political machine of the first real Boss of Chicago, Big Bill Thompson. This too was my family's world. At the time a 12-year old Bellow was stuffing mailboxes for Thompson, my Great-Grandfather Eden Brekke was sitting Alderman of the 37th Ward, Austin District, and would soon serve under then Mayor Thompson as Commissioner of the Park District. Much younger was my stepfather Gene Helfand who grew up in the same orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Humboldt Park, and remembers Bellow as a boy much older than he.
And I would eventually meet and study with Bellow some fifty years later in the Spring of 1992 as a twenty-one year old student at Boston University.
Bellow was the senior ranking member of a cadre of Nobel Laureates John Silber had managed to install at Boston University which included Elie Wiesel, Derek Walcott, Joseph Brodsky, and sometime visiting professor Toni Morrison. Beneath these demi-gods was a Lit department that featured Robert Pinsky, Christopher Ricks, Rosanna Warren, daughter of Poet Laureate Robert Penn Warren, and, Leslie Epstein, nephew of Phillip and Julius Epstein, co-authors of Casablanca.
It was a formidable crew to come out to as an aspiring writer, but it was not lost on me that we had access to a critical mass of literary genius that very few would ever experience. And Bellow, quite literally, spoke his genius in my language, that amazing fusion of hog-squeal Chicago and effete high art.
His Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Humboldt's Gift (1976) is the finest Contemporary American novel ever written, years ahead of its time, as we follow Bellow's protagonist, famed author Charlie Citrine, through the perils of celebrity, decadence, and compromise, as he grapples with the death of his friend and mentor Von Humboldt Fleisher, who never "sold out", and as a consequence, died penniless and insane. I once heard the novel described as "Steinerian Metaphysics", referring to the work of philosopher Rudolph Steiner. But to anyone who calls them self an artist, it was a travelogue of our greatest nightmares: To be famous, but despised. To be rich, but miserable. To be accomplished, but continually empty. To be a hedonist and to lose touch with real meaning. And to abandon those who made your good fortune possible in that inevitable Faustian choice between honor and legacy.
In an archetypal scene early in the novel, Charlie is dragged through the bitter wind and cold to the top of a skyscraper under construction by a mobster named Cantabile whom Charlie is into for a few thousand. In a show of calculated hubris, Cantabile takes the owed money he just extracted forcibly from Charlie, and tosses it into the wind high above the city. Charlie realizes that money is meaningless when you have power, and that no matter what accolades and high pretensions he puts on, he is still just a kid from the streets of Humboldt Park who got himself in hoc, and respect will be paid. It is a scene that is consummately Chicago.
Bellow left Chicago for Boston during the height of the crime wave that characterized the Reagan/Bush years, claiming that the decay, violence, and racial discord had become too much to bear. It broke his heart as it broke the hearts of all of us raised in this stunning and exceptional city who sat by and watched this great experiment fall to rubble and rust amidst the pop and crackle of the gun and the shrill epithet of overt racism. What Bellow would make of today's Renaissance Chicago is anybody's guess now, but I feel comfortable saying he probably would have still believed the city had lost something. To Bellow, Chicago was never as much glamour as it was life, and in his novels he has forever etched portraits of that élan vital, so that it will never be forgotten.
When I told my best friend about his death, I told her that we had lost the last great American novelist, and there was no one to take his place.
"Not yet", she said, winking.
Mr. Bellow...thank you. And godspeed, sir.