Notes from the Grave: Saul Bellow’s Unpublished Jewish Lecture

Notes from the Grave: Saul Bellow’s Unpublished Jewish Lecture

“Saul Bellow: Letters” had plenty of un-read Jewish material in it when it appeared last year. But apparently it didn’t have the astounding lecture “A Jewish Writer in America,” published for the first time in the New York Review of Books this week. Bellow gave the lecture in 1988, and while the second-part is on its way, say the New York Review editors, this one is astonishing enough.

It isn’t that we get anything we don’t already know about Bellow—his rigorous Orthodox education, his defiantly Jewish identity, and his equally defiant spurning of Jewish pieties. It’s the specific instances he gives in the lecture, where these facts of his life shine through, that make for such an intriguing read.

Bellow starts off lambasting the then (and still) modish liberal penchant for
“self-questioning,” for asking oneself, Who am I? Or, Am I a Jew? and, What is a Jew?

He never questioned his Jewish identity, he says, because his entire worldview was shaped from birth by a particularly Jewish outlook. “Because I had to memorize most of Genesis, my first consciousness was that of a cosmos, and in that cosmos I was a Jew,” he says, adding: “This was my ‘given’ and it would be idle to quarrel with it, to try to revise or efface it.”

But that is all prologue. The heart of the lecture (which unfortunately we don’t learn where it was given, or for what purpose—editors: help!) is about the challenge of being a Jewish writer in a fundamentally Christian culture. It is somewhat surprising to hear now, given how accustomed we are to reading Jewish writers in postwar American literature, but Bellow reminds us how recent a phenomenon that is.

In the 1930s, when he was just starting out, he explains how the literary lions lording over the establishment’s gates—in academia, in publishing—were often anti-Semitic. There was T.S. Eliot and “a roughneck faction headed by Ezra Pound,” and Auden and Henry Adams and later, Truman Capote, none of whom made being a Jewish writer easy.

But the Jewish shadow army that was growing up beside them, from Irving Howe to Delmore Schwartz, gave him small comfort as well. As a Chicago-born Jew whose immigrant milieu include Poles, Germans, Irishmen and Italian immigrants too, Bellow never quite warmed to the New York intellectual crowd, who were so proudly and openly Jewish. They were too self-absorbed, too much a clique.

Moreover, there are a few poignant passages on the other great Jewish writers of Bellow’s day—the Israeli Hebrew writers. He describes a meeting in Israel with the great Hebrew poet S.Y. Agnon, in which Agnon teases Bellow that, by writing in English, his work, no matter how “Jewish” in inflection or subject or theme, is still essentially traif.

And there is Gershom Scholem, the great kabbalah scholar and a German refuge to America. He was even more maddened by Bellow’s almost insouciant attitude toward being both an American and a Jewish writer, and how he seemed to find no contradiction between them. “For easily understandable reasons Scholem immediately placed me among those German Jews who had done everything possible to assimilate,” Bellow says.

But Bellow then gently rebukes him.

“If you were born in America all essential communications, your deepest communications with yourself, will be in English—in American English. You will neither lie nor tell the truth in any other language. Without it no basic reckonings can be made. You will not reflect on your own death in Hebrew or in French. Your English is the principal instrument of your humanity,” he says.

The he adds imploringly: “And when the door of the gas chamber was shut many of the German Jews who called upon God for the last time inevitably used the language of their murderers, for they had no other.”

Were they, in their non-Hebrew tongues, somehow less Jewish for doing?, Bellow means to imply.

And yet he is equally aware that so much of the English language is indebted to Christian authors, from Shakespeare on. How to get around that? It is not a question Bellow seems to have tossed aside blithely, but something he tirelessly wrestled with. Ultimately he found his answer through basic empirical evidence: English literature in the 20th century, of which he was so much a part, was blown open by immigrants of all kinds. Many may have been Christians, but their language and cultures were utterly alien to the King’s English tradition of Donne, Byron and Wordsworth.

James Joyce, an Irishmen, stood at the crossroads of English literature’s modern turn, and Joseph Conrad, a transplant from Poland, flipped the Romantic tradition of British imperialism on its head. Neither author was any less foreign to English culture than Bellow was. And neither would become any less central to its literary heritage than Bellow did.

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