Saul Bellow, the son of Russian Jewish emigres who became the most prominent member of a generation of Jewish-American writers to emerge from World War II, was remembered this week as a literary giant who did not want to be bound by the tag of Jewish writer.
Mr. Bellow, often regarded as a “novelist of ideas” for the big themes he tackled, died Tuesday at home in Brookline, Mass. He was 89.
The winner of a Nobel Prize, Pulitzer Prize, National Jewish Book Award and three National Book Awards, Mr. Bellow, who grew up in Chicago and based many of his novels in the Illinois city, moved to the Boston area in 1993 to teach a freshman-level literature class.
“The backbone of 20th century American literature has been provided by two novelists — William Faulkner and Saul Bellow,” novelist Philip Roth said in a statement. “Together they are the Melville, Hawthorne and Twain of the 20th century.”
Mr. Bellow bridled at being considered a Jewish writer, though his early novels, most notably 1944’s “The Victim,” dealt with anti-Semitism and featured characters who spoke Yiddish and Russian, and his sole book of journalism was “To Jerusalem and Back: A Personal Account.”
He was often grouped with such contemporaries as Roth and Bernard Malamud. Still, Mr. Bellow, who had the reputation of being difficult in personal relationships, did not want to be part of the “Hart, Schaffner & Marx” of American literature, he said.
His 1953 “The Adventures of Augie March,” whose title character was Jewish and whose story reflected part of Mr. Bellow’s background, opened with these words: “I am an American, Chicago born.”
“What he did was create a new American idiom, what he did was infuse the native American idiom with his own Jewish, Western European inflection,” said James Atlas, author of the 2000 book “Bellow: A Biography.”
“He always said he was a writer first, an American second and Jewish third,” Atlas said. “But all three were elements of his genius. His greatest contribution was that he was able to write fiction that had tremendous philosophical depth.”
Born Solomon Bellows in Lachine, Quebec, he changed his name when he began publishing in the 1940s.
Mr. Bellow, a graduate of Northwestern University, taught for many years at the University of Chicago. He received the Nobel Prize in literature in 1976 for “Humboldt’s Gift,” one of several works that mourned the soul’s fate in the modern world.
“There was a way for children of European immigrants in America to write about this experience with a new language,” he said. “I felt like a creator of a language suddenly and was intoxicated. It was truly intoxicating and I couldn’t control it. It took me several books to rein it in.”
Mr. Bellow kept writing into his 80s.