Saul Bellow is known as one of the foremost American novelists of the twentieth century, and The Adventures of Augie March has often been called “the Great American Novel.”
Born in Quebec on June 10, 1915 to Russian-Jewish parents, Bellow came to America as an illegal immigrant while still a baby, and became an American citizen as an adult. His parents moved to Chicago when he was nine years old, and he was raised there. Chicago would later become a favorite setting for Bellow’s novels.
Bellow studied at the University of Chicago and later, like his hero, Augie March, at Northwestern University in Evanston, where he graduated with a degree in anthropology and sociology. Bellow worked as a writer for the Works Progress Administration during the Depression Era of the 1930s. Like many intellectuals of his day, he joined the international Communist movement as a follower of Leon Trotsky. In 1940, he traveled to Mexico to meet the Russian exile, but the day before they were to meet, Trotsky was assassinated by a Soviet agent. Bellow’s near-meeting with Trotsky was fictionalized in The Adventures of Augie March as Augie catches a glimpse of the revolutionary leader and his entourage in Mexico.
Bellow joined the Merchant Marines during World War II and continued writing while in the service, completing his first novel, Dangling Man. The book, published in 1944, is about a young Chicago man named Joseph who is waiting to be drafted into war.
After the war, Bellow worked for two years as a professor at the University of Minnesota, publishing another early novel, The Victim (1947). In 1948, he won a Guggenheim Fellowship which took him to Paris. There, he began The Adventures of Augie March (1953), which was to establish him as a major writer. It won him the first of his three National Book Awards.
Bellow next published two critically acclaimed works, the novella Seize the Day (1956)and his own personal favorite novel, the comic Henderson the Rain King (1959). Bellow returned to his native Chicago in 1962 after a number of years in New York City, and became a professor at the University of Chicago. He remained there for thirty years, teaching on the Committee on Social Thought, a groundbreaking interdisciplinary graduate program. Over the next decade, he published two bestselling novels, the National Book award-winning Herzog (1964) and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Humboldt’s Gift (1975). Mr. Sammler’s Planet (1970) won the National Book Award in 1971. Bellow was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1976.
In 1993, Bellow left Chicago for Massachusetts, where he taught literature at Boston University. His last work, Ravelstein (2000), is a fictionalized account of the life of Bellow’s good friend and colleague, the renowned professor Alan Bloom. It sparked controversy upon publication for its revealing and not particularly flattering depiction of the Bloom character.
Bellow’s novels tend to be autobiographical, with their main characters often based on himself or his friends. In his personal life, he married five times and had four children. His last child, a daughter, was born in 1999 when Bellow was eighty-four years old.
Bellow died on April 5, 2005, at the age of 89. He had written a long list of novels, short stories, and nonfiction books, as well as essays, articles, and plays. Author Philip Roth eulogized Bellow by saying, “The backbone of 20th-century American literature has been provided by two novelists: William Faulkner and Saul Bellow. Together they are the Melville, Hawthorne, and Twain of the 20th century.”
Adventures of Augie March: Biography: Saul Bellow