Early Life and Parentage
Saul Bellow was born on June 10, 1915, in Lachine, Quebec. He began life in America as an illegal immigrant. His parents had prospered in St. Petersburg, Russia. But they fled to Canada and changed their names when it was discovered Bellow's father, Abraham Belov, a Lithuanian Jew born in the Russian Empire, which ruled Lithuania, was using forged documents in order to work where Jews were not permitted to do so. Abraham, a resourceful survivor, escaped and in 1913 managed to move his family to Canada. Once there Abraham tried farming, and when this endeavor failed, he became a bootlegger. Abraham subsequently moved to Chicago and in 1924 found associates to smuggle his family across the border.
Saul's parents settled into an immigrant neighborhood in Chicago and a hardscrabble life. The family language was Yiddish—historically, the language of Ashkenazic Jews, Jewish people from Central and Eastern Europe. Yiddish consists of about three-quarters German vocabulary while borrowing words from Hebrew and the languages of other lands where Jews have lived. Abraham Belov did not have a passport, never really learned English, and never had a driver's license. By contrast, Saul and his siblings, like many immigrant children of the era, assimilated as Americans. Thanks to post-World War II (after 1945) prosperity and immigrant ambition, they made comfortable lives for themselves. Saul Bellow, whose sense of himself as an outsider is replicated in his self-consciously Jewish character Herzog, did not become a U.S. citizen until 1943.
Saul Bellow started undergraduate life at the University of Chicago, but short of funds, he transferred to Northwestern University and graduated in 1937. He started graduate training in anthropology at the University of Wisconsin and dropped out to return to Chicago and marry Anita Goshkin. Goshkin was then preparing for a master's degree in social work. Bellow did some teaching, worked for a while at the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and began to see himself as a writer of fiction. He considered graduate work in English literature but quickly learned "Jews were rarely hired by English departments," as he would say in an interview. "You weren't born to it," Bellow was told by the chair of the department at Northwestern. That settled, he pursued his ambition as a writer of fiction and published his first short story in the liberal magazine Partisan Review in 1941.
Bellow's literary successes came gratifyingly close upon each other. He published Dangling Man, his first novel, in 1944 and his second, The Victim, in 1947. When The Victim was published, the writer Martin Greenberg remarked in the Jewish political journal Commentary that Bellow had successfully made Jewishness "a quality that informs all of modern life ... the quality of modernity itself." Greenberg refers to the suffering and near obliteration of Jewish life in Europe during the Holocaust—the systematic murder of over six million Jews and many others by the Nazi regime of Germany. Its pervasive evil had left marks on the moral and social life of the postwar period.
In 1948 Bellow won a Guggenheim Fellowship, which enabled him to spend two years in Europe traveling and writing. The Adventures of Augie March (1953), his third novel, won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1954. He won the National Book Award again in 1965 for Herzog, which was also awarded the International Literary Prize. He was the first American to receive this honor. In January 1968 the Republic of France awarded him the Croix de Chevalier des Arts et Lettres, the "highest literary distinction awarded by that nation to non-citizens." Also in 1968 he was a recipient of the B'nai B'rith Jewish Heritage Award for "excellence in Jewish literature," and in 1976 the Anti-Defamation League awarded him the America's Democratic Legacy Award, a first for a writer of fiction. In 1971 he won a third National Book Award, this time for Mr. Sammler's Planet, and Humboldt's Gift won the Pulitzer Prize in 1976.
In 1976 Saul Bellow also won the Nobel Prize in Literature. The recognition continued: in 1980 he won the O. Henry Award; in 1986 the St. Louis Literary Award; in 1988 the National Medal of Arts; in 1989 the PEN/Malamud Award; and in 1990 the National Book Foundation's lifetime Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.
Bellow held guest teaching posts at many schools, including Bard College, Princeton University, the University of Minnesota, Brandeis University, and Boston University. He was a longtime member of the influential Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago, where he achieved his most lasting fame. He also wrote plays, including The Last Analysis (1965) and Under the Weather, the latter produced on Broadway in 1966.
Death and Legacy
In his personal life, four of Bellow's five marriages ended in divorce. He had four children, each from a different marriage: three sons, and, at age 84, a daughter. He died in Boston on April 5, 2005, having helped to transform the stigma of the immigrant and the outsider with his triumphant integration of the Jewish novel into the mainstream of American letters.