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Seize the Day | Context

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Writing and Reception of the Novel

Saul Bellow began writing Seize the Day in 1954 at the same time as he was working on a memoir titled "A Bootlegger's Son." His relationship with his father, Abraham, always contentious, was very much on his mind, especially following Abraham's death from a heart attack in 1955. Bellow is said to have cried so conspicuously at the funeral that a friend asked him to stop. His overt display of grief is reminiscent of the climactic scene in Seize the Day in which the main character, Tommy Wilhelm, sobs loudly at a stranger's funeral. Bellow was divorced at the time of the writing of the novel and was concerned with spending time with his son Greg. Caring for sons from whom he is separated is another concern shared by the main character of the novel, and given the major life events of the author surrounding the time of the writing of the novel, not surprisingly, one of the major themes is fathers and sons.

First rejected by The New Yorker for its length, Seize the Day was published in 1956 along with several short stories by the Partisan Review. Shorter than most of his novels, Seize the Day benefits from a tight plot, leading some critics to identify it as Bellow's most mature work and the result of honing his craft to its finest expression. The novel remains one of Bellow's best-known works. It was adapted to film in 1986 starring Robin Williams.

Reichianism

Wilhelm Reich was an Austrian Jew and scientist known for advocating anti-authoritarianism and sexual liberation. He fled the Nazis in the 1930s and immigrated to America. There he became most well-known for the discovery of what he called orgone particles, which he claimed were the "elemental units of life." Indian scholar Eusebio Rodrigues explains Reich's belief that people suffer from "inner tensions generated by the conflict between natural human demands and the brutal pressures exerted by the world." This distortion leads people to create false fronts that conform to social expectations, but inside their true character is painfully distorted. According to Reich there are three tiers of human character. The first is an individual's capacity to love, ability to interact authentically with society, and desire to work. The second layer inhibits the first through greed, hate, lust, and envy. The resulting third layer is a mask of self-control, fake sociality, and politeness, what Reich called "character armor."

Followers of Reich, including many famous thinkers such as American novelist Norman Mailer, American writer J.D. Salinger, and American-Canadian writer Saul Bellow, attended Reichian therapy, which included regular appointments and primal scream therapy as advocated by American psychologist Arthur Janov. They also acquired and used an orgone accumulator—a metal-lined box in which subjects experienced healing orgasms. Reich believed all physical ailments were really outward expressions of mental pain resulting from the oppression of social expectations. Although German theoretical physicist Albert Einstein disproved the efficacy of the orgone accumulator within two weeks and Reich died in prison after being sentenced by the American government for violating a fraud injunction, followers of Reich continued to practice therapies that came out of his theories.

Saul Bellow initially got involved with Reichian therapy to support his friend Jewish-American writer Isaac Rosenfield and looked back on the therapy as something rather silly. However, at the time of the writing of Seize the Day, Bellow was going to Reichian therapy twice a week, and the Bellows had an orgone accumulator in their home. He often lay on the couch nude and choked, frowned, or beat on the couch to relieve himself of rage or tension. Although some argue Seize the Day is a caricature of Reichian theories, others see it is a useful way to understand the novel. As such, readers can interpret the novel as a story about a man, Tommy Wilhelm, oppressed by modern social expectations, his character distorted and suffocated, until he finds release and his true self in outbursts of grief in the climactic scene.

1950s Manhattan

The small island of Manhattan, bordered on four sides by rivers, is one of the five boroughs of New York City. Manhattan is home to the financial center of the city, called Wall Street, as well as some of the world's largest businesses to which many of the city's inhabitants commute daily from the city's other boroughs. Tommy Wilhelm, the novel's main character, has moved to Manhattan, but his family, from whom he is estranged, lives in one of New York's other boroughs, Brooklyn. Central Park, a large strip of public land, runs down the central part of Manhattan on the northern end and is bordered by areas known as the Upper West Side and the Upper East Side. The Upper West Side of Manhattan, the setting for the novel and home of the fictional Hotel Gloriana, has historically been a largely Jewish community, settled first by Jewish immigrants around the turn of the century, then by Jews fleeing the Nazis in Europe in the 1930s. In the 1920s nearly half of the Jews in America lived in New York City.

After World War II (1939–45) Manhattan experienced a building boom, and many of the iconic buildings along Park Avenue were built. The population of the city grew, and the streets of Manhattan became a hive of activity, crowded with people daily, much as described in the novel. In the thriving economic times of the 1950s, the rush to succeed financially went hand in hand with the pressures of modern urban existence, so often the focus of Bellow's novels, as it is in Seize the Day.

Commodities Trading

Investing in commodities, much like investing in the stock market, involves purchasing an amount of an item in the hopes its value will increase, at which time the investor can sell, making a profit. Unlike the stock market, in which investors purchase shares in a company or group of companies, commodities traders speculate on the price of various raw materials like grain or coffee. The largest commodities market is the Chicago Board of Trade, although there are exchanges in many large cities. Trading in commodities is also called futures trading because investors gamble on the future price of a given commodity, purchasing contracts for a raw material at a current price in the hopes the price will increase.

While in the past many commodities traders were the owners of the commodities themselves, trading their goods in the exchange for other commodities (much like bartering), most often commodities traders now are speculators, rather than owners of the physical items. As speculators, they assume some of the risk involved in fluctuating prices and gain the right to profit should values increase. In the novel, Dr. Tamkin and Tommy Wilhelm invest their money in lard and rye. The loss of their investment illustrates the volatility of commodities markets. Prices can fluctuate widely given the risks of agricultural production including weather, disease, or transportation problems.

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