Book review: Saul Bellow's collected non-fiction
There is Simply Too Much to Think About: Collected Non-fiction by Saul Bellow
edited by Benjamin Taylor
For the title of this new collection of non-fiction by Saul Bellow, Benjamin Taylor borrowed the name of a 1992 essay Bellow wrote called "There Is Simply Too Much to Think About".
In this splendid volume, Bellow does indeed give us much to think about, although many of the essays focus on two major themes: first, Bellow's ceaseless and moving exploration of his vocation as writer and public intellectual, and second, his uncompromising stand on his Jewish identity, of which he was fiercely proud.
He resisted efforts to classify him as a Jewish writer, preferring to think of himself as a Jew who had written some books. "I have tried to fit my soul into the Jewish-writer category, but it does not feel comfortably accommodated there," he wrote in an essay from 1974-75.
Born in 1915 to Russian Jewish immigrants in Canada, Bellow, whose family moved to Chicago when he was a boy, graduated from Northwestern University but considered himself, at least in literary matters, self-taught.
He devoured the classics of Western literature and, as a struggling young writer, yearned to take his place in highbrow literary culture even as he understood that the exclusive club wasn't always welcoming to Jews.
He wrote brilliantly about Jewish writers in America. See his penetrating 1959 review of Philip Roth's debut novel, Goodbye, Columbus, in which he described the then 26-year-old Roth as a "virtuoso" - but also about literature in general, from James Joyce and other giants of modernism to such contemporaries as Ralph Ellison.
Although Bellow can come across in later essays as ponderous or curmudgeonly, much of what's here remains remarkably vivid and relevant. Take, for instance, his 1957 essay "Distractions of a Fiction Writer", in which he deplores "death by distraction", the curse of our modern age.
He diagnosed the condition more than half a century ago - and it's only gotten worse.