Saul Bellow: Humboldt’s Gift

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Plays: 182

I can write a small book more easily than a letter—why is that?

“As though I’d stumbled upon a lost Bellow masterpiece.” So said Philip Roth after “hungrily” reading through the recently published Letters of Saul Bellow.

Saul Bellow first appeared at the Poetry Center in November of 1956, reading from a novel-in-progress that would become Henderson the Rain King. Upon the book’s publication, in 1959, Bellow wrote to his friend Ralph Ellison about its critical reception:

The fighting about poor Henderson has been fierce and wild, and to make matters worse I’m not quite sure where I myself stand. For I’m not in possession of my head and don’t know what parts of the book originate in gaiety and which in desperation. It’s easy enough to see through the prejudices of the critics and to assess their vindictiveness against the new and the unexpected, but it’s not as though the book occurred as a pure act of the imagination. . . . I’m inclined to set the whole of Henderson down to dizziness and begin to think of a new start.

Bellow’s second appearance at the Poetry Center didn’t come until 1988. By then, he’d written Herzog and Mr. Sammler’s Planet, won three National Book Awards and the Nobel Prize.

This recording is an excerpt from that 1988 appearance, when he read from Humboldt’s Gift.

“The book of ballads published by Von Humboldt Fleisher in the Thirties was an immediate hit,” writes Bellow in the novel’s opening sentence. “Humboldt was just what everyone had been waiting for.” The character of Humboldt was loosely based on the poet Delmore Schwartz. Though there are no letters to Schwartz in this new collection, some of Bellow’s thoughts about his friend are included in a letter to Eileen Simpson, author of Poets in Their Youth:

What were John [Berryman] and Delmore and Cal [Lowell] about, really? I admired their poems, I relished their company; but I was so deeply immersed in my own puzzles, programs, problems that I drove past in my dream-car. . . . Something like that. Not without feeling, no; I certainly felt for them, but I was a thousand times less attentive than I was capable of being. It came home sharply to me as I read your memoir. I suppose that if John and Delmore hadn’t been such entertainers, comic charmers, stylists, if they hadn’t had hundreds of intriguing tricks in presenting themselves. . . . But really it does no good, this remorse for being so like them.