CHICAGO JEWISH LITERARY GENIUS: A new book looks back at the amazing life and works of Saul Bellow

By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News

A keen observer of the passing scene, Saul Bellow could have been just the kind of writer to profile Zachary Leader, his own biographer.

Leader’s story flows out into many branches of culture on two continents, encompassing both for-the-masses video potboilers and highbrow literary works.

His father Tony Leader was a Hollywood TV director who likely inspired one of his lead actors, Clint Eastwood, to go behind the camera, a job Eastwood still pursues at 88. Leader the son is professor of English literature at the University of Roehampton and a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

Bellow knew that path to success. He was perhaps the greatest Jewish author to ever live in Chicago, with Nobel and Pulitzer prizes to his credit. Born Solomon Bellows just outside Montreal in 1915, he rebelled against his Russian immigrant mother’s religious orthodoxy. But Yiddish was his first language and he learned Hebrew as early as 4 after the family moved to Humboldt Park. Bellow had a rough-and-tumble young manhood common in the era, benefited as a beginning writer from FDR’s Works Progress Administration and moved into the world’s literary elite with “Herzog,” his first best-selling novel in 1964.

So why did a Jewish kid from LA, raised in pop culture and now living in Shakespeare’s old neighborhood, end up writing a two-volume, 1,500-page biography of Bellow? The second part, the 770-page “The Life of Saul Bellow: Love and Strife 1965-2005,” has just been published by Albert  A. Knopf.

Leader was recently in Chicago to talk about his book, including appearances at the downtown Standard Club and Harold Washington Library.

Amidst the academic creed of “publish or perish,” Leader grew tired of writing biographies, including a six-year tenure profiling the British novelist Sir Kingsley Amis, which earned him Pulitzer Prize finalist status in biography in 2008.  He got guff in his own family about profiling Amis, who had a “mild case of anti-Semitism.”

As a change of pace, Leader wanted to work on an American, in this case edit the letters of Jewish superstar author Norman Mailer. But that job was already taken. Andrew Wylie, the agent for Mailer’s estate known in the book industry as “The Jackal,” instead asked to meet Leader in London in 2006 about “other possibilities.” Wylie also represented Bellow’s estate.

Wylie suggested that Leader write a biography of Bellow. “It took me about a minute to lose my need to get a break from biographies,” Leader said. “Bellow was one of the writers I always read.”

Saul Bellow receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature.

The project clicked, and Leader met the literary advisers to Bellow’s estate. One was Phillip Roth, another Jewish literary legend. The other was Martin Amis, son of Kingsley, who approved of Leader’s biography of his father. Leader would not have gotten the project without Amis’ blessing.

“It was something that happened inadvertently,” Leader said. “I made it clear to the publishers that I’d write a book on the same scale (as the 800-page Amis work). What I didn’t realize is how much life there was (with Bellow) aside from his writing.

“Kingsley Amis spent his afternoons getting drunk at his club. Saul Bellow, after he did his work in the morning, went out in the world and exercised great power in literary and intellectual circles. If you wanted a job, if you wanted an editor, if you wanted an agent, if he approved of your work he could help you get it. If he disapproved of your work, if you were Susan Sontag, he’d make sure you didn’t get it. He was on the boards of the Rockefeller Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, all these boards. He was a literary macher. He exercised his power responsibly.”

Helping Leader enormously in his research were some 350 boxes of Bellow’s papers at the University of Chicago library. Bellow had started college at the U. of C., but then transferred to Northwestern. Because he thought the English department at Northwestern reeked of anti-Semitism in an era of strict Jewish quotas at many private universities, he decided not to major in literature but rather anthropology and sociology.

“By the time I got to 1964 (in Bellow’s career), I had 700 pages,” said Leader. “It was clear I was either going to publish a 1,500-page book, or it would be divided into two volumes. I always tell my publisher I gave him two books for the price of one. He always tells me he got one book for the price of two – the production costs.”

The first volume was titled “The Life of Saul Bellow: To Fame and Fortune 1915-1964.”

Throughout the gargantuan production, Leader portrays Bellow’s “genius” in his attentiveness to capturing the surface realities of the world.

“He could describe your face perfectly, your body, the physical appearance of things,” he said. “He was terrific in putting his face right up against (the world). He was influenced by the romantic poets. The material world is a way into the world beneath the surface. That intrigued him. He’d get to the character of the person by describing his posture, or the way he walked – without the character saying a word.

“He wanted to write in a way that was true to his experience, which was mixed. It wasn’t the sort of experience that he felt was fashionable in literary and academic circles. The family spoke Yiddish. But he was fluent in French as well. He could go from the meanest street language to the highest literary or philosophical allusion. He wanted to show that it’s possible to lead a life where both languages, both sets of experiences, can find expression, and can find a way to mix the vital energies of street life and the immigrant experience with the greatest works of literature and philosophy.”

Bellow with President Ronald Reagan.

Despite rubbing shoulders with society’s elite, Bellow always was grounded in his immigrant Jewish upbringing.

“Part of the reason he was always going back there was because he had an amazing memory, and his feelings were most intense in childhood and adolescence,” Leader said. “He had a romantic poet’s sense of the powers of childhood, the powers of innocence.

“His mother (Liza) was more Orthodox, more of an observant Jew, than his father (Abraham). But his father was the president of his synagogue. He was a businessman whose energies and thoughts were devoted to getting out of Humboldt Park and supporting his family. (Saul) felt his spiritual, his feeling side came from his mother. His bustling, energetic side that was completely absorbed in Chicago common culture that made the first-generation (immigrant) Jews a success, came from his father.

“Certainly for his writing (the two sides complemented each other). Sub-title of the second volume is ‘Love and Strife’ – these two worlds, one you can trace back to his mother, the other to his father.”

Leader captured Bellow’s mixing of identities using Bellow’s own words:

“I never felt it necessary to sacrifice one identification for another. I’ve never had to say that I was not a Canadian. I’ve never had to say that I was not Jewish. I’ve never had to say I was not an American. I took all of these things for granted. And in me, you see a sort of virtuoso act of integration of all these diverse elements and I feel no particular conflict. I never felt any special discomfort over any of these elements.

“I’ve taken them all for granted because they’re part of my history. I think a human being has to be faithful to his unique history. If that history is mixed, scrambled, anomalous, difficult for any outsider less exotic to put together for himself, that’s not my fault. I was faithful to what I was. I lived that way and I tried to write that way.”

Added Leader about Bellow: “He disguised all his street knowledge in order not to be patronized by the intellectual (elite). On the other hand, he didn’t pretend he hadn’t read (classical writers) to his street friends. His language would call upon all his learning and all his (worldly) knowledge.”

Zachary Leader

While moving among different worlds, Bellow immersed himself in the 1967 Six Day War, one of the seminal events of Jewish history. He wrangled an assignment from the Newsday newspaper on Long Island, explaining: “I have never been a Zionist. I never had strong feelings on the subject. But something about that particular occasion – the fact for the second time in a quarter of a century the Jews were having a gun pressed to their heads – led me to ask Newsday (for the assignment).”  The reportage was re-assembled in 1976 under the title “To Jerusalem and Back,” with this narrative:

“The Israelis had war, and not the moral equivalent of war William James was looking for, to give them firmness. They had, in their concern for the decay of civilization and in their pride (pride and concern in equal proportions) something to teach the world. The stunned remnant that had crept from Auschwitz had demonstrated that they could farm a barren land, industrialized it, build cities, make a society, do research, philosophize, write books, sustain a great moral tradition, and, finally, create an army of tough fighters.”

One of Bellow’s distinguished contemporaries actually criticized his Six Day War dispatches. Fellow Jewish author David Halberstam ran into Bellow at a Chicago dinner party. While praising his novels, Halberstam told Bellow that he “shouldn’t do reporting, why waste your time on reporting.”  Halberstam stunned Bellow into glum silence for much of the event. Later, Bellow analyzed that Halberstam was the kind of writer “who was interested in war, but not the things that cause war.” Again, Bellow’s style was to look for deeper meanings after describing surface details.

Bellow would have appreciated the back story of biographer Leader.  Growing up with non-religious parents in Los Angeles, he found himself taking a “crash course in Hebrew” as the parents frantically joined a synagogue. Both sets of grandparents declared if their first grandson was not bar mitzvahed, they would be “terribly unhappy.”

Tony Leader directed Eastwood in his first regular TV role in “Rawhide” on CBS. Eastwood obviously took mental notes about how the boss worked behind the camera. Then he also worked with Raymond Burr directing both “Perry Mason” on CBS and “Ironside” on NBC.  Other Leader directorial credits included “Leave It to Beaver” on ABC and “Have Gun Will Travel” on CBS.

“If you’re a director of segment or serial television, you don’t have the power that you would have if you’re a director of a movie,” Zachary Leader said. “You couldn’t fire Clint Eastwood. You couldn’t fire Raymond Burr. The standing and reputation of movies was greater than television at the time.

“My father moved the family (to Great Britain) on spec hoping to get a movie director’s job. He eventually did get a movie. He did get one, but eventually he went back to (Hollywood).”

But exposed to the birthplace of classical authors, the younger Leader grew to love England. Eventually he would stay, take on British citizenship in addition to his original U.S. birthright, and immerse himself in academia and authorship.  Through the years, he picked up a few British intonations in his spoken word.

Like Bellow, Leader has balanced different worlds in his persona. Looking at the devolvement of political discourse in his native country, he has wondered to his American friends  if the public coarseness “is a blip, and we’ll go back to a liberal-democratic-centrist consensus, the one you and I have lived through most of our lives.”  Bellow, who died in 2005, might have been the master analyzer of the grassroots causes of our rancorous society.

Summing up Bellow, Leader said the author advocated do not deny who you are, be true to your experiences and keep noticing the world.  While interviewing Bellow, Israeli novelist Amos Oz told Bellow he preferred to die in his sleep.

To which Bellow responded: “How could you say that? Death is such an important part of one’s life. Why would you want to miss it?”

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