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Saul Bellow and the life and death of Augie March

By Pierre Tristam - posted Monday, 18 April 2005

When I was in college in New York, every time a great writer died my friends and I would gather at the Ear Inn, a cavern of a bar in SoHo and supposedly the oldest bar in Manhattan, and get drunk in the writer’s honour. It was a very Irish thing to do for a group made up of a Swiss Jew, an African-American from Louisiana, a suburban atheist from New Jersey, an Arab, a Korean, and just one Irish descendant, whose mother now happens to live near me in Palm Coast, where real estate is the only ethnicity.

"I am an American, Chicago-born." That wonderful opening line in one of the greatest of American novels - Saul Bellow’s  The Adventures of Augie March - was not a line any of us in our diapered 20s could yet consciously understand. But we lived the line’s exhilaration every day as immigrants of one kind or another.  Our origins could not compare to the wonder of having America and our future at our feet. Those dead writers’ books were like so many prefaces to our own stories. Toasting them off was the least we could do.

The nature of those gatherings makes remembering them difficult, although two stand out. There was the death of Robert Graves, the poet and author of Goodbye to All That (and anyone who has read it and still thinks war has anything redeemable, anything at all, is an idiot). That night was the closest I came to having an intimate encounter with a New York gutter. The death of Jorge Luis Borges the following year gathered us for the last time. It was our wake more than his. We graduated that month and scattered. Saul Bellow’s death last week would have made for a necessary reunion, a midpoint check into the sort of exuberant course he set us on.


The first toast I’d propose is to the unfortunate death of Augie March before that of his creator. Bellow was 89. Augie wasn’t even middle-aged when he died, sometime in the mid-1980s. The Adventures of Augie March was published in 1953. The country was finally coming of age at the time, so was Augie March. Bellow’s genius was to give voice to both in a style as jubilant and coarse, as unexpected and paradoxical, as generous, grasping, optimistic and naïve as America itself. The book is nothing more than the story of a conventionally honest Jewish boy growing up in Depression-era Chicago.

"I could put my heart into a counterfeit too, just as easily," Augie warns at the beginning of the novel. "So don’t think I’m trying to put over that, if handled right, a Cato could have been made of me, or a young Lincoln who tramped four miles in a frontier zero gale to refund three cents to a customer. I don’t want to pass for having such legendary presidential stuff. Only those four miles wouldn’t have been a hindrance if the right feelings were kindled. It depended on which way I was drawn."

And so Augie is drawn this way and that over the next 600 pages, his energy as unflagging as Bellow’s prose. Whether Augie is bounding from the "tin-tough, creaking, jazzy bazaar" of a dime store, to brooding over Chicago’s "bloody-rinded Saturday gloom of wind-born ash". Whether he’s hearing "a regular warehouse of fine suggestions" from a mentor or taking his grandmother to a rest home where he sees America’s elegy in the flesh: "… collarless necks crazy with the assaults of Kansas heats and Wyoming freezes, and with the strains of kitchen toil, Far West digging, Cincinnati retailing, Omaha slaughtering, peddling, harvesting, laborious or pegging enterprise from whale-sized to infusorial that collect into the labor of the nation". It is Bellow’s prose that is the book’s true hero.

"Augie March, finally, is the Great American Novel," British critic Martin Amis wrote, "because of its fantastic inclusiveness, its pluralism, its qualmless promiscuity. In these pages the highest and the lowest mingle and hobnob in the vast democracy of Bellow’s prose. Everything is here, the crushed and the exalted and all the notches in between, from the kitchen stiff … to the American eagle."

This is what makes reading the book these days such a past-tense experience. Could an Augie March sequel be written today in an America more fractured and polarized by its pluralism than energized by it, in an America more given to "The Corrections" of Jonathan Franzen than anything so adventurous as Augie’s creative evolution? Even Bellow’s answer, reflected by the almost crabby winteriness of his later works, was not hopeful. I’d like to think that if my friends and I were to gather again at the Ear Inn for another drunken wake, we’d still have the wits to remember, for Augie’s sake, a few lines by Robert Graves:

To bring the dead to life
Is no great magic.
Few are wholly dead.
Blow on a dead man’s embers
And a live flame will start.

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About the Author

Pierre Tristam is a News-Journal editorial writer and editor of Candide's Notebooks. Reach him at

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