The Green Vision of Saul Bellow

Andrew Furman in The Chronicle of Higher Education:

SaulHerzog, arguably Saul Bellow’s finest novel, turns 50 this year. I had this landmark birthday in mind when I assigned the book to my recent class on Jewish-American literature. I hadn’t taught it in a while, as its (by now) abstruse cultural references and dense philosophical musings have proved an almost insurmountable challenge to my undergraduates. But this time would be different. I planned various entry points for discussion: the book’s ruthless portraiture, the brio of its full-throated sentences, its multilingualism, its complicated gender and domestic politics, its depiction of 20th-century immigrant dreams and burdens, the laugh-out-loud humor of some of those letters composed (mostly internally) by its unhinged protagonist, Moses Herzog, and its privileging of the city and strange hostility toward nature’s green realm. Then I reread the novel. And I had to rethink that last bit. I had always believed that the novel—set largely in Chicago, New York, and the Berkshires, distinctively urban and rural environments that Herzog alternately flees to, and from—extols the urban environment and views the rural one with suspicion, fear, even derision. In short, the middle of the woods is no place for a Jew. I had found plenty of passages that encourage that interpretation. But the first thing I noticed on rereading the novel was Bellow’s sensitive evocations of place, particularly green places both within and without the city.

…Critics have generally paid short shrift to such moments of heightened perception, moments that don’t directly involve the people in Herzog’s life, or his big ideas. But now it seems wrong to separate Herzog’s receptivity to the external world from his insights about his impoverished upbringing, his failures as a father, husband, and son, and his scholarly views. It seems worthwhile, instead, to examine whether he finds, through nature, the exalted state of human perception envisioned by another Massachusetts resident, Ralph Waldo Emerson.

More here.