The Life of Saul Bellow: Love and Strife

James Wolcott at the LRB:

As Atlas explains in The Shadow in the Garden, ‘Bellow had three sons: Greg, Adam, and Dan. He also had three disciples: James Wood, Leon Wieseltier and Martin Amis.’ Wood, the literary critic and novelist; Wieseltier, the former literary editor of the New Republic; and Amis, who, on the death of his father, Kingsley, declared to Bellow, ‘You’ll have to be my father now.’ Atlas: ‘These three were – I won’t say pseudo-sons, because their affection for Bellow was so deep as to be almost filial – but surrogate or substitute or perhaps alter-sons, whose love was uncomplicated by anger and the unruly demands of hereditary sons.’ And we can add a fourth alter-son, Atlas himself, who elsewhere in the book confides: ‘I had become accustomed to thinking of Bellow not only as a father figure but as a father, whose unconditional love – or at least forgiveness – I could count on no matter what I did.’ It’s difficult to imagine a less likely candidate for a chalice of unconditional love than Bellow (‘prickly’ was practically his middle name), but the whole surrogate dad/surrogate son business is a bewildering proposition, a sidebar of aberrant psychology; I’m not sure there’s anything comparable in American literary history.​† I was a young-gun devotee of Mailer, who made possible my start in writing, but I never wanted him to file adoption papers. A patriarchal nimbus settled on Bellow in his later years that remains unique, inspiring, a little weird, a bit Holy Ghost. Attending Bellow’s readings at the 92nd Street Y was a form of religious observance. According to Atlas, ‘going to hear Bellow wasn’t a social event: it was an act of witness.’

more here.