Philadelphia Inquirer: Saul Bellow, master of fiction and Nobel Prize-winner, died on Tuesday at 89. Only the man died. The stories and novels he created -- the universe that wouldn't exist if it were not for him -- remain, which is a blessing.
And that reminds us of how much any culture -- especially this one, which so often prides itself on not having any culture -- owes its artists.
Many people credit Bellow with rescuing the American novel. He started publishing in the mid-20th century, during an explosion of media, especially television, that threatened (or so it seemed) to scuttle the traditional arts.
Well, here we are, half a century later, and while the mass media rule -- indeed, overwhelm -- Bellow's novels are still around, still being read with pleasure, still arousing deep thought and (as important) laughter. Something interesting happened with the arts. We found we couldn't do without them. And Bellow is a major reason why.
His fiction was a mixture you could not have gotten outside of America, written in an American language, everything from slang to academic palaver. Aggressive, gritty words. They're also thick with history: the rise of the American city (especially his beloved Chicago); the trials, sufferings, and sometimes triumphs (sometimes) of the immigrant, especially the Jewish immigrant straddling Old and New Worlds; the anxieties of the human heart faced with strife, loneliness, chaos, and other people doing strange things.
His novels usually feature a single protagonist trying to make sense of a provoking universe. (Actually, most novels do ... and Bellow clearly was aware that his novels were an image of how "the novel" in general works.) Augie March of "The Adventures of Augie March" is a merry destroyer who gives people the slip the moment they think they've got him. Eugene Henderson of "Henderson the Rain King" is a bumbling violinist and pig farmer. Moses Herzog of "Herzog" is an intellectual with a stuttering mind. Von Humboldt Fleischer of "Humboldt's Gift" is a talented poet who destroys himself.
Much has been written about how Chicago is the great hero of his work, and how important the great tradition of Jewish belief and humor was to him. But the great value of his art was its effort to explore.