Saul Bellow, the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1976, had his breakthrough as a popular writer with his 1964 novel Herzog. It is the story of the existential crisis of a passive, melancholic college professor who scribbles down his thoughts and writes letters to friends, family members, and celebrities such as the President of the United States, letters he doesn’t even bother to send.
The novel’s protagonist is kin to T. S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock. Like Prufrock, Herzog was not Prince Hamlet, but unlike Eliot’s example of ennui and emotional impotence, he’s not even an attendant lord who existed to swell a progress, merely a crank thinking about his Prince, unable even to stamp an envelope and take a constitutional down to the nearest mail box to drop it in.
Herzog was an unexpected best seller, and charted on The New York Times best-seller list for 41 weeks, reaching #1 on October 25, 1964. Bellow was “made” as a major American writer, and on his way to becoming a Nobel laureate. The book made TIME Magazine’s list of the Top 100 Novels, though it’s his 1975 tour de force, Humboldt’s Gift, a Pulitzer Prize-winner, that put him over the top and into the Nobel pantheon.
“Dear Mr. President“
The 47-year-old Moses E. Herzog, who has just gone through his second divorce, is in the grips of male menopause. His academic career is in the doldrums as he is unable to finish a new book, and he is involved with a woman that he cannot commit to.
One of his earliest letters it to the President:
“Two points therefore: He knew his scribbling, his letter-writing was ridiculous. It was involuntary. His eccentricities had him in their power….
“Dear Mr. President. Internal Revenue regulations will turn us into a nation of book-keepers. The life of every citizen is becoming a business. This, it seems to me, is one of the worst interpretations of the meaning of life human history has ever seen. Man’s life is not a business.
“And how shall I sign this? thought Moses. Indignant citizen? Indignation is so wearing that one should reserve it for the main injustice.”
The business of America is business, Calvin Coolidge famously said. Herzog was a man out of step with his society, but like the waning Beat Generation and the waxing hippies, he spoke to the disaffected. The “Grey Flannel ” conformist Eisenhower era (a case of “The bland leading the bland,” according to Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.) had ended, but there was a sense of ennui abroad in the land.
While writing the novel, the President originally being addressed — John F. Kennedy — had been assassinated, an event many social critics saw as an outbreak of existential violence signaling that America had a very troubled soul. It was a precursor of a cultural tsunami that would drown America at the end of the decade.
Bellow limned that soul.
The Nobel Prize Committee cited Saul Bellow “for the human understanding and subtle analysis of contemporary culture that are combined in his work.”
As of 2010, his reputation remains secure. English writer Martin Amis believes that Bellow ranks as the greatest American writer, ever.
“It all comes down, I think, to weight of voice,” Martin told an interview. “His sentences seem to weigh more than anyone else’s. He is like a force of nature.”
Bellow, Saul. Herzog. (New York, Penguin Books, 1976; p. 11)