Saul Bellow lived out an emphatically American life. Born in 1915 in Canada, he is most closely associated with Chicago, where he resided for decades and taught at the University of Chicago. A fixture of the American literary scene from the 1950s until the early years of the 21st century, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1976. Seize the Day, Herzog, Ravelstein – these Bellow novels all have their following among contemporary readers. Yet some of Bellow’s best work – Humboldt’s Gift, Mr Sammler’s Planet – has fallen into neglect. Literary academia does not know what to do with Bellow, a confident heterosexual white male whose explorations of race, in Henderson the Rain King and Mr Sammler’s Planet, seem lacking in empathy and whose explorations of gender, in all of his fiction, have nothing to do with feminism.
Cultural fashion in the late 20th century – against which, from the late 1960s onwards, Bellow happily opposed himself – has worked against him. The monument to Bellow’s placelessness in American culture is James Atlas’s Bellow: A Biography, published in 2000. Atlas’s biography was an evisceration, as if to say