the mid-80's Penguin paperback version of Humboldt's Gift that I read for my Lit class my Junior Year and which I still have (with all attendant highlighting)

Humboldt’s Gift

  • Author:  Saul Bellow  (1915  –  2005)
  • Rank:  #36
  • Published:  1975
  • Publisher:  Viking
  • Pages:  487
  • First Line:  “The book of ballads published by Von Humboldt Fleisher in the Thirties was an immediate hit.”
  • Last Lines:  ” ‘Search me,’ I said.  ‘I’m a city boy myself.  They must be crocuses.’ “
  • ML Edition:  none
  • Film:  none
  • Acclaim:  Pulitzer Prize; last novel before winning Nobel Prize
  • First Read:  September, 1994

The Novel:  My Junior Year of college I took a 20th Century Literature class.  My professor, Doyle Walls, did a fantastic job of setting it up.  It was called “Portraits of the Artist.”  Every piece we read – whether it be shorter pieces like The Yellow Wallpaper, novels like Exposure or Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man or poems about rock and roll like Walls’ own “The Summer the Beatles Went Over Seven Minutes on a Single” (which can be found in the anthology we read for the class, Sweet Nothings – a fantastic collection).  Aside from the Joyce (which I had read in high school), I was introduced to two books that would make my Top 100 – The World According to Garp and Humboldt’s Gift.

Humboldt’s Gift seems to be kind of a forgotten book these days.  It was not included on the Modern Library’s list (though I think it is his best book), often isn’t carried except in large bookstores, is usually passed over for Augie March or Herzog and Bellow’s own widow wondered whether or not students would get it if it were taught today (I assured her they would and told her how much I loved it and how I had first read it in class).  Even at the time, there was harsh criticism – John Updike’s initial review in The New Yorker caused Bellow’s friend Samuel S. Goldberg to refer to him as an “anti-Semitic pornographer” (Saul Bellow: Letters, p. 331) and the review in the New York Times Magazine viciously attacked both the book and the author.

Yet, it won the Pulitzer, and in the 24 months following publication of the novel, he won the Nobel Prize and was awarded the Gold Medal for the Novel by the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters and later was made a commander of the Legion of Honor in France (ironically, the Pulitzer and Legion of Honor, both things that have happened in the life of Charlie Citrine, the narrator, only happened to Bellow after the novel – a wonderful case of life following art).  It deserves to be remembered as the best work of one of the best writers that America has ever produced.  That so much of the work pulls from his own life or from those he knew makes him no different than Hemingway or Fitzgerald and that he managed to turn it all into such a masterwork, a perfect, hilarious book that looks closely at the creative process and what it does to people just shows his remarkable gifts.

“Poet, thinker, problem drinker, pill-taker, man of genius, manic depressive, intricate schemer, success story, he once wrote poems of great wit and beauty, but what had he done lately?  Had he uttered the great words and songs he had in him?  He had not.  Unwritten poems were killing him.”  Those are Charlie Citrine’s words on Von Humboldt Fleisher, the poet based on Bellow’s friend Delmore Schwartz.  In the course of the novel, we see the depth of Charlie and Humboldt’s relationship (such as Humbolt writing him “I declare I had it in for you because you thought I was going to be the great American poet of the century.  You came down from Madison, Wisconsin and told me so.  But I wasn’t!”), the relationship that artists have with the world around them, (“Frantic desperate doomed crazy writers and suicidal painters are dramatically and socially valuable.”), or even the debt that an artist owes to give something back: “I had the attention of the public for nearly a year, and I taught it nothing.”

But it isn’t just that.  The book is incredibly funny, perhaps the most deliberately so of all of Bellow’s novels (in a letter to Joyce Carol Oates in April of 1975, he apologizes in taking so long to respond to her because “I sent off Humboldt’s Gift, an amusing and probably unsatisfactory novel.”) (Letters, p. 325).  His lines get to the heart of his adopted town (“Chicago with its gigantesque outer life contained the whole problem of poetry and the inner life in America.”), to the down and dirty facts of relationships (“I don’t think you have to be a professor of anatomy to connect the ass with the heart.”), the way this country values, or fails to value its creative artists (“Having lost his talent, his mind, fallen apart, died in ruin, he rose again in the cultural Dow Jones and enjoyed briefly the prestige of significant failure.”), and, in perhaps the best and funniest line of the book, a look at what the weight of your own expectations can do to you: “Humboldt wanted to drape the world in radiance, but he didn’t have enough material.”

I leave you with this quote, used as the epigraph to the 1970’s portion of his Letters, one which does such a great job of not only covering the very idea of Portraits of Artists that Doyle was teaching to all of us, but also the depth of Bellow’s writings themselves:

You know?  There’s the most extraordinary, unheard-of poetry buried in America, but none of the conventional means known to culture can even begin to extract it.  But now this is true of the world as a whole.  The agony is too deep, the disorder too big for art enterprises undertaken in the old way.  Now I begin to understand what Tolstoi was getting at when he called on mankind to cease the false and unnecessary comedy of history and begin simply to live.

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