Saul Bellow 1985

Saul Bellow

According to the program, I am supposed to offer a certain number of remarks. As Gertrude Stein once told Hemingway, remarks are not literature. So you are not going to get literature from me tonight. Although I have made a certain number of notes, I don’t know how useful they are going to be.

There is always risk of turning an occasion like this into sort of an ecclesiastical gathering in which you hear serious observations about all matter of things. I am going to try to avoid that. I am also going to try to avoid the over often self-congratulatory tone taken by people who offer these remarks, especially if they are nearing 70. I can well remember the spirit in which Robert Frist would glow on an occasion like this. And I don’t intend to do anything of the kind.

First of all, I want to congratulate the recipients. I am familiar with the work of many of them. Owing to the dangers of Chicago life which prevents citizens from going into the streets at night, I spend many hours, many more hours reading, that I otherwise would. I’m glad to note that Chicago is holding up its end and Mr. Dybek, who was deservedly awarded a prize, made it out of Chicago. I want to commend the foundation for having made such imaginative and important awards.

This isn’t done as often as it should be done. I remember very well that I had lots of trouble getting the philanthropic hand to open in my direction. I applied three times for a Guggenheim and didn’t get it. I asked for some support from the Rockefeller Foundation when I was writing a book called The Adventures of Augie March and they said they were saving all their money for team efforts. Well, team efforts are not what literature is about, or what good writing is about.

I have no idea what young people now starting out are up against. I see that they have more academic positions open to them than they had in my time. There was very little of that when I was young. The PhDs had a very sound and firm grip on all appointments and they weren’t letting any mere writers in off the street. It wasn’t until the university explosion that occurred under the G.I. Bill of Rights after WWII that people began to get appointments in universities, and then, of course, there were two ways for them to go. Either they turned into academics themselves or they became defiant of the academics in which case they were apt to drink a little more than was good for them.

But, of course, like any young man from the Midwest, I made a beeline for New York after I got my B.S. in anthropology, determined to do my stuff and show the quality and power of my talent in the East. And so I came to New York as almost an obligatory pilgrimage and lived in various fleabags on the Upper West Side and all over Greenwich Village.

On the whole, the Greenwich Village fleabags were far better because you had such good company all around and I supported myself by grinding out some unsigned reviews for The New York Review of Books and for The Nation and The New Republic which would pay the writer five bucks apiece. And also I got, luckily, an assignment from a man who had come to New York from London to start—launch, an American branch of Penguin Books. And so I used to go there—go to his office once a week and fill shopping bags with books and write three or four page reports for him, five dollars for a novel and ten dollars for a work of nonfiction. Of course, I preferred the nonfiction because it was easier to scan quickly and didn’t really hold my interest as deeply as a novel did. And, that way, and by selling review copies to an old fellow on 57th—59th—street, who very cheerfully would give you one-third the retail price of a book, I managed to support myself.

It only cost about fifteen dollars a week to be poor then. And so I managed very handily and really never worried very much with some sort of stupid faith that everything would work out all right and, somehow, it worked out. I don’t know whether it worked out all right.

But it used to be very difficult then, just—however, cheerfully—it was cheerfully difficult. None of this was tearful. It was all very enjoyable and I wouldn’t liked to have missed all of those privations. They were wonderful privations among wonderful people. I soon found a gang friends down in Greenwich Village—around The Partisan Review. Some of them have since become famous and I became part of this brotherhood together with people like Dwight McDonald, Philip Roth, Fred DuPee, William Phillips, Mary McCarthy, Elizabeth Hardwick and others who have since made a mark, some of them a pleasant mark, some of them a mark best not looked at too closely.

But that was—that, too, was well worth experiencing and I don’t know what young people do in place of that now or whether there is still the sort of sense that there is a lively center to which one can come and in which one will find people like oneself with whom to fraternize and editors and publishers who will be as welcoming and generous as editors and publishers sometimes were in my time. I suspect that editors and publishers are no longer so important in publishing houses as they once were. They don’t enjoy the use of the same powers. They haven’t got the budgets to spend and many of the big companies are in the hands of packagers and marketers and auditors and, unfortunately, those people determine all too much of the editorial policy of the houses with which they are associated.

I understand that this is a capitalistic society. I am not going to knock it, tonight, especially. I think it’s a very good thing and I think that the founders were excellent men and I think The Federalist Papers are models of political prescription for all of us and we all ought to be very grateful to John Locke and Francis Bacon and to the Founding Fathers and so on. What all of those people guarantee you in a democratic society was that all would be well, that you would lead a peaceful life, that you would have enough to eat, that you would be clothed, that you would have shelter. As for culture, you would have to scratch for that yourself because they weren’t going to do anything about that.

They weren’t going to assign any such role to the State. It was going to be entirely a private matter and this is where the comedy, or tragedy, of American literature begins. Because you had a mass of people gainfully employed or worldly, you didn’t have many people concerning themselves seriously with the arts and, in spite of all of the millions of dollars that have accumulated at the threshold of art, you still don’t.

I want to make a few remarks tonight about the connection of writers and readers that, it seems to me, has considerably altered in my own lifetime. I think that the character of the public has greatly changed. And my interest was caught not long ago by a letter from a professor of English at Shippensburg University, Shippensburg, PA. In writing to The Wall Street Journal on the subject of pornographic poetry and the pornographic poets, allegedly pornographic, who receive help from the National Endowment for the Arts, he, like a good reader of The Wall Street Journal, knows what the party line should be.

He says, first, poetry in the United States is no longer the public art it was a century or even two generations ago and so the moral character of the verse is of little public concern. Editions of subsidized poets are usually small, and absorbed by the poet, his friends and a few interested academics and academic libraries. What interested me about this first paragraph is that he assumed that the public represented the market. A market is there to be satisfied and poets should have done something to respond to the needs of the market, that is, of the public.

Now, I think that every writer should write for as many people as he can possibly imagine writing for. There should be no limit on that. I am not in favor of coterie literature. But the Professor of Shippensburg University really draws our attention to a very serious question; namely, the nature of the new public, how discriminating it is, how discerning, how much culture it has, what the merit of its judgments may be. Who is there to please out there in the public? I am for pleasing as many people as possible, provided, of course, that a certain standard be maintained by the poet or the novelist.

The fact is, however, that we are witnessing a tumultuous expansion of illiteracy and functional illiteracy in this country and we are forced to become aware of the fact that the public no longer responds to literature as it once did, that is, to serious literature. To be sure, there have always been enclaves of serious and discerning readers. But there is something else that is happening and that is that the public is subject to such high voltage, that it is exposed to so many stimuli and distractions that it demands even higher and higher levels of violent stimulation. I am not opposed to that in itself. I am not saying that it is wicked or evil. I am only noting the fact that it is so.

In 1800, Wordsworth was dismayed that people were hungry for hourly news bulletins. Two centuries later people consume a diet of novelty that would have driven their ancestors into the madhouse. Editors of newspapers and television are thermostats of news delivery systems. Their job is to know how much worldly change we can take in an hour, a day, a week. They also know that shocking news must be delivered in non-shocking ways.

A recent survey by the Nielson Company, published in The New York Times a couple of weeks ago, shows us that people who have normal television sets (whatever that may mean) in their houses, spend on the average some forty-eight hours in front of the sets and those who have cable television spend fifty-eight hours a week in front of the sets; now far more hours than before the set than hours spent in gainful employment. And what does all this mean? And nor is this the end of my story.

The heart of the story, it seems to me, lay in the description by the Nielson people of what young viewers are doing. They never watch a whole program anymore. They switch from station to station. They take in fragments so that the very sophisticated masters or governors or rulers or producers, being wised up college graduates with degrees from good universities all over the country, are now beginning to think of providing fragments and, especially, fragments with catchy lighting effects or delightful noises so that coherence is completely destroyed and there is no sense of anything consecutive happening anymore.

There is a great glare and noise and disorder. Nobody wants any stories anymore. Stories are, as it were, exploded, gone. People have no use for them. Certainly, they have no use for characters and it’s like the culture counterpart of some kind of concentration camp where also nobody has any idea of coherence and nobody cares for the characters and, as for the story, it has only one ending. So what is one to think of that and how are writers to deal with this new development which one can only describe as chaos?

To contrast—as contrast to this scene of chaos, I have brought—I noted before I came here some sentences from a book by a certain Johann Adam Bergk called Die Kunst Bucherslesen, “The Art of Reading Books,” (1799). He was a disciple of Jean Jacques Rousseau. To show how greatly reading habits have changed, or degenerated, I shall quote a few sentences from Bergkt. His advice to readers follows:

You should have the right spiritual disposition. Instead of responding passively to the text, you should throw yourself into it. You should seize its meaning and apply it to your own life. We must relate everything to our own I, reflect on everything from a personal point of view and never lose sight of the consideration that study makes us freer and more independent and that it should help us find an outlet for the expression of our heart and mind.

Readers of this sort can never have been numerous. It was perfectly clear to Rousseau that, while modern civilizations would certainly satisfy the material needs of humankind, it would not undertake to show them how to live.  Jean Jacques would have to tell them how to repossess their lives as spouses, parents, children, as lovers and so on. America has been a school, in most respects, a bad school, in this regard for its citizens and in thinking of the mind of the reader and the expectations of the writer in America. I ask myself what these words mean, might mean, should mean in this day and age. I am perfectly sure that the recipients of these awards tonight are feeling this, whether they have expressed it like this or not.

One may say, we don’t really need edifying writers anymore. We had more than a century and a half of edifying writers and it didn’t work out. One may say, as I have often said to myself, well, perhaps the television viewers are in the right of it after all because we are at a tag end of civilized development and perhaps the old coherence is not going to be anything like the new coherence. So let’s destroy the old coherence altogether; let it go down. Or, in the matter of character, the old French comic, saying “s’il y a un caractére, il est mauvais,” when you do come across a character, it is generally bad.

But in the meantime there is, without trying to be edifying, something that writers are determined to do and that is to arrest the attention of their readers and to hold the attention of their readers on perfectly good grounds, on sound grounds.

And this is the contest we are looking at, that is to say, on the one hand, a chaotic degeneration which affects so large a part of American society and the wild excitement and the need for super-stimulation and all the rest of that and, on the other hand, the attempt to hold attention in a kind of stillness which is what writers and poets do.

It seems to me that the intervention of this foundation in this national problem, let me put it that way, international problem, has shown that there are some people at least who really have some notion of how to spend their money and what to do to help art survive.


Saul Bellow (1915-2005) won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel Humboldt’s Gift in 1975. He won the National Book Award in 1954, 1965, and 1971 for The Adventures of Augie MarchHerzog, and Mr. Sammler’s Planet, and in 1990 he was presented the National Book Award Foundation Medal for distinguished contribution to American letters. In 1976 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature "for the human understanding and subtle analysis of contemporary culture that are combined in his work."


Copyright © Saul Bellow, used by permission of The Wylie Agency LLC

Photo by Keith Botsford