MAXWELL:  Lessons from Saul Bellow
4/17/2005 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE  section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper

When I arrived at the University of Chicago campus as a graduate student during the early 1970s, I was vaguely familiar with Saul Bellow, probably from reading about him in the New York Review of Books. I had not read anything he had written.
On my second day on campus, the English department held a reception for new students. The first person to speak to me was Gigi Stengard, a doctoral candidate, writing her dissertation on Bellow. From her, I learned the titles of Bellow’s works. I also learned that Bellow was a University of Chicago professor.
I bought copies of his books the next day. I read Herzog immediately. The first two sentences pulled me in: “If I am out of my mind, it’s all right with me, thought Moses Herzog. Some people thought he was cracked and for a time he himself had doubted that he was all there.”
What Herzog was up to I did not know, but I knew that I was witnessing a great ordeal of the soul, that I was being liberated from a stodginess that had defined my college experiences until then.
A few pages later, I read this: “Considering his entire life, he realized that he had mismanaged everything _ everything. His life was, as the phrase goes, ruined. But since it had not been much to begin with, there was not much to grieve about.”
I identified with Herzog and plunged into the rest of his story. When I finished, I could not wait to start another Bellow novel, which turned out to be The Adventures of Augie March.
A few days later, Stengard asked me to accompany her to a party in Hyde Park. The guests, except for students, were university luminaries. I recognized Bellow as he chatted with Allan Bloom, the larger-than-life conservative philosophy professor who would write The Closing of the American Mind. Norman Maclean, who would write A River Runs Through It, was talking to my contemporary drama professor.
Stengard, who is now an adjunct professor at St. Pete College, regularly conferred with Bellow for her dissertation and took this gathering for granted, but I was in awe of being with these intellectuals who had taught the likes of Philip Roth, Susan Sontag and Kurt Vonnegut.
I tried to enroll in Bellow’s course, but it was filled. I pleaded with the department chairman and got permission to audit the course. Although I saw Bellow only six times that quarter, those lectures inspired me, not so much for their content but for Bellow’s ability to create an atmosphere of intellectual equalitarianism.
Sure, Bellow was a snob in many respects. But he did not care about the color of your skin, your religion, your gender or your politics if you read deeply, felt honestly and thought big ideas.
Even at the time, I knew that I was fortunate: One of the world’s greatest writers patiently listened as I _ a young black man who had never read a Russian novel until then _ stumbled through a tortured analysis of Dostoevski’s religious doubts and pessimism in The Brothers Karamazov.
Bellow taught me a lot about Russian literature. But what I treasure most is how I learned to trust my intellect, to challenge my own ideas, to accept being wrong without punishing myself inappropriately or too severely.
I never took another Bellow class, but I attended many of his public lectures, and, of course, I read his works. He helped me feel at home at the University of Chicago. I cannot mourn Bellow’s death. I fondly recall the moments of intellectual freedom I spent in his presence.
Former Times columnist Bill Maxwell is scholar-in-residence at Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, Ala.