(Since the beginning of 2008 I've been writing an ongoing series of essays here that I call the "CCLaP 100," whereby I read for the first time a hundred books considered by many to be classics, and then write reports here on whether or not I think they deserve this label. For the complete list of books, as well as an explanation behind how the list was compiled, you can click here.)
Humboldt's Gift (1975)
By Saul Bellow
Book #38 in this essay series
The story in a nutshell:
In good Postmodernist fashion, Saul Bellow's 1975 Humboldt's Gift is a semi-autobiography of sorts, one concerning a writer named Von Humboldt Fleischer -- modeled on Bellow's actual writer friend Delmore Schwartz, who you can also perhaps think of as a cross between e.e. cummings and Nelson Algren, an irascible but brilliant star of Early Modernist poetry (like cummings) but the communist-friendly product of a salty blue-collar Jewish immigrant family (like Algren) -- and the tumultuous decades-long relationship he has with his onetime protege and now award-winning millionaire Charlie Citrine -- based on Bellow himself, who you can also picture as an amalgam of John Updike, Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, and all the other academes who eventually became the superstars of post-Vietnam literature, but who actually got their starts in the Modernist '50s precisely by studying under people like Schwartz*.
Also in good Postmodernist fashion, then, the actual plot of Humboldt's Gift seems more like a hasty afterthought, with its main point being instead simply to watch the now middle-aged Citrine go through his daily '70s routine in Chicago where he lives (racquetball with politicians, bathhouse steams with fellow intellectuals, petty squabbles in his neighborhood of Hyde Park), while he reminisces about the changing fate over the decades of the recently deceased Humboldt, which quickly becomes a rumination on American history in general -- how in the 1930s, for example, the nation eagerly embraced the experimentation and radical liberalism of Humboldt's work; how they collectively then turned their backs on him in the conservative 1950s, even as Citrine himself became famous for a bitter Broadway comedy that parodied Humboldt's extremism; how by the Kennedy '60s, shiny ethnic progressives like Citrine and his pals had fallen back in favor with the American public, even while burned-out New Dealers like Humboldt were now cynical shadows of their former selves; and how by the '70s when our story takes place, all aspects of the arts were rapidly being overrun by corporate conglomeration and naked commercialism, a world that had no place for someone like Humboldt at all, as best typified by the low-level gangster Rinaldo Cantibile who Citrine accidentally forms a relationship with, and who spends the book constantly pitching various ways that Citrine could turn his recent Pulitzer and old relationship with Humboldt into a literal cash factory. Add a few hundred references to various minor writers and philosophers of the 20th century, and you have Bellow's book in a nutshell.
The argument for it being a classic:
Well, for starters, his fans say, it was the winner of the 1976 Pulitzer Prize for literature, and this in the same year that he also won the more prestigious Nobel Prize for literature (awarded to writers based on their entire career, not just for a specific book). More importantly, though, Humboldt's Gift is literally a textbook example of what the Postmodernist era was all about (which for the purposes of this essay series is being defined as the thirty years between Woodstock and 9/11), as well as what the intellectuals of that period treasured most in literature -- it is thoughtful, it is self-referential, it is slyly funny, the language is beautiful, and it concentrates much more on exploring character than on obsessively trying to come up with a potboiler storyline, like so many of the cheap genre novels that had mostly defined the industry only one generation previously. Just one of many titles by Bellow that were celebrated bestsellers in their day, his fans argue that this particular one is a perfect example of why he's considered one of the most important writers of the entire 20th century (and one of the most important Jewish writers in all of history), a poster-child for the changing of the guard that happened to literature in general during these years, into something that slowly became much smarter and more based on metaphor than what the industry had seen before.
The argument against:
Of course, as with many Postmodernist projects, the exact arguments just cited can be completely turned around into criticisms as well, which is exactly what you see among a whole lot of disgruntled readers online -- that books like Humboldt's Gift are actually the worst thing that could've ever happened to literature, an endlessly navel-gazing piece of academic circle-jerk crap in which nothing actually happens, no conclusions about the world are made, and one's opinion doesn't even count unless one is the holder of an MFA. After all, say its critics, this was the exact period of history when novels first stopped being the most dominant form of culture in our society, supplanted quickly in those years by film and television, which to this day still mostly dominate the mainstream arts in terms of influence and popularity; and a big reason for this was because of academes taking over the literary industry in those years, with their smartypants "deconstructionism" and "metafiction" and "it's not funny ha-ha, it's funny makes-you-think!" Humboldt's Gift is a perfect example of this, they argue, an overwritten mess so intensely hailed as a masterpiece by the ivory-tower crowd that most of the general public gave up on the very idea of trying to understand contemporary literature anymore; and as Postmodernism in general starts rapidly falling out of favor in our current post-9/11 "Age of Sincerity" (or whatever you want to call it), so too are we seeing Bellow quickly descend into the barely-remembered obscurity he actually deserves.
So let me make this clear before anything else, that as an overeducated intellectual, I personally really adored Humboldt's Gift, one of those slow-moving deep character studies that you don't just read but inhabit, particularly enjoying the now-forgotten political issues of Mid-Century Modernism that Bellow reminds us of here (for example, Humboldt's absolute certainty that the US would devolve into a fascist military state after the election of Eisenhower in 1952, a common but unrealized fear among post-war Rooseveltians that is hardly ever discussed in history texts anymore); and as a fellow Chicagoan and Hyde Park habitue I especially loved it, not just for his spot-on descriptions of various local landmarks (Division Street Bath! River North penthouses!), but also his pithy observations about the city and its citizens in general. ("Sensitivity in a mature Chicagoan, if genuine, [is] a treatable form of pathology.") But that said, this book was also a legitimate chore to get through most of the time, and I found myself with a lot of sympathy for the hundreds of traumatized online haters of this book, and their nightmarish tales of slogging their way through this for sometimes two or three months just to find themselves still only a couple of hundred pages in.
It's no secret that I'm one of the people who find a lot to complain about concerning Postmodernism, and I think it's definitely fair to point to this title in particular as a great example of everything both so right and wrong about the period; because even though it really is as intelligent and subtle and quietly charming as its fans claim, it also now serves in hindsight as a bad premonition of things to come, essentially the book that gave a million professors official permission to write whiny little screeds about their miserably boring lives in the sleepy collegetowns where they live, and the ennui-filled affairs they're having with their pretentious 19-year-old students. Humboldt's Gift is sure to be loved by his fellow academes, but many others will find it intolerable, which is why today I fall thoroughly on the 'no' side of the classics equation, and recommend it only to those who are already fans of the Postmodernist masters previously mentioned.
Is it a classic? No
The next four books scheduled to be read:
Uncle Tom's Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe
The Plague, by Albert Camus
Jude the Obscure, by Thomas Hardy
The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer
(And don't forget that the first 33 essays in this series are now available in book form!)
*Oh, and an interesting piece of trivia that I couldn't find a good place for in the main essay -- turns out that one of Schwartz's most famous students besides Bellow himself was edgy musician Lou Reed, who has dedicated several songs to him over the years.