iving into Saul Bellow’s archives we found correspondence from every administration from Kennedy to Clinton. And that was only 1 box out of 250
CHICAGO — Soon after Saul Bellow returned to his hometown in 1962 and joined the faculty of the University of Chicago, he started donating his papers to the school library. One of the most celebrated novelists of the postwar years, credited with returning a brash vitality to the American novel at midcentury, his arrival on campus was front-page news. So much so that nearly 60 years later, the Saul Bellow Papers — which is what the university now calls its archive of Bellow’s correspondence, manuscripts, notebooks and ephemera — contains a fat folder holding only announcements and clippings from that hyped homecoming.
Bellow was a good fit. He became synonymous with the university, and a cornerstone of Hyde Park. And so, he kept donating his papers to the library.
He donated wedding invitations and honorary doctorates, drafts of his novels and family photographs. He donated fan letters and his faculty ID cards and even a few day planners:
December 10, 1976: Collect Nobel Prize for Literature.
December 31, 1976: Pay bills.
Before Saul Bellow died at 89 in 2005, he made 71 separate deposits to the Joseph Regenstein Library. The school, of course, retained it all.
They have so much material from Bellow today that it wasn’t until the past 18 months or so, more than a decade after the author’s death, that the library’s Special Collections Research Center was able to finish cataloging and organizing it all.
In fact, the archive has proven so bottomless that when I requested to see, say, Box 80, I found a folder stuffed with White House correspondence from every administration from Kennedy to Clinton. During the Johnson years, aides sent letters seeking Bellow’s advice (“Where should the Great Society go from here? What needs have we left unmet?”); by the Reagan administration, Bellow was being asked to contribute to Easter egg hunts. (Because, well, what child in 1985 didn’t want an Easter egg signed by “Henderson the Rain King” author Saul Bellow?)
And that’s just one folder in one box.
Flipping through other boxes — there are more than 250 in total, containing papers from the 1920s to 2015 — is to be reminded of a time when an unabashedly intellectual, provocative literary novelist and thinker could command a presence on the world stage. Or at least TV. Another box has a handwritten post-talk show apology from Bellow to Philip Roth: “I passed a silly wisecrack about you on the Cavett show. No real harm done. None was intended. I was drinking straight gin from the tumbler. Looked like water.”
The collection is here to do what any collection of any writer’s papers should do, said Dan Meyer, director of Special Collections, “it should bring you closer to the writer in a way not possible on a page, closer to how ideas were first expressed. It lends a sense of the person. Because once you’ve read everything (from a writer), you’re still missing their imagination, and as much as one can see that, you might in the handwriting, cross-outs, first or second drafts.”
Not surprisingly then, even before it could be organized, Bellow’s papers were providing raw material to the author’s primary biographers, James Atlas and Zachary Leader.
At the moment, however, less obviously, the Bellow archive is lending nothing less than a creative spine to the Court Theatre’s new production of “The Adventures of Augie March,” the first stage adaptation of Bellow’s signature work, often called, alongside “Moby Dick,” “Huckleberry Finn” and “The Great Gatsby,” the Great American Novel.
Take the stage itself.
Created by set designer (and DePaul University Theatre School dean) John Culbert, it’s plastered with Bellow’s handwriting. Even the proscenium arch, crafted to resemble the steel girders of a Chicago elevated train line, is covered in Bellow’s thin, flowing script.
That handwriting is culled from the centerpiece of the Saul Bellow Papers, the 20 commonplace notebooks into which Bellow poured the first draft of “Augie March” in 1947. These ledgers were part of Bellow’s initial deposit to the university, and if you believe that “Augie March” endures as one of the great American novels — or at least the Great Chicago Novel, the tale of a Humboldt Park immigrant who discovers his identity amid a cacophony of cultures, compromises and allegiances — then their unvarnished, direct-from-his head-to-the-page scratchings can take on the hallowed aura of seminal, consecrated literary gold.
It’s one thing to read Bellow’s famous opening line — “I am American, Chicago born — Chicago that somber city — and go at things as I have taught myself, freestyle, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent.” It’s another to touch the ink from his pen, to trace the cadences of his handwriting. And in the “Augie March” notebooks, that handwriting is startling, low and hunkered, plowing forward, written on every page, and on every line, from front to back, then flipped, back to front.
In other words, obsessive, but unnaturally fluid, with few cross-outs, and only the occasional margin note. I’m no handwriting expert, but these notebooks carry the unmistakable air of a guy lost in fast-coming thoughts.
“Certainly nothing about the notebooks contradicts the origin story of the novel itself,” said David Auburn, the Pulitzer-prize winning playwright (“Proof”) who adapted “Augie March” for the university’s Court Theatre. “I mean, look at the pages, look at the handwriting. You can see the guy who was famously stuck on another book, who was in Paris after the war, who was sitting on a park bench watching street cleaners sending water flowing through the streets and who knew right then he wanted to write about Chicago with that same flow. The pages suggest some onward exuberant rush, a mind just racing. Nothing there looks too careful or worked over — they look unleashed.”
Bellow always insisted that he arrived in Chicago on July 4, 1924, smuggled across the Canadian border as a child by his Russian immigrant parents. Indeed, he remained undocumented until his late 20s. Nora Titone, the Court’s resident dramaturge, said that she was tasked with figuring out how that past and the archives could inform the production. She spent nine months with his papers. “‘Augie’ is a story of a Russian immigrant kid figuring out he is American, but that he is also an American writer. And it’s like Walt Whitman, where there’s not quite a one-to-one connection between life and work, but there is a silhouette, and in (Bellow’s) notebooks, the writing is inspired by that flow of languages he had heard throughout Chicago.”
She flattened her hand on a page of Bellow’s handwriting:
“I can’t help it. You get an electric charge being physically in contact! Smell the paper! And that scrawl! It’s just schroom, schroom! But then, how do you get it on stage?”
Collecting a famous writer’s papers is, of course, nothing new. Meyer said that the Special Collections department gathers papers of faculty fairly often, whether or not they are well-known. For researchers, these papers can provide windows of insight; and for writers, it’s enshrinement, along with a tax write-off — among Bellow’s papers is a letter from Roth, seeking advice on how to write off his own donations. The Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, one of the largest repositories of literary archives (including a few of Bellow’s), boasts collections from Edith Wharton, Ralph Ellison and Arthur Miller. Besides Bellow, University of Chicago also holds the papers of Poetry magazine and Norman Maclean, the late English professor and author of “A River Runs Through It.”
What’s unique about the Saul Bellow Papers, said Zachary Leader, his most recent biographer, is their sheer heft.
Besides the “Augie March” notebooks, it holds drafts of Bellow’s most acclaimed novels, including “Herzog” and “Humboldt’s Gift.” “Then there’s an unfinished Chicago book,” Leader said, “non-fiction, about growing up, crime, Chicago gangsters, the inner city. There’s a half-dozen unpublished novels in there, too — some with close to 200 pages written. Which is invaluable to understand how Bellow develops. He goes from ‘Augie,’ this sprawling, wild novel, to ‘Seize the Day,’ which is short, controlled. And you wonder how he did it. Well, he didn’t. He worked on these other novels.”
Indeed, there is so much stuff — a Northwestern diploma, a throw rug, test questions — that as an appendix to the Court production, the university’s Regenstein Library has an exhibit of “Augie”-related archives through Aug. 30.
By the time he died in 2005, Bellow had spent more than 60 years as a public figure, writing not especially easy literary works about outsized characters looking for nothing less than meaning in their lives. Among other honors, he won the National Book Award three times and the Pulitzer once; he’s one of 11 American writers with a Nobel. And so among the things you learn from his archive is how much time he spent writing, editing and delivering speeches. You see the Bellow who was still at the center of the culture.
Included in his correspondence with The New Yorker are questions from the fact-checking department, which asked: “Do you recall whether or not Adlai Stevenson was well-known for his dislike of Jews? And whether he once got off a plane with one of your novels and asked if he liked the novel, he replied, ‘I don’t know, I don’t speak Yiddish.’” Bellow responded that he thought he did, and that Stevenson’s sense of humor was appreciated only by his supporters.
Bellow’s Nobel folders are thick with business cards from editors and attachés that were presumably shoved into his hands at the ceremony. Tucked between those cards, a hastily-typed recipe for the Pate Romaine that was served at the dinner.
It’s not hard imagining Bellow asking a subordinate to get the recipe. Especially after reading his handwritten list of requirements for his secretary: Take dictation, make travel arrangements, handle newspaper subscriptions, go to library, comb bookstores, organize calendars, meet with lawyers, make doctor appointments, organize medications, arrange books to autograph, pay bills, order fax paper.
The man became an institution.
For Charles Newell, director of the Court (and director of “Augie March”), his goal was recapturing the looseness of the early Bellow, the headlong plunge into words. “The archive especially informed the staging because we wanted the fluidity of Bellow’s notebooks to become a fluidity of movement. We knew we didn’t want actors just narrating a novel. The problem is, that fluidity, and so much of Bellow’s language, it’s abstraction, it’s metaphorical. I told Dave (Auburn) we needed to capture that young man’s brio and exuberance. He said, ‘Charlie, that’s for you to figure out.’”
And so Newell brought in former dancers from Germany’s Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch, known for its intensely physical, tragicomic contemporary pieces, to help the actors approximate the lurching, pinging and onrushing cascades of Bellow’s words. Meanwhile, Titone dug into audio archives from Studs Terkel and Mike Wallace — as well as interviews that Leader did with Bellow’s Tuley High School friends — to find the first-generation immigrant dialects Bellow remembered as he wrote in his notebooks.
“Still, Bellow didn’t offering much dialogue, or big scenes, or really even a plot,” Auburn said. “And so, at the end of the day, what you’re left adapting is the texture of prose.”
By the time Auburn was an undergraduate at University of Chicago in the early ’90s, that unrestrained, buoyant Bellow of “Augie March” had been replaced with a literary lion — and a crank. “I would see him on campus, at bookstores, at student demonstrations, standing on the periphery, looking skeptical. He was a kind of exalted eminence, at the top levels of the highest of ivory towers.”
You see this Bellow emerging in his archives, just after “Augie March” makes a seismic impact in 1953. Responding to Bellow’s attempts to get out an old contract, a 1958 letter from smallish Vanguard Press begins: “When you write that you are not the kind of writer that Vanguard can do much for, you imply there is another publisher who could do more for you.” More telling are The New Yorker letters, written after its negative review of “Augie March.” Bellow complained, and received, for months, apologies from Katherine White, the longtime fiction editor: “(Editor William Shawn) feels you and your book have been done an injustice and therefore he thinks in this one instance we must make an exception to our policy of not letting authors reply to reviews and allow you, if you should care to, to write a letter to be run under our usual heading Department of Correction.” (Bellow declined the offer.)
As he aged, the Bellow who had scrounged in Humboldt Park, the striver who once claimed modestly that “all I had to do was be there with buckets to catch (‘Augie March’),” he was replaced with the Bellow who became pen pals with Mayor Richard M. Daley. This Bellow, tone-deaf, insensitive, wrote letters to Daley, bemoaning “the PC contingent” and “the disorder and crime” encroaching on Hyde Park. He also sent a fawning thank-you note to Daley, for throwing a birthday party: “You said exactly what you what felt and thought and this liberated us all from the stiffness and artificiality. What a terrific way to turn 75!”
Meyer said initially Bellow didn’t want this archive accessible to researchers. He simply wanted it held. He worried his papers might lead to the wrong conclusions.
But really it does the opposite.
It only offers more complexity, and an argument against his inevitable slip into obscurity. Even into his 70s, long into his fame, while working on a speech to honor the Chicago Public Library, he noted the odds against his success. He had practically lived in his local branch library, presuming Chicago was a dead end: “What was this place to Oscar Wilde when he lay in velvet knickers on a buffalo robe at the old Palmer House and received the press with a flower in his fingers? Chicago was all that was not art, I assumed. He was here as an aesthetic John the Baptist, to assure these business types and boors and bumpkins that art was on its way.” He titled that speech: “How in the City of Chicago Does a Young Person Become a Writer?”
His answer, we know only now, is 250 boxes thick.