Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Saul Bellow, RIP

Saul Bellow has died at 89. For my money, he was one of the smartest and most cerebral novelists of his time. Here’s an unsatisfying wire service death notice. Here’s the Big Trunk’s appreciation (much less "balanced" and much closer to the mark) over at Powerline. Finally, here is the sort of long and comprehensive obituary you expect from the New York Times, and here is the WaPo’s effort.

The Chicago Tribune does us the favor of republishing this 1996 essay. My favorite part:

Our grandparents, locked up in the Pale of Settlement on Russia’s western frontier, had never so much as heard of places like Antietam or Vicksburg. But their descendants, the children of my generation, were educated to believe in the American project. It was presented to them in a language foreign to their ancestors; it encouraged them to assume that as free persons, politically and legally equal, they were parties to a rational covenant that made the history of the USA their own history. This was our naive adolescent conviction. What we learned in civics and in American history classes would have to be revised and modified, but it was never to be reversed.

I am well aware that to hard, modern thinkers, all of this will sound perversely simple-minded, sentimental, nostalgic. Modern cosmopolitans and philosophical sophisticates will remind me that the culture of Chicago, this string of industrial villages called a "city," was too ugly and clumsy to be anything but a non-culture, and that the neighborhoods where immigrant peasants and laborers lived were more parochial than the Eastern European and Balkan villages from which they came. On our side of the Atlantic, these arid, working-class neighborhoods in Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo, etc., were also rich in hatred and viciousness; but the higher culture developed in Germany (or Russia or France) did not keep the Nazis, and the populations of the countries their armies occupied, from participating in the murder of millions of men, women and children. Our liberal American society (bourgeois-liberal, if you like) has not been guilty of such horrors. It is obvious therefore that the USA, viewed by no small number of Europeans as a dumping ground for everyone the Old World wanted to cast out, has been extraordinarily fortunate in its politics. We have had some dum-dum presidents, but there have been no Hitlers here and no Stalins. With all its disorders, disruptions, bureaucratic idiocies, its chaotic or nihilistic state of feelings, thoughts and passions, democracy here makes more sense and perhaps is more rational than its philosophical founders might have thought possible in a country so huge and so mixed.

My thoughts and prayers to Mr. Bellow’s family and friends.

Discussions - 1 Comment

As sad as it is to see Bellow pass, it is more sad for us. I do not want to say that the great American writer is becoming extinct, I am sure there are men and women out there turning out incredible work. But they are not part of the national conversation, and save Tom Wolfe, their work does not excite much discussion and debate. It would be fun to blame academics who would rather minutely analyse navel gazing po-mo dreck than to grapple with serious work like Bellow’s, but that is unfair. Pride of place in the rising tide of ignorance goes to television. It is hard to believe this is the same country which produced Faulkner, O’Conner, and Andrew Lytle in the South, Bellow, Aleichem, Singer in New York, Fitzgerald, Hemmingway, Chandler... (sigh).

I guess it is fair to say this is the same country, but it is not the same society. Who will succeed Bellow? Who will succeed Wolfe when he is gone? Or if the baton has been passed, will our serious writers of the future be published? Reviewed? You cannot tell me Douglas Coupland, Chuck Palanihuk and other gimmicky writers beloved of the New York Times are the best we have to offer.

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