JEFFREY BROWN: "I am an American, Chicago born - Chicago, that somber city - and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way; first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent."
The famous opening lines of "The Adventures of Augie March," the 1953 novel that first established Saul Bellow as a major American writer. Bellow grew up in Chicago, and that city's post-war world, its street and intellectual life was the setting for many of his books.
Over a half-century career, he created distinctive American characters, often tortured heroes, and won every major honor available: three National Book Awards, the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for "Humboldt's Gift," and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1976, when he was cited for his "human understanding and subtle analysis of contemporary culture."
In 1987, Bellow talked to Robert MacNeil about his book, "More Die of Heartbreak," and one of his favorite themes: the struggle faced by people in free societies.
SAUL BELLOW: Well, we pay the price of our freedom because we don't know what the limits of freedom are. We don't know what -- we're not instructed in what constitutes the proper use of our political privileges, which we have to struggle with these things.
So that's to say, we are put in the position of being autonomous, so we formulate our own rules, so to speak. And this is a cause of pain, to say the least. Trying to hack it your own way, going at it in your own style and making up your own rules, or breaking them as you go along.
JEFFREY BROWN: Saul Bellow died yesterday at his home in Brookline, Massachusetts. He was 89.
JEFFREY BROWN: Some thoughts on Saul Bellow now from Nicholas Delbanco, author of more than 20 works of fiction and nonfiction, most recently the novel "The Vagabonds." He's also a professor at the University of Michigan.
And Alan Cheuse, long-time book critic for National Public Radio, he's also a novelist and teaches writing at George Mason University. And welcome both to you. Alan Cheuse, starting with you, this voice that came out in "Augie March" and so many other works, what did it represent for American literature?
ALAN CHEUSE: There's a story of Bellow's called "Something to Remember Me By," and this is what I remember. He's the poet laureate of the great new American melting pot and he's instructive to writers and readers alike with his sentences. He makes a new American sentence, maybe the newest and most important sentence since Hemingway's.
It's a kind of spicy hot mix of high thought, low diction, the voice of the street, the voice of the brain; puts it all together and shows us how to look at the world, how to talk about the world in a way that we hadn't seen it and spoken about it before.
JEFFREY BROWN: You could hear that in that first words from "Augie March."
ALAN CHEUSE: Yes, it's a great American symphony, that noise that opens "Augie March," I think.
JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Delbano, Bellow called himself a historian of society. That's the way he saw the novelist's role. How do you see his themes and his impact on American literature?
NICHOLAS DELBANCO: If I can stay with that first phrase from "Augie March" for a moment, however, because it does seem to be all-encompassing and all-signaling somehow. You stopped with, "first to knock, first admitted." But he then said, "sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent. But a man's character is his fate," says Heraclites.
And it seems to me that Bellow, more than really any of the rest of us, was able to yolk the kind of serious cultural commentary that talks about innocence and the lack thereof, and also throw Heraclites into a sentence, which ends up with a suggestion of bare knuckles. I mean, it was an amazing range. There was almost nothing he shied from covering.
JEFFREY BROWN: And Alan Cheuse, his great subject: The American city and in particular Chicago, the real feel of the streets, as well as the high-mindedness.
ALAN CHEUSE: The feel of the streets, but it's the sound. The sound primarily, that's how he first came to it. He was an immigrant. He came from Montreal, where he spoke Yiddish as a first language, came to America and listened because he had to learn English, and now he's left us this great legacy of a new American orator, a way of writing about the world that we hadn't heard before.
I think there's an enormous legacy for writers all around the world, not just writers in America. British writers, Martin Amos, Ian MacEwen, they talk about Bellow's influence on them. I think he knocked about their British syntax a bit and showed them how to free their own...
JEFFREY BROWN: You mean he opened up the way they were able to write?
ALAN CHEUSE: I think so. I think so.
JEFFREY BROWN: Nicholas Delbanco, though he was creating this new American style, it seems that he was pretty clear that he saw himself coming out of a long tradition of the novel; especially apparently as a youngster, he read the great Russian novelists. Tell us a little about that.
NICHOLAS DELBANCO: I think that's very true, as Alan suggested. He was born in Canada in fact; utterly at ease in Europe; very much in the long tradition of that kind of intellectual instruction.
And yet he did manage to knock it about and reconfigure it so that it became peculiarly and particularly American. For me also it has a lot to do with the ear, that heady mix of street slang and a kind of imperial utterance that was his.
JEFFREY BROWN: Tell us a little, Alan, about the characters that he created.
ALAN CHEUSE: They're all brain and all brawn at the same time, a rather remarkable combination of vitality. And in the stories, particularly, you get some very brainy guys whose bodies are failing them, whose physiques are sagging, but whose minds go on as if into infinity.
They think an awful lot about what's happening to their bodies and to the world around them. They think about women, they think about food. And it really reminds me of the tradition that he works in, the American tradition of no ideas but in things as William Carlos puts it.
You couldn't have created a philosophy, an American philosophy out of Saul Bellow's work, but you can understand how you live ideas by looking at Saul Bellow's work.
JEFFREY BROWN: He was fond of using a quote that said "fiction is the higher autobiography," and put himself and people around him into some of these characters. Do you see that?
ALAN CHEUSE: I would think fiction is the higher learning. He uses a lot of his life, but good writers steal from other people's lives; they eavesdrop, they borrow, they use family stories. If you only use your own life, you're going to be depleted very soon.
So, he had the best eye, the best ear, the best sense of -- the best vital sense of life of any writer of his generation.
JEFFREY BROWN: Nicholas Delbanco, what about the use of autobiography in his own life and detail?
NICHOLAS DELBANCO: Well, I think it's inarguably the case that he did describe himself, his wives, his friends, his comrades in arms, but he did transmute them all through the eye of a novelist.
The work of fiction was the work for him of transformation, and though I knew him a little and knew some of the people he described a little, I never felt that it was photographic in its impulse or its essential rendering.
Now, here's a man of the imagination. There's one other thing I would like to say about him by way of tipping the cap. I don't think there was any author of our period more revered, more honored in any case. You started with his Nobel, there were a string of other prizes. But he remained unremittingly serious, if playful, through the end of his days and was a kind of example for us all about what really counted for him and what didn't. And what really counted for him was the life of the mind on the page.
JEFFREY BROWN: Well, this life of the mind, I wanted to ask you, because we heard him, Mr. Delbanco, with Robin MacNeil, when he talked about -- one thing he authored was this struggle and how do we live with the freedoms that we have? Is that one of the things you're talking about?
NICHOLAS DELBANCO: Very much so. He was an intermittent member of the academy. If I remember correctly, he studied any number of disciplines, not literature, and worked for the majority of his life in the school of social thought in Chicago, the committee.
And my sense is that he was completely free-ranging in his series of inquiries into societal issues. Probably the clearest instance of that is the novel of his that brought him to most immediate public notice, a book called "Herzog," which comes out of the epistolary tradition; it's a series of letters that this unmoored intellectual, a kind of self portrait, sends to the world and it doesn't matter if his interlocutors are real or imagined, alive or dead, people he's ever met or not; he's just chock-a-block full of ideas.
JEFFREY BROWN: Alan, finally, when we talk about his impact, it strikes me that he was writing at a time when American economic and political power was being felt around the world. Is it possible to see him and others in that generation as representing a kind of putting forth of American cultural power or force out into the world?
ALAN CHEUSE: Well, as I mentioned briefly earlier, we can see the impact that he's had on some British writers. I think long after, you know, American monuments may have crumbled, the Bellow sentence may be still reverberating through the minds of writers who work in Urdu and Chinese.
JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Delbanco, what do you see as the lasting influence?
NICHOLAS DELBANCO: The commitment to craft, the jolly sense that it can be serious, the unremitting effort of the work of words.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Nicholas Delbanco and Alan Cheuse, thank you both very much.
ALAN CHEUSE: Pleasure.