The Adventures of Augie March,
50th Anniversary Edition
By Saul Bellow
Viking, 586 pages, $29.95.
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It has been 50 years since Augie March, Saul Bellow’s thickly textured, picaresque protagonist, first declared that he was “going everywhere!” and moreover that he intended to travel in style. After all, he was “an American, Chicago born” and went at things in his own way: “first to knock, first admitted, sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes not so innocent.” Many of the first readers of “The Adventures of Augie March,” which was recently re-released with an introduction by Christopher Hitchens, were awed by the oceans of luxuriant prose that rolled over them. Augie not only had a keen eye for the machinations of the immigrant streets but also a more than decent grasp of the classics. Forcing cultures high and low to share floor-space in the same oversized paragraph became the benchmark of the style that Bellow introduced.
For a great many writers, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, Bellow became the writer to learn from and to imitate during the l950s and 1960s. However, as postmodernist experimentation crowded an older generation of writers out, Bellow no longer seemed as seminal as he once did. If Augie March were a living person rather than a literary character, it would be his odd, ironic fate to have weathered every storm that Bellow threw at him only to end up in a New Jersey nursing home, courtesy of Medicare.
As a minor character observes about Augie: “There’s opposition in him.” Unlike the brooding protagonists of Bellow’s early fiction, Augie is “larky,” ever on the move and unfailingly optimistic. Indeed, Augie’s closest literary antecedent is Huck Finn. Just as well-meaning adults wanted to adopt (and then to “sivilize”) the eminently resourceful 13-year-old Huck, so too do a wide variety of people want to press Augie to their bosoms — if he would agree to their rapturous embrace.
But he is unadoptable and manages to squirm his way up the social ladder to hunt eagles in Mexico before landing in postwar Europe, where he dips his hand into black-market trading. Augie fares best in the first third of the novel (Bellow himself has remarked on how wearying his character’s unalloyed spunkiness became) because his childhood years are dominated by the altogether wonderful con-person, Grandma Lausch, and later by William Einhorn, possibly the most vividly etched “cripple” in all of American literature. Lausch teaches Augie the lessons necessary for immigrant survival, while Einhorn introduces him to the world of the streets. Each of these early mentors is cast larger than life, with the allusions clinging to Lausch, suggesting that she is a member in good standing of the czar’s court, while Einhorn is the king of his West Side neighborhood of poolrooms and shady characters.
It is only when Augie is old enough to be thought of as a kept man to a North Shore matron or when his ambitious brother Simon marries into a wealthy family that Augie musters up the necessary resistance to avoid being ensnared by a harsh, destructive world. Ultimately, Lausch’s Machiavellian cynicism ends with children who treat her cynically, and Einhorn, for all his smartness, finally outsmarts himself.
Only Augie seems able to bound effortlessly past the nets set in place to snare us, but even he is not as wound-free as his status as a picaresque hero might suggest. If the mythic details that surround the denizens of his Chicago neighborhood elevate them, the same magnifications also reduce and ultimately darken them. By the midsections of Bellow’s freewheeling novel, moments of doubt begin to creep in.
Most reviewers had nothing but praise for Bellow’s stylistic achievement. If Augie’s buoyant spirit smacked of Huck Finn, Bellow’s meticulously rendered catalogs reminded many of Whitman. In addition, Bellow’s vigorously American anthem came during the Cold War, a time when such exercises were decidedly welcome. As our nation was pitted against the Soviet Union in a propaganda war — could democratic values speak to the common man more eloquently than Communist rhetoric? — a novel such as this one was just what those times, those places, required.
The critic-essayist Norman Podhoretz cast one of the few dissenting votes about Bellow’s breakthrough. He much preferred “Dangling Man,” a novel that captured Podhoretz’s own sense of “dangling,” as he put aside a promising literary career and waited to hear from his draft board. As for Augie, Podhoretz dared to say in print what he later claimed many of the New York intellectual crowd were thinking silently: that Augie was largely the product not of a state of being already achieved, but rather of an effort on Bellow’s part to act as though he had already achieved it. As a test-case of the buoyant attitudes of the postwar period, Podhoretz argued, the book fails — and it fails mainly because its buoyancy is embodied in a character who is curiously untouched by his experience, who never changes or develops, who goes through everything yet undergoes nothing.
Podhoretz’s cavils aside, “The Adventures of Augie March” brilliantly demonstrates Bellow’s liberation from the closed-upness of his first books and the effervescent style that warmly attached itself to his protagonist. In his pursuit of a “worthwhile fate,” Augie will travel anywhere, try everything. That he does not find what he so optimistically seeks is no proof that the journey was a failure. “Columbus too,” Augie points out, “thought he was a flop, probably when they sent him back in chains. Which didn’t prove there was no America.”
That said, however, one wonders how many of today’s college students meet up with the bubbly Augie March on college reading-lists. My hunch is, alas, not many — partly because the novel is too long and partly because reading-lists are no longer composed with artistic merit as the major credential. It has been deemed more important that students read about a young homosexual painfully coming out of the closet or what it is like to grow up on a Navajo reservation. If college professors assign a Bellow novel at all, it is likely to be “Seize the Day” — a book that is shorter, tighter and easier to lecture about. None of this is especially good news for the Augie March I envision living out his final days on Medicare, nearly anonymous. Luckily, Augie is a creature of the printed page, still brimming with energy and unshakeable confidence, and at the ready to entertain anybody willing to listen to what he has to say.
Sanford Pinsker is Shadek humanities professor at Franklin and Marshall College. He writes widely about Jewish-American literature and culture.