This Month Anne Reads:
“Seize the Day, by Saul Bellow”
The three of them, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, and Phillip Roth were our first team offering to America. They won prizes. They were the talk of the town and all the towns across the English-speaking world. Although their roots were in poorer places, their ambitions were unlimited. Non-Jewish writers envied and emulated them. At country clubs that still did not admit Jews, at universities with Jewish quotas still in place, every ne was talking about their daring, barrier breaking stories. They joked they were the men’s wear firm of Hart, Schaffer and Marx. If so they were the best of tailors.
Saul Bellow won the Nobel Prize in 1976. His novella “Seize the Day” was published in 1956. Like Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” it captured the casual cruelty that destroyed the minds and hearts of so many who could not find the rumored gold on the pavements of the New World.
Forty-year-old Tommy Wilhelm, née Adler, is a failed salesman of kiddie furniture separated from a wife who won’t work and demands more money than he has. He misses his two sons and is losing touch with them; and he has a girlfriend he loves but who can’t be with him unless he gets the divorce his wife won’t give him. Tommy is now living in The Gloriana, a residential hotel on Broadway where his retired doctor father has moved. Tommy doesn’t have the money for the rent. He wants his father to help him and more than that he wants his father to express some affection and caring for him. That the doctor will not do. He doesn’t like his son — his desperation makes the old man angry. Tommy keeps trying to get his father to understand his predicament and again and again he fails and berates himself. “Ass! Wild boar! Dumb mule! Slave! Lousy, wallowing hippopotamus! Wilhelm called himself. He smelled the salt odor of tears in his nose.”
In his financial difficulty, Wilhelm gives his last funds over to a fellow hotel resident , a Dr. Tamkin, who is a fast-talking fraud, but who claims to want to help Wilhelm right his affairs and invests Tommy’s money in lard on the commodities market and promises a big return. Tamkin also is a fake psychoanalyst telling Wilhelm how he should feel and how he has misjudged everything in his life. Tamkin is florid, fascinating, evil, and a con-man. Bellow here is mocking psychoanalysts of all kinds as well as the sharks of Wall Street and the snake oil salesman who belong in jail. The mocking is bitter while poor Tommy who failed years ago as an actor in Hollywood, is perplexed and hopeful that Tamkin can serve as his substitute father.
The lard line of the story moves the way a cartoon does as you see the falling brick headed for the brain of the fox who is doomed to be dashed to pieces before your very eyes: again. Tommy laments his life. Bellow takes the atonement prayer and turns it into a lament for the failure that Tommy has become, “I labor, I spend, I strive, I design I love, I cling, I uphold, I give way, I envy, I long, I scorn, I die, I hide, I want.” And finally as the price of lard tumbles to the bottom, and Dr. Adler has rejected Tommy’s last pleas for rescue or just a sign of affection, he finds his way into a funeral and weeps and weeps at a stranger’s death. In the deepest most profound way, he mourns himself and his life.
Tommy has lost his job because the boss brought in his son-in-law to take over his sales territory. Tommy is not a great wit and his large size belies a certain weakness that allows others to pass him over. Bellow observes here that America is full of false promises and hopes that turn out to be as disappointing as the purchase of lard stocks would prove to be.
The American Dream is not supposed to turn into a nightmare. But it does and not just for Tommy Wilhelm. Money which is the grease of everyone’s life can be toxic, can be fatal, and failure in the dog eat dog playing field is ugly and sad and a fact every reader recognizes. But it isn’t only money that causes anguish in this story. It is the snobbism and the self-absorption of Dr. Adler and the wicked exploitation by the crooked Dr. Tamkin and the cold heartedness of Tommy’s wife who loved too little and the painful search for affection that Tommy sought again and again from a father that would give him nothing.
Bellow was not writing a subtle Updike tale, or a sorrow scented Sherwood Anderson story. He was writing a brutal, direct, cry from the soul to the rest of us. You can’t miss the pain and you can’t miss the message. The system, the people in the system, the grinding wheels of earn and spend, create losers and the losers suffer and mostly we don’t hear them weeping at a stranger’s funeral but they are there.
In his echo of the atonement prayer, Bellow tells us that the Jewish community has succumbed to those Roman games in the arena where gladiators were bloodied and gored and audiences roared with approval. In America the arena is vast and the opportunity for failure is equal to the opportunity for success and the human values of love and dignity and kindness seem to have been abandoned along with the tefilins that were tossed into the Atlantic sea as vast numbers of Jews came to America hoping for everything and some found nothing.
Bellow was not calling for a return to religion but he was writing about the empty and nasty values that America promotes where money makes worth and its absence marks destruction. Now it is 2017 and Saul Bellow is no longer alive but “Seize the Day” is as valid and immediate as it ever was. There is at the heart of American politics a tacit acceptance of the cold ungenerous result of unchecked capitalism. We see it in the crowds who loathe Obamacare because someone without means might get a break and live to see tomorrow. We see it in those who want to prevent others from living here no matter the horrors of their homeland. We see it in the fact that we are the only western country that doesn’t provide care for babies and mother’s after birth, that feels cheated if someone hungry is given food stamps or shelters in housing for the homeless.
In 1930 Mike Gold wrote a brilliant heartrending novel , “Jews Without Money” that described the Jews of the vast immigration from Eastern Europe who didn’t open factories, or enter medical school, or rise above their beginnings. The story of our immigration to America is not all roses and wine. The broken hearts the broken backs, the suffering of those who fell off the ladder, is a big part of our story. Sure we moved to the best of suburbs, but not all of us, and all of us count when the tale of Jewish life in America is told.
There is a Dr. Adler sensibility in this country that I worked for mine and if you are having trouble that’s your problem — don’t bother me. There are also the pools of tears that Wilhelm shed to which his failures reduced him, and his dashed hopes chained him while his sense of hopelessness, (although he will try again), presses heavily against his heart. Those tears are all over America today not just in the Jewish community and many drown in opiates which may be the singular product whose sales are still rising.
There is a feeling in White America that the Blacks may have been given too much and there is a feeling in working America that Latinos may have taken their jobs and altogether there is the war of some against others that make the American dream look like a faded couch at the edge of the curb waiting for the garbage truck to roll by. Even as gold towers rise and shine their icy light down on the rest of us. Add to the harsh economic realities of American life the warped and ungenerous ways of parents against children and children against parents it is not surprising that so many fail and fall down to their own private hells. Seize the day indeed, but many can’t.
Hart, Schaffer and Marx, we still need you. We miss you. What you made for us was fine and true and we are thankful.
This is one in a series of articles made by possible by a grant from the Posen Foundation.
This story "Why Saul Bellow’s ‘Seize The Day’ Still Matters" was written by Anne Roiphe.