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Saul Bellow: The Great Dictator

May 6, 2010

Saul Bellow was a devoted correspondent. The Nobel Prize-winning American novelist, who died five years ago this past April, wrote thousands of letters during his lifetime. His recipients were various. He wrote regular messages not only to his close contemporaries in the literary world, such as Phillip Roth and John Cheever, but to his extended network of friends as well. Even his old high school buddies received notes from him.

Bellow c. Fay Godwin

Thanks to the disciplined copying of his wife, the bulk of Bellow’s letters have been preserved. Janis Bellow, now a professor of English literature at Tufts, kept a notepad ready for those moments when her husband felt inspired to compose. He would dictate lines to her as they came, wherever they came– in their garden after lunch, in the car en route to the grocery store, or aboard an airplane. For every letter of the novelist’s that went out, Janis made sure she had a copy saved in a filing cabinet. She later submitted these letters to the University of Chicago, where Saul taught for thirty years in the Committee on Social Thought. They will be collected in a book to be published this fall.

A selection of these letters was published in the April 26th edition of The New Yorker. In lieu of this edition of the magazine, The New Yorker‘s Blake Eskine interviewed Janis Bellow. One bit of that conversation, which deals with the subject of letter writing itself, is particularly noteworthy:

BE: In our world today, we’re so used to email, Skype, cell phones, the ease of communicating with whomever you want, and maybe even looking at them. Were letters for [Bellow] a preferred mode of communication, or perhaps a poor substitute for actually conversing with people?

JB: There’s actually a sentence in a letter that directly addresses the question you’re asking. It’s in a letter to Martin Amis, written on December 30, 1990. It begins in this way:

“Janis and I are in Ontario, on the top story of her parents’ farmhouse looking into falling snow, trees, fields, a pond, and staring directly into the face of a Trojan helmet chimney emitting smoke from wood chopped by me. We’ve just come out of the bath and we sit beside a huge white tub with a view, a whirlpool or perhaps even a jacuzzi into which you pour bubble bath cream which foams up and makes you into an Olympian. Old master Zeus looking down on white Chanel clouds. Too bad the people I care for are so widely distributed over the face of the earth. But then one tends to think about them all the more. Proximity isn’t everything.”

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