Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March, the first “One Book, One Chicago” of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration, may be the work of literature that most closely resembles Emanuel’s own life. It’s a bildungsroman about a brash Jewish kid from Chicago, born of immigrant parents, who leaves the city to seek his fortune and eventually finds his way back home.
Augie March has one of the most famous openings in American literature, and certainly the most famous opening in Chicago literature:
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. But a man's character is his fate, says Heraclitus, and in the end there isn't any way to disguise the nature of the knocks by acoustical work on the door or gloving the knuckles.
Despite that, I predict it will be the least-finished of the 21 books in the “One Book, One Chicago” series. Partly because of its 608-page length, partly because of its discursive plotlessness, and partly because Bellow may have been a great writer -- he did win the Nobel Prize for Literature -- but he wasn’t a great Chicago writer.
My first Saul Bellow book was Bellow’s own first book, Dangling Man. I remember a conversation with my sister when she saw me reading it.
“What’s that about?” she asked.
“A guy waited to get drafted in World War II,” I said.
“It sounds boring,” she said.
“Yeah, it kind of is.”
So I tried Henderson the Rain King, about a wealthy man who goes to Africa after he finds himself dissatisfied with life. Perhaps I was too young, but I couldn’t identify with Henderson’s mid-life crisis. I tried Seize The Day, but found it skimpy and plotless. The only Bellow novel I’ve enjoyed was Ravelstein, a semi-comic sketch of Bellow’s University of Chicago colleague, the conservative scholar Allan Bloom.
Mayor Richard M. Daley threw Bellow a 75th birthday party in 1990, but that was as much for his political services as his literary achievements. Bellow campaigned for Daley in 1989, after becoming upset with what his saw as anti-Semitism among supporters of Daley’s opponent, Timothy Evans.
Towards the end of his life, Bellow left Chicago teach at Boston University. Despite his long residence here, he was never as closely identified with Chicago as Nelson Algren, James T. Farrell, Carl Sandburg or Gwendolyn Brooks. His novels took places in such locales as Mexico, New York, and Africa. His outlook seemed, to me, more European and academic than Chicagoan.
Interestingly, journalist Ron Rosenbaum also found Ravelstein, which takes place in Paris, the Caribbean and Hyde Park, to the be Bellow’s only completely convincing book:
Ravelstein is not only my favorite Bellow novel, it's the only one I really love…My problem with the pre-Ravelstein Bellow is that he all too often strains too hard to yoke together two somewhat contradictory aspects of his being and style. There's the street-wise Windy City wiseguy and then—as if to show off that the wiseguy has Wisdom—there are the undigested chunks of arcane, not entirely impressive, philosophic thought and speculation.
So far, “One Book, One Chicago” hasn’t chosen any of the three greatest Chicago novels -- The Studs Lonigan Trilogy, by Farrell; Native Son, by Richard Wright; and The Man With The Golden Arm, by Algren. All deal with controversial topics that don’t put Chicago in the most flattering light: working-class life, racism and drug addiction, respectively. But all are closer to the experiences of the average Chicagoan than Augie March. They’d all be well read, and they'd really give us something to talk about.
Buy this book! Ward Room blogger Edward McClelland's book, Young Mr. Obama: Chicago and the Making of a Black President , is available Amazon. Young Mr. Obama includes reporting on President Obama's earliest days in the Windy City, covering how a presumptuous young man transformed himself into presidential material. Buy it now!