Review by Lawrence J. Epstein
Humboldt’s Gift won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1976 and contributed to Saul Bellow being awarded the Nobel Prize in literature that same year.
One of the novel’s principal themes centers on a struggle artists face in America, where they must too often choose between loyalty to art and loyalty to commerce. To illustrate this theme, Bellow follows the writer Charlie Citrine, clearly modeled on Bellow himself. Charlie is torn between two other characters. One is the once-famous poet Von Humboldt Fleisher, who died in poverty and obscurity. Humboldt is modeled on Bellow’s friend and rival Delmore Schwartz. Humboldt is an eccentric literary genius, once a famed author of literary ballads who wanted to help America through art. America, though, rejected Humboldt’s offer, and he has been forgotten.
Charlie is captivated by Humboldt’s purity but tempted by the wealth of commercial success. In the book, crass commercialism is represented by the character of gangster Rinaldo Cantabile, who pushes Charlie to accept a more brutal reality.
Caught in this struggle, Charlie is disillusioned, fighting both his wife (who wants a large divorce settlement) and his girlfriend (who wants to marry him). Drawn to the allure of sex, money, and power, he finds Humboldt’s path far less inviting than Cantabile’s.
The pessimistic Charlie sees traditional ideas as exhausted. He tries alternatives such as Rudolf Steiner’s spiritual path. He thinks that perhaps in his writing he can create an onslaught of words against the void. But such an effort proves difficult. He notes, “I had the attention of the public for nearly a year, and I taught it nothing.” Ultimately, Charlie solves his dilemmas by accepting “Humboldt’s gift”: a realization that art must accommodate life’s realities.
The book’s startling originality, energy, and brilliance—and the focus of much critical response—stems from its style. Bellow has an extraordinarily congenial relationship with the English language. He can create jaw-dropping descriptions, especially of faces. A professor, for example, has “eyebrows like caterpillars on the Tree of Knowledge.” Bellow pushes at English’s borders and seems to create his own version of the language in the way an Emily Dickinson or James Joyce did.
The overpowering writing fits Charlie’s confusion. It also works to provide readers a sense of pity for the desperation of those who struggle to understand their own lives.
The language is that of an outsider, with a clear Yiddish influence. The writing reflects a character struggling to join the dominant culture and yet speaking in a foreign tongue. Inside, Bellow resembles Isaac Bashevis Singer; outside, he is more similar to F. Scott Fitzgerald.
The book is not explicitly Jewish, and, like Bellow himself, it twists and turns to define an identity. The battle between art and commerce is a metaphor for Bellow’s own struggle between being a Jewish writer and being an American writer. He composed in a blend of Yiddish and Midwestern English that offered a unique voice and a meeting ground between an individual identity and genuine integration into the American literary mainstream.
Lawrence J. Epstein is the author of many books about Jewish life, including THE HAUNTED SMILE: THE STORY OF JEWISH COMEDIANS IN AMERICA. He also wrote AT THE EDGE OF A DREAM, about Jewish immigrant life on the Lower East Side.