Review by Scott Rose
A complex, brooding young Jewish diarist identified only as “Joseph” is at the center of Saul Bellow’s first novel, Dangling Man, published in 1944. The novel famously begins with Joseph’s rebuke of an attitude closely associated, in American letters, with Ernest Hemingway. Joseph writes: “Most serious matters are closed to the hard-boiled. They are unpracticed in introspection, and therefore badly equipped to deal with opponents whom they cannot shoot like big game or outdo in daring.” Interestingly, as Bellow later told The Paris Review: “When I wrote those early books I was timid. I still felt the incredible effrontery of announcing myself to the world (in part I mean the WASP world) as a writer and an artist.”
In broad outline, Dangling Man records the unemployed Joseph’s tribulations and reflections between December 1942 and April 1943 as he awaits entry into the United States Armed Forces to fight in World War II. Many scholars consider, however, that the novel’s title, Dangling Man, refers also to the Jew’s position in society.
Joseph writes chiefly about the deteriorating relationship with his wife Iva and the tedious social interactions within the Chicago boarding house where they dwell. But he filters his mundane experiences through his knowledge of great literature – Goethe, Baudelaire, Melville, Joyce – a habit of mind common to many later Bellow protagonists and of course to Bellow himself. The beauty of his sister-in-law’s neck, for example, inspires Joseph to recall a passage from the book of Isaiah. (In “A Jewish Writer in America,” Bellow reported that as a four-year-old, he started reading the Old Testament in Hebrew.)
Additionally and importantly, Dangling Man sadly reminds readers today of how oblivious many North American Jews were to the Holocaust as it was occurring. Though set in the period when Peter Bergson was agitating in Washington for greater recognition of the fate of European Jewry, Dangling Man does not mention the topic so much as once. Significantly, though, Joseph recounts a scene from his teenage years when he went to visit the home of a friend with German parents. The friend’s father remarks that Joseph is good looking, to which the mother replies (“Mephisto war auch schön”) — “Mephistopheles was good-looking, too.” — Joseph never saw his friend or the family again, and invents hollow alibis for the German mother’s thinly-veiled anti-Semitic snub. Somber and brilliant, Dangling Man makes for a fascinating introduction to Bellow and his world.
New York City-based novelist Scott Rose is a contributor to The Journal for the Study of Anti-Semitism. A portfolio of his published work is here: http://www.mediabistro.com/ScottRose.