Tuesday, May 3, 2016

This Day in Literary History (Scornful Bellow Gets Pulitzer for ‘Humboldt’s Gift’)

May 3, 1976—Surely, in awarding its prize for fiction to Saul Bellow, the Pulitzer Prize board was aware of a bitter jest he made at their expense in his latest novel, the highly praised Humboldt’s Gift:

“The Pulitzer is for the birds—for the pullets,” the poet Humboldt Fleisher groans to his friend, novelist Charles Citrine, the narrator of the novel. “It’s just a dummy newspaper publicity award given by crooks and illiterates. You become a walking Pulitzer ad, so even when you croak the first words of the obituary are ‘Pulitzer prize winner passes.’” 

Bellow could, had he wanted to, used the old novelist’s dodge that he and his character were not synonymous. But I’m not sure many people would have believed him. 

In any case, he had more than enough reasons to feel peeved. In 1960, the fiction jury for the Pulitzer had recommended Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King, only to be overruled by the decision by the ultimate authority, Pulitzer board, to go with Allen Drury’s Advise and Consent, a title not even on the panel’s short list.

Had Bellow been like Sinclair Lewis,who had been passed over for a Pulitzer for MAIN STREET in favor of Edith Wharton's THE AGE OF INNOCENCE before being awarded the prize for ARROWSMITH, he might have rejected the honor. Instead, he mumbled something about being thankful, grateful, etc. Surely he knew that "Pulitzer Prize" on the cover would add to the novel's sales--something he could use to pay his alimony bills.

In a career spanning nearly six decades, much critical praise would come Bellow’s way. But for my money, he may have been at his best in what were, essentially, elegies for departed friends: Humboldt’s Gift, a thinly fictionalized account of the poet Delmore Schwartz, and Ravelstein (2000),  a roman a clef about University of Chicago faculty colleague Allan Bloom (The Closing of the American Mind). 

Some of Bellow’s other novels are marred by his tendency to mount the soapbox. But in these two works, the focus is on people rather than philosophies, and it's easier to see the colorful characterization rather than the rhetoric. For all the rueful humor early on in these two books, they are, ultimately, mournful in tone, keenly aware of mortality--a consciousness that would come naturally to someone who was 60 at the time of HUMBOLDT'S GIFT and in his mid-80s by RAVELSTEIN.

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