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From the Archives - Author Saul Bellow writes in 1951

Letter reveals Nobel Prize winner's plans to finish writing a book in Salzburg

Saul Bellow

Saul Bellow visited Salzburg Global as a faculty member in 1952 for Session 17 - American Poetry and Prose

Chelsea Gunn | 12.09.2012

One of the greatest aspects of working with the archives at Salzburg Global Seminar is the element of surprise that accompanies the opening of each archival box. When an organization has held sessions on such a diverse range of topics, and hosted distinguished faculty and students from so many fields, it is difficult not to stumble upon a few hidden gems. Case in point: the below letter from Saul Bellow to John McCormick, former Dean of the Salzburg Seminar. 

66-08 102nd 

St Forest Hills, L.I.N.Y. 

Dec 5, 1951

Dear Mr McCormick:

From what you tell me of your lectures I don't think we shall be covering the same ground. I am going to try to develop some of the notions about the artists in an industrial democracy, the relations of the individual and crowd, the dwindling in the stature of heroes, the constant effort of writers to strike a reliable definition of human nature, und so weither. There will probably be some duplication, but I don't suppose that we will have identitcal views.

I really don't know how much skiing time there will be for me. I have set myself the goal of winding up my book in Salzburg, and if I write in the morning and teach in the afternoon, socialize in the evening and read at night, I shall have to ski in the dawn hours.

I plan to leave Paris on New Year's Day. Between Christmas and New Year's I can be reached at Chez Kaplan, 132 Bd. du Montparnasse, Paris.

Sincerely,

Saul Bellow

Bellow visited the Seminar as a faculty member for Session 17 - American Poetry and Prose - in January 1952. At that time, Bellow was teaching at New York University and had written two books: Dangling Man, published in 1944, and The Victim, published in 1947. His lectures at the Seminar, “The Novel from Hawthorne to the Present,” dealt with works by Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry James, Ernest Hemingway, and William Faulkner. His seminar topics included technical innovations in American fiction and the American influence on contemporary European writers.

In his letter to McCormick, Bellow alludes to his goal to finish writing a book during his stay at Schloss Leopoldskron. Considering his novels chronologically, one might guess that the book in question was The Adventures of Augie March, published in 1953. In a 2003 essay for The Tablet, Bellow wrote: “One chapter of Augie—I then had the notion of calling it “Life Among the Machiavellians”—was written at Schloss Leopoldskron, Salzburg, the late Max Reinhardt’s baroque castle, while I was teaching in the American Seminar.”

The Adventures of Augie March is considered by many to be the work that established Bellow as an important figure in the American literary canon. It begins with the famous paragraphs:

“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.

“Everybody knows there is no fineness or accuracy of suppression; if you hold down one thing you hold down the adjoining.”

The novel is a picaresque narrative: a satirical but realistic tale of a low social class protagonist. These stories are generally told in the first person, in an autobiographical style, and address issues of society as well as of personal relationships. Augie March is often said to be something of an Everyman character, reflecting, in particular, the struggles of the modern American.

This work is often compared to Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and occasionally to J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, two other popular modern picaresque novels. In 1954, The Adventures of Augie March received the National Book Award, and in 1976, Bellow was awarded both the Nobel Prize in Literature and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Bellow first attended the Salzburg Seminar in American Studies in April 1950, as a faculty member for Session 7 - American Literature. His work has come up in sessions devoted to literature and the arts ever since.

Faculty and fellows visiting Salzburg Global in the future may choose to pass some of their time at Schloss Leopoldskron reading a copy of The Adventures of Augie March in the very place in which a portion of it was originally penned.

Correction: November 1, 2017

This article previously stated Session 17 was the only session Bellow attended in person, but this is not the case. Bellow also attended Session 7 - American Literature in April 1950.

12.09.2012 Category: CULTURE, IMAGINATION, SALZBURG IN THE WORLD
Chelsea Gunn