Author Saul Bellow, a native of Quebec and raised in Chicago, died this morning at age 89. He had won the big prizes and continued writing until the last several months. In this excerpt from It All Adds Up, Bellow describes a harsh, yet romantic, Chicago.
What Chicago gave to the world was goodsâ€”a standard of living sufficient for millions. Bread, bacon, overalls, gas ranges, radio sets, telephone directories, false teeth, light bulbs, tractors, settle rails, gasoline. I asked a German-Jewish refugee, just arrived, to tell me quickly, without thinking, his opinion of the city. What had impressed him most in Chicago? He said at once, “Stop and Shop”â€”the great food store on Washington Street, with its mountains of cheese, its vats of coffee, its ramparts of canned goods, curtains of sausage, stacks of steaks. Goods unlimited and cheap, the highest standards of living in the world, “and for the broad masses, not for an elite.” The “struggle for existence” went on under your eyes, but the very fact that we could even think about such a struggle meant that millions of well-fed people could afford to sit theorizing about the human condition.
In this article on how he penned his book The Adventures of Augie March, he says a neighbor explained his situation well. “It is only natural that while he is here he should be thinking of America most of the time.” And he was thinking of the Windy City.
A descendant of Russian-Jewish immigrants, I was writing of Chicago in odd corners of Paris and, afterward, in Austria, Italy, Long Island and New Jersey. To speak of rootless or rooted persons is all very well. No man needs to bother his head about the matter whose emotions are alive. We are called upon to preserve our humanity in circumstances of rapid change and movement. I do not see what else we can do than refuse to be condemned with a time or a place. We are not born to be condemned but to live.
Jesus said something close to that, but he put a different twist on it. He didn’t come to condemn, but to give life. Elsewhere, Chicago writer Golden Rule Jones rejoices in Bellow’s poetry. Perhaps more thought on Bellow will come in this week.