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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Becoming Visible Saul Bellow (b. 1915)

[3048] Anonymous, Free Classes in English! Learn to Speak, Read, & Write the Language of your Children … Special Classes for Educated Foreign Born. N.Y.C. (1936), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC2-946].

Saul Bellow remains one of the most important post-World War II Jewish American writers. Like Roth, Malamud, and Paley, he offers a Jewish perspective on themes of alienation and “otherness” during an age of postwar fragmentation, materialism, and conformity. Like Anzia Yezierska and Abraham Cahan a generation before him, he translates the Yiddish American experience into English.

Born to parents who emigrated from St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1913, Bellow, the fourth and youngest child, grew up in the Jewish ghetto of Montreal and learned to speak both Yiddish and English. In 1924 he moved with his family to Chicago, the city that would influence much of his early fiction. He attended the University of Chicago and then transferred to Northwestern University, from which he graduated in 1937 with a degree in anthropology and sociology. He then moved to New York. His plan was to begin graduate work at New York University, but he married instead and eventually moved back to Chicago in 1962. Chicago became the setting for many of his novels of the 1970s and 1980s. In 1993 he accepted a position in the English department at Boston University. Early in his career, Bellow cultivated a friendship with fellow writer Ralph Ellison-an often-forgotten point in the controversy surrounding his much-debated stance on Jewish-African American relations and the attacks he endured for the supposed racism of such novels as Mr. Sammler’s Planet (1970).

Bellow wrote his first book, Dangling Man (1944), while serving in the Merchant Marine during World War II and followed it with The Victim in 1947. In 1976 his novel Humboldt’s Gift won the Pulitzer Prize. His analysis of American cultural anxiety and his belief in the possibility of greatness in spite of human frailty and failure are at the core of much of his work. Bellow’s prolific output includes the frequently anthologized novella Seize the Day (1956), The Adventures of Augie March (1953), Henderson the Rain King (1959), Herzog (1964), The Dean’s December (1982), and Ravelstein (2000). He has also written plays and short stories.

Teaching Tips

  • “Looking for Mr. Green” is set during the depression. You may find it helpful to review some of the materials in Unit 12 to help students understand the lingering legacies of the Roosevelt administration’s methods of assisting the poor and destitute. You might remind them that during the Great Depression over a third of the U.S. population needed and received government relief just to survive. Also review the state of race relations in the 1950s to understand some reasons why distrust of “the man” (the white man in a position of power or authority) would be so prevalent at this time. Have students put together a slide show using depression-era photographs that might help to illustrate issues presented in “Mr. Green.”
  • Have your students build a “character trait” description of the narrator, George Grebe, describing their ideas about his personality and character. Where would he go for fun? What would he do? With whom would he hang out? What would his politics be? What kinds of movies would he like?

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: In “Looking for Mr. Green,” why might Bellow name an elusive black man “Mr. Green”? How does that name contribute to the atmosphere or themes of the story?
  2. Comprehension: What are the obvious differences between George Grebe’s attitude towards African Americans and the attitude of the Italian grocer? What purpose do these differences serve in the story? What does the author’s attitude seem to be regarding racism and stereotyping?
  3. Comprehension: What are readers to make of the ending of “Looking for Mr. Green”? Does Grebe feel a true or a false sense of elation? Does Grebe seem more cynical or idealistic to you?
  4. Context: Bellow was born in poverty in an ethnic neighborhood in a French Canadian city. He graduated from Northwestern University, a prestigious American school. What transformations, expansions, and compromises might be required in making a journey from poverty to an exclusive American institution of higher education? Are the effects of such a journey evident in “Looking for Mr. Green,” particularly in the personality of Grebe?
  5. Context: Many of the literary works of the mid-twentieth century focus on protagonists who create illusions of a better world in order to cope with the harsh and unpleasant reality they find themselves in. Can you think of stories where this happens? Do you think this is happening in “Looking for Mr. Green”?
  6. Exploration: Bellow often gives his protagonists unusual names, and assertion of ethnicity is not always the obvious objective. For example, a grebe (Podicipedidae) is a small, stocky bird that spends most of its time in the water and is ungainly on land. Why call a protagonist “Grebe”? How does the name affect our response to Grebe? Bellow’s naming his character after a bird may remind us of a famous parallel: Washington Irving’s Ichabod Crane from “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” If “Grebe” recalls “Crane,” who also goes into a strange place as a confused, over-educated, inquisitive outsider, what thematic parallels should we consider between “Looking for Mr. Green” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”?
  7. Exploration: One of Bellow’s favorite themes is that a liberal arts education, the kind acquired with great effort and expense at institutions like Columbia, Amherst, Chicago, Georgetown, and other elite universities, teaches no skills for surviving in the “real” world. How are such American campuses designed to be places apart? When you consider the relationship between the landscape of a great campus and the landscape of a major city, what questions can you form about the relationship between education and life?

Selected Archive Items

[3046] Lewis Hine, Old Jewish Couple, Lower East Side (1910),
courtesy of George Eastman House.
Upon arrival in the United States, Eastern European Jewish immigrants found themselves faced with difficult questions: which aspects of their ethnic identity should they preserve and which should they reshape? Writers like Abraham Cahan and Anzia Yezierska asked these questions in the early twentieth century, from the perspective of the Lower East Side; later writers like Saul Bellow and Philip Roth reflected on the transformation of Jewish identity in the United States.

[3048] Anonymous, Free Classes in English! Learn to Speak, Read, & Write the Language of your Children … Special Classes for Educated Foreign Born. N.Y.C. (1936),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC2-946].
Sign in Hebrew and English advertising free English-language and naturalization classes aimed at European Jewish immigrants. The classes were offered through the Works Progress Administration’s Adult Education Program in New York City. Most Jewish immigrants in New York and other major cities lived in tight-knit communities where Hebrew or Yiddish was spoken.

[6248] Anonymous, Ginsberg with Classmates, the Columbia Campus Quadrangle (1948),
courtesy of the Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries.
Allen Ginsberg had a precarious relationship with Columbia University: as a sophomore, he was expelled for sketching obscene drawings and phrases on his dorm window, which he said he did to demonstrate its dustiness. And although he eventually graduated, Ginsberg’s final years at the school were compli-cated after he allowed an addict friend to store stolen items in his apartment: in order to avoid prosecution, Ginsberg pled insanity and spent eight months at the Columbia Psychiatric Institute.

[9072] U.S. Department of the Interior, Map of Chicago, 1970 [from The National Atlas of the United States of America, U.S. Geological Survey] (1970),
courtesy of the General Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin.
At the age of nine, Saul Bellow moved from the Jewish ghetto of Montreal to Chicago, where he would reside for much of his adult life. Bellow’s “human understanding and subtle analysis of contemporary culture,” in the words of his Nobel Prize citation, reflect in part his witnessing Chicago’s transformation from a stockyard and rail town to a booming metropolis of business and industry.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-564-6