Friday, April 08, 2005

"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." So it was that the world was introduced to Auggie March, a character of such undeniable verve that the world -- or America, at least -- has never been the same.

Fifty years on, it's hard to appreciate just how audacious that opening line was; we're so accustomed to an expansive understanding of American identity that it's difficult to imagine it being any other way. Yet in 1953, the year The Adventures of Auggie March was first published, for a Jewish kid from a Chicago ghetto to so boldly proclaim himself an American still meant something uniquely daring. And particularly so when it came to American literature: prior to Auggie, the most famous Jewish character in American letters was probably Ray Cohn, the famously symbolic social lamb of The Sun Also Rises. By contrast, Auggie unabashedly asserted his right to join the literary pantheon then occupied only by protagonists -- such as Tom Sawyer or Nick Carraway -- of protestant or anglo-saxon heritage.

Although Bellow would later follow Auggie March with masterpieces like Herzog and Humboldt's Gift, to my mind it's Auggie March that is his greatest accomplishment. Save perhaps for Wright's Native Son or Ellison's Invisible Man, no single novel did as much to irreversibly shatter the remaining post-War limitations of American identity.

Note: For more on Bellow's life and achievements, I'd recommend starting with this excellent obituary by Michiko Kakutani.


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