Almost from the beginning critics recognized a conflict in Bellow's imagination. In 1967 I myself argued that Bellow mediated the social and the religious, portraying both cultural or political issues and the protagonist's abiding sense of the transcendent. One best understood Bellow's plot in terms of this broadly religious concern.
Although critics have since explored many other themes, they always return to this division. Judie Newman recently argued, for example, that while the Bellow hero has certain transcendent intuitions, the real story lies in Bellow's concern with the nature of history. Now Ellen Pifer offers a defense of the religious view. To the rationalism of our culture, Pifer argues, Bellow poses intuition: in each of the novels, the protagonist experiences a deeply felt sense of the spiritual. Often, as in Augie March, the protagonist nourishes this sense amidst a hostile, positivistic culture. Because the protagonist has internalized rationalism, the conflict exists within his own mind.
Pifer begins with Mr. Sammler's Planet, showing how the conflict between rationalism and intuition informs that novel. She then examines in order each of the other novels, documenting her case with ingenious insight. Her method is basically New Critical, as she carefully examines Bellow's language. Often she touches on plot and character, defining shifts and changes. Most of the time she discovers that Bellow's novel ends with an affirmation of the transcendent.
Against the Grain is thus persuasively argued—so much as that it is hard to see how anyone writing about Bellow in the future can ignore the theme. At each point Pifer backs up her claim, combing Bellow's text, citing critics, offering context, paraphrasing such theologians as Paul Tillich or the psychologist William James. What is more, she writes well—-I would offer this book to graduate students as a model of literary criticism. The prose is clear and the argument focused. In addition, the prose is—wonder of wonders—interesting. Pifer's superb ear provides a text that always moves and issues that are always interesting.
I have a few reservations. Pifer offers little background on Bellow or the era in which the novels appear. Her careful combing of the text sometimes makes her ignore plot and character: although she cites many critics, she does not always address the issues they debate—issues a religious reading often solves. I also think Pifer undervalues the revulsion Bellow's protagonist feels toward the world—a revulsion that determines the evolution of both the canon and the quality of the fiction.
But these points are minor. Pifer shows what skillful textual analysis can accomplish and she makes the important point that Bellow for all his realism is really a cultural radical. That is, although postmodernists would dismiss Bellow as a middle-class conservative, Pifer shows that Bellow's belief in spirit is actually subversive of popular culture. Writing against the grain, Bellow too is a revolutionary. [End Page 575]