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ESSAYS SAUL BELLOW AND THE UNIVERSITY AS VILLAIN / Ben Siegel FEW AMERICAN novelists talk about the university as much as Saul Bellow. Certainly no other subject stirs in him equal rancor and resentment. He reiterates his unhappiness with the university in lecture and interview, essay and fiction. He has done so since early in his career. His views are not totally consistent, but they are clear and uncompromising. Bellow does not underestimate the university's importance. He knows this country's literary activity is not concentrated in New York or Chicago or any city, and its literary intellectuals are not molded on Grub Street or in Bohemia. They are shaped in the university, he admits, with Bohemia itself now "relocated . . . near to university campuses." His attitude suggests a familiar paradox. Like many American novelists and poets, Bellow remains rooted in academe while making it a frequent target. He refers to himself as a "professor" and reportedly complains at campus events lacking any "special provision" for faculty. Where faculty privileges are concerned, Bellow proves, according to Mark Harris, "rather caste-minded, petulant, peevish, especially when he . . . [is] inconvenienced." He thinks "that someone should always be handy to assist him."1 Yet he attributes much of what is wrong with this nation's culture, especially its literary culture, to the university and its professors. I. Professors and the Literary Situation In Seize the Day (1956) Bellow describes the type of individual who becomes a professor. Tommy Wilhelm recalls with distaste his cousin Artie, who has been "an honor student at Columbia in math and languages. That dark little gloomy Artie with his disgusting narrow face, and his moles and self-sniffing ways and his unclean table manners, the boring habit he had of conjugating verbs when you went for a walk with him. 'Roumanian is an easy language You just add a tl to everything.' " This same pitiful Artie was now a respected professor. "Not that to be a professor was in itself so great. How could anyone bear to know so many languages? And Artie also had to remain Artie, which was a bad deal. But perhaps success had changed him. Now that he had a place in the world perhaps he was better. Did Artie love his languages, and live for them, or was he also, in his heart, cynical? So many people nowadays were." Cynical or not, professors like Artie bear prime responsibility for The Missouri Review · 267 America's "literary situation." This Bellovian phrase covers not only recent writers and writings but also the several decades of postwar media intellectuals shaping the country's thought and expression. Since World War II, American universities have littered the cultural landscape "with small Daedaluses who teach literature, edit magazines, write critical articles and can be seen swarming far from Crete or Dublin." But then he is not certain this country even has a "literary situation." What it does have resembles more a sociological, political, or psychological situation, with some literary elements. "Literature itself has been swallowed up" in the last three decades. Just prior to the Second World War, America's "highbrow public" was small, but after the war, thanks to the G. I. Bill, it exploded with a "new class of intellectuals or near-intellectuals." A college degree indicates, if nothing else, Bellow notes, an "exposure to high culture" and its creators or purveyors. The poems and novels these students read were written by "highbrow geniuses—disaffected, subversive, radical." Rejecting all "average preferences" for their own singular ones, these modern masters infused the young with their own radical disaffection. The new graduates formed in turn a serious "minority readership," but one different in taste and size from "that handful of connoisseurs that had read Transition in the twenties and discussed " 'significant form.' " Now America had a large literary community, but a bad literary culture. Yet if deficient in taste, this community or audience proved insatiable in its cultural hunger, viewing literature as both "swallowable" and "enormously profitable." Its members contributed to the "university boom" and to the expansion of journalism and publishing. Hence the postwar years found the universities newly prosperous and at the center of an enlarged but artificial...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-9930
Print ISSN
0191-1961
Pages
pp. 165-188
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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