The Professor(s) of Desire
Profound and goofy, high-flown and demotic, experimental and traditional, coolly rational and deeply emotional, Saul Bellow's novels--even his sentences--draw much of their plus-sized vitality from being several things at once. Not surprising, then, that Bellow, who died a week ago Tuesday, had contrasting things to say about Minneapolis, where he lived and taught in the late '40s and late '50s. "I understand what Augustine meant when he said 'The devil has established his cities in the North,'" Bellow wrote of Minneapolis in a letter to poet-novelist-teacher Robert Penn Warren, quoted in James Atlas's 2000 study, Bellow: A Biography. But in a 1957 letter to novelist Ralph Ellison, the future Nobel Prize winner was sunnier about his sometime home: "The Midwest agrees with me. Here I recognize things. And I'm near Chicago, which is not unimportant." (The City Council might consider employing these words for a "Minneapple"-style slogan: "Near Chicago, which is not unimportant.")
Bellow, who was born in Montreal but grew up in Chicago, did two teaching stints at the University of Minnesota, working in the English department from 1946 through '48 and returning to teach humanities and English courses on and off from '57 through '60. During his second period at the U, Bellow shared an office with poet John Berryman in a building dubbed Temporary North of Mines. During the '40s and '50s, the U of M's humanities and English departments were home to many literary notables, including Warren, who wrote All The King's Men here, Joseph Warren Beach, Ralph Ross, and Isaac Rosenfeld, as well as Bellow and Berryman.
"I was just a lowly TA at the time and [Bellow] didn't hobnob much with TAs, but of course he would be around," says George Kliger, who started at the U in 1953 and is now the directing coordinator of the school's humanities department. "The University of Minnesota was one of the top 10 schools in the country at the time," Kliger adds. "It was a wonderful time, a golden age."
A golden age, it would seem, for pursuits both intellectual and salacious. According to then-graduate student and humanities instructor Philip Siegelman, quoted in Atlas's Bellow, Temporary North of Mines was "drenched in extramarital affairs. Seminal fluids practically dripped out of the paving stones." Bellow, famous but not yet rich, provided the school's juiciest gossip. As a condition of returning to the U in '57, Bellow insisted that the U also hire Canadian novelist Jack Ludwig, a friend and great admirer of Bellow and an even greater admirer of Bellow's second wife, Sondra. Moving to Minneapolis meant that Ludwig and Sondra could continue their affair, which wasn't terribly concealed but which Bellow, no model of fidelity himself, didn't get wise to until after the Bellows' divorce proceedings were already well underway. Much of this "Goldoni comedy," to use Bellow's description, was later dramatized in Bellow's 1964 bestseller, Herzog, in which the book's hero, Moses Herzog, is cuckolded by Valentine Gersbach, a comic figure modeled very closely after Ludwig. Perhaps, some observers suggest in Atlas's book, Bellow knew more than he let on and was storing up material for a novel. "Bellow has a tendency to set up situations and study them," Dr. A. Boyd Thomes ("physician to the Minneapolis literary community") told Atlas. "He sets them up and knocks them down again--like a pinsetter."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.