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Saul Bellow
Edited by Benjamin Taylor
Viking, $35, 571 pp.

More than once in this collection of vigorous letters, Saul Bellow apologizes for his unsatisfactory epistolary habits: “I’ve never enjoyed writing letters,” he tells Ralph Ellison. “It’s part of some disagreeable reticence in me—laziness; worse; something very nasty.” Edited by Benjamin Taylor and making up roughly two-fifths of Bellow’s correspondence, the letters show absolutely no reticence and not a touch of laziness. About the “something very nasty” Bellow suggests is responsible for his dilatoriness, one can’t pronounce, although there’s a fair quotient of not-niceness in his dealings with others, both directly and indirectly.

The touchy hauteur that is strongly evident begins early on in relation to his Chicago friends from Tuley High School, some of them, as he testifies, close to his heart. “There were evenings when there could be no doubt about the fact that you detested me,” he informs Oscar Tarcov; later, writing to Tarcov that he has a teaching job at NYU, he mentions their mutual friend Isaac Rosenfeld, who doesn’t like Bellow’s teaching there: “He sent me a sore, and rather nasty note about it.... What’s wrong with people at home, anyway, and what’s the snarling for?” Judge David Bazelon receives one that is written “against my inclination, for your letter was horrible and wolfish, and ought not to be answered.” Bazelon is misguided to think “that everything can now be as before, which decidedly it can’t.” So the “snarling” that Bellow detected in...

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About the Author

William H. Pritchard is the Henry Clay Folger Professor of English at Amherst College. He is the author of Shelf Life: Literary Essays and Reviews (University of Massachusetts Press) among others.