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Saul Bellow

“For instance? Well, for instance, what it means to be a man. In a city. In a century. In transition. In a mass.

Transformed by science. Under organized power.

Subject to tremendous controls. In a condition caused by mechanization. After the late failure of radical hopes. In a society that was no community and devalued the person. Owing to the multiplied power of numbers which made the self negligible. Which spent military billions against foreign enemies but would not pay for order at home. Which permitted savagery and barbarism in its own great cities. At the same time, the pressure of human millions who have discovered what concerted efforts and thoughts can do. As megatons of water shape organisms on the ocean floor. As tides polish stones. As winds hollow cliffs. The beautiful supermachinery opening a new life for innumerable mankind. Would you deny them the right to exist? Would you ask them to labor and go hungry while you enjoyed delicious old-fashioned Values? You — you yourself are a child of this mass and a brother to all the rest. Or else an ingrate, dilettante, idiot. There, Herzog, thought Herzog, since you ask for the instance, is the way it runs.”


An excerpt from the novel Herzog by Saul Bellow. (This paragraph also makes up the entire prologue of Ian McEwan’s Solar.)

In the Spring of 2005, while on his deathbed in Brookline, Massachusetts, Bellow — husband to five wives and father to three sons; perhaps the most decorated American author of all time; winner of the Nobel Prize, Pulitzer Prize, National Medal of Arts, and thrice the National Book Award — was drifting in and out of consciousness when he mustered the energy to turn to his friend Eugene Goodheart, present at his bedside, and enunciate an usual question. “Was I a man, or was I a jerk?”

Here we know the connotations of “jerk,” a classic street-talking Bellow locution that stamps any foolish, flaky, or infuriating, usually male, character. But what he meant by “man” is perhaps more obscure and certainly more important. To Bellow (and to Goodheart), man meant mensch: an admirable, responsible human being who, regardless of wealth or prestige, would elicit trust and favorable words from those who know him.

Goodheart responded with a prompt but solemn nod. “You were a man.”

Thus, as his biographer Zachary Leader summarizes in the video below, “What mattered at the end… was the life he led as a man.”

More Saul:

  • My favorite passage from Bellow, on the promise of mankind
  • Bellow describes everyday life in Israel (from To Jerusalem and Back)
  • Bellow explains why art matters (from his Nobel Prize speech)

Saul Bellow