Saul Bellow was a great man of letters in both senses of the word. Over a long lifetime—he died in 2005 at the age of ninety—he dispatched thousands of epistolary missives (lamenting all the while that he was a terrible correspondent), and he was a master of the genre. Not unlike Moses Herzog, the fevered letter-writer of his eponymous—and to my mind, best—novel, “he wrote endlessly, fanatically, to the newspapers, to people in public life, to friends and relatives and at last to the dead, his own obscure dead, and finally the famous dead”; but Bellow drew the line at the famous dead—no letters to Nietzsche or the French theologian Teilhard de Chardin, both one-way correspondents of Herzog—and he wrote no letters to “his own obscure dead,” though they were often in his thoughts. As he got older, he looked backward more than forward: to his classmates at Tuley High School in Chicago; to his parents; and to the odd assortment of teachers and merchants and relatives who richly populated his childhood in the Jewish-immigrant neighborhood of Humboldt Park where he grew up—characters like Uncle Benjy, who had a pet shop: “Why is it so sad that Benjy should sell puppies and birds?” he asked one of his old classmates.
I must declare at the outset that two of the letters in this plump and totally engaging volume (both genial in tone) are addressed to me; and also that scattered throughout are a few references (alas, not flattering) to the biography of Bellow over which I labored for more than a decade . . .