Chicago and the Contemplative Process in Saul Bellow’s Adventures of Augie March and “Looking For Mr. Green”

July 5, 2013 § Leave a comment

A recent academic essay, ‘Chicago and the Contemplative Process in Saul Bellow’s Adventures of Augie March and “Looking For Mr. Green”’, appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of the Saul Bellow Journal (vol 25, no. 2).

The essay is now available in full here.

Here’s the opening:

“Give Chicago half a chance, and it will turn you into a philosopher”
– Saul Bellow, 1983 (Bellow, “Chicago” 245)

In Saul Bellow’s third novel, The Adventures of Augie March (1953), the protagonist’s encounters with Depression-era Chicago lead him to contemplate the very nature of city living and, beyond that, the twentieth-century human condition. The novel is an unusual bildungsroman. Education comes from many sources, sometimes through attempts to navigate Chicago’s industrial landscapes, mass transit systems, and modern architecture. These historical phenomena created unprecedented subjective experiences for the city dweller.

Bellow’s fiction represents not just a different approach to urban representation but also an uncommon optimism about the modern city’s possibilities for the individual. As Murray Baumgarten has said, “For Bellow, living in the city is a philosophical activity. Urban life makes possible the discovery of the self because it highlights the ways in which individuality is an event of consciousness as well as history.” Only in the city “one can be an individual and thereby participate in the enterprise of Western culture” (Baumgarten 399). Chicago is the modern American city par excellence, a center of innovation and new technologies, and an ideal setting for Bellow’s explorations of modern life.

Robert Alter’s exploration of urban fiction in his book Imagined Cities, although focused on nineteenth and twentieth century European novels, is a useful guide to studying Bellow’s fiction. Alter’s argument is that “new objective realities, from architecture to public transport to the economy” in nineteenth century European cities led to a change in the very “perception of the fundamental categories of time and space” (Alter xi). So how did novelists respond to these changes? Or rather, how did they create these new types of cities in prose? Alter observes a trend in nineteenth century literature: “The practice of conducting the narrative more and more through the moment by moment experience—sensory, visceral, and mental—of the main character[s]” (x). He calls this practice experiential realism, which manifests itself in a variety of ways. The subject of Alter’s book Imagined Cities is “the intersection of the subtle deployment of experiential realism and the emergence of a new order of urban reality” (x).

Augie March’s experiential realism is created through the protagonist’s retrospective first person voice, an exhaustively detailed prose combining unusual use of metaphor, (often comic) juxtapositions of grandeur and the mundane, sometimes grotesque evocations of the body, and casual sentence structure. Furthermore, Bellow uses this experiential realism not just to vividly recreate Augie March’s subjective encounters with modern urban phenomena, but also to lead the reader through the philosophical contemplations provoked by such encounters. In these encounters, Augie contemplates the 20th century human condition faced with modernity and city life. Bellow’s repeated illustration of the power of the modern urban environment to shape consciousness—and to stir it into contemplation—is one of the factors that makes The Adventures of Augie March a startlingly original twentieth century American novel of the city….

The same issue of the journal also includes essays on Seize the Day and Mr Sammler’s Planet, as well as a roundtable on the Herzog years led by Gregory Bellow.

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