For nearly half of his 89 years, Saul Bellow, who died April 5 of natural causes, was widely considered America's greatest living writer. He accepted that standing almost matter-of-factly. Once informed that Joyce Carol Oates had called him a genius, he responded, ''I tend to agree with her.'' Yet genius wasn't enough for Bellow, who tackled the big subjects of his time the Great Depression, the Holocaust, the sexual revolution but still reflected, late in life, ''I should have had more ambitious themes.''
The ones he chose were ambitious enough to give Bellow status as the kind of cultural icon whose death means that as an actor said of Marlon Brando everyone else moves up a notch. ''He was a writer of the highest seriousness,'' says fellow Pulitzer Prize winner Marilynne Robinson (Gilead). ''The scale of his interests, of his meditations, were in the highest traditions.''
Bellow won three National Book Awards (for The Adventures of Augie March, Herzog, Mr. Sammler's Planet) and the 1976 Pulitzer for Humboldt's Gift; he was one of only a few American Nobel laureates in literature in the last 30 years. And his novels, for all their poetic passages and fiery polemics, represent a canon defined by vividly drawn protagonists, most self-doubting social misfits wrestling with, as Bellow put it in his Nobel address, ''what we human beings are. . .what this life is for.''
More often than not, his characters' odysseys in search of themselves were his journeys, too. Each novel, he once said, was ''a form of higher autobiography,'' ''a bulletin'' on his own condition. He was the alienated wartime draftee awaiting call-up in his Dostoyevskian first novel, Dangling Man (1944), the callow Depression-era kid on the make in The Adventures of Augie March (1953), the beleaguered intellectual railing at the world's ills in Herzog (1964). Together, Bellow's characters tell the life story of their creator a son of Russian-Jewish immigrants who was brought up to chase the American dream, but never considered it a noble pursuit even as he made it come true.
Born near Montreal on June 10, 1915 just four months before another titan of Jewish-American letters, Arthur Miller Bellow was 9 years old when his family moved to Chicago, where his father, Abraham, built a successful business selling wood to the city's bakeries. While Bellow spent most of his defiantly bookish youth immersed in the classics, he also acquired a street education, hanging around pool halls and burlesque houses, working in coal yards, hopping freight trains just for the hell of it.
For Bellow, Chicago wasn't just a familiar setting; it was a whole world, one he lyrically evoked in novel after novel. Amid the clamor and clutter of this ''incredible, vital, sinful, fascinating big city,'' the author located complex tales of men seeking the means to cope with modern life. ''Bellow was my favorite writer,'' says Dave Eggers (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius). ''I teach him to every student I have; I usually give them a page from Henderson the Rain King and encourage them, as Bellow did in his writing, to fit the whole world on the page. No writer wrote so exuberantly and with such an expansive appetite for ideas. And the way he combined the high and low was unparalleled.''