When Bellow Went Green

by Dish Staff


Saul Bellow’s classic novel, Herzog, turns fifty this year. Revisiting the book, Andrew Furman notices an aspect of the plot that had escaped him before – Bellow’s “sensitive evocations of place, particularly green places both within and without the city,” an unexpected turn for a Jewish writer associated with the urban landscapes of Chicago:

The novel opens with Herzog at his dilapidated Berkshires property at the peak of summer, contemplating all that has recently befallen him, primarily the collapse of his second marriage and his academic career. Bellow takes pains during this opening section, and throughout, to dramatize Herzog’s receptivity to the natural world. He sleeps outside many nights, surrounded by “tall bearded grass and locust and maple seedlings.” And “when he opened his eyes in the night, the stars were near like spiritual bodies. Fires, of course; gases—minerals, heat, atoms, but eloquent at five in the morning to a man lying in a hammock, wrapped in his overcoat.”

Critics have generally paid short shrift to such moments of heightened perception, moments that don’t directly involve the people in Herzog’s life, or his big ideas.

But now it seems wrong to separate Herzog’s receptivity to the external world from his insights about his impoverished upbringing, his failures as a father, husband, and son, and his scholarly views. It seems worthwhile, instead, to examine whether he finds, through nature, the exalted state of human perception envisioned by another Massachusetts resident, Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Bellow at least holds out the possibility that Herzog, like Emerson’s scholar or poet, might tap into his highest intuitive powers and realize true insight through his close observations of the animals, plants, and nighttime sky in the New England countryside. “Nature (itself) and I are alone together, in the Berkshires,” Herzog muses late in the novel, “and this is my chance to understand.”

(Photo of Herman Melville’s studio in the Berkshires, where he wrote Moby Dick, via Pablo Sanchez)