Saul Bellow

Born in Canada and raised in Chicago, Saul Bellow is of Russian-Jewish background. In college, he studied anthropology and sociology, which greatly influence his writing even today. He has expressed a profound debt to Theodore Dreiser for his openness to a wide range of experience and his emotional engagement with it. Highly respected, he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1976.

Bellow's early, somewhat grim existentialist novels include Dangling Man (1944), a Kafkaesque study of a man waiting to be drafted into the Army, and The Victim (1947), about relations between Jews and Gentiles. In the 1950s, his vision became more comic: He used a series of energetic and adventurous first-person narrators in The Adventures of Augie March (1953) -- the study of a Huck Finn-like urban entrepreneur who becomes a black marketeer in Europe -- and in Henderson the Rain King (1959), a brilliant and exuberant serio-comic novel about a middle-aged millionaire whose unsatisfied ambitions drive him to Africa. Bellow's later works include Herzog (1964), about the troubled life of a neurotic English professor who specializes in the idea of the Romantic self; Mr. Sammler's Planet (1970); Humboldt's Gift (1975); and the autobiographical The Dean's December (1982).

Bellow's Seize the Day (1956) is a brilliant novella often used as part of the high school or college curriculum because of its excellence and brevity. It centers on a failed businessman, Tommy Wilhelm, who tries to hide his feelings of inadequacy by presenting a good front. The novella begins ironically: "When it came to concealing his troubles, Tommy Wilhelm was not less capable than the next fellow. So at least he thought...." This expenditure of energy ironically helps lead to his downfall. Wilhelm is so consumed by feelings of inadequacy that he becomes totally inadequate -- a failure with women, jobs, machines, and the commodities market, where he loses all his money. He is an example of the schlemiel of Jewish folklore -- one to whom unlucky things inevitably happen. Seize the Day sums up the fear of failure that plagues many Americans.