A Chicago book that holds special meaning to me
As an undergraduate at Tulane University, I wrote my honors thesis on Saul Bellow. Entitled grandly as “Saul Bellow and the Search for Self,” this tome, bulky and unwieldy and less than grand as it was, nonetheless gave me an opportunity to read everything I could read by and about Bellow. I had been introduced to him through reading Herzogand then Dangling Man, but as someone enormously attracted to the Romantic poets I was most drawn to Henderson the Rain King, a novel that struck me as somewhat out of Bellow’s usual heady mode and more of the heart. How could one not be drawn to a character like Henderson who raises pigs in his backyard, is excessively troubled by life’s complications, is driven to excessive actions by the simple words “I want,” and travels all the way to Africa to “burst the spirit’s sleep”?
I came to the University of Chicago for graduate study mainly because Bellow was teaching at that institution, but I requested a year’s delay before beginning so I could undertake my own romantic venture, burst my own spirit’s sleep, by hitching and starving my way through Europe and North Africa. When I finally did arrive in Hyde Park, I found myself unable to get into Bellow’s over-enrolled class, though I did get permission to sit in a couple of times and met him twice through the good graces of my friend (and Bellow’s first reader) Richard G Stern. (I also dated Bellow’s assistant for a while—but that’s another story, and I won’t say whether or not she burst my spirit’s sleep.) In any case, I loved Henderson the Rain King not only for the lively, energetic, smart writing—comic and serious by turns and as close to a page-turner as Bellow ever got—but because it played a central part in drawing me to Chicago, where I managed to fashion a career at Columbia College, engage with a host of wonderful colleagues and friends, and, ultimately, live a life that so often responded to that urgent voice in my ear, whispering, “I want.”
And now, I am happy to work with other board members of the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame and return the favor to Bellow and Henderson.