THE LAST GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL
by Sy Schechtman
Saul Bellow’s “The Adventures of Augie March” was recently republished, 50 years after its original publication in l954. Because of this rather signal event quite a few people have taken to speculating about its suitability for the prestigious title of the Great American novel, a literary honor of unique distinction. Several very distinguished American titles have been suggested in the past, including Twain’s Huck Finn, Melville’s Moby Dick, and Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Since there are no set guidelines for this elite distinction, what you may ask are the hypothetical requisites for this very special designation? And since I am, at least, thinking in terms of Augie March as the possible designee, what makes this book so distinguished?
To begin with the canvas portrayed is large, the time frame the oppressive depression era of the thirties and the gradual liberating era of the World War ll and briefly after. And the story line covers the United States, then Mexico, and finally Europe. It is sort of an odyssey, physically, and emotionally, as Augie tries to sort out the varies components of his instincts and innate drives, for as he says, “a man’s character is his fate”. And it is a very atypical rags to riches story of poverty to wealth, comfort and security rejected not once but twice at key parts of the book. For , as Einhorn, Augie’s mentor at the beginning of the book, discovers, “you are an oppositionist” when Augie temporarily runs afoul of the law. Indeed the opening sentence rings like a manifesto of independence. “I am an American, Chicago born—Chicago, that somber city—and go about things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way.”
And making that life’s record of his is fraught with abrupt and dazzling turns, but always as a meliorist, hoping for better things always. He has no “grudge power” even when his brother Simon, whom he loves, has gambled away what little they have and forced his poor simple minded mother into abject poverty, unbeknownst to Augie. He was always a “a person of hope…….What did Danton lose his head for , or why was there a Napoleon, if it wasn’t to make a nobility of us all?” And, toward the end of the book, after Augie’s fortunes had leveled off somewhat after several exciting turns, including teaching a large American bald eagle to hunt equally large almost prehistoric iguanas in Mexico, and he, at last is married to the woman he thought he loved. Although he is “…still in illicit dealing…more than half the business in Europe being the same. It is indeed cockeyed. But there is nothing I can do about it. It must be clear, however, that I am a person of hope, and that my hopes have settled themselves upon children and a settled life. I haven’t been able to convince Stella as yet…..but it’s unborn children I pore over far oftener than business deals.” And the book ends shortly thereafter with his image of his new wife somewhat more tarnished by new revelations about her past, although he is still resolutely confident. “….what’s so laughable…..that my friend Jacqueline, for instance, as hard used as that by rough forces, will still refuse to lead a disappointed life? Or is the laugh at nature—including eternity---that thinks it can win over us and the power of hope? Nah, I think it never will. Look at me, going everywhere! Why I am sort of Columbus of those near at hand and believe you can come to them in this immediate unknown land that spreads out in every gaze. I may be a flop in this line of endeavor. Columbus too thought he was a flop, probably, when they sent him back in chains. Which didn’t prove there was no America.”
But hope was shredded in dismal tatters along the way up---many times. As a pre teen youngster to make pin money for the holidays he and some friends “divert” some receipts from the neighborhood department store they were employed at for the holidays . After giddying success allowing them to buy gifts for Christmas (Chanukah is not mentioned), the store detectives close in and demand restitution or worse. And Grandma Lausch, who lives with them in their tenement walk up, despairs of ever making Augie a mensch, only a ditch digger or other common laborer. Not like his brother Simon, who was valedictorian on public school graduation. This was in the depth of the depression, in the early thirties, and soon after Augie blunders into another more serious non legal escapade to make some easy, quick money in that jobless time, that backfires and leaves him almost penniless and forced to hitch hike and ride freight cars, hobo like, to get back home to Chicago.
But if Augie’s character is his fate then another illegal maneuver is surely more typical. Beyond high school Augie was mainly self schooled, but his literary and scientific allusions in this first person narrative are voluminous and pertinent to the story----Alcibiades, Timur, Heraclitus, Helmholtz, St Augustine, etc…… to mention a few. Among the sources of his knowledge was his acquiring from his mentor and sometime employer Einhorn, a five shelf, slightly fire damaged great books collection with which he spent much fruitful reading time, since working time in those days was never very abundant. But most productive of all, intellectually, was his last foray into the negative work area morally, the art of book stealing. Now a mature and aspiring student beyond high school, Augie had a minimum job in the basement floor of a department store, not paying enough for tuition for some courses as Chicago University, going part time. But he meets again a buddy of his no higher on the economic ladder than he, but who certainly was much better attired. His friend Manny Padilla’s secret was book stealing, and soon Augie, too, was able to fund his college efforts this way. But only meagerly, for Augie spent a good deal of time reading the books he stole instead of delivering them on time.
He also displayed an unhurried and very selective path onward and upward. Because of his very good looks and demeanor , he lands a job in an upscale retail riding apparel store, first the low man on the staff but soon the apple of the eye of Mrs. Renling, the middle aged owner of the store, along with her husband. Her relationship is essentially platonic, perhaps maternal, for they have no children. And that’s why she offers him the financially priceless offer of adoption, no strings attached, with he being the sole heir on their death. But after due deliberation he turns it down. He can always be a friend but he has a family to whom he is very closely attached to and loves very much. Needless to say he loses this plush place to work and live and declines rather rapidly on the economic ladder, only to rescued by his brother Simon, who is starting determinedly up the economic ladder; out from the ashes of a minor jail offense and poverty. His assets are the same as brother Augie, good looks and intelligence and in addition a sure understanding of his goals. And he has a prospective arranged marriage in sight to realize his ambition. “What are my assets? We’re all handsome men in our family……But besides, I’m not marrying a rich girl in order to live on her dough and have a good time. They’ll get full value out of me, those people. They’ll see that I won’t lie down and take it easy. I can’t. I have to make money……”
And Simon does remarkably well with his arranged family and marriage. His wife Charlotte is very compatible though no beauty; and up the ladder they do go, Augie literally in tow as Simon’s confidant and prospective husband of Lucy, another sister in the Magnus tribe of marriage eligible daughters. But Augie can not carry out his role. He tries vainly to support his brother Simon in this new marrying game with sister Lucy but he feels no deep down love, and there other complications with Mimi Villars, whom he is trying to help out thru an unwanted pregnancy just before abortion became the law of the land in l975, (Roe vs. Wade). And his situation with Mimi was completely platonic, merely a good friend when the real father was not available and did not know. But these two disparate events are conflated by some knowing anti Augie busybody and relayed back to his brother Simon’s prospective in laws with shattering inferential assumptions. While Simon’s matrimonial plans are successfully consummated Augie is rejected summarily by his girl friend due to these rumors and Simon also regretfully temporarily casts him off.
Somewhat abashed but not despairing Augie soon meets Thea Fenchel who has actually been following Augie around furtively since his days with the Renlings. And Thea now determinedly takes control. She openly declares her love for him, and ever flexible, Augie does not disagree, even not having any “grudge power” as Thea actually barges into his bedroom and a very acquiescent Sophie Gerulatis in the middle of their sexual dallying. Augie had originally ignored Thea, having been smitten by her sister Esther, who has rejected him utterly when he bravely asked for a date. “……..I said, ‘Miss Fenchel, I wonder if you would like to go with me some evening to the House of David”. Astonished, she looked up from the music. “They have dancing every night.” I saw nothing but failure, from the first word out, and felt smitten, pounded from all sides.
“ With you? I should say not. I certainly won’t” The blood came down out of my head, neck, shoulders, and I fainted dead away”…. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, and Augie was on his feet again in time for dinner at the plush hotel he and Mrs. Renling were staying at. Not much the worse for trying to crash the class glass ceiling into true upper crust status.
But Thea and he were a fine match for each other, especially because of Augies’ adaptability. Besides their superb physical compatibility, Augie complied with Thea’s other ruling passion; rearing de novo an American bald eagle to maturity, who they trained specifically to capture the almost prehistoric and rare giant iguanas of Central America. They both pursue this extravagant fantasy adventure into central, mountainous Mexico with mixed results, almost getting Caligula, Aegis’s name for his ”pet” , who has been trained to eat out of Aegis’ hand, to soar supreme in the heavens and spot and swoop down on the somnolent iguanas in the jungles of Mexico. But two setbacks occur. Caligula is not as savage as planned when the iguanas bite back as Caligula attacks--- and he is scared off. And on the next retry Augie, a rather hurriedly trained horseman, topples from his saddle in the rocky terrain, and has a serious skull fracture.
Augie’s convalescence takes months, and the story subsides somewhat, but still we find Augie an involved witness and participant in many key events that shaped the pre World War ll scene as well as that fateful war and after. He meets the world famous refugee Leon Trotsky just before his assassination. But most importantly, he breaks up with Thea over his help to a newly met Stella who asks Augie, the only man she can trust in that strange Mexico environment, for help in getting back to Mexico City and then home to New York. And Augie complies even thou at great peril to his own life style with Thea---a replay of the Mimi Villars and Lucy Magnus disconnect that threw his life off balance in Chicago. When Thea leaves him over his abruptly helping Stella in an overnight, perilous trip to a safe bus stop en route to Mexico City a despairing Augie finally makes it back to America, after many minor adventures and fascinating characters are encountered;, perhaps a flop like Columbus in chains, but still not the worse for his adventures….for there was always an America….. and life, liberty, and the hope of happiness and the almost untrammeled ability to pursue its slithery but sublime essence. And there he is reunited with the alluringly enigmatic Stella and finally marriage.
What makes it possibly the Great American Novel is its quintessentially melting pot American stance, as triumphantly proclaimed in its very first sentence. Almost all its principal, exceedingly vital protagonists are first generation American citizens—Jews-- but they are not mired in ethnic straight jackets of inferiority. They are comfortable with their backgrounds and have positive aspirations and possibilities despite the hard times of acute economic stress and world wide war. They do not see themselves as victims but as participants in the lottery of life with hopeful chances to make it through the magic portals of success and “happiness”. The climate today makes for a much more constricted, truncated framework to work within. No more grand tilting at windmills but much more moaning about the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. We of course need both our Don Quixote’s as well as our Hamlets, but the American character has always been to aspire, to have great hope, a reach beyond our grasp, to fail, perhaps, but to get up and keep trying. If not furious wind mill tilting but a determined, perhaps compulsive effort at upward climbing so that our kids at least, will have a better deal--- as they definitely have had. And that’s why the Augie March saga still has its great chances to be today’s Great American Novel. And sadly, the last such effort probably.
For the unifying effort of “out of many, one” (e pluribus unum) is no longer with us. From the grand goal of assimilation we instead are bathing in the fetid waters of multiculturalism, and if you can still hear “the voice of the turtle in the land” one needs an interpreter to decipher it and the inherent “Americanism” if any, it conveys.