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.