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.