I have no problem with any of this,” said Saul Bellow, tossing a sheaf of his old letters across the scarred back booth in Poncho’s Wreck, a seedy bar just a few miles up the road from his summer house in Vermont. I had been collecting these letters for more than a decade, prying them from Bellow’s wives, friends, lovers, enemies, writers he admired and writers he detested, teachers, students, disciples, fans. It was late afternoon on a hot August day in 2000. My book—“neither authorized nor unauthorized,” as Bellow liked to put it—was nearing completion. He had agreed not to read it before publication, but I needed him to sign off on the documents I’d salvaged from every corner of his life. The fact that I had them in my possession didn’t mean I had the right to publish them; the words still belonged to Bellow.
The process had gone amicably enough until now. Once a summer we would sit under an apple tree in Bellow’s front yard and he would scrawl ok beside the letters or manuscripts I wanted to quote. So far he had refused permission only once: He couldn’t bear to see in print a puerile poem he’d written when he was 17. (I didn’t blame him; it was pretty bad.) But I had withheld until the last possible moment a handful of letters that I thought might give him trouble: a sniping dismissal of the critic Irving Howe prompted by Howe’s death; a letter to an old girlfriend about some private hygienic matter. Neither of these letters bothered Bellow.
The one letter that did trouble him was about his father. Written in 1937, when Bellow was 22, it was an account of a quarrel they’d had in the dingy office of the family business, the Carroll Coal Co. “My father, spongy soul, cannot give freely,” Bellow complained to his friend Oscar Tarcov. The nature of the quarrel wasn’t clear, but the Bellovian spirit of defiance was even then highly evolved. “He started giving me a Polonius,” the aspiring writer reported to Tarcov: What kind of job was it, this writing? Why didn’t he work for the company like his brothers? “The coalbins resounded with my shouts and imprecations, till the old man as a defense measure decided that he was needed somewhere and swam off into the gloom.”
Why, of all the letters Bellow had written, was he reluctant to let me quote from this one? “Because it’s so boring,” Bellow insisted. “Not to me,” I said. He and his father had never gotten along, but I was surprised that filial ill will could so stubbornly endure. Bellow was adamant. No was no.
Over the years, we had tried to maintain a businesslike, slightly formal relationship: the biographer and the subject, working as a team. But now that our collaboration was over, I’d decided to bring him a present: a beautiful edition of Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience with the poet’s illustrations. We struggled briefly over the check for our Coke and Sprite—it came to $3.40. “We’ve fought so little over the years,” I said. “Let’s not have a disagreement now.” He smiled and put up his hands in a show of deference. We walked out into the dusk; already it was beginning to grow dark earlier. “Thanks for the book,” Bellow said. Tucking it under his arm, he crossed the street and got into his Range Rover. As he drove off, he gave me a brief wave.
I saw him once more, at the 92nd Street Y in the spring of 2002. Nearly two years had passed since the publication of my biography, and I’d heard rumors that he was displeased with it. How could he not have been? It was affectionate but tough—too tough, according to some critics. I had my own filial issues.
The house was packed, 900 literary pilgrims waiting to hear whatever the Great Man had to say. He read from Ravelstein, his marvelous novella about his friend and University of Chicago colleague Allan Bloom. Bellow looked old. His hands trembled, and he frequently lost his place. His plaid jacket hung loosely off his shoulders. After 45 minutes, he glanced up and murmured, “That’s all I’ve got.” He dipped his head in a strangely formal bow and trudged off the stage. The applause must have lasted more than a minute. I hurried from the auditorium in tears. That’s all I’ve got.
Out on the street, watching the traffic stream by, I remembered the last words of Herzog. Depleted by his epistolary outbursts (“Hidden in the country, he wrote endlessly, fanatically, to the newspapers, to people in public life, to friends and relatives and at last to the dead”), the volatile professor lolls on a couch at his home in the Berkshires and thinks: “At this time he had no messages for anyone. Nothing. Not a single word.”