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Monday, October 25, 2010

John Berryman and Saul Bellow: “joined forces” for twenty years

Most readers believe that Saul Bellow based the character Humboldt in his novel Humboldt’s Gift on the poet Delmore Schwartz. Bellow’s biographer Ruth Miller finds the origin more complex: “Humboldt is a composite person; the failed poet is Delmore Schwartz but only in part. Part is also Isaac Rosenfeld and John Berryman.”

In the memoir Poets in Their Youth, Eileen Simpson (Berryman's wife at the time) recalls witnessing the developing friendship between Bellow and Berryman (whose birthday is today, October 25) when the two men were teaching at Princeton in 1951:
Returning from a Sunday walk down by Lake Carnegie with Monroe Engel and Saul, John said to me, “I like Bellow more each time I see him. A lovely man. And a comedian. He threw a log he found at the edge of the lake into the water and, with a gesture of command, said “Go. Go be a hazard.”

A few days later John came home with a typescript of Saul’s new novel and said “I’m going to take the weekend off to read this.” Seated in his red leather chair, immobile for hours except to light a cigarette, make a note on a small white pad, run the corkscrew he liked to toy with through his fingers, or let out a high-pitched “eeeeeeeeeeeee,” which meant he was laughing so hard he couldn't get his breath, he trained his intelligence on The Adventures of Augie March, giving it the kind of reading every writer dreams of having. After the first chapter, he said, “It's damn good.” When he finished, “Bellow is it. I'm going to have lunch with him and tell him he's a bloody genius and so on.”
Published in 1953, The Adventures of Augie March was a critical and financial triumph that catapulted Bellow to fame and won for him the National Book Award. In the same year Partisan Review published Berryman’s Homage to Mistress Bradstreet; its publication in book form three years later established Berryman as a new and distinctive voice. Berryman would later dedicate to Bellow “Dream Song 75” in his Pulitzer Prize–winning collection 77 Dream Songs (1964).

In 1971, in his last letter to Bellow, Berryman exulted about the birth of his daughter, his high expectations for his own first novel, and Bellow’s news of starting Humboldt’s Gift.
Let’s join forces, large and small, as in the winter beginning of 1953 in Princeton, with the Bradstreet blazing and Augie fleecing away. We’re promising.
Berryman jumped to his death off the Washington Avenue bridge in Minneapolis on January 7, 1972 (“he tilted out and let go” in biographer Paul Mariani’s phrasing). Bellow was at that time several hundred pages into the writing of Humboldt’s Gift.

In his introduction to Recovery (1973), Berryman’s unfinished and posthumously published novel, Bellow quotes from that last letter and remembers his friend of twenty years:
What he said was true: we joined forces in 1953 and sustained each other for many years. . .

His poems said everything. He himself said remarkably little. His songs were his love offerings. These offerings were not always accepted. . . . he snatched up the copy of Love & Fame which he had brought me and struck out certain poems, scribbling in the margins, “Crap!” “Disgusting!” But of one poem, “Surprise Me,” he wrote shakily, “This is certainly one of the truest things I’ve been gifted with.”

I read it again now and see what he meant. I am moved by the life of a man I loved. He prays to be surprised by the “blessing gratuitous” “on some ordinary day.” It would have to be an ordinary day, of course, an ordinary American day. The ordinariness of the days was what it was all about.
Of related interest:
  • Patrick Kurp has also blogged about the Berryman-Bellow friendship
  • Read an interview with Janis Bellow about the forthcoming publication in November of Saul Bellow: Letters, which will include many of his letters to John Berryman
  • Below: A video of John Berryman being interviewed by A. A. Alvarez in 1966 and reading “Dream Song 14,” which begins “Life, friends, is boring”

Related LOA works: John Berryman: Selected Poems; Saul Bellow: Novels 1970-1982

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