As balladeer, Bellow presaged Bob Dylan’s hard-luck realism. Romantics at heart, both liked how the big wide world — Made in the U.S.A. — simultaneously excited and confused its finicky inhabitants. Here’s Augie March at the end of his Depression trek: “I don’t want to be representative of exemplary behavior or head of my generation or be any model of manhood.” And Dylan, later on: “It’s never been my duty to remake the world at large, nor is it my intention to sound a battle charge…” Post-Whitman authors feed on American vastness and Bellow is keen to stand tallest among the yawpers.
“Augie March” — first published in 1953 — is as important as literary manifesto as novel, though its genius defies specific gravity. There’s Chicago filth, Mexican mysticism, and Parisian decadence channeled through a personable existentialism that’s free of Sisyphus burdens. Everyone’s entitled to live, says Bellow, but forget the free ride. Augie emerges from the wrong side of the Midwest tracks fatherless and poor.
He’s “forgetful, elliptical, gleeful sometimes.” He makes himself up from the muddy hubbub, the “dirty mental weather,” to which Bellow’s mid-century America amounts. The novel energetically spits out bratty men called Einhorn, Dingbat, Kayo; thrall-bitten women named Cissy, Mimi, Lucy, Stella. A passive observer to a steamrolling century, impressionable Augie stammers through semi-criminal adolescence, plays at being a dandy, absconds eccentrically to Mexico with impetuous Esther Fenchel (a Katie Hepburn type), gets kicked in the head (literally), and heads back to the Midwest only slightly the wiser. His feminine indecision (a lover, not a fighter) makes the women in his life suffragette accessories to affection they don’t believe in.
The novel concludes in Paris, with earnest Augie as ever “in the bondage of strangeness” and — central to Bellow — in hope’s keep. Augie’s trek is among the 20th century’s finest lyrics, with Bellow giving voice to raw awe, the something in human spirit that’s “forever rising up.” Ironically, much of the book — compiled “catch-as-catch-can,” Bellow said — was written in Rome.