Many people seem to believe that the typical best-seller is a book that offers the reader a straightforward, not too challenging diversion. A writer who is able to write an engaging story while not insulting the intelligence of his or her readers, however, is bound to be successful. With Herzog, Saul Bellow achieves just this kind of success. Bellow's intellectual but not obscure novel captures both the general reading public and the academic community. Due to Bellow's respect for the reader, Herzog was assured a place on the best-seller lists as well as on the highly selective list of literary classics.
In September 1964, Herzog was published to an awaiting public and overwhelmingly positive reviews, "? with some reviewers going so far as to claim the novel as an 'instant classic'" (Wilson, 11). No publisher could have designed a marketing campaign more effective than the spontaneous hype that was created by reviewers around the time of publication. Herzog was even reviewed on the front page of the New York Times Book Review, arguably the most significant non-trade publication about recently published and up-coming books. The reviewer, Julian Moynahan, cocludes his article by calling Bellow's novel "new and classic". He goes on to say, "? its publication now, after the past terrible year, suggests that things are looking up for America and its civilization" (41). Such effusive praise was typical of Herzog's contemporary reviewers. Herzog was described as Bellow's masterpiece to date and this kind of "he's the best we have" criticism became characteristic of this novel as well as much of Bellow's subsequent work (Wilson 14-15).
The most significant factor contributing to the popularity of Herzog was its very diverse audience. In an interview which appeared in The Paris Review, Bellow says that his novel "appealed to Jewish readers, to those who have been divorced, to those who talk to themselves, to college graduates, readers of paperbacks, autodidacts, to those who yet hope to live awhile, etc." (Cronin & Siegel, 66). The complexity of this novel makes it appealing to a wide variety of readers from the educated, sophisticated reader, to the academician, to the general public reading for fun rather than intellectual pursuit. Saul Bellow achieves his widespread popularity by treating an intellectual topic in an entertaining, accessible way and by not shying away from the inherent difficulty of the subject matter. Moses Herzog writes unsent letters to, among others, Nietzsche and Spinoza, yet Herzog is approachable enough to have spent forty-one weeks on the New York Times best-seller list in 1964 and 1965. "Herzog ? uses the letters as a part of the total form to address the intelligence of the reader direct, and it does this without pedantic asides and without inflicting on us the longueurs of Shandean footnotes" (Moynahan, 41). Bellow frames Herzog's letters with the assumption that the reader knows something about the addressee, but does not provide so much detail that the references become esoteric, alienating his non-academic audience. Herzog's letter to Spinoza reads: "Thoughts not causally connected were said by you to cause pain. I find that is indeed the case. Random association, when the intellect is passive, is a form of bondage. Or rather, every form of bondage is possible then. It may interest you to know that in the twentieth century random association is believed to yield up the deepest secrets of the psyche" (Bellow, 181). In this letter, Bellow presents in one clear sentence which part of Spinoza's philosophy Herzog is duscussing. The reader need not be acquainted with any of Spinoza's writings to understand what Herzog is talking about. Furthermore, by invoking Freud's theory of psychoanalysis, that in the later half of the twentieth century has become a part of popular culture, Bellow gives his readers a comprehensible frame of reference.
The intellectual community found affirmation in Herzog and in Moses Herzog. Herzog is an academician, earning his living through the labor of his mind. Unlike many writers in the 1960s, Bellow displays his own higher education in his novel and allows those readers who are as learned as he is to make use of their own education. "After Herzog, no writer need pretend in his fiction that his education stopped in the eighth grade" (Moynahan, 41). Bellow himself considers the trend toward dumbing down fiction ineffective, untruthful and even insulting to readers. John Enck's interview, which appeared in Contemporary Literature, quotes Bellow as saying, "It is a great defect of American novelists that they shun thinking. Sometimes they appear to take anti-intellectual attitudes in order to identify themselves with the mass of Americans and behave like untutored populists. Which they are not. Most of them are highly sophisticated" (Cronin & Siegel, 44). While the novel can be fascinating for any reader regardless of his or her level of education, it is greatly enhanced by a reader's acquaintance with Moses Herzog's intellectual ideas. The characterization of Herzog as a modern classic by reviewers and Saul Bellow's own intelligence and education serve to make Herzog appreciated in highly educated circles.
It is unusual for a book that is considered literature upon its publication to be immediately well received by the general public, Herzog, however, was remarkably successful in this arena, achieving bestseller status shortly after its publication. "? in his novels Saul Bellow has performed the remarkable feat of making an extraordinarily complicated mind accessible to a wide range of readers without compromising his thoughts through oversimplification" (Wilson, 3). Many writers of modern intellectual literature assume that they are writing for a very small and select audience. Many typical readers are alienated by this assumption which is generally apparent in the way an author treats his subject. Herzog, however, is an intellectual book that the average reader can be comfortable with even though he or she might not understand all of Bellow's references. Bellow does not underestimate the American public's capacity to understand difficult issues if they are presented in the correct manner. Quoting E.M. Forster he says "the reader will take everything that you bounce him into, provided that you bounce him hard enough? If you don't forget the presence of the reader, you can allow yourself all kinds of liberties" (Cronin & Siegel, 38). Bellow's success among the lay readers is not an accident. He considers them part of his audience just as he considers highly educated people part of his audience.
Bellow treats Moses Herzog somewhat ironically, preventing the average reader from feeling inadequate in front of Herzog's, and perhaps Bellow's, intellect. Jonathan Wilson describes Herzog's mind as one that is "staggering in the range of its thoughts and associations", but goes on to say that Bellow's "intentions are often to debunk the man that would live by ideas or books alone" (5). Herzog is a failure, both in the personal sphere and the professional sphere. He seems unable to maintain functional relationships with his ex-wives or his children. Professionally he appears burned out and within the time span of the book he neither teaches nor writes. Readers may be awed by Herzog's education, but the comic state of his life re-humanizes him. In the first paragraph of the book Bellow says of Herzog, "Some people thought he was cracked and for a time he himself had doubted that he was all there." Later in the same paragraph Herzog's letter writing is described. "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, his own obscure dead, and finally the famous dead" (1). Bellow's choice to introduce the novel and its main character in such a way clearly defines the comically pathetic situation in which Herzog is. Bellow claims that his novel is not anti-intellectual, but that it simply points out the absurdity of trying to create a comprehensive synthesis of modern existence (Cronin & Siegel, 72). Those who guide their lives by academic principles, particularly rationalistic principles, seem doomed to fail. This is a nod to the opinion that academics are somehow less equipped to deal with life's real problems, especially if they hope to rely solely or mainly on their historical and philosophical knowledge, which seems quite prevalent in American society in the later part of the twentieth century.
Another reason for the popularity of Herzog, a reason which is fairly typical of best-sellers, is its great character development. Herzog himself is an interesting person, made even more so by the way he is presented. Passages written in the first person allow the reader to see inside his head and understand his motivations. Passages written in the third person allow the reader to see him act in his environment and allow the omniscient narrator to comment on his character. Gersbach is one of the great comic characters of twentieth century American literature. With his wooden leg, his use of his Jewishness as an accessory and his proneness to self-pitying crying fits, he is both repulsive and endearing. Madeleine is, by his own admission, one of Saul Bellow's most "real" female characters (Cronin & Siegel, 34). She is an intellectual, a mother, a wife and a lover, and all the facets of her personality have plausible motivation. In an interview for Chicago Tribune Books Today, Saul Bellow says that women have taken an unusual interest in Madeleine and have been writing him letters asking about the specifics of her character. According to Bellow "ladies reading books want to find models for new behavior" and Madeleine could be such a model (Cronin & Siegel, 38-39).
Ultimately, Herzog deals with interpersonal relationships and contemporary issues, even if it does so on a more educated level than most best-selling novels. Herzog's main crises are domestic. His main concerns are the break-up of his second marriage and the fate of his children. Practically all readers can relate to these concerns. In the 1960s divorces and remarriages or non-traditional family groupings became more common. These changes in the typical family structure were of great concern to readers of the time. Moreover, interpersonal relationships are always of concern to people, so the themes of Herzog are timeless. Yet Bellow uses these domestic crises, which are familiar territory to most readers, to examine more complex and interesteing issues. "? it is not only the social and psychological ramification of divorce with which Bellow is concerned. Bellow is interested in the peculiar components of Western suffering" (Wilson, 6). Bellow is able to explore such a grand theme in a work of fiction because he nestles it into a situation which is easy to understand. His example of "Western suffreing" is one that all people can relate to, hence one that is extremely effective.
Despite the fact that he is basically a failure, Moses Herzog shows a certain optimism, especially by the end of the book. At the end, he resolves to stop writing the letters, which are a prominent sign of his maladjustment throughout the novel. Although it is not very flashy, this is the kind of happy end that characterizes many best-sellers. Throughout the book Moses Herzog remains a likable character, one that reaffirms the human spirit. "?despite his 'every-middle-class-man' appearance, what really makes Moses Herzog so engaging a figure is that in contrast to the literary fashion of the previous decade his experience does not lead him down paths of nihilism. When Moses Herzog suffers, unlike the heroes of Camus, Sartre or Beckett, he 'suffers in style'" (Wilson, 13-14). This book is a reaffirmation of the human spirit. The reader has watched Herzog suffer through a terrible crisis in his life, but Herzog, as well as the reader, has regained control of his existence by the end of the book. Bellow's thesis is not that suffering debases man and makes him animalistic, as the theses of many writers of the period including those mentioned by Wilson, but that suffering can be possesed and mastered.
Bellow has created a book that was, at the time of its publication, a phenomenon and has remained one to this day. It was a wildly popular novel among widely varied demographic groups. Academicians could relate to Herzog's extensive education, average readers to his suffreing and domestic concerns, and women reacted to the new female order represented by Madeleine. Bellow approaches his characters and subject matter in an intelligent manner. He credits all his readers with the ability to understand his ideas and refuses to oversimplify them, which many writers do in the hopes that this will help their books achieve best-seller status. Ironically it is exactly this refusal to pander to the perceived wishes of the public that helps Bellow deliver what the public wants.
Bellow, Saul. Herzog. New York: Viking Press, 1964.
Cronin, Gloria L. and Ben Siegel, ds. Conversations with Saul Bellow. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1994.
Moynahan, Julian. "The Way Up from Rock Bottom." The New York Times Book Review 20 Sept. 1964: 1
Wilson, Jonathan. Herzog: The Limits of Ideas. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1990.