Nick Carraway stands on the Long Island shoreline at the close of The Great Gatsby:
And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailorsí eyesóa fresh green breast of the new world...the trees that had made way for Gatsbyís house had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent...face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.
One man is reflecting at dayís end, and one at dayís beginning. Both have just been put through it by flawed and wretched humanityóCarraway has been to several funerals and Augie has had a close shave while helping a girl who isnít his girlfriend to survive an illegal abortion. (I pause to note that one is a belly man, while the other favors the breast.) Both draw strength from the idea of America. But Carraway derives consolation, while it might be truer to say that Augie finds inspiration. Reflecting on Gatsbyís futile questóhis ìdreamîóCarraway decides that: ìHe did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.î Augie doesnít take much stock in dreams, and he is about to venture on to those very fields.
I do not set myself up as a member of the jury in the Great American Novel contest, if only because Iíd prefer to see the white whale evade capture for a while longer. Itís more interesting that way. However, we do belong to a ranking species, and thereís no denying that this contest is a real one. The great advantage that Augie Marchpossesses over Gatsbylies in its scope and its optimism and, I would venture, in its principles. Or its principleóin the opening pages Augie states it clearly and never loses sight of it:
What did Danton lose his head for, or why was there a Napoleon, if it wasnít to make a nobility of us all? And this universal eligibility to be noble, taught everywhere, was what gave Simon airs of honor.
Simon is Augieís older brother, but ìthis universal eligibility to be nobleî (eligibility connotes being elected as well as being chosen) is as potent a statement of the American dream as has ever been uttered. Simon doesnít ìmake itî; thatís not the point. Augie doesnít exactly make it either; well, itís an ideal not a promise. He decides to match himself against the continent, seeking no oneís permission and deferring to no idea of limitation. His making, like his omnivorous education, will be his own.
This was the first time in American literature that an immigrant would act and think like a rightful Discoverer, or a pioneer. The paradox of the American immigrant experience had hitherto been exactly that so many immigrants came to the New World not in order to spread their wings but to adapt, to conform, to fit in. When we are first introduced to Augie he is in cramped conditions; a poor Jewish family semi-stifled by its own warmth and replete with dreads about the wider world. Our hero doesnít know any better than this, and yet he does know. ìI am an American, Chicago born,î he proclaims in the very first line of his narrative. Itís important to understand what this assertion meant when it was made, both to Bellow himself and to the audiences he had in mind.
Barely a half-century before The Adventures of Augie Marchwas published, Henry James had returned to New York from Europe and found its new character unsettling in the extreme. In The American Scene, published in 1907, he registered the revulsion he felt at having ìto share the sanctity of his Americanconsciousness, the intimacy of his Americanpatriotism, with the inconceivable alienî (my italics). On the Lower East Side he discerned ìthe hard glitter of Israel.î In the CafÈ Royale, a locus of Yiddish-speaking authors and performers, he found himself in one of the ìtorture rooms of the living idiom.î And he asked himself: ìWho can ever tell, in any conditions, what the genius of Israel may, or may not, really be ëup toí?î The Master was by no means alone in expressing sentiments and sensitivities of this kind. With Augie March, and its bold initial annexation of the brave name of ìAmerican,î his descendants got the answer to the question about what the genius was ìup to.î
Saul Bellow was bornóand named Solomonóin 1915, across the border in Lachine, Quebec. (Lachine itself was named by a Columbus-minded French military officer who was sent to look for China and declared heíd found it.) Bellowís parents smuggled him across the Great Lakes as an infant, and he did not discover that he was an illegal immigrant until he signed up for the United States armed forces in the Second World War. The authorities sent him back to Canada and compelled him to reapplyókept him hanging about, in other words. Among other things, Augie Marchis a farewell to the age of Bellowís own uncertainty, an adieu to the self of his two earlier novels, Dangling Man(1944) and The Victim(1947).
Affirmatively, almost defiantly American, the novel is by no means a paean to assimilation and amnesia. As a youth, Bellow composed and performed a stand-up spoof of ìThe Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrockî in Yiddish, and he has always remained acutely aware of his Russian roots. He helped Irving Howe and Partisan Reviewin the first translations of his future fellow- Nobelist Isaac Bashevis Singer. One triumph of Augie Marchis that it takes Yiddishkeitout of the ìtorture roomsî and out of the ghetto, and helps make it an indissoluble and inseparable element in the great American tongue. Those of us who inherit Lenny Bruce, Walter Matthau, Woody Allen, and Philip Roth as part of our vernacular birthright take for granted this linguistic faculty and facility. But it was not a birthright in 1953.
Only in the preceding year, for one thing, had Bellowís peers and cothinkers and kibitzers got around to producing the famous Partisan Reviewsymposium ìOur Country and Our Culture.î In those pages, the veterans of the cultural combat of the 1930sómost but not all of them Jewishóhad asked if perhaps the time had not come to rewrite their project of permanent opposition. There were demurrals and reservations, but on the whole the formerly ìalienatedî began to speak as lawfully adopted sons and daughters of the United States. The exceptions, those who distrusted what they saw as a coming age of conformism, included Irving Howe and Delmore Schwartz. But when Augieastonished the critics by showing that an egghead novel could be a literary and a commercial success, Schwartz was won over. His review of it opened with the simple declaration that ìSaul Bellowís new novel is a new kind of book.î He compared it favorably with the grandest efforts of Mark Twain and John Dos Passos. And he was struck at once by the essential matter, which is the language and the style:
Augie March rises from the streets of the modern city to encounter the reality of experience with an attitude of satirical acceptance, ironic affirmation, the comic transcendence of affirmation and rejection.
Indeed, he made the immigrant vengeance on the old guard quite explicit:
For the first time in fiction Americaís social mobility has been transformed into a spiritual energy which is not doomed to flight, renunciation, exile, denunciation, the agonised hyper-intelligence of Henry James, or the hysterical cheering of Walter Whitman.
Schwartz, who would be the inspiration for the protagonist of Bellowís Humboldtís Gift(ìLet me in! Iím a poet! I have a big cock!î), admired Augie the character for the very quality that some reviewers distrusted: his unreadiness to be committed or, as Augie puts it, ìrecruited.î Among the hostile reviewers was Norman Podhoretz, who, as recently as the year 2000, revisited the squabble andóalmost incredibly but probably unconsciouslyóechoed Henry Jamesís anti-Jewishness in accusing Bellow of ìtwisting and torturing the languageî!
If Iíve succeeded at all in establishing this context, I hope Iíve helped explain why it is that Augie Marchstill constitutes a template for modern American literature. Just as it formed and altered the Jewish and the Anglo-Saxon attitudes of its timeóso it still waits for readers and critics and helps them to measure their own perspective on America. (This pilot-light effect can be seen in the work of Martin Amis, who in 1987 wrote that ìfor all its marvels, Augie March, like Henderson the Rain King, often resembles a lecture on destiny fed through a thesaurus of low-life patois.î In 1995, he began an essay as follows: ìThe Adventures of Augie Marchis the Great American Novel. Search no further. All the trails went cold forty-two years ago. The quest did what quests very rarely do; it ended.î Not unrelatedly, perhaps, but in sharp reverse, Kingsley Amis greeted the original publication by telling the readers of the Spectatorof Bellowís ìgaiety and good humour, his fizzing dialogue, his vitality.î Two decades later he wrote: ìBellow is a Ukrainian-Canadian, I believe. It is painful to watch him trying to pick his way between the unidiomatic on the one hand and the affected on the other.î Twenty years further on he had sunk into the belief that everyone in America was ìeither a Jew or a hick.î)
Augie himself is little better than ìthe by-blow of a traveling man.î He informs us early on that the expression ìvarious jobsî is the ìRosetta Stoneî of his life. But the awareness of eligibility is in him, and heíll fight his corner for it and never be a hick. ìWhat I guess about you,î says one of his palsóguessing correctlyóìis that you have a nobility syndrome. You canít adjust to the reality situation....You want to accept. But how do you know what youíre accepting? You have to be nuts to take it come one come all....You should accept the data of experience.î To which Augie replies, more confidently perhaps than he feels, ìIt can never be right to offer to die, and if thatís what the data of experience tell you, then you must get along without them.î
Even while he is still stranded at home in Chicago, knowing somehow that there must be more to life and America, Augie invests his banal surroundings with a halo of the numinous and the heroic. For a start, he transfigures the clichÈ of the Jewish mother:
[Mama] occupied a place, I suppose, among women conquered by a superior force of love, like those women whom Zeus got the better of in animal form and who next had to take cover from his furious wife. Not that I can see my big, gentle, dilapidated, scrubbing, and lugging mother as a fugitive of immense beauty from such classy wrath.
And then there is old Einhorn, the lamed and misshapen local organizer and fixer and memoirist, whom Augie (ìIím not kidding when I enter Einhorn in this eminent listî) ranks with Caesar, Machiavelli, Ulysses, and Croesus. Itís Einhorn who so memorably lectures Augie after he has a narrow squeak with a two-bit, no-account piece of larceny that could have turned nasty:
That was what you let yourself in for. Yes, thatís right, Augie, a dead cop or two. You know what cop-killers get, from the station onwardótheir faces beaten off, their hands smashed, and worse; and that would be your start in life....But wait. All of a sudden I catch on to something about you. Youíve got oppositionin you. You donít slide through everything. You just make it look so.
Einhorn then takes the role of Augieís missing father, releasing in his listener a spurt of love that heís too wised-up to acknowledge at the time:
ìDonít be a sap, Augie, and fall into the first trap life digs for you. Young fellows brought up in bad luck, like you, are naturals to keep the jails filledóthe reformatories, all the institutions. What the state orders bread and beans long in advance for. It knows thereís an element that can be depended on to come behind bars to eat it....Itís practically determined. And if youíre going to let it be determined for you too, youíre a sucker. Just whatís predicted. Those sad and tragic things are waiting to take you inóthe clinks and clinics and soup lines know whoís the natural to be beat up and squashed, made old, pooped, farted away, no-purposed away. If it should happen to you, whoíd be surprised? Youíre a setup for it.î
Then he added, ìBut I think Iíd be surprised.î
Before Einhorn is through with his homily, he adds one more thing. ìIím not a lowlife when I think, and reallythink,î says the poolroom king and genius swindler. ìIn the end you canít save your soul and life by thought. But if you think, the least of the consolation prizes is the world.î
I judge this as a hinge moment in a novel that sometimes has difficulty with its dramatic unities. Einhorn summons the shades of the prison house for the growing boy, and evokes for us the omnipresence of violence, injustice and stupidity. He senses the lower depths of the underclass, while we sense in him what we feel in reading Thomas Grayís Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard:the unrealized potential of a great man who might have been. He, too, has felt the eligibility. And he has an untrained instinct for the examined life. Whatever this isóand itís demotic American English, all rightóitís not lowlife patois.
So when Augie breaks free and sets out, he is no Candide or Copperfield. And this novel is no Horatio Alger tale. Many of Augieís ground-down relatives doend up in institutions, all of them achingly well-drawn and oneóthe ìhomeî for Augieís retarded baby brotheró poignantly so. Bellowís Chicago is not vastly different from The Jungleof Upton Sinclair. Even in the peace and prosperity of the 1950s, Bellow was able to recall the bitterness of want and exploitation, the reek of the hobos met on stolen train rides, the sharpness of class warfare, the acuteness of ethnic differences among poor whites in the days before all nonblacks were absurdly classified as ìCaucasian.î (One of Simonís coal-yard drivers has a dread of running over a kid in a ìBohunkî neighborhoodóexactly the sort of confrontation nightmare that is now reserved for Chicagoís black South Side.)
Of all the odd jobs that Augie takes (and these include being a butler as well as a shoe salesman, a paint seller as well as a literary looker-upper), the three best-described are those that obliquely or directly involve his oppositionism. As a dog groomer for the upper classes, he feels a sense of wasteful absurdity in the work; as a contract book-stealer, he increases his knowledge of the classics and also his acquaintance with Marxist intellectuals; as a union organizer for the CIO, he is brushed by the grandeur of the American labor movement, which briefly did unite all trades and ethnicities in a collective demand for justice. This episode of mobilization and jacquerie calls on all of Bellowís power of taxonomy and onomatopoeia:
There were Greek and Negro chambermaids from all the hotels, porters, doormen, checkroom attendants, waitresses....All kinds were coming. The humanity of the under- galleries of pipes, storage, and coal made an appearance, maintenance men, short-order grovelers....And then old snowbirds and white hound-looking faces, guys with Wobbly cards from an earlier time, old Bohunk women with letters explaining what was wanted, and all varieties of assaulted kissers, infirmity, drunkenness, dazedness, innocence, limping, crawling, insanity, prejudice, and from downright leprosy the whole way again to the most vigorous straight-backed beauty. So if this collection of people has nothing in common with what would have brought up the back of a Xerxesí army or a Constantineís, new things have been formed; but what struck me in them was a feeling of antiquity and thick crust.
Later, when adrift in Mexico, Augie meets that incarnation of opposition Leon Trotsky himself:
I was excited by this famous figure, and I believe what it was about him that stirred me up was the instant impression he gaveóno matter about the old heap he rode in or the peculiarity of his retinueóof navigation by the great stars, of the highest considerations, of being fit to speak the most important human words and universal terms. When you are as reduced to a different kind of navigation from this high starry kind as I was and are only sculling on the shallow bay, crawling from one clam-rake to the next, itís stirring to have a glimpse of deep-water greatness.
(Bellow himself had been to Mexico in order to try to see Trotsky; he arrived the day after the old manís assassination and viewed the body with blood still in its white hair. In an early draft of the novel, Augie signs up to work for the exiled heretic.)
Opposition is, however, only one of Augieís internal compasses. The other, operating both more and less predictably, is love and sex. To be blunt, young Mr. March is led around by his cock. He prefers earthy and honest expressions for this preoccupation, mentioning at one point ìstupendous quiffî and at another a girl whose virtue was that she ìmade no bonesî about what they were together for. Occasionally, he can be rhapsodic (the paramour of Guillaume the dog trainer is ìa great work of ripple-assed luxury with an immense mozzarella bustî). And he can also be tender. There are few sweeter girls in fiction than Sophie Geratis, the staunch little Greek union militant (ìShe had a set of hard-worked hands and she lived with her beauty on rough terms. I couldnít for even a minute pretend that I didnít go for herî). But he doesnít feel the thunderbolt until he meets Thea Fenchel.
Thea has an eagle named Caligula, and she wants Augie to help her ìmanî the eagle and train it to smash full-grown iguanas in Mexico. He falls in with the plan because heís fallen completely for the woman. He falls so completely for the woman becauseóthis is his weaknessóshe is so utterly sold on him. The magnificence of the bird he can appreciate; the project of making it into a trained hunter gives him a chill. And the lordly avian Caligula turns out to be, of all things (and in Theaís contemptuous word), ìchicken.î It will not fight Stone Age lizards, and it will not obey. Once she sees that Augie doesnít mind thisóindeed, secretly approves itóTheaís respect for Augie is gone. Not all reviewers admire this long and necessary section of the novel, and many have puzzled over the significance of the bird. (Is an eagle symbolically American? Not if itís called Caligula itís not. Not if itís chicken itís not.) But I think it is essential as it shows that Augie is compelled to admire anything, especially something so noble, that will not permit itself to be domesticated. The price is high. He suffers appalling torment at the loss of Thea; lovesickness and sexual jealousy have seldom been more flayingly depicted. But the wrench does get him back to Chicago, ìthat somber city,î to take stock and begin again.
Love, Poverty, and War, they say, are the essential elements in the shaping of a man, as of a bildungsroman. And when war deposes the Depression as the great disciplinarian of the lower orders, Augie signs up for the navy right away, thinking the while, ìWhat use was war without also love?î (This, by the way, may be the most masculine sentence ever penned.) He lucks out with Stella. His brief and near-terminal combat experience gives him his best opportunity yet to release the ìanimal ridensî within himself; a man of ìvarious jobsî is never going to be more at home than in the lower deck of a ship, and he makes comedy out of the confidences of his messmates. Here again, Bellowís ear is unerring:
ìYou think I maybe have an inferiority complex, do you think?î one of them asked me. . . . I passed out advice in moderate amounts; nobody is perfect. I advocated love, especially.
After a harrowing experience in an open boat when his ship is torpedoed (ìThey found one reason after another to detain me at the hospital,î Augie laconically phrases it), he hopes at warís end for a safe and tranquil harbor. But how true it is that: ìBrother! You never are through, you just think you are!î For a very brief while he imagines being a sort of Catcher in the Rye, running a foster home where his broken-up family could also shelter. But life isnít through with him yet, and he has to live up to the great sentence on the novelís opening page: ìEverybody knows there is no fineness or accuracy of suppression; if you hold down one thing you hold down the adjoining.î To hold down his own curiosity would be to betray his profoundest instinct. And thus we find him sardonically installed at a table in a European cafÈ at the novelís close, working as a middleman for an Armenian entrepreneur and declaring that ìI was an American, Chicago born, and all these other events and notions.î (Bellow, incidentally, boasts that not one word of Augie Marchwas written in Chicago; he took himself off to Positano, Rome, Paris, and London. There is nothing provincial about his Americanism.)
If we reflect along with Augie, we look back at a host of brilliantly realized minor characters in the novel, warranting comparison with Dickens and with that remarkable boy on the Mississippi who also had The Adventures ofin his title. One shouldnít play favorites perhaps, but Guillaume, the fancy dog trainer who relies too much on the hypodermic when dealing with recalcitrant pooches (ìThees jag-off is goiní to get itî), will always be mine. And Jimmy, the Struldbrug-like cop in the bowels of that Detroit precinct, who has everyoneís face and rap sheet in his head . . .
The two key words that encapsulate the ambitions of Bellowís novel are democraticand cosmopolitan. Not entirely by coincidence, these are the two great stand-or-fall hopes of America. The two qualities that carry Augie through are his capacity for love and his capacity for irony. These, together with reason, are the great stand-or-fall hopes of humanity. The Metaphysical poets used the evocative word Americaas their term for the new and the hopeful, even addressing lovers by that name. Augie March concludes, more cannily, by seeing the unfunny side of the funny side:
Or is the laugh at natureóincluding eternityóthat it thinks it can win over us and the power of hope? Nah, nah! I think. It never will. But that probably is the joke, on one or the other, and laughing is an enigma that includes both. Look at me, going everywhere! Why, I am a sort of Columbus of those near-at-hand and believe you can come to them in this immediate terra incognitathat spreads out in every gaze. I may well be a flop at this line of endeavor. Columbus too thought he was a flop, probably, when they sent him back in chains. Which didnít prove there was no America.
I am an American, Chicago bornóChicago, that somber cityóand go at things as I have taught myself, freestyle, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent. But a manís character is his fate, says Heraclitus, and in the end there isnít any way to disguise the nature of the knocks by acoustical work on the door or gloving the knuckles.
Everybody knows there is no fineness or accuracy of suppression; if you hold down one thing you hold down the adjoining.
My own parents were not much to me, though I cared for my mother. She was simple-minded, and what I learned from her was not what she taught, but on the order of object lessons. She didnít have much to teach, poor woman. My brothers and I loved her. I speak for them both; for the elder it is safe enough; for the younger one, Georgie, I have to answeróhe was born an idiotóbut Iím in no need to guess, for he had a song he sang as he ran dragfooted with his stiff idiotís trot, up and down along the curl-wired fence in the backyard:
Georgie Mahchy, Augie, Simey
Winnie Mahchy, evwy, evwy love Mama.
He was right about everyone save Winnie, Grandma Lauschís poodle, a pursy old overfed dog. Mama was Winnieís servant, as she was Grandma Lauschís. Loud-breathing and wind-breaking, she lay near the old ladyís stool on a cushion embroidered with a Berber aiming a rifle at a lion. She was personally Grandmaís, belonged to her suite; the rest of us were the governed, and especially Mama. Mama passed the dogís dish to Grandma, and Winnie received her food at the old ladyís feet from the old ladyís hands. These hands and feet were small; she wore a shriveled sort of lisle on her legs and her slippers were grayóah, the gray of that felt, the gray despotic to soulsówith pink ribbons. Mama, however, had large feet, and around the house she wore menís shoes, usually without strings, and a dusting or mobcap like somebodyís fanciful cotton effigy of the form of the brain. She was meek and long, round-eyed like Georgieógentle green round eyes and a gentle freshness of color in her long face. Her hands were work-reddened, she had very few of her teeth leftóto heed the knocks as they comeóand she and Simon wore the same ravelly coat-sweaters. Besides having round eyes, Mama had circular glasses that I went with her to the free dispensary on Harrison Street to get. Coached by Grandma Lausch, I went to do the lying. Now I know it wasnít so necessary to lie, but then everyone thought so, and Grandma Lausch especially, who was one of those Machiavellis of small street and neighborhood that my young years were full of. So Grandma, who had it all ready before we left the house and must have put in hours plotting it out in thought and phrase, lying small in her chilly small room under the featherbed, gave it to me at breakfast. The idea was that Mama wasnít keen enough to do it right. That maybe one didnít need to be keen didnít occur to us; it was a contest. The dispensary would want to know why the Charities didnít pay for the glasses. So you must say nothing about the Charities, but that sometimes money from my father came and sometimes it didnít, and that Mama took boarders. This was, in a delicate and choosy way, by ignoring and omitting certain large facts, true. It was true enough for them, and at the age of nine I could appreciate this perfectly. Better than my brother Simon, who was too blunt for this kind of maneuver and, anyway, from books, had gotten hold of some English schoolboy notions of honor. Tom Brownís Schooldaysfor many years had an influence we were not in a position to afford.
Simon was a blond boy with big cheekbones and wide gray eyes and had the arms of a cricketeróI go by the illustrations; we never played anything but softball. Opposed to his British style was his patriotic anger at George III. The mayor was at that time ordering the schoolboard to get history books that dealt more harshly with the king, and Simon was very hot at Cornwallis. I admired this patriotic flash, his terrific personal wrath at the general, and his satisfaction over his surrender at Yorktown, which would often come over him at lunch while we ate our bologna sandwiches. Grandma had a piece of boiled chicken at noon, and sometimes there was the gizzard for bristleheaded little Georgie, who loved it and blew at the ridgy thing more to cherish than to cool it. But this martial true-blood pride of Simonís disqualified him for the crafty task to be done at the dispensary; he was too disdainful to lie and might denounce everybody instead. I could be counted on to do the job, because I enjoyed it. I loved a piece of strategy. I had enthusiasms too; I had Simonís, though there was never much meat in Cornwallis for me, and I had Grandma Lauschís as well. As for the truth of these statements I was instructed to makeówell, it was a fact that we had a boarder. Grandma Lausch was our boarder, not a relation at all. She was supported by two sons, one from Cincinnati and one from Racine, Wisconsin. The daughters-in-law did not want her, and she, the widow of a powerful Odessa businessmanóa divinity over us, bald, whiskery, with a fat nose, greatly armored in a cutaway, a double-breasted vest, powerfully buttoned (his blue photo, enlarged and retouched by Mr. Lulov, hung in the parlor, doubled back between the portico columns of the full-length mirror, the dome of the stove beginning where his trunk ended)óshe preferred to live with us, because for so many years she was used to direct a house, to command, to govern, to manage, scheme, devise, and intrigue in all her languages. She boasted French and German besides Russian, Polish, and Yiddish; and who but Mr. Lulov, the retouch artist from Division Street, could have tested her claim to French? And he was a serene bogus too, that triple-backboned gallant tea-drinker. Except that he had been a hackie in Paris, once, and if he told the truth about that might have known French among other things, like playing tunes on his teeth with a pencil or singing and keeping time with a handful of coins that he rattled by jigging his thumb along the table, and how to play chess.
Grandma Lausch played like Timur, whether chess or klabyasch, with palatal catty harshness and sharp gold in her eyes. Klabyasch she played with Mr. Kreindl, a neighbor of ours who had taught her the game. A powerful stub-handed man with a large belly, he swatted the table with those hard hands of his, flinging down his cards and shouting ìShtoch! Yasch! MenÈl! Klabyasch!îGrandma looked sardonically at him. She often said, after he left, ìIf youíve got a Hungarian friend you donít need an enemy.î But there was nothing of the enemy about Mr. Kreindl. He merely, sometimes, sounded menacing because of his drill-sergeantís bark. He was an old-time Austro-Hungarian conscript, and there was something soldierly about him: a neck that had strained with pushing artillery wheels, a campaignerís red in the face, a powerful bite in his jaw and gold-crowned teeth, green cockeyes and soft short hair, altogether Napoleonic. His feet slanted out on the ideal of Frederick the Great, but he was about a foot under the required height for guardsmen. He had a masterly look of independence. He and his wifeóa woman quiet and modest to the neighbors and violently quarrelsome at homeóand his son, a dental student, lived in what was called the English basement at the front of the house. The son, Kotzie, worked evenings in the corner drugstore and went to school in the neighborhood of County Hospital, and it was he who told Grandma about the free dispensary. Or rather, the old woman sent for him to find out what one could get from those state and county places. She was always sending for people, the butcher, the grocer, the fruit peddler, and received them in the kitchen to explain that the Marches had to have discounts. Mama usually had to stand by. The old woman would tell them, ìYou see how it isódo I have to say more? Thereís no man in the house and children to bring up.î This was her most frequent argument. When Lubin, the caseworker, came around and sat in the kitchen, familiar, bald-headed, in his gold glasses, his weight comfortable, his mouth patient, she shot it at him: ìHow do you expect children to be brought up?î While he listened, trying to remain comfortable but gradually becoming like a man determined not to let a grasshopper escape from his hand. ìWell, my dear, Mrs. March could raise your rent,î he said. She must often have answeredófor there were times when she sent us all out to be alone with himóìDo you know what things would be like without me? You ought to be grateful for the way I hold them together.î Iím sure she even said, ìAnd when I die, Mr. Lubin, youíll see what youíve got on your hands.î Iím one hundred per cent sure of it. To us nothing was ever said that might weaken her rule by suggesting it would ever end. Besides, it would have shocked us to hear it, and she, in her miraculous knowledge of us, able to be extremely close to our thoughtsóshe was one sovereign who knew exactly the proportions of love, respect, and fear of power in her subjectsóunderstood how we would have been shocked. But to Lubin, for reasons of policy and also because she had to express feelings she certainly had, she must have said it. He had a harassed patience with her of ìdeliver me from such clients,î though he tried to appear master of the situation. He held his derby between his thighs (his suits, always too scanty in the pants, exposed white socks and bulldog shoes, crinkled, black, and bulging with toes), and he looked into the hat as though debating whether it was wise to release his grasshopper on the lining for a while.
ìI pay as much as I can afford,î she would say.
She took her cigarette case out from under her shawl, she cut a Murad in half with her sewing scissors and picked up the holder. This was still at a time when women did not smoke. Save the intelligentsiaóthe term she applied to herself. With the holder in her dark little gums between which all her guile, malice, and command issued, she had her best inspirations of strategy. She was as wrinkled as an old paper bag, an autocrat, hard-shelled and jesuitical, a pouncy old hawk of a Bolshevik, her small ribboned gray feet immobile on the shoekit and stool Simon had made in the manual-training class, dingy old wool Winnie whose bad smell filled the flat on the cushion beside her. If wit and discontent donít necessarily go together, it wasnít from the old woman that I learned it. She was impossible to satisfy. Kreindl, for example, on whom we could depend, Kreindl who carried up the coal when Mama was sick and who instructed Kotzie to make up our prescriptions for nothing, she called ìthat trashy Hungarian,î or ìHungarian pig.î She called Kotzie ìthe baked appleî; she called Mrs. Kreindl ìthe secret goose,î Lubin ìthe shoemakerís son,î the dentist ìthe butcher,î the butcher ìthe timid swindler.î She detested the dentist, who had several times unsuccessfully tried to fit her with false teeth. She accused him of burning her gums when taking the impressions. But then she tried to pull his hands away from her mouth. I saw that happen: the stolid, square-framed Dr. Wernick, whose compact forearms could have held off a bear, painfully careful with her, determined, concerned at her choked screams, and enduring her scratches. To see her struggle like that was no easy thing for me, and Dr. Wernick was sorry to see me there too, I know, but either Simon or I had to squire her wherever she went. Here particularly she needed a witness to Wernickís cruelty and clumsiness as well as a shoulder to lean on when she went weakly home. Already at ten I was only a little shorter than she and big enough to hold her small weight.
ìYou saw how he put his paws over my face so I couldnít breathe?î she said. ìGod made him to be a butcher. Why did he become a dentist? His hands are too heavy. The touch is everything to a dentist. If his hands arenít right he shouldnít be let practice. But his wife worked hard to send him through school and make a dentist of him. And I must go to him and be burned because of it.î
The rest of us had to go to the dispensaryówhich was like the dream of a multitude of dentistsí chairs, hundreds of them in a space as enormous as an armory, and green bowls with designs of glass grapes, drills lifted zigzag as insectsí legs, and gas flames on the porcelain swivel traysóa thundery gloom in Harrison Street of limestone county buildings and cumbersome red streetcars with metal grillwork on their windows and monarchical iron whiskers of cowcatchers front and rear. They lumbered and clanged, and their brake tanks panted in the slushy brown of a winter afternoon or the bare stone brown of a summerís, salted with ash, smoke, and prairie dust, with long stops at the clinics to let off clumpers, cripples, hunchbacks, brace-legs, crutch- wielders, tooth and eye sufferers, and all the rest.
So before going with my mother for the glasses I was always instructed by the old woman and had to sit and listen with profound care. My mother too had to be present, for there must be no slip-up. She must be coached to say nothing. ìRemember, Rebecca,î Grandma would re-repeat, ìlet him answer everything.î To which Mama was too obedient even to say yes, but only sat and kept her long hands folded on the bottle-fly iridescence of the dress the old woman had picked for her to wear. Very healthy and smooth, her color; none of us inherited this high a color from her, or the form of her nose with nostrils turned back and showing a little of the partition. ìYou keep out of it. If they ask you something, you look at Augie like this.î And she illustrated how Mama was to turn to me, terribly exact, if she had only been able to drop her habitual grandeur. ìDonít tell anything. Only answer questions,î she said to me. My mother was anxious that I should be worthy and faithful. Simon and I were her miracles or accidents; Georgie was her own true work in which she returned to her fate after blessed and undeserved success. ìAugie, listen to Grandma. Hear what she says,î was all she ever dared when the old woman unfolded her plan.
ìWhen they ask you, ëWhere is your father?í you say, ëI donít know where, miss.í No matter how old she is, you shouldnít forget to say ëmiss.í If she wants to know where he was the last time you heard from him, you must tell her that the last time he sent a money order was about two years ago from Buffalo, New York. Never say a word about the Charity. The Charity you should never mention, you hear that? Never. When she asks you how much the rent is, tell her eighteen dollars. When she asks where the money comes from, say you have boarders. How many? Two boarders. Now, say to me, how much rent?î
ìAnd how many boarders?î
ìAnd how much do they pay?î
ìHow much should I say?î
ìEight dollars each a week.î
ìSo you canít go to a private doctor, if you get sixty-four dollars a month. The eyedrops alone cost me five when I went, and he scalded my eyes. And these specsîóshe tapped the caseóìcost ten dollars the frames and fifteen the glasses.î
Never but at such times, by necessity, was my father mentioned. I claimed to remember him; Simon denied that I did, and Simon was right. I liked to imagine it.
ìHe wore a uniform,î I said. ìSure I remember. He was a soldier.î
ìLike hell he was. You donít know anything about it.î
ìMaybe a sailor.î
ìLike hell. He drove a truck for Hall Brothers laundry on Marshfield, thatís what he did. Isaid he used to wear a uniform. Monkey sees, monkey does; monkey hears, monkey says.î Monkey was the basis of much thought with us. On the sideboard, on the Turkestan runner, with their eyes, ears, and mouth covered, we had see-no-evil, speak-no-evil, hear-no-evil, a lower trinity of the house. The advantage of lesser gods is that you can take their names any way you like. ìSilence in the courthouse, monkey wants to speak; speak, monkey, speak.î ìThe monkey and the bamboo were playing in the grass . . .î Still the monkeys could be potent, and awesome besides, and deep social critics when the old woman, like a great lamaófor she is Eastern to me, in the endówould point to the squatting brown three, whose mouths and nostrils were drawn in sharp blood-red, and with profound wit, her unkindness finally touching greatness, say, ìNobody asks you to love the whole world, only to be honest, ehrlich. Donít have a loud mouth. The more you love people the more theyíll mix you up. A child loves, a person respects. Respect is better than love. And thatís respect, the middle monkey.î It never occurred to us that she sinned mischievously herself against that convulsed speak-no-evil who hugged his lips with his hands; but no criticism of her came near our minds at any time, much less when the resonance of a great principle filled the whole kitchen.
She used to read us lessons off poor Georgieís head. He would kiss the dog. This bickering handmaiden of the old lady, at one time. Now a dozy, long-sighing crank and proper object of respect for her years of right-minded but not exactly lovable busyness. But Georgie loved heró and Grandma, whom he would kiss on the sleeve, on the knee, taking knee or arm in both hands and putting his underlip forward, chaste, lummoxy, caressing, gentle and diligent when he bent his narrow back, blouse bagging all over it, whitish hair pointy and close as a burr or sunflower when the seeds have been picked out of it. The old lady let him embrace her and spoke to him in the following way: ìHey, you, boy, clever junge, you like the old Grandma, my minister, my cavalier? Thatís-a-boy. You know whoís good to you, who gives you gizzards and necks? Who? Who makes noodles for you? Yes. Noodles are slippery, hard to pick up with a fork and hard to pick up with the fingers. You see how the little bird pulls the worm? The little worm wants to stay in the ground. The little worm doesnít want to come out. Enough, youíre making my dress wet.î And sheíd sharply push his forehead off with her old prim hand, having fired off for Simon and me, mindful always of her duty to wise us up, one more animadversion on the trustful, loving, and simple surrounded by the cunning-hearted and tough, a fighting nature of birds and worms, and a desperate mankind without feelings. Illustrated by Georgie. But the principal illustration was not Georgie but Mama, in her love-originated servitude, simple-minded, abandoned with three children. This was what old lady Lausch was driving at, now, in the later wisdom of her life, that she had a second family to lead.
And what must Mama have thought when in any necessary connection my father was brought into the conversation? She sat docile. I conceive that she thought of some detail about himóa dish he liked, perhaps meat and potatoes, perhaps cabbage or cranberry sauce; perhaps that he disliked a starched collar, or a soft collar; that he brought home the Evening American or the Journal. She thought this because her thoughts were always simple; but she felt abandonment, and greater pains than conscious mental ones put a dark streak to her simplicity. I donít know how she made out before, when we were alone after the desertion, but Grandma came and put a regulating hand on the family life. Mama surrendered powers to her that maybe she had never known she had and took her punishment in drudgery; occupied a place, I suppose, among women conquered by a superior force of love, like those women whom Zeus got the better of in animal form and who next had to take cover from his furious wife. Not that I can see my big, gentle, dilapidated, scrubbing, and lugging mother as a fugitive of immense beauty from such classy wrath, or our father as a marble-legged Olympian. She had sewed buttonholes in a coat factory in a Wells Street loft and he was a laundry driveróthere wasnít even so much as a picture of him left when he blew. But she does have a place among such women by the deeper right of continual payment. And as for vengeance from a woman, Grandma Lausch was there to administer the penalties under the standards of legitimacy, representing the main body of married womankind.
Still the old lady had a heart. I donít mean to say she didnít. She was tyrannical and a snob about her Odessa luster and her servants and governesses, but though she had been a success herself she knew what it was to fall through susceptibility. I began to realize this when I afterward read some of the novels she used to send me to the library for. She taught me the Russian alphabet so that I could make out the titles. Once a year she read Anna Karenina and Eugene Onegin. Occasionally I got into hot water by bringing a book she didnít want. ìHow many times do I have to tell you if it doesnít say romanI donít want it? You didnít look inside. Are your fingers too weak to open the book? Then they should be too weak to play ball or pick your nose. For that youíve got strength! Bozhe moy!God in Heaven! You havenít got the brains of a cat, to walk two miles and bring me a book about religion because it says Tolstoi on the cover.î
The old grande dame, I donít want to be misrepresenting her. She was suspicious of what could have been, given one wrong stitch of heredity, a family vice by which we could have been exploited. She didnít want to read Tolstoi on religion. She didnít trust him as a family man because the countess had had such trouble with him. But although she never went to the synagogue, ate bread on Passover, sent Mama to the pork butcher where meat was cheaper, loved canned lobster and other forbidden food, she was not an atheist and free-thinker. Mr. Anticol, the old junky she called (search me why) ìRamesesîóafter the city named with Pithom in the Scriptures maybe; no telling what her inspirations wereówas that. A real rebel to God. Icy and canny, she would listen to what he had to say and wouldnít declare herself. He was ruddy, and gloomy; his leathery serge cap made him flat-headed, and his alley calls for rags, old ironó ìrecks aline,î he sung itómade him gravel-voiced and gruff. He had tough hair and brows and despising brown eyes; he was a studious, shaggy, meaty old man. Grandma bought a set of the Encyclopedia Americanaóedition of 1892, I thinkófrom him and saw to it that Simon and I read it; and he too, whenever he met us, asked, ìHowís the set?î believing, I reckon, that it taught irreverence to religion. What had made him an atheist was a massacre of Jews in his town. From the cellar where he was hidden he saw a laborer pissing on the body of his wifeís younger brother, just killed. ìSo donít talk to me about God,î he said. But it was he that talked about God, all the time. And while Mrs. Anticol stayed pious, it was his idea of grand apostasy to drive to the reform synagogue on the high holidays and park his pink-eye nag among the luxurious, whirl- wired touring cars of the rich Jews who bared their heads inside as if they were attending a theater, a kind of abjectness in them that gave him grim entertainment to the end of his life. He caught a cold in the rain and died of pneumonia.
Grandma, all the same, burned a candle on the anniversary of Mr. Lauschís death, threw a lump of dough on the coals when she was baking, as a kind of offering, had incantations over baby teeth and stunts against the evil eye. It was kitchen religion and had nothing to do with the giant God of the Creation who turned back the waters and exploded Gomorrah, but it was on the side of religion at that. And while weíre on that side Iíll mention the Polesówe were just a handful of Jews among them in the neighborhoodóand the swollen, bleeding hearts on every kitchen wall, the pictures of saints, baskets of death flowers tied at the door, communions, Easters, and Christmases. And sometimes we were chased, stoned, bitten, and beat up for Christ- killers, all of us, even Georgie, articled, whether we liked it or not, to this mysterious trade. But I never had any special grief from it, or brooded, being by and large too larky and boisterous to take it to heart, and looked at it as needing no more special explanation than the stone-and-bat wars of the street gangs or the swarming on a fall evening of parish punks to rip up fences, screech and bawl at girls, and beat up strangers. It wasnít in my nature to fatigue myself with worry over being born to this occult work, even though some of my friends and playmates would turn up in the middle of these mobs to trap you between houses from both ends of a passageway. Simon had less truck with them. School absorbed him more, and he had his sentiments anyway, a mixed extract from Natty Bumppo, Quentin Durward, Tom Brown, Clark at Kaskaskia, the messenger who brought the good news from Ratisbon, and so on, that kept him more to himself. I was just a slow understudy to this, just as he never got me to put in hours on his Sandow muscle builder and the gimmick for developing the sinews of the wrist. I was an easy touch for friendships, and most of the time they were cut short by older loyalties. I was pals longest with Stashu Kopecs, whose mother was a midwife graduated from the Aesculapian School of Midwifery on Milwaukee Avenue. Well-to-do, the Kopecses had an electric player piano and linoleums in all the rooms, but Stashu was a thief, and to run with him I stole too: coal off the cars, clothes from the lines, rubber balls from the dime store, and pennies off the newsstands. Mostly for the satisfaction of dexterity, though Stashu invented the game of stripping in the cellar and putting on girlís things swiped from the clotheslines. Then he too showed up in a gang that caught me one cold afternoon of very little snow while I was sitting on a crate frozen into the mud, eating Nabisco wafers, my throat full of the sweet dust. Foremost, there was a thug of a kid, about thirteen but undersized, hard and grieved-looking. He came up to accuse me, and big Moonya Staplanski, just out of the St. Charles Reformatory and headed next for the one at Pontiac, backed him up.
ìYou little Jew bastard, you hit my brother,î Moonya said.
ìI never did. I never even saw him before.î
ìYou took away a nickel from him. How did you buy them biscuits else, you?î
ìI got them at home.î
Then I caught sight of Stashu, hayheaded and jeering, pleased to sickness with his deceit and his new-revealed brotherhood with the others, and I said, ìHey, you lousy bed-wetter, Stashu, you know Moon ainít even got a brother.î
Here the kid hit me and the gang jumped me, Stashu with the rest, tearing the buckles from my sheepskin coat and bloodying my nose.
ìWho is to blame?î said Grandma Lausch when I came home. ìYou know who? You are, Augie, because thatís all the brains you have to go with that piss-in-bed accoucherkaísson. Does Simon hang around with them? Not Simon. He has too much sense.î I thanked God she didnít know about the stealing. And in a way, because that was her schooling temperament, I suspect she was pleased that I should see where it led to give your affections too easily. But Mama, the prime example of this weakness, was horrified. Against the old ladyís authority she didnít dare to introduce her feelings during the hearing, but when she took me into the kitchen to put a compress on me she nearsightedly pored over my scratches, whispering and sighing to me, while Georgie tottered around behind her, long and white, and Winnie lapped water under the sink.
Excerpted from The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.