Saul Bellow’s autobiographical account of breaking through writers’ block with the creation of Augie March.
My first thought was that I must get rid of the hospital novel—it was poisoning my life. And next I recognized that this was not what being a novelist was supposed to have meant. This bitterness of mine was intolerable, it was disgraceful, a symptom of slavery. I think I’ve always been inclined to accept the depressions that overtook me and I felt just now that I had allowed myself to be dominated by the atmosphere of misery or surliness, that I had agreed somehow to be shut in or bottled up.
I seem then to have gone back to childhood in my thoughts and remembered a pal of mine whose surname was August—a handsome, breezy, freewheeling kid who used to yell out when we were playing checkers, “I got a scheme!” He lived in the adjoining building and we used to try to have telephone conversations with tin cans connected by waxed grocery string. His father had deserted the family, his mother was, even to a nine-year-old kid, visibly abnormal, he had a strong and handsome older brother. There was a younger child who was retarded—a case of Down syndrome, perhaps—and they had a granny who ran the show. (She was not really the granny; she’d perhaps been placed there by a social agency that had some program for getting old people to take charge of broken families.) Now, just what had happened to handsome, cheerful Chuckie and to his brothers, his mother, and the stranger whom they called granny? I hadn’t seen anything of these people for three decades and hadn’t a clue. So I decided to describe their lives.
This came on me in a tremendous jump. Subject and language appeared at the same moment. The language was immediately present—I can’t say how it happened, but I was suddenly enriched with words and phrases. The gloom went out of me and I found myself with magical suddenness writing a first paragraph.
I was too busy and happy to make any diagnoses or to look for causes and effects. I had the triumphant feeling that this is what I had been born for. I pushed the hospital manuscript aside and began immediately to write in a spirit of reunion with the kid who had shouted, “I got a scheme!” It poured out of me. I was writing many hours every day. In the next two years I seldom looked into Fowler’s “Modern English Usage.”
Perhaps I should also add that it has been a lifelong pattern with me to come back to strength from a position of extreme weakness: I had been almost suffocated and then found that I was breathing more deeply than ever.
It was enormously exhilarating to take liberties with the language. I said what I pleased and I didn’t hesitate to generalize wildly and to invoke and dismiss epochs and worlds. For the first time I felt that the language was mine to do with as I wished.
In writing “Augie March,” I was trying to do justice to my imagination of things. I can’t actually remember my motives clearly, but I seem to have been reacting against confinement in a sardine can and evidently felt I had failed to cope with some inner demands.
Reading passages from “Augie,” I seem to recognize some impulse to cover more ground, to deal with hundreds if not thousands of combined impressions.
To my cold octogenarian eye, it seems overblown now, but I recognize nevertheless that I was out to satisfy an irrepressible hunger for detail. The restraint of the first two books had driven me mad—I hadn’t become a writer to tread the straight and narrow.
I had been storing up stuff for years and this was my dream opportunity for getting it all out. I was also up to my eyes in mental debt. By this I mean that in becoming a writer I hoped to bring out somehow my singular reactions to existence. Why else write? I had prepared and overprepared myself by reading, study, and fact-storage or idea-storage and I was now trying to discharge all this freight. Paris (Europe) may have set me off. I didn’t actually understand what had happened during the Second World War until I had left the U.S.A. I now seem to have been struck by the shame of having written my first book under Marxist influence. In 1939, I had seen the Second World War as a capitalist imperialist war, like the First World War. My Partisan Review Leninist friends (especially Clem Greenberg [Clement Greenberg, the art critic]) had sold me on this. Even in writing “The Victim” I had not yet begun to understand what had happened to the Jews in the Second World War. Much of “Augie” was for me the natural history of the Jews in America. The Jews in Germany, Poland, Hungary, French Jews, Italian Jews had been deported, shot, gassed. I must have had them in mind in the late forties, when I wrote “Augie.”
Every morning when I walked to my rented workroom I stopped to watch the municipal workers who turned on the water for the daily street wash. In the streets there was just slope enough to sluice the gutters, and watching the flow of water between the curb and the barrier of wet burlap gave me the only ease I was getting on those gray days, and the release that came with this was inexplicably verbal in form. I was not much interested in explaining this transfer from fluidity and low sparkle to . . . well, to polyglot versatility. I discovered that I could write whatever I wished, and that what I wished was to get into words the appearance of a gallery of personalities—characters like Grandma Lausch or Einhorn the fertile cripple, or Augie March himself. Years of notation ended in the discovery of a language that made everything available.
A language might be restrictive or it might be expansive. An excess of corrections caused shrinking. Philip Roth puts it well when he speaks of the teeming, dazzling “specifics” in the opening pages of “Augie March.” These specifics were not deliberately accumulated for some future release. They were revealed by the language. They represent the success of an unconscious strategy. You might put it that Mr. Einhorn had been in hock for years; for decades. He and I together had been waiting for an appropriate language. By that language and only that language could he be redeemed. I couldn’t have been aware of this development. It was not an invention; it was a discovery.
The novel I now began to write wrote itself: “I am an American, Chicago-born.” The narrator was a boyhood friend whom I had lost track of thirty years ago, when my family had moved from Augusta Street. I often wondered what had become of this handsome impulsive kid. The book I found myself writing was therefore a speculative biography.
There was something deeply unsatisfactory about the language used by contemporary writers—it was stingy and arid, it was not connected with anything characteristic, permanent, durable, habitual in the writer’s outlook. For as long as I could remember I identified body and limbs, faces and their features, with words, phrases, and tones of voice. Language, thought, belief were connected somehow with noses, eyes, brows, mouths, hair—legs, hands, feet had their counterparts in language. The voice—the voices—were not invented. And whether they knew it or not all human creatures had voices and ears and vocabularies—sometimes parsimonious, sometimes limitless and overflowing. In this way the words and the phenomena were interrelated. And this was what it meant to be a writer.