Saul Bellow (10 June 1915 – 5 April 2005) was a Canadian-born American writer. For his literary contributions, Bellow was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, the Nobel Prize for Literature, and the National Medal of Arts. He is the only writer to win the National Book Award for Fiction three times and he received the Foundation's lifetime Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters in 1990.
In the words of the Swedish Nobel Committee, his writing exhibited "the mixture of rich picaresque novel and subtle analysis of our culture, of entertaining adventure, drastic and tragic episodes in quick succession interspersed with philosophic conversation, all developed by a commentator with a witty tongue and penetrating insight into the outer and inner complications that drive us to act, or prevent us from acting, and that can be called the dilemma of our age." His best-known works include The Adventures of Augie March, Henderson the Rain King, Herzog, Mr. Sammler's Planet, Seize the Day, Humboldt's Gift and Ravelstein. Widely regarded as one of the 20th century's greatest authors, Bellow has had a "huge literary influence."
Bellow said that of all his characters Eugene Henderson, of Henderson the Rain King, was the one most like himself. Bellow grew up as an insolent slum kid, a "thick-necked" rowdy, and an immigrant from Quebec. As Christopher Hitchens describes it, Bellow's fiction and principal characters reflect his own yearning for transcendence, a battle "to overcome not just ghetto conditions but also ghetto psychoses." Bellow's protagonists, in one shape or another, all wrestle with what Corde (Albert Corde, the dean in "The Dean's December") called "the big-scale insanities of the 20th century." This transcendence of the "unutterably dismal" (a phrase from Dangling Man) is achieved, if it can be achieved at all, through a "ferocious assimilation of learning" (Hitchens) and an emphasis on nobility.
The author's works speak to the disorienting nature of modern civilization, and the countervailing ability of humans to overcome their frailty and achieve greatness (or at least awareness). Bellow saw many flaws in modern civilization, and its ability to foster madness, materialism and misleading knowledge. Principal characters in Bellow's fiction have heroic potential, and many times they stand in contrast to the negative forces of society. Often these characters are Jewish and have a sense of alienation or otherness.
Jewish life and identity is a major theme in Bellow's work, although he bristled at being called a "Jewish writer." Bellow's work also shows a great appreciation of America, and a fascination with the uniqueness and vibrancy of the American experience.
Bellow's work abounds in references and quotes from the likes of Marcel Proust and Henry James, but he offsets these high-culture references with jokes. Bellow interspersed autobiographical elements into his fiction, and many of his principal characters were said to bear a resemblance to him.