Bellow’s version of neoconservatism made him a few enemies. And there are hints, here and there, of anti-black paranoia in Mr. Sammler’s Planet and in some other characters and settings. His nonfiction book To Jerusalem and Back managed to visit the Holy Land and avoid meeting any non-Jews. But, despite the ethnic emphasis of much of his work, Bellow will always attract readers by the scope and universality and humor of his themes. He was not, in my opinion, what people glibly call “an elitist.” He was a deep humanist, with a proper contempt for—this is a great phrase from Humboldt’s Gift—”the mental rabble of the wised-up world.”
In a recent essay, one of our finer critics, Lee Siegel, asks what is it with Bellow and a number of non-American writers. Martin Amis had an almost father-son relationship with him (and it can’t be said that this was for lack of a literary parent). James Wood co-taught a class with him at Harvard. Ian McEwan’s most successful and daring novel, Saturday, pays homage to a Bellovian inspiration. (And the abrupt, nasty street confrontation in that book has a lot in common with the irruption of the oafish Cantabile in Humboldt’s Gift.) What other American novelist has had such a direct and startling influence on non-Americans who are young enough to be his children?