We've got Bellow on the brain these days, finally turning our attention to the miraculous Herzog. A bit of random internet trawling brought us to this page from The Manhattan Rare Book Company, which lists this two-page typed letter from Bellow to his lawyer and friend (how is that possible?) Samuel Goldberg. As we've mentioned in these pages before, our appetite for literary correspondence is bottomless.
Here's what Bellow has to say, for those who can't read the tiny print:
I have a brief pause in my occupations, having recently completed and sent off my long story or novelette, Sieze (sic) the Day, to Viking. It'll appear with several other pieces in the Fall, and let's hope it will bring some revenue. The hope is rather flimsy. Stories, even mine, can't expect much of a sale. The Guggenheim is coming to an end, and I had a disappointing bust up with Holiday. The editors told me first to write the Illinois piece in my own way and then were appalled by my long discussion of boredom in the Midwest. They wanted me to cheer things up a little, like a true native-son. But I couldn't do that. Like Lincoln, I was a lousy immigrant.
Without my Pa's small legacy, in other words, I could never make do. But I've had a valuable illumination about money, thanks to Sieze (sic) the Day. I've learned the true value of a dollar. It's about two cents, on my scale. We need money on account of our vices. But after all vice isn't everything. There are also cheaper vices, and I am remodelling Walden mentally for modern habitation. I'll explain this to you in person some time in June when we return.
I've never seen Sondra so well. You wouldn't know her. I can't congratulate myself often enough.
Do you still wander round the bookstores? If you should see a copy of R.F. Burton's Mission to Gelele, King of Dahomey, please capture it for me and send it out. I'm in the midst of a long novella about an explorer and I need it for some details. God will bless you for sending it air-express. I will pay all charges. It's more important to me than the next election.
"Sondra" is Sondra Tschacbasov, Bellow's second wife, whose affair with Jack Ludwig would serve as the inspiration for key characters in Herzog. Finishing Seize the Day - which means the explorer novella is Henderson the Rain King - sets the letter at 1956 or thereabouts, so the election in question would have been the Eisenhower/Stevenson rematch. Herzog would have been eight years away, his Nobel Prize twelve more beyond that. It's fascinating and sobering, of course, to see him worrying about sales and finances, fully unaware of the glories lying in wait. The writer's lot does seem utterly consistent, irrespective of when or where.
But it's a joy - especially in this age of hurried emails and text messages - to find turns of phrase like "We need money on account of our vices," and " Like Lincoln, I was a lousy immigrant" in a piece of casual correspondence. But - as even the first chapter of Herzog seems to attest - Bellow couldn't write dully if he wanted to. More Herzog thoughts to come.
By the way, the letter is yours for a cool $1900. The perfect holiday gift for that special Person of Letters in your life.