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Remembering Saul Bellow

This story was published on BU Today October 26, 2005.

Those who knew Saul Bellow intimately gathered last week to remember the great novelist’s humor, charm, and contributions to literature. Bellow died April 5 at age 89. Colleagues, former students, and friends offered reflections during the memorial, as more than 100 people, including his wife, Janis, filled the School of Management auditorium to pay tribute to the Nobel laureate, widely regarded as one of the most distinguished writers in the history of American letters. Click here to watch video highlights of the event. (Requires RealPlayer® to view.)

One of Bellow’s longtime friends and associates, Keith Botsford, a journalism professor at the College of Communication, admired Bellow’s capacity to share with everyone his mind, his perception and his complex self. “Nothing came out of him unformed,” Botsford recalled. “He was always, always reflective.”

Bellow culminated a lifetime of teaching at universities across the United States and abroad with a decade-long tenure in the University Professors Program at Boston University. “When one reads Saul Bellow’s novels, one realizes what an acute observer Saul Bellow was,” said President Emeritus John Silber, who recruited Bellow in his ongoing effort to improve the quality and reputation of the University. As the third Nobel laureate appointed, his presence was felt immediately, Silber said.

Among Bellow’s most recognized works are Herzog, The Adventures of Augie March, Ravelstein, and Humboldt’s Gift, which won him the Pulitzer Prize. He also won three National Book Awards and the Nobel Prize in Literature.

University Professor Rosanna Warren, BU’s Emma Ann MacLachlan Metcalf Professor of the Humanities, recalled waiting in line at Disney World one day with her children, joking that she “staved off dementia,” by reading The Adventures of Augie March. “I came to believe Saul Bellow would never die,” she said, adding that Bellow’s, “old mischief will survive in his books.”

Christopher Walsh, an assistant professor of English at CAS and former advisee of Bellow’s, remembered some of that mischief. On a spring afternoon as he and Bellow were driving along Commonwealth Avenue, they passed a group of students dressed for summer and appearing without a care in the world, Bellow rolled down his window and yelled, “Death!” Walsh turned to Bellow incredulously asking, “What did you just say? Death?” Bellow replied, “I’m just reminding them,” and threw his head back laughing.

Others remembered his cultural and intellectual perspective, as well as his sense of humor. Ruth Wisse, a Harvard University professor of comparative literature and a friend, remembered how important Bellow’s Jewish heritage was to him as it reappeared throughout his work. She also wondered if Bellow sensed the end was near. Just 11 days before he died, he left a message on her answering machine, saying, “‘There is no more war. It has all ended. No war,’” she recalled.

Many had trouble imagining the world without him. “It’s hard to contemplate there’ll be no more Saul Bellow novels,” said Jonathan Wilson, an English professor at Tufts University. “But we’ll have to be happy with what we have.”

Pieces by Mozart and other classical compositions were performed between tributes as speakers remembered Bellow the friend, the mentor, the writer and the colleague.