Sometimes, for no apparent reason, I feel the urge to return to Saul Bellow. This time, it happened on the Fourth of July. Which, come to think of it, makes sense: although he was born in Canada (he became an American citizen in 1941), Bellow was always (amidst all else that he was) a marvelous observer of the U.S.A. I did not have any of his books at hand on the Fourth, but I did have one of my journals, in which I had previously recorded the following passage by Bellow:
"I tell you, Charles, nobody actually knows this country. This is some country. The leading interpreters of America stink. They do nothing but swap educated formulas about it. You, yes you! Charles, should write about it, describe your life day by day and apply some of your ideas to it."
"Thaxter, I told you how I took my little girls to see the beavers out in Colorado. All around the lake the Forestry Service posted natural-history placards about the beaver's life cycle. The beavers didn't know a damn thing about this. They just went on chewing and swimming and being beavers. But we human beavers are all shook up by descriptions of ourselves. It affects us to hear what we hear. From Kinsey or Masters or Eriksen. We read about identity crisis, alienation, etcetera, and it all affects us."
Saul Bellow, Humboldt's Gift (1975), page 268.
Reading that passage, I realized once again how much Bellow has meant to me over the years -- and still means to me. I first read those words in the late Seventies (ah, the bright yellow dust-jacket!), and I have never forgotten them. (And they are not even a crucial part of the novel, nor do they rank in my Top 100 Bellovian utterances.) Oh, yes, and how about the final lines of Humboldt's Gift: "Search me," I said. "I'm a city boy myself. They must be crocuses."