Augie March’s America

Augie March’s America

Scratch another item off my bucket list: I finally finished reading Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March.

I could say I did it in about three weeks, but it really took almost 30 years. I tried reading Bellow’s 600-page novel in college, but stumbled over what critics and teachers assured me was its greatness: the narrator’s exuberant, gushing, embrace-it-all prose, a hybrid of Yiddish-inflected street talk and self-taught classicism. Philip Roth, all low comedy, high intentions, and crystal-clear prose, I got, while Bellow left me scratching my head at sentences like this: “I have a feeling about the axial lines of life, with respect to which you must be straight or else your existence is merely clownery, hiding tragedy.” Or exactly the opposite, I’d think, and put the book back on the unread books shelf, squeezed between Ulysses on one side and the complete works of Henry James on the other (it’s a very sturdy shelf).

This time, however, I decided to buckle up and go along for the ride. Augie, Bellow’s narrator, is a teenager when the book begins, a poor kid raised by an abandoned single mother in Chicago in the depths of the Depression. The Jewish milieu is unmistakable although Judaism plays no role at all. The Jews in Augie, like the fish in the parable made famous by David Foster Wallace, are so deeply adapted to their Jewish setting that they barely experience it as a difference. This is reflected in the famous opening line — “I am an American, Chicago born” — in which Bellow stakes a claim for the Jewish immigrant not as an outsider trying to fit in, but as an insider claiming what is rightfully his.

From start to finish, the book is an assertion of this birthright. Augie isn’t ambitious in the mold of some other famous Jewish literary heroes, from David Levinsky to the young Norman Podhoretz of Making It. But he does have a sense of entitlement — not to fame or riches, but to fulfilling his destiny no less and no more than any other American.

The shock of this assertion has rubbed off in the 60 years since the book was written — but as Bellow’s contemporary Delmore Schwartz wrote in an early review (quoted in the late Christopher Hitchens’s introduction to the 50th anniversary edition): “For the first time in fiction, America's social mobility has been transformed into a spiritual energy which is not doomed to flight, renunciation, exile, denunciation, the agonized hyper-intelligence of Henry James, or the hysterical cheering of Walter Whitman.”

In other words, Augie refuses to apologize for having been born to immigrant stock or to renounce the “foreign” and even scandalous circumstances of his birth. He demands that America take him as he is.

The spirit of Augie March lives on in Hispanic-American writers like Junot Diaz and Gustavo Arellano, who view the world not as outsiders trying to fit in, but as children of immigrants who — as products of the same pop culture, public education, rollercoaster economy, and everyday mishegas as you or I — don’t exactly know what you mean when you refer to them as the “other.”

“I've seen the Mexican future of this country, the coming Reconquista — and it's absolutely banal,” writes Aurellano, in his memoir of growing up Mexican-American in southern California, Orange County. The immigrants you fear, he writes, are buying groceries, playing Xbox, shlepping their kids to soccer practice, and in many ways appreciating this country more than those who have been here for two generations or more are able to. “[T]he sad beauty of this country is that we forget,” he writes. “We forget that dumb ethnics assimilate, that they share the goals and dreams of any Mayflower descendant. It takes a snot-nosed, presumptuous minority to kick the United States in its amnesiac britches every couple of years….”

White Americans can’t accept this, and the last four years have been a national argument about what makes someone a “real” American and what dues must still be paid by those whose background doesn’t fit a handful of neat categories. And it’s not just Obama — another outsider Chicago bootstrapper raised by a single mom — whose background worries voters. As a Mormon, Romney has also had to win over those who’ve decided what it means to be in the mainstream.

The world of Augie March is an old story for American Jews, but it this morning’s headlines for recent immigrants or the great-great-grandchildren of Africans brought to this country as slaves. Whenever a politician refers to the Midwest as the “heartland” or to small towns as the “real America,” I want to scream. I’ve never understood what makes Main Street in Ottumwa any more American than Broad Street in Newark or Queens Boulevard in Flushing. Nearly every American came here from somewhere else, stumbling down gangplanks or into airport runways in pursuit of possibility. Those who fear them claim to be defending some idea of “Americanism,” when all they are doing is slamming shut a door that was open for their parents or grandparents.

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