The Adventures Of Augie March / Saul Bellow

Published in 1953, and the winner of the 1954 National Book for Fiction, The Adventures of Augie March is a novel that uses an episodic style to tell the life story of its eponymous character. It introduces Augie March, growing up during the Great Depression, and traces his growth into adulthood. Bellow uses a series of encounters, work scenarios, and relationships to highlight the development of a boy into a man.

March’s boyhood years are spent in Chicago and it is obviously a city the author holds dear. With a keen eye, he portrays its squalor, beauty and corruption, capturing the essence of this bustling metropolis. The book celebrates, too, the American ideal that someone born into poverty can rise in society through sheer determination, with the help of luck. However, as a good many of its characters learn, success does not necessarily guarantee happiness.

For me, the most interesting parts of the novel are the early sections set in Chicago. When March reaches adulthood, his adventures take him to Mexico, different parts of the U.S., and finally to Italy and Paris. Throughout, he gets involved with a string of different women, jobs, homes, times of poverty and wealth. Included is a description of March during World War II when, as a merchant marine, his ship is sunk, and he ends up on a lifeboat with a man who turns out to be a lunatic. At times, it feels like the author has thrown into the story everything but the kitchen sink.

March is clearly intelligent, compassionate, and observant of the world around him. Still, there is nothing heroic about him or his actions; he seems to have no definite goal in mind. Instead, he tends to go along with the schemes and dreams of others. In the end, his “quest for identity” does not lead him to an epiphany. It is the journey and not the destination that ultimately makes March the person he becomes.

I read this novel back in my college days but remembered none of its details. Revisiting it again later in life, I better appreciate its depths and meanderings. Not that I was completely wowed this time around. Parts of the story struck me as far fetched and unnecessarily verbose. Still, I did marvel at Bellow’s talents as a writer. In this novel he seemed intent on writing a classic American novel. For me, it was worth a second read to discover how close he comes to succeeding.


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